Nico Vink Interview | On a Flyer
It’s 11:30 at night, I’m in Belgium with Rachel Walker of Hope Technology. The town is asleep and we sit waiting in our B&B for Nico Vink to arrive...
It’s 11:30 at night, I’m in Belgium with Rachel Walker of Hope Technology. The town is asleep and we sit waiting in our B&B for local rider Nico Vink to arrive. Neither of us have met him in person before, we’ve both only ever seen him at a glance or on a small screen, usually complimented with a good dollop of pan and zoom courtesy of Mr Rankin of Sprung Video. Whenever we talk to people who know Nico, they always start with the same sentence, “He’s one of the nicest guys in mountain biking"...
From Dirt Issue 137 - July 2013
Words by Sam Needham. Photos by Sam Needham.
A white van pulls up the drive and out steps Nico. Straight away he lives up to his reputation. He’s certainly the most air born, down–to–earth chap I’ve ever met, and it seems everyone would agree.
Dirt: So Nico, tell us where it all started.
Nico: My dad owned a bike shop when I was young, so you could say it was his influence that made me pick up a bike more enthusiastically at first. I used to ride bikes all the time when I was a kid, messing about on two wheels with friends as you do when you're young.
There was a good group of us who rode BMX and mountain bikes, the same group remains pretty much intact today too. The village we were from, lived up to the Belgian stereotype of being very flat, pancake flat in fact, so we had to get imaginative. When we were all about 10 years old the council shifted a load of dirt from the graveyard onto the bottom of my street. The dirt didn't remain a lifeless heap for long. A few spades and shovels later and we had ourselves a track that would be where we would race, jump, dig and hang out every night.
My good friend and riding buddy Kristoph Lessens (Kona/Hope Belgian Downhiller) moved away from our village at the age of 14. I started riding a lot more BMX between the times Kristoph would visit on his holidays. A couple of years later I got invited to race the DH national champs by chance, so I entered the race on a day pass and turned up on a hard tail of some description. I won the race and became the Youth National Champion to people’s surprise, as they had never heard of me let alone seen my face before. I guess it all kicked off from there really. A few months later, Kona heard about my win and supported me, all off the back of the one race. I got a couple of bikes, and got the racing bug from there on in.>>
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My first season was in 1999, still racing as a Youth on a national level. Another Belgian DH rider, who was down to race a season of European Cups crashed early in the year, so he couldn’t race a full season of European rounds. Belgium then needed another DH rider to represent them at the European Cups and despite still being a Youth, they picked me and entered me into the Junior classes. I ended up beating all of the other junior Belgian racers, and then got picked to start on the World Cup circuit.
Things started to get a little more serious when I was 18–19. I say serious, but really it was just a conscious decision to start training, along side my usual routine of just riding bikes, whether it be jumping or downhill. People started telling me I should train, so I did. Gym and road cycling then became part of my schedule, and it seemed to be working well on the racing front as I was getting on the podium regularly in Juniors. Companies started to show more interest, and before long I was sponsored by Sintesi by 2002, and then B–One when I jumped over to Elite. I had to keep pushing myself, which can be tough when you don’t have the long mountain descents around you. I knew I could handle my bike, and I knew I had the confidence to adapt to different World Cup tracks, but it took time, and a lot of crashes. I remember racing a WC back when I was a junior and I was riding a section thinking ‘whoa, I’m going flat out here, this is fast’. Rob Warner passed me at double the speed...
Do you think training's an important aspect to becoming a professional cyclist?
With out a doubt. If you want to be at the top you have to work hard and put the hours in, on and off the bike. I've always loved the simplicity of just riding my bike and having fun though. So whilst training is important to me, just getting out a riding the good stuff and pushing my limits, takes the top spot.
Downhill is so competitive these days. If you’re racing World Cups you really are a good rider, full stop. The fitness game helps get you the extra hundredths you need to be able to win a race. If you’re not winning, it’s good to be able to do stuff that helps push your boundaries. In my case, it’s going big.
You mentioned to me earlier, that Alex Rankin (Sprung and Earthed series of MTB films) was, in your eyes was a big helping hand for your career. How did the master of pans, zooms and musical taste help you out?
I first met Alex when he came to Belgium to film for Sprung, we showed him around Belgium and I ended up having a section in Sprung, just by chance more than anything else. I was 16–17, so the opportunity to be in a film was pretty cool. Alex then got in touch a few years later again, and we filmed sections for Earthed 3 and 4. I'd appeared here and there with the odd shot in his previous films, but nothing that had me riding for more than a few clips. I love Alex's style, it's kinda' raw and he manages to capture the excitement of riding bikes really well I think. People still come up to me now and say 'your section in Earthed was really cool, man'. It's nice to know that people remember that. Alex’s films are prestigious, and certainly stand the test of time, so it was a great thing to get involved with him.
You seem to have a reputation for being fairly handy with a spade as well as riding a bike. You’ve been the brains behind some pretty creations over the years; one that sticks in my head is the Norway Ridgeline Jumps. Is digging and building trails a big part of your cycling life?
At the time we were all getting into riding our bikes, there was no big scene in this part of Belgium (Ghent). We saw videos and we had bikes, and wanted to build stuff. Basically, if you wanted to ride, you had to build, and so the ‘Graveyard Track’ was born...we found bones in that thing!
We’ve never really built ‘normal’ lines though. We’ve always tried to be creative, not simply to go against the grain, more to keep things interesting for us. Our dirt jumps near Ghent, are some of the most tech dirt jumps I’ve ever ridden. It took a group of professional BMXers three days to master them...that’s how we build stuff.
It’s easier to ride good stuff these days. There are obvious limitations when you’re younger that gets in the way of you riding good trails, such as the ability to drive places, school and so on. Even with the freedom to roam we have now, building new lines is important. It helps me keep pushing myself and I like a new project to work on. Myself and Kristoph still build a lot, and have now started our company ‘Ride Creations’.
Ride Creations is a trail building company, which, like I said, is run by Kristoph and myself, with the odd helping hand here and there. We build trails people want, whether it’s a pump track or a downhill track, but we’ll always put our spin on it. There will always be a hidden ‘big’ line in there.
Really it’s a lifestyle move for us, it’s almost like reliving our youth...building and riding, building and riding. We’ve been building for so long together over the years, it’s nice to be able to shape dirt for other people. We’re not bothered about having a big bank account and a fancy office. We just want to create good trails for people and have time to ride our bikes still. We both enjoy building as much as riding, it’s therapeutic and it is always cool to try and build what you have scribbled down on paper from your thoughts.
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We like to be precise, and get something to a point where it’s pleasing to the eye. We’re not freaky about it, just yet...we do allow grass to grow etc., but refining our trails is definitely something that we like to do. There’s nothing worse than seeing a jump on a downhill track, that has logs and twigs sticking out of it and every given angle, and the dirt is loosely chucked on top of it. That would be a cardinal sin for any spade wielder. Functional, fun, clean and in proportion is what we aim for. If we were too obsessive, then neither of us would ride, and would probably never leave our houses for spade cleaning duties.
What’s the downhill riding scene like in Belgium now? It strikes me that it’s pretty underground, especially when compared to how big Cyclocross is.
There is a good scene here, but you’re right, the average Joe walking in the street wouldn’t really know there is a strong mountain biking scene here. It’s pretty underground and despite us all riding a long time, it is still in its early days, especially when you see how popular mountain biking is in Britain and other places around the World.
Lots of great riders, and good downhill/enduro trails now populate Belgium though, so things are growing for sure, you just need to know where the best bits are. Belgium is a small country, so all the little groups of riders tend to know each other, which creates a great social riding scene. You can turn up to any set of jumps, trail, or downhill track in Belgium and usual see a rider you know. It’s a nice environment.
You’re a diverse rider, with downhill, BMX and last year you managed to get Red Bull Rampage under your belt. Is your riding still progressing?
Yeah, in my eyes, or at least that’s my plan. I could try to be the fastest at racing, but it’s tough at the top, with the likes of Minnaar, Gwin and the others. I’ve always liked jumping and building, especially jumping the big lines that flow. It’s funny though, because when I race downhill, it’s the opposite, I prefer the rougher tracks, the likes of Val di Sol and Fort William. Although I still love competition, I don’t race quite as much any more, don’t worry, I’m not quitting downhill and I’m not taking up Enduro (laughs), but I want to achieve a few goals and I have a few projects that I’d like to work on, so having a good balance of riding projects and racing is a nice position to be in. I scratch off a couple of World Cups each season to be able to focus on other projects, whether it’s film or something like Rampage.
It’s great to see how downhill is progressing these days. Things are getting bigger and better, and riders are being pushed more. Look at the motorway section of Fort William even, the jumps have gotten bigger and bigger each year. I think it’s what riders are wanting, so it’s good that courses are being adapted. It certainly has made me progress my riding over the years.
What projects have you got planned?
Well, without giving too much away, as I am sure you have gathered, I like to go big and I like flow. So I have some projects that really will push my limits. To give you an idea, I was riding moto with a friend one day, and we were hitting the gaps on the track no problem. You have the help of an engine of course, but it feels so good jumping on an MX bike. Basically, that got me thinking...on a moto scale. We’ve already maxed out the height restrictions on the diggers we’ve been using for this project. I also have a concept for an event. Whether it will work or not will remain a mystery for now, but if it were to work, it would be a lot of fun. No more info than that I’m afraid. I want to keep on pushing myself and doing things that are cool and I find fun.
Do you think the way people interact these days, through the internet and social media has changed the sport? These days, people can find out what a rider is doing, before said rider even knows they are doing it, is it something that helps push people?
The obvious advantages of it is that it helps to raise your profile. If you do something cool, it’s going to go down well. People want to see what you’re doing and what you want to do. It’s a great thing to keep you on the ball, your fans interested and your sponsors happy.
I’m sure people will be intrigued about your tooth, or lack of. What’s the story behind this?
Everybody maybe knows. But if I saw someone without a tooth, I’d be asking the same question ha ha, ‘How did you do it man’? It happened riding BMX, when I managed to knock out five teeth. I picked them back up and got them all fixed. A few years later, I crashed riding BMX again and knocked another tooth out, which I got fixed again. Riding BMX always seemed to be a bit of a jinx for me. Sponsors didn’t like me riding 20" as I’d get wild and injure myself. Injury has never stopped me though, riding trails on my BMX is so much fun, even if there is injury waiting around the corner. When you live where I do, where it’s flat, riding dirt jumps offers a great place to vent. People like that about me I think, the fact I ride a bit of everything and am not worried about what other people think or want me to do, too much. I’m not rebellious by any means, but I’ll ride what I want to ride and what I think is fun, that’s what makes me, me.
A little further down the line, the tooth that was knocked out the second time around, got an infection. Just before a World Cup too. I pulled it out, using better methods that the traditional string and slammed door technique, and to this day, the tooth fairy hasn’t reimbursed me. Now, It acts as a weight saving method for racing. Carbon fibre and air shocks are old school now!
Speaking of old school, what are your thoughts the wheel size movements of late? Is 650b/29" a good thing, will we see it on the DH circuit?
I might be old school, but I’m happy to stick with 26". I think for other aspects of the sport, it makes more sense. But then, you could also argue that a cyclo–cross bike with suspension will be faster for cross country bike with 29" wheels on certain courses. It’s logical that bigger wheels go faster, so maybe I’m scared of change more than anything. I’ve ridden bigger wheel sizes, but I still prefer my 26"and 20" wheels. That’s just my personal preference though and I’m sure that I’ll be swung to bigger wheels at some point. That said, it goes back to the 26" vs 20" wheels on dirt jumps debate. I ride both BMX and 26" bike on dirt jumps, but every time riding my BMX is more fun, it all boils down to flow.
Ben Gully rode 650b at Rampage last year, and got on the podium, so it’s evident that it’s not a bad thing even for the ‘freeride’ movement. I’m just happy to stick with what I know for now. At the end of the day, as long as people are getting out and enjoying riding bikes, wheel size doesn’t matter.