Brandon Semenuk has always intrigued us here at Dirt. He is without doubt one of the greatest mountain bike talents we have ever seen. He has all the moves, but what interested us the most was his somewhat aloof nature, there was just something about him, something different, something special…without even knowing him he seemed to be an interesting character. Seb Kemp takes up the story.
Brandon Semenuk is a machine. Brandon Semenuk is an emotionless robot. Brandon Semenuk is too damn good at what he does. Brandon Semenuk is a no fun to watch ride.
I’ve heard all these remarks from people before. I don’t hear this often, but each time someone says something along these lines then I am taken aback.
I believe the reason for some of the sentiments is that he is so damn in control and does things so well that he desensitizes spectators to the technicality and difficulty of his runs. Some riders make things look exciting and wild because they are out of control and on the ragged edge. Brandon Semenuk on the other hand is in control, self–restrained, reliable and only does something if he can do it to his absolute best and feel good doing it.
This description could also double for an overview of his character. As I discovered, over several interviews with the man himself and a handful of people who know him best, he is a well grounded and clear–headed young man.
I knew very little about Brandon Semenuk before this assignment so I approached some people who might know him the best. I spoke with Jenine Bourbonnais, the owner of Whistler’s Evolution Shop, Brandon’s first sponsor when he was 7 years old; Tyler Morland of SRAM, also one of Brandon’s longest running sponsors; and Andrew Shandro, who got Brandon his first bike sponsor deal. Although all these people have some professional connection with Brandon, each one spoke of him with a great deal of fondness.
Having got to know Brandon as a child and watched him grow as a person to become, in their eyes, more than just a poster signing, contest winning, video part mesmerizing mountain bike rider, but rather an outstanding individual with the kind of poise, maturity, and smarts required to elevate themselves to be great at what they choose to do and to do it with focused, methodical, calculated precision.
Brandon has been on this track to be the world dominating bicycle rider for most of his life and there have been people and situations along the way that have helped direct him and form his experiences: His rather unique upbringing in a bike centric, athlete training ground like Whistler, the adult experiences at such young ages, and the clarity it took to structure his life so that he could continue to progress.
Here I hope to present to you Brandon Semenuk the fallible human being who is determined enough to make himself appear superhuman. And who better to explain himself is the man himself and his oldest friends.
The need for challenges and goals is an unending theme with Brandon. Never content to just participate he always wanted to try his best, push himself, and just generally try and outdo himself.
“I grew up riding and racing cross–country, which is a different route into professional freeriding, but it was just because that was around me. I was doing local races from a very young age. I did my first BC Cup (provincial race series) race when I was 9. I did downhill and cross–country and some had 4X too. Then when I was ten I decided I wanted to do them all, so from 10 to 14 years old I did the whole BC Cup series every year, plus a couple of Canada Cup and National Championships. Basically I’d do whatever cross–country races I could do.
I probably would have got burnt out on racing XC if I kept at it. Every year it got a little more repetitive. The courses got less challenging, I raced the same people all the time, and I was the youngest person in my category. I had another two years in that category and I was already winning, so what was there for me to do? Win and then win again before I can move up? Then my brother quit racing so I was wondering, ‘if the person who I look up to doesn’t like racing then do I want to be doing it?’
Then I got myself a dirt jump bike and found myself riding that more and more. Instead of riding my trail bike I’d ride my dirt jumper down at the skatepark or the jumps. At events I’d be riding my dirt jumper right up until the race started and then I’d put it down, race and then as soon as I finished I be back on the jumper. Then I started getting support for dirt jumping and less for racing so I decided to just follow that and see where it went. I didn’t do it because I want to be pro, I just wanted to have fun.
Cross–country might seem like a funny route to freeriding but how I see it is that I grew up in the mountains riding a bike. This was before I even knew the (Whistler) Bike Park existed, so I’d have to ride up the hill to ride a good trail down. That’s what cross–country racing was all about for me: just riding up hills to race back down. I also learned to ride on pinner race bikes on some of the gnarliest trails in Whistler, so when I got on a downhill bike I thought ‘wow, this isn’t hard. I can go way faster and ride over anything’. I had to learn all those fine steps on the bikes I had growing up. At the beginning stages of riding I didn’t have room for error so I learnt a lot that way.”
Riding gave Brandon a different education. He was shrewd enough to see an opportunity and smart enough to not waste it.
“Eventually riding started to get in the way of school and I began to get bad grades…kind of. I’d do fine but there were some teachers that didn’t like me being away so much and they started screwing me over. So I was thinking, ‘this is stupid, I’m working my arse off to get shitty grades, I’m over that’. So I figured I’d just wouldn’t go to school anymore and I started correspondence in grade eight or nine.
Whistler, being such an active town (especially in ski racing) had correspondence school, or what they called ‘Cool School’. It was a bunch of my ski race friends and I. Basically we all had the same work to do as a regular student but we figured it out on our own. It is the same as school. They gave us the same textbooks and work but instead of having a teacher telling us how to do it we had to figure it out ourselves.
It sucked at first. It wasn’t that bad if you could figure it out but then I might get to the next section and I might have no idea how to do it so I would stare at it for hours. Some work that could be done in half hour I might be sat down in front of all day trying to figure it out. There were some teachers we could go see on certain days if we needed to but if I was sat on an airplane flying to a comp trying to figure something out trying to catch up on loads of work it would definitely suck.
I’m quite kinetic with my learning. I like to be right there touching things, figuring it out in the moment. Figuring it out and solving it, not just thinking about it. I liked the challenge of correspondence. I don’t like it when people hand things to me. I like to problem solve for myself. I don’t want people’s help, I just want to do it on my own and do it my way.
Then one day I came to hand in all my work and there was no teacher and the classroom was closed down. I was couldn’t get hold of anyone to ask about it or find out what happened, so basically at that point I didn’t even have time for school anymore so it just ended. I didn’t graduate, I have just four courses to do. Maybe I’ll go back. It wouldn’t take long to do if I went back to do it but right now it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t going to kill me if I stopped doing school. Instead I could progress and improve myself in other ways.
The first day I was on Cool School, the very first day, I went riding because I figured I’d do my work later that day. I turned up at the dirt jumps and there was Andrew Shandro with his kid. That’s when he hooked me up with Trek. Before that I’d got a sponsorship from Nike also while I was on a school day. So there I was getting money and product for my bike so I didn’t have to work to pay for it and I’m not at school. I quickly started to feel like I was learning way more about life through traveling and riding my bike than I ever did at school.”
Andrew Shandro (one of the Godfathers of modern day mountainbiking) remembers that day as clearly as Brandon…
“I’d always see this kid at the dirt jumps in Whistler. He would be there on his own practicing his jumping. He was pretty quiet and would keep himself to himself. I was there with my son Ethan who was four years old at the time. Ethan took a fall and Brandon helped him up. He seemed like a real nice kid so I started chatting with him and tried to figure out his deal. I mean, here was a kid who should be in school learning but instead he was learning to ride. I asked if he had any help with bikes and I ended up getting him a frame or two because I saw someone really unique. He was focused, and obviously really good as a rider. But it was his character that impressed me.”
But Trek, Nike and the other big sponsors weren’t first. Brandon had support, not just in a professional sense, long before that thanks to the kindness of warm spirited people who also saw something in him.
“Jenine from Evolution helped me out the most out of anyone, probably ever. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am and know everything I know if it wasn’t for her. I was six or seven doing the local Whistler grom races and one time I rode in from Emerald (which was 10km away) with my Evolution jersey on, did the race, then after the race it started raining and storming so I saw Jenine and asked if I could get a jacket and pay her back later because I had no money. She said, ‘No it’s cool, you are hooked up now’ and she gave me a jacket. Then after all the races my bike would be thrashed so she would fix my it up every time. Then she started helping me get product and equipment, or hook me up with clothing; all these expenses I couldn’t afford because every year I was saving up to buy a bike. Then because she was a part of the community she would introduce me to all these team managers and stuff. What she did for me was pretty big.”
Jenine Bourbonnais has known Brandon since he was seven years old and immediately reserved a warm spot in her heart for the young rider, which still exists today. When she begins talking about him she almost gushes like a proud mother.
“I opened Evolution in 1995 and I sponsored Brandon’s older brother at first. Then it became obvious that Brandon was super talented. I remember being told a story about Brandon being sent down Jaws (a wildly, steep and gnarly local trail) when he was just seven years old. When he was 12 he won 14 and under Canadian title and after that he moved to freeride. Even when he went to races he was like a trials rider: doing wheelies, hopping around off tables, jumping ramps off the back of trucks.
I think the reason he got so good was because he was always riding. He was also very thoughtful about his riding. He would consider the move and figure it out first. He would never try anything before he knew he could do it. He was different than a lot of kids his age; he was thinking. I wouldn’t just say he was smart but he certainly thinks more than he talks. He is serious, kind, polite, and won’t talk about himself. He is a listener.
He grew up with his dad while his mum lived on Vancouver Island, so I would do some motherly stuff, like repairing his jeans constantly. I still repair them now. When he got on Troy Lee Designs he wanted narrower legged moto pants so I measured them up and narrowed them up. I was always on him to make sure he kept up with his school work. He didn’t fall behind and he took care of himself. His dad would keep at him too. It was done because he was training. His skills were obvious so he left school so he could concentrate on training.
I think some of his apparent seriousness and self–reliance might be because his parents broke up when he was young and he had to deal with that. His dad is also very intelligent and hard working and some of that must have rubbed off on Brandon.”
From a young age Brandon was exposed to the kinds of adult experiences that were eye opening for an adolescent. While some youngsters might take the freedom of a long leash and run wild, Brandon quickly realized he was being gifted a great opportunity, but did he miss out on some vital social learning experiences?
“The first time I went to Europe I was fifteen years old I think. Before I went to Europe I had no idea what I was doing. I just told my parents I was going. Luckily I had Gareth Dyer to meet up with me there. I just showed up and Gareth told me what was up, and it began really. One sponsor gave me enough money to go there and pay my ticket. At the time I thought it was crazy because it was the most money I’d ever seen, even if it was just enough to do the trip. I got into an event that is now one of the biggest of the year: 26Trix. I showed up the day before the event and they said I could ride. I just qualified and got eighth place in the finals.
It’s really just a ‘live and learn’ thing. I definitely missed out on a lot of ‘normal’ experiences for young kids but at the same time I got a whole different range of experiences from it. When I was younger and traveling around for months I’d come home and try to hang out with my high school friends, but it was weird. It didn’t really feel like it was natural to hang out with high school kids. I had a key group of friends that will always be my friends, but beyond that it was like there wasn’t a common interest. It wasn’t what I was used to or what I wanted to be doing. That whole high school life didn’t matter to me anymore. It didn’t appeal to me and I was just stoked on what I was doing to be honest. I never did the whole high school party thing. I was away doing something else. I always hung out with people older than me. It was like I matured at a younger age I guess. I had to gain a lot of street sense quick doing the things I was doing.”
When he was just 17 years old Brandon asserted his need for independence with a rock solid investment.
“I’ve always liked to have goals. Like growing up my goal was getting a new bike each year. Then when I started traveling and living alone I realised I liked my independence. I didn’t like coming home and getting asked a bunch of questions all the time and people telling me what to do. I like figuring things out on my own. So basically my goal became to have a whole new level of independence, being self–sustained, and accomplish things completely on my own. So I bought a house.”
The popular view might be that freeriders are wild spirits who recklessly endanger themselves. However, for Brandon, particularly in the contest context, there is plenty of calculation and methodology. Perhaps the mathematic mind he demonstrated as a student comes into play here.
“I don’t buy the idea of us being adrenalin junkies. I don’t do it for adrenalin. I do it for fun and maybe adrenalin is a part of that and it gives me a cool feeling to do cool stuff on my bike, but really it is calming to ride my bike. When I’m riding all I’m thinking about is riding my bike, I don’t worry about any stresses in my life. All there is to think about is riding. When I ride my bike I feel good about myself and any stresses go away. It makes me happy but it is also my job so I have to be good at riding my bike so now I can’t just ride, I have to get better, learn tricks etc. and if I don’t then I get stressed. However, I try to not ruin biking and keep it the same fun it has always been. I try to make obstacles or projects that keep me stoked.
I get along great with all the other slopestyle and freeriders. All of us get along, but I definitely think I’m a different breed. A lot of guys like to party and are into different things but maybe…I dunno…I’m different. I’m not like anyone else. I don’t want to be.
Riding is a challenge, which is why I do it. Slopestyle isn’t about the parties or the crowds, it is just another challenge. It was about me saying to myself, ‘how do I stack up against these guys? Can I do my best run?’ Then it turned into a career so I am given more time to do things and put stuff out that makes people stoked on riding too.”
Tyler Morland (ex World Cup racer and now SRAM PR and Media Manager) remembers Brandon as a skinny awkward kid walking into Evolution while Tyler was a mechanic there. Tyler has become one of Brandon’s close advisors, I suggest the title mentor or surrogate older brother but Tyler rejects this. Nonetheless Tyler knows him personally and professionally. Tyler and I chew over the idea that Brandon, with his quiet demeanour, yet focused outlook, bares resemblance to several other action sports leaders like snowboarder Shaun White, MX/SX star Travis Pastrana, and skater Tony Hawk. All of these guys could be considered outsiders who became icons simply through focused determination and mastery of their craft. More so, they then helped elevate the fortune, not just of themselves, but of their chosen sport. Tyler tells us:
“A lot of kids who grow up in Whistler as are loose as it gets; many of them have no hope. Maybe because there is so much at their finger tips. There’s an eternity of ski bums of all ages so they see that and just work at doing that. There is also a lot of talent in Whistler and if you have talent you can do some amazing stuff. Brandon saw that potential and worked at it. He is paving way for many things. He will elevate game of everyone. Perhaps even elevate the whole of mountain biking.
I think about Brandon’s future and I think he will continue to dominate. Everyone will party themselves out but he will keep on top because he is focused and won’t lose his focus to the party and living a wild life. At Crankworx Les Deux Alpes three quarters of the field were out at the club until 3am the night before the event. Brandon was tucked up in bed with a clear idea of what he needed to do the next day.”
So what does the future hold for Brandon Semenuk? Will he burn out like he did with cross–country or will he get tired of beating everyone time and time again? One thing that was clear from talking with everyone about Brandon is that he could have, and still could be, the very best at whatever he decides to focus his laser sights on.
“I don’t think I’ll ever quit, I’ll just massage myself into new things. This year I took on the Behinds Bars web video project that was cool. I can try influence and inspire a new audience, so that’s exciting for me. Contests used to be the most exciting thing but this kind of stuff really gets me going now, so now I can try do things that I think are cool for the sport.”
Sure, Brandon Semenuk can flow some of the cleanest and most technically demanding slopestyle contest runs, flow a trail like no other, and inspires the riding of a million young pretenders. However, from getting to know Brandon the most outstanding thing about him isn’t that he is an outstanding rider, it is that he smart, methodical, resourceful, self-reliant, independent, focused, worldly, and saw the potential of the opportunities he was gifted by his less than perfect upbringing. Beyond Brandon Semenuk the rider is a solid foundation of personality traits that make him an exceptional human being. Only from being an exceptional person has Brandon got the fundamentals and principles to be such a good…no, great…bike rider. If he inspires any young talent, let’s hope the young people see the Brandon Semenuk the person as much as they see Brandon Semenuk the trick machine. Only the former can lead to the latter.