From the Mag - Ben Walker Interview - Dirt

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At Home with Ben Walker

From the Mag – Ben Walker Interview

A product manager and marketing coordinator at Scott Sports, Ben Walker is a compulsive innovator who shapes their annual haul of gravity-related products and has helped turn the brand into one of the cooler manufacturers in mountain biking.

Beyond his job title Walker is a somewhat eccentric character, yet a man who knows his limits. An exterior as a mountain man who loves nothing more than happily floating from one pursuit to the next, yet with a knowledge and understanding of business and marketing that has allowed him to find a funding to sustain his passion for the outdoors. He’s a man who should serve as an example to each and every one of us and one of those people who it is almost impossible to find disagreeable. As Dirt’s editor Mike Rose put it, ‘If I were a man I’d like to be Ben Walker’!

Perhaps the best way to get to know Ben is to take a look around his house, a place I visited several years ago when working on some Dirt features in the area and a refuge from the insanity of life that took me aback somewhat. As I drove down toward the village three eagles rested in a field adjacent to the winding narrow mountain road, glaciers crept down the opposing slopes and farmers quietly went about their business on the vertical Alpine fields. Just the introduction to the location is enough to stimulate any outdoorsy person, but open any door into the large old farmhouse and that feeling could easily turn to envy.

This is one abode that any mountain biker, snowboarder or mountain fanatic anywhere could look at and be well and truly inspired. Walker is also undoubtedly one of the most interesting of mountain biking’s influential industry types (and one of the best riders) and a man we’ve wanted to catch up with for a while. And besides, they say a home tells a lot about a person, so on my most recent trip to the Alps I took the time to look around in more detail.

THE LOCATION

The house is high above Champéry (Switzerland), the place synonymous with mountain biking’s toughest, steepest course and Danny Hart’s emphatic 2011 World Championship win. Walker played a huge part in that famous Worlds and his crew of trail builders (he’s also responsible for the superb trails in Morgins and plenty of other resorts) shaped the existing track into something that produced one of the greatest races in history. Gazing out across the huge valley toward the area’s dominant feature, the jagged Dents du Midi mountains, Ben has the satisfied look of a man who will never tire of living here, his Swiss wife Corinne likewise and she tells me, ‘I love it here, I’ll never, ever get bored of it’.

Out front the land drops away steeply, meaning that from the kitchen window there is nothing at all to obscure the view. At the back of the house huge barn doors open directly onto the mountainside, a meadow of long grass and flowers and immediate access to trails. This is a literal exit through the back door, away from any slight hint of normality and free into the hills.

When I first visited the house we spent an early part of the evening at one of Ben’s neighbours’ houses with beers and a mini ramp, a large local crew continuously rolling through during the session as they passed on their way home from the trails or work. It was an idyllic vision of life in the mountains, getting the most out of the day and with a large collective of similarly minded folk just around the corner, every day ending with a get–together, some beers and a session on the ramp.

THE HOUSE

The Walker residence is not dissimilar to Ben’s personality: vast and sometimes hectic. An old farmhouse, the Walkers – Ben and Corinne – live in a small part of it, perhaps less than a fifth of the space taken by normal living quarters (kitchen, lounge, bedroom). It’s an impressive old wooden farmhouse from 1785 and Walker tells me, ‘It’ll last longer than me, or if I ever do have kids, them too.’ Ben talks of living in the house and explains that it’s ‘like a living structure. The old timers tell me that they would cut the wood with either the moon rising or falling, something with the sap, they used to cut the wood down to build the houses in the cycles of the moon.’

The rest of the house is essentially space for each and every passion and pursuit (there are many), from the bike cave downstairs to the attic up, and from the amalgamation of years of well–loved sporting equipment indoors to a collection of already–been–loved stuff outside. In essence the Walkers’ house is a meeting place for their eclectic collection of interests, the living quarters merely a place to rest between hobbies. ‘I always had a dream that I would have my stuff at home so I didn’t have to go out to buy screws or wood or thread or fabric, whatever stuff I wanted to work on, I wanted to have all my tools and workshops so that if I had an idea I could build it, regardless of if it was a t–shirt or a shock or… chainsaw a stump into a table. So I’m slowly plugging away at acquiring stuff to make my dream little zone where I have chairlift, trails, snowboard, powder, sewing machines, chainsaws, all my stuff that I like.’

As Walker explains, the house is definitely not finished, ‘I’m not there yet because it’s not organised (the contents), it’s all just laying around, but some day.’ Its slightly decrepit state is a result of its hundreds of years of age, Ben’s work–in–progress vision for its future, and also down to a fungus, La Merule, that has attacked the stonework which is vital to the house’s integrity. The process of shaping the house from its former guise to the one it will some day take on has been long, ‘I started with 30cm of 100–year–old cow shit, dug that out and I’m just chipping away, turning a 300–year–old barn into a liveable house. I’ve got so much stuff to do in there… it’s a 20–year project.’

THE CHAOS

Both Ben and Corinne apologise for ‘the mess’ as we look around, but their compulsive hoarding definitely has direction. The house is huge and it would be easy to pile up useless junk, but I get the feeling that their numerous interests mean that in fact the large piles are more essentials than waste. Ben’s countless snowboards from Colorado based company Unity (for who he is a test rider) gather and multiply annually in one room – there are dozens but each of them rides differently and works to get the optimum day of adventure in every winter condition. Skateboards from ‘a previous life’ linger nearby, disused apparently out of necessity as he had to ‘thin down on hobbies’.

UPSTAIRS

All around the house reminders of Walker’s passion for the great outdoors can be found. Kit here, boards there, bikes upstairs and down. The upper floor is perhaps the most surprising area of the house, as I discovered when Corinne took me on a tour around its enormity. Stacks of ancient farming equipment from the house’s previous life stand surrounded by tyres and motorbikes, relics from an era past sit alongside essentials of the couple’s many adventures.

Hanging above the upstairs door to the outdoors is Ben’s most treasured possession, a BMX. Walker explains: ‘It’s a chrome Robinson 24” cruiser and I learned how to bunnyhop on it. I remember the day when I put up little blocks of wood and so it’s special to me for that reason.’ Growing up in sunny Arizona, USA, BMX was massively popular and the natural two–wheeled sport to get in to. ‘I put up one block of wood and gapped over it then I got up to 17 blocks of wood and that was the day I figured out all the movements’, Walker recounts.

That of course progressed to riding mountain bikes – although coincided with a mini career as a top–level junior tennis player – namely when Walker moved to Durango, Colorado, where he met and rode with some of the sport’s early heroes. In Durango, Walker explains he was ‘impressed that everyone was such a badass rider’. Apparently his roommate would get behind him and ‘yell to stop panic braking in every corner…’ He continues about the scene there at the time, ‘In Durango everyone was super fast and there were all kinds of World Cup mechanics and John Tomac and Missy Giove and Myles Rockwell and Greg Herbold and all those people, all kinds of crazy sick riders… I was just terrible compared to everybody and it wasn’t until I came here and rode every day for years that I started to get good. I did learn a lot though and when I arrived here I was kind of an expert compared to the local guys thanks to watching everything that happened in Durango.’

Walker studied finance (when he wasn’t riding bikes or following the Grateful Dead as a self–proclaimed ‘Dead Head’) and this fact perhaps serves as an insight into what goes on below the skin of Walker: mad scientist and outdoorsman on the outside, businessman on the inside. He’s a smart, switched–on chap and beyond the long hair and wired gaze lies someone who has an astute understanding of mountain biking’s market and what it wants.

SINGER 1914

Mid–level in the Walker household is divided in two: the living quarters and the making area. The latter is filled with remnants of perhaps Ben’s most curious interest, his sewing machine collection. I guess really it should come as no surprise that a maker, shaper, doer like Ben should be gathering the practical machinery needed to fettle with his works of art – the clothing and protective pads that he makes and refines for Scott. From huge leather stitching machine all the way down to antiques, Ben has collected the best tool for each job he does. He sits hunched over one particular machine, his favourite, a 1914 Singer original that ‘is the only one that can turn corners’ when stitching, and that has played a part in the making of your knee pads if you wear Scott. While we chat he is crafting his latest creation, a ‘shit bag’ made from an old banner, for all the tools and random stuff that can be found in his bike shed. He says it’s not a place he’d spend an entire day, ‘The sewing machine I just get stuff done, test it, sew stuff on shittily. I’m not sure I actually enjoy sewing but I do enjoy tinkering and making stuff better.’

In this part of the house the eccentricity once again emanates, especially around the latest addition to the making area, the t–shirt printing table. Ben is one of those restless characters who has to be doing something at all times it would seem, and if the endless work he gives himself at Scott isn’t enough then in his free time he toys with t–shirt designs for himself and the local snow/bike crew, which is jokingly named Los Planachos (the top station at the local mountain is called Planachaux). This gang’s motto, No Fun Just Risk,  is meant in irony.

THE MAN CAVE

The icing on the Walker household cake is down below in the bike store. Here Ben explains his fascination with fettling bike parts and improving on every component’s performance. Whether that be through cutting off anything unnecessary or ordering the machining of a completely new part, his obsession with improvement is clear. He also explains that a lot of the development work he does with Scott’s line of gravity bikes comes from real–world testing and development, that ‘you’ve got to know what that number on a computer feels like’, and that he works ‘feeling to paper’ rather than merely working from drawings and imagined scenarios. ‘Theoretical versus actual’ as he puts it.

The work bench is littered with prototype parts, some far more crude than others, and the bike rack is rammed full of all sorts of bikes, from dirt jump to full–on downhill sleds. If soft goods are worked on and refined in the upstairs making area, this is where hardware is put to the test.

Of course Ben’s most recent project has been the improvement (and shift to accommodate 27.5” wheels) of Scott’s Gambler DH bike. Some protos lie in the corner having been put well and truly to the test, while the finished product sits in the bike stand, muddied fresh from shredding the very trails that Ben has built himself. Corinne rides another proto and according to Ben this has also been a key part of the testing process. ‘She’s an awesome test rider. For example if I get a shock that’s running awesome for Brendan (Fairclough), I make sure that Corinne can ride it too. If I can open it up enough and get it soft enough for her with like a 300lb spring then I know that I’ve got a good, useable, adjustable range.’

The 2015 Gambler then, a bike that Ben and Scott’s engineers have been working to refine since version one. Changes are not huge – to the untrained eye it appears near–identical. This is not far from the truth, its DNA still intact and it is a bike that is made to tackle the biggest of mountains while maintaining the ability and agility needed to ride to race results. With Ben’s home territory being wildly steep it is hardly surprising that a bike of this ilk has come of his extensive testing, and, although we hardly needed any convincing, Ben even took us up the hill in nearby Morgins (which involved jumping on the back of a motocross bike hillbilly style) to check out one of the tracks he built specifically to test the suspension on this newest Gambler to its limits. Apparently the subtle changes made to the linkage for 2015 aim to eliminate ‘dribbling’, as Ben put it; the rear wheel getting flustered and out of control in continuous rough stuff and braking bumps. He is quick to point out that 26” wheels still fit, and comfortably too as this bike is adjustable in head angle (from 61–64º), chainstay length and BB height separately, so its three sizes can be tailored with little difficulty.

I asked Ben to explain a little more, ‘We’re always trying new stuff and playing with different things, the old Gambler already had linkages and wheels and stuff on it… so it’s probably been two years I’ve been tweaking and tuning stuff and getting ready for this one (the 2015 Gambler). For me it hurts my heart if there are details that aren’t dialled and so I push hard to get Scott and everybody else on board and to make it better. The main stuff is making it predictable when things get rough and rowdy so you don’t get bounced funny if you go a little bit faster than the trail wants you to go. Basically my goals were to make it easier to set up for a wider range of people, to get it to be more predictable, to get it to roll faster, with a wider variety of compression tunes, and to just refine it. I want it to be dialled so every time there is a tiny detail – like the seat angle for example, it bothers me if I have to run the seat all the way back on the rails to get it out the way. We can always do better so I just want to dial it in. I push really hard to make sure we can keep pushing and improving the performance.’

The bike features the sort of neat finishing touches that come from the progression of development that only a long–standing design tends to incorporate: neat bump–stops for the forks, refined cable routing, longevity of bearings taken into consideration. When a company’s chief test rider lives so enthusiastically for the sport he preaches it is hardly surprising that these little details are not forgotten. It’s still a bike made for big mountains though, and will probably continue to divide opinion. Ben looked more than chuffed with the latest bike hanging on the work stand and Corinne professed that her own Gambler was the best yet.

Having worked our way around the Walker residence we left with more than a niggle of envy, but it’s people like Ben and Corinne who provide a source of inspiration for those who live a life in the outdoors, and long may they continue to do so.

All photos by Andy Lloyd.

 

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