So Close To Hell - Cam Zink Interview
MTB - Dirt Mountain Bike Interview
Cam Zink… his name alone reeks of a big personality and echoes ‘bad ass’. Even to mountain bikers that are far removed from ‘the scene’ he hardly needs introduction. If you don’t know anything about him then simply punch his name into a Google image search, but be prepared to feel pretty small once the photos are emblazoned onto your mental sensor. Zink is 27 years old and living with his fiancé Amanda in his home town of Reno, Nevada (USA). The couple just had their first child, Ayla, a couple of days after the Red Bull Rampage wrapped up last year. Cam isn’t your typical gravity guy. In 2009 he started Sensus, a highly successful company producing rider–designed grips. The list of riders who endorse Sensus is a testament not only to their quality, but also to Zink’s prowess as a networker. A rockstar athlete, with real world business savvy, who knows how to have a good time, but actually plans for his future and doesn’t drain his whole retirement through a toxic liver. Imagine that?
Although Cam has multiple accomplishments under his belt, he is most widely known for winning Rampage with total conviction in 2010 when he 360′d the 50 foot ‘Oakley Icon Sender’. In a harrowing (more bone chilling) sense, Zink is also known for overshooting a 70′ foot canyon gap at Rampage 2012. The stomach churning video of him falling from the sky straight to his heels went viral online immediately, and was featured all over television networks ranging from ESPN to cheesy morning talk shows.
Upon first impression Cam just seems like your average good ol’ boy from small town America. Anyone that’s heard him being interviewed knows he is a straight shooter, and probably assumes he’s pretty simple. He likes guns, Budweiser, tattoos, trucks, moto, metal bands and throwing a ‘dip in his lip’. While that does speak volumes about his character, what’s fascinating is that he really isn’t a simpleton, Zink is far more cerebral than he may appear on the surface. So, what dwells beneath? Is Cameron just some maniac with huge balls or is he more calculated than he lets on? What lies deep within that drives him to push the limits of mountain biking farther than anyone? A couple of months back I headed into Reno to tag along with him for a few days while he prepped for Rampage, hoping that I could tap into his psyche and find out just what it is that makes him tick.
After landing, Reno was exactly what I expected. Slot machines in the airport, crusty desert, taxis lined up and frothing for the chance to take you to the gambling Mecca of your choice. I stayed in a casino for two reasons. One, to get the full experience, and two because it was $29 a night for solid accommodation.
Reno has two infamous catch phrases to describe it, ‘so close to hell you can see sparks’ and ‘the biggest little city’. At first glance it may seem like a downtrodden town struggling to escape the long shadow of Las Vegas, but upon closer inspection it has much more to offer. It has an older feel, and for anyone with an active lifestyle it has a greater appeal. Better weather than Vegas, with a mere 30 minute jaunt to Lake Tahoe, a miracle in itself. This means world class skiing, snowboarding, trekking, camping, mountain biking, moto, rock climbing, hunting, you name it, all at arms reach.
At 6:00am I was rattled from my semi drunken slumber when Cam called and blurted out in a borderline militant sense that he was on the way. “You’re staying at Harrah’s, right?” he said. “Yeah, see you in like 45 minutes… is that cool?” I mumbled. “Nah, I’ll be there in 10, get your shit together”.
The first time I met Cam and actually spoke with him he didn’t have facial hair and we were crushing some crappy American beers with ex–World Cup rider and party animal Nathan Rennie at a house party. The two were totally transfixed on teaching me how to peel the tops off of beer cans with my teeth so you could down them faster. Apparently he’s grown up and gotten hungry. Regardless, I threw my stuff together and ran out the door hoping to at least score a coffee near the lobby. As soon as I got in line at the Starbucks my phone rang. “I’m outside, where are you?”…Damn it.
I came flailing out, dysfunctionally devoid of caffeine, with a ringing head and threw my camera bag in the back of his truck, praying he was low on gas and ready to stop somewhere along the way to wherever the hell we were headed. “So what’s the deal?” I asked. Prior to meeting and doing this interview I knew he was on the hunt to ride a particular local line that had been taunting him since he started riding big mountain stuff. He told me we were headed out to scope it and see if it was rideable. Apparently it was unclear, and getting to the spot was a mission in itself. The idea of witnessing him ride something unridden gave me goosebumps. Once we came around the bend in the road that revealed it, my jaw was on the floor. To me it looked doable. Well, not to me, but it seemed that someone with nerves like Zink could pull it off. He was planning on it and I was the only lucky bastard around with a camera in hand. I gazed around the truck a bit. Messy really. There must have been at least seven or eight random one gallon half empty water bottles, a bunch of shoes, tires and crusty socks. Lots of grips, stickers, clothes, a lonely glove and a shoe here and there. It was a utilitarian vehicle after all. My eyes shifted to the bed of his truck where his bike laid. A massive air compressor and two big inflatable rafts were erratically jammed in. Apparently Cam likes to go tubing? Once we parked it all made sense.
We arrived at the Truckee River; it flows from high Sierra peaks near Lake Tahoe down into the foothills that lie east and into Reno. As we parked I gazed across the river and digested the line he was contemplating. He had to cross the river with his bike and gear. Hence the mini rafts. Without much explaining Cam inflated a tube and started stomping away on a mission. Within minutes he was out of sight and floating across the river, then clambering over a massive barbed wire fence to scope out this line. I waited a bit, then slapped the big lens on my camera and started scanning, trying to find him. After seeing no signs of life for about 45 minutes I started to get worried. It dawned on me that this line was much larger than life. The scale was beyond me, and it was so much bigger and farther away than it appeared upon first inspection. Right when I thought something bad had happened Zink emerged from the weeds with his head down. Game over… if he can’t ride it, then no one in their right mind can.
Slightly dejected, Cam filled me in a bit on the ride home to Reno. Basically he’d been driving by this supposed line for years on the way to Tahoe and back, but never considered it. After filming the maniacal lines he rode in the film ‘Where the Trail Ends’ he came back and looked at it in a different light. However once he climbed up and saw it first hand, he realized it was more rock and chunder than it was sand and scree. At least he had the wherewithal to walk away from it. If something went wrong, I wouldn’t know how to clean up a mess like that in the middle of nowhere.
Ten minutes down the road he was already over it and giddy about what the next two days had in store. He was still hungry to ride some big lines and get some serious riding in over the next couple days as his preparation for Rampage was peaking. At this point it was barely 10:00am anyway. Plenty of time to score some gold. We headed to his house so he could spend some time jumping in his back yard, and show me around the place. Later we’d move on and shoot some big mountain stuff. This was a short, fast paced trip, but on the road, over coffee, and between post–ride beers I would pull out my phone to record and grill the poor guy every time I had a chance. After all, I had to get audio of his responses to all of the questions I had floating around in my mind…
What you do is obviously pretty intense. To do what you do, constantly progress and push the envelope, as well as stay healthy, must be a constant battle. Do you have any sort of particular, regimented training routine or do you just get out and shred constantly?
It varies from day to day. Especially being a bit hyper, spending time on the road a lot, and just being wired all the time. I’m the kind of person that needs constant stimulation to keep me occupied and make me feel like I am even worth a damn. I’m always trying to do too much crap and that constantly gets me in trouble. People often think I’m inconsiderate, but I just need to stay busy and almost need to have too much on my plate. With the kind of lifestyle that I’ve chosen for myself, I still try to eat right. I linked up with Ryan Hughes and work with a trainer and a nutritionist. I try to take in the information and live that life, but with traveling and living a fast paced lifestyle I just can’t do that every day. I’m not gonna lie, I drink. There are times that I fall off of it, but when I am on it I do stay true to it so that I can afford to have some beers here and there. I try to hit the gym, stretch, even stand on my Bosu ball and do one–legged squats while watching TV. That way I can afford to fall off on the ‘other’ days.
You’ve endured some massive crashes. When you get injured do you try to really go full–on with the rehab and get a total recovery, or do you base it off of how you feel, or what’s coming up next in your life?
I do, but with the way this goes we really don’t get a full off–season. I get anxious and I need to get on my bike. I convince myself it’s been six weeks and then I realise it’s only been three. After I broke my leg I was riding moto a month later, right after having a rod put in it. I rode a week after surgery with Compartment Syndrome in my leg while it was swollen as shit, filming for a BFG tyres edit. All four compartments of my calf fascia slipped open. It’s like arm pump surgery, but for your leg. I got it because I rode too shortly after surgery. Then while filming it got infected. I try to listen to the doctors, but when I feel good is when I ride. That is something I have a hard time with. After Crankworx I got knocked out and I knew I couldn’t mess with it for at least three days. I felt good, and wanted to ride, but it was just bad, my girl was cryin’ and shit, and deep down I knew I had to sit it out. That was a tough pill to swallow. I’ve learned the hard way. One of the times that I was riding with a torn ACL I was going to come up short and could’ve bailed and slid down fine, but I didn’t wanna land on my legs so I hung up hard and nose wheelied to the bottom and ruptured my spleen because I was trying to save my legs. Live and learn I guess.
Rampage 2012. It was my first year there and the morning of finals a friend and I saw you limping and downing some ibuprofen. You were trying to strap it up after you basically landed at my feet the day before from 30 odd feet up in the sky to your heels. We asked you what you were thinking and why you weren’t just sitting it out. You said, “I’m just trying to live man”. Our jaws were on the floor, and I’ve always wanted to know what you truly meant by that?
That’s just what I do. It’s what makes me feel full as a person. I’ve come to realise that if I’m not out on my bike pushing the limits and living up to my potential, I don’t feel good about myself. Bike riding isn’t everything to me, but when I feel good on a bike everything else in life feels better. It’s my pride and joy, it’s what I put everything into and it’s what I’m best at. If I’m not riding well I just don’t feel good. There have been times when I’m not exactly depressed but I’m just bummed and it’s because I’m not feeling solid. Then all of a sudden I will go out, push it and do some things I’m proud of on the bike that makes me feel better about myself and I feel complete again.
So would you say there is a direct correlation between riding and happiness?
In a sense, yeah. Especially when it comes down to Rampage. It’s the biggest event in mountain biking, so winning that gives me the biggest sense of accomplishment, it’s a huge deal to me. You only get one every couple years. In 2012 I was going to win. I had it in my head. What I was going to do… no one is willing to go that extra mile and beat me. No one else would do what I had planned to do. I had already hit that jump twice. Bad luck, but I put a new rear shock on, had the sun in my eyes and… and all this other stuff had piled up and led to that. The next day I knew what I had done wrong and I said to myself ‘it’s going to be better today. I’m going to backflip/no hander that f–king jump and I’m gonna win this shit’. Sadly I couldn’t even keep my cranks straight off of a little ten foot drop. I did a couple test drops, and I couldn’t hold myself up. I tried to ride more on my toes than I normally would, but you pull so many G’s on the lip of a jump like that. I knew I would’ve collapsed going off the thing. I was pretty bummed to have to walk away from that one.
Would you say that most of your drive comes from within?
Yeah. Definitely. And there is the job side of it because that’s how I fed myself and will now feed my family. I actually tone it down a bunch because I do have to stay healthy and pay the bills, but I’m still gonna go for it just as hard, but now I try to do more of the stuff in between that puts food on the table. These days there are a lot of guys that ride because of the fame and sponsorship but I still flat–out ride simply because I love it.
Regarding racing, I know you have some solid stats under your belt. You came into the spotlight nationally as a racer. You were a national champion in dual slalom and you held a spot on the Santa Cruz Syndicate team back in the day. Tell us about your early entrance to the sport. How did your whole career come to fruition?
Well it started when I was nine years old. Hopefully some people in Britain know about Kooka components, but that was my dad’s friend. He used to own a doughnut shop, brought some weird bikes around and got my dad’s hyped on it, and that’s how I got into mountain biking. Did my first DH race when I was nine. My brother Howie got into it as well. He would never even ride but would just slay it. He was a natural. Granted, Howie was two and a half years older than me, but it came easier to him than me. Mostly we rode skateparks and dirt jumps. He was the best in town. Didn’t matter what we tried to do, growing up he would always kill it and was the inspiration. He was better than me. He raced downhill back in the Jason Codding days so I would always spend my off time trying keep up with him. And then it was the classic story of chicks and cars, and stuff he got out of it and I kept going and going. When I was 16 in junior national dual slalom champs, it was Kyle Strait and me in the finals. I won, and that was pretty huge. He’s better than me at slalom now but it was still a big deal for me. Also there was no market for freeriding at that point.
If there was a defining moment that you would point to where things clicked, what would it be?
When I saw Kirt Vories’ part in ‘Evolution’, it was a game changer. Tailwhipping and barspinning a full suspension bike off of a chainlink fence was nuts. That video didn’t really get distributed but it was mindblowing to me. I grew up wanting to be EC (Eric Carter), wanting to be (Shaun) Palmer, but I was just building up my skills as a bike rider. I got signed to Syndicate when I was 17 because I could jump and race. I was like, ‘I’m getting paid! To them ten grand wasn’t shit, but I was like ‘hell yeah, I’m buying a car’! That was a lot of money to me at the time. So that year at the first Crankworx I got 5th place with a crash in my final run, but apparently I’d turned a lot of heads. At the time, Martin Whitely (23 Degrees Sports Management) was my manager and at the next race he said to me, ‘I don’t know what you did but everyone is talking about you’. That was 2004. Later that year at Rampage I almost spun my DH bike off of a cliff, but hurt my back and had to walk away. Strait crushed it that year, but people got that first real glimpse of my riding. That was the year.
In ’05 I blew out my knee and tore my ACL, and my meniscus, which hurt like a son of a bitch. I rode Crankworx and Rampage with a knee brace because I knew it was following up to ’04 and would be my break–out year. I got a New World Disorder film segment and knew I just had to do it. Then in ’06 I got 44th at Mt St Anne World Cup. That’s a great result, but I was killing freeride at the time. I had to go with what was working. That same year I won Crankworx. That was pivotal. No racer gets paid for 44th, ya know?
This is one question which I think you are the perfect person to ask, even though you seem to be pretty nonchalant about going massive, do you think this whole thing is approaching a point where it’s gone too far?
In terms of what? Where you think it’ll plateau?
No. Where it just gets too dangerous. But touch on both subjects now that you mention it.
It ain’t gonna come to a halt any time soon, but like any sport it’ll eventually flatten out, I just don’t think that’s right around the bend or anything. I’m 27 and I don’t think I’m even close to peaking as an athlete. Things are developing in every direction. Big bike stuff is getting bigger and bigger. So is the slopestyle stuff. The tricks are getting more complex and those two separate disciplines are merging in many ways. Everything is getting gnarlier. The equipment catching up adds to that as well. Just look at the development of a single small part like my rear shock for Rampage alone. It’s taken a few years just to get it right for that one singular event. This stuff takes time to reach perfection, but in the long run it makes it easier to push the envelope. We’re only now seeing the very first production slopestyle bikes hit the market. The sport is still young. The first Crankworx was in 2004 and people were riding either DH bikes, hardtails, or XC bikes they modded into slope bikes and jumping onto teeter totters. Those days are over. The courses are far better. They consist of bigger, better jumps where you have more air time to do the tricks you need to do without risking your life simply because you had to hit a poorly built jump. Look at the mega ramp, it’s 60 feet and safe as hell.
So, you have a kid on the way. By the time this interview hits the newsstands you will be a father. Is that making you take things down a notch or is it motivating you to push things even further?
No, I don’t think it’ll slow me down at all. If anything, it motivates me more. Work smarter not harder I guess. To me it’s always been my passion and a hobby, but it’s also my job, so in that regard I’m more driven knowing the need to feed my family will increase as it grows.
You and Palm (Shaun Palmer) are buddies. You’ve seen what he’s been through first hand. We have people in our sport like Palmer who were massive influences in shaping the sport, and now in their 40′s they have absolutely nothing. In sports like baseball these clowns sign 90 million dollar contracts, hurt their knee one time, retire and never have to work again. What mountain bikers do puts sports like that to shame in regards to how ballsy and risky it is. Sadly MTB guys have to grovel in hopes of scoring a middle income industry job after they ‘retire’. This sport hasn’t necessarily taken care of its iconic mainstays nearly to the extent that it should.
No, it really doesn’t. Unfortunately it will chew you up and spit you out. Period. You can’t do this for any other reason than what made you start in the first place, and that comes from within. When you’re on top, you better be smart with your money. It could end tomorrow. Even when I was a bachelor and could’ve raged and gone crazy, I didn’t. I was smart with the money I had coming in.
Fair enough, that seems to be one thing that separates you from many of the athletes that paved the way as well as some of your peers. You seem to be more invested than most. Sensus is a perfect example of how you’ve put money back into the sport you love, while also planning for your exit from it, and future once you are no longer competing. You put your money where your mouth is.
Yeah, I’m lucky enough to have learned from other people’s mistakes. Like you mentioned, Palmer and I are good buddies, and I love the lifestyle he lived. I wish I made more money so I could blow more cash and save more. Money is made to be spent, but you also have to plan for tomorrow. On the flip side it’s important to learn from other people’s awesomeness though. That guy has the sickest stories ever. I listen to them and just think, ‘Damn, I want to do that’. Also, thankfully for me I’m pumped on multiple aspects of mountain biking. Slopestyle is on the up and up. However, the NORBA’s (old US national DH series) rode a high, but came and went, so slopestyle could do the same thing. Fortunately for me I am pumped on it all. I love downhill racing, slopestyle stuff, speed and style, big mountain/Rampage stuff, and even shredding hardtails. I wouldn’t do anything I’m not passionate about, so I’m glad I love all types of riding because that diversifies things for me.
OK, gotta ask you a couple of random cliché ones. Josh Bender (Google him), what are your thoughts?
Bender’s a wild son of a bitch man. With all due respect to him, he’s the far side of the spectrum where there wasn’t a ton of skill, but he was crazy and showed what’s doable. You have Bender on one side, and Kyle Strait on the other. I’d like to think I lie somewhere in the middle.
You really think Kyle is that talented?
Absolutely. I really do. No one is quite as naturally gifted on a bike as he is. Period. He doesn’t even try. He won Rampage, got third in Junior Worlds for downhill (12th in elite), and got third at Crankworx all in one year without putting an ounce of effort in. That was at age 17 when he was just drinking with all of us. I’d like to lean somewhere more on the Strait side of things than Bender. I have done things that I didn’t think were possible, but I had a good feeling about them and thought I should just go for it.
Speaking of ‘feelings’, do you work pretty heavily off of inclinations and just go with your gut? Or do your intuitions ever take over strongly enough that you just walk away from something that doesn’t feel right?
For me it’s really hard for me to walk away and that rarely happens, but I wouldn’t even consider riding something unless I saw potential in it in the first place. There has to be a part that ignites and brings the whole thought process and possibility to light. Anything that puts your body in harms way or your life at risk will make your mind tell you ‘no, no, no’. As soon as you accept the possibility that you could crash you’re better off. It’s a fine line between realising, ‘am I stupid, or is this something that’s really possible?’ You can’t dwell on it though. You have to discern between your body telling you to keep yourself out of danger because you could die doing something, or is it just that natural instinct that it isn’t safe but it is doable. For instance no one thought that 360 at Rampage was possible and at some point neither did I. On the first attempt I crashed and thought, ‘that was absolutely perfect’… it’s just not realistic I guess. Then I thought, ‘let’s slow down the rebound on my shock and see if that helps’, and did it again. I rode it worse that time, but I still stomped it. The bottom line is that there are so many crucial variables: mental, physical and also within bike set–up as well.
What was the biggest moment in your career? I think we all know the answer but tell us.
Definitely Rampage 2010. On that day had I not landed the second 360, I wouldn’t have been World Champion, Rampage Champion or have landed the biggest 3 drop ever. There have been so many what ifs and almosts in my life that they all built up to that one to pay off. I was like the ‘almost kid’ for so long. People would have still given me credit for trying and whatnot, but landing that trick and more importantly the whole run, made life that much sweeter.
So being the type of person that needs constant excitement and a steady flow of adrenaline do you ever contemplate life after riding bikes? Clearly when you’re old you’re not going to be content sitting around playing bingo. Is that something you stop and ponder, or would you rather not think about it?
Oh, I’ll go nuts. I know it. Having a daughter and probably more kids by then will definitely keep me occupied and fill the void, but I’m sure that I’ll still be riding bikes, moto, snowboarding, surfing and doing everything I can for as long as my body lets me.
By the time this hits print, Rampage will be done and dusted, but I have to ask, do you have anything particular up your sleeve this year or are you just going to send it?
I just plan to have fun, ride a sweet, flowy line that will put a smile on my face, but the big momma in my run will definitely be the Oakley Drop again. It’s bigger, better and I’m gonna put a lip on it and take the cake for the biggest step–down flip of all time. It is gonna be sweet…
After blasting home from Reno, a couple of weeks passed by and before I knew it I’m fumbling around at Red Bull Rampage 2013 trying not to get hurt just walking around with a camera. I shoot Cam a text to catch up and see how things are looking. In his typical nonchalant style, he responds, ‘headed to the hospital to get my groin drained’. After an ugly wreck just cruising some DH runs just before the event he hit a tree and got a massive hematoma that caused freakish amounts of swelling. It was so bad that he didn’t really even ride until the day of finals. Unsure if he was even going to ride, he spent the first couple of days laying on bags of ice and having blood and fluid drained from his body for eight hours a day. Then the doctor said they needed to perform surgery and told him he couldn’t ride. He ignored them, came to the site on qualifying day, limped around and dug out his line. Pure grit. Right as the sun made its descent past the horizon he crept down his upper line. Shortly after that, Kyle Strait aired the sender and although he cased, bounced and didn’t land for another 30 feet down the landing, he rode it out. Then, right when it was nearly dark, fresh out of the hospital Zink followed suit and sent the 60 foot monster and stomped it with total conviction.
On the windblown morning that finals rolled around I found myself perched on the edge of a cliff, wheezing from a long sprint down from the ‘heart’ of the Rampage site to get to the Icon sender. I was already a ball of nerves after watching Kyle’s no–hander off the same jump. Wind hold… Cam drops in, everyone was silent, on pins and needles. Right before he rolled up to the lip I felt a huge gust of wind blow through the canyon. It dropped off literally a second or two before he rolled onto the planks. In true Evel Knievel style, he called out and followed through with the single biggest move ever done on a mountain bike. He absolutely stomped his flip.
So what happened? At this point we only know bits and pieces. In typical Rampage fashion the judging was shrouded in criticism. Say what you will, but I don’t particularly envy any of the judges. The bottom line is that Zink just rolled through the bottom bit of his run so he was scored a bit lower. I’d imagine it was due to being in a state of shock after landing the largest backflip in mountain biking. Can you blame him? I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could re–compose and throw down more to follow up the single most massive move ever pulled on a mountain bike. I would imagine the adrenaline alone would give most mortals a heart attack. Anyhow, after the first round the wind picked up and at the beginning of the second round it started blowing hard enough that the event was called off and judged based off of each rider’s first run.
Would Cam have stomped the flip again, tricked a couple of other features and taken the cake? Most likely, but there’s no point in hashing out what could’ve been. Although he wears his heart on his sleeve and was clearly a bit disappointed, Zink was a consummate professional, complimentary of Strait (the eventual winner) and everyone else who threw down. He was upbeat and stoked that he got to send it and walk away with best trick. Above all, he made it down safely and was met at the bottom by his very much relieved, pregnant and glowing wife with much bigger things on the horizon. As we look towards Cam’s future none of us can really fathom just what will come next, but one thing is for certain: he will have us biting our nails and feeling small all the while doing so in a cool calm and collected manner. Cam Zink is the epitome of the people’s champ.
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