I first met Alex Stewart when we were fifteen. We were neighbours and met in the field between our houses, where he was riding a pit bike, and I was riding a mountainboard. He was also one of the first people I went snowboarding with and blew my mind since day one. He hasn’t changed too much since then. His passion for snowboarding is just as strong, The only difference is that he now speaks Italian. He’s made a lot of videos over the years, but this one is something special. It’s not just his, though. This belongs to everyone involved. Two Vans no Plans follows a group of friends on the road, chasing snow and getting after it however they can. It’s the sort of film that gets people into snowboarding, and is as genuine as it gets.
Interview. Theo Acworth
Photo. Federico Grego
Let’s start off by talking about the motorbike winch. What’s the deal with that thing?
Alex: Me and Brad [Smith] always wanted to do the winch bike concept, it’s been in our mind for five years, and I finally bought a bike and made it happen.
Were you going off any plans, or just using your Kiwi bodging skills?
Alex: It took a while to figure out how to do it. We just used a spare hub, put some rope around it, did some welding and adapted a stand from another bike. You needed to be able to drive it to the spot, jack it up quickly enough, change the wheel, ride the spot, and then move on. After some practice, we got it down to ten minutes.
How many spots did you use it on?
Alex: In the end, only one!
But still, you drove your winch to the spot. That’s pretty rad.
Alex: That was the most psycho week ever. I really wanted to make the winch work. but it’s kind of ‚my’ thing, and no one else really wanted to use it. We started losing the snow, so I had to say sorry guys, we’re dedicating a week to this thing. We went to Agardo, just below the Dolomites. It was full lockdown, and we’d seen this old iron-ore mine. All the wood had rotted away, but the stone structure was still there. There was this sick window that we’d always seen from the road and wanted to ride. We’d never tried the bike and didn’t know if it would work. 3rd gear was way too crazy. You couldn’t even hold onto the rope. Even 2nd is pretty crazy. Nicholas [Bridgeman] was super hyped and really wanted to try it first. He’d never used a winch before. Dusan said, ‚I bet 10€ he overshoots it’. Just saying it for the camera because it was a good lifestyle clip. Of course, he completely overshoots to flat. He thought we did it on purpose!
Did he get his shot in the end?
Alex: Not that day, he hurt his neck pretty bad. The next day he got it, then this cop came in out of nowhere and told us that we couldn’t have motorbikes in there because it was a national park. We told him it wasn’t a bike, it was a winch! He definitely didn’t get it. We’d also taken the muffler off the bike, so it was making loads of noise. He told us we had to leave, but he wouldn’t fine us. We tried to explain that we were filming a movie and asked how we could get permission. We had to go to the local council and send emails to the national park committee. We didn’t say anything about the motorbike. It took five or six days to get the permission. We kept trying to film while we were waiting, but every day something would happen. The snow was melting, the bike wasn’t working. We got three shots in the whole week, but they were three of the sickest shots.
So you got the permission in the end?
Alex: Yeah, but after we’d finished filming! It came through, and we were done, so over it. Every morning the cops would come to where we were parked. Different cops and Carabiniere each time, always asking for our IDs and papers and stuff. It got to the point where we had to tell them to talk to each other because it was the same shit every day for seven days in a row. They thought we were gipsies or something.
“The border people probably just thought that anyone who was travelling must have been legit.”
All you sketchy people with your long hair. How was it travelling in vans during lockdown?
Alex: I was expecting it to be way harder. I think people were so scared because of how it was presented in the media that no one was trying to travel. The border people probably just thought that anyone who actually was travelling must have been legit.
If I was a border guard, that’s definitely what I would think when I saw your two vans rolling through.
Alex: Yeah, he’s keen!
Did you get kicked out of any other places? All the resorts were closed in Italy, right?
Alex: We got pretty lucky, camping in a lot of spots that you usually couldn’t. We would deal with cops a lot because there was obviously nothing else going on and nothing else for them to do. All the campsites were closed, so where the fuck do you want us to go? Our vans were our houses. It’s where we live.
You never got any fines or anything?
Alex: Nope. Dusan is now a pro with his van too, he figured it out.
So he’s a full-on van convert now?
Alex: Oh yeah, he’s going to buy the other one from me.
Dusan, how was it adapting to life in the van?
Dusan: The whole winter, I was just learning as I went. I really know it well now, but every day I was freaking out and trying to figure out how everything worked. One day something worked, the next day it didn’t. At one point, my clutch broke while I was driving downhill. From one moment to the next, the cable just broke.
Alex: It was the miller flip spot where they jumped off the roof of the van to get speed.
Dusan: So Alex had already left ahead of me. It was a real zig-zag road down, loads of switchback corners. Suddenly I heard something snap. I didn’t know if it was the brakes or clutch or what. I stopped with the handbrake straight away, then figured out that it was the clutch. So what now? At least I had brakes and could still stop myself on the way down. Our camping spot was 3 or 4 km from the bottom of the switchbacks, and there was only one crossroads on the way where I would have to stop. I knew I could make it all the way there in second gear. I was coming to the crossroad and just praying that there were no cars coming because I’d stall the van if I stopped and would be stuck there. Two cars crossed as I was rolling up, they passed, could see it was clear on one side, so I just went for it.
How much time are we talking to analyse the crossing situation?
Dusan: The van isn’t too fast, so maybe 20 seconds. I made it to the parking spot, but it was full of other cars and vans!
Alex: It was hilarious. I was already back and making dinner, and I hear him honking his horn. I come outside, and it was the funniest shit I’ve ever seen. The door was open, and he was just screaming, ‚I have no clutch!’. I ran back inside and tried to grab the camera to film while he was just driving around in circles. He was driving pretty fast too.
Dusan: The van is seven meters long!
Alex: He was screaming, ‚Move the cars!’ While I was just cracking up. He was super stressed but just about managed to park it.
Dusan: Total cowboy experience. I parked like an idiot, and all the guys were just laughing so hard at me. I was so stressed and pissed off. When you’re going downhill, and something goes bang in your car, that’s gnarly.
That is gnarly. I remember always listening for weird noises in my old van that would announce new problems.
Alex: He also broke down the day before. We were on Passo Giau, one of the highest passes into Cortina, with three-meter snowbanks everywhere. We were trying to find a place to park because there’s a cool kicker spot there, but we couldn’t really find anything. On corner 18, there was a spot where you could just fit two vans. In the morning, we saw that there was a huge avalanche above us, and there was another slab that was just about hanging on. If it broke, it would have totally taken out the vans.
Dusan: We parked in the middle of an avalanche field.
Alex: We had to get out of there. I packed up my shit, turned on the van and drove up the road and told Dusan that I would meet him up there. I was looking back, and I could see that he wasn’t moving.
Dusan: The van wouldn’t start. The glow plugs just didn’t show anything, no light, and they weren’t heating. We tried for half an hour, and were getting stressed about the snow getting warm and dangerous. Fuck it, we just went riding. We were hitting a spot across the valley, and we could see the van from the spot, checking if it was still here. We finished riding, and it had got pretty cold, so we thought the snow would be safe and decided to stay there one more night. The next morning Simon [Gruber] managed to find the cable for the plugs, and it was completely rusted. Alex managed to melt them together with a soldering iron that he had in his van, but it still wouldn’t start. The diesel had run out in the engine, but I remembered that there was a pump to put more diesel in there, which is pretty smart, actually. We did that, and it still wouldn’t start. We were getting ready to pull it out with a rope and just send it. I tried the key one last time, and it started! Everybody was so hyped. Then the day after was when the clutch broke. I just wanted to go home for two or three weeks rest.
Daily breakdowns definitely take their toll.
Dusan: It would either be the engine, or if not, the electrics, or something like finding gas or water or whatever. You woke up and didn’t know what was going to happen that day. Seriously though, it was -25C in Cortina. Heavy cold.
Do you have good heating in the van?
Dusan: Yeah, but I never had to crank it to the max. I wasn’t cold at all. Even if we were wet, stuff still dried, even in really cold temperatures. It’s still leaking oil and stuff. There’s always something, but it was made in 1984, so if something doesn’t work, you just replace it, and it works again. It’s simple. Sometimes it’s a mission, but I love it.
Alex: It had only had one owner. It would have been the Ferrari of camper vans back in the day. When I was looking for the second van for this project, I didn’t want to get the boys anything newer or faster than our own van! But it ended up being way sicker than our van.
Dusan: I was surprised. It climbed up everything that we wanted to. I had one problem with my cam belt that I managed to fix completely by myself and I was so stoked! When things are going shit shit shit, and you figure out one thing, and then it’s just yeah yeah yeah! I started to like it, the ‚Alex style’ of making it work. Just don’t freak out and figure it out. We always had loads of space too, we could have our zones. And Fede [Grego] also had his spot.
“He was sleeping near the windows and was using boot boxes to insulate the van.”
He’s the man. Does he still have his huge Technine jacket?
Dusan: Yeah, he still has it! He’s such a G. He’s hilarious. He lowkey became a legit snowboard filmer without ever intending to. He was sleeping near the windows and was using boot boxes to insulate the van. The next morning he said that it helped so much.
Alex: Having him on the project was so good. We’ve never just had him on his own as the main filmer. I love that guy. He likes snowboarding, but he joined us mostly because he likes hanging out and he wanted to get away from Milan! We could have been filming anything, and he still would have been down to join.
Dusan: He was always wearing these Moroccan flip-flops, and I was wearing full-on winter shoes. Whenever I was upset or angry, he would always save me.
Chiara: He was one of the key people for sure. He shot photos and filmed two angles at all times, and was always smoking cigs, vapes, everything. He’s also a paparazzi photographer in Milan. That’s his main job.
“When it was snowing and raining sideways, and I was also pregnant, there were times where I was thinking, do I really have to do this?”
Chiara: There was another spot where Alex was riding next to a church during a really religious holiday. This lady came up and was talking on the phone and asked Alex what he was doing there. She said he was talking to bishop someone-someone who was coming to do the mass. Alex just said, ‚Oh, I’m a Christian volunteer’. No fucking way, I couldn’t believe he said that. So the lady told this bishop what Alex said, and he just replied, ‚Oh, great!’.
Shovelling for Christ.
Alex: I don’t think she bought it, so she said that if we were doing it, we could at least shovel out some more stairs for the bishop.
That’s so good. At what point did you guys find out you were pregnant? That’s kind of a huge thing to discover while filming for a project, let alone living in a camper van during the winter.
Chiara: We found out at Christmas, and we’d already been filming for about six weeks. Funny story, his sister called us earlier on the same day and told us she was pregnant.
Alex: That was crazy. I went from brother, to uncle, to father in two hours.
Chiara: We were with my family at the time, and they’re Italian, so there was lots of crying and celebrating, and then we told them that we were leaving and going back on the road!
I guess everyone reacts to finding out they’re pregnant in different ways, but jumping back in the van and going shovelling, filming, and snowboarding is a pretty badass way to do it.
Chiara: Alex was pretty chill about it. He just said that he’d bring the van as close to the spot as possible and that I could just chill there whenever I needed. That’s kind of what he’s like.
Alex: You didn’t have to shovel, but you could still film us!
What a gentleman.
“I don’t think she bought it, so she said that if we were doing it, we could at least shovel out some more stairs for the bishop.”
Alex: There were definitely some moments where it was snowing sideways, and I just wanted to get the shot, and she told me, ‚Fuck you, Alex, I’m going home!’. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that she was pregnant and still doing this for me. It took me a while to figure it out.
Chiara: Not just doing it for you, but for all of us three.
Dusan: At one point, you guys left Prato Nevoso to get a checkup, and I was alone in this zone, preparing a jump. I saw these two animals running over the snow and was wondering what the fuck they were. Then I realised that they were wolves! So sick! Then I realised I was alone, and there were wolves 600 meters away from me. What should I do? I ducked down and prayed they weren’t hungry, and they kept going their way. Sometimes we’d just set a plan and would do things solo like that. Simon would build things, and then we’d come to ride them. We were a small crew, only really five of us, and one was pregnant!
Paula Benito and Klaus [Sophia Schroll] also joined you guys for a bit? They both rip.
Alex: Yeah, they came for a little mission and also got some sick shots.
Did they jump into the vans with you?
Alex: No we rented a place for them. You don’t have much privacy in a van. You’re literally watching people shit and shower.
Dusan: Some people like it, though, like Simon. He would always open the door and make a lot of eye contact.
That’s definitely a lot to jump straight into. Were they with you for long?
Alex: Unfortunately, Paula tore her ACL and meniscus on a roof drop into a tight landing. I felt pretty responsible for that as I’d was kind of guiding her in streets and scoped it out and told her it would be mellow. She’s super talented, but I’m used to riding street, and she’s more of a park rider. Klaus did it first but also tweaked her knee a bit. Paula did it once, rode out and was so hyped. She went up again, but her front knee bent inwards when she landed.
Ah damn, sorry to hear that. Still, it’s rad that you got them both out there and involved in the project.
Alex: We’re really trying to push the women’s side of the Drake and Northwave team. Having those two join was a gesture, but it definitely wasn’t enough. Now I’m going to have a daughter, there’s no bullshit now. I have to make as much space for women in snowboarding as I can.
Chiara: The women’s side of the team is getting bigger, and we’re hopefully going to have other projects going on in the future. I’m not saying it because I did it, it could have been anyone, but having a woman involved who said she’d give it a go, makes it way more accessible to other people. Some girls at the premieres would trip out on it, just seeing me as a ‚normal’ snowboarder doing this stuff with cameras. You can do it. Just do it! You need people that believe in you. That’s the key thing.