Natural Selection Alaska Grand Final - Winners Mikkel Bang & Robin Van Gyn Exclusive Interviews
The inaugural Natural Selection Tour is a wrap! To have pulled off any event in a pandemic is quite a feat, but to have done three is seriously impressive. The entire NS crew had to constantly duck and weave in order to make it happen, but happen it did. Any of the riders on the Tour had the potential to have taken the top spots, but it was Canadian Robin Van Gyn and Norwegian Mikkel Bang who were crowned as Tour Champions in the Tordrillo Mountains at the end of last month. We caught up with both of them the day before the results were aired to get their thoughts on what went down, and how they’re feeling about the future of the tour.
Interviews: Theo Acworth & Chris McAlpine
Hey Mikkel, congrats! How does it feel to take the inaugural Natural Selection Tour Championship?
I’m still soaking it in. I don’t really know how to explain it. It means a lot, you know? Just being invited to Jackson Hole was an honour in itself. There are so many riders who deserve to be on the Tour. It just worked out. It worked out great! I remember when I knew that I won, I was down there and had a moment for myself. Just kinda looking around, I shed a little tear ya know? Pretty crazy.
How was the vibe of this stop compared to Jackson Hole?
It was different. There were only 4 male riders which was a big change. It almost felt a bit like a film trip, you know? But once we were at the top and they started calling us in and the heli’s were flying, it was game on, and that’s when it started feeling like a contest. Which it was. It felt like one, but definitely different because there were far fewer people. Everyone definitely becomes very focussed. Everyone has their own plan, so things felt a bit more secretive, you know? You don’t want to tell the other riders what you’re going to do! We told each other where we were planning to go, but not what we were going to do. I was lucky to be there with Mark McMorris, Ben Ferguson and Chris Rasman, I know those guys and get along with them all. That was rad.
That’s nice to hear that it still feels like just going snowboarding, kinda.
Oh totally. And once you’re on course, your mind just goes blank. The terrain is so big and you just forget about all the other stuff. You’re just snowboarding.
Did you go pretty much straight into the event when you arrived in AK?
Yeah pretty much. We got in these small planes and flew out onto the glacier, and then heli’d from there. The first day was a scope day. They actually had to find a new venue last minute, because some soul shredders had put tracks in the original face. I don’t think they knew that the contest was gonna be there, but there were tracks there. It actually worked out great. The final day venue was really cool, three big spines down a really cool line. Leg burner. When you got to the bottom you really felt it.
Were you able to prepare for your runs in any way, or did you just roll with it?
You can’t really practice AK! You can’t take it easy. As I said, it felt a bit like a filming trip, and I was trying to look at it like that, just so I didn’t get too nervous! As soon as you’ve got your bibs on, that’s when it changed. We had a few hours to look and make a plan though. We did a little warmup run on the other side of the mountain just to get on the board, and then it was game on. The terrain in the Todrillos is amazing, long leg burner runs. For the final day venue we had more time to prepare than the qualification day. The first time we got to scope it, it was in the shade, then we came back when it was sunny because it only had 3 hours of morning light.
Did your runs come together like you’d planned them?
On qualification day I wanted to hit this one cliff on my first run, but the landing was a bit too flat, and it was way bigger than I thought. Classic Alaska. So I had to change my plan all of a sudden. I landed my second run, and I was going to up it on my third run with some better tricks, but I just didn’t have any more juice in my legs to be honest! Luckily that was enough to get me into the finals, by one point I think. Mark [McMorris] fell on each of his runs, if he would have landed his second run then I wouldn’t have been in the final. I wish I’d done a little more. I landed the run, and it was kinda technical, but I did one trick, which was a back 3. In my mind I wanted to do something a bit better, but that’s how it ended up.
That’s just snowboarding I guess. You’ve spent a lot of shooting time in AK, could you feel your experience helping you out?
Being in the backcountry all these years definitely helped me. It takes time to learn how to ride backcountry. It takes years. It’s more about experience with line choices and riding variable snow, where to send your sluff, all that stuff came in handy for sure. For finals I felt like I had a better line choice. And I ended up landing my tricks. My strategy was to do one kinda safety run on the line that I imagined, just feel out the snow, and then the second run go bigger and for better tricks.
How long have you had to sit on the results?
Since the 27th, so quite a while.
We were told the results a day before the show aired and were told that we’d entered ‘the circle of trust’. Did you get told something similar, and threatened in any way if you leaked them?
I wish I had something funny to say, but not really. We definitely had a pretty serious sit down meeting about it though, which I can totally understand. It would have been pretty lame if the results had got out early and everyone knew about it before the show aired.
And you won a car? That’s rad, kind of a throwback prize.
Yeah I won a Ford Bronco! I needed a new car, so it worked out great. Hopefully they’ll send it to me in Norway.
What are your thoughts about continuing on the tour. You’re down with the format?
Yeah absolutely, I’d love to do it again, it’s such a cool concept and experience. I’d love to be a part of it again. My main focus will still be on filming, but I don’t mind doing this too. It’s actually quite refreshing. It’s been 8 years since I did a contest, so quite a while. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna like it, but I didn’t mind it at all. It was fun.
Any last words or shoutouts?
I’d like to give a shoutout to Travis for having the vision. I know he’s been wanting this to happen for so long. The fact that he was able to get it together and make it happen during a pandemic? Hats off. I think snowboarding really needed this.
After a good chat with Mikkel we sat down with Robin (virtually) once again as she claimed her second win of the tour!
Hey Robin, you’re the inaugural Natural Selection Tour Champion, how does that feel and what does it mean to you?
I think it’s a lot of things. It’s really exciting to be a part of the Tour this year and to have this new thing in snowboarding. Just to be involved was amazing. To take two wins was an incredible bonus. It means a lot. I’ve been in backcountry snowboarding for a long time and feel like I’ve been working towards this for a long time.
How was the vibe at this final stop compared to the others? Mikkel mentioned that it felt like a filming trip in some respects?
Yes and no. I think we all had the underlying feeling that it was a contest. There was a bit of that energy. Filming is more laid back, you have time to figure things out, and the way that you snowboard is very different. But it depends on how you approach it. The vibe was really good, we had a really good crew and it felt more like the Jackson Hole event, we had a global community of snowboarders coming together, so it was a bit more representative of the Tour overall.
What was your mindset going into this, and while it was happening?
What worked for me was trying to do runs that feel good, and make sure that they’re clean and flowy run, before upping the ante. I didn’t approach it as I would with filming. I tried to make sure I wasn’t paying attention to the other riders and not getting caught up in what they were doing. I just tried to ride things that felt good to me, and that I knew I could land a clean run on. That was kinda the strategy.
How were conditions up there for you?
They were good enough. Not perfect Alaska conditions, it was quite variable. They had three weeks of high pressure, so there was a lot of faceted snow that would change really quickly from wind effected, to facets, to blower pow, so it was a bit of a management process. But we did find some really good snow.
What was the process of choosing your lines like for you?
We had to switch venues last minute. We had Montrachet for qualifying and then another run called DFC for the Super Final. When we landed was when we started to scope. We didn’t have a lot of time to study the face. We landed, looked at it, and there we go. Take a couple photos and then the next time we went back, it was to drop in on it. So it was pretty quick. It wasn’t quite like Jackson Hole where we had photos of the face and drone footage and all that, but we did get some of that the night before.
Sounds like snowboarding. Just have a look and then rolling with it. Did your runs come together as you’d planned them?
After my first qualifying run I decided that I couldn’t do the same line again. It was pretty technical and once it had been ridden, it was time to leave. It wasn’t something that I could do with flow and confidence once it was chopped up, and I didn’t love the way that it was riding. So I switched runs after that. For the Super Final I just chose one line and stuck with it, doing a clean run first, and then trying to build on it. My first run was kinda of a wash, so the second run was the safety run, and then the third was building on that. You kinda found the good snow as you did you first run and watched other riders dropping in. I was towards the end of the drop sequence, so I could watch people go and kinda see where the snow was looking really good and where it wasn’t, and changing the run depending on that. In my first run I wanted to ride right down the ridge of this spine, but the snow wasn’t perfect, then I saw Chris Rasman dropping and it looked blower where he was. You kinda had to adapt as you went, and each run would change due to multiple riders on the face putting tracks into takeoffs and landings.
You and Hana [Beaman] have had experience in this kind of terrain, how was it watching Zoi [Sadowski-Synnott] navigate it for the first time?
The goal for us in women’s backcountry snowboarding is that we make a good representation overall. It’s not about one of us looking good, it’s about all of us looking good. Zoi did the work. She didn’t show up with no tools. She went out riding the day before the contest with Mikkel [Bang] and Ben [Ferguson] who were helping to get her used to the terrain. She performed amazingly. She’s a really good snowboarder in general, and that was very apparent. She’s strong, and she can bring that freestyle background to anything. It was awesome to watch her there. And I’ve been in the mountains with Hana for over ten years. We’ve been partners in the backcountry for a long time, and she was actually one of the people who taught me how to do jumps properly. It was awesome to be up there with her, kind of a special moment for both of us still be here after all this time, both in the Todrillos. It was a cool moment.
Mikkel spoke about backcountry experience being a key factor, what are your thoughts on that?
Alaska is a whole other beast, it’s not gonna be perfect on every aspect and definitely won’t be the same as riding somewhere like Jackson Hole. What experience gives you is the ability to adapt as you go, which was definitely part of it. Reading a face and reading a line, and knowing what would work on it and what wouldn’t.
What was it like having a start gate and drones and stuff in this environment?
Oh man, it’s weird. I don’t have competitive experience at all. I’ve never been to Xgames, I rode the US Open once about fifteen years ago, so this was all a big learning experience for me. This year was just figuring out how to snowboard in a contest. I can go film at any point, and I know what I need to do to get shots, but competing is completely different. The pressure of it is a little crazy. But I felt like I was able to tune that out, not focus on what others were doing. I just dug deep, felt out a run that would feel good to me and just focussed on that. And once you’re on slope, nothing else really matters.
Mikkel told us that he’d had plans to add some bigger tricks to his runs, but once he got to the bottom he was just burnt. How was it for you?
I basically just hit a wall. There’s a lot of adrenaline. You’re up there before dawn, it’s dark and cold, and there’s all this media and then you do your runs and it all happens so first. Up down, up down. Then right after the event I just fully hit the wall. Mikkel was smart, he went straight back to the lodge and hit the sauna and did a little decompress, but the rest of the crew was like ‘Let’s go film!’. And I got out there and was just like ‘Nope. I have no energy left. I’m done.’ I haven’t actually experienced that much before in my snowboard career. I just can’t, this is the time that I sit and watch, because I’m smashed.
That must have been kinda nice though, no? Just to let everything sink in?
Yeah it was really amazing. We still had time left on the trip because the contest went down right at the beginning. I definitely needed some decompression.
What order were you dropping in?
I was second to last, so I could see little bits of the runs, but not much. I could see Ben dropping and Mikkel in the air. But at the bottom, it’s so far away. I couldn’t see what Zoi was doing on the face. People would be cheering and I’d be like, what was that? Did she land, was that a 360, was it a slam? You just couldn’t tell. At that point I just didn’t want to see to be honest. I just did what I needed, and wanted to do. I would have loved to have done a better run, but that’s just how it shook out. It was pretty variable, and landing was difficult.
Well the fact that you managed to navigate all of these variables and take the win at two stops is seriously impressive. Much respect and congratulations from us at Method.
Are you already thinking about next year’s Tour?
Oh I’m definitely thinking about it. Next year I think the tour will be so elevated, especially for the women. What Jamie [Anderson] and Zoi brought to the women’s backcountry scene was so needed. It’s really pushing the rest of us to try and bring more of the freestyle element into lines. I think we’re going to see a lot of progression there, and it’s already started. This year was a really big one. Next year I know that I’m really going to have to bring it. This was a great year for me, I’m so hyped, but moving into next year, I know I have some work to do.
Which was your favourite stop from the Tour?
I really loved Jackson Hole. To take the win here in the Tordrillos was the pinnacle. The thing about Jackson was that it was the first time in so long that the global shred community was together, at the first stop of this very new thing. I felt like everyone descending on Jackson was a really memorable moment, and one I’ll never forget. The energy was incredible. Not to say that the other stops were lesser so, but this first one was just nail-biting, we didn’t know how it was going to unfold. And seeing it go the way that it did, it was a real moment that I’ll never be able to shake. I’m stoked that I was there and a part of it.
So you won a sled and a truck this year, not bad!
Yeah I’m doing pretty good! those are the two things that I use and need for snowboarding, and it’s so nice to have a new setup. I’ve never bought a new sled before. I tried to get pink, but it wasn’t available so I got it in purple instead.
Nice. Any last words or shoutouts?
Just want to say thanks to the entire Natural Selection team. Travis, Liam Carter, T-Bird, Tiffany, Laura, all of these people worked so hard on this to pull it off. And I’d like to thank my family and Austen of course. I’m over the moon.
If you missed out on watching the Championship finals from up in Alaska, you can watch it all HERE on Red Bull TV.