Interview. Theo Acworth
Photo. Natural Selection / Red Bull Content Pool
Last winter, Travis Rice, Liam Griffin and the Natural Selection team had to constantly adapt their plans due to COVID, but this didn’t stop them from pulling off the inaugural Natural Selection tour in style, with stops in Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Baldface Valhalla, and the Todrillo Mountains of Alaska. The rider list is one of the most unique things about this event. How many event lineups would feature Olympic gold medalists alongside backcountry veterans, videopart legends and Freeride World Tour winners? The head-to-head knockout format was also highly enjoyable, and made for some surprising results, with some big names dropping out early. Mikkel Bang and Robin van Gyn took the top spots, but it was anyone’s game up until the very end. Unlike most major contests, The Natural Selection was actually exciting and entertaining to watch, and we’re stoked to see how the second year of the tour unfolds. With the event kicking off in a few days, Travis is unsurprisingly a busy man, but we got him on the phone to give us some insights into what we can expect to see this year, and what it takes to make this thing happen.
Hey Travis, you’ve got year one under your belt. How are you feeling coming to the second year of Natural Selection?
Last year was tough. In Jackson, we couldn’t even talk about the Baldface, Valhalla event because of the sensitivity of Canada’s COVID policies. So it felt a bit like a broken tour. This coming season is a direct three-stop tour, with the same riders with us all the way through, and the stakes and demands of the terrain get notched up at each event. Last year we built the foundation, which was exactly what we needed to do. It wasn’t what we originally envisioned, but all things considered, from the crazy COVID year we found ourselves in, I think we did damn well. It was a great setup, and this season all three of our venues will be much more interesting. We’ve rounded them out a lot more.
"The venue has large features, but it’s not like a slopestyle event where you have to hit the jumps that we built. They’re just obstacles. Some might even call them hazards. It’s up to the riders to decide how they want to interact with them."
Jackson is just a couple of days out. How’s it looking?
It’s looking sporty. That’s the term of the season this year. Jackson Hole was already a pretty epic venue, but running into last winter, we were only at about 65% of where we wanted to be. Now I think we’re more in the 85% range. A lot of transitions were made out of snow with some unique techniques. We used these inflatable hotdog things to increase volume. This summer we went in and actually used timber frames to make those transitions better. I think it’s also going to be more of a mental game than last year. The venue has large features, but it’s not like a slopestyle event where you have to hit the jumps that we built. They’re just obstacles. Some might even call them hazards. It’s up to the riders to decide how they want to interact with them. There are a lot of different ways to hit the course, so we hope to see riders getting creative with it.
What’s going on with Baldface? Will you be on the same Valhalla tenure as last year or somewhere different?
We’ve got a couple of things going on in Baldface. We went in this summer and cleaned up, added and refined features from the original Super Natural 2012 venue on the Scary Cherry face. Seeing the head-to-head format on that face is definitely going to be sporty. We’ll be running on that venue, and there’s also a wildcard bonus venue there that we’ll talk more about after the Jackson event.
Sounds good. How’s Alaska looking?
In AK, we have a much better venue than last year. Last year’s faces were sweet, but they weren’t the first choices. They were more like C and D choices. I’m really excited about what we’re focussing on for this year. It’s going to take it to another level. We’ll also have more competitors there than we did last year.
Will we see the live format at each stop this year?
It’s our goal. For sure Jackson will be live again, but the others are undecided. Last year was an almost documentary-style show for the Baldface stop. I think we’re going to step that up to an actual live-to-card style show. So much more the entirety of the day, but not live-live.
That’s cool to hear. What are the biggest challenges of doing live broadcasts in remote locations?
The logistics are pretty nuts. You need infrastructure and RF connectivity on-site, a full editing suite, a week of satellite time booked out for uplink and downlink. I could go on and on about how complicated it is, but our production partner Uncle Toad’s Media Group, our COO Liam Griffin and our production team fucking loves a challenge, and so do I. So at the end of the day, it comes down to the exponential cost because we’re not afraid of the logistics. We’re committed to pursuing a live broadcast, but we’re still in our second year and trying to drive support for this thing. To be frank, the only metric we’re measured on is when people tune in. The more people who tune in, the easier it makes it for us to go live and start bringing in other events in places like Europe.
I’m really excited about what we’re focussing on for this year. It’s going to take it to another level.
We were hoping to see a European stop on the tour this year. Is that something you’ll be looking into at some point?
We had some good momentum in Europe, but COVID erased that, so we’re sort of starting from scratch again there. I’ve been working on this for six years, and it’s absolutely something we’re looking at doing in the future.
"Some of it is just intuition, but make no doubt about it, a spot on the tour is an earned position."
How do you actually decide who comes? That can’t be an easy task.
I’m not the biggest fan of invite-only contests, but we had to start somewhere. Luckily it’s not just up to me. The Natural Selection board is a group of men and women who all have independent votes. It’s myself, Mary Walsh, Pat Bridges, Liam Griffin and Matt Barr. We definitely encourage stout opinions. Myself and Liam often have different opinions on things, but it’s majority independent. We do a lot of conference calls, it’s been kinda fun. At least seven or eight different calls, and we have voting spreadsheets and also share any relevant content that comes out with each other. We take it pretty seriously. There are a lot of factors when it comes to choosing riders. The lifetime achievements of the rider, recent achievements and activities, events, videoparts and contest results. Some of it is just intuition, but make no doubt about it, a spot on the tour is an earned position. There’s a long list of people on the shortlist who didn’t make it on this year. Any riders doing the Olympics this year couldn’t come. We changed the dates of the event so that riders could also do the Olympics, but new COVID protocols from China means that riders have to arrive there a week earlier than planned, which means some of them wouldn’t be eligible to ride at Natural Selection. So that opened up some more spots.
We’re hyped to see a strong European front in the roster this year. Arthur Longo, Sebbe De Buck, Kevin Backstrom, Marion Haerty, last year’s overall winner Mikkel Bang, and we were also stoked to Cheryl Maas is on the list.
She was one of the few women who was putting together legit backcountry videoparts with not only freeriding, but straight hitting kickers and stomping tricks into pow, hitting pat-downs and natural stuff. We spoke about her last year as well, and I think her riding style and approach really complement the Jackson venue. A combination of that and her continued enthusiasm and the fact that she wants it - all of those factors come together. I think her experience can take her far.
"Was it the right call or not? Watching in hindsight, I still think it’s up to individual interpretation and just depends on where you focus."
Are there any changes in the judging format for this year?
There’s some evolution, like anything. We were really happy with the judging last year, and we’ll have the same team back. Having gone through three events, they’re now much more informed. It’s good to be able to re-watch last year’s runs and nit-pick decisions. There were a couple of tough ones. One of Pat Moore’s heats was one of the most contentious. Was it the right call or not? Watching in hindsight, I still think it’s up to individual interpretation and just depends on where you focus. Did someone take chances and try a bunch of things but maybe sketched out, or did someone play it super safe and get a clean run? We want the emphasis on judging to be like filming in the backcountry. If you do a little butt check or a minor crash without impacting momentum or flow, that’s kind of how it is when filming and riding in the backcountry. This isn’t park or pipe where you get deducted for touching a hand. There is an emphasis on diversity, creativity and line choice, but that’s also paired with the difficulty of tricks and the risks that riders take. Even if someone rides the same line but kick their tricks up a gear, that might be rewarded. But you saw Blake Paul ride the same line, and it ended up being his downfall. If he switched it up, maybe he could have gone to the end. Mark McMorris did the same line and raised the level of his tricks, but the people he was up against didn’t nail their diversity lines. They would have got a higher score for doing those lines, but if you don’t land them, that’s just how it is.
What else is new for this year? Anything we should know about?
We’ve got a full festival in Jackson with a lot of epic music and DJs and also a bunch of movie screenings. I’ve also been working on an NFT project, so there will be NST NFTs, like digital maps of the venues and access to a lot of extra content. It’s a way to bring community together, sort of like a cooler version of a membership club with some good entry level prices. We’re also doing a full speaker series on topics like conversation, sustainability, Indigenous First Nations and mental health to name a few. These will all be streamed and available for people to watch. The opening ceremony on the 23rd will also be pretty interesting. We do this randomiser where the riders pick their brackets, and it gets kind of heated. You pick who you go up against, and who you’ll potentially go up against in future rounds. There’s definitely some anxiety about it. I know there are a few people I definitely don’t want to go up against in the first round.
Maybe easier just to do it blind and avoid the stress instead of outguessing yourself. What’s your approach?
I just picked an open one and waited to see who wanted to go against me. In the end, Rasman took it. If you’re the first to go it’s easy, you just take a bracket and wait and see what destiny holds.
"If Shaun put his head down and got into his White Space, he could dominate. Maybe dominate is going too far, but he could definitely do well."