Interview: Cam Zink

Mountain bike freeride pioneer Cam Zink visited South Africa in February for the inaugural running of DarkFest at the Garden Route Trail Park. Zink has Rampage and Joy Ride titles to his name, he's performed a 100-feet long backflip, and starred in a number of influential video edits over the years, just to name a few accomplishments. He's also an avid entrepreneur having founded his own companies and more recently taken on direct sales brand YT Industries in the United States.

 

We chatted to Cam Zink about DarkFest, the future of freeride mountain biking, his business pursuits, and where he'll be focussing his riding in the future.

Cam Zink DarkFest Eric Palmer EWP_6674.jpg
Photo credit: Eric Palmer.

 

Having watched the Pure Darkness edits. What do you think of the jumps now that you've ridden them?


My schedule has been way too packed to do any of the Fest events. Darkfest comes at an odd time of year in the off season and with it being summer down here, I was stoked to come when Sam Reynolds extend an invitation.

 

The video and footage looked amazing but nothing does it justice until you're standing here seeing the magnitude. The jumps flow like a big set of normal dirt jumps. There is just so much hang time - especially on the step-down.

 

I've got to ask you about Rampage. Each year you keep coming up with gnarly manoeuvres. How has the event changed and where do you see it progressing?


The thing that limits Rampage is the venue and having so many people out there. The venue also has to be good for TV and needing to start at the top and end at the bottom. They’re all restrictions.

 

The Fest Series breaks through the limits and restrictions of a contest environment. Riders have the opportunity to build their dream jumps rather than showing up and complaining about what the organisers did not do. Frankly, they still kind of suck at building courses. The Fest Series is riders taking it upon themselves, and building what they want to ride with an open schedule.

 

Rampage freeride is getting to the point where the contest format is holding back the riding. Fest is helping to push that but it might just have to resort to video. For example, look at snowboarding, there is no event that encapsulates freeride snowboarding, you see it all in the videos.

 

That said, despite the limitations, I still love Rampage.

 

You’ve recently quit competing in slopestyle. Where’s your focus going now?


Yes, what a relief. It’s like gymnastics, you have to practice so much to learn a new trick. These days, I just want to focus on riding downhill bikes but there wasn’t really too much time for that with having to stay on top of the slopestyle tricks.

 

I also think slopestyle has plateaued. It's reached a point where you make the smallest error, like dabbing a foot, and you’re out of the contest. It’s like an Olympic-bound sport.

 

You founded your own company Sensus a number of years ago. Now you’ve taken on YT in America. How did you go from pro rider to businessman and is it hard balancing the two?


It’s a lot on my plate. I’ve always been like that. I need to stay busy or I get bored. My dad was an entrepreneur and I always envied that, I wanted to run my own business. There was a never a time that I quit riding to start a business. I sort of did both at the same time.

 

The first was while I was injured, I had time on my hands, so I started Sensus grips. I started making grips because I thought I could make better grips than anyone else and I believe I have. It was a fun creative project with low risk. The great thing is that I never needed it to make a lot of money while I was still riding.

 

I have not had anytime time to study, so running my own business was a schooling process for me. I've now reached a point where I am able to convince the likes of YT Industries to let me partner with them for the US market.

 

How did the YT Industries franchise come together?


I was on my way to Southern California to sign a new contract with another company and they phoned me to make me an offer and it was a good offer.

 

They were already planning to launch the US company and they wanted me to help promote it. So I flew out to Germany and met the team. I love the company and the people. I enquired about their plans for the US franchise but they did not have franchise partner yet. So I said that I wanted to do it. They didn’t take it too seriously but that night I phoned my brother and we put together a rough bullet point business plan for them, with my brother running the day to day business. The next day I showed up with this proposal, they saw that I was serious, and it unfolded from there.

 

Cam Zink DarkFest Eric Palmer EWP_6573.jpg
Photo credit: Eric Palmer.

 

Were you the first direct sales bike brands in the States? Have there been challenges with the model?


Airborne was the first with Commencal launching at the same time as us but we were definitely the trailblazer.

 

At first, people weren’t all that happy. Troy Lee, who sponsor me, have brick and mortar distributors and stores who were getting mad at them for supporting me because I was offering direct sales.

 

It causes a lot of people to get mad but it’s not detrimental to me. It’s going to change the world. We just need to push through and do everything you can to break the mould.

 

Do you think brick and mortar can co-exist with online direct sales?


Personally, many of the bike shops I went to in my life were just rude. Yes, there are a lot of cool shops but there are also a lot of bad shops.

 

For shops stock is a major problem, you pay your massive markup but they don’t even stock the bike you want. They just order it in.

 

I think the bike shops will do well where there is a heavy riding scene but elsewhere I think shops will make more money from recreational bikes and tune ups and accessories.

 

I hope they can co-exist. We’re busy trying to set up shops as dedicated service centres so that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable assembling their bike, we can send them to a bike shop and pay them for the service.

 

How do you think the arrival of Canyon in the US will impact your business?


I think it's good. I think it’s really good. But they are a clear-cut competitor compared to the other brands. It’s exciting. I think we’re going to sell more bikes because of them.

 

We pushed and trail blazed but Canyon will change the game completely. There are going to be two good brands available (one being ridiculous big) and if you want either of their bikes, you’re going to have to go online.

 

How do you think the rest of the market will react?


They all wish they could do the same. And they could all do it right now. But they don’t want to undercut the dealers. It’s about finding the fine line where they can make both channels sustainable. The way it’s going to go is that high-end bikes will be mail order (largely because of holding stock) and the lower end bikes will be brick and mortar.

 

YT are building a dream team of pro riders. It must be great to be part of a company expanding like that. Is it sustainable?


I think it is sustainable. In fact, I know it is sustainable because I’ve seen the numbers. It’s crazy because Specialized are a much bigger company and they wouldn’t pay Gwin X amount and YT agreed to pay him X plus whatever amount.

 

I love it as a rider. We should be making more. Our sport is pretty suppressed compared to motocross (Yes, there are some good reasons the moto guys can demand more). When it comes to mountain bikers, I think they are pretty underpaid, especially since the days of Palmer and Tomac.

 

I think it took a bold statement from Gwin and it worked. It’s going to elevate the riding and the kids in the sport will see a chance of making a living and maybe being able to retire from it. When I got into mountain biking there wasn’t a chance you could retire from it. Kids now might be able to dedicate time to it with the view of being able to make a living rather than destroying their life.

 

I think YT is picking athletes very cleverly and are also looking out for young talent like Ethan Nell and Adolf Silva. Seeing them hanging out reminds me so much of Andreu and me ten years ago. They’re giving the next crop of talent a chance.

 

What are your plans for the next year or two?


I just want to take it as it comes. I love riding so much and I love what I’m doing. I love the flexibility that I have developed. I have the liberty to do what I want from sponsors and to try to give back and shape the sport. I’ve started a trail organisation and trying to do my own Fest event. I just need to keep it going, riding, and working hard.




3 Comments

popcorn_skollie, Mar 13 2017 12:56

Should have asked him about how letting go slope fits in with his plans for Crankworks.

NicoBoshoff, Mar 14 2017 12:26

Pretty straight shooter, but I couldn't help but chuckle at the little "oh, but I still really like Rampage so please invite me again next year guys" disclaimer after hammering the event ;)

thomas.heinz, Mar 20 2017 09:28

Interesting article, thank you for sharing!