Lay OF THE Land

As a geo­sci­en­tist, Kris Holm, MSc’02, makes his liv­ing from know­ing the land. But he’s prob­a­bly cov­ered more of it as an off- road uni­cy­clist.

Trek Magazine - - Space Race - BY CHRIS PETTY, MFA’86

At four years old, Kris Holm, took up the vi­o­lin. Over the years he be­came good at it, and while he trained in the clas­si­cal mode, he picked up fid­dling along the way. Learn­ing the vi­o­lin, he says, be­came some­thing of a metaphor for the rest of his life, and his teacher, the late Frona Colquhoun, be­came his first and most in­flu­en­tial men­tor. “Be­cause I was do­ing it at such a young age,” he says, “she taught me that I could learn some­thing that seems im­pos­si­ble at first glance.” At some point, how­ever, he must have de­cided that the vi­o­lin wasn’t go­ing to pay the rent, so he looked to other ac­tiv­i­ties. One day, shortly be­fore his twelfth birth­day, he saw a man in down­town Vic­to­ria rid­ing a uni­cy­cle, play­ing a vi­o­lin. “That’s for me,” he thought, and asked for one for his birth­day. And so it was that one of the world’s fore­most uni­cy­cle ath­letes was born. “Uni­cy­cling is a rare sport,” he says, “be­cause ini­tially it’s so dif­fi­cult to do. Most sports, even the ones that are hard to do well, are easy to do badly. Any­one can get up on a skate­board, for ex­am­ple, and teeter pre­car­i­ously down the street. But even an athletic per­son can barely go a me­tre on a uni­cy­cle to start, and that stops a lot of peo­ple from try­ing.” Off-road uni­cy­cling was a nat­u­ral for Holm, who was, by the 1980s, a com­mit­ted rock climber. He started rid­ing trails around western North Amer­ica, in­cor­po­rat­ing it into his rock climb­ing pas­sion. But uni­cy­cles have played a very small part in the his­tory of wheeled ve­hi­cles, and when he be­gan rid­ing they were nov­elty items aimed at chil­dren, cir­cus clowns and jug­glers. As he ad­vanced in the sport, he bought off-the-shelf uni­cy­cles and cus­tom­ized them with big­ger tires and re­in­forced frames, but they weren’t up to the rigours he put them through. Then, in 1998, he worked with a lo­cal ma­chin­ist to build his own moun­tain uni­cy­cle. By the mid ’90s, moun­tain bik­ing was be­com­ing a big thing on Van­cou­ver’s North Shore and trails were be­ing de­signed to chal­lenge emerg­ing moun­tain bike tech­nol­ogy. At the same time, ad­vanc­ing video tech­nol­ogy made it pos­si­ble for riders and spon­sors to film their es­capades cheaply and eas­ily. Holm’s new uni­cy­cle (and his skill level) proved a great match for the de­mands of those world-class trails, and in 1998 he earned his first spon­sor­ship from Norco Bi­cy­cles. A year later he be­gan sell­ing a small num­ber of his branded cy­cles (Kris Holm Uni­cy­cles) through the on­line re­tailer, Uni­cy­cle.com. In 2003 he moved pro­duc­tion off­shore for in­ter­na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion. To pro­mote the sport, he has been fea­tured in more than 50 videos, wrote a book ( The Es­sen­tial Guide to Moun­tain and Tri­als Uni­cy­cling) and founded uni­cy­cle tri­als – rid­ing uni­cy­cles on ob­sta­cle cour­ses – which has had its own world cham­pi­onship since 2002. He’s cy­cled up moun­tains in Cen­tral Amer­ica, down a vol­cano in Bo­livia and along the Great Wall of China, as well as up and down North Shore moun­tains.

As a busi­ness model, Kris Holm Uni­cy­cles is def­i­nitely a 21st cen­tury phe­nom­e­non. His uni­cy­cles are built and dis­trib­uted around the world from fac­to­ries in Taiwan. He de­vel­oped a sad­dle that pro­vides a com­fort­able ride over rough ter­rain, and his units come equipped with a state-of-the-art disc brake. He also pro­duces a line of pro­tec­tive gloves in Pak­istan and a line of leg ar­mour in China. All of this is con­ducted on the in­ter­net and with­out hav­ing to leave home ex­cept for an an­nual trip over­seas to meet with sup­pli­ers. Kris Holm Uni­cy­cles are con­sid­ered one of the top brands in the world. Each year, his com­pany pro­vides a grant to fund the most creative moun­tain uni­cy­cle ad­ven­ture: The Evo­lu­tion of Bal­ance Award. As well, he spon­sors his own Fac­tory Team in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, and was the first cy­cling com­pany to join One Per­cent for the Planet, do­nat­ing one per cent of his gross rev­enues to en­vi­ron­men­tal causes.

Still, Holm con­sid­ers his uni­cy­cle busi­ness and the sport it­self to be his hobby. His in­ten­tional ca­reer, as he calls it, is in geo­science. He leads the geo­haz­ards group at BGC En­gi­neer­ing, which pro­vides risk as­sess­ments of devel­op­ment and ma­jor in­dus­try projects for pub­lic and pri­vate clients. Holm and his col­leagues as­sess de­bris po­ten­tial in steep creeks that may flood; an­a­lyse slopes in dan­ger of slump­ing; and in­ves­ti­gate any other ge­o­log­i­cal struc­ture that may be sub­ject to nat­u­ral dis­rup­tion. The team works with the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of North Van­cou­ver to as­sess po­ten­tial dam­ages from land­slides and floods, stem­ming from the 30-plus steep streams that ca­reen through res­i­den­tial ar­eas, and helps them de­ter­mine strate­gies to re­duce any im­pact. They also work in Can­more to help de­vise ways to pre­vent the kind of dam­age that oc­curred dur­ing the dev­as­tat­ing 2013 Al­berta floods. Holm has also worked in var­i­ous South Amer­i­can coun­tries and in north­ern BC to as­sess risks in min­ing and forestry sites.

“You learn to recre­ate ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory in this job,” he says, “to un­der­stand the forces that shaped a site over the past 10,000 years or more. You pose ques­tions that have a di­rect bear­ing on peo­ple, where they’re liv­ing, what risks they face, and how safe they can be. It has a real im­pact on a com­mu­nity.”

Holm sees many par­al­lels in his work as a geo­sci­en­tist, as a uni­cylist and an en­tre­pre­neur. He’s been able to con­flate his ex­pe­ri­ences and learn­ing in seem­ingly dis­parate en­deav­ours into a uni­fied whole. For one thing, few peo­ple un­der­stand what he does as a pro­fes­sional geo­sci­en­tist, hardly any­one else does it, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing the com­plex­i­ties of the ac­tiv­ity is chal­leng­ing. The same can be said about uni­cy­cling.

“Risk is about man­age­ment,” he says, “whether it’s in uni­cy­cling or pro­fes­sional work. It’s about fo­cus, about en­gag­ing ut­terly in what you’re do­ing.”

“There’s also a col­lec­tive as­pect to both types of work,” he says. “Even though there’s only one name on the brand, it can’t suc­ceed with­out good so­cial me­dia man­agers, prod­uct builders and as­sem­blers, dis­trib­u­tors and re­tail­ers in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Ev­ery­thing works bet­ter when ev­ery­one is in­spired by a com­mon in­ter­est. And that’s the same when I’m man­ag­ing a geo­science project.” But there’s an­other strug­gle, one that’s com­mon to scientists and to elite ath­letes. “As a sci­en­tist, you have a pas­sion for your dis­ci­pline,” he says. “You’re good at it and you love it. Then, at some point you get a job and re­al­ize that you have to gen­er­ate money, es­pe­cially when you work as a con­sul­tant in a com­pany. You’re balanc­ing two ex­tremes: the pur­suit of ex­cel­lence for its own sake, and the need to achieve good prof­its in busi­ness. “It’s even more dif­fi­cult as an ath­lete, es­pe­cially in an in­de­pen­dent sport like moun­taineer­ing or uni­cy­cling. Some peo­ple scorn you if you get spon­sors be­cause it seems that you’re sell­ing out, you’re not pure. Sud­denly I was on TV ev­ery two weeks. How do I stay true to the orig­i­nal rea­sons I ride? But I couldn’t do it at a world level with­out spon­sor­ship sup­port. What I learned in pro­fes­sional rid­ing I’m able to trans­late into my pro­fes­sional con­sult­ing life: do­ing some­thing you love just for the joy of it, but also do­ing it in such a way that you can make a dif­fer­ence and make money.” An­other par­al­lel is the risk fac­tor. By def­i­ni­tion, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the po­ten­tial of a dam­ag­ing slope fail­ure or ram­pag­ing creek and ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cat­ing that to the client is fraught with pro­fes­sional peril. Sim­i­larly, rac­ing down a moun­tain bike trail at break­neck speed (or cruis­ing along the brow of the Chief near Squamish) is a heart-pound­ing, in­jury-invit­ing en­ter­prise. “Risk is about man­age­ment,” he says, “whether it’s in uni­cy­cling or pro­fes­sional work. It’s about fo­cus, about en­gag­ing ut­terly in what you’re do­ing. Any­way,” he adds with a laugh, “I’m able to fo­cus bet­ter when I’m a lit­tle scared.” Per­haps that’s why he didn’t pur­sue a ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional vi­o­lin­ist. Not scary enough.

Uni­cy­cles have played a very small part in the his­tory of wheeled ve­hi­cles, and when he be­gan rid­ing they were nov­elty items aimed at chil­dren, cir­cus clowns and jug­glers.

Photo: Richard Wheater

Freerid­ing at Mt. Sey­mour, BC.

Photo: Matthias Jakob

Holm the geo­sci­en­tist con­duct­ing ter­rain and geo­haz­ards field­work in a re­mote area of north­west Bri­tish Columbia.

Photo: Sean F. White

Kris Holm de­signed his own moun­tain uni­cy­cle.

Photo: Paul Joseph

Holm and his dog Loki can of­ten be spot­ted on cam­pus.

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