THE LAST OF MY KIND

JOSH BEN­DER MAY HAVE USH­ERED IN A NEW ERA IN FREERIDE, BUT TO HIM, HIS LEGACY IS STILL UN­FUL­FILLED.

Bike (USA) - - Grimy Handshake - WORDS: MATT COTÉ

The heav­ily ar­mored zealot had just rid­den his bi­cy­cle off a 55-foot cliff in the swel­ter­ing Bri­tish Columbia desert, vi­o­lently crash­ing back to earth. When his frame snapped, he cat­a­pulted head­first into a tree that ex­ploded with the per­fume of pine tar and dust. The hor­i­zon­tal beige stripes of the sandy cliff above looked like the static from an old TV. So did the in­side of his head. This was not Josh Ben­der’s first con­cus­sion, but it was his worst. As the cam­era crew drove him to a Kam­loops hospi­tal, he couldn’t re­mem­ber any­thing. Maybe that’s why he’d go on to try the ‘Jah Drop’ three more times be­fore seem­ingly van­ish­ing from the nascent freeride scene many say he birthed.

Eigh­teen years later, I’m in search of the most con­tro­ver­sial man in moun­tain bike his­tory in an im­pos­si­bly quiet cor­ner of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He was the sport’s first big hucker, sac­ri­fic­ing him­self to the idea of 1990s-ex­treme-skier-style ver­ti­cal drops on two wheels. To some, he her­alded the fu­ture. To oth­ers, he was a one-trick pony—a stunt man who could barely ride a trail. Even his name evoked a kind of blunt, in­va­sive force. He had one of the high­est-oc­tane at­ti­tudes in ac­tion sports and starred in films called “New World Dis­or­der” and “Crusty De­mons of Dirt.” Back then, be­ing crazy was a virtue, and Ben­der was cer­tainly that.

As I pass through the portal of Ge­orge­town Ho­tel’s saloon doors with my fel­low time trav­eler, pho­tog­ra­pher Reuben Krabbe, we find the turn-ofthe-cen­tury bar al­most empty. A young

IN­SIDE

HIS HEL­MET WAS A KALEI­DO­SCOPE OF DIRT

AND SAGEBRUSH.

woman plays with her 1-yearold in the cor­ner, and a fa­mil­iar face clutches an after-din­ner cof­fee un­der warm tung­sten lights next to them. At 44, Ben­der barely looks a day older than he did in my VHS tapes. He’s even still wear­ing his sig­na­ture clear rid­ing glasses and a 1990s Mar­zoc­chi Bomber jacket. He greets us with an en­thu­si­as­tic, gritty hand­shake with worn-back fin­ger­nails. His part­ner, Lind­say Beth Cur­rier—10 years his ju­nior— in­tro­duces their daugh­ter, Saf­fron, who eats ice cubes from Ben­der’s meaty palm. The flood­gates of con­ver­sa­tion open, and noth­ing other than his ap­pear­ance feels fa­mil­iar any­more.

FOR­EVER THE FRON­TIER

“The bot­tom line is he was su­per fuck­ing vi­sion­ary. And what peo­ple are do­ing now is what he be­lieved could be done 18 years ago,” says Derek Wester­lund, the mas­ter­mind be­hind Freeride En­ter­tain­ment and the early movies that made Ben­der fa­mous. “But there were a lot of peo­ple who didn’t re­ally like him, like what he stood for. He was a bit of a mis­un­der­stood guy, for sure.”

Fif­teen min­utes up the quiet, lonely road from Ge­orge­town is Gar­den Val­ley—a spot even na­tive Cal­i­for­ni­ans can’t place. The for­est hide­out is a bed­room com­mu­nity of re­tired peo­ple and small-scale farm­ers in the foothills of the Sierra Ne­vada Moun­tains, abut­ting El­do­rado Na­tional For­est. Ben­der and Cur­rier have spent the last five years hand-clear­ing a small chunk of an 18-acre par­cel of an old mill they bought for $45,000. They live in a 16-by-16-foot, twos­tory, off-grid cabin Ben­der’s dad helped put up so they could move out of their RV when Cur­rier got preg­nant. Elec­tric­ity comes from a so­lar panel and they have an out­door propane shower. Cur­rier’s 13-year-old black lab, Sarah, runs around spryly. It’s dream­like, and a strange con­trast for a man who used to speak in sound bites like, “Life’s too short not to go big, got to go big.” Ben­der is ac­tu­ally strik­ingly lu­cid and ar­tic­u­late, with well-col­lected thoughts and bound­less en­ergy. He ra­di­ates pos­i­tiv­ity and imag­i­na­tion. All things are still pos­si­ble to him.

We sip yerba mate and take in the sto­ries. He grew up in North Pole, Alaska—a sur­real candy-cane-themed vil­lage in the midst of the Arc­tic dark. He’s the mid­dle child of a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipe­line, and is 12 cred­its shy of a de­gree in crim­i­nal psy­chol­ogy. He met Cur­rier at the Sea Ot­ter Clas­sic in 2007 while sleep­ing on top of the “Drop In” TV se­ries’ tour bus. They got to­gether in 2011, and moved to this chunk of land soon after.

“When we first got to the prop­erty,” Cur­rier says, “there was re­ally bad cell ser­vice, but I was like, ‘I bet if I went up in that tree I could get a sig­nal, and then maybe I could have a type­writer up there.’ Our friends were like, ‘You’re los­ing it, you re­ally are los­ing it. But I still as­pire to have my tree-fort of­fice.’”

Cur­rier puts on col­le­giate events for USA Cy­cling and has taken charge of the Ben­duro race se­ries—which sends riders down the gnarli­est trails they can find, and has rat­tled some rac­ers. The cou­ple is also freshly back from Red Bull Ram­page. As the man who dreamed up the orig­i­nal com­pe­ti­tion, ‘Un­cle Ben­der’ is one of the most well-loved sta­ple judges.

“Ram­page didn’t catch on un­til the last cou­ple years,” he says hunched over a stool in the sparsely fur­nished cabin. “Now, fi­nally, riders are think­ing out­side the box. I think the next thing is rid­ing fakie,” he says.

“Oh, like land­ing drops fakie?” Krabbe asks.

“No, dude. Like rid­ing fakie—freerid­ing switch.”

RE-REIN­VEN­TION

Trail 9 is a tun­nel of madrone and man­zanita. It seals us in just above head height as Ben­der smashes pow­er­fully down the dou­ble­track on his full-steel Ter­ra­plane en­duro bike. He uses a 27.5-inch rear wheel and a 29-inch front. His neigh­bor, Brian Hap­good, welds the bikes in his garage and is ral­ly­ing along just be­hind Cur­rier. Ben­der throws his bike force­fully into cor­ners and holds his lines with pre­ci­sion. He’s dif­fi­cult to keep up with, even when it comes time to pedal.

“It’s usu­ally just me and Lind­say and we take turns shut­tling and watch­ing Saf­fron,” he tells us once we spill onto the dirt-road fin­ish, 20 in­tense min­utes after drop­ping in. “Se­ri­ously, dude, Vir­gin was just as un­known when I first got there.”

Ben­der and Cur­rier have re­cently launched the Ru­bi­con Area Moun­tain Biking Or­ga­ni­za­tion (RAMBO), to de­velop the trails here, and El­do­rado is now a stop for Ben­duro. Today we’re shut­tling with 10 keen lo­cals who only know the for­mer Evel Knievel of moun­tain biking as a well-rounded rider, some­thing he hasn’t al­ways been.

“It was a to­tally dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­ity be­cause of the bikes I was rid­ing back then,” he ex­plains. “Trail rid­ing was pretty span­dex-y. I rode down­hill rigs.”

In fact, he rode the mother of down­hill rigs: a cus­tom Karpiel Apoca­lypse that was full steel with 13 inches of rear sus­pen­sion de­liv­ered by two shocks. It had a 12-inch Mar­zoc­chi Su­per Mon­ster fork made just for him in a limited run, and was so tall it needed 24-inch wheels to com­pen­sate. He sold it in Vir­gin when the lo­cal club needed funds to build a BMX park, and do­nated the money.

Back at the home­stead, he shows us the bike he re­placed it with: a 67-pound, steel, 12-inch-travel Can­field with nar­row bars and a su­per-tiny cockpit—Ben­der’s only about 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds. He calls it his “se­cret weapon,” and says it’s the only bike you can ride ‘Gnar Canyon’ with. He walks us to the edge of the prop­erty to show us a dry creek bed full of love-seat sized boul­ders that looks unimag­in­able to ride. “You want me to hit it for you guys?” he asks.

TODAY WE’RE SHUT­TLING

WITH 10 KEEN LO­CALS WHO ONLY KNOW THE

FOR­MER EVEL KNIEVEL

OF MOUN­TAIN BIKING AS A

WELLROUNDED

RIDER, SOME­THING

HE HASN’T AL­WAYS

BEEN.

THE WILD IN­SIDE

“Ob­vi­ously he’s a dad now. But he’s still a loon,” says Wester­lund. “The guy still monoskis for fuck’s sake. He’ll al­ways be who he is. He’s from a crazy fam­ily in Alaska and he’s a wild man. I think he’s mel­lowed out and knows that he’s taken a lot of pretty se­ri­ous hits to the nog­gin. Post-con­cus­sion syn­drome, I think that’s some­what preva­lent. But I think he’s done a good job of tak­ing his risk down.”

Mean­while, Krabbe and I ex­change ner­vous looks as Ben­der dumps piles of weed on a ta­ble in a re­mote build­ing at the end of a non-de­script road farther up county, as­sur­ing us it’s to­tally le­gal un­der Cal­i­for­nia’s med­i­cal laws. We help nip at the sticky buds to pre­pare the ‘medicine’ for mar­ket, and tap his mem­ory, which flows like wa­ter.

“I just wanted to go out there and jump the big­gest cliffs, and not worry what the story was,” he re­counts. “Wester­lund was like, ‘If I pay for your flight and your hospi­tal bill, will you come up to Canada and amp it up for us?’ And I was like, ‘OK, man.’”

Ben­der refers to him­self fre­quently in the third per­son, and the past is like a movie to him. At times, it’s so acute it seems like it’s on a loop.

“I had seven weeks of mem­ory loss after the Jah Drop,” he ex­plains. “Then I went to pick up my bike in Deer Val­ley, Utah, be­cause it was be­ing fixed and peo­ple were like, ‘Dude, Ben­der’s here he’s go­ing to go huge.’ I’m like, ‘Re­ally? OK, I bet­ter do some­thing.’”

He jumped a dou­ble re­tain­ing wall and hit his head again. This time, he says, the lights turned back on, and it fixed him. What it couldn’t fix, though, was what peo­ple were be­gin­ning to think.

“He was only land­ing one in 10 of those big-ass jumps and tak­ing a bunch of beats along the way,” Wester­lund re­mem­bers. “He crashed su­per bad in front of a bunch of lo­cal me­dia in Park City. You know, he was kind of mak­ing a mock­ery of the scene in some ways be­cause he was just eat­ing shit. We went on to make a cou­ple movies to­gether be­fore he was phys­i­cally un­able to go on at that level.”

BENNY DARKO

By morn­ing he walks with a thumpy wooden stride. He has two me­tal plates hold­ing his spine to­gether from a 2005 crash, and two re­built an­kles. But once he warms up, his pos­ture is per­fect. He doesn’t of­fer the dis­tor­tions any space or ac­knowl­edge any pain. He’s still lean and strong like a 25-year-old. He trained like a foot­ball player to take hits back in the day. Some, though, were harder than oth­ers.

“He’d walk into a room and his hands were al­ready in the air, like, ‘I’m here, the god is here,’” re­mem­bers for­mer pro “Su­per­heroes” rider Randy Span­gler, one of Ben­der’s old­est and clos­est friends. “I think it just switched on him so quick he didn’t know what hap­pened. Here he was in the lime­light, next thing you know peo­ple are pulling away.”

It was part of Ben­der’s per­sona to take ev­ery­thing as far as he could, though, so amid the con­fu­sion of his de­clin­ing ca­reer, he spent the bet­ter part of the next 10 years be­ing as au­da­cious as he could, liv­ing out of his van and par­ty­ing hard.

“There was so much pres­sure on me for go­ing huge, for the pro­gres­sion of the sport and the pro­gres­sion of the in­dus­try,” he says. “And it was like, ‘Do it, dude, be­cause no­body else is go­ing to.’ No one would ever give me time to rest. Spon­sors, filmers, peo­ple would push you back then. You know, it was a learn­ing process for every­body. I was never go­ing to turn to hard drugs or heroin or any­thing. Al­co­hol had al­ways been an out­let for me grow­ing up as a kid in Alaska.”

Sober five years now, he still dis­as­so­ci­ates him­self from the re­ally shitty things he did dur­ing that time. When he blacked out, he wasn’t Ben­der, he was ‘Benny Darko.’ He talks openly and cheer­ily about even his low­est mo­ments be­cause he doesn’t be­lieve they were his—like when he bit his 3-year-old god­daugh­ter.

“That was pretty crazy,” Span­gler re­calls. “The year it got re­ally dark with Darko, he went through this bit­ing thing. I was at Sea Ot­ter, I got a call from my wife and she was like, ‘Yeah, he bit me, and he bit your daugh­ter and he chucked her bike and broke her bike.’ I went into daddy mode and I grabbed him by the neck and pushed him up against my trailer and was like, ‘Dude I don’t care if you’re Ben­der or if you’re Darko, that’s my kid!’”

That’s when it was fi­nally time to put Benny Darko to bed.

“It was like, ‘OK, dude, you can keep drink­ing and keep be­ing a bel­liger­ent ass­hole, but noth­ing’s get­ting bet­ter, so let’s switch it up.’ I was drink­ing since I was around 10. I was in my late 30s, so it’s like, ‘Let’s try not drink­ing for the next 30 years and see what hap­pens.’”

THE SCARCE LIFE

The gran­ite rock cap of the Ru­bi­con Trail flows with end­less, open rid­ing op­tions. The fa­mous jeep trail is one of Ben­der’s fa­vorite spots. From a high ridge­line where he pre­pares for a steep chute, he yells to Cur­rier that there’s an­other cou­ple with a kid the same age as Saf­fron wan­der­ing around the edge of Loon Lake. She in­sists on stay­ing and watch­ing.

“If he had sup­port and could train, he could to­tally still be send­ing it,” she tells me. Cur­rier had pro as­pi­ra­tions her­self, it’s part of their bond. They met at the tail end of the Benny Darko days. She mostly knows ‘Josh’ as a kind-na­tured, sup­port­ive part­ner and an at­ten­dant fa­ther. The one stick­ing point is his pen­chant for min­i­mal­ism, at first re­fus­ing to get fur­ni­ture for their cabin and just sit­ting on buck­ets.

“I never re­ally thought I’d live like this,” she laughs. “I thought I’d have an A-frame maybe, but not a set up like this, and not in Ge­orge­town.”

Iso­lated and far from friends or any kind of scene, the home­stead hasn’t al­ways been a dream. Ben­der only makes a small liv­ing from events and he’s had to sup­ple­ment his in­come over the years with odd jobs like hand­i­work and cook­ing in restau­rants. One year, while the cou­ple was away at Ram­page, their en­tire sea­son’s off-site cannabis crop was cut down and stolen, which was dev­as­tat­ing.

Cur­rier is in­tent on host­ing rid­ing camps and events but there’s much work left to be done. With the Ben­duro se­ries on hia­tus now un­til they can get some ex­tra sup­port, they both seem a bit dis­ap­pointed they don’t have more help from the in­dus­try.

PHOTO: ADAM CLARK

Right: When re­leased from the hospi­tal after jump­ing a 41-foot re­tain­ing wall dur­ing the 2000 Deer Val­ley NORBA Na­tional, Ben­der com­mented, “We’re up and kick­ing, we’ll just uh, throw a lit­tle duct tape on it, and keep go­ing big.”

PHOTO: GORDY PEIFER

Left: Some say plus tires started in 2013. Ben­der ran mas­sive, 3-inch tires in 2000.

Sim­ple life: The propane shower dou­bles for out­door dish duty. Ben­der is a man of min­i­mal­ism.

PHOTO: MATTHEW SCHOLL/NWD PHOTO: SCOTT MARKEWITZ

Above: Jah Drop. Fifty-five feet. At­tempted four times. Right: Ben­der rev­eled in go­ing big. On cam­era, off cam­era. Phys­i­cally and through per­sonna.

Above: Lind­say Beth Cur­rier knows ‘Josh’ as a kind-na­tured, sup­port­ive part­ner and at­ten­dant fa­ther. Be­low: Eigh­teen acres, two 16-by-16-foot sto­ries, a so­lar panel and propane out­door shower are what Josh Ben­der, Cur­rier and daugh­ter Saf­fron call home.

PHO­TOS: REUBEN KRABBE

Ben­der and Cur­rier take turns with Saf­fron on their backs while rid­ing the easy­go­ing Con­flu­ence trail near Auburn, Cal­i­for­nia.

Left: Ben­der and Cur­rier take turns watch­ing Saf­fron and shut­tling nearby their prop­erty. Right: Low BBs are for suckas. Or, they’re not pos­si­ble with 12 inches of travel, as ev­i­denced on ‘Se­cret Weapon,’ Ben­der’s tool for ‘Gnar Canyon,’ made pos­si­ble...

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