Cam Zink's Need For Speed
As he looks down the Cloverleaf ski trail at Mammoth Mountain in California, which will serve as the run-in for his world-record backflip attempt Thursday, mountain biker Cam Zink has one thing on his mind. It's the same thought that has possessed him ever since the training wheels came off his first bike when he was 3 years old: Must ... go ... faster.
Zink, now 28, says the need for speed has driven him for as long as he can remember. In some ways he feels as though he's been preparing for this jump all his life.
"I wasn't like some crazy competitive kid, but I definitely had that spirit of always wanting to one-up someone and always thinking, 'I can go faster. I can jump higher,'" he says.
At first it was racing against his dad and older brother Howie on family camping trips. Then it was hitting launch ramps on a BMX bike around Carson City, Nevada, where he grew up, emulating Allan Cooke and other X Games competitors he idolized.
"Growing up he always had that little brother mentality of wanting to keep up with me and the older kids, to keep pushing his personal limits," Howie Zink says. "Because of that, he was always the one who was the least scared out of all of us. Now, you can never tell him he can't do something, because if you do, he's definitely going to try it."
Zink got his first mountain bike when he was 9 and entered his first races the same year. It wasn't long before he was dominating his age group, then beating grown men, then pros, then turning pro himself at age 15 and competing in nearly every mountain bike racing discipline. But it wasn't until the following year, in 2002, that Zink got his first glimpse into what his future in mountain biking might look like.
"I was 16 when I got to jump into my first foam pit, and I didn't even bother with a straight air to test it out: All I wanted to do was learn backflips," Zink remembers. "I sent one on my very first try, and I've been hooked ever since."
Though people had been jumping mountain bikes and adapting BMX tricks from the onset of the era, Zink says he grew up looking up to both mountain bike racers and X Games stars. "The mountain bike freeride scene was kind of kooky in its infancy," he says. "But it started to get a lot bigger and a lot cooler around 2004 with the first Crankworx festival. Before that, those worlds were very separate in my mind."
Zink kept up his pro racing obligations for a few more years but began dabbling in some of the first mountain bike slopestyle contests. He had been finishing midpack at big racing events, but in 2006, he won the Crankworx Slopestyle at Whistler, one of the events in the week-long multidisciplinary mountain bike festival in British Columbia.
"That was the year I quit racing and thought, 'This is where I belong.' I started to realize I was rarely scared on my bike. You're always a little scared -- that's part of the thrill -- but I wouldn't let it get to me. If there was a big jump, I'd be the first one to flip it. If there was a big drop, I'd spin it."
In 2010, when the Freeride Mountain Bike Association launched its first FMB World Tour, Zink came out on top, winning both the Red Bull Joyride and Red Bull Rampage. He's still the only rider to win both premier events in the same year.
But winning isn't what makes Zink tick. He says he'd like to be "the Danny Way of mountain biking," inspired by the skateboarder's push to go bigger and bigger with new stunts and innovative projects.
"I want to do it all, for as long as I can: I want to film videos, win contests and do more big projects like this world-record attempt," he says, while admitting it's tougher to do everything at a high level now that he's a father to a 10-month old daughter, Ayla, with his fiancé, Amanda Witherspoon.
"That's Cam," Witherspoon says. "He's just the kind of person that, anything that's crazy, that's what he wants to do, and he does it because that's what makes him function. He has to be going all the time. It's hard to keep up. I just try to trust in him and know he wouldn't do it if he wasn't sure he could do it."
That mentality, and the big tricks that have come with it, has kept Zink at the top of his sport even as other riders push ahead of him on the competitive field. He's currently ranked 15th on the 2014 FMB World Tour and says he isn't bothered by it. He will still be aiming for the win at Red Bull Rampage, the only big mountain Diamond Series event on this year's tour.
"I've known Cam for a really long time, and he's been one of the top riders progressing the sport over the last decade," says Tarek Rasouli, vice president of the Freeride Mountain Bike Association. "What he's done in the last year has been really iconic, and the step-down backflip he did at Red Bull Rampage in 2013 was the biggest hit anybody's done in a mountain bike competition. It's created a lot of excitement in the sport because everybody wants to see what's next."
Rasouli, who is in a wheelchair after a mountain bike accident in 2002 left him paralyzed from the waist down, says he is looking forward to seeing Zink get the world record, but admits he's increasingly concerned as the scope of stunts intensify.
"He's definitely one you worry about going over the [edge], but it's a balance: He's amazingly skilled to go for these big hits that would intimidate almost every other rider, and it brings the sport media attention for sure," Rasouli says. "Cam has a lot of history in the sport and is a very broad-skilled and confident rider. But sometimes, as an event promoter, you're still thinking, holy s---, don't do that."
The Rampage flip, at approximately 78 feet, stands as the unofficial backflip distance record, but Zink aims to break it, emphatically.
"One hundred is a pretty cool number," he says. "I'm aiming for triple digits, since it's going to be a big deal on live TV and everything."
For the official Guinness World Record, Zink has ensured authenticity and transparency in the setup. He's ditching the step-down setup and metal ramp from Rampage in favor of a dirt-to-dirt gap jump on level ground -- a nod to mountain bike purists and an easy-to-replicate environment for future riders attempting to beat the record. Zink also had the construction crew set the start of the landing area 80 feet from the takeoff for good measure, meaning he'll either get the record or go down trying.
"Since this is the first real record attempt, I wanted to make it 100 percent undebatable," Zink says. "This is going to be an objective, formal record in the world of bicycles -- not just mountain bikes -- so it needs to be the biggest flip ever. Eighty feet is going to be the minimum, but this jump is built to go somewhere between 100 and 120 feet."
Zink says he wants to set a mark that will stand for a while, but he also wants to see it pushed further. "My dream is that 100 feet will be like the 4-minute mile: Once one person does it, we'll see more people going bigger."
Physics governs all distance jumps, but a backflip adds complexity. Zink went into his training phase expecting to nerd out on the math and science involved, but he says it's more straightforward than he'd expected. His first practice jumps into the airbag were well beyond the 80-foot mark and gave him a surprising amount of confidence.
"When I first showed up to test the takeoff, I had no idea how good it was going to be, but it was pretty much perfect," he says. "In my first attempts into the airbag, I was just doing it by feel, but then they set up a radar gun, and I became super aware of how much speed can vary just by how you're sitting and whether there's a little bit of tailwind or headwind. I have a feeling it's going to be over 50 miles per hour on the big day. We've been pretty lucky so far, and going the distance is going to be easy."
The rest, Zink says, is in the details. He'll be riding a 36-pound YT Industries aluminum bike, similar to the downhill bike he's been using on the FMB World Tour. He'll be pumping up his 26-inch Kenda tires to 50 psi to keep them from blowing out on the landing, and he'll set his RockShox suspension for about 8 inches of travel and adjusted for stiffer compression to make sure he doesn't get bucked after he lands.
If all goes well, he'll soar over the 80-foot gap in a slow and controlled flip, spotting his landing well ahead of re-entry. He's aiming to easily clear the 15-foot safety deck and land somewhere on the downhill slope, close to or beyond the 100-foot mark. With the right speed and the current landing setup, Zink figures he could safely go as far as 140 feet.
"This is definitely the biggest thing I'll do all year, and maybe ever, but in some ways, it also feels like it's just the beginning," Zink says, already thinking ahead to new possibilities.
"Going big will never go out of style."
Cam Zink's Mammoth Flip presented by Monster Energy will be broadcast live, Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, with a one-hour "World Of X Games" highlight show airing Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ABC.