In 2003, Michi Albin seemed to just drop off the radar, going from one of Europe's most popular and high-profile snowboarders, with a pro model (graphics by Gonz, no less) on Burton, to ... well, nobody really knew.
The grapevine flickered with rumors. One was that he had fallen afoul of U.S. customs, meaning he wouldn't be able to film for a couple of seasons, so Burton had cut him loose. Another had it that then-new Burton team manager Rene Hansen had rung the changes, bringing in new blood like JP Solberg and Romain de Marchi at the expense of established guys like Albin.
We tracked down Albin to get the full story and see where one of snowboarding's most influential figures is today.
XGames.com: What happened in 2003, when you were suddenly cut from Burton and seemed to have a few years in the wilderness?
Michi Albin: I think it had to do with the changes at Burton internally and some bad communication with the team leaders. That seems to be how it happened really quickly. I wasn't the only old guy to get cut.
Old guy? You were about 24!
[Laughs.] Well, yes, you're right. I mean, I agree with them in a way. They have to bring new, young guys in, and that's the way companies market snowboarding. It seems like it's even worse these days. Young kids should be aware, because they might get fired the next day. Sponsoring times have got way shorter.
It was a dramatic change, as up to that point you'd had a seemingly effortless rise to the top of snowboarding.
Definitely. My dad was a professional cross country ski teacher, and we always skied. I got hooked on snowboarding pretty quickly in 1989. Reto Lamm [who won the first Innsbruck Air & Style in 1994] came from my hometown [in Switzerland], and he became my idol very quickly. He also helped me a lot. So after a couple of years, he took me on a photo shoot, and I began to compete.
You were signed on with Burton by 1992. What was it like riding with some of snowboarding's legends on your team?
They were great times. Burton organized summer camps, and we rode together and hung out. There was Iker Fernandez, Sebu Kuhlberg and Johan Olofsson, so it was cool stuff.
Your breakthrough moment was your standout part in 1996's "Subjekt Haakonsen." How did that happen?
I was on my first trip to Mount Hood [in Oregon] with Iker and was supposed to go home. Then Burton called and said, "Hey, Haakon wants you to go to New Zealand and shoot for 'Subjekt.'" I was like, "Wow." But I was 17 at the time and my parents didn't want me to go. I said, "I'm going!"
It was a great trip. We were supposed to go for three weeks, but we stayed for three months because there [was] no snow. My parents and school weren't very happy, but I couldn't turn it down.
After that, you were suddenly one of snowboarding's highest-profile riders. Were you free to choose your own direction about where to ride and compete?
Yeah, that's what it was like. We could really pick and choose what we did, and at the time I liked doing the big airs. A lot of the big comps then were in the cities, and people were so stoked at seeing snowboarding in the city. You had the best prize money there, and there were only about six contests a year so the rest of the time you could spend filming.
What stands out from back then?
I remember riding in Covent Garden in London at the big air there. That was so funny -- such a mini-jump, thinking back. And Jamie Lynn and Shaun Palmer were riding as well. Also, I loved riding in Japan at the Tokyo Big Airs. Those were the ones I always won, for a start. And you got the chance to experience these new places. Plus, in Japan they go crazy. If you do good at something, then they tell you; they go for it. You were like rock stars, and I think they still treat riders like that.
You then signed for the Burton international team with the famous pro model that featured the Gonz board graphic (which spelled Burton "Burtin"). That's why it seemed so much of a surprise when you were cut just months after. What did you do next?
I decided to shape my own boards and customize a graphic with an anarchy-style A on the base. That's what led to the few issues I had with Head.
What happened there?
It's a funny story. Head Snowboards wanted to sponsor me. I was like, "No, I can't say ski brands are s---, get fired by Burton and then ride for a ski brand." They wanted to do a board with my anarchy A on the base, but I was like, "No, I can't do it." So I used my own board, the one I had shaped, and put this graphic on the bottom, and the next thing I get a letter from Head saying I'd stolen their idea and I'd have to pay a big bill! I was like, "Oh my god, this is my own handwriting. How can I have stolen it?" They came with lawyers and everything, so it took a few years to sort out. Crazy, eh?
You then started Albin Snowboards, which ran for around five years. How did that end up?
It got complicated. The factory got sold, and then they doubled my minimum order, and in the end, I quit. I was bleeding a little bit from that for sure, but I had to admit it didn't really make sense anymore.
You don't seem too bitter about some of the treatment you have received from the industry, but how would you like to see it operate?
I know there's not space for everybody, of course. New guys come through and progression feeds the sport, but compared to skating and surfing, snowboarding is the only sport that is lacking in history. I think it's bad for the sport and bad for the lifestyle of the sport.
Why is this the case? Well, I think it has to do with marketing strategies of the companies. What else would it be? They're actually the guys that run the businesses -- and their goal is to sell a lot of products, you know? But that means we lose other things, which is a real shame. I think that snowboarding needs its history. And we're losing it.
What are you doing now?
I'm running a new company called Fablas, a clothing label producing "blazers and suits for fresh young men like me and you." [Laughs.]
The name means "the fairy tale" or "the story." It came from the little bunny I had as the logo for Albin Snowboards, but now he's grown up a little. Well, at least I hope he has. It's a continuation of that story. It's also the same people I'm working with at Albin. I guess I'm creative director of it.
So have fashion and style always been important to you?
It's a part of snowboarding, the whole style of it. Style changes; it was always so important in our scene. How you put your stickers on your board -- these are the ways people express themselves in snowboarding.
Do you miss the days of being a high-profile sponsored rider?
I had good times, of course. But you have to move forward. ... I like that I can still be part of the whole scene. I go judging and see my friends. And now when I ride, I remember what it's about.
Ingemar [Backman] came to visit me in St. Moritz [Switzerland] the other year, and it was a really good powder day. And a lot of Finns were out as well, shooting, and we came and passed them by. They were all stressed out, worrying about pictures. It was so fun to not have to wait, to do our thing like we used to in the old days.