Now retired from EWS racing, Casey Brown has shifted her focus to freeriding...and she's not letting anything steer her off course.
The Hawaiian shirt is a dead giveaway. I didn’t think I could spot Casey Brown in this crowd at the Whistler bike park, but once I spy the green and white floral pattern weaving throughout this sea of people, I know it's her. We’re heading to the Whip Off World Champions after all. If there’s anything quintessential about this event, it’s her presence and that she's always dressed for the party.
Now comes the actual hard part: finding a quiet place to chat. The circus that we know as Crankworx is on full display. Spectators from all corners of the globe whiz past us into a bazaar of mountain bike goods and wares. Instead, we decide to make a run for it towards the lift line, hoping to find solitude on the chairlift. Easier said than done. As we advance towards the expedited athlete line, Brown is halted by friends and fellow competitors who sing a chorus of hellos and good lucks. “You get to see your buds from all over the world. [Crankworx] is the highlight of the summer,” she happily tells me.
If there’s anything quintessential about the Whip Off, it’s Casey Brown's presence and that she's always dressed for the party.
One of those pals is fellow competitor Vaea Verbeeck, who catches a ride on our chair. Verbeeck, also a top contender for the Queen of Crankworx, never thought her whip was worthy of the big stage until Brown nudged her to try in 2017. Originally friends from racing the World Cup circuit together, they’ve frequently crossed paths while on the Crankworx tour. Back in Les Gets, Brown noticed Verbeeck’s absence from the Whip Off event. She brought it up the next time they saw each other.
Brown has been competing in the Whip Off since 2012, and it's become one of her favorite events. Katie Lozancich Photo.
“I had simply never considered doing that event since I didn’t think I was able to do a proper whip,” Verbeeck explained. Brown was having none of that. She referenced Verbeeck’s skill with jumping as proof that she was fully capable and encouraged her to get out there. Those words had such a big impact on Verbeeck that she showed up to the Whip Off event at the next stop of the tour.
“I just didn't have the guts, prior to that moment, to show up at a huge jump show and potentially not even get sideways. But only once I started hitting those big jumps I started to understand how to whip them. And had so much fun doing so,” Verbeeck explains. Brown’s encouragement isn’t just felt by her fellow competitors—it’s ebbing into the industry as a whole.
When we arrive at the Crabapple hits there are many “Browns” amongst the crowd. Cutouts of her visage are excitedly waved by amped kiddos watching from the sidelines. A few lucky young gals even got theirs signed by Brown herself after she was crowned the day’s champion. I hang back with their mother who excitedly whispers to me, “This is unreal,” as we watch her young daughter meet her hero. Despite being flooded with photo requests and sound bytes for interviews post-Whip Off win, Brown finds a moment here and there to sign autographs requests and does it with a smile.
Brown happily meets and greets some of her fans. Katie Lozancich Photo.
Brown is a rock star in the bike world, and if there’s anything that her riding is a testament to, it’s having fun. Of course she’s a fast rider and worthy racer, but Brown's sights are set beyond trophies and cardboard checks. What she wants is to be a freeride mountain biker, and despite having no clear cut path to follow, she’s going to bushwhack her way until it happens.
Following the 2018 Crankworx tour, Brown wrapped up her EWS season and decided it was time to retire. Aside from competing Crankworx—because it’s such a staple of the bike industry—she’s stepping away from competitions to pour everything she has into freeriding.
Mountain biking for her has never been about blasting down the trail— it’s about finding the most creative line. “Ever since I was 14, I wanted to be a freerider,” she says.
At the time, and still today, there are no clear avenues for women to ride beyond the race tape. “I tried it for a while but in reality, I was just riding. I was doing projects here and there, but never really got the exposure I needed,” she explains. So, Brown set her sights on the World Cup circuit, which seemed like her only viable option. Despite being an important stepping stone in her career, it never satiated her.
“Ever since I was 14, I wanted to be a freerider"
That’s not to say that there aren’t other options for women, but they’ve just been few and far between. In 2008 Crankworx held a multi-disciplinary contest known as WomensWorx, which judged female athletes in categories of tech, speed, and style. It broke the mold of usual mountain biking events, and for once they could focus on creativity and style. The gals were even given the chance to ride the big drops, step-ups, and wall rides of the legendary Boneyard Slopestyle course. Brown, in her early days of Crankworx, nabbed a bronze medal finish in its inaugural run. While WomensWorx was unprecedented, it failed to pick up steam and faded away after 2009.
“Although it was a brilliant concept brought to us by two rad female riders, it felt like it was just a sideshow for sure. I wasn’t convinced it was fully respected. I don’t think fans, people in the industry and Crankworx knew what to make of it quite yet,” Claire Buchar explained, who also competed alongside Brown. With Womensworx gone, the only accessible freestyle event left for women was the Whip Off, which was introduced in 2011. Brown saw it as an open door and jumped right into competing in 2012. This playful style of riding only reinforced her gut feeling.
An eager crowd watches Brown catch air at the Rotorua Whip Off. Katie Lozancich Photo.
“On the guy's side, half of them are good at racing and half of them are good at judged sports,” she says, whereas women don't have the same opportunities. “There’s a void there.” Things are starting to change, though. For example, last year Crankworx hosted its first ever Women’s Only Jump Jam to encourage more female freestyle riding. It was a complete hit. Held prior to the festival’s highest-profile event, Red Bull Joyride, 15 female competitors gathered at Whistler’s Riverside dirt jumps to be judged on fluidity, line choice, and amplitude. The athletes gracefully soared over the jump lines while throwing whips and no-handers to an eagerly watching crowd. While being grassroots and small, it’s an uplifting sign of what could come, and is rippling beyond Crankworx too. This year Tom Van Steenbergen announced a women’s division at his annual Big White Invitational Slopestyle. Plus now with social media, extra savvy athletes don’t have to just rely on competitions to get their name out there. Just look at someone like Veronique Sandler who strategically used her Instagram presence to step away from full-time racing to pursue lucrative film projects.
Freeriding as a whole, however, still has a long way to go. This is most evident in the discipline's pinnacle event, Red Bull Rampage, which is arguably revered as the Super Bowl of the sport. It’s in a class on its own and requires a special kind of rider in order to compete. That’s why only 21 athletes are invited each year. Since its inception in 2001 there has yet to be a single female competitor.
Freeriding as a whole still has a long way to go.
Brown isn’t the first gal to give it a go. Katie Holden, also a former World Cup and Nationals downhill racer, tried for five years to break into the event. She dug alongside the athletes and trained hard in the Virgin, Utah area. Despite giving it her all, a series of injuries forced her to back away. Now watching Brown take the reins is exciting for her.
“[Brown]’s skill set is so diverse. Pretty much any race she goes in she’s competitive, whether it’s downhill, EWS, or Crankworx,” Holden says. That adaptability and skill at reading the terrain are some of Brown’s biggest strengths and what makes her such an exciting addition to the freeride community.
Brown catches major air in the Air Dh. Katie Lozancich Photo.
Finding Your Community
As I’m waiting to photograph the next event at the 2019 Rotorua Crankworx, I spy Brown catching a breather in the shade of the Trek tent. With five very different events on her list, she’s fully pinned as usual. I’m actually surprised to hear that Speed and Style isn’t part of her lineup. “I thought about competing in [Speed and Style] today—but it would have been too much,” she says while nibbling on a fresh mango.
The outspoken advocate for the outdoors is enjoying the tropical treat with her reusable wooden spoon—a tool she doesn’t travel without—as she fills me in on the last few months since we crossed paths in Whistler. After devoting herself to training on old Rampage lines, Brown applied to compete for the 2018 Red Bull Rampage event. Her request was denied. Undeterred, she grabbed a shovel. If you can’t ride at Rampage, then you dig. Slinging dirt is a rite of passage for Rampage hopefuls. Despite the tedious work from sundown to sun up, the experience offers the chance to learn invaluable beta from the finest freeride gurus out there.
Brown dug alongside Phil Mclean for Bas Van Steenbergen. This year was unique because Red Bull had moved the venue to a completely new location, giving everyone a blank canvas to work with. It was eight days of grueling work—one of which was lost to heavy rain. Brown, however, remained in high spirits. Her enthusiasm was contagious. No stranger to working with the dirt, she and Mclean even personalized Van Steenbergen’s line with his name written into one the landings. It was a nice personal touch.
“Seeing it go from having our head in the dirt to someone actually being able to hit something—that was really cool,” she says with a big smile. Watching your work translate into an actual run is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a digger. But Brown doesn’t just want to watch from the sidelines, she’s hoping for the main event.
“Doing Rampage would be insane. I don’t know if it will happen—but it's fun to have it as something to work towards,” she says matter-of-factly. If she doesn’t get invited, then her goal is to still ride the course from top to bottom. Competing is just a nice bonus.
Rampage might be beyond her control, but media projects are not. Filming has always been a priority for Brown. She broke out onto the silver screen in 2016 with Anthill’s Not2Bad and then in 2017 for Teton Gravity Research’s Rogue Elements. You know, the internet breaking scene when she hucked it into to Corbet’s Couloir?
If Brown doesn’t get invited, then her goal is to still ride the Rampage course from top to bottom. Competing is just a nice bonus.
Now that she’s freed her schedule from racing, Brown has been circumnavigating the globe ticking off projects one after another. In January she was in Hawai’i for Anthill’s latest film. In February she was down in Argentina—once again for Anthill. Then, following Crankworx, she’ll be headed to Nepal for a film project with Darren Berrecloth. It’s a lot to manage, but this has also always been part of her bigger goal. “When I was in Argentina I rode some stuff that I would have never been able to ride otherwise—it’s a different kind of skill building,” she says. Freeriding is all about accumulating experiences, and in the end, it becomes a resource that she can lean on for future riding.
Brown proudly models her new jersey, which matches the new whip. Katie Lozancich Photo.
With the mango scraped clean, she mischievously hands the pit to a friend asking him to plant it so that it’ll become a tree. Her hope is that next year we’ll have fresh mangos. “Look it’s already starting to grow,” she exclaims. With snack break over, it’s about time for her to get back to the grind. Before she’s off again I have one last inquiry. Where does one even begin with freeriding? Her answer is simple: “Find someone you look up to and do what they do. The more you surround yourself with those kinds of people, you’re going to build a better community around your sport.” It’s this community that she credits much of her success. But what has taken her career to the next level is her commitment to whatever she sets her sights on—whether it's in freeriding, environmental sustainability, or filming.
There are plenty of other riders who go just as huge as she does, but it’s this determination that separates her from the masses. And it’s the kind of resolute compass she’ll need to keep carving her path.