Trek athletes have won 10 of the last 12 Joyrides. The groundwork was laid 20 years ago.
Emil Johansson crashed in practice, injured his shoulder, and still won one of the biggest slopestyle events of the year by a wide margin. His Joyride-winning run was filled with an incomprehensible combination of whips, flips and spins that have come to feel routine for him, a level of consistency, creativity and technicality that seemingly no other rider on Earth can match. But as easy as Johansson made it look, he was in pain.
“I’m suffering,” Johannsson said after his run. “I’m so glad to make it to the bottom today. A couple hours ago I definitely didn’t think I’d be in this situation.”
The win mattered to him. It completed a perfect season on the Crankworx season, and gave him a record 13 slopestyle gold medals just one event after he became the first rider ever to win the Triple Crown of Slopestyle three times.
In the process of burnishing his own legacy, Johansson added to Trek’s, too. He extended an incredible run of slopestyle success by Trek athletes, who have now won 10 of the last 12 Red Bull Joyride events. Brandon Semenuk won four times in 2011, 2013-15, and 2017; Brett Rheeder won in 2016; and Johansson has now assumed the mantle to win the last four.
That fact isn’t just dumb luck. All three of those riders are generational talents, yes, but the story of Trek’s slopestyle success is about an ecosystem that the brand began building way back in 2004. It’s a story about good vibes, prescient scouting, unfathomably talented athletes, and the greatest equipment minds in the game coming together to create a program with the passion and vision for sustained greatness.
This is how Trek came to rule the slopestyle world.
In 2004, Trek signed Cam McCaul as its first ever dedicated slopestyle rider. He is one of the most influential riders ever, helping to popularize slopestyle in its early days, but at the time Trek didn’t even have a purpose-built slopestyle bike to give him. Instead, he worked with a mountain bike engineer named Dylan Howes at Trek to build him a prototype, and he set in motion the evolution of what has become the Trek Ticket S.
“We had this big seven-inch free ride bike, the Session 7, and we just signed this new kid from California, Cam McCaul. And he wanted this jumpy bike,” Howes says. “And his dream was a four-inch [travel] version of that. So we basically shrunk that bike, and that was our first slopestyle bike. We made that for him.”
WATCH: Cam McCaul looks back at every slopestyle frame he rode from 2004-2014 in a career full of wins, crashes and hijinks
"We had this big seven-inch free ride bike, the Session 7, and we just signed this new kid from California ... his dream was a four-inch [travel] version of that. So we basically shrunk that bike, and that was our first slopestyle bike."
- Dylan Howes
Howes is now a Senior MTB Engineer at Trek, and he leads a team of engineers and fabrication specialists to design, improve and build Trek’s current and future lines of mountain bikes. Back in the 2000s, he worked on Trek’s prototype team, and kept refining the design of the proto bike by taking qualities from other Trek-line mountain bikes, like tubing from the Fuel EX and Remedy, to create whip-worthy machines that could still withstand slopestyle’s punishing landings.
At the same time, Trek and MTB legend Andrew Shandro got busy building a full roster of some of the most innovative and gifted freeride mountain bikers in the world. Shandro is a former Trek athlete, and now team manager, who won two Downhill World Cups and helped pioneer freeride competitions. His next target after McCaul was an impressive 14-year-old who had been tearing up the slopes of Whistler. In 2005, Semenuk signed with Trek, and he’s been one of the most mind-bending athletes on the planet ever since.
Semenuk also gave Trek’s engineers an invaluable resource. His attention to detail is unmatched. Ryan Gaul has worked with Semenuk throughout his nine years at Trek, most of them as a technical support manager for Trek’s mountain biking teams. According to Gaul, few riders are more in tune with their machines.
“If there was a spacer under his stem that wasn’t there before, he’d be like, ‘This feels off. It’s gotta be 3-4 millimeters off,'” Gaul says. “You pull out the tape measure, and it’s 3-4 millimeters off.”
In 2010, after years of input from McCaul, Semenuk and others, Trek released its first production Ticket S. The bike had been modified from a frame initially designed for four-cross racing. What had essentially been a squat downhill bike that could handle tight cornering on BMX-like tracks was shortened even more for slopestyle competitions.
"If there was a spacer under his stem that wasn't there before, he'd be like, 'This feels off. It's gotta be 3-4 millimeters off,' You pull out the tape measure, and it's 3-4 millimeters off."
- Ryan Gaul
That same year, the C3 Project — a program focused on the pillar free ride values of competition, creativity and cinematics — was born. It now includes riders like Casey Brown and Ryan “R-Dog” Howard, along with McCaul, Semenuk and Johansson.
Brett Rheeder joined the C3 Project in 2012, and had a legendary nine-year run with Trek that ended in 2022. His presence helped push the Ticket even further, especially its suspension. He told Howes that he was pumping his shock up to 250 PSI to absorb hard landings. So Howes and his team schemed up ways to reduce the pressure that Rheeder needed. They dropped the travel from 100 millimeters down to 80, then increased the shock stroke just enough to create a bike that felt like a hardtail, but still had enough give in the back to withstand whatever Rheeder put it through — all while not needing to pump up the shock to an untenable PSI.
In layman’s terms, Trek cracked the code on a slopestyle-worthy full suspension bike. According to Gaul, Trek was the first brand to compete at Crankworx on a purpose-built full suspension slopestyle bike, which is advantageous on big, gnarly courses like Joyride. As an example, Gaul says he can’t remember ever seeing Johansson flatting while landing a jump, and only rarely blowing his feet off his pedals.
Howes and his team now have the bike frame so dialed that the design has hardly changed over the years. He says that Semenuk and Johansson and Rheeder have been riding the same prototype frame design since 2019.
“In the latest version, we took everything in as tight as we could,” Howes says. “Normally, we say we want 10 millimeters of clearance between the rocker link and the frame. We chopped that down to like three or four. We made the bike as narrow as possible, getting close to their hardtail, and smoothed everything over so that they have nothing to catch their feet and knees on as they’re twisting that bike in unimaginable ways.”
It's a lot of us just going, 'All right, I want to make this happen. This bike is cool. We need to make this happen.' If it takes me a week of late nights and an extra weekend or two, let's just get it done.
- Dylan Howes
The bike evolved thanks to constant and seamless conversation between riders and engineers — a luxury that C3 riders enjoy because Trek wholly owns and operates the program. Gaul, a seasoned engineer and bike mechanic himself, works as an intermediary between the athletes and Howes, relaying the riders’ feedback and requests to Howes and his team. Howes later presents precise sketches of the bike for Gaul and the riders to evaluate, and the feedback loop continues for as long as it takes to lock in a final design.
Because the prototype engineers are building custom versions of the production Ticket S, a single bike may take almost two months to make by Howes’ estimate: four weeks to design the frame, one week to machine the parts, one week to weld and fabricate the frame, then another week for painting, assembly and shipping.
And that’s assuming there’s nothing else on the proto team’s plate. Howes and his team also oversee design and support for Trek’s entire line of production mountain bikes. Support for Race Shop athletes must be scheduled around their primary duties towards consumer bikes, which often means working the occasional night or weekend to make sure custom equipment gets done.
Howes oversaw the build of Emil’s Joyride-winning bike, along with Cory Marty, who machined the bike’s custom-sized parts, and Jarod Brown, who welded the frame together.
“Because they’re team projects, they don’t always get time assigned to them,” Howes says. “So it’s a lot of us just going, ‘All right, I want to make this happen. This bike is cool. We need to make this happen.’ If it takes me a week of late nights and an extra weekend or two, let’s just get it done. It’s cool to see that happen.”
Designing and building bikes for slopestyle athletes can be a puzzle, in part because no one in the world can stress the equipment like they can. For all the technology that Trek has at its disposal to fabricate and test bike equipment, it’s still impossible to create a fully Semenuk-proof bike without some trial and error.
Brandon and Emil and Brett, they're all very similar in terms of how dedicated and serious they are about trying to win and get better and take care of their bodies. Brandon was kind of the first one to do that. And Emil has taken it to another level.
- Andrew Shandro
“Those guys push these bikes way beyond what we can often test for sometimes,” Howes said. “There was a period around 2010 when Brandon would keep snapping seatstays just from the spinning tricks and the force he was able to put into these bikes. And that was a hard one to rectify because we couldn’t recreate his breaks in the lab.”
The countless hours of riding, providing feedback, building and testing have paid off in a bike that somehow works for every style and flavor of Trek’s C3 athletes.
“It’s crazy. They’re all so happy with that bike,” Gaul says. “I think it’s having the riders that we do. They know exactly what they want. Emil in particular. Emil reminds me very much of Brandon as far as how particular he is about his bike setup. I could call him right now and be like, ‘What’s your head tube angle? What’s your bottom bracket height?’ And he knows all that stuff.”
Trek support extends beyond bike design. Gaul is by the athletes’ sides at nearly every competition, giving them yet another leg up compared to many other brands. Few other teams have dedicated support for a largely individual sport. But that in-person encouragement and troubleshooting makes a big difference.
“I can’t think of any other company that would send an employee there to be on site and be on hand to make sure that everything goes smoothly,” Gaul says. “Trek support deserves special mention, sending staff and providing the resources with the proto shop and engineering and industrial design. And that’s not even mentioning some of the coolest paint jobs that have ever come out of Trek have been C3 bikes.”
As Semenuk and Rheeder scaled back their competitive schedules, Johansson grabbed the torch and hasn’t let go. He signed with Trek in 2017 at just 17 years old, coming off a fourth-place finish at Joyride. In just a short span of time, he has made a compelling claim to be called the greatest slopestyle rider of all time at just 23 years old.
Trek support deserves special mention, sending staff and providing the resources with the proto shop and engineering and industrial design. And that's not even mentioning some of the coolest paint jobs that have ever come out of Trek have been C3 bikes.
- Ryan Gaul
Shandro saw a mountain of promise in Johansson when he recruited him to C3, but even he couldn’t predict the Swede’s stratospheric success. Johansson has maximized his potential thanks to a work ethic that may only be matched by his forebears. Shandro seeks out that mindset when recruiting athletes, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
“They have to be the right type of person,” Shandro said. “Brandon and Emil and Brett, they’re all very similar in terms of how dedicated and serious they are about trying to win and get better and take care of their bodies. Brandon was kind of the first one to do that. And Emil has taken it to another level in terms of just how rock solid he is as a competitor. He thrives on competition and pressure, and it doesn’t seem to get to him.”
Shandro worked hard to make sure Johansson felt welcome and supported from his outset with Trek. But joining Trek had a draw all its own, too. At the time of his signing, Johansson praised Trek’s slopestyle legacy.
“Honestly, I am speechless to be on the same team as my favorite riders,” Johansson said. “It’s something I didn’t think I could accomplish. One year ago, I didn’t even have an FMB license and now I am here, riding for my dream bike sponsor. I couldn’t be happier.”
Six years later, Johansson still shows his gratitude for the support Trek has provided him.
“He’s always appreciative. As we get to catch up with him at events, he’s always stoked to see all of us,” Howes said. “He knows that there’s a whole lot of people doing it. The best thanks we get is days like Saturday, seeing Emil hoisting that trophy again. It’s like, ‘Hell yeah, that’s our work.’
“That guy puts in ridiculous hours of training, and the creativity he’s got to think up those tricks — it’s definitely fun to be a part of that.”
The best thanks we get is days like Saturday, seeing Emil hoisting that trophy again. It's like, 'Hell yeah, that's our work.'
- Dylan Howes
As impossible as it seems, Johansson’s reign atop slopestyle may end someday. In the meantime, he’ll continue to elevate the sport to greater heights aboard a Trek Ticket, and inspire a new generation of slopestyle magicians.
When that generation emerges, Shandro and the Trek team will be there to lend them support, with guidance and equipment backed by a decades-long dynasty. The riders will push those innovative bikes to their limits. The equipment will improve for as long as riders are determined to squeeze every ounce of whirling creativity they can from a mountain bike. Each half will continue to elevate the other, never ever stopping, working together to create a perpetual motion machine.