Natural Selection Tour—Interview with Men's Winner Mikkel Bang

  |   Michael Goodwin
r: Mikkel Bang // p: T. Bird/Natural Selection Tour/Red Bull Content Pool

Interview: Michael Goodwin
Cover photo: T. Bird/Natural Selection Tour/Red Bull Content Pool

Eight years since he last competed, Norwegian destroyer Mikkel Bang earned the Natural Selection Tour Championship W with a powerful performance at the HempFusion Natural Selection at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. Bang’s experience and style—to say nothing of his monster backside 540—helped him edge out an elite field and become the first men’s victor of a tour that’s redefining competitive snowboarding. We snagged Mikkel for some quick takes on the Natural Selection finals.

When did you get up to Alaska? Were the competitors able to practice in the venue beforehand?
We got up there on March 18, but we weren't able to ride the venues until it was go time. We had a qualifier venue and then we had the finals venue. We were able to do some laps before—we got like a warm-up run on the backside or something, some similar aspect so we could feel out the snow and stuff. But it was pretty much just get on top and go! That's kind of how Alaska is though. You go there and you have that one opportunity to get a shot or something. You haven't snowboarded for a couple of days and then first thing in the morning you are standing on the top of something crazy, right? (laughs). It definitely was a little bit like that.

You have been to Alaska before, how did this venue compare to other experiences you've had?
This was my first time going to the Tordrillos. I have only ridden in Haines. The terrain in Haines is quite different from the terrain in the Tordrillos. From what I thought, the runs in the Tordrillos are a little bit longer. You can find long runs in Haines, too, but I feel like the runs in Tordrillo were more like long, featured runs. Or at least the venues that we rode were like that.
Mikkel, Sean Aaron, Gabriel Kocher // p: Dean Blotto Gray/Natural Selection Tour/Red Bull Content Pool
On one hand, it sounds ideal for this sort of competition, on the other hand, it sounds like it might be a little tiring?
Oh man! You have no idea. All of us were tripping on it the first day on the qualifiers run. We all go to the bottom like, "Holy shit, that was a burner!" 

You've been around so long, and done so much in snowboarding. Do you get nervous about stuff like this? Going into the event, were you nervous at all?
Yeah, I was nervous for sure. It had been eight years since I did a contest. Going back into the contest mode was definitely a little...yeah, you can say I was a little bit nervous. But I was only nervous until I did my first run. Once you start going, your mind kind of goes blank. You are so focused on your riding. But the lead up to the moment when you drop, it was definitely a little nerve wracking, for sure. Also, we are going head to head. That part was definitely a little different. Usually when we are up in Alaska we are more of a team, helping each other. But now, when we were competing, we were all a little bit secretive. That was the biggest difference I think.
r: Mikkel Bang // p: T. Bird/Natural Selection Tour/Red Bull Content Pool
Because this tour presented a different format, what did you find yourself thinking about leading up to the event? Were you thinking more about the head-to-head format and the competitors you will face, or more about the course itself? 
It was pretty crazy because after the Jackson event I went home to Norway. Before going to Alaska, I was riding my home resort in Oslo, which is basically like a bunny hill. I was kind of laughing, like, this is so funny. This is how I am preparing for AK. (laughs) 

At the same time, you can't really prepare for AK because there is nothing really like it. So before going to AK, I think I watched Dark Matter, and they had sent us some photos of the lines we were going to ride—which we actually ended up not riding. When we got there, they were like, “OK, well, we have to change the venue.” So we had been studying this venue, and now we have no idea what we are riding. That was my biggest thought process—what type of lines we were going to ride. 

It seems that in a venue like the Jackson venue, you can think about specific tricks a little bit more, and working this in and working that in. Not that you can’t think about tricks in Alaska, but it’s much different.
Yeah, absolutely. Because Jackson was designed to work, ya know? Then when you get up to Alaska, it's just nature. It's a big difference really.

Does it change the way you ride, knowing who you are going against? Or you have a vision of what you want to do, and that’s what you are going for in any case?
No, I don't think it did. My plan was to just go up there and ride something that I would be comfortable riding, or do something that I think would be fun. That was my tactic, to just do something that I would like to. That is how I would do it anyway, and that was also my way of not overthinking and not getting nervous. I was like, “I am just going to wait, see what we get into and then make a plan.” Obviously try and step it up, but just focus on my riding and not what the other person was going to do. 

I guess in Jackson, it was a little bit like that. Mark (McMorris) is so good at jumping, so when I was going against him in Jackson, I was like "I gotta do something creative here,” ya know? But in Alaska, I didn't really see that as as much of a problem. Obviously, he is a good jumper up there, too, but up there line choice and everything...
p: Dean Blotto Gray/Natural Selection Tour/Red Bull Content Pool
We may have covered part of this question already, but is there one thing that you would emphasize about the course, or the Alaska event in particular, that might not be immediately obvious to everyone watching at home?
We were actually really lucky with the snow conditions. We would have maybe liked it to be a little deeper, but it was really stable. It was moderate. It made it really nice for us in terms of the sluff. There was sluff, but it wasn't really fast moving sluff, and knowing that it was moderate and the guides felt safe also really helped us to be very confident riding down.

I think that's huge to note. Obviously, as a rider, that is a big part of how you are feeling mentally.
Totally. Those runs are long. If something were to break on your first turn, if the face breaks, you are going for a wild ride. That was something that maybe people don't know. We were really lucky, I thought. Obviously, like I said, it would have been sweet if it was a foot deeper. But, if it was a foot deeper, the riding would have been a little bit different. That's one of the things up there, too. When the snow is super deep and poofy, you have to change your riding style when you are riding lines because it's easier to get whiteroomed, and the sluff is moving faster. We probably would have taken another venue if the snow was deeper, I think. The snow that we rode was really nice in terms of finding jumps and going freestyle-y on it, which was perfect for the event.

This is the end of Natural Selection for the year. It was a crazy event and grabbed a ton of attention. As you look back on it, anything particular that comes to mind? Any last words about the experience, how you’re feeling about it, or hopes moving forward?
I was just really stoked to see it come together. Shout out to Travis (Rice) for having the vision and making it happen, even though we were in a pandemic. I think this event is really good for snowboarding in many ways. The fact that you can have pipe riders, slopestyle riders, Freeride World Tour riders, people who film...bringing them together to compete on something like this just makes it so unique and special. And then obviously the head to head is awesome, I thought. It makes it really interesting. The live broadcast as well. I really hope that this will continue, and I think it will!