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Emil Johansson conquers 2023 Red Bull Joyride, locks up slopestyle Quadruple Crown

Squamish native Ben Thompson seventh, voted Rider of the Day

Emil Johansson elected to play it safe this time around. 

After crashing in practice on July 29, the Swedish slopestyle sensation knew he would not be at the peak of his powers. His goal in this year's Red Bull Joyride was simply to stay clean and give himself a fighting chance at a respectable result. He faced not only an ailing shoulder, but a three-hour event delay due to less-than-ideal weather conditions in Whistler's Boneyard. 

It didn't end up mattering. Johansson's so-called safety run netted him 92.4 points, well clear of runner-up Paul Couderc's 87 and bronze medallist Tom Isted's 83.8. The outcome: a 13th Crankworx gold medal for one of mountain biking's beloved icons. 

“Honestly, it’s too big to grasp,” Johansson said. “Growing up, just securing one was a huge dream of mine and now to have done it 13 times—13 out of 14 events the last four years. I never thought I would be in this position growing up, so I'm just soaking it in and enjoying it the best I can.” 

Meanwhile, Ben Thompson stole the show on home turf. The Squamolian wound up seventh after a 70.2-point effort, but hordes of Sea to Sky fans voted him Rider of the Day. 

Iron man Johansson

The perfect season almost didn’t happen. Johansson went down forcefully during a Saturday morning practice run and immediately felt considerable pain in his AC joint. He wasn’t sure if or when the agony would diminish, nor if the issue could be managed with a good tape job. 

“To be completely honest, when I had a crash, I did not think I was going to ride,” admitted Johansson. “I did not see myself being in this scenario. I felt like giving up [in the] morning, honestly, just because of the pain I was in, and I felt very devastated.”

Johansson, though, is not a quitter. He’s already overcome the Epstein-Barr virus and Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune ailment that attacks the thyroid gland resulting in constant fatigue and enough back pain to make sitting in a chair an Olympian feat. At 18 years old, the Trollhättan native’s career—indeed his life as an able-bodied human being—was in jeopardy. 

The devastation was great, but it couldn’t keep him down. Thanks to appropriate medications and measured rehab, Johansson’s body began to heal as the competitive fire in his soul drove him forward. In 2019, the resurgence came to fruition as he bested at-the-time FMB World Tour leader Brett Rheeder for his very first Joyride championship.

On Saturday, Johansson found himself in the same Boneyard that played witness to his inaugural Crankworx triumph. Over 38,000 fans looked on, eagerly awaiting the start of what has been called “the Super Bowl of mountain biking.” Unsettled winds pushed the contest back for hours as organizers tried to look out for the safety of their athletes.

When Symon Godziek finally dropped in at just after 7:30 p.m. local time, he and his fellow riders would have just one run instead of the usual pair to stake their claim for gold.

“I needed to improvise a couple of things,” Johansson explained. “I decided to play it safe like we always tend to try to do, but when you know you have two runs and the weather conditions are somewhat consistent, you can kind of risk it a bit more.

“Today, kind of guessing that it would be a one-run format, I definitely didn't want to take any risks. Yeah, I just tried my best to make it down the hill and for a contest, that's never an easy task.” 

Carnage in the Boneyard

Multiple contenders experienced that fact the hard way. Tomas Lemoine, Miguel Guerrero and Griffin Paulson all bailed out attempting various tricks, while a blown rear tire truncated Timothé Bringer’s day at the office. David Godziek lost the handle at the end of what could have been a medal-winning run, though he was none the worse for wear.

The same could not be said for Torquato Testa, who appeared to lose speed after an under-rotated 360 and impacted hard on top of the final ramp. Viewers around the finish corral looked on anxiously as medical personnel carted Testa away, though he was fortunately seen flashing a thumbs-up on his way out. 

Couderc, however, managed to push to the razor’s edge without falling over it. The Frenchman seized the day, double-flipping and rotating both ways en route to his first career Joyride medal. 

“It was such a hard day for everyone, so we all tried to play safe but send it at the same time,” Couderc said in a press release. “We knew we could end up just having one run, so I just decided to trust in myself and go full send even if I have just one run. Everything worked and that’s why!”

Isted, a.k.a. ‘Ice Tea’, was also thrilled to cap off a banner season with another accolade. “A pretty hectic year, this year has been,” said the Brit. “Every [competition] I've got, I've ended up on the podium, so I'm stoked. I'm over the moon. I did 90 per cent of what I wanted to do…I missed a few little bits, but still got a medal.”

Ultimately, the day—and the Quadruple Crown of Slopestyle—belongs to Johansson. He prevailed in Rotorua. He broke through in Cairns. He triumphed in Innsbruck. Now, he enters the offseason undefeated. 

Even so, the humble Swede keeps himself grounded. 

“It's a very surreal experience to be here and to have all these fans cheering your name,” Johansson said. “I guess it's as close to being a rock star that we slopestyle riders ever get to be. It feels awesome that this is the last event of the season.

“Very thankful for all the fans that came out and supported us throughout the day, and didn't leave the hill even though conditions didn't seem too promising.” 

Many would argue that Johansson is no doubt a rock star, and at just 24 years of age, he’s got plenty more time to build his legacy. Yet perhaps what makes this slopestyle savant truly worthy of admiration is how he takes pictures and signs autographs for fans deep into the night, smiling the whole way through.

Hometown hero

Thompson didn’t get within striking distance of the podium, but he didn’t seem to care much about that. At 20 years old, he’s finally gotten to ride against the best in the world, at one of the world’s marquee mountain bike events, in his own backyard. 

“I've come to [Crankworx] since day one, and to get a run here and to just be in the event, to be Rider of the Day, is the most insane thing ever,” Thompson gushed. “I am honestly lost for words. I feel like I’m going to wake up at any moment now from an insane dream.” 

Feel free to keep pinching yourself, young man, because what you just lived was no dream. You kept your composure on a long and trying day, being awed but not intimidated by the world-class talent all around. You were poised enough to make adjustments on the fly and ensure that you broke the finish beam, giving your fellow Squamolians something to roar about. 

“I was not 100 per cent sure on what I was going to do,” Thompson revealed. “I could probably point out five places throughout the run where I was like: ‘Okay, I'm doing this just to make sure I make it to the bottom.’ I would have loved to step it up in the second run. Sadly we couldn't have it but, you know, it turned out and I couldn't be more stoked.

“There are an insane amount of friends and family here…and I just, I love them all. If it wasn't for any of them, I would not be here today. They all contributed a little part, and lots of them, a huge part.” 

Full results are available online. Pique Newsmagazine will have more from Crankworx Whistler.