Olly Wilkins is old school. He doesn’t ride to win races or trophies – he rides because that’s what he’s always done. “All the craziest stuff I’ve done in my life has been with the boys in the woods… you know, no cameras.” With the Surrey Hills as our playground, it’s time to collect some air miles and find out more about the original dogfighter.
As I sit in the Snooty Fox Cafe, tucking into probably the best breakfast in Guildford, I hear (before I see) Olly pull up outside. His impractically low Mazda B2000 Pickup barks into view, side exhausts spitting, tyres shoehorned under the arches. “It’s got a Mazda MX5 engine in there, so it’s pretty engaging,” Olly answers to my question. “I’m shit at drifting though, so it’s a pretty dangerous truck really.” In the truck bed sits a brand-new Focus Jam 140mm trail bike, one of the reasons for my visit. I already know Olly’s setup is a little different than most trail bike riders: the suspension is firm and set to ramp up hard, and the rear tyre runs over three bar pressure to avoid punctures. This is a trail bike that will not have an easy life.
Olly is one of a group of riders from the Surrey Hills, who, despite not having big mountains on their doorstep, have been at the forefront of the UK riding scene for over fifteen years. Humble, easygoing, and dedicated, they are a group who have always let their riding do the talking and are never afraid to go big. Now thirty-one years old, Olly’s passion for riding started like many of us – riding trails in the woods as a kid with his family. Like any red-blooded young boy, all he wanted to do was get some air, so he started jumping. From a desire to jump came a desire to build, and from the moment he first picked up a shovel, his future was set: “I was a super fan boy back then. I used to go to local races and watch everything: I would pay attention to how the fastest boys pushed their bikes along, how they rode, how they set up their bikes. Ha, I even knew where everyone lived – I still do.”
“Look at surfing… those are the guys who have it good.”
“We had no internet back then, no Instagram or video edits, so when you saw Steve Peat ride, it was like, ‘Wow, I am in the presence of greatness here.’ For me, it really kicked off with the local Pedalhounds downhill series. Those downhill races were responsible for the development of so many good riders. It was such a stacked youth field back then – as a kid I raced riders like Nico Vink, even Greg Minnaar came over, they were crazy times. It’s where I met so many of my life-long friends. I feel sorry for some of the guys now who are out there riding and training on their own so seriously. Riding was such a community thing for us.”
Olly is best known for riding for DMR (over fourteen years, in fact) and, after studying graphic design at university, he now works in the office putting his design stamp on the DMR brand. “I loved all the graphics as a kid… collecting stickers, checking out logos. I still remember the big campaigns, the ones that worked. I guess they inspired something in me.” Recently, his style and attitude caught the eye of German brand Focus, and Olly now rides their frames. After a short tour of the offices, it’s clear that he really wants to show me the local riding. “There is this crazy hip jump that we have just finished, and I think it will be a cool place to session.”
Olly is one of a small group of local riders who are as comfortable sending huge jumps on home trails as digging out something insane at the Red Bull Rampage. “I love riding, I love everything about it. It’s a shame that for so many kids now, all they want is to be sponsored. They are missing out on a huge part, as wanting to be the idea of something is different from the reality. All it brings is pressure.“
“I get to see it from both sides. I see the guys at World Cups, suffering from a year of stress compressed into eleven rounds, complete with immense self-doubt and pressure. I even get stressed as a media rider – don’t get me wrong, this is the dream, and what I’ve always wanted. But often I find myself sitting at the top of something crazy, worried about coming off, knowing that if I get injured the guys filming are out of a contract. I love to ride like an idiot with my friends, but when you are on your own and someone shouts ‘Go,’ it’s a very different feeling.”
When it comes to forging a career, it’s easy for kids to get swept up into racing, chasing seconds in the hope of sponsorship. However, just like the surf world, where pros compete on the world tour scrabbling for points and pandering to the requests of sponsors, there are also the sponsored free surfers who simply surf for the love, carving a career out of showing the beautiful side of the sport. This is where Olly would love to see himself, steering clear of competition and instead showing amazing locations and effortlessly smooth riding. Knowing that Olly loves to send stuff, I asked if a trail bike was the right tool for the job. “The Focus Jam is an amazing bike. It’s a trail bike, but so capable. It may only be a 140mm bike, but I have never wanted for more travel… maybe I’m not going big enough.”
Olly Wilkins’ FOCUS JAM C
Like many of us, Olly rides a 140 mm trail bike. However, the theatrical nature of Olly’s riding style means that his Focus Jam setup is very different from most.
“It’s sometimes crazy growing up so close to big money (London), but I don’t know what I would do with more cash. Probably buy loads more coffee: mo money, mo coffee.”
With the smooth comes the rough. Watching Olly wrap his ankle in a heavy-duty support, I am reminded of the accidents that frequently happen in the more extreme end of the sport. “I’ve had some real shit injuries over the years, but I guess they make you realise how much you love the sport. Everything is good for you in the long run. I’m in pain the whole time, and I probably won’t be so positive when I am older, but that’s just boring. Let’s not talk about injuries.” I sense that Olly does not want to list the many injuries he has suffered, as these are questions he has answered so many times before.
The art of flight
You only have to follow Olly down a trail to see what drives him. Slicing down a short DH track in the Surrey Hills, he switches effortlessly from a nose manual into a berm, then scrubs the life out of a poppy jump. As I follow him down the trail, he effortlessly hops from one side to the other, making every inch of track a playground, every projection a sender. You can tell he is a product of the trails where he grew up. It goes to show that you do not need big mountains to become a skilled rider – just passion. “Because we have short hills, we compress everything, so while people may not be great at flat-out rock gardens, most riders here are technically good and have great bike skills. And, of course, we have hero loam.”
As we ride we pass two kids on beat-up bikes, Olly breaks into easy conversation with them and it turns out they are looking for the same trail that we are heading towards. After following us to the trailhead, we wish them all the best. Racing down the trail, I get dragged through crazy lines that I would never have hit blind. While catching my breath at the bottom, the kids rattle past. As they ride away, I have to laugh as I can hear them jabbering to each other: “Oh, man, I went past them so fast, they saw me fully pinned. That was so cool… I’ve never ridden so fast. Oh, man, oh, man!”
The Surrey Hills had delivered. Riding back to the car and talking rubbish about nothing, I recounted the kids’ excitement and my angle was clear. Riding is, and always has been, fun. But now, through social media we are closer to the lives of elite athletes than ever before, and it’s all too easy to lust after a career as a pro racer. Olly Wilkins is certainly no fool when it comes to the power of social media. However, in a world now filled with factory-sponsored professional racers carefully releasing their clean-cut images to hordes of instafans, Olly is like a free surfer – riding because, well, he loves it. A modern day free rider, and one of the original dogfighters.
Words & Photos: Trev Worsey