Seven Years of Summer
The sunny life of Phil Mclean
Words & Images Simon Makker
Christchurch dirtjumper and trail builder extraordinaire Phil McLean hates winter. He loathes it so much he flies to Canada every year for six or seven months. Barring one year when he underwent knee reconstruction, he’s been chasing those long warm days for seven years.
It’s not all about beers and bike park laps, though. Phil has played an instrumental role in building the last couple of Crankworx Red Bull Joyride courses, and carving trails into the cliffs at Red Bull Rampage.
Now the 27-year-old is back in New Zealand, Spoke caught up with him to find out more about his experiences.
Phil, you’ve made quite the habit of swapping New Zealand winters for Canadian summers. How do you do it? Yeah, I haven’t been home for a full winter in a long time, except in 2017 when I had knee surgery. After that year I committed to the visa and spent the past seven months working in Whistler. The visa application wasn’t specific about having a job instantly, but I knew a bunch of dudes in the Joyride [slopestyle] building crew from my previous trips. I got in touch with chief builder Paddy Kaye and he took me on.
How is the digging there? There’re a lot more rocks than I’m used to, but the dirt is good to work with once you’ve filtered them out. It packs well and you can ride it straight away, which is handy for testing features.
What sort of effort goes into building a Joyride course? It’s the hardest course to build on the circuit, because every year the mountain has to be flat for skiing. At the end of the bike park season they knock the course down, then we start clearing the excess and piling dirt in May when the snow melts. Big machines help at the start, and we always have a 16-tonne machine on call and some little machines for tweaking and shaping, but most of the fine tuning is done by a crew of eight with a rake and a shovel.
What sort of feedback did you receive from the riders this year? For the most part it was good. As far as speed control goes, the 2019 course was probably the best one ever. Riders didn’t need to brake excessively—which is the scariest part of slopestyle—and most people got a really good run in. We were standing watching, getting our minds blown with the runs that everyone put together. Everyone has “constructive feedback” on every course, but you can’t make a perfect course for everyone; we just do our best.
The past couple of years you’ve also joined the digging crews at Red Bull Rampage in Utah. How did that come about? Last year I received a last-minute call-up to join Bas van Steenbergen’s crew. I’ve ridden with Bas a bunch in the past and got to know him over the years, and he found out two days before digging started that he’d received a wildcard entry and said he was keen to have me along.
What’s it like digging at Rampage? It’s probably the worst job you’ll ever sign up to for two weeks; you just have to work hard and push through it to get your line finished. The dirt there is amazing for the most part; there are some pretty brutal rock sections, and some teams, like Brett Rheeder’s, chose to knock the rock out, but you can avoid them and find some good dirt. It’s mind-blowing how much three diggers can achieve in eight days.
This year you were part of Reece Wallace’s team at Rampage, right? Yep, I joined him and Austin Davignon from Loft Bike Parks. I’ve known Reece for a long time and lived with him last year. When he received the invitation last year it was only natural that I’d dig for him and it worked out perfectly.
With these regular trips between Canada and New Zealand, have you found your riding has improved? I think it has. I have more confidence hitting big jumps, as Kiwis don’t get many opportunities unless you’re on a downhill bike. Testing and riding the Joyride course while we build it is a massive confidence booster and always gets me stoked. Riding the Whistler bike park all the time is pretty awesome, too.
Hah, I bet. And from what I understand you’ve managed to get your old job back now you’re home? Yeah, my boss is mellow and it works in his favour to not have me on the books over the winter months when work is quieter. I do ACM (aluminium) panel installation on commercial and residential buildings, and I think my boss is happy to have someone competent who can just slot straight back into work.
You’re also busy building your own dirtjumps in Christchurch. Tell us a bit about that project. I’ve been digging on and off at Halswell Quarry for about 10 years but over the past five years we’ve designed and built a new line with proper dirtjumps between 15 and 25 feet. Last summer I got close to getting everything finished, and invested in a more effective tarp system to cover the jumps while I was away over winter. They held up really well, so hopefully we’ll get a good season out of it this year. People are more willing to help dig now that they’re almost complete, so it should be a good summer. The landowner, Dan Van Asch, is the best landowner anyone could deal with and I’m really grateful for his support.
Lastly, which do you like most, New Zealand or Canada? That’s a tough one. Both summers are awesome and both winters suck! Canada is more exciting, with the wildlife, bike park, good friends, and a thriving scene, but I do love being home. My visa’s up in April so I’m not guaranteed to go back to Canada, but if there’s any chance to return I’ll definitely take it.