As Matt Jones speeds down a steep, 30ft-high ramp on his bike, he is calm and in control, the winter sun glinting off his helmet. He launches up into the air, rotating forwards until for a second he seems to freeze, lying out flat with his back to the mud 20ft below, looking up at his bike against the blue sky.
Then he’s back on top, coming down to earth ready to launch himself up again for another feat of aerobatic wizardry. He seems to defy gravity as he rotates and flips with his bike, high above the small crowd of fellow riders transfixed by him. Clouds of breath linger by their mouths as they let out cheers of approval, all the while shielding their eyes from the sun to watch this aerobatic show.
For them, this is a world-class performance, but for Jones it’s a normal Sunday. Aged just 20, he’s at the forefront of the mountain bike slopestyle scene, where huge drops, big air and technical tricks come as standard.
He’s never been one to take things slowly. “My first ever trick was a backflip,” he says matter-of-factly, as he hoists his bike on a rope to the top of the 30ft scaffold frame, ready to go again. “I’ve never once been scared of big jumps. I just want to think about how can I make that jump work.”
This fearlessness is paying off. In 2013, Jones’ unusual talent for tricks won him a place at the X Games, the biggest contest on the extreme sports calendar, to compete against the world’s best in the invitation-only Phenom Slopestyle. Though he hit the deck hard while attempting to backflip off one of the trickiest obstacles on the course, he took bronze, his daring spirit putting his name on the map. Now he’s a professional rider with a hectic travel schedule, claiming contest wins and podium places everywhere from Europe to New Zealand. But it’s here, far from all the spectators and judges in a converted farmer’s field, that Jones really puts in the hours. “It’s a beast!” he says, pointing to the huge scaffold structure that’s concealed from the adjacent road by a row of conifer trees. “I’m used to it now, but everyone says the first time they pull in ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’”
The jumps Jones has built here over the last year are some of the biggest in the UK. The field in Bedfordshire is known as The Compound, a labour of love that turned into a learning curve as steep as the ramps Jones and his friends were building. “We just brought a spanner each, got the scaffold poles and guessed it,” he says. “It was scary. I came really close to falling. I slipped, but managed to catch the next bar down.” Building The Compound was also a necessary move for Jones, whose skill had outgrown the local jumps and trails available to him at Woburn, an area of woodland five minutes from his home that doubles as the centre of the local bike scene. He wanted to go bigger. After convincing a local farmer of the merits of slopestyle and securing the field for his project, Jones set to work despite the winter weather. “Every day this wasn’t finished I was losing a day of riding,” he says. “One day I spent hours laying 50 tonnes of sand, which all got washed away in a downpour overnight. It was stressful.”
Now complete after six months in construction, The Compound is where Jones pushes himself for hours at a time, in all weathers, all year round. It’s his secret weapon when it comes to the stiff competition he faces. “Last season when I first started training here, that’s when my season took a turn for the best,” he says. “I got some good results during the time I was riding. I was really on it. I even converted the farmer to a slopestyle fan. He comes down to watch me train.” But occasionally gravity still wins the battle Jones wages against it. Last year, just two days after getting signed as a pro rider, he broke his wrist performing at a bike show. “It was a big downer,” he says. “I missed all the major contests. But I’ve never been scared to get back on a bike. It’s made me more determined to nail it this season.”
Falls are an inevitable part of a sport that relies on defying the laws of gravity, where pushing for that next feat of aerial trickery requires Jones to ride jumps that seem too big for a push bike to handle. But it’s the technical challenge of progression that keeps him addicted to his high-risk sport. “I go to a skatepark to practise new skills in a foam pit to bring the risk down,” he says. “I’ve got two new tricks I want to try at the moment for the new season. I can do them in the foam pit now. I love seeing the progress. Tricks that two months ago felt impossible, now I do without thinking. That’s exciting – the transition from being nervous of a trick to just doing it without even having to think about the stages. I’ve also had some huge crashes doing what I do. Spontaneity is still a part of it and it’s pushed me to try things I wouldn’t have otherwise. You can’t pull back. There’s always risk. The point is, I always want to be better.”
a living from biking”
Jones puts his competitive nature down to rivalry with his twin brother, Jono, who is seven minutes older. “It sounds cliché,” he says, “but it was that twin rivalry that made us progress quickly once we got on two wheels. My parents bought us both BMXs when we were about seven and we couldn’t even touch the ground. We’d just crash, send ourselves and learn the hard way.”
As they grew and moved from BMX bikes to mountain bikes they branched into different disciplines. Jono enjoyed speed and began racing in downhill, while Jones loved learning tricks and took up dirt jumping. “I never thought that I was going to become professional,” says Jones. “I still applied for uni, I had a place to do the same course as my brother, engineering at Nottingham. But I quit when I realised I could make a living from biking.” (Jono is still studying and competes on the World Cup downhill circuit.)
It’s clear riding is more than a job for Jones. He’d be training just as intensely with or without a contract. In an age where high-performance camps, specialist diets and physiotherapists have become commonplace in professional action sports, Jones is a pro who has remained refreshingly DIY. “This is what I love doing. No one treats me differently,” he says. “My mates just laugh with me about being signed and wind me up, we’re all on the same level.”
At his local riding spot, Woburn woods, a few minutes from The Compound, a warren of trails criss-crosses the ground and riders fly along them in all directions through the trees. Jones is still a regular, nodding welcomes to the riders he passes, taking a break from his own ramps. He’s been schooled in slopestyle by an older generation of riders here, who see the sport as far more than ticking a series of boxes in the air. “The guys who were in charge of Woburn back then taught me how to dig [courses] and appreciate style in jumps,” he says. “I think that aspect is missing now with some riders, a lot of people just want to learn tricks to show off.”
Now Jones and his friends make up the committee that runs the Woburn bike trails. “We call ourselves the Burn Crew,” he grins sheepishly. The group have spent the past three months shifting sand and sculpting take-offs after the original jump paradise was bulldozed by the landowner. In a clearing deeper into the wood, laughter comes from behind a big mound of sandy earth that’s being shaped into a new jump. Guys donned in mud-splattered skinny jeans shovel earth as electronic beats throb through the air. “It’ll be one of the biggest man-made jumps in the UK when we get this line finished,” says Jones, pointing proudly at two huge piles of sand. “I can’t wait.”
In late afternoon, it’s back to The Compound to catch the last of the light. The whine of a camera drone fills the crisp air as it flies over a string of riders styling one after another over the huge jumps. The footage will be on social media before the night’s out, to be shared and commented on by a worldwide community of riders.
As the sun begins to dip, the sky turns bright crimson and underfoot sludge starts to ice over. The Compound is a hive of activity as riders rush to hoist their bikes to the top of the scaffold platform to squeeze in one last run. Though Jones has a season to think about, new tricks to practise, he’s standing with them, laughing and chatting, waiting his turn. “I never ride here on my own,” he says, “My friends are always with me. That won’t change. Where’s the fun in riding on your own?”
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