Born and raised in Yellowknife, 27-year-old Dave England has been racing snowmachines since he was 16. Now he’s taking his niche sport to Aspen, Colorado where he’s been invited to compete in the 2020 winter X Games. While training in Alberta last month, England spoke to Up Here about the acrobatics of freestyle snowmobiling and his love-hate relationship with this extreme sport.
What is ‘freestyle snowmobiling?’
“The best way I can explain it, we take great snowmobiles and high-performance sleds and we jump them off metal ramps. It’s the same thing the guys do on dirt-bikes, but on snowmobiles. There’s a lot of modifications we make to the sleds for freestyle. We have levers on our handlebars that allow us to kind of hang off the machine upside down and be able to get back on it before we land. It’s a really small, niche industry, but really cool and high-risk. ‘Motorized yoga,’ I guess you could call it.”
These are heavy machines...
“Yeah, 450 pounds. It’s pretty nerve-racking when you’re backflipping and you’ve got this machine that weighs as much as a refrigerator hanging over your head. But once you get the machine in the air, they’re pretty maneuverable. I wouldn’t say they’re weightless, but they almost feel like a mountain bike.”
Have you ever been hurt?
“I’ve broken my femur. That was probably my worst accident. I was riding in the backcountry and I wanted to do my first backflip. The first time I tried I actually landed it and then I fell off on the landing, so I decided to try it again. It didn’t go as planned. I got ejected off the machine upside down and flew about 50 feet, right to the bottom of this hill. It was quite the impact. I fractured my femur and was completely knocked out.”
Did that cause any concern, that maybe you should give this up?
“Believe me I’ve had days where I want to give it up. It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s been something I’ve done since I was a kid. It doesn’t matter what problems I have going on in my life if I go out and I ride my sled it takes them away. It relaxes me. Some people have golf, some have boating, fishing. Mine’s riding sleds. There have been days where I really want to give it up, but it’s a battle against myself. It’s man versus machine. What keeps me going is the progression, not only on what is possible for me to do, but what's possible in general on a machine. Is this trick even doable? Is this jump even doable? Pushing your limits, that's what keeps me going.”
How much damage does the machine take on a landing?
“Well, the machines I run are racing snowmobiles, so they're a special type of machine. They're built really tough. They’ve got all the strongest parts on them, the best shocks you can buy. My suspension alone, my two front shocks are worth $3,000. So, you definitely want to have the right equipment when you're doing this stuff because if you don't, you're not only going to be breaking your machine lots, you're going to be breaking yourself. My machines don't take too much damage. I really only damage them if I land weird or something, or if I crash.”
How are you preparing for the X Games?
“It’s a very expensive event to be a part of. You've got to have a lot of people backing you. So I've got a factory Skidoo race team out of Ontario that works directly with Bombardier. They've got the best equipment and have been the best people to have in my corner. I just built this compound down in Leduc, Alberta. That's actually why I'm in Edmonton right now. I spent about $20,000 on that to have the right facility to train for X-Games.”
What's going through your head when you're hanging underneath a snowmachine?
“Nothing, really. It clears my mind. Snowmobiling’s literally my escape. I’m a pretty high-strung person, so it really calms me down and slows my thinking. At that moment, it’s literally life or death. That is the reality of it. There are certain mistakes you just can’t make, so you really have to be on your game, have a clear mind and really focus on the task at hand. Maybe it’s just the way I was raised. I’ve always tried to push the limits of whatever I did.”