Roots – Gumby

Interview by Matt Barr

Over the last decade and a half, Anthony ‘Gumby’ Gumbley has made one of the least likely transformations in European snowboarding history. Back when I first met him, Gumby pretty much defined what it meant to be a scumbag seasonaire with nothing on his mind other than dropping the biggest cliffs he could find and causing as much trouble as he could get away with. He’d initially earned notoriety at the 1995 Brits in Val d’Isère by attempting to backflip the big air kicker and almost killing himself in the process in front of the assembled UK industry. Today, he is a pillar of the European snowboarding community, with a four year-old son, one of Europe’s most respected contests to his name and the mayor of Val d’Isère’s number on speed dial.

How the hell did that happen?

The real truth is that there is nobody quite like this big-hearted, big-balled Antipodean hellman. There are so many (possibly apocryphal) stories about the man and his exploits and personality that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but within these stories something of the essence of Gumby can be gleaned. So before phoning the big man himself, I asked a couple of long term Gumby comrades-in-arms for their favourite personal anecdotes. Most of them (particularly the ones I got from Elliot Neave) were unprintable. But a few of them are instructive.

“Favourite Gumby story? Wow. That’s quite a question,” said Gumby’s old Val mucker James McPhail, before launching into so many libellous stories that we’d have to close the mag if we printed them all. “Um ah, I know. Gumby is genuinely the only man I have ever seen defend a kicker with a shovel. You know, some skier rides up wanting a go. We were building a hip in Val d’Isère, and it’s just off the side of some punterish bit of off-piste. Some skiers came up and did the old classic ‘What’s going on here then?’ They saw some tracks and followed them down without really looking where they led. One of them ends up riding down the run-in and pops up on the flat top, where Gumby is painstakingly shaving the final detail into the kicker. Gumby looked at him and literally knocked him off with the shovel, accompanied by an incredible stream of expletives. What did we do? Not a lot really we could do. It was Gumby’s hip, you know? Plus, I was miles away with my camera.”

If, back in the day – when Ed Leigh met Gumby on his first season in Val, and when shredding was all either of them cared about – you’d told him he would one day front the BBC’s flagship winter sports show, and that Gumby would be in charge of one of Europe’s biggest comps, you would have quite rightly been laughed out of the Petit Danoise. Here’s Ed on Gumby’s first season:

“My favourite Gumby story? The fact that he lived in a poubelle (dustbin) hut when he first came to Val. You can’t take it away from him though, his passion to ride back then was one of the most inspirational things I ever saw back in the early days. If there is such a thing as Thieves and Rich Kids, he’s the epitome of the thief. He turned up in Val with no money and a jacket he’d robbed from a liftie in Thredbo. He had a pair of caterpillar boots with a split heel, and they used to fill up with snow. You could see him a mile off as well, cos of that ginger afro sticking out everywhere. He lived in a basement under an apartment block with some other feral Australian. They used to siphon hot water from the water system to make coffee every morning. They’d robbed some curtains to sleep on, cos otherwise it would just have been mud.”

Beginning to get the picture yet? Many is the time I’ve caught myself reciting a few classic Gumby stories to incredulous friends, only to be told that I must be making it up. Truth be told, you couldn’t make a story like Gumby’s up. Brought up in Sydney to a Fijian mum and English Dad, Gumby arrived in Val in his early twenties and has been a fixture in the town pretty much ever since. Adopted as one of our own by the British scene, thanks to that show-stopping half backflip in ’95, it soon became pretty clear that here was a rider well able to hold his own in the freeriding arena. He shot with well-known photographers Nick Hamilton and Florent Ducasse, and soon garnered a reputation as an amazing freerider thanks to stunts such as the rodeo off a cliff we featured in his first White Lines interview. Soon after, the ‘Big Day Out’ event began to take off, putting Gumby on the path he continues to walk to this day: a massively respected European industry kingpin, with riding skills to put many of today’s young whippersnappers to shame. We caught up with him at the start of this winter, to get the inside line on this incredible journey from the man himself.

What you up to right now?
I was working until you called and interrupted.

The boys have been dusting off some classic old Gumby stories… what are your favourite memories from those early Val days?
So many good ones. It all started with Ed (Leigh), Duffy, Daz and Chris. Ed and I did a lot of km together and he was sponsored way before he should have been, but it’s him that got me into the whole pro thing. We used to laugh and tease each other, saying ‘If you’re sponsored then I should for sure be hooked up’. Ed got me into freestyle and I showed him the freeriding ropes. That year we decided that it might be a good idea to stop and take our time building and shaping the jumps we were just hitting on the side of the piste. So him and I started building or first backcountry kickers and spent all our time looking for new spots. It was the year after that the UK pro scene – Spencer (Claridge) Danny (Wheeler) Mark (Ellis) Scott (Wayman) Fatty (Elliot Neave) (fuck I can barely remembers their names) turned up. We had great times building kickers and showing off to each other. We were such a bunch of huckers. Except Danny – he was just a ponce, but only because he always landed.

How did you end up in Val?
Ha ha! This is good. I was on my way to Chamonix but got distracted along the way. Well, it’s long story but I’ll give you the short censored version. I’d just come back in a hurry from a month tripping around Morocco, and got dropped on the side of the road on the outskirts of Paris – broke with nothing but a bunch of rugs to sell. I went into a bar and met an Aussie guy who invited me to stay at his. Next day he went to work and told me his French girlfriend would show me around Paris. Well, by the end of that day she wasn’t his girlfriend any more. I spent the rest of that week with her and she had a place in Val d’Isère and told me that it was a much better resort than Chamonix. What she didn’t tell me was that October was inter-season, but that’s another story. At least she was right about one thing.

How long have you lived there now?
14 years. I came here when I was 15.

How has snowboarding changed for you?
It’s got better. The kit is way better, I don’t fall over as much, there’s loads more girls doing it, rich people do it, skiers finally realised we are cool, I don’t get stressed anymore when I miss a powder day, I’m less obsessed with the whole thing. It’s become more of a job but I make a living from it and I’m still loving it.

What’s the latest with the Xbox BDO?
Music is the next page of the event. Last year we decided to make it more of a festival and it worked really well. In fact it fucking rocked we had 10,000 people going crazy for Roni Size, including me. I’ve always wanted it to be a big party and we sure got that last year. This year’s line up is getting stronger every day; at the moment we have confirmed Fabio and Grooverider, Stanton Warriors, Nextmen and Freestylers. We are working on one big international act which unfortunately I cant mention: one because it’s not signed and second because we are just going to have them for small private gig for the riders and press.

How did the BDO start?
It was with a mate called Duffy and E. We basically did it because there wasn’t anything for the locals – just a gay bump skiing comp. So we built a jump and had a BBQ and piss up. The year after that Duffy and I drove to Annecy and went to see Burton and a couple of other brands and told them we were doing big air comp in Val d’Isère, and next thing you know we are driving back with a van full of product. I’ll never forget, we were so stoked! Just laughing all the way back.

That year we did big air and boardercross and made it skiers against snowboarders. It was so much fun because the boardercross was super dangerous and fast. The year after that we built the biggest, most dangerous jump I’ve ever seen still to this day. We had a guy called Whalers who was drinking tequila and then pointing it at the kicker. His last jump before we stopped him he jumped (and crashed) 44m metres. It was like the big ski jumps only on ski bum rocket fuel! It was so funny, David Vincent was stood on the side of the jump just shaking his head, and at that time he was one of the biggest names in international snowboarding. Then when I got sponsored by Quiksilver they also sponsored the event, and after a couple more years they started sending the team. I remember a young Jacob [Wilhelmson] coming and blowing everyone away. I could go on and on but you’d need to make it a 10-page interview.

Where did you get the name from?
Duffy came up with it, first it was ‘Big Day’ and then ‘Big Day Out’, I was gutted a few years later when a couple of Aussies started saying that we copied the one in Aus. For the record we started it first.

How long does it take to organise now? When do you start? And what’s planned for this year?
I work on it year round but if you compact the work I’d say about 7 months. We’ve moved the site 60m to the left so that I can build “La Monster”. It’s going to be the world’s biggest jump so that we can set and break a new official world record for the highest air. It’s going to be 12m high and 30m by 30m wide. The whole set up will consist of a hip jump, a step up/step down and a straight, 25m-table skate table like nobody’s ever seen before. I’ve been building big jumps for a long time now so I figure it’s time to step things up to next level. We are going to start with the machines one month before because of the huge build time. Three machines for 10 nights, then we’ll work days after that with two machines. We have 250 Hours booked, although hopefully we won’t use all that. One of the best things about our site other than its location is the amount of snow cannons we have. We’ve got eight snow cannons running alongside the length of the course, with about 30m between each one. I’m good friends with the chief of the snow cannon crew so he makes sure we have enough snow. To give you an idea of how much we used last year in the area of the event, after it’s all flattened the snow is still there in August – even after all snow has melted from the top of the Face du Bellvarde.

How’s fatherhood?
Awesome, Noah is 4 now and so much fun – the best thing that ever happened to me. He is already good on skis and loves it. Hopefully I’ll get him onto a snowboard early enough that we will forget he ever skied! I don’t have any memory before 6 years old so he’s got a couple more years yet. Gumby Jr will be hitting the pages of this mag one day soon.

Oakley? Burton? Xbox? Quiksilver? How’s this stuff working out?
Great, they all still hook me up. I stopped getting paid by Quiksilver last year but they still give me gear for me and my family which is more than cool. I’m so stoked for all Jasper, Tommi and everybody at Quik have done for me over the years, sending me to AK and all the other trips. I’ve lived the dream thanks to Quik. And I’m gonna get back on the payroll when I break the world record for highest air on my jump. Haha. Also I want to say big up to Stewart Morgan at Oakley. He is one of the best and genuinely funny people I’ve ever met in the industry and a true friend. My strategy has always been to only work with the best brands because I need to ride the best product available, and for the event to stay in keeping with Val d’Isère’s kudos.

How much riding are you still getting in?
Loads. Since we set up Winterpark in Val d’Isère two years ago I’m in the park nearly every day. And if I’m not, its because it’s a big powder day so I take the day off. It’s funny – after years of slagging park off, now I ride it every day and love it. For sure I don’t hit the black jumps much but I don’t need to because our red line is sick and more fun for this old timer. We had a really good hip at the end of last year which was so much fun, so I’ve convinced the team to build it first this year. Ha ha! My own custom park jump just for me.

What’s a good day for Gumby these days?
Wake up to Noah jumping on my head demanding breakfast and cartoons. Hang out with him watching Sponge Bob, take him to school and turn around quick to catch first lift. Sneak in two or three runs before going to work in the park. Stay in the park till four, maybe a bit of digging and run a couple of laps on the red line. Then back down to pick up Noah. It’s great because one of my favourite off piste runs comes out at Noah’s school, so on a good day I’ll do that to pick him up. If not the piste comes out just down the street. Back home, drop him off to mum then off to the office to work the night on Xbox Stuff till about 10pm, sometimes later. That’s a good day. Most days I just work.

What have you learned?
To always give 110%, or not at all. I hate it when people give half of what they are capable of. If it’s work or riding, one thing is for sure – going hard pays off in the end. From a pro snowboard point of view it’s also good to know when it’s your day or when it’s not. If it’s not then step back, even when the cameras are rolling. When it’s on, go fucking hard. The simple things in life are the best.


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