Height Of His Powers | The Sebbe de Buck Interview

The tall man from the low lands is going clear of compromise - and we’d all better strap in

Above: Sebbe de Buck soars high in Riksgransen (Photo: Alex Roberts)

‘What’s for ye will no’ go by ye’, say the Scots. In France it’s ‘que sera sera’. We don’t know if there’s an equivalent expression in Flemish that encourages the acceptance of one’s fate – but if there is, it’s one that Sebbe de Buck will have had reason to reach for in recent weeks. 

Hopefully you’ve got the stamina for yet another Olympic-related controversy. Here goes: after governing body FIS amended the qualification criteria due to COVID-19 restrictions without properly communicating the changes, Belgium’s finest dropped thirty places in the rankings overnight. So sure was he of making the cut that he’d skipped several World Cup events, but now his shoo-in appearance at Beijing was unexpectedly under threat. Despite a late scramble for FIS points, taking in trips to Calgary, Mammoth and Laax, he missed out on a second Olympics by a single spot. 

Unjust? Probably. Frustrating? Certainly. However, there are three reasons why what looks like a cruel twist of fate may just have been a blessing in disguise for Sebbe. Firstly, it meant no chance of being caught up in the slopestyle final’s judging-controversy fallout. Secondly, it meant he could say yes to a Natural Selection invite that he’d otherwise have had to pass up. Finally, it presented an opportunity for change.

“He’s managed to successfully balance contest obligations with filming for years now. Getting to that point was no easy road, however”

“So last week before I came back out to the mountains, I told the [Belgian snowboard]  federation I’m done with it. I’ve been trying to find the time for the last couple years to make that transition as smooth as possible.”

As we speak, Sebbe is in Laax with the Beyond Medals crew, working on the latest in their series of mid-length epics. That hail-mary attempt to make it to Beijing has pushed the schedule back a bit, but in general he’s managed to successfully balance contest obligations with filming for years now. Getting to that point was no easy road, however; growing up near Antwerp as a “super hyped young kid who just wanted to snowboard every day”, the chief route to doing that as a career lay with the national team. Naturally that came with all sorts of expectations and limitations, adjusting to which caused a lot of friction.

“I use the Axis a lot. You can just pop the lenses out, quick and easy.” (Photo Alex Roberts)

“Pretty much every trip we went on, I had a blowout with the coach,” he remembers, citing a visit to the much-missed Snow Park NZ as an example. “They were telling me, ‘you can do two more runs on the rails and then we’re going down to the gym’. I was like ‘dude, it’s so good out here!’ It had the sickest rails at the time, but I have to go to the gym because the weather’s not good enough for the jumps? That was always a big struggle for me; it was blood, sweat and tears.”

Unlike some of his deeper-pocketed peers, Sebbe – son of a firefighter and a physiotherapist – didn’t have much bargaining power. He’s quick to acknowledge that the funding that came from the programme was “100% necessary. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’d been doing.” Even so, something had to give. In his late teens, he pitched an alternative vision for how things could work – a win-win solution if ever there were one. Just help me get to the good jumps, he told them, and he’ll do the rest. 

“Pretty much every trip we went on, I had a blowout with the coach”

After some initial pushback, the message got through. “Eventually they saw that I was really progressing a lot just boarding with friends in Mayrhofen instead of going somewhere else with the coaches. I started getting results, and as long as that one thing was in order – as long as I was getting top eights in World Cups, or final spots – they weren’t saying anything. If I got fourth in a contest, they were happy, so I’d be like, ‘OK, I’m going filming for two weeks.” Credit is due to those in charge for trusting him to deliver under his own steam; as a relatively new force in competitive snowboarding, the federation didn’t have a deep roster of talent ready to step up should Sebbe go AWOL. 

And so it went for the best part of a decade. He may not have bagged much top-tier silverware in that time, but from the X Games to the US Open his towering presence was always welcome, and will be missed. Indeed, we could have used him at the most recent five-ring circus. While he understands the assignment in Big Air, he’s been known to treat us to something beyond the usual hucking (remember the cold-as-ice frontflip at X Games 2019?). Likewise, in slopestyle you won’t catch him knee-grabbing. Seriously, you just won’t. 

“If I missed my grab in the air, I’d rather not land. If I mess up the takeoff and I’m not on a good axis to pull on the grab right,  I’ll just, like, body-bag. I don’t really bother landing, because it’s about the whole: the takeoff, the air, the landing; everything. Sometimes when on a jump, if I kind of flail and I have to let go of my grab, and I somehow still land, I’m like, ‘ah, fuck, that was disgusting! I hope no-one saw that…’ I’d rather bail.” This uber-purist approach may seem a bit extreme, especially given the size of the jumps Sebbe is hitting these days, but one thing’s for sure; if this approach caught on, there’d be no repeat of Knee-gate

Speaking of the Beijing slopestyle, this time around the judges appeared to be favouring spin-to-win, with less emphasis than ever on a riders’ individual flair. By contrast, even the most fervent anti-Olympian could tip their hats to the judges at Sochi in 2014, who rewarded Sage Kotsenburg’s run over his triple-corking rivals. Was the latest Games a backwards step?

With years of competitive experience under his belt, Sebbe sees it from all sides. He accepts that it makes sense to reward ‘harder’ tricks in a contest setting, otherwise the levels of subjectivity in play will just leave riders and spectators alike scratching their heads. Discussing Max Parrot’s winning run in particular – which he admits he could never have matched in terms of sheer difficulty – he identifies where a balance between style and technicality could be stuck. “You have to make the hard stuff look easy – when you do that, that’s when style comes through and tricks look super flowy. Max’s run didn’t look easy…”

“You’ll notice that he never takes the simple option. His many nose and tail grabs leave his body opened up, which makes his composure in the air all the more impressive”

For an example of what Sebbe is getting at, look no further than his opening part in Beyond Medals’ latest release, Relapse. Launching a backside rodeo 900 nosegrab over Utah’s iconic, yawning Pyramid gap, in the air his 6’4” frame is a picture of calm and control. It’s only when you see the hectic run-out that the sheer WTF of it all sinks in. As if to labour the point, he closed out that session with another one of his signature laid out, glacially-paced frontflips – in flat light to boot.

That’s just one example of a time he’s made not grabbing an art form (here’s some more), but in general, part of what makes him so great to watch is the way his gloves meet his board. Consider the rest of his Relapse part, and most of his output over the years, and you’ll notice that he never takes the simple option. His many nose and tail grabs leave his body opened up, which makes his composure in the air all the more impressive. Even when he does reach down between the feet, the grab will most likely be boned out. A conscious choice, surely?

“Yeah, I don’t know. I have certain tricks that only work with a certain grab. For example, if I would so a switch back double ten, I would do a mute, but if I would go flat spin, I would take my other arm. And that’s how I played around with different axes; some grabs put me into different rotations. 

But if you’re just grabbing the middle of your board, it’s gonna look like a stink bug. You’ll look like a little cannonball flying through the air. I definitely always look for a grab that fits the trick on that particular feature. I’m not just trying to land a trick. I’m trying to make it have a little bit more character to it. All these little pokes and tweaks can change your spins in the air.”

“The tension, that whole pressure when you’re trying a trick for the first time, makes learning the trick that much more fun. That’s why I snowboard”

Figuring out which grab suits which trick is part of a career-long process of ‘feeling things out’. It all started with those early kicker sessions at his local indoor slope in Belgium, where a physical limit of 720 degrees encouraged the use of grabs and shiftys to stand out. Since progressing to real mountains, it’s been about incrementally adding another element to a trick – be it an extra 180, or trickier grab – when the time is right. That’s still his approach today, even as most Olympic-standard riders opt for the quicker progression accessible from airbags.

Sebbe’s made his feelings about such facilities clear in the past. While he won’t begrudge anyone for taking that route, it’s certainly not for him. “The tension, that whole pressure when you’re trying a trick for the first time, makes learning the trick that much more fun. That’s why I snowboard; it’s getting to that point where you’re putting it all on the line and getting the adrenaline going, and getting your head to a hundred-and-ten-percent focus. You have to be in this flow zone to even start trying this; you can’t be like doubting yourself. For me it’s everything that comes with learning a new trick – you’ve got to earn it. It’s like getting a tattoo on your hands. You’ve got to make sure your arms are full first!”

At this point it’s hard to see how Sebbe ever fit in to the modern contest world – but as we’ve already covered, for a kid from Belgium it was by far the easiest way to make a career out of snowboarding. Besides, his presence on the circuit meant that he was often hand-picked for style-forward events such as Peace Park and Nine Royals – the latter of which he won in 2017. Factor in his backcountry prowess, and a call-up to Natural Selection was inevitable. 

The timing could have been better. As a late entrant who could only pull the trigger when his Olympic chances had finally been scuttled, the event would require a fairly violent wrench from the world of pristinely-shaped parks to a first-round face-off with Torstein Horgmo in the Jackson Hole backcountry. In the end the legendary Norseman progressed without the need for a decider. Given the circumstances, it was unlikely to go any other way.

“Those two contest runs were my first backcountry runs of the season,” explains Sebbe. “It was kind of nerve-wracking, plus the conditions weren’t optimal. It all came a little bit too fast, and maybe I should have just skipped it for another year. But I’m happy to have had that chance – and if you get that call, you can’t really say no!”

In a just universe, he’ll be back at Jackson for the next go-round – and without the distraction of the World Cup circuit, fully prepped. And if he doesn’t reappear; no matter. While he’s honoured to have been included, at the end of the day it’s swapping one start gate for another. “It’s still a contest, don’t get this wrong! People are still up there with a contest mindset. There is a lot on the line, especially because it’s getting a lot of eyes on it.”

Instead, the priority now is to finally fulfil the long-term vision he’s held ever since those teenage years spent in a massive fridge; a world of cameras, sleds and heli trips, with his fate largely in his own hands. A world beyond medals, you might say. 

“Contests were never where I wanted to shine, or where I wanted to go,” he says. “And now, finally leaving that behind, and for the first time being a fully independent snowboarder, it feels good and gives me some extra energy and motivation. It’s finally time to do what I really want to do well.”

Of course, the money’s got to come from somewhere – but after being mindful enough to build long-term relationships with his sponsors, he’s got that covered. Sebbe’s approach has always been to be extremely picky about which companies to work with, but then go all in when a good fit is found. When Giro came knocking, for example, he did his due diligence. “To me Giro was more like a cycling brand, so I wasn’t like ‘oh yeah, let’s go!’ right away. But they got a couple of other riders on there that got me really hyped. Hitch [Christian Haller] was on there, and Bryan Fox, and then Gabe [Ferguson]. And then I was like, ‘okay, I can see this going in the right direction. And I’ve been on it ever since.”

“Contests were never where I wanted to shine, or where I wanted to go”

As a point of principle, in his entire pro career he’s never jumped ship at the first sight of a better offer. “I knew so many other riders that would switch sponsors every two years – but you don’t really build up a relationship. I’m more of the mindset that you pick something you’re cool with, where you’re down with their vibe, and work your way up.”

Again, it’s those incremental steps, built on a solid foundation. No shortcuts, just graft. There’s no telling what heights Sebbe will reach now that his foot is fully on the gas. And if you see him deck it, don’t fret – he probably just missed his grab. 

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