Interviews

Face the Bull – The xavier de le Rue Interview

Many a modern-day snowboarder cites Frenchman Xavier de Le Rue as their inspiration. He’s a big mountain legend, four-time world bordercross champion and three-time Freeride World Tour champion. He’s also a husband, father to three daughters and he takes his summer sports just as seriously as his winter ones. Yet winter couldn’t seem further away when I speak to Xavier on the hottest day of the year

Xavier is at home in Verbier and I’m keen to know why and when he made the Swiss resort his home. “I moved away from the Pyrenees when I was 18 years old, I moved to Annecy to go to sports school for three years. I started my career as a snowboarder and I was really drawn by the mountains of Chamonix; I lived there for five years and it was amazing, I learnt so much. It was an awakening for me to be up there, to see what’s going on in the big mountains and to massively broaden my perspective. And then eventually I had my daughter Mila with my first wife; she lived in Verbier and I was looking for a place that would be a bit more mellow to live in. Anyone who’s ever lived in Chamonix will understand me.”

At the Swatch Nines mountain bike event this summer, Xavier commented that the mountain bike community of current times reminds him of the snowboarding community of old. I wonder how, in his view, snowboarding has changed since the ‘good old days’ – they’re his words, not mine!

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

“There was a time when the sport of snowboarding was growing and everyone was super excited about it and yet there was still so much to discover. It was also a time when being a pro athlete meant exploring new dimensions. Then snowboarding really kind of professionalised itself, and that’s how I see the mountain bike community changing. In snowboarding over the last two decades, there’s less and less exploration, less trying new things, going crazy, innovating. Snowboarding has been promoted a lot in recent times, now it’s more about work, pathways, setting and reaching certain goals. So that’s changed the sport dramatically. The big established circus that is the Olympics has helped put all of these pathways in place, there’s now a very structured environment for kids from the get go, I think you can see that. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, most of the strong riders these days have gone through the competition ranks, it’s given them a base to get strong. But it’s at this point that your mindset becomes regimented, and for me, I think that has consequences on creativity later on. At the same time it’s true that you need to be a lot more of an athlete these days; certainly more than we used to be.”

“over the last two decades, there’s less and less exploration, less trying new things, going crazy, innovating”

“Going back to freestyle mountain biking, everyone is super well connected in the community, boys and girls share tricks, there’s no jealously, they move as a pack and everyone supports each other. There are lots of strong styles and it’s pretty fucking cool to see.”

Xavier competed for France at two Winter Olympics as it happens, in both 2006 and 2010. But I’d argue that it was at the Freeride World Tour in 2008 that we all started paying attention.

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

“It was a love affair with snowboarding from the beginning, without even dreaming of being a professional. When I was a kid, maybe 13, 14, 15 years old in the Pyrenees, seeing snowboarding and being attracted by the mountains around me. I’d look up at the lines on the mountains and wonder how I could get up there. It felt very obvious to me from the beginning that adventuring was very much part of me. It was the same for my Uncle, but he’d passed away before I was born so I assumed he’d left this for me in my genes. I started climbing on my own in Annecy; I knew nothing, but accessing the mountains the hard way started there.”

A scroll through Xaviers Insta grid gives you some insight into the number of different mountain sports he enjoys. He speed rides, he wakeboards, he mountain bikes. He paraglides, he rock climbs, he kite boards. I’m barely scratching the surface here and we chat about the size of his man cave; all that kit needs a serious volume of space.

“My thing is not to be specialised in something, I always needed to try new things and exploration is one of them. Using para-motors to get to lines in Antarctica for example. Using a sail boat to get somewhere no one has ever ridden before. It’s a journey of trying new things, otherwise I get bored. I need to add a spice always.”

“It’s not that I’m looking for an adrenaline rush, but all of these tools are ways to access nature, to conquer the elements – the wind, the rock, the snow, the high alpines, the low alpines, the coastal ranges, all these things that give you an option to test yourself in nature. For me, it’s the end goal, doing something cool. I don’t like the word ‘mastering’, but trying to embrace, play, be accepted by the mountains. All these sports, you start off shit but you learn a lot every time you do them. The status of being ‘really good’ at something is great, but it’s much more fun, for me, to be in the learning curve. I know it’s not like that for everyone, I know some people love to be on top of their game, but I like to be learning.”

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

Whilst most of us avoid the ice patches on the piste like the plague, while many of us rush to get first lifts on a power day, Xavier has an unhealthy love of riding ice.

“All these ice rides are what made me stand out as a snowboarder; they really helped me build my profile in a way. That was never really the goal, but that was my different angle in snowboarding. I remember when I first started riding ice, it was after I’d been taken by this huge avalanche and it was a pretty nasty season, it was super dry and I went up one day to this glacier with a bunch of guys and I saw this ice line. Normally, as a steep snowboarder or a mountaineer snowboarder, you’d avoid that as much as possible, because any time you go close to it, you’d have to rappel down. But I saw this spot and I thought ‘that’s super straight-line-able’ and from doing that it allowed me to transfer a danger into a feature, something I was looking for; new lines became possible. It was also great to hang out around ice, which is hard to control in the high alpines. Like, you can’t believe how much, when you put your edge on the ice, it just doesn’t stick at all. Face the bull, it’s nice to do.”

“It was a love affair with snowboarding from the beginning, without even dreaming of being a professional.”

In 2008 Xavier was knocked unconscious by an enormous avalanche while filming in Switzerland. He was buried for 10 minutes and there’s an iconically scary image of him recovering in hospital with bloodshot eyes that lasted for over a month. Miraculously, his only other injury, after being carried 2km by the avalanche, was a torn ligament in his knee.

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

“That was, in a way, the best lesson that could ever happen to me. After that I was super scared – and I’m still super scared about avalanches. My first reaction when I woke up at the hospital was ‘I’m fucking stupid, why would I play with death like that’. And I was in hospital for a bit, then it was summer so I really had time to question and to realise that I needed to find a way to be more sustainable with my risks. These days I’m more drawn to maritime destinations, near the sea where the risks are more stable. Late season riding, when the steep skiing is easier to handle, that’s cool too. But the winters now are so freaking scary, even in resort. On a powder day when everyone goes out into 50cm of fresh and like, it’s terrifying for me. So this hesitancy is something left over from the avalanche, for sure. I’ve been trying to use the fear as a tool and every time, you know as a free rider when you’re about to drop in, I’m asking ‘should I drop in or not?’ OK the signs are this, my heart tells me this, and the information is telling me this, but do I drop in or not? It’s a question I ask myself every time I’m at the top of a line and it’s so freaking hard to step back. For me, having had that image in my head of me being pretty much dead… not today. I’ve turned back a lot, I’ve been more anal about my line choice, not trying to be out there all the time. A few years down the line, I’ve turned back many times. I’ve still made good lines, ones that I’m more than satisfied with. I’m more comfortable with these choices now, especially being a father.”

“I was 26 when my first daughter arrived. I was still young and being a father to Mila did affect me, it did slow me down maybe a bit. >>
But now with Margot (4) and Lilly (2), for sure it affects me even more. As the fathers out there will understand, if you still manage to get out there, carry on a rhythm of being in those kinds of sports, I think it’s fine, it’s enough. And for sure you don’t want to do anything stupid, but you still want to send it, it’s still important. Pushing my limits, taking some risks, but if anything terrible happened I would hate myself for my daughters. So I try to be good. As for them, they’re constantly crashing their bikes, climbing everywhere and they have this spirit. This is who we are and we transmit this to our kids.”

Xavier’s daughter Mila followed in his footsteps, making her debut on the Junior Freeride World Tour in 2019, at just 13 years old. She’s racking up wins across the freeride world these days and I wonder what that’s like to spectate?

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

“When Mila was like six, seven or eight years old, and the Junior FWT was just starting in Verbier, they were encouraging kids to get involved, and I was like, ‘no, I really don’t like that’. I had the feeling that you couldn’t teach freeriding to kids, they would for sure go off on their own and take stupid decisions. And then eventually I started riding with Mila and I gained confidence in her and she joined the group. I could see when I was riding with her that she’d keep her head together, she’d wait there, she’d traverse here, she’d do it without freaking out and it gave me confidence in her from an early age. Then in the Junior FWT team it really made them good freeriders but if there was any danger at all, they’d go and build a jump to play on instead. They’re so established and good and wise around the risk now, way more than I ever was. So the Junior FWT has been a good life and a good sports platform for Mila. So now, watching her in comps, I know the mindset she has, how she’s in control, how she makes the decisions and I’m not scared for her at all. I’m nervous when it’s a competition and she could hurt herself, but she’s never stupid. She’s not crazy in that sense.”

Xavier was a pioneer of the split board, tearing down the boundaries of accessibility and encouraging us to take a more self-propelled route into the mountains. But that wasn’t always the case. Many of his first freeride films feature A LOT of heli-drops. Was it this pivot in focus a conscious change?

“At a certain stage in my career that was all about video parts – like, that was the model for a professional snowboarder from the late 90s, early 2000s. It was typical to take a helicopter, practice, film some action. Then we realised that actually, the most interesting elements aren’t the riding; it’s everything that goes around it. The riding, after a while, you’ve seen it all, it doesn’t change so much. But all of the times you have to turn back, or travel somewhere and find a way to get there, to rappel, a cornice breaking, these things are much more interesting. So we started making our own films and people liked it so I think it was really nice to show the split boarding that went around it.”

“if you only do heli-drops, then you end up going to the same place over and over again. Once you’ve been a few years in a row to these places, it’s just the same. Eventually it becomes boring.”

“At the same time, if you only do heli-drops, then you end up going to the same place over and over again. Once you’ve been a few years in a row to these places, it’s just the same. Eventually it becomes boring. We started mixing the two together, getting dropped then split boarding. Also heli-drops look cool, but they’re freaking exhausting. So stressful. There’s no acclimatisation to the altitude either. There’s also lots of money involved, lots of crew to get the shots, lots of noise. It’s so stressful.”

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

In a life of memorable moments, I imagine it’ll be hard for Xavier to answer my next question. Which adventure has been the best so far? “Antarctica in 2012 for sure. This was my dream trip. We went there and we took the most incredible journey. The spot was beautiful and extra special because of the fact that no one in the snowboarding world had ever been there. It was a big question mark, the intensity of the location and on the way home the whole team agreed that we’d never find a place like this again. But we’re going to try, because this year I’m going back there with my brother Victor and my daughter Mila. I’m 44 now and I’m a lot more laid back and I’m not constantly searching, but having my family with me will be next level. Also, there’s been such an evolution in filming techniques and I’ve got an amazing crew for this trip. I haven’t done any big movies for a while so I’m very very excited for this one.”

In recent years Xavier has released a series of video tutorials called the How To Series. The idea here is to use his 22 years of snowboarding to pass on useful tips and tricks learned along the way. Episodes vary from how to use your avalanche transceiver correctly, how to drop cliffs and how to camp on snow.

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

“Five or six years ago I felt redundant; all the movies had the same feeling and the interviews were always the same. OK, I was going to this location where no one had been before and we rode this line and faced the elements, and this this this, always the same. And voila, same sorry. Egotistic and redundant. At the same time I could see how Mila was digesting social media content and I needed to do stuff that was useful, this is why I started the How To Series. They’re my alternative to just another hero movie that just disappears. But with my new Antarctica movie, it’s a middle ground. There’s a sustainability element, a family story.”

The mention of sustainability neatly rounds off my list of questions for Xavier. The heli-drops are gone, but it feels like every snow sports movie must have a sustainability message

“I’m not comfortable being the poster boy for sustainability, it’s a brave stance.”

“I’m not comfortable being the poster boy for sustainability, it’s a brave stance. I didn’t jump on the band wagon. Instead I created a short video series called the Sustainability Dialogues and I learnt so much from these. Knowing what’s going on makes it easier to make efforts and that’s something I wanted to share. Five or six years later, people understand the challenge we’re facing and I haven’t done more heli movies. I travel less, I’ve made lots of changes in my daily life. Obviously I’m still carbon bound. I’ve tried to speak about it, now I’m in between two waters. Antartica will be interesting.”

Image Credit – TERO_REPO / Rossignol

More Info:

You can follow Xavier’s adventures this winter on Instagram @xavierdelerue and also on his website – xavierdelerue.com

Face the Bull – The xavier de le Rue Interview
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