Where would the mountain bike world be without Thomas Vanderham? How long would it have taken us to learn the optimal balance of speed and style? Would the once humble moto whip ever have risen to the art form it is today? Maybe we'd have figured it out eventually. Sure, the wheels of freeride were already in motion during Vanderham’s come-up. But he’s responsible for launching its second wave. Thomas Vanderham was one of the first riders who saw what was happening and had the skills to create what would happen next. We caught up with Vanderham for a glimpse into the world of one of mountain biking’s greats.
Vanderham’s early career included a healthy mix of World Cup downhill racing, slopestyle titles, and even a podium at the Red Bull Rampage. But he’s probably best known for his long line of film segments: 2003’s New World Disorder IV, 2015’s UnReal, and 2019's Return to Earth, to name just a few. Plus, web-edit mainstays like Raw 100 and This Is Home. Vanderham’s filmography spans the evolution of the modern mountain bike video, from the age of zip-lining cameramen and cringe-worthy soundtracks to today’s 4K drones and artful cinematography. He’s been a highly visible, highly influential force throughout our sport’s most dynamic era.
“One of the coolest things about the last twenty years for me in the mountain bike industry is how much it has changed and evolved,” Vanderham tells us. “Seeing the sport establish itself. Seeing it grow to the level that it’s now at has been fun to be a part of.”
And he’s still a part of it. On top of continuing to be featured in media projects each season, Vanderham makes it a point to stay engaged with up-and-coming riders. "I'm involved with Rocky Mountain, working with some of our younger athletes," he explains. "I've had some great teammates, role models, and team managers over the years that I learned a lot from. I'd love to pass that experience on to the next generation of riders if I can.”
There is undeniable stoke in Vanderham’s voice when he talks about mountain biking’s future. He’s inspired by the momentum that’s been building, even over just the past few years. “The sport has become more approachable for a wide number of people,” he says. "It used to be a little bit of a niche sport. There were a lot of barriers to entry." That was especially true in the rugged landscape of coastal British Columbia, where he calls home. There once were few official resources being invested in trails for new mountain bikers. Now, from pump tracks to skills areas to bike parks, there are open doors everywhere for riders who are just starting out. And notably, even before they start out.
“Not too long ago, you couldn’t just walk into a bike shop, rent a bike for a day, be handed a trail map, and be sent on your way,” Vanderham says. “It’s much easier to do that now and experience the sport as someone who wants to dabble or just try it for a day.” But it’s not only the availability of bikes that has improved. It’s the bikes themselves. Vanderham credits some of the leaps in technology and design for making the sport so much more appealing.
"I'd say the dropper post comes to mind. Bigger wheels, tire technology, 1x drivetrains, how good brakes are now." Vanderham rattles off what he's thankful for as if he had a pre-prepared list. Each item must have been pretty memorable for someone riding at his level. They’re not just quality-of-life improvements. They could be life-saving. And, of course, that includes helmets.
“I used to primarily ride a downhill bike with a full-face helmet, but now I spend most of my time on a trail bike.” There was a time when that sentence might be a freerider’s way of saying, "I'm retired." But some of today's trail bikes are more capable than yesterday's downhill bikes. The level of riding—and risk—in Vanderham’s contemporary clips is often beyond that of his early days. And he’s almost always wearing an open-faced trail helmet. “That’s where I’ve seen a lot of evolution and effort. In the helmets that you would want to pedal in.”
Twenty years ago, a helmet you would “want to pedal in” didn’t inspire much confidence for riders like Vanderham. Until the early 2000s, ultralight race-oriented helmets dominated the landscape. But then, things changed. Helmets started offering more coverage and better fit. Fundamentally new safety features emerged. Testing processes got more advanced, and test results got more attention. Lazer is here for it. In fact, Lazer's been here for it since 1919. But our expansion into aggressive trail helmets only started a century later, with the introduction of the Coyote in 2019. That's why our relationship with Vanderham has been so crucial.
“The Coyote was a major change from anything Lazer had done in MTB before, so I saw a lot of potential,” Vanderham says. “They have been very keen to hear feedback on their products and work for ways to improve them.” After the Coyote came the Jackal KinetiCore, currently Vanderham’s go-to helmet. “It’s so light. And it’s nice to pedal in on warm days.”
It says a lot that the comfort benefits of a safety feature like Lazer’s KinetiCore rotational impact protection technology could stand out more than the safety itself. It's integrated to the point of invisibility, making no compromises in the process. That tracks with what riders have come to expect out of today's bikes. We want them to be practical and pedal-able, but then seamlessly transform into monster trucks when we point them downhill.
The industry is now able to provide that experience, but with it came a need for everything else to keep up. The unprecedented safety of modern trail helmets is just one part of the equation. Trail design is becoming more thoughtful and serving wider audiences. Bike parks are popping up that will never see a chairlift because, thanks to modern trail-bike design, we don't necessarily need chairlifts. A crazy thing to imagine back when Vanderham was starting out.
“I’ve seen a lot of close friends who, maybe ten years ago, would never consider trying mountain biking,” Vanderham says. “And now they love it. It’s a sport that I feel has a pretty high retention rate. If you get someone on a bike, there’s a good chance they’ll keep riding it.”