Behind the Mind of Bjorn Riley

Stilspoke and Bjorn sit down to discuss how the creative process intermingles with being at the front of world cup mountain bike racing.

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Stilspoke: Bjorn, if you could describe yourself, how would you do so?

BR: Mundane, yet sporadic. I feel like I'm too boring, you know, like because I'm stuck in my ways. At times I feel like what I do is quite repetitive and boring because it's such a constant routine, but I guess if you look at it from the outside perspective it's more spontaneous and weird than I think it is sometime. But yeah, at the same time, I’m quite sporadic because I randomly make these choices in a spontaneous way. But at the same time that happens within a routine that feels mundane. 

You know it's like I ride and then I just like sew or draw, and then just decide to go to the skate park if I want to go to the skate park. When I want to paint, I'll just like move my whole room around so I can paint. But I feel like I do stuff like that every day so over the course of the weeks it seems pretty monotonous to me…

Stilspoke: I love it. Yeah. This is a hard one to answer I know, but why do you do the things you do, whether it's the bike or the art? 

BR: Because I think I’d go insane without it, without both of them. I got asked a few days ago why I am racing bikes when I have so much creative stuff in my mind. And it’s because I think without the bike and the racing world, I can't be creative at all… because what brings me inspiration and what develops in my mind on the creative side always comes from riding. And then without the creative side, I don't think I could bike because then I don't have an outlet to put all my thoughts and ideas into. 

So on those long rides, I have all these really weird ideas in my mind that kind of turn around… and then when I’m home and let those ideas out, they’re never in the exact form I think about on the bike, but it's more the inspiration or the energy that riding gives me that makes me want to get back and create. 

Stilspoke: Yeah, so you may not think of the exact execution of the idea on the bike, but you get the feeling while you're riding and then translate that into the art later. 

BR: Yeah, it's like when you get hyped up for seeing someone do well in a race. It hypes you up to do well in your own race. It's not like you're going to do the exact same thing they did, but it's more just the energy that it gives you to go out there and step into the unknown.  

Stilspoke: When did you start really developing your art? Has it always been a part of you? 

BR: Growing up, my mom, was a dope ass painter and she'd always draw in a way that’s between realism and cartoon character animals, like the cartoon characters with a little more form and super well done. And when I was younger, she would help have me draw those. 

And then at some point, I stopped doing art. But when I got to my senior year of high school, I fell in love with film photography. And then I started developing my art craft again. During senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I'd be in the dark room for like four to five hours a day developing film. 

So I started taking photos, but I was really good at the hands on process, making messes or cleaning up mistakes. I liked when I messed up in the photos. And then three years ago when I moved to Europe, that's when I really started doing art consistently because I had the time and I really started developing my craft. 

Stilspoke: Why'd you make that decision to move to Europe? It’s a big leap to take for an American bike racer, but it seems to really suits your lifestyle right now beyond the obvious that all the races are over there. 

BR: The reason I moved here was because I felt I hit a plateau in Boulder. I could have kept doing the U.S races and gone over to Europe for Worlds and maybe two World Cups, but I wasn't satisfied in myself with that approach, because I had been doing that same thing for the past few years. When I got the opportunity to move here full time I didn't even take a minute to decide that I was going to do it because I was ready for it. Luckily I know the German language, so I sort of knew what I was getting myself into and felt ready to start a new thing. I'm kind of a creature of habit so it was good for me to break that up by moving to Europe, and go all in on trying to be a professional cyclist.

Stilspoke: How do you balance the parts of sport where you have to be very driven and performance-oriented with your approach to art? In sport sometimes everything is about a result, so do you feel like this carries over to your creative process or contrasts it?

BR: I think they contrast each other but the same time, they can be super similar. You have those long adventure rides where there’s a sense of freedom to do what you want. I guess it depends how structured the ride is, or what the meaning and goal behind the big endurance ride is. But generally for me, long endurance rides mean you can go explore an area you don't know and get familiar with it, even if it means you have to hike-a-bike for 30 minutes. 

So it's like that, you have that creative outlet through sport. And then with creating art, I typically have a small sketchbook and a big sketchbook. The small sketchbook is for me to really mess around with, and allow myself to do some sketches that may horrible, but that's sort of like the long endurance rides I would say. Then when I go into more structured training, those big interval sets, you try to nail the numbers and you're proud when you do. You're stoked because it’s an achievement and there’s a good feeling behind it. AndI think it's the same with art, because at times it helps to be really structured with things like creating your base, or drawing your lines. And although this can be kind of tedious and stressful, when you step back from it you get excited because all that hard work and dedication you put into the piece is now something you can see.

Stilspoke: Do you think you're someone who races to train or trains to race? Which one do you like more?

BR: I race to train… yeah, like the racing sick. I doI really like short track racing, because it's so tactical and you’re fighting for positioning, and it's super fun.You have to be hyper-focused on a bunch of tiny things that can actually make a big difference. So I love that.

But when it comes to training, I love the process and the structure of a plan. People see me as very unstructured, and I think I am for some things, but that's what it looks like on the outside. On the inside I love having structure. Without training and the process, I don't know what I’d do, probably just sit in my room painting all day and going crazy. 

Stilspoke: Where do you want to go when you think of five or twenty years from now? It may be easy to imagine your goals in racing, but how does that look when it comes to your MTB career and your art?

BR: I feel I have an outcome for the 20 year plan. When my cycling career starts to wind down, and hopefully that’s somewhere in my mid thirties, I want to start introducing people more to my art and creative aspects. Hopefully the people that follow me through racing will want to follow along for the creative side too. I hope I can put the two together because like I was saying, they’re so much more similar than people think. I know that what I create won’t be something that everyone likes, but I’ve found that when I make  something that I like, it’s puerposeful and people end up appreciating it more. 

As far as the five year plan, I want to get better at painting and videography, so hopefully I’ll be able to dedicate more time to those. 

Stilspoke: Is there anything in cycling culture where you feel like your self expression has limits?

BR:  Well, I think when racing World Cups, sometimes I can’t fully be my own self. Like, I swear a lot haha, so that’s not so good. And there are other small things that we all are focused on, and sometimes I’m not naturally that way. If you look at the World Tour road racing side, everything is super structured, and I think the riders try to fit that mold unnaturally at times. I think mountain biking can have a bit of that, but at it’s core it’s a bit more relaxed and open-ended. 

Stilspoke: Like you said, there’s structure in the unstructured. You can be relaxed, but also be rigid when you need to be. 

BR: Yeah, and there’s some things that come to mind when I think of how to bring self expression into the MTB world. Like this season, I really want to take a bunch of number plates from a mix of athletes, do a little nice whitewash over them, and paint some design on them. For instance, I’d try to capture the emotion of the athlete’s experience who raced with the plate. So I’d draw a human figure or something that kind of shows those feelings. I feel like especially with the shitty races, I think I could capture it, because for some reason I’m really good at drawing sad and anguished people haha.

So I feel like that's a good way. I also think something that holds back self expression is the nature of social media. I sometimes think about how when I need to post a new clip on Instagram to keep engagement up, what’s successful is just the little riding clips. It seems like posting a really nice song to a piece of my artwork doesn’t do as well. I know if I post that and I don't add any riding clips of me jumping or something it's not going to get the same response. 

Stilspoke: I think a lot of people would say that your riding style is quite refreshing and unique to XC. Like you do some things on the bike a lot of people can’t. 

BR:  Yeah I mean I think there are a lot of XC riders who can do a tire grab.

Stilspoke: Mmmm not all that many…

BR: Haha ok, but there are kids that can shred. Although not many people have thrown stuff like that in a race, so when I throw tire grab mid race, I’m really just trying to have fun and I think that resonates with a lot of kids. Like last weekend I was talking to these 14 or 15 year olds at my team’s talent ID camp, and there was one kid telling me he threw a tire grab at the Swiss Nationals, and that was super cool to hear. Everyone in this sport is so focused on training and performance, and that’s a good thing, but you can still throw in the fun. Everyone has a different reason for why they ride their bike and mine is to be playful and explore, so it’s natural for me to bring that into a race, even when I’m going as hard as I possible can and completely destroyed.

Stilspoke:  What would you say to people who are looking for inspiration to create?

BR: All right, this question gets me so hyped. This is what I learned from my high school art teacher, and it’s really stuck with me. We had a project where you had to find one thing in your life that you see every day that is entirely mundane… and this is why I love the word mundane. So for instance, you could look at every door, or chair, or ordinary object that you pass by, and take take ten photos of those items. Then you’d just have to draw them and pay close attention to it. For me, I learned that I get inspiration from the most boring crap… like every little thing that I walk by on a daily basis, especially here in Europe. Over here, you walk by those doors that are painted over like 20 times and there are all those layers and those cracks and it's old and decrepit and falling apart and everyone thinks “oh you need to repair that”, but I think that's like, the most beautiful thing in the world. So I think maybe if you're looking for creativity start searching for it in the places you look at every day. 

We’re always searching for that one thing, you know, that's like, so out there and makes you go “whoa hat's exactly what I want to draw”. But then on any normal day you walk by all these other things that seem mundane, but when you really stop and look at it, it's absolutely beautiful. 

Stilspoke: And isn’t that a bit like the routine of this whole bike racing thing? 

BR: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It feels so mundane at times. If you're a cyclist on a five hour ride you’ve done countless of times, countless of days, maybe a good thing to do is try finding 15 different things you've never seen during that ride. There's always something you're not seeing, so just let yourself notice it, and turn it into something creative.

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