The following story first appeared in the winter 2021 print issue of Beta. To get the quarterly magazine, sign up to be a Beta Pass or Outside+ member. Membership details HERE.
His was an underdog story. He grew up poor, on the outskirts of a Vancouver Island forestry town, with his single mom as his only support. She shuttled him up logging roads on weekends and after school, never missing a rideable moment. From the most unlikely circumstances, he became the first and only Canadian man ever to win the World Cup overall title for downhill mountain biking. As his aura grew, so did an ironic moustache that became synonymous with him: a perpetual fixture of his personality plastered above a devious grin. With the rough-sawn grit of a boy raised by the landscape itself, he’d broken into a world for which he had no birthright. They called him Chainsaw for it, and his fans revved loud machines as tribute while he subdued race courses, it seemed like, by sheer force of will.
Then, in 2016, fate exercised its cruel authority when it took Stevie Smith back by way of a motorcycle crash near his hometown of Nanaimo, B.C. At the height of his promise, Canada lost a champion, mountain biking lost a giant, and a mother lost a son. But in the anguish that followed, a legend rose—and still lives on. Smith’s legacy is now one of the strongest currents in mountain bike culture, and his story continues. It’s one at the center of Anthill Films’ feature-length documentary, “Long Live Chainsaw.”
“Every time I take him up there, he’s that one ride closer to getting what he wants—what he’s aiming for.”
Those are Tianna Smith’s famous words from the seminal 2008 film “Seasons.” In it, a green Geo Tracker bumbles up a logging road through a damp rainforest with a downhill bike dangling off it. This was the world’s introduction to Smith, and his mom gave it. “He’s got big aims, he wants to be number one in the world,” she adds, while her then-17-year-old son hammers his home trails for the first time ever on screen.
By 2013, he would achieve that goal. But back in 2008, nobody other than Tianna believed he would go that far. In that regard, Smith proved you didn’t have to come from privilege to win at mountain biking, you just had to have drive and a loving mom in your corner. It’s a message that still reverberates through the community today.
“When Steve was young, I couldn’t go travel with him, because I couldn’t afford it,” Tianna remembers. “As a single parent I had to work. And he said, ‘Well, we’re into a rich-person sport, mom.’ And I’m like, ‘How the hell did we get into that?’”
The answer was BMX. Tianna had set Smith up with a “big-brother-type figure” when he was 6, named Bill Monahan. With Monahan’s mechanical help, along with the small-town savvy of Smith’s grandmother (she famously traded apple pies for bikes), he had wheels under him long enough to find sponsors. Getting to that point wasn’t something he ever took for granted, and paying it forward remained core to his overall mission as a mountain biker.
“His goal, eventually when he retired from biking, was to teach kids how to ride, and get kids on bikes,” Tianna explains. “Whether they went professional or whatever, but just get them out there. And so in my own way, which is a little different than Steve would have done, I try to keep that going.”
That’s taken shape in a few different ways. One is the Stevie Smith Memorial DH BC Cup race at Mount Washington on Vancouver Island every year, but the most enduring one is the Stevie Smith Bike Park in Nanaimo. On any given day, up to 150 kids can be seen pumping its undulating paved tracks and soaring above its lofty dirt jumps—the latter of which the late Jordie Lunn personally built in his friend’s honor. The park provides local kids not just with a place to ride, but a communal space to push each other. For Tianna, it’s her way to still be spiritually shuttling kids up the proverbial mountain all these years later, in her son’s memory.
His goal, eventually when he retired from biking, was to teach kids how to ride, and get kids on bikes.
The park itself is a project of the Stevie Smith Legacy Foundation. The organization was originally founded and fundraised for by Michelle Corfield, a close friend of Tianna’s, whose son used to race BMX with Smith. Corfield is a PhD-endowed management consultant who has sat on the boards of 11 organizations and societies, and is currently the vice president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. She’s thunderously ambitious, and when it came time to build something in Smith’s name, she marched through the mountain bike industry’s financial ecosystem like a storm picking up moisture over the Pacific.
“It’s always been a passion project,” she explains. “I think what happens is I get used to my professional life, and my credentials enable me to work well in this fundraising circle. Most people, they’re trying to raise 50 percent [of what’s needed for a project]. And I’m like, ‘No, we’ve got to think big.’ My daily job enables me to do things on a larger scale.”
She is in fact such a force that the foundation is still largely running off the original money she raised five years ago. Among other things, the foundation has supported the Canadian National DH team, and also served as a consultant to other communities on building bike amenities. Indirectly, Corfield says the foundation has supported projects and events all across B.C. But its most important and direct function, she says, is to support the development of young racers through a scholarship handed out at Crankworx each season. The interesting thing about that is racers don’t apply—the foundation finds them. Each year, its directors surreptitiously study which racers have the most potential, the most need, and the best attitudes, and make their selection in the background.
“You’ve got to be a good rider,” Corfield says, “but you’ve got to have passion. That’s what attracted people to Steven. He broke through, he was riding downhill when downhill wasn’t a sport for a 13-year-old boy. He showed that he was committed to the sport, so you wanted to help him. I bought him his first [full-suspension] frame. You wanted to help him because you knew if he had had better equipment, he would just do better.”
You’ve got to be a good rider, but you’ve got to have passion. That’s what attracted people to Steven.
In that spirit, Magnus Manson was the first rider to receive a Stevie Smith scholarship in 2016, when he was 17. Manson had a small sponsorship from Devinci at the time, and he’d spent part of that season riding with Smith before his passing. And like Smith before him, Manson didn’t have all the money he needed to travel. As such, the award was extra special to him.
“It was definitely a surprise,” he remembers. “I was a young kid, still working part-time jobs and still trying to make it as easy for my parents as I could. So having the grant to go over to Europe and race Worlds was huge, it made it way easier. And it turned out really well, I got second that year. It let me focus more on the racing, not just getting over there and hoping I got enough money to make it all work properly.”
More than anything, though, the award motivated him to chase Smith’s wheel. For those at the elite level, Smith’s legacy is ethereal—it’s the roaring whisper the trail spits back, teasing, “C’mon, go faster.”
For Miranda Miller, who in 2017 was the first Canadian in 27 years to win the DH World Championships, she says Smith’s memory, along with his spirited chirping and elbow jabs, was with her the whole time.
“Stevie was just the guy that did it,” she remembers of her friend. “He was the guy that made it. And it’s something that up until then no one had accomplished. And people would always kind of wrack their brains, like, ‘Why aren’t the Canadians any good?’”
Miller says Smith gave his peers a hero that was an equal. He was approachable, relatable—he didn’t seem somehow untouchable like the rest of the podium pounders. He was just a kid from Nanaimo who made everything seem possible. And although Miller believes riders like Finn Iles, Jackson Goldstone and Mark Wallace are following more closely in Smith’s footsteps, she still credits Smith with the mindset that won her the World Championship.
“I was just having a really hard season,” she explains. “I was overcoming an injury at the time, and it had stopped me from doing a bunch of racing, and I kept crashing. It was the last day of the season, and the likelihood of me having another one with my team at that point was really low. I was just in a bad spot. But right before my run I watched a video of Stevie where he’s being interviewed before he won the overall title. He said something like, ‘If I win, I’m damn pumped. And if I don’t, I’m still pumped I made it this far.’ He had this ability to truly recognize he was living the dream and enjoy every step of it, where I was kind of lost in the stress of it all. But that kind of snapped me out of it. And that was right before I went out for my race run.”
In the end, Smith’s legacy is many things to many people. But maybe the biggest lesson he left behind is that winning happens in your head first—everything else follows that.
From Winter 2021