Interview first published in West magazine, August 2016
Andrei bounds out of his van and gives me a hug. It’s a midsummer morning, the sky is blue, the sun is high in the sky, and we’re at a crop of granite boulders on Dartmoor National Park, south west England, which is Andrei’s favourite place in the world (and he’s seen a lot of it) to train.
He pulls his helmet on over wavy blond hair and then starts bouncing effortlessly around the boulders, unfazed when I ask him for some shots on the edge of a 30ft drop.
“I come up here in the middle of winter, put my headphones in and can ride for six hours and I won’t look up,” he says. “And I’m the happiest person in the world, and can’t believe other people don’t do this! I feel really sad when I meet someone who doesn’t have a passion in life.”
Andrei’s passion is his profession, and this passion teamed with a remarkable level of commitment, hard work – he spends between 20 and 40 hours a week training – and focus, virtually at the expense of all else, has made him the best mountain bike trials rider in Britain and in the top ten globally.
Recently turning 30, Andrei first fell for trials biking aged 13 after seeing a group of boys doing tricks on their bikes on the steps by Exeter Cathedral, impressively entering his first competition a year later.
The athlete has been all over the world with his bike – “why would I go anywhere without my bike?” – and reels off a plethora of countries including Japan, Canada, Argentina, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Australia as his top destinations. Spain is his winter go-to because of its multitude of decent training spots in close proximity. But it’s Dartmoor that tops them all. Why? “Look at it!” he grins throwing his arms out and staring off over Widecombe-in-the-Moor. “What more could you want?”
Andrei, who says he wouldn’t consider moving anywhere else just yet because of the training opportunities in the South West of England (he’d previously texted me to arrange to meet, from a quarry on Portland Bill), but says Camps Bay near Cape Town, South Africa is a close second to Dartmoor. “There you’ve got Table Mountain in the background,” he says. “And whereas you’ve got sheep and ponies here, there you’ve got penguins and sharks!”
So in demand is Andrei, that he struggles to tell me about his average week – and it becomes clear that “average” is a word that can’t be associated with him. “I’ve driven 16,000-miles, flown to three different countries, driven to Scotland twice, and Europe twice, in the last two-and-a-half months,” he says. “I was in Liverpool last Monday, drove back to Exeter, spent from 9am until 10pm building my rig for my next event in Birmingham, then drove home again, then up to Liverpool, then Scotland for four days of shows, then back to Devon, then back up to Liverpool, then Yorkshire…It’s literally like that all the time.”
Andrei has broken numerous world records, like highest side hop on to a platform (157.5cm) and highest vertical drop on to a target, and attends World Cup and World Championship events when he can. And he’s a regular on Top Gear Live shows where he rides on moving cars – the only rider in the world to take on this feat.
He certainly looks invincible, he’s so at one with his bike it’s like an extension of him. “I feel naked without it!” he grins, when I suggest a few photos of him without his bike.
But like any top athlete his career has been punctuated with injury and it’s not only world records he’s broken; he’s broken his shoulder, his hands, suffered foot paralysis and required 22 stitches in his face. His worst injury was crushing two discs through over training rendering him unable to walk for two weeks and keeping him off his bike for three months.
Doing what he does is 50 per cent down to mental attitude, and 50 per cent physical skill. “It’s like playing chess but getting sweaty!” he laughs. “There are riders I’ll beat in competitions because they are weak mentally.”
Andrei grew up in the Devon seaside town of Exmouth, before moving to the city of Exeter aged 16, whereupon he started working as a bike mechanic. Then when the invites to shows started multiplying – nowadays he does an average of 100 shows a year –he went for it full time. What has he sacrificed to be the most in demand rider in Britain (possibly the world)?
“I’ve sacrificed everything – I don’t see my family very much and I’ve had relationships break up because of my riding,” he admits after a little probing, before reeling off a few girls’ names, with a forlorn look on his face. His social life also took a hit. “I didn’t drink between the ages of 18 and 21 because it was affecting my riding, so I didn’t go out much,” he adds.
So don’t tell him he’s lucky to do what he does for a living. “I hate the word!” he exclaims. “I hate it when people say, ‘you’re so lucky to ride your bike for a living’, when people don’t know what I’ve been through to get here.
“I don’t know why I’m so driven,” he adds. “I’ve got quite a competitive personality, so maybe it’s that? I don’t think about myself competing with others, only against myself, to be the best version of myself I can be.
“But money can’t buy the feeling after having a good day riding – it’s like a weird euphoria.
“My whole career has been an accident really. I never set out to be a professional rider, I still don’t! It was never a conscious decision.”
Andrei now has a team of 15 riders who go to shows when he can’t. He’s busy because of how good he is and because of how much he loves it, not because he can’t say no, “I would say no to dressing up as a sheep and jumping around on my bike, for example,” he quips.
The event Andrei takes most pride in is the Prudential RideLondon, a three-day festival of cycling which incorporates an international competition organised by Andrei, for which he invites the 10 best riders in the world.
Andrei has a hefty 12,000 followers of Instagram, which he loves because of the motivation he gets from other inspirational people. “I follow mainly other athletes of all sports; professional climbers, high jumpers, body builders. And I get daily inspiration.”
But what he loves most about his job is inspiring the younger generation to take up sports, and with his work ethic, if anyone is up to the job, it’s Andrei. “Trials biking is hard and takes a lot of work and that’s why a lot of people give up and jump on a BMX,” he says. “But I would say to young people wanting to get into trials or any other sport, to enjoy the process of learning and set yourself small goals; I always set myself small goals that are achievable.”
But for all the joy the sport gives Andrei, and for all the joy he is able to give others, his biggest bug bear its lack of profile, and when he talks about it he becomes animated, his frustration tangible.
“The resources and sponsorship behind the events aren’t there,” he explains, adding that he has to work the shows to give him the time to train for competitions. “I don’t think people realise how hard trials biking is, or the hours and hours of training it takes to get to be one of the best in the world. And there’s so much behind the scenes that spectators don’t see; it can take two days to set up and then you’re given four hours to break down, so the minute we stop riding we get to it.
“I know a professional football player and I train three times as hard as him. There are so many things I’d like to see happen; it’s an amazing sport for spectators but I want to change the way competitions are run so the rules become simpler to understand and it becomes more exciting to watch.”
One day, he says, he “sees no reason” why trials biking couldn’t eventually be on the Olympic roll call, like skateboarding and surfing which are on the line-up for Tokyo 2020. But Andrei, who’s never finished in a World Cup outside the top 15, has no idea when this might happen and tells me about the 20-page report he wrote securing £30,000 of funding to create a World Cup event in Britain, for which he couldn’t get endorsement he needed.
More recently Andrei has found a love for climbing. It’s his overall strength and agility (that have given him an incredibly sculpted physique, by the way) and the transferable skills as a biker, that helped him fly into the finals of series two of ITV’s Ninja Warrior UK early in 2016 (and qualifying for the finals of series one, sparking controversy among the tabloid titles when another, slower, female competitor went through instead – he tells me about it, off the record).
What would he do if it ended tomorrow? “Climb, climb, climb,” he grins. “Actually, I want to take RideLondon to the next level, and maybe start creating events that are both amazing for spectators and the athletes. Hopefully that’ll raise the sport’s profile but also filter down into inspiring people to get into the sport.”
Andrei has to get back to dealing with “paperwork and spreadsheets”, so he has time for an evening bouldering session at Quay Climbing, so I aim a few quick fire questions at him: what do you look for in a friend? “Loyalty and good conversation,” he says after a little hesitation. What values do you live by? “Work hard for what you want, and enjoy every minute of it.” Do you believe in God? “Hmm, I don’t know. I’m not religious, but I do believe in something, I’m just not sure what.” Political? “No,” he answers, crooking his head with a slight wry grin. What makes you angry? “Cruelty to animals,” Andrei, who has a five foot Cuban red iguana, three other reptiles, and a cat, replies. “And, do you know what really makes me mad? People leaving rubbish, it drives me insane, I just don’t understand it!” Messy or tidy? “My girlfriend would probably say messy, but that’s when I’m really busy and just come in and dump a bag down; I think I’m really tidy. If I have a few hours I’ll clean.” I also learn that he watches comedy spy animation series Archer to relax, and his vice is ice cream. What makes you angry? “When people ask me why I have no seat,” he says. “Especially balancing 20ft up on a granite boulder, mid trick!”