The notoriously quiet, notoriously heavy-hitting Finn finally opens up to Onboard.
Words: Tom Copsey/Interview: Ilmo Niittymäki
Peetu Piiroinen is arguably the best competitive snowboarder of the modern era. Four World Snowboard Tour Overall titles, a phenomenal amount of first places at the game’s biggest contests, and even more podiums, his CV is unparalleled. Results aside, he’s equally renowned as the little man who goes big – few, if any, riders have constantly tested the limits of how huge you can send it and how flat you can land and ride away clean. For Peetu, it’s his bread and butter.
But off his snowboard, Peetu is something of an enigma. Famously quiet and understated, the rock star life of brash statements, parties and on-screen japery has never been his thing. The cliché of someone who ‘lets his riding do the talking’ rings true when it comes to Peetu; partly because of the language barrier, partly because he’s just a mellow guy who likes to ride his snowboard and just happens to do it better than most other people on the planet.
We decided it was about time to lift the curtain…
I remember vividly the first time I saw Peetu ride; the first time I heard his name in fact. The Burton European Open 2005. The Juniors slopestyle finals were held when there was a distinct lack of snow and even more distinctly negative temperatures, meaning the course resembled an something from a Swarovski showroom. I was hiking back up beside the park when, just as I reached the point that a quick breath-catch was in order, I stopped just below the small, bulletproof hip to observe the next kid to drop. After dancing effortlessly down the rails, he launched off the hip an order of magnitude higher than anyone else, and almost cleared the landing. I can still hear the thwack of the base slapping the hardpack and thinking, damn, who’s that? It was Peetu, and he blasted past me on his way to destroy the kickers and win the contest.
Winning was nothing new to Peetu. In his fledgeling career he’d already attracted attention by winning the inaugural World Rookie Fest in 2004 – then, as now, a reliable barometer for predicting future heavyweights – and the very next season he would repeat his BEO slopestyle success in the senior men’s division. He’d reached the big time. But with his career in its ascendancy, other commitments than simply excelling at snowboarding are demanded. “You’ve just won the biggest contest in Europe. Your first major title. How are you feeling right now?” “Ah, yeah. It was pretty Ok…” Full stop. The end. This naturally quiet kid had just been thrown into the spotlight and expected to spit soundbites at will to an eager media. “I’m pretty silent,” says Peetu when we bring this up with him in late summer. “I don’t really enjoy talking about myself too much, it’s pointless, it’s better to just focus on riding well.”
It’s tough enough to deal with questions in your own language, tougher still to do it in one you’re not well-versed in. “I definitely didn’t enjoy it too much,” he remembers thinking back to the first time he had microphones thrust in his face, “but it’s all part of the game, so didn’t really have a choice. I was pretty young when I started doing well and it was pretty intimidating, especially like you said my English was pretty elementary, but it was more uncomfortable than scary. I still don’t really enjoy [interviews], but I’ve gotten more used to it over the years.”
I can still hear the thwack of the base slapping the hardpack and thinking, damn, who’s that?
THE MIGHTY MUTE
The late-2000s – the era in which Peetu came up – was when just being good at snowboarding wasn’t going to be enough to cut it anymore. The level had started to get so high that there was a veritable glut of talent bouncing around, a huge proportion of which were out of Finland. It quickly was becoming necessary for riders wanting to attract elite deals to have a marketable personality; be the wildman, the soul surfer, the cool guy, the dude whose image could be sold… Peetu was none of these. He was just simply the best. Though it worked for him, we couldn’t help wonder if he felt pressure to be something that he’s not: “I guess a little bit, or maybe it was more of expectations or wishes to be a bit more outgoing and open. There’s a lot of other things you are expected to do outside of the riding and I wasn’t all that into it, like sharing my life on social media and creating fame that way. It’s better to be just yourself and be true to it, otherwise things can get a bit too crazy. Some people really like the attention, but I rather stay outside the limelight when I’m not on my snowboard.”
Indeed, unlike some of his contemporaries who’ll litter the internet like a drunkard after a late-night kebab mission, Peetu’s unstrapped life remains a mystery to all but his closest friends. “I ride pretty much 8 months a year and I really don’t have life outside riding then,” he explains of his winter routine. “Snowboarding is such a big passion for me that I have hard time doing anything else if there’s snow around.” But come summer it’s ‘tennis and other sports with the boys’ along with his latest passion: “Fly fishing is my latest addiction. It’s really good way to balance the hectic traveling with the calmness of nature. Also the purity of the nature is really important.. some of the events we go to are in big cities and for example Beijing’s air pollution is overwhelming. Taking a little break helps maintain the motivation and passion for riding.”
In contrast to his hectic riding, once unbuckled Peetu is really just a mellow, chill dude. Seeing as we had the chance, though, we always wondered if anything ever pisses him off? “Injuries are a big annoyance, but unfortunately they are part of riding. Another annoying thing is that the event calendar is all over the place. We have a lot of long flights and we are jet lagged the whole contest season. For example this year there won’t be two events in a row on the same continent. From end of January to mid-March this is the calendar with one weekend without an event: Laax-Aspen-Innsbruck-LA-Oslo-Vail-China. It’s pretty hectic if you get an invitation to all of the events. I don’t want to complain, but I think the calendar is really bad. But since the events are not under one tour what can you expect?”
To be honest, that’s the first time we’ve heard him publicly weigh in on the event calendar insanity that puts contest riders through the mill each winter. But, much like his riding, there’s a calculated understanding to his thoughts. Nevertheless, the generally shy-and-retiring exterior goes out the window when he straps in, and from 08/09 to 10/11 he was unstoppable. Blitzing his way to three back-to-back World Snowboard Tour Overall titles, he added a fourth at the end of the 12/13 season to cement his status as a both one of the sport’s best competitors and an all-terrain park boss. Snowboarding was becoming increasingly specialised, yet Peetu was able to consistently hit the high notes in slopestyle, pipe, big air and quarterpipe contests, something that’s become increasingly impossible to repeat.
“Nowadays level is unreal in both disciplines… It would be really hard to do it. Getting it right demands a lot of time spent in the pipe and the bad thing is that there really isn’t that many good pipes around. It really teaches you board control and when you bring that to the slope side of things tricks come to you easier. It just doesn’t work the other way around. I still love riding pipe, but I quit competing in it because there’s just not enough time. Also I was pretty bummed with the turn in judging when it seemed just to reward big spins – guys were doing back to back 10’s and back to back doubles in the same run and maybe one more hit in the end of the pipe. That’s just silly and boring. I like how the judging has started to appreciate and understand different kind of technical difficulty. Danny [Davis]’s riding has done a lot, doing big switch methods with style and control is not for many mortals.”
PRESSURE, PROGRESSION & PAIN
It was 2010 when Nike decided to dip their toe into snowboarding for their third time and began hoovering up what seemed to be every rider at the top of their game, it was logical they’d turn to Piiroinen to make sure the Swoosh was prominent on podiums. Olympic medals and more WST titles were snagged, some choice moments like the Chosen Session kicker and hip sessions logged, but it was ironically in this time that Peetu suffered a succession of injuries that blunted his previously formidable contest pedigree.
“I haven’t had any really serious stuff that would have kept me out of riding for that long, so in a sense I’ve been lucky, but a niggle is a pretty good word to describe it,” he explains, before rattling through a list including a rib cartilage problem that almost prevented him taking part in two Olympics, a 2011 broken ankle, a 2012 torn shoulder (that he rode that whole season with), and a slam in Stubai last autumn that was “probably the worst crash of my life.” As ever, he’s humble and pragmatic: “So that’s about 5 years of riding injured. Haha.. but ask anyone on the tour and I’m sure you get a similar or a lot worse list of injuries. Summer holidays are for rehab.”
When conditions are good and Peetu is fit, though, don’t expect him to hold back. The dude often appears to have ice for blood, and appears to be immune to pressure. One of our enduring memories of Piiroinen is the BEO a few years back when a mild kink in the pipe wall bucked him to the flat the first two runs. But rather than modify his run he just pulled it on his last attempt and won the contest.
“Well, isn’t third time a charm?” he chuckles. “I think that pressure is a good friend of mine, it pushes me further, keeps me ultra-focused and that little extra adrenaline kick just feels good… Honestly I think it makes me ride better. In contests you just sometimes have to gamble a bit and push further, sometimes you win some and sometimes lose some. The level of riding is so high that you can’t just mess around with stock tricks, you have to be on it from the get go.”
This pressure-loving aspect of Peetu’s riding will always remain unchanged. But what has altered since he started being hampered by injuries is the influx of ever-increasingly talented young riders who’ve dragged freestyle snowboarding to a terrifying level of technical aptitude. “One word to describe it is insane. At the beginning of 2000 it was like 180 more a year, now it’s one more cork a year,” he laughs. “I like the fact that snowboarding is going forward. If it would stay stagnant it would become really boring for everyone. I think we do need to change the path of progression a little bit though… Slopestyle needs to evolve and allow more creativity. It can’t be standardized into three rails and three straight kickers. It needs to have special obstacles too so we can see different kind of tricks. Also kickers should be bigger and landings steeper to make it safer for everyone. I don’t mind when people spin more or go for quads, everybody should be allowed to take their riding towards the direction they feel like they want to progress it, as long as it is not the only progression we see and promote.”
What’s his reaction to the emergence of riders like Mark McMorris, Ståle Sandbech and Yuki Kadono, who you feel are just starting to hit their high gears? “FEAR! [laughs]. Nope, it’s cool to see people push it and new names enter the game. It keeps everybody on their toes and pushing their own riding. I just try to focus on my own doings. The rate of progression has been really fast for the last couple of years again… it’s starting to be harder and harder. If I’m still on the tour and struggling to make top 20 just send me home,” he jokes. “I think its Mark and Ståle that have that pressure more than I do – there’s Yuki and Marcus Kleveland who we’ll be watching out for. If you look at the birth years of tour riders, there aren’t too many guys born in the 80s.. I’m Grandpa Peetu! [laughs]”
THE BUSINESS END
But he’s not ready to bow down before the younger generation just yet. Peetu still reckons he can have the edge: “One really important point in competitions is that you remain cool and collected. If you lose your focus you won’t land the trick. I think I have that advantage over some of the younger guys. Its also not all about the technical ability, it’s also about fitness… if you don’t have power you can’t land these things. That just brings me back to the need for bigger kickers: we need them to safely keep progressing. It shouldn’t be only about who spins most and lands furthest into the flats. If that doesn’t change there will be more and more injuries, and no one wants that.”
But through the injuries and emergence of increasingly talented young riders, Peetu is still a force to be reckoned with on serious park features. His second place at last season’s Air+Style attests this, as does the fact that if you would be organizing a big park shoot he’d be one of the first names on your go-to list. Which makes the fact that at the time of writing he’s got no hardware or outerwear sponsors all the more perplexing. Nike’s big snowboard peace-out was followed hot on the heels by Burton handing him his P45. What happened? “With Nike my contract was coming to an end and they’d already decided to cut the snowboarding program completely, even if they couldn’t say it directly at the time. So there wasn’t much to do there. Burton, on the other hand, had to cut their team and as I was only signed for boards and bindings I was pretty much the first to go when my contract was up. They need to focus on pushing their whole line, I guess, so I fell into a bad crack at a bad time. I wasn’t the only one to go there either.”
It must be said that he’s still supported by Monster Energy and Giro to help pay the not insignificant expense of flying to a different continent each week through winter, along with Vimana who hook him up with boards. But the reality is a lot of the contest guys these days aren’t jacked into hearty contracts any more. Has he thought about why this is?
Peetu’s realistic as ever: “If the hard goods don’t fly off the shelves it’s hard to sponsor a lot of riders… It almost seems like snowboarding is in a tough spot in general, when I go riding in Finland I tend to see more and more freeskiers. There’s just so many things involved. Ticket prices, bad winters and people just use their gear for a longer time. All that affects the amount of advertising/marketing dollars, which directly affects the pros. These days you have to be a complete package, savvy in social media, drop banger parts and do well in contests. If you have two of those on lock you should be fine; three and you are killing it and if just one, you better be sure you are the best in it… It’s getting raw.” Did the lessening support ever have him consider jacking it all in? “I love what I do, why would I quit?” he fires back. “I still have good support from Monster and Giro so in that sense I don’t have any need stop what I’m doing.”
You have to be a complete package, savvy in social media, drop banger parts and do well in contests. If you have two of those on lock you should be fine; three and you're killing it and if just one, you better be sure you are the best.
While he admits the contest circuit feels like ‘home’, Peetu understands that it’s got a finite lifespan and furthermore he’s keen to explore other facets of snowboarding while he can. Specifically, concentrating on filming which has been a rarity for him: “Maybe not so much riding gnarly lines, but backcountry kickers for sure. I just want to keep riding everything: rails, pipe, kickers and pow. Mix it up and enjoy it all. Filming is on the table now a lot more, so that will bring a cool change to things.” He’s not hanging up the bib quite yet but you can tell this is the winter he’s looking to start testing the waters more outside of events: “I will compete in the events that I’ll get invited to and hopefully I get to go to most of them. Then we are working on a new film project with KBR boys, so it will be fun to go and film on the streets and backcountry a bit. It’s still in the works, but hopefully we get the budget we need. I’m really excited about it. Hopefully I won’t get any injuries, learn a few new tricks and film a banger part. [laughs]. That’s a lot to ask, but I’m optimistic. I don’t know what the future will bring, I’ll just focus on these first and then see where it takes me. New plans can be made next summer on a fishing trip somewhere.”
Indeed. Fish on, Peetu.