Beginnings Interview: Leo Ranta, Hillside Cycling

Leo on his blinged-out Santa Cruz Nomad. Photo: Greg Heil.
Leo on his blinged-out Santa Cruz Nomad. Photo: Greg Heil.

Leo Ranta has developed a legendary mythology around himself in the West Sweden mountain biking community, a legend which nobody but Chuck Norris himself could hope to best. As the locals like to claim, “they say Leo’s sweat cures cancer. Too bad he doesn’t sweat.” I had to sit down with him to get the detailed story about how he got into mountain biking, how he got so fast, and what led him to start Hillside Cycling.

Singletracks: When did you get started mountain biking, and what led you to do that?

Leo Ranta: First time was 1998, in June actually. That’s when I bought my first mountain bike, and it was because I wanted to do something in the summertime. I was just waiting for winter all the time [to ski]. Mountain biking was a really good sport to start with. It was the same kind of action, the speed, the turns, the jumps, everything, the same tight terrain between trees. Like skiing, but without snow. I love it.

Tell me again about your transition to riding all year round.

The first year I didn’t bike [at all] in the wintertime, and when I started biking in the springtime, it was so hard to get going. I lost every part of my physique during the winter… endurance, conditioning. I decided to [bike] all year round, at the end of 1999. The first winter I was well-trained was 2000.

The year 2000 was the first time; that was also when I bought my first headlamp. I had to have it because it was so dark. The first rides I did without the headlamp I had a small handlebar-mounted light. I did maybe one month with that, and then I gave up. It was too little light, I couldn’t see anything, so, I bought my first headlamp in the middle of the winter I think. It was November.

How many daylight hours do you have here during the winter?

In the middle of the winter we have maximum 6 hours: from 9 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. So going for a night ride requires lights. It gets dark at like 3:30; 4 o’clock it is totally dark. When I get home from work it’s dark. I have to use lights on my commuter bike, both in the morning and in the evening. So 7 months of the year lights [are] needed to ride. 5 months of the year we have. . .daylight riding in the evenings. So lights are essential.

Leo riding at Kinnekulle. Photo: Natasja Jovic.
Leo riding at Kinnekulle. Photo: Natasja Jovic.

What led you to start Hillside Cycling?

It was three years ago that we started the company. This is our third season. The main reason for starting it was that we felt that we had such good trails here that no one knew about outside Sweden. Most locals knew about them, some Swedes knew them… not even everyone in Gothenburg knew that Gothenburg has that good of mountain biking. So that was the reason we started it.

From the beginning we also had courses: mountain bike skill courses for both riding and mechanics. We still have those, but guiding is the main part of the company. And even custom building and upgrading mountain bikes. If someone wants to upgrade their bike and they don’t know what they need or what gear they want, we can help them. Like changing their seatpost to a height-adjustable seatpost or something like that… or maybe mounting a bashguard or chain guard or whatever.

So you’re kind of like an all-inclusive company?

Yeah. But so far, we haven’t reached so many people with the upgrading and bike building and things like that. So we hope to do that in the future.

Is that where you see the company going? What do you see in the future of Hillside Cycling?

Mostly I see it growing in the guiding area. We’ll get more and more people coming here so that we can guide. That’s the most fun part of the company.

We even have good riding all year round. As I said, wintertime can be really fun for riding, if it’s snowy and cold and drier. The bikes don’t get muddy, the trails are hardpacked snow, and we get home from riding with a big smile on our face because we’ve been riding the best trails with no mud and no water holes. Snow rides are some of the most memorable moments of my life, actually.

Leo leading the charge... as usual. Photo: Greg Heil.
Leo leading the charge… as usual. Photo: Greg Heil.

Does it happen often that there’s enough snow that you need a fat bike around here?

Well a fat bike would work if it was more snow or more sand. . . .In the snow they are good, but there is actually no need for a fat bike in this terrain. So far we have two guys riding fat bikes in the wintertime. They had no advantage with the fat tires in the snow yet. That’s because the trails are packed with snow–they [aren’t] fluffy snow. People have been walking and riding, and the trail is [about] 10 inches wide, and hard-packed. It’s perfect for ordinary tires [with a] soft compound, so you get good grip. You don’t need studded tires most of the time–only if the snow melts and it gets icy after a cold night again. I think I ride with studded tires one or two weeks a year maximum, and then I switch back to my ordinary tires again, just to get a better grip with the ordinary tires in the snow.

How far afield do you guys guide? Do you just guide in Gothenburg, or do you go further out?

Yeah we do, we do go further out. We do go to the mountain Kinnekulle, for one example, and Marstrand Island. But mostly Gothenburg actually, because the best trails are hooked together in the Gothenburg area.

So the best ones are just right here?

Yeah, and you can ride for several days, without riding the same trail. There are so many areas around Gothenburg. We could take the car a short ways outside of town and then ride back to the center if you want to, or you could ride all the way out and back. Depends on the rider also: what they want to do.

Interested in trying out the Hillside Cycling experience for yourself? Be sure to read my article about Hillside, and visit their website.