“What the f**k are we doing?” laughs Andy Lloyd, our photographer, as he’s thrown around in the back of the pickup truck. His knuckles are white from gripping onto the roll cage, as the vehicle bucks over the rough ground, sending the thousands of pounds’ worth of camera gear around his neck clattering together. Over the roar of a V8 engine and the rock music bellowing from the truck in front, it’s hard to answer, but I grin at the absurdity of the scene – a procession of pickups ragging up a steep ski piste in the middle of nowhere, with an assortment of klunkers and hack bikes hung over the tailgates, and the trucks themselves rammed with plaid-shirt-clad Scandinavians. Every hand that’s not being used to cling on for dear life has a beer in it, and just visible up ahead, through the clouds of steam issuing from the truck’s bonnet, is a guy with a guitar – cowboy hat and goggles on head, fag in mouth, thrashing out Queens of the Stone Age riffs.
By this point you’re probably wondering what the f**k we’re doing, too. Well, this is Hillbilly Huckfest, the Norwegian mountain bike festival that’s loose in every sense of the word. Whether that looseness comes from taking a bunch of rowdy bikers and dumping them in a field with a never-ending supply of beer, or if it’s just a symptom of Norwegians escaping their winter cabin fever, we’re not sure, but the combination makes for a pretty good party. It’s basically four days of booze-fuelled bicycle antics in the back of beyond. In line with the hillbilly theme, everyone rocks up in their finest plaid shirts, denim vests and trucker caps, tent under one arm, bike in the other.
The Englishmen who went up a hill
Clean-shaven and short of shoulder-length blonde hair, Andy and I stick out like sore thumbs when we first turn up, and couldn’t feel more English as we bumble around like Hugh Grant characters, politely being very lost. We soon run into the festival organiser, who, rather than explaining where things are, jostles us into a barn, thrusts beers into our hands and explains that, as the “special guests from England”, we’ve been honoured with the task of judging the video contest that kicks off the festival. Our Norwegian is poor, to say the least, but, standing on stage, faced with a throng of redneck-wannabes, we realise we only need one word: “Skål!” [translation: “Cheers!”]. Raise our tankards, shout that and the whole room erupts in noise.
One beer quickly turns into five, and by the time we wake up the next morning, we feel as though we’ve fully acquainted ourselves with the Huckfest. As we lie in bed, the clatter of the T-bar lift is already audible. While most of the festivalgoers are still nursing sore heads, a steady stream of kids are launching themselves through the jump park in the field. Their endless energy makes us groan, but it serves as a reminder that Huckfest isn’t just about getting pissed. When there are fresh trails to be ridden, it’s hard to feel hungover for too long.
Sweating it out
We’re camping on a small farm in the remote and low-key ski resort of Ål. For the rest of the year it’s a rural idyll, with traditional red and yellow-painted farm buildings set between fields and woods. But this weekend, there are tents, tepees and caravans perched on every available bit of the sloping hillside. Adjacent to this is a jump park, where the monster FEST Series jumps stand looming, and behind them is a steep wood that’s criss-crossed by a network of trails. These are accessed by a shuttle service that runs throughout the weekend – which would have been great, had Andy not insisted that we burn off our barbecue overconsumption by pedalling up. On our grinding ascent up the steep ski pistes, our legs burn and we sweat pure alcohol, and I curse Andy between breaths. But once we reach the summit it’s all worth it, because the trail back down – ‘Genghis Khan’ – is simply sublime. Even in the soaking conditions, the flow is amazing as the singletrack draws snaking arcs between trees and threads its way through rocky chutes and off-cambers.
We’d happily suffer the pedal up again for another lap, but back at the festival site, a motley crew of eager hack-bike racers are gathering, ready for some mass-start mayhem from the top of the ski hill. Looking at the bikes and having seen the steepness of the hill, it’s definitely a case of “rather them than us”. But we know this is going to be too good to miss, so we pile into the pickups with the rest of them to catch a ride up the hill.
After 20 minutes of one of the sketchiest journeys we’ve ever been on, we’re secretly rather relieved when the truck overheats and we’re forced to push the remaining few hundred metres. Up ahead, the klunker racers have assembled themselves into a loose starting formation. After some obligatory beer chugging, the guitar player thrashes out some riffs, giving the signal to go. Watching a bunch of fully-grown men hurtle down a hill completely out of control and being bucked around like they’re manhandling a jackhammer is a pretty hilarious sight, and the cries and shouts in Norwegian just make the experience all the funnier. By the first stream crossing, half the field have hit the deck and those who haven’t are clattering over the horizon, feet flying off the pedals, tyres punctured and bikes rattled to pieces. We give chase, enjoying the spectacle and very glad of our bikes’ hydraulic brakes and suspension.
When we arrive back at camp, the victor is already several beers deep and the rest of the field are either comparing war wounds or laughing at the remains of their race machines. Over on the stage, the band strikes up, Andy mumbles something about needing a few more burgers for his tea and very soon the evening descends into another round of good-natured yet raucous behaviour.
To the moon and back
Saturday dawns grey and drizzly, accompanied by the sound of rain on canvas. I’m a little nervous, because it’s the last day of the festival and that means one thing – it’s time to man up and hit the big jumps. With the less-than-ideal weather we’ve had over the past two days, I’ve been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, psyching myself up to hit the jumps, only to be shut down by yet another rainstorm. Thankfully, by Saturday afternoon the clouds lift and steam rises from the dirt as the sun does its work. The music starts up, the crowds in the field begin to grow and the builder of the jumps, Mads André Haugen, aka ‘Makken’, puts the finishing touches to the transitions – it’s on!
Hitting any new jump for the first time can give you butterflies, but when the jump you’re faced with is a 50ft gap off a 10ft-tall motocross kicker, it’s definitely enough to make the prunes shrink a little. My confidence isn’t bolstered as I watch three riders in a row come up short and ragdoll over the bars. But hey, it’s now or never, right? A last check of the flag to see which way the wind is blowing and I drop in. Off the stepdown, boost the hip, squash the set-up jump. I can feel the wind whistling past my ears and look up to see the big metal kicker pointing skywards. Everything seems to be going at warp speed and then – whoosh! – I hit the lip and all fear disappears as things go into slow motion. I feel like I’m hanging in the sky, as my rear hub whirs like a metronome, counting out the airtime. Then, as the lander approaches and the wheels touch down, a mix of excitement and adrenaline surges through me. Spurred on by the noise of the crowd, I can’t resist grabbing onto the lift for another go.
All the riders are getting the hang of the jumps now and upping the ante with each run, throwing flips, whips and huge nacnacs. Pro freeriders Makken and Luis Lacondeguy are stealing the show though, boosting the take-offs and going to the moon. We watch in disbelief, until Makken pulls up that bit too hard and comes crashing down, way past the lander. The whole field falls silent, but then he’s back on his feet and the crowd roars its approval.
The afternoon culminates with a mega-train through the line, finished off with the obligatory hollers and high-fives. It’s only now, as I pull off my helmet and the excitement starts to subside, that I realise I haven’t eaten all day. A diet of Red Bull and adrenaline can only take you so far, and the hog roast turning on its spit is calling my name.
Mud and moshpits
As we eat and drink to one hell of a day on the bike, the rather dubiously-named Norwegian punk rockers Turbonegro take to the stage. These guys are a big deal in these parts, and when the lead singer, covered from head to toe in tattoos and dressed in the shortest of short shorts, blares out the words to Shake Your Shit Machine, everyone goes f**king mental.
The rain that’s held off for most of the day has started hammering down again, but no one cares. Two denim-clad hillbillies grab onto each other and spin round wildly, before tripping, stumbling backwards and falling face first into a muddy pond. They’re not bothered though, and clamber to their feet, covered in mud and dripping wet, then jump back into the melee. Andy looks over with a shrug that can only mean “when in Rome…”. We sink our beers and dive headfirst into the pit.
Hillbilly Huckfest is a bike and music festival that takes place annually at the Hillbilly Bike Park in the tiny ski resort of Ål, three hours outside of Norway’s capital, Oslo. It first started in 2009 and has grown in popularity ever since. Included in the price of a ticket is a camping pass, access to the jump park and T-bar lift, and unlimited shuttles for riding the trails.
During the festival there are several competitions, including the Hillbilly Huckshoot video contest, klunker racing, whip-off comp, the impossible bike challenge and beer pong (just to add that American college vibe). There’s live music and DJs every night, and plenty of barbecue food and beers to keep you going. If you fancy a drink or two, you’ll need to come prepared, because with Norway’s high taxes, a pint costs nearly £9! The valley is also home to a wider network of trails, and festivalgoers have the option to book onto daily guided rides.
Next year’s festival takes place from 4-7 July 2019. Tickets are available now and early-bird prices start at around £120. Head to the Huckfest website for more details.
The hillbilly survival kit
- 1x plaid shirt
- 1x denim jacket (sleeves optional)
- More denim
- Still more denim
- Scissors (for modifying your denim garments)
- Trucker cap or cowboy hat
- Beer – as many crates as you can afford (probably not many
- at Norwegian prices)
- Snus (a snuff-like tobacco product, which comes in small pouches that you stick under your top lip). Sounds gross, but everyone in Norway is into it!
- 1x tent (ideally one without holes, because it rains more in Ål than it does at Glastonbury)
- Some food, unless you want to exist on a pure diet of barbecued meat – vegetarians and vegans be warned
- Riding kit, and lots of it, because you’re going to get muddy
- Your bike, of course. A trail bike or enduro machine is fine, but if you want to focus on sessioning the jump park, then a downhill rig is even better
This feature originally appeared in MBUK’s June 2018 issue.. To read more great content like this, hot off the press – subscribe to MBUK