By Steve Hubrecht
steve@columbiavalleypioneer.com

After a particularly successful series of summer and fall races, Invermere resident Trystan Hart is one of the top professional dirt bikers on the continent, maybe even the best.

Hart has been dirt biking since he was three, and started riding as a professional when he was 16. That was seven years ago, and he has been improving ever since, despite two major injuries, each of which sidelined him for the better part of a year. First came Canadian podiums, then eventually podiums in major continental-level races south of the border. For the past two years, Hart has been hot on the heels of the best riders on the continent, just a step or two behind the top guns, but this year that all changed. Hart won the Battle of the Goats in North Carolina in early August, emerged victorious in the Tennessee Knockout (which effectively doubles as the national championship south of the border) later that same month, and then came first in two Enduro Cross races in California in October.

The Tennessee Knockout win catapulted Hart firmly to the top of the upper echelon of pro dirt biker riders. It overnight changed his professional role from a support rider for the KTM team to a factory rider.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Hart, who was modest about his accomplishment, until the Pioneer prodded for more explanation. “It was a pretty big deal to win the Knockout. There are 450 to 500 riders, and all the top guys are there.”

The change in role from support rider to factory rider is not just a change in status and pay: KTM now takes care of all of Hart’s travel to and from races, and he gets his own mechanic and many of the other perks associated with being a paid upper level professional athlete.

“It’s the top of the sport now,” he told the Pioneer. “It took a long time to get the number one spot. I’ve been a podium guy for a while, but to win at the Battle for the Goats and then the Knockout, that was a breakthrough… I was pretty chill on the finish line, after the win, but inside I was so stoked to have beaten the best of the best. There’s one other rider, Cody Webb, he’s been one the best North American rider for a while, and was even number two or three in the whole world for a bit. He’s been spanking me hard the last few years, so to finally beat him was sweet.”

Hart credits his victories to a change in his training program that actually saw him spending far fewer hours on his bike than he normally does.

“It turns out I actually overtrained in the past,” he said. “This year, I rode less to go faster. It’s a weird concept, but it seems to work well.”

Although Hart is at the top of the game for North America, he hasn’t been able to test his mettle at the world level much this year, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many of the global-level races being cancelled. In 2019, at the Erzberg Hard Enduro in Austria, widely regarded as one of the most challenging dirt bike races on the planet, Hart came 14th in his first attempt at the race. Hart was gunning to improve on that result this year, but the pandemic put paid to those plans.

“Hopefully, I can go back in 2021,” said Hart, adding he’s set a goal of being top three in the world.

That may sound like a big jump, but Hart knows a thing or two about how to ratchet himself to higher and higher levels. He’s also no stranger to adversity, and has a track record of coming back from setbacks even stronger than before.

When Hart was 15 or 16, just on the cusp of becoming a professional rider, he suffered a broken back. He was out to practice riding on the dirt bike track behind his parent’s home in Invermere, when he miscalculated a log double.

“I went over the (handle) bars like a torpedo, landing on my head. I was by myself, so I got up, but immediately fell back down. Eventually my dad found me and took me to the hospital,” said Hart. “It was pretty scary. I was in the hospital for seven to ten days. It was the most pain I’ve been in. But as soon as I could walk again, I was like ‘okay, when can I ride again?’”

In the end, it would be almost a year before Hart was back to competitive riding. Two years after that, he suffered from another major injury — a torn rotator cuff — that sidelined him for yet another season. Hart was barely moving at all, maybe going only three or four kilometres an hour, when he has torn the rotator cuff, and he says the accident is “kind of embarrassing, actually.”

The two injuries mean that Hart has spent two of his seven years as a pro rider sitting out, waiting to heal. But he simply used that time out as fuel to motivate his return.

“You learn a lot, and you miss it (the riding), so it fires you up to come back even better. You wouldn’t think missing out on riding time would improve you, but it does. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me,” he said. “I came back from the first injury faster than before, and then again for the second one. I kept getting a bit faster each year since. And here I am.”

For Hart, dirt biking began as a family activity. He broke his femur when he was seven and left dirt biking for about four years, but returned to the sport and travelled around Canada with his dad and older brother, all of them participating in races.

Part of the appeal of the sport to Hart is what he sees as the freedom it gives: “You get to make all the decisions, you’re in control. I like that. Most of the other sports I like — mountain biking, running, road biking — have that too. It’s different than a lot of team sports, where what and how you do depends on how the ball bounces, or depends on your teammates. With the sports I enjoy, it’s all down to you and what you can do.”

Although Hart always rode as hard as he could, he admits that becoming a top-level pro sounded more like something out of a Hollywood movie than a career prospect.

“I never actually thought I could make money, make a living, riding dirt bikes. That just didn’t seem realistic to me,” said Hart. “So it’s pretty amazing to wake up each day and not being going to a 9-to-5 job that I don’t really like, but that instead dirt biking is my job. I’m really grateful I get to do this.”