Intro: Effraim/James McGraw.
Photos: Supplied by Austin Luberda.
As some of you have noticed, Flatmattersonline is taking a more exclusive content direction in 2018. When I started out planning this, I had a list of people I wanted to interview and find more about. One of those riders at the top of my list was Austin Luberda. I passed the intro over to James McGraw who has watched Austin grow as a rider. Over to Mr McGraw!
Some people say the American flatland scene has lost its prominence.
But like any sport, there is always that next young talent that comes out of nowhere, or in this case, out of Missouri.
In 2014, Austin Luberda turbined his way to the first Battle in the Rockies contest. He traveled alongside his Mom, Dad, and his future wife. (Sorry Dax) He entered the expert class and placed in the top 3. His style and flow were completely eye-opening. He battled at a shot at competing in the pro finals. He did not win his battle, but he did deliver under pressure and rode exceptionally well. All of us knew this guy was here to stay.
We see several types of riders in the world of flat. One type is the video rider. Dylan Worsley, and Ross Smith, have pushed video riding in ways that remain untouched. Another type is the contest rider. Matthias Dandois, is one of the best competitive riders of all time. He rides well under pressure, and seems to be able to handle any type of surface that comes his way. Austin has been compared to a young Matthias on more than one occasion.
In 2015, Austin began competing in the pro class, and held his own against some of the best riders in the world. In 2016, Austin achieved his first pro podium ever, taking second place at the AFA contest in Arizona. Austin doubled down and came back on fire in 2017. He showed tremendous growth in his originality, consistency, and his video content. He helped organize an AFA contest in his hometown of Saint Louis, and podiumed once again in Arizona. He has transformed into one of the best American flatland riders, and is a serious competitor on the international stage. We are so proud of this guy, not to mention he has one of the most positive attitudes ever. If you are doubting the strength of American flatland, look no further than this quiet kid from the Midwest. He has arrived.
– James McGraw.
Hey Austin, really excited to get into this interview and learn about your background. First off, how old are you and how long have you been riding? I’m always interested how did you get into flatland?
Thank you for the opportunity Effraim! I am 29 years old, and I have been riding flatland off and on for about 15 years now. I actually had a pretty early start with BMX. I lived in a neighborhood that had a lot of kids around my age, and we would spent the majority of our time riding around our neighborhood. I remember one summer, my aunt showed us how to build a “brick and plywood” ramp, and we were all pretty much hooked. I believe I was around the age of 9 or 10 at the time. I spent most of my younger years riding with these guys, and building ramps and trails at my friend’s house. I was riding a 5 speed mountain bike, and it wasn’t until a few years later I got my first BMX bike, a GT Vertigo from our local bike shop, Bicycle World. Once we got a little older, we would convince our parents to drive us to Ramp Riders, which is an amazing St. Louis based skatepark. We really couldn’t do a whole lot but it was fun riding a legit park. I think we were usually just in the way though… haha!
The story on how I became interested in flatland was a little different. I remember watching Road Rules or Real World with my sister (90’s MTV show), and seeing a quick shot of a guy doing multiple pinky squeaks. (Any ideas who that could be?) I knew instantly that I HAD to learn how to do this, and quickly asked my parents for pegs for my front wheel. Ironically, to this day, I have only ever done like 3 or 4 max. Haha! But that was for sure what peaked my interest in the sport. I really wish I had a better story, but this is the truth. My other friends continued to focus on street/ trails, but most of my time was spent riding in my driveway working on track stands, bar spins, or tailwhips. I was lucky to have supportive parents and a flat driveway growing up.
Whereabouts are you from?
I am originally from Belleville, IL, which is about 30 minutes from St. Louis. I am currently living with my wife in Columbia, IL, which is about 15 minutes outside of St. Louis. My wife and I live in a loft above a pizza place so it’s pretty cool. I work in St. Louis, but we spend most of our free time in Illinois. There are a few of towns surrounding Columbia and each one has a spot or two to offer. My favorite spot is a small skatepark located in Smithton, IL, where I shoot the majority of my clips. The Illinois side of STL metro area is way more laid back than the Missouri side, so we like it better.
Being from St Louis, how much of a scene is there? Do you ride with anyone?
I rode a good amount into my early teen years, but started getting more into music around the age of 16. By the time I was finishing high school, I had pretty much stopped riding. For college, I went to Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville, which is close to my hometown, so I was able to stay connected with my BMX/skateboard friends. Fortunately, one friend visited Ramp Riders frequently and had noticed a flier for a flatland jam scheduled in Forest Park. I was probably 19 or 20 at the time, so I had not ridden in like 3 or 4 years. I also had never met another flatland rider before, so I was instantly interested. Long story short, my friend and I decided to attend the event. It was at this jam that I met some of the core St. Louis riders, as well as a number of Chicago and Kansas City riders. These guys are my foundation to flatland, and I have learned a lot from them. I think a lot of those guys were surprised when I showed up and was able to roll hitchhikers and scuff lardyards and stuff. I still thank Matt Thomas to this day for setting up that STL jam. Matt continued to set up events in the STL area which helped me stay motivated. I always had a trick I wanted to learn prior to the next event. I still ride with Matt and the other STL guys occasionally, but it’s tough to align our schedules.
Nowadays, I typically ride by myself at my homespot of Smithton, IL. To me, riding is somewhat therapeutic, so it’s nice to break away and unwind from work or whatever else is going on in my life. Plus, I actually get super cranky when I’m filming so it’s probably a good thing no one is around. Haha!
However, it is nice to ride with friends when we can get together. Tim Neff lives in a nearby town, and we will typically ride the Smithton spot. He’s been in the sport for years, and it’s so funny to hear the crazy stories he tells about the AFA contests back in the day. Tim and I have ridden a lot together, so usually he is the first person I show new stuff to. I can always trust his judgement on tricks. It’s nice because he will straight up tell me if something looks bad or if it’s not worth learning. Haha!
I also ride a good amount with Sean Edwards. He’s another guy that’s been in the sport for a long time and actually lives minutes away from where I ride. I met him through random chance when he and his kids were playing basketball at my spot. When he told me he used to ride, we became instant friends. He went home to get his bike, and was quickly rolling deathtrucks. I couldn’t believe I had been riding my spot for five years, and here was a rider in my backyard. I think he felt the same.
What would you say as a younger rider, was your first “hook” into flatland? Like I’m loving this, this is what I am going to do?
By the time I was around the age of 13, all I wanted to do was ride flatland. I decided I needed a flat specific bike and ordered a hofman EP from flatlandfuel. It was during this time that I learned most of my basic tricks. After school, I would hop on our dial up internet, and start working top to bottom from the trick list on bmxtrix.com. I learned SO much from this site, and I am forever grateful! I remember one particular summer, my friends and I were riding at my parent’s house. I had been fighting Decades for months to no avail. I probably hopped over the head tube hundreds of times before landing it, but for whatever reason things clicked and I stuck the trick. No one could believe I landed it, including myself. The amount of excitement I had was uncontainable, so I ran laps around my house celebrating. As silly as this sounds, that’s when I knew I this sport was for me.
Unfortunately, once I learned Decade’s, pretty much every kid in the area found out and I was constantly asked to do a demonstration. It got old after a while, so instead of telling kids no, I decided to just take my rear brakes off. I was moving onto other things anyhow. Haha!
Four years ago I remember meeting you at BITR in Denver, was that your first contest?
My first contest was actually Jomopro 2010. Matt Thomas convinced me to attend the contest, and it was such an eye opening experience for me. The level of riding was unbelievable and I was so intimidated! I entered expert class and that was when amateur was split into expert and masters class. I was so nervous that I couldn’t sleep at all the night before. I don’t think I landed anything in my run, and I’m pretty sure I ended up with last or close to it. It was a punch in the gut, but I needed that. That was my first experience with contest riding, and it taught me a lot.
How important are contests for you? And how would you say they have helped your progression?
Contest are incredibly important to me because they are my biggest source of motivation. My favorite part of these events is the jam the night before, hands down. We have so much talent in North America, and it’s amazing to see all the various styles of riding. I love seeing what everyone is working on, and it amps me up so much.
However, competition isn’t all fun and games. They definitely take an emotional toll on me. I remember attending Voodoo Jam a few years ago when I was in expert class. I had just come off of 1st place at Gurujam so I was overly confident. haha. I absolutely was not prepared and totally screwed up my run. I was so bummed, but I used this for motivation to get better. I truly believe you learn more from failure than success, so even if i’m not happy with my run, I know this helps me in the long run. The next contest was BITR 2014, and I wanted to make sure I was prepared.
How long did you compete in expert, before you turned Pro?
I competed in expert for about 5 years before turning pro at BITR 2015. I was somewhat hesitant to make the change, but I decided to just go for it. It’s pretty scary moving up a class, but I knew it would push me a lot. Turning pro has been a dream of mine since I was young, so it was a big deal for me. I’ll never forget seeing my name at the 11th spot at BITR, and the fact I made qualifying. Such good memories. There’s no better feeling than when you stomp your run.
How much has the AFA contest series helped your riding?
The AFA contest series has been incredibly beneficial for me. Three years ago, when I heard that James Mcgraw, Todd Carter, and Joe Cicman were putting the contest series back together, I was so stoked that we were going to have more opportunities to compete. It’s really hard to attend contests, due to travel costs, taking time off work, and the practice ahead of time, so it’s nice having enough stops where you can pick and choose which contest works best for you. Also, competition is such a mental game, and I feel like the only way to get good at it is by practice. For me, the AFA forces me to step outside my comfort zone, and this promotes growth in my riding.
Also, it goes without saying that James McGraw puts his heart and soul into this contest series. He puts a lot of effort into finding great venues to host the competition, and put a positive spin on flatland throughout the US. He makes these contests laid back and fun, and I think this is why a lot of people continue to come to the events. The stuff he says while on the mic is totally off the wall, but is incredibly entertaining. Haha! These contests are fun, so I’ll keep coming.
As well as riding, the AFA series has taught me a lot about hosting flatland events. I had no idea how much work goes into these contests until James let me help him with the STL stop. My only job was to find a venue, but this was way more work than I had thought. Total respect to the James and the AFA for continuing to find and host events all over the country. It is much appreciated!
Can you remember what videos you were watching growing up? And looking back do you think they have shaped your riding?
When I was growing up, the X Games was a huge deal for me, and I looked forward to watching it every summer. At the time, I was fully invested in flatland, but I still loved watching all of the BMX events. Watching riders like Dave Mirra and Mat Hoffman pushing the envelope was amazing to see. Every year, I would break out my parents vhs recorder and tape the flatland section. Unfortunately, the flatland segment was at most 15 minutes long and every year seemed to get shorter and shorter. Nevertheless, I continued to tape every year’s event back to back with the previous years. Eventually, I had a decent little X Games flatland video part that I would constantly study. Watching Martti Kuoppa, Phil Dolan, Chad Degroot, Michael Steingraber, and Trevor Meyer was amazing. I would spend so much time trying to figure out how the heck they were doing these impossible lines. It was mind blowing to me, and I’m still trying to figure it out! It was obvious that I had to have a good grasp of the fundamental tricks, so I really focused on these when I was young. It was during this time that I learned tricks like time machines and steam rollers which are an integral part of my riding today.
You talk about more practice, as you become a professional rider. How did your practice routine change? And how do you know when your contest ready?
I’m the type of person that has to be prepared before doing anything. Even in school, I always had to study in order to pass a test, and I had to work hard for my grades. Unfortunately, the same applies to my riding! Haha! A month or so before contests, I end every one of my sessions with the contest run that I have planned. If I mess up a trick, I start my run over again. Once it gets closer to the contest, I have alternate endings to runs if I mess up at a certain point. This way, it takes the thinking out of my routine if things aren’t going as planned. I know this goes against everything that is freestyle, but it helps me stay focused. Haha! I never really know if I’m contest ready, I guess I just rely on the practice ahead of time and hope everything goes well.
What do you do for work?
When I was enrolled at Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville, I studied civil engineering, and I was able to get an internship at a local engineering company called Civil Design, Inc. After I graduated, I started as a full time employee, and I have been there ever since. I work with a lot of really awesome people, and once they found out about my riding, they were very supportive. They were a huge part of the AFA STL stop. The president of the company went as far as taking on some of the costs for renting the venue for the contest. It was amazing, and this stop wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for their generosity.
I get the impression you are heavily into music? Talk about music, bands that you are into and how they inspire you?
Music has definitely had a profound effect on my life. In my teen and early twenties I spent a lot of time hanging out at local concert venues, and going to shows every weekend. My friends and I were always sharing new music that we discovered, or talking about new album releases. I think being around that group shaped my perspective on my preference in music. Typically, I go through phases of different genres, and you can usually tell what I am listening to by my latest edit! Currently, I’ve been listening to a lot of shoegaze but this changes periodically.
Making edits are one of the most important aspects of riding for me, and a major part is finding the right song. I spend a lot of time deciding what song to use prior to filming, and I probably go through 2 or 3 songs before making a final decision. I put a lot of time into my edits, so I really want to make sure the song is right for the style of edit I am working on.
Ironically, I actually prefer to not listen to music when I ride. I will crank something up on the way to the park to get amped up, but once I get there, it’s pretty much just the sound of being on the bike. I guess I just like the sound of whatever is going on around me. My spot is very secluded so it’s peaceful, I guess.
Battle in the Rockies last year, you looked so happy to be battling Dub. What was going through your mind going into that battle?
That battle was so mind blowing, and first, I think we need some context. My first battle was against James McGraw, and I was so stoked I had won my first battle ever. James beats me at like every contest so it was nice to take him down for once! Haha! In all honesty, James and I push each other a lot during the year, and I was so stoked on how we both rode.
Once I found out I had to battle Dub, I knew I was going to have to bring it. Realistically, Dub is one of the best riders in the world right now, and I knew I didn’t have much of a shot. But that’s okay, flatland is about progression. I used this opportunity to really push myself outside of my comfort zone and attempt some of my harder lines. Amazingly, things started working out and I was really happy with some of the tricks I landed. It was such a great experience sharing the contest floor with Dub, and definitely a battle I won’t forget.
Any plans to travel more for contests Austin?
Absolutely. I plan on attending as many events this year as I can. I will continue to hit most of the AFA stops, and I am also considering some of the Canadian contests. My wife and I would really like to attend an event overseas as well.
What’s your bike set up?
Currently, I am riding a 20.5 Blackeye Killorado frame, with 28mm offset Flatware forks and Fit Benny L bars. I’m fairly tall, so I like a bit of a longer bike and a few spacers under my bars. My bike is pretty strong since it’s essentially a street setup, so I don’t have to worry about breaking parts to often. I have been riding a clutch freecoaster for the past few years and I really like it. I have also been pushing a lot of pivot tricks this past year, so I decided to switch to IGI pegs which has been a game changer for me. Everything else is pretty standard.
Which contest format do you prefer, run format or battle?
I definitely prefer run format. It’s more similar to what I practice at home, and I guess I’m just used to it. Plus, I like the idea of having a backup run just in case the first run doesn’t go well.
However, I will say that battle format is more fun for me. Typically, I’m battling for a higher rank rather than defending my position, so there is way less pressure and I just go for it. haha! I just have a hard time getting back in the zone after sitting idle. I think the AFA does it right by having the last stop do battles only.
As you ride contests regularly Austin, are you consciously trying to have tricks on both wheels?
When I first started competing, I had a fairly even amount of front and back wheel tricks planned for contests. Over the past year, my riding style has started to lean toward back wheel riding. I spent a lot of time working on front wheel so I have no plans on abandoning them, but I feel like my back wheel riding is progressing faster. Every once in a while, I’ll make some progress on a new front wheel switch or spin, so I try to incorporate them in my contest runs. Having a variety of both wheel tricks isn’t overly important to me, but I prefer not to repeat the same tricks over and over.
Congratulations on your nomination for Breakthrough Rider of the Year. 2017 was a great year for you, what are your ambitions for 2018?
Thank you Effraim! It really means a lot to me to be a part of the Flatmattersonline year end awards! There is so many talented riders out there and it is amazing that the flatland community actively voted for me. I can’t thank them enough!
This past year has been really crazy, and I was happy to be able to travel as much as I did. Although I made a lot of progress with my riding this past year, I still have so much I would like to accomplish for the next. I have been working hard on some new lines, and I’m really excited to start filming and attending as many contests as I can. Last year, I made a goal for myself to start posting more of my riding on social media. I’m really bad about keeping my instagram updated, so I wanted to push myself on this. By doing so, I found that I progressed a lot quicker. I think it forces me to continue pushing my riding level, rather than saving tricks for my next edit.
It’s easy to get caught up with pressure of contests, and the feelings that go along with them. I think it’s important that at the end of the day, flatland is about having fun, so I don’t want to forget this. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I am going to enjoy the process as best I can and see where my bike takes me. For me, my favorite part about riding is the daily grind that comes with progression. I love riding for the sake of what it is, and I’ll continue to ride as long as I am enjoying myself.
Any final thanks as we wrap this up Austin?
Once again, thank you Effraim for this interview! It really means a lot to me when others take interest in my riding. Huge thanks to the AFA for all of the motivation, travel opportunities, and contest experience. Thank you to my parents for all of the support they have given me, and allowing me to pursue this sport when I was young. Also, I cannot thank my wife enough for always being by my side, encouraging me to compete, and reminding me that riding is about having fun. Lastly, I thank God for the ability to ride my bike, and the opportunity for travel. I’m really looking forward to what the future brings, and meeting more riders around the world. Thank you!!
Thank you Austin, that was really awesome interviewing you and getting to know more about you. Hope you all enjoyed this one out there on the inter webs!