Interview: With Benoît Goncerut about the We Ride in Iran project
I met Ben Goncerut completely by accident in Laax after his 2-year-old son Emil vomitted on my leg. After we solved the situation, we started talking and we realised that we actually have a lot to talk about. Ben is one of the founders of the We Ride in Iran project, one of the top world snowboard judges and most importantly a passionate snowboarder. You can enjoy the interview with him in the original English version below or in the translated Czech version by clicking on the link below this paragraph.
Hey Ben! How’s it goin' and where are you at the moment?
Hey Jan! I'm at home in Lausanne, Switzerland. I'm working on our new Glacier Sunglasses brand, which just came out and I'm just enjoying life!
Let's get straight to the point... You're one of the founders of the We Ride in Iran project. Could you tell us what is the project about & how did you guys get the idea for it? Why Iran?
Haha, that’s a long story bro. I’ll try to make it short. In 2012, my friend Arnaud Cottet’s uncle gifted us his old car, which he couldn’t use anymore: "Boys, do whatever you want with it, but please give my old car a good last ride!" was what he said. So together with Arnaud we came up with the idea to travel with this car as far as possible through the mountains towards east. The goal was to meet the local communities in each country we were crossing: Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and, finally, after numerous ups and downs, we could enter Iran!
The project was in collaboration with the Swiss national radio and we were interested in seeing how the people were living the ski & snowboard culture in their respective countries. Iran was the ultimate goal of this road trip project. We have always been fascinated by this very highly-publicized country and definitely wanted to see it with our own eyes. Snowboarding has always been a good excuse to travel and share with people.
The first day we spent in the mountains around Tehran, we met Amir, a very charismatic guy. The same day he invited us to his place and we met his crew, welcoming us with the legendary Iranian hospitality. It was pretty nuts, in less than 24 hours, all the common beliefs we had about the country were totally crushed! Then in no time we got to meet the whole local scene. This is how everything started. It was the end of the season, we had some slushy sessions with the locals and decided to organize a little jam session together. They brought up the biggest sound system I’ve seen in my life, there was a super intense party in the middle of the mountains while all the riders went crazy on the kicker! Everybody was stoked!
Just before leaving, we had a big meeting with the community and we decided together to pursue this first experience by building a snowpark, developing coaching sessions, organizing some BC sessions, doing some freeride prevention - of course nobody had an avalanche transceiver - organizing freestyle championship, etc. And this is what we did. We came back the next season and We Ride in Iran was launched! During all these years, we were not only involved in snowboarding and skiing, but also with skateboarding and surfing. As the community is small, everybody knows each other, even when you are from another city. It’s like a small family, and We Ride in Iran tries to put all of this together. Basically, We ride in Iran consists of two sides: one side is to develop the board sports in the country and give them, let’s say, an international visibility - or to show something else than people are used to hearing or seeing about this country - and the other side, we want to make ties between people inside the country as well as building bridges between locals and riders coming from all over the world to enjoy these amazing mountains and people!
Which parts does We Ride in Iran project consist of at the moment? What is the main focus?
These last years we frequently had some people asking us, after watching our videos online, how they could travel to Iran. As a lot of our Iranian friends work in the tourism sector, we decided to organise trips - available on werideiniran.com - so that they might get the same amazing experience we got. We are linking people that want to come shred there with the right people that can take care of them and make their trip as unforgettable as ours!
Recently, Arnaud went filming with Ski Freeride World champion Aurelien Ducroz in February and there were coaching sessions organized in April by our Swiss boys Mark & Jon!
The main focus for us is that the project's further development doesn’t depend on us. This project doesn’t belong to us, it is owned by all the Iranian riders, the people that come to ride in Iran and simply everyone who wants to be part of it!
You experienced Iran already few times yourself. Tell us what is your impression of the country as a whole?
As I told you, the first time we were scared to pass the border. Now everytime we arrive at the airport the customs officers recognize us and welcome us with a big smile saying "Salam azizam" - which kind of means "Hello honey". They even got their own We Ride in Iran t-shirts! Haha, even the customs officers are part of We Ride in Iran!
Seriously the impression I have about Iran is that the more you spend time there the less you understand this country. It’s such a complex society full of paradoxes and unexpectedness. You always live in the very short term here. You never know what’s going to happen next. One day you wake up in the morning, everything is ready for the contest but nobody can access the ski resort because there is a huge avalanche on the road. Another day you can not make the kickers ready because all the groomers in the resort are out of order and they have no replacement parts, or the driver just went for lunch and never came back! And one day they forecasted sunny weather and you wake up with 40 cm of unexpected fresh snow! If you go to Iran as a tourist it’s probably one of the easiest travel destinations you can go to. But once you start developing projects as we did, it’s getting REALLY intense. Humanly and nervously intense! The first contests we organized there, people were doing half backflip falling straight on the head and did not understand why a backside 3 perfectly landed was better rewarded than their faceplant! Also, in the first year, some competitors were thinking that contest ranking would be according to their father’s wealth or social status rather than their level of riding. Now it’s getting slightly better. Anyway, it’s difficult to talk about Iran as a whole. Most of the time when spend there, it’s often with people from the upper class that find something like a refuge and an escape in the mountains. They live in and for the mountains. We live there like in a bubble, our own Iran inside the country, with its own rules, codes and values. This is why it’s important not only to go riding, but also to travel inside this amazing country. There is so much to see in Iran!
How would you describe the mountains to someone, who maybe till this day hasn’t had any idea that it’s possible to go snowboarding to Iran?
Mostly huge and pretty impressive mountains with long and often steep faces. If you want to do some tree runs, this is not the good place, or go in some more remote places in the north! As the climate is pretty dry, the powder is amazingly light! I have never seen something like the persian powder before!
Could you tell us something about the people in Iran and the snowboard & freeski community there?
The first time we entered the country we were not even sure there would be some real mountains! Honestly, we were expecting to see some guys on camels with AK-47 waiting for us at the borders, not meeting some guys knowing all the latest video parts of Eero Etala & Joe Sexton! They are pretty much connected to the world through the social networks. Like when they came to Laax for the first time, it was during the Laax Open and it was like they were actually scrolling their Instagram feed but in live!
This community is now part of my family and it’s pretty hard to describe in words the relations we build over the years. Concerning the people in Iran, I don’t want to fall into the cliché like "These people are amazingly nice, noble-minded and incredibly hospitable" but yes, they really are.
You come from a film environment. What have you guys filmed in Iran so far? Any plans for the future?
We did a few ski & snowboard movies such as Salam Azizam, a ski road trip and documentaries about one of the contest we organized there called Dizin Open or another one about called Off-Piste, but that is not available online for, let’s say, some political & personal security reasons! Every little thing can be very sensitive and misinterpreted - even more when it’s politically unstable like nowadays - so it was more important for us to prevent the people that appear in the film from any troubles than to show it online! Beside of this, I produced a skateboard documentary directed by one of my dadash (brother in Persian language) Benjamin Aryani called We Skate in Iran. It’s about the raise of the skateboarding scene in Iran. There is also another one about surfing in Iran called Berim, directed by Damien Epiney and shot during their trip to Baluchistan, south of Iran.
I also produced a short fiction - that has nothing to do with snowboarding. Directed by my friend Fisnik Maxhuni and shot mostly on the shore of the Caspian Sea. It’s called Valley of Happiness and was selected in some nice international film festivals.
For the future, concerning films related to snowboarding, we are now in contact with a production that wants to come. The guys from Salomon wanted to come this past winter but it didn’t work out. Mostly because one of their crew members is Canadian and, as for the Brits and the Americans, it’s pretty much fucked up to get a visa to go to Iran.
When we met you told me that Laax is supporting the project as well. How is this cooperation working exactly?
Since 2015 Laax is supporting our activities in Iran in order to develop the freestyle scene there. Every year, they invite the Iranian champion - women & men - to come and shred one full week. It’s sick! I’ll always remember the face of my friend Pouriya Hadiani, who won the Iranian championship in 2016, when he arrived for the first time on the top. It was the first time in his life he saw a halfpipe and a proper snowpark. So when he saw the 2 pipes, P60 and all the snowparks of the resort, he almost got a heart attack!
Since then, he comes back almost every year and last year he could even take part in the Swiss national freestyle championship organized by Swiss Snowboard! You need to come during the Laax Open next year, every year at that period there is like an Iranian invasion on the slopes and in the bars and clubs! Be ready for it!
What do you think is the coolest thing about Laax? Besides the fact that they support the project of course, haha.
They have a vision and they go fully into it, no compromise. I guess the fact that almost the whole resort is run by one company makes it more coherent, they go together in one direction, everything is done by snowboarders for snowboarders. They are not scared to invest fully into freestyle and I have lots of respect for this. And did you see their app?! Dude I got free sandwich and coffee just because I rode P60 3 days in a row! It’s sick!
With what you guys have done in Iran, have you considered doing the same or something similar in another country?
Yes bro! We Ride in Czech coming soon! Honestly, as we get many contacts riding on this planet, we were thinking about franchising it, so that in every country you go riding, you know who and where the scene is, and you can easily connect with the right people! But this needs to come from the local people. If you feel like sharing #werideinczech or wherever you ride, then feel free to create your own "We Ride in"!
Besides We Ride in Iran project, what else do you do in snowboarding and outside of snowboarding?
Outside of snowboarding, I am producing, directing and writing mostly documentary films through our production company called Visceral Films.
I am also working on a new brand called Glacier Optics. These are titanium sunglasses made in the Alps. We just launched our Kickstarter campaign - you can check them out!
Related to snowboarding, I’m involved in a friend's project called West Snowboards. Some true snowboarders driven by passion that wanted to create a brand that corresponds with their vision of snowboarding. I am also judging some national and international contests. It’s cool to judge, sometimes you finish early so you can go for a few laps and sometimes it’s postponed because of heavy snowfall so you can shred pow the whole day. It happens almost every year at Laax Open!
And when I am not doing one of those things I am a dad. By the way sorry again that Emil vomitted on you in Piazza café! Haha.
That’s fine, haha. He ate a lot of the sweets which came with my coffee. Where do you ride the most yourself?
We get a pass for € 350 here in West Switzerland that gives you access to 30 resorts. So you just have to check in the morning which resort got the heaviest snowfall! And as I get the season pass from Laax I try to go there as much as possible.
With the experience you have in snowboarding, where do you see it going both in the competition field and as a whole sport and lifestyle in the near future?
Tough question! I don’t see snowboarding as one. Snowboarding is multiple and I like the fact that our sport can be enjoyed and considered in different manners, it doesn’t matter if you feel more comfortable in doing some triples, hitting some rails, pow, carve the slopes at 8.30 am, go for a splitboard session or a super engaged face. I enjoy watching Halldor riding as much as Kleveland, I’ll watch a Yung Doli instaclip with the same thrill as for Frank Bourgeois latest part. As soon as you get this precious stick under your feet, the only common denominator we should all have is about the values and the spirit, no matter what you prefer to ride. Concerning the competitive side, progression is part of the sport and you can not go against it, it doesn’t make sense! If a rider wants to go for a quad or a trick nobody has done before, then send it! But we as judges have to consider and reward consequently creative tricks, with new rotation angles, different grabs, variety, toes and heel rotations, how the rider uses the course, etc. I hope the slopestyle courses will be more and more creative also, it will be more difficult to judge but way cooler to watch - and I guess to ride! There are still so many things to do and I hope competitive snowboarding is going in that direction in a near future, it’s I think the only option to keep the competitive snowboarding alive. Oh and I loved Knuckle Huck contest format at the last X Games. This was dope!
And anyway dude, have you seen Boris Mouton’s dub 10 shifty from this winter!? That’s the future!
Have you ever visited the Czech Republic or are you planning to visit the country?
As half of Europeans did, I went to Praha, but as half of Europeans did, I don’t remember the trip that well. Beer was really good! Oh and I should have gone to a documentary film festival in Jihlava, but it looked too complicated to go so I skipped it.
Hope to see you soon in the mountains or in the bar. In the best scenario in both in one day, haha. Take care!
Let’s do it bro! Thanks and long live to the Czech snowboard community!
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