When I was a young lad, I loved to take my toy cars into my mother’s veggie garden and create tracks for them to race around.
I would build jumps and tunnels, replace plants with sweeping dirt corners—whatever my imagination could conjure up, often to my mother’s dismay. Never in my wildest dreams did I think there could be a legitimate career path in this act.
For Adam King and Chris Martin, it’s a different story. The duo are founders and owners of Empire of Dirt, a New Zealand-based trail-building company that crafts the highest-quality tracks at the most elite levels of the sport. But what is now a global operation began out of necessity in the hills outside of Rotorua, years before an “empire” was even a spark in their imaginations.
For mountain bikers in Rotorua during the early 1990s, if you wanted to ride something, you had to make it yourself. It was this necessary DIY ethos that inspired a preteen King to begin building with the local riding community. As a young grommet, King was influenced by trail-builder Fred Christiansen, a pioneer who created the first trails in the Whakarewarewa Forest.
It was about this time Martin also picked up a shovel and took his first crack at building. Martin’s start, however, wasn’t quite as rosy: He built one feature, rode it once, and went headfirst into the landing. He wouldn’t touch a shovel again until the late 2000s.
The two worked together on the Whistler Mountain Bike Park’s trail crew in 2008. At this point they were making minimal money, busting their backs for the love of riding bikes and a passion for creating—they were also getting their first taste of building trails at the professional level, at the world’s most esteemed bike park.
It wasn’t something they saw taking them anywhere career-wise; it was just a low-paying summer gig, a way to ride every day and pay the bills doing something they loved. Both King and Martin had “normal,” non-bike-related jobs in New Zealand during the North American winter. But by 2012 their “summer gig” allowed them to see a serious gap in the bike market: People were craving better trails, but the professional trail-building industry was still in its infancy. King and Martin felt they could bring such a service to the scene, and the following year they officially founded Empire of Dirt.
There are no shortcuts to properly building a high-quality, sustainable trail. It’s hard work. But King and Martin’s time in Whistler had taught them well, and when they returned to the woods of New Zealand, they found trails that just didn’t stack up. King, after pointing this out, was challenged to put his money where his mouth was. He thought about it for a minute. “OK, give me a crack at it then,” he replied. Then he quit his engineering job.
Building trails professionally is certainly not about money; it’s a passion. Martin and King were offered jobs by the local government and telecommunication companies to dig ditches for fiberoptic cables, but that wasn’t what they wanted to do. They were committed to making Empire work, and with each completed project they gained more recognition. It became clear they were on the right path when, after only a few years in business, they were asked to design and build a whole bike park: Skyline Rotorua, home of Crankworx’s New Zealand event.
King and Martin readily admit they were pretty green when they first embarked on Skyline, by far their largest project at the time, but anyone who’s ridden the park can testify to its quality. Building a track for Crankworx is on an entirely different scale than a public trail in a local forest. There are the tracks themselves to worry about, yes, but even more intense are the deadlines, the budgets and the politics that come whenever so much money and so many reputations are at stake. The professional and diligent approach King and Martin take is crucial to seeing such a project through. They now have four years in Rotorua under their belt, plus the very first Crankworx in Innsbruck, Austria.
The fact that Empire remains at the top of the game isn’t by chance; as mountain biking grows, so does competition in the trail-building industry. King and Martin know their craft inside out, and go about it like true engineers, with whatever technology is required to create the best ride. But a lot of their expertise comes down to feel, and King and Martin will constantly ride their work as they build to make sure it “feels” right. King usually goes first, whether it’s a pump track or a flow trail, judging the speed as Martin follows behind. For slopestyle tracks they bring in someone to test each hit, and work with the rider to dial everything in. Empire also maintains solid relationships with other trail companies, and have collaborated on projects with folks like Tom Hey, a friend and builder from the South Island.
Back in Rotorua, the tight-knit riding community from King and Martin’s youth remains intact, and Empire has done what they can to contribute. The company has put in countless machine hours on local forest trails, toiling alongside other hard-working Rotoruans to keep things in top-level condition. Over the past five years, however, King and Martin have been so busy all over the world they haven’t had much time to spend at home. Crankworx has given them a chance to give back and help their community grow, so in return they’re building the new Crankworx Dual Slalom track for free.
It’s a project extra close to King’s heart, as he remembers racing “old-school” dual slalom on Wednesday nights at the town’s Centennial Park track. He’d turn up after school with his $2 entry fee, and through these events kids learned about racing and bike skills while having a blast with friends. Adam wants to give more kids the opportunity to experience something similar, which is why he’s leading the charge on this build. Every evening the track swarms with kids, and it’s not even finished yet.
So, what does the future look like for these two sandpit graduates? Pretty good, actually. Their recipe of building world-class tracks and being genuinely good humans is a solid one. When asked about future plans, new tracks and upcoming projects, they answer, “There sure are, but nothing we can tell you about,” which only increases intrigue about what might be around the corner.
The team’s most recent work will be in the limelight during the opening round of the 2018 Crankworx World Tour. Just like in Innsbruck, they’re pushing the bar higher with their creativity and design, continuing an empire that began in the forests of Rotorua almost three decades ago.