Brad De Losa does not travel light. When he checked in for his flight to Austria last week, he had six axes and two saws in his luggage. It sounds like an airport security nightmare, and maybe it is. But De Losa has a good explanation – he’s an athlete and this is his gear. “It takes a bit of organization,” he says, “to pack everything so it travels safely.”
He’s a lumberjack and he’s fine. More than actually. The Australian is the Stihl Timbersports World Champion and a three-time World Trophy winner. This weekend he tries his hand at a fourth on Vienna’s Rathausplatz.
De Losa held the world record until three weeks ago. In 2015, he chopped and sawed through four tree trunks in 57.59 seconds. For seven years no one could top it. Then came American Matt Cogar, who blitzed it in 54.68.
But the 44-year-old fitter from Lithgow is still one of the kings of the bush. A forest hardman. The poplar to your pine.
This competition sees him among the top 16 ranked athletes in the world who will compete in a series of knockout matches. The format consists of four back-to-back disciplines: Stock Saw, Underhand Chop, Single Buck and Standing Block Chop. The fastest goes to the next round and so on and so forth.
It’s all pretty normal for someone who has been competing since he was 16 when a family friend talked him into attending a local event.
“My father and uncle used to work a bit in the lumber industry and a friend of theirs was a lumberjack,” he says. “I went to a little competition in Lithgow and won. And then I went back 12 months later and won an U18 event. The rest is history.
“I started going to a few more shows and competitions and then put together some representative teams. And then I went to the USA in 2003 because Stihl Timbersports was there at the time.”
Sport is a big thing in the United States. With eager crowds and millions of TV viewers, it’s probably the continent’s equivalent of darts in Britain. Stihl, the German chain saw and power tool manufacturer, began what it calls “the original extreme sport” in 1985. In the nearly four decades since then, it has grown in both prestige and monetary value. Turns out it’s not difficult to market men with big axes and even bigger saws.
Now women are on the rise too. For the first time in Vienna, the series will host an International Women’s Cup. Front and center will be Amanda Beams. The Tasmanian just won the Australian Women’s Championship and holds the world record for the underhand (31 seconds).
“I started chopping wood pretty much exactly when I was 16,” says Beams. “In the beginning it was only the ladies and they only sawed. Then we sawed at Jack and Jill’s with a male partner [saw], and I started with Dale in the saw events. Over time, that has evolved into women actually picking up an ax and chopping. And here we are today.”
Dale is Beams’ husband. The 51-year-old met him on the Royal Adelaide Show in the 1980s, when few women sawed there.
“Dale asked me if I’d like to try it? So we started sawing together and made a pretty good team,” she says. “I ended up marrying the guy — we say we fooled around and fell in love — and we have two kids. Both boys chop and saw, so it was a real family affair.”
Beams comes from the wood chipper line. Her father, a lumberjack by trade, attended, as did her brother and uncle. To pull it off, she says, you have to “have a pretty good head on your shoulders.” “You have to be able to think, and think fast,” she says. “Especially when you get to that level.”
There’s also the obvious physical element. Both Beams and De Losa work in the gym. The latter does boxing and light weights and swims regularly.
“Burpees and star jumps and crunches,” he says. “I also mix it up a bit like doing 10 burpees and then chopping half a log, then burpeing 10 and chopping the other half. They go through a lot of wood – I’d probably cut 15 blocks a week.”
Tactics are also important. In the World Series, the men’s rookie division and women’s pro discipline consist of four and three disciplines, respectively, while the men’s pro discipline consists of six disciplines – the additional two being Hot Saw and Springboard (a Google search is recommended).
The World Trophy is different as the disciplines run consecutively without a break at the same time.
“One of the hardest things about this event is your transition,” says De Losa. “Basically all of your blood flow goes to the muscles you’re using in the backhand, then next you go to the individual bucks and everything changes.
I like to compare it to a golf swing. You don’t have to be the biggest and strongest to hit a golf ball far; It’s all about your timing and technique as you swing the ax to hit the log at the right angle. You can read the wood, if there are small flaws in the wood you can use it to your advantage.”
Continuing the golf analogy, one must also choose the right clubs for the environment and circumstances. Different sizes and shapes of axes and saws are used for different types of wood. There is always new and improved equipment on the market, and preparing properly for the competition can be “a very involved process”.
“For example, the chop saws are a very precise piece of equipment,” says De Losa. “They’re about six feet long. Obviously a longer saw is heavier, so it’s harder to pull and control, but then each stroke is more work. So adjust that to your strength and skill level.
“And the weight of your ax and the length of your handle can be customized for each guy.”
De Losa calls the sport a “glorified hobby,” but that doesn’t make it any less competitive. His main rival over the years has been New Zealand’s Jason Wynyard, a nine-time world champion who is rarely beaten. De Losa managed to clinch the title in 2013 but says the pressure to beat him forces other competitors to make mistakes.
“I’ve finished second and third behind him a few times and you’re always nervous,” he says. “If he hadn’t been there, it probably would have made my run a lot easier over the years.”
Wynyard won’t be in Austria, and the rising stars are sharpening their proverbial axes to challenge the status quo. Athletes’ physiques have changed over the years in line with modern training techniques, and Europe is starting to invest seriously in facilities, including purpose-built training camps and top trainers.
“They took it to a whole new level over there,” he says. “The difference in Australia is that we have as many logging events as the rural and regional shows, while many other countries don’t have as many competitions as we do – they have maybe five or six a year. So it’s still growing in many places.”