James Hall the Cannonball | Part One: Home – Sydney’s Northern Beaches

There are many stories about why James Hall is affectionately known as Cannonball, but the mythology around this nickname seems to track back to the workshop at Bike Addiction on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

“When I was working at the shop, we would take a lunch break down at Manly and jump off into the harbour there. I’d cleared this little bit through some bushes, so we could jump off this new section, and Mark Turner just started calling me Cannonball from there,” he says.

Watch Cannonball shred his home trails on Sydney’s Northern Beaches

Dirt Art’s Jason Lam, a close friend of James, has heard a slightly different version of the origin story.

“We were down in Thredbo, and this older bloke down there (Mark Turner) was telling us the story,” Lam says. “Cannonball had never seen the (Manly) jump rock or the cliff, and when he got there, all he said was, ‘is it clear?’ His mate was like, ‘yeah,’ so he chucks his towel down, runs and does a huge backflip off the rock, completely sight unseen. From there, people started calling him Cannonball, and it stuck.”

James on his home trails. Everyone we spoke to mentioned that the way he reads trails and features is totally unique.

This story is the perfect summation of Cannonball; he is humble and unassuming in the way he tells it. He’s focused more on the detail of creating something else that others can enjoy than the blind backflip into the ocean. 

“He’s reserved and quiet, but he always has a cheeky grin on his face,” says Lam. “But then you see him on the bike, it’s just a whole other story once you watch him ride — it’s pretty amazing.”

Fire the cannon

He’s has raced as a privateer on the EWS and is an accomplished trail builder, having been a part of the build teams for Crankworx Colorado and Sea Otter. He’s played his part in trails all over Sydney, including Bare Creek Bike Park, and the newly re-opened Golden Jubilee; he’s also worked as a product designer at Jet Black. 

Cannonball started mountain biking in high school. With plans to pursue the Duke of Edinburgh award for hiking, the teenager’s plans changed course when a few of his friends learned a pair of pretty girls were chasing the award on mountain bikes. As every kid does, Cannonball was out with his friends, building kickers, sending little drops, and constantly destroying his bike. This need for a steady flow of parts led to him getting a job at the local bike shop — Bike Addiction. 

The trademark Cannonball cheeky grin.

It’s here where Cannonball met Oli Kristevic.

“We worked together at that shop, and we formed this little gang over those first few years, which was me, him, Chris Southwood, and Dave Musgrove. One of the first things we did outside of working at Bike Addiction together was building The Grove,” says Kristevic.

These dirt jumps still exist, albeit in a council approved form, and this is where James cut his teeth on the bike and the business end of a shovel. From here, Cannonball and The Grove crew packed their bike bags and made the pilgrimage to Whistler, as so many other young Aussie Mountain bikers have done. Kristevic and Cannonball started racing Canada Cups, Whistler Crankworx, and any other event they could scrounge up enough toonies for fuel and the entry fee. 

Cannonball tells us what he loves about riding in Sydney is the sandstone, shelfy rocks and the tight and rooty trails.
Building jumps for the community requires testing.

“I think those two summers in Whistler were when my skills went from being an okay rider to getting really confident on the bike,” James says. 

Kristevic recounts a time when James ripped a pedal body off on the Garbanzo DH and continued to finish his run riding only on the spindle, in the wet. Or the time he rode to 8th place at the Canadian National Championships in Sun Peak. This would be a feat for any rider, but not only was this Cannonball’s first time riding a DH bike, but it was also a loaner.

Cannonman’s pedals have seen a few things.
Keeping the cannonball safe, the Lazer Jackal helmet.

“I knew that I could perform, and I knew that I could get results if I pushed myself for them,” he says.

Cannonball would go on to chase the EWS around the world as a privateer, though he earned his best result on home soil, riding to 32nd place at the 2017 Derby EWS stop. Cannonball tells us the itch to race hasn’t been totally scratched and he was planning to race Tassie doubleheader, and Nelson NZ stops next year — before they were cancelled — and further afield once international travel is back on the table.

James is hoping to race an EWS stop here and there, especially when the series goes through new destinations.

“The racing that I have really enjoyed the most have been the races that have gone to new destinations and have been really unique in the travel side. I really loved going to Madeira (Portugal), Columbia and Chile. They were some of the most memorable rounds for me,” James says. “I think for my riding style, I do better at the rounds where there is a level playing field, and no one has a home track advantage or has ridden the track the previous year.”

Cannonball on the tools

We can’t say for sure why that is, but we’d guess the reason that James excels in these types of blind riding situations is that he reads trails in a different light.

“He’s such a technically skilled rider, but he also doesn’t see a trail the same way as anybody else would. His line choice and the way sees trail features are so unique. You or I will look at something and think no way, and then Cannonball rides it, and it looks effortless,” says Lam.

Cannonball has been instrumental in designing and constructing big trail projects like Bare Creek Bike Park.

Kristevic continues, “I find his mind very free and unconstrained, which is why he makes such a good designer and a track builder as well, and I think he’s really driven by getting people stoked.”

“I’ve designed trails with him before with Dirt Art and I don’t think I’ve met anyone as passionate as him in terms of trail building. More recently, on a project we were battling through head-high blackberry, which is horrendous, I’ve never been through stuff like that in my entire life for a whole trail — kilometres worth,” says Lam. “Yet he’s still happy just to punch straight through it. He just loves it. He had a massive grin on his face, I’ve never seen anyone so excited to be flagging a trail regardless of the conditions.”

Cannonball enjoying the fruits of his labour.
Squeezing through a classic Sydney rock feature.

Stoked in Sydney

James has left his mark on trails all around Sydney, and in collaboration with Trail Care helped to deliver Bare Creek Bike Park and Golden Jubilee, both of which are in a class of their own in Australia. 

“That was a big project (Bare Creek), and it was quite a journey. We’re still pinching ourselves. To see those squiggles on paper that we’d submitted as suggestions for alignments, and turning up on sight and seeing all those lines flagged out. I just remember thinking, wow, this is happening.”

“Then seeing the machines come in and Dirt Art shaping these amazing features that were even bigger and better than we ever imagined. Seeing it turn into this amazing place was really special,” he says.

Since then, James has had a hand in the newly revamped Golden Jubilee bike park that will officially open after the Sydney COVID lockdown ends, helping to design a park based on what the local riding community had put together and guiding the machine operators to move dirt to the right places. 

From squiggles on a page to reality, Cannonball played an integral part in the construction of Bare Creek Bike Park.

“It’s great to see other parks being influenced by Bare Creek, and it wouldn’t have happened without Bare Creek setting the precedent and being a showcase”. 

Beyond his contributions to Bare Creek and Golden Jubilee, Cannonball is heavily involved in Trail Care and the Garigal Gorillas and is the man behind infamous Fiv’er rides. Stay tuned for parts two and three where we will delve into James’s contributions to the mountain bike community in Sydney, and tag along for an adventure.

Cannonball, always stoked.

Photos and video – Oliver Smith @oliversmithphoto

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