Brad De Losa does not travel light. When he checked in for his flight to Austria to last week, his luggage included six axes and two saws. It sounds like an airport security nightmare, and maybe it is. But De Losa has a sound explanation – he is an athlete and this is his equipment. “It takes a bit of organisation,” he says, “to get it all packed up so it travels safely.”
He’s a lumberjack, and he’s OK. More than, actually. The Australian is a Stihl Timbersports world champion, and a three-time World Trophy winner. This weekend, at Vienna’s Rathausplatz, he is attempting a fourth.
Until three weeks ago De Losa held the world record. In 2015 he chopped and sawed through four tree trunks in 57.59 seconds. For seven years nobody could better it. Then along 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 forestial hardman. The poplar to your pine.
At this competition he is among the world’s 16 highest-ranking athletes, who will go head to head in a series of knockout match-ups. The format is four disciplines back to back: the stock saw, underhand chop, single buck and standing block chop. The fastest progresses to the next round, and so on and so forth.
It is all pretty standard fare for someone who has been competing since he was 16, when a friend of the family talked him into having a go in a local event.
“My father and uncle used to work in the timber industry a little bit and a friend of theirs was into wood chopping,” he says. “I went to a small competition in Lithgow and won that. And then I went back 12 months later and won an under-18s event. The rest is history.
“I started going to a few more shows and competitions and then made some representative teams. And then in 2003 I went to the US because that’s where Stihl Timbersports was at the time.”
The sport is a big deal in the United States. With zealous crowds and millions of TV viewers, it is probably the continent’s equivalent of darts in the UK. Stihl, the German chainsaw and power equipment manufacturer, started running what it calls “the original extreme sport” in 1985. In the almost four decades since, it has grown in both prestige and monetary value. Turns out it is not difficult to market men with big axes and even bigger saws.
Now women are making headway, too. For the first time in Vienna, the series will stage an International Women’s Cup. Front and centre will be Amanda Beams. The Tasmanian has just won the Australian women’s championship and is the world record holder for the underhand chop (31 seconds).
“I started wood chopping pretty much when I was 16,” says Beams. “When it started out it was just the ladies and they were just sawing. Then we sawed with a male partner with a Jack and Jill [saw], and I started in the sawing events with Dale. Over time that’s progressed to females actually picking up an axe and chopping. And here we are today.”
Dale is Beams’s husband. The 51-year-old met him at the Royal Adelaide Show during the 1980s, when there were only a couple of women sawing.
“Dale asked me, did I wanna have a go? So we started sawing together, made a pretty good team,” she says. “I ended up marrying the guy – we say we fooled around and fell in love – and we’ve got two kids. Both the boys chop and saw, so it’s been a real family affair.”
Beams is of wood-chopping lineage. Her father, a timber cutter by trade, also competed, as do her brother and uncle. To make it, she says, one must “have a pretty good head on your shoulders”. “You’ve got to be able to think, and think quickly,” she says. “Especially when you get to this level.”
There is also the obvious physical element. Both Beams and De Losa do gym work. The latter does boxing and light weights, and swims regularly.
“Burpees and star jumps and crunches,” he says. “I mix it up a little bit too, like I might do 10 burpees and then cut half a log, then do 10 burpees and cut the other half. You do go through a lot of wood – I would probably cut 15 blocks a week.”
Tactics play a major part, too. In the world series, the men’s rookie division and women’s professional division are comprised of four and three disciplines respectively, while the men’s professional division has six – the additional two are hot saw and springboard (a google search is recommended).
The World Trophy runs differently, in that the disciplines run back-to-back on the same timer with no rest.
“One of the hardest things with this event is your transition,” says De Losa. “Basically all your blood flow goes to the muscles that you are using in the underhand, then the next thing you go over to the single bucks and everything changes.
I like to compare it to a golf swing. You don’t have to be the biggest and strongest guy to hit a golf ball a long way; it’s all about your timing and technique, how you swing the axe to hit the right angles on the log. You can read the wood, if there’s small defect in the wood you can use it to your advantage.”
To continue the golf analogy, one must also select the right clubs for the environment and circumstances. Different sizes and shapes of axes and saws are used for different species of wood. There is always new and improved equipment on the market, and preparing them in the right way for competition can be “a very involved process”.
“Like, the crosscut saws are a very precise bit of equipment,” says De Losa. “They’re about 1.8m long. Obviously a longer saw is heavier, so it’s harder to pull and control because, but then each stroke does more work. So you customise that to your strength and your ability.
“And the weight of your axe and length of your handle can be tuned to suit each guy individually.”
De Losa calls the sport a “glorified hobby”, but that does not 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 did it to take out the title in 2013 but says the pressure to beat him forces other competitors into mistakes.
“I’ve ran second and third to him on a few occasions, and you’re always on edge,” he says. “If he hadn’t been there it would’ve probably made my run a lot easier over the years.”
Wynyard will not be in Austria, and the up and comers are sharpening their proverbial axes to challenge the status quo. The physique of the athletes has changed over the years in line with modern training techniques, and Europe is starting to invest serious money in facilities, including purpose-built training camps and top coaches.
“They have taken it to a whole new level over there,” he says. “The difference in Australia is we’ve got so many wood chopping events, like the rural and regional shows, whereas a lot of other countries haven’t got as many competitions as what we have – they might have five or six a year. So it’s still growing in a lot of places.”