Slightly Left of Centre

An extract from Hurly Burly. Buy the definitive 2016 World Cup yearbook for this and many more features like it, plus photo galleries and full event-by-event reportage from the entire 2016 season.

Words: Alan Milway || Photo: Duncan Philpott

Downhill mountain bike racing is a young and evolving sport. Born from a desire to go faster than the next guy down a rugged hill side, the founders and instigators are only a generation older than a lot of us. They had skill, adrenaline and enjoyment as the central core of what downhill mountain biking was to them.

Humans are competitive by nature, and once you start to codify a sport or discipline – set out tapes and a track – immediately the riders will want to try and go that little bit faster, progress their bikes to suit the track, and inevitably their bodies too if they are proving to be the weak link.

The DH World Cup series is only young, having been founded in 1993. Back then, many riders had either a BMX or XC racing background, and this mix produced a fascinating blend as the skills of the BMX riders (Gracia, Lopes etc.) blended with the fitness of the cross country riders (Greg Herbold and John Tomac). Each looked to take a leaf from the other. Tracks were very long – generally longer than they are today – with fireroad sections and a more meandering path down the mountain, meaning sustained pedaling for 6-8mins on some tracks, which shows the need for fitness in racing has always been there, even if the desire to embrace or promote it wasn’t.

With its similarities to motocross, but also skate and other alternative cultures, some downhillers used to split away from the Lycra-wearing XC crowd; many wanted to play down any training or preparation outside of racing. The aim was to be able to win, or nearly win, purely on talent, skill and bravado – not because you had trained or been to the gym during the week. It was even ‘cool’ to have a good few beers the night before a race, almost as if you were happy to sabotage your best potential! However, what mustn’t be forgotten is that in the very early days riders would race XC on one day and then DH the next – anyone remember the Karrimor series? Lycra, fitness and effort were always part of downhill for one tranche of riders. 

As the races split into true downhill-only events and many embraced the more relaxed and flamboyant side of things, there was a rider emerging who was dismissing any attention of the party lifestyle and showing what effort and focus can do. Nicolas Vouilloz was dominating World Cup racing, and bringing a very methodical approach to it. Clean-cut, in bed by 10pm and very straight-laced in his appearance, Nico really progressed the athletic side of racing from its cultural stand point. This is key, as there were others working hard and to varying degrees, but keeping their effort and preparation behind closed doors. 

If you grew up reading MBUK in the mid-nineties, you would have seen some bizarre features with UK World Cup racers such as Jason McRoy, Peaty, Warner, Longden etc. dressed up in fancy dress and larking about, doing some impressive ‘stunts’ but never anything about any training or regime they were working to. With the magazines covering all arms of mountain biking, downhill was branching off away from XC and trail riding. Warner went by the nickname ‘Caveman’ and Peaty often had a beer in his hand. However, to be racing and winning at World Cup level on such long tracks must have taken a certain amount of preparation behind the cameras, even if it was just riding road bikes and climbing hills to pedal back down.

The French as a nation really led when it came to downhill racing, and supporting their racers. The Sunn-Chippie team were dominating with Anne-Caroline Chausson, Cedric Gracia and Vouilloz, and brought in a high level of engineering to make the bikes work incredibly well through Olivier Bossard (of BOS suspension). I’d love to see the specifics of the training they were doing back then, and would imagine it was heavily based around interval training. This ability to tolerate the high levels of lactate in the blood and the associated pain and burning simply allowed them to keep pedaling and pushing on when others would be sat down and freewheeling. 

As we fast forward to today’s tracks and are able to measure in a very in-depth manner the athletic demands of the sport, it is fascinating to see the physical challenges placed upon a rider: Very high power outputs generated at the start gate and then repeated down the course. High heart rates throughout – over and above 95% max heart rates. Blood Lactate levels are well into double figures, and in many cases I’ve measured them reaching the very extremes of fatigue. And through the use of accelerometers we can measure G forces – I’ve seen peaks of 9 G – levels reached by fighter pilots.

Now, with this information it’s harder to play down the importance of fitness for racing, and herein we find a problem. Downhill is in danger of becoming an event that is defined by the fittest rider. This isn’t what the sport originated for, or what many desire. The tracks are now put into focus as we realise they play such an important part in the next evolutionary step for downhill. With bike park venues in the Alps wanting to draw holidaymakers, it makes complete sense for them to host a World Cup. What doesn’t make sense is to run the race track on the man-made, well trodden path that exists for average Joe to ride all summer. The riders are rarely fully challenged by these courses, and the difficulty becomes riding at the very edge of grip, making no mistakes. Do you need to practice that insane rock shoot or web of off-camber roots if you will never see them at a racetrack? Tracks such as Vallnord, Val di Sole and Champéry are vital to keep skill and bike handling at the fore.

Maybe we will see more Red Bull Hardline-style tracks too? Dan Atherton has a real passion for creating and an innate understanding of what makes a good track, with features that are doable but take four days to build up to. Surely this would be great for spectators and still mean riders would need the associated strength and conditioning to withstand the landings, take offs and compressions?

A strong rider, able to resist impacts, maintain posture on the bike, and repeatedly deliver power, will perform better than his same, weaker self. He will also be able to focus on the skill of riding his bike for longer and make less mistakes on track, as fatigue is shown to hamper concentration, decision making, reaction time and coordination. Regardless of arguments against training or the desire for it in downhill, understanding the previous sentence clearly should be proof enough that fitness training trumps riding alone and has a place in any sport. 

This will put us in a position that I am most comfortable with: the most skilled rider, who has the fitness to back it up being victorious. Back in 2010 the World Cup circuit visited Champéry (Switzerland), and practice was held in the dry. Brendan Fairclough was simply on fire and looking outrageous; his line choice, flow and corner speed were clearly and visibly fastest. However, as rain came and the track changed, it was an interesting shift as you could see there wasn’t the same power or control in his legs as some of the others on track. Sticky mud needs strength and power, and this presented a different racing challenge, one that Gee Atherton would eventually win with Brendan in third.

Injuries are all too common, and many of the top riders have had multiple broken bones, concussions, and abrasions that are deemed minor, but would make mere mortals wince. Preventing injuries is difficult when rocks and trees are your run off area, but riders don’t always do too much to help themselves; where once a full body suit of armour was commonplace, now simple knee cups are all that is added to a full face helmet. Is this the rebellious, gladiator attitude sticking two fingers up at what is known to be more effective, or riders following fashion and the trends put forward by riders such as Sam Hill? Shoulders, collarbones and wrists take the majority of the impacts and what is interesting is that it is far from just six weeks for them to heal. Physically maybe, but mentally there are many examples of riders who have had incredible years only to become injured and take some time to recapture that knife-edge approach.

Aerodynamics is another area where culture wins over common sense. In a time trial down a hill at speeds well over 20mph, anyone outside the sport would agree that tighter-fitting clothing and aerodynamics would play a significant role in reducing time and improving results. However, downhill has it written into legislation that this can’t happen. A step too far or a way to protect the essence of the sport that was there from the start? Considering the Lycra and peakless helmets of the early 90’s I don’t know… I think there will be a shift towards gaining every tenth of a second, looking at every area.

Culture goes so far, but the need to win and the money on offer means that if data logging your suspension, trimming the peak on your helmet, or wearing tighter clothes will help you win, then why wouldn’t you embrace this? By the same essence, if you can save time by being more powerful, then why not?

It is these developments, evolutions and changes that are fascinating and keep mountain biking ever-so-slightly left of centre – not quite mainstream and slick. It is clearly a growing sideshow but ever in the shadows of our brethren locked in the Manchester vélodrome, being churned out as finely-tuned robots built for gold. Would downhill fit into this mould and suit a position in the Olympics? Honestly, I think not. Having seen the support and change for XC and BMX I can’t see many positives, and I feel there would be drive from those who look at it from purely a numbers point of view to ask difficult questions of the approach, freedom afforded to the riders, and potentially try and centralise the setup. The majority of riders I have worked with wouldn’t thrive in that environment and could it sanitise the sport? Having said that, I would love to get my teeth into a setup where I had control and budget to really push areas I know will make riders and bikes faster. 

What next for downhill? I can see various metrics being brought into the TV coverage – heart rates, speed, power and G forces being shown on screen to help tell the story of the race run. I would like to see tracks diversify and offer a more technical challenge, even potentially slowing the average speeds. These technical elements really differentiate the riders and, when filmed well, look incredible for the public. We are seeing more and more riders embrace strength and fitness training, which will probably raise the level and depth of potential podium contenders. It may, however, make you sick of seeing yet another gym selfie, or motivational statement… The other alternative is to lean towards the sheer death-defying nature of the track and potentially align with Rampage or similar – attracting an audience that will be astonished by the skill, but may only watch as they bay for blood.

Ultimately, the direction the sport takes is in our hands to a degree. Pushing for change and tracks that excite and challenge the riders will excite and continue to bring in fresh talent, especially where enduro racing is becoming more and more accessible. I hope downhill will show itself to an increasingly broader audience as a skill-led sport that requires many pieces of the puzzle in order to gain success, with athleticism being central to this.

Alan Milway is a fitness coach who has worked with a long list of World Cup winners and six World Champions. He has coached riders including Danny Hart, Tracey Moseley, Manon Carpenter, Matt Simmonds, Gee Atherton, and lately Rachel Atherton to her ‘perfect 2016 season’.

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