UCI World Cup Val di Sole 2013
UCI World Cup Val di Sole 2013

After two seasons of being at the top of World Cup downhill, 2013 didn’t quite work out as planned for American star Aaron Gwin. We caught up with him in his home town of Temecula to see what’s up…

DIRT ISSUE 146 - APRIL 2014

Words by Ed Haythornthwaite. Photos by Seb Schieck, Sven Martin and Sebastian Schieck

The final talk at the end of the 2013 DH season may well have been concentrated around the Steve Smith and Gee Atherton battle, but prior to that the question on most people’s lips was what on earth had happened to Aaron Gwin? The guy had just come off the back of two of the most dominating seasons that we’ve ever witnessed, and then all of a sudden things seemed to go a bit awry. His success had got to the point where we were almost expecting him to win everything, but it just wasn’t happening, not even close on many occasions. Everyone seemed to have their own theories as to what was going on, especially after one of the most talked about team changes ever, but now that the dust has settled I wanted to find out the score directly from the horses mouth, and to see where he’s at for 2014.

Dirt: Let’s start by going back to 2011/2012, with so many broken records they were pretty amazing seasons by any stretch of the imagination. Must have felt good?

Aaron Gwin: Yeah definitely pretty good. It was a really good couple of seasons and it seemed like the hard work for a lot of years was paying off. I'd only been racing mountain bikes for a couple of years, but I’d been racing some sort of two wheeled bike, whether it had a motor or not, since I was four years old. To reach the top level of any sport is pretty special, so it was a really fun couple of years.

Did your dominance in those seasons take you by surprise?

Yes, I think it did. That said I always thought that I could get there, but I think a lot of people feel like they have what it takes to get there but there are a lot of things that can happen along the way. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way. So actually getting there is something else. I definitely felt like I had the speed and if I could keep working hard then I’d at least have a good shot at winning races. I didn't expect it to start rolling as fast as it did, or as many as it did. At the same time, I wouldn't say I was really surprised by it, but it was definitely a little bit more than I expected so soon. I didn't think about it a lot, I just kept racing and focused–in on trying to just do the best I can, as I always do. Sometimes it goes your way and things fall into place, there were definitely a couple of those years.

So talking of things falling into place and going the right way, we then go on to 2013. A lot of big changes in everything around you; your team, your trainer, your mechanic… all sorts. Was that difficult to deal with?

Yes, there were a lot of changes but they were all changes that I really believed were the best way for me to go, and I still do. I wasn't ever hesitant about it or second guessing it. I speak about things just going my way, but it just really didn't go my way in 2013. We put in a lot of hard work coming into the season. We had a bike that was easily capable of winning races. I was too. My speed, my fitness, everything was there, it just didn't come together. I just had too many runs with mistakes and weird things happening. I couldn't really even explain why the mistakes happened. I didn't feel like I was riding over my head. I honestly couldn't put my finger on why it was even happening. It's hard to explain that to somebody unless you've been there. You need to know what it's like to ride that line, what it takes to win races. Things can go your way, but it's also really easy for them not to go your way, because you're riding that fine line. Sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you don't.

This year I was really focused and having good runs but little mistakes just kept coming. Everybody's tightened up the last few years too so mistakes now cost more. I wouldn't say that the pace has really quickened at the top, I think it's still the same, or close, but there are no longer just two or three guys that can run at that pace, now it’s more like ten. That said, I think Stevie and Gee cranked the pace up another notch. Basically you just can't make the mistakes that you used to be able to and still do good. You have to throw down smooth runs.

Do you really think it’s those little mistakes, and the fact that the game has tightened, that made the difference then? It’s just in 2011/2012 you pulled out some big winning margins, and you had some great results even when you’d crashed or gone out of the tape.

Yes, definitely. The crash you're talking about was at Fort William, I think, in 2011. I had a crash, it was a quick one, I slowed up, stood right back up and got going again. So it probably only cost me three or four seconds. I ended up getting fifth there, still on the podium, but try that now on certain tracks and you could be towards the end of the top ten. The mistakes get magnified because of how many guys are going fast. It just makes it harder to be consistent at the top.>>

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[part title="AARON GWIN 'HAVE FAITH' | INTERVIEW PAGE TWO..."]

Aaron Gwin 3
Aaron Gwin 3

Did you feel a lot of pressure going into the season? I mean you’d been so dominant and now you were on a new team, so did you feel like you had to perform for them?

I wouldn't say so, but I always have a little bit of pressure on myself because I know what I'm capable of. At the same time, I wouldn't say that other people's expectations get to me a lot. I always know I'm going to show up as prepared as I can and ride the best I can ride. What else can you do besides that? Over the years I’ve had a lot more losses than wins so it’s not new to me. You can put it all out there and you get 20th, like at Fort William. You'd better be OK with that because that's racing. As long as I know I’ve done my best and put everything into it then I know I can be happy, and I know I am doing the best I can for my sponsors.

For me, last year was really good. For myself, I wouldn't change it at all. I learned a lot about myself and about people, and where my beliefs were with certain things, little things that ended up bothering me that I didn't think would. I maybe cared a bit too much about people's reactions. So, for me, as far as growth as just a person and my faith and stuff, it was a really good year. For my sponsors, I would have liked to have done better, because it really didn't show what we were capable of, or how good the equipment was.

You just mentioned equipment and there was an awful lot of talk around Fort William last year about you not being entirely happy with the bike set up. What was the score there then?

Yeah, people really made that way bigger of a deal than it was. I was just straight up struggling with the stability of the bike with my riding style and just how short it is. I have a bike in my garage right now with a short chainstay because I enjoy riding it more, it’s just more fun, but it just didn't quite give me the stability I needed at a World Cup track like Fort William with my riding style kind. A lot of people were like, "you should've done the testing" and, "you should've known". We put in more hours of testing coming into last season than I ever had before, because I was on a new bike, but I was riding different tracks. I didn't realise that the gap would be that significant.

I've been to Fort William a few years, I felt like I knew what to expect and I thought we would be fine. We were, but I still could've done better. It just magnified little things that I wasn't really aware of. So, we just switched to a large bike the next weekend at Val di Sole and I qualified second with just a pretty average run. So I was like, "OK, sweet, on some of these tracks I just need a little more stability". We then did some testing and figured out that just adding a little bit of length to the rear gave me that bit of stability I was looking for. We were good from then on out, the bike was perfect, I just didn't ride it to its potential.

Am I right in thinking then that you do most of your pre–season preparation around where you live? Do you not feel the need to head further afield to avoid situations like what happened in Fort William?

Yes, we do a lot of training here but we usually rely on East Coast (USA) type races before the start of the season. We go to Port Angeles and ride other tracks a lot before the season starts. So yes, a lot of people ask, "Why don't you go and ride World Cup tracks?" it's like, "Well, I haven’t in the past and those seasons worked out pretty good for me". I'm pretty smart to know what it's going to take. Last year was a little different because we didn't start at South Africa and then have a month of East Coast riding before we went to the first World Cup, it was just straight into Fort William and Val di Sole. I thought we’d be OK, but hey it wasn’t, I made a mistake, but we fixed it by the next weekend.

So have you kept your preparation for this season the same as previous years?

Yes, this year we're going to do South Africa first and that’s pretty similar to what I ride and race here. Plus after last season I know we’ve now got the set–up dialled. It's always a trade–off though. People ask, "Why don't you go to Europe?" but it’s cold and raining. It won't be very much fun. You've got to do what feels best for you and I prefer to be here where I can wake up in sunshine and put in my training hours every day and be consistent and enjoy it. I've also been racing these races for a few years so I know what to expect.

Do you feel any less pressure coming into this season? I mean you’re no longer expected to win every race. I know that’s a crazy thing to say but there was a point when it seemed like that.

Yes, it's good, especially because success was always hard to come by when I was a kid, so I am more used to feeling like the underdog. People don't understand how hard it is to win one race, let alone string a few of them together. It's extremely hard. When you have results like I did anything but a win is seen as failure, which is crazy. A 20th place at a World Cup is pretty awesome, even qualifying for a World Cup is amazing, but when you know what you're capable of, obviously, that changes a little bit. Coming into this year is good, I think we’ll definitely be ready when we show up at the races to win races. There's no reason we shouldn't, but that was the case last year and then it still didn't go my way. So nothing's a sure thing but I know I'll have the tools to win races this year, it's just seeing if it falls into place, but I'm pretty confident that it will.>>

[part title="AARON GWIN 'HAVE FAITH' | INTERVIEW PAGE THREE..."]

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Ft William, Scotland.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Ft William, Scotland.

Do you feel much pressure from Specialized? Obviously those guys must have invested a fairly serious amount of money in you.

They've been really cool actually ever since I first signed with them. They've always had my back, right from the gnarly early days when I left Trek, and that never changed this year. It’s always, "Just keep working man; we know you're putting in the work, we know what you're capable of. We've got your back; let's just keep moving forward and you'll get there." I think Specialized is maybe a little different than what people make it out to be, as this big, corporate monster. It's a lot more laid back, there's never been any kind of pressure. If anything, I've seen them get pretty mad at some people who have said some things because they know the work I put in and they know how hard we worked last year. They know that it's racing; nothing's a sure thing.

Sticking with the pressure theme, in the past it’s seemed like your religious beliefs have helped on that front, simply because you see your results as some kind of destiny almost.

It definitely helps, but it's important to get that it's my faith, not another religion. It's actually my belief and what I believe to be the truth. When God says, "He works everything out for my good" I believe it. It makes me positive too; it's always going to be a success for me whether it's first place or last place. Whether it's success in the world's eyes is not really up to me. Obviously I put in all the work I can, I want to win, but when you get to a point where you know you have all the tools to win, like last season, I know I could have won as easily as me not winning. He could've switched it around really easy. I see everything for a reason, for sure; it happens on purpose. I just control the effort I put in and that's always going to be 100%. However it works out, I know it’s for my good, which it was last year.

Yeah you said to me earlier that you’ve learnt a lot from last season.

Yes, by my standards the results weren’t great but I wouldn't have changed it because it taught me so much. There are a lot of things I don't think I would've learned, especially not a quick as I did, without a season like that. It's just built my faith to a whole new level, I now feel that you literally can’t lose in life. When you get a win you know that he’s blessed you, which is awesome, and when he doesn’t, it's like "We gave it everything we have; I know he's still stoked." It takes all the pressure off because there is no fear of failure. What is a failure anyway? If you give it 100% then I really don’t think you can ever fail. I think it’s more about the fear of perceived failure, what people are going to think if you don’t maintain a certain level, but it’s stupid, it’s not real. So yes for me it takes all the pressure off because I know He can bring the blessing in the form of wins or not. Either way, He's going to bless me in the long run and it's all going to work out for my good.

I would see that as a pretty strong advantage in racing. I mean to me so much of it seems to be a mental game, dealing with pressure. Do you really not feel any pressure on the start line?

I don't really, but I’ve definitely mellowed as the years have gone on, last year more so than ever. If you feel like you have all the tools to win a race and you’ve prepared 100%, then you start to realise, pretty quickly, that you can't control the result, it can go either way. There’s no point stressing about a result. You hear a lot of racers in any sport talking about second place as a failure, winning is everything to them. Then they'll start to lose a few races and it's not fun anymore; they get down on themselves. It's really easy as a racer to start to base your self–worth in race results because when you're winning, everybody tells you you're awesome. Then, you don't match up to the level that they think you should, and man the hate pours on pretty quick. If you're not strong in your belief, that can start to frustrate you and pull you away from your beliefs.

Talking of hate, obviously social media means it can be right in your face, so how do you deal with it, do you just try and ignore it?

Yes, for sure. It's funny, people are funny. I think people that have raced understand it, but for the average fan, they really don't understand what it's like to be there, just how difficult it is. People build you up to be this superhero–type character, then you start to show weakness and they have to find a reason why. You could tell them the reason why, but they won’t believe it because it has to make sense in their head or something weird.>>

[part title="AARON GWIN 'HAVE FAITH' | INTERVIEW PAGE FOUR..."]

At UCI MTB World Cup, MT ST ANNE, Quebec canada
At UCI MTB World Cup, MT ST ANNE, Quebec canada

Yeah, they blame it on equipment or something.

Yes, they've got to find something to blame, instead of just realising that it’s an incredibly tough game and there are a lot of other amazing riders out there. One thing that I really learned about myself last year was that I'd never cared what people think, but towards the middle of the year I started to care a little bit too much. When every person comes up to you and is asking you "What's wrong?" and "Why aren't you winning?" it starts to get frustrating. You think that people would respect your work and stuff more than they do. I started to get a little frustrated towards the middle of the season. I was starting to want to win badly because I just wanted to shut everybody up. I wanted to stop all the crap about the bike and show that everything really was fine, and it seemed like the only way they’d believe it was if I won a race. That's really bad on my part because I never race for anybody but myself. It didn't line up with my beliefs, but it made me realise that maybe I cared a little bit more than I thought I did. Like I said though, it’s taught me a lot and I can move on looking at things in the right light. And, as many haters as there were I had more fans giving me support, so it’s all good in the end.

Off the back of what you learnt last year then are you feeling good coming into 2014?

Yes, definitely. Like I said, I was feeling good last year but you always learn, even when you’re winning. Learning is key to me because no matter how good you think you are, there is always somewhere you can get better. I’ve found a few of those spots this year, definitely. I've got a new coach and we're always working on new stuff, and I now feel better and more prepared than I’ve ever been. Now we just need to see what happens…

Are you pleased about the tracks this year?

Yeah, they do look good. I'm excited to go to a couple of new venues this year. Australia will be cool. I've only been there once and the crowd was pretty awesome, so I'm sure that'll be a wild race and it looks like a cool track too. Then, we have old tracks on the schedule that are really good, but I was bummed they took Val di Sole off. I like the schedule change now; racing on Saturdays instead of Sunday. I always thought that day of practice between qualifying and the race was a bit of a waste. So, for me, I'm digging the schedule a lot more.

Have you got any goals for this year in terms of results? You've not won a World Champs so far, so is that up there?

Yes, it always is, but for me as a racer winning another World Cup title would still be more special than winning World Champs, just because you have to consistently be the fastest guy over a year. Sponsor wise though, you can't call yourself a world champ unless you win a World Champs, so yes, it would be amazing to win that race. In general though I don’t really set many results goals for myself, and I might sound like a broken record, and people give me grief for it, but I want to have fun and keep learning, and already this year I’ve enjoyed racing more than I ever have.

Finally, it seems like you really enjoy downhill racing now, but I'm sure a few years ago you said that your faith could take you in any direction, and that you could leave downhill racing at any point. Is that still true?

Yes, I would say that, you still never know. I don't say that in a way like I don't care about it at all and I could just leave it tomorrow, but at the same time, I don't care about it at all and I could just leave it tomorrow. Does that make sense? I love it though and because of my contract I know I'll be in it for another two years at least, and I imagine I'll sign another contract after that. I'd like to race for at least another five years or so, but you never know.

I’ll admit I used to not really enjoy the racing part, I've always loved riding my bike and training, the racing is what allowed me to do that full time throughout the year. So it was like, "Right, if I've got to put in five minutes of work, eight times a year at World Cups and get through the racing part, it’s cool". I wouldn't wake up on Sunday morning thinking I can't wait to race today. I was more excited to get it over with, then I could go back to relaxing and enjoying my love of riding. Now though I think, why would there ever be a stress there unless you have this weird fear of a perceived failure in your mind? Why wouldn't you be excited to race? That's what you're working for, that's why you're putting in all the hours, just to show up, test yourself and see how fast you can go, see what you can get out of yourself. My mind's definitely changed a lot regarding racing. I'm letting go of the need for results, what I’ve always known in the past is really my belief now, it's actually part of my belief now, it's clicked. So for the first time in my life I'm excited to go to the races every weekend. I’m just going to see how hard I can push myself and what all the training and hard work brings. Then, just however it happens, it happens…

Well, I for one can’t wait to see what 2014 does bring for Aaron, and I’d love to see him on the top step of that podium once again, even if it is just to silence the doubters out there.