Brendan Fairclough Interview | Basic Instinct
Brendan Fairclough isn’t the new kid on the block anymore. Six years since his debut senior WC third place at Pila in 2005, things are a little different...
by Dirt HQ
Brendan Fairclough isn’t the new kid on the block anymore...
From Dirt Issue 115 - September 2011.
Words by Mick Kirkman. Photos by Various.
A speed blur in Troy Lee and Five Ten Impact Low’s. Pumping, flicking, front tyre light. Toes up and heels pointing earthwards. Bodyweight behind the seat, hanging off the back of the bike. Renthal bars feeling for grip, and for another way down. Making it up as he goes along. Born to it. A natural.
In the split–second it takes to move a couple of metres he’ll decide if a line choice is on. No second–guessing. Others will follow later, but Brendan is often the pioneer. Intuitive. Just reacting to the terrain under his wheels.
At 23, Brendan Fairclough isn’t the new kid on the block anymore. It’s been a long six years since that debut senior WC third place at Pila in 2005, and things are different now. His skill and finesse is obvious, but there’s also a perception that he relies too much on this talent and technical ability and not fitness – a nagging doubt that simply can’t exist in this Aaron Gwin defined New World Order.
At times Brendan is a pure racer, you can sense he wants it bad – to become the top dog, to fulfil all that potential. Then there’s an impression he’d rather just forget about the clock. The boring ‘in–between’ track bits. No hassle, no stress. Whip it, scrub it. Maybe the sponsors don’t even care, because he looks so damn good on a bike, and the kids want to be him either way.
This year he’s been unlucky too. After a winter of training harder than ever before, a small incident in qualification at the first 2011 World Cup resulted in an ACL removal, and looks to have devastated his race season. Dirt caught up with him at home the evening before he headed off to MSA and Windham World Cups. >>
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Before we got talking, his brother Christian (a quick rider himself) and dad Chris got some old photos out, and filled us in on how Brendan got started by entering some local Cross Country races – one being no more than half a mile up the road from their Surrey house. He raced Pee Wee class, and apparently there was one section on the track that went steeply downhill for around 300m or so. Chris told us, “he struggled to pedal round all the rest of the lap, but each time he got to the top of that slope he blasted down it and overtook half the other kids, who were either walking or carrying their bikes down. Brendan ended up winning the race because he was the only one that could do the downhill properly. Anyway, we bought him a new cross country bike, and within only a few weeks he came home from school and said, “Dad I’ve got something to tell you, I’ve just swapped my XC bike for a DH bike". At this point we knew absolutely nothing about downhill.
Brendan said he’d entered a DH race with friend Nick Platt. So we went to this local race at Rogate, and I remember saying to Brendan’s mum how it was full of all these people we’d have crossed the street to avoid previously. They had multiple earrings, etc, and we had our snobby impression, but they were all totally delightful in reality. Great people. Anyway Brendan did well and that’s how it all started – Brendan would have been about 13 years old. From then on it meant driving him all over the country every weekend…
Brendan Fairclough: I’ve just got back from the NPS in Wales, and before that a couple of weeks riding in the Alps after Leogang with the SRAM boys. I thought I’d race Llangollen to try and build some confidence on a track I know suits me, one I can win on. Obviously that didn’t happen, I made a mistake and messed it up, and that was that, it’s just one of those things.
So what’s the deal with your knee, how’s it affecting your racing?
Even though they’ve removed my whole anterior cruciate ligament, I’ve just got two tiny insertions and you can’t really see much damage. I don’t get any pain when I’m pedalling or sat down climbing, but it hurts first thing in the morning when I’m not wearing my brace, or when I dab my foot or whatever when riding. It feels weak and I’m like a bit of a flamingo – on the DH bike without the brace it feels like the leg might flip forwards under the forces. It’s fine once I’m conscious of it and using the muscle in the right way to support it, but the other day I got out of bed a bit sleepy and stepped on something in the dark, and my leg just folded forwards and put me straight to the floor.
This worst bit is this injury has come at completely the wrong time. That month off after the first WC, I’d normally be flat out on the road bike and doing intensive training, and I basically sat with my leg up doing what I could. I didn’t put one single pedal stroke in on a bike, so I’ve come back into the other races still with my same head on, and feeling like I’ve got my old speed and skills, but I’ve lost all the power and fitness I need to support it.
How restrictive is the brace you have to wear?
It’s not that annoying. It doesn’t seem to get in my way too bad, so I honestly don’t know why I’m getting such shit results at the moment. I feel OK in the technical sections, but I just can’t pedal very well, it’s like I’m wobbling trying to put the power down and I’ve already lost a load of muscle in the left thigh, which is my leading leg. I still feel like I can hit turns hard, jump fine and things like that, but if I’m honest by the end of a run I’m fatigued, so I’m having to slow myself down to hold it together to the end.
So it’s making you more cautious?
Yeah, I think it’s forcing me to take it a bit easier the whole way down as it’s in the back of my mind whether I like it or not. I’m doing four practice runs at a WC like normal, and feeling tired after because I haven’t been able to do what I need to do, I haven’t been able to be on my bike.
I know what you’re saying. We do try to fit some XC riding into the week, but it’s not always that easy. Racing WC’s in the thick of the season, it’s really hard to get a training structure that fits around the events. You get there on a Tuesday or whatever and your time is mapped out. Jetlagged or acclimatising at first, then it’s track walk, then practicing. It’s not like you’re actually pedalling hard or training as such, cause you’re looking for lines, trying things out and only ever riding small sections to conserve energy. So you’re quite knackered from the concentration, but it’s a different kind of tired to hard physical effort. I was speaking to Aaron Gwin about fitting this stuff all together, and he was telling me how after a few races he needs to get home fast to be able to focus on his training schedule properly again.
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Well I’d hate to think it was my head, but I do think it might be inside my head. In South Africa though it was just 100% an unlucky accident, I came out of a turn and my foot was a little bit wonky on the pedals and I just carried on. I landed off the drop–off as normal, but because it was quite a big drop, the force popped my foot off the pedal and slammed it into the floor. I didn’t even crash or anything, but I was in pain straight away and had to move off the track.
Are you taking too many risks doing a crazy line if no one else is doing it, especially if it results in an injury that messes up your entire season? Show–off in the videos, not on race weekend?
I mean I think about that at the moment, how I might be a bit more mature about how I ride, and I know this is what some people think, but to me I wasn’t showing off in South Africa. Yes, it was a hard line that was scary to do, but it was clearly faster or I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. That was a line that I had down that I’d already done perfectly twice, and I felt there was a second or a second and a half in it, so I’ve got no idea why no one else was doing it. Sam (Hill) and me talked about it, and he didn’t fancy doing it cause he was scared of it, so I did it anyway, and ended up hurting myself in my quali run…and that was that. I guess my crash then scared off anybody else that might have been thinking about it…
What about some of your other special lines like that rock wall ride at Champery?
In my run at Champery last year I did get a bit loose in the middle, but I didn’t even realise until the finish that I was the only person doing the lines I was doing in the wet at the bottom. I didn’t really think about it, and I wasn’t doing those lines to cause a reaction or anything, it was just how I saw it as I went down the track. This is something I’ve thought about since, maybe with some of my choices I do need to be a bit more mature, not doing a gnarly or difficult line if it is not 100% the fastest option over the whole of the track, or seeing if it’s just too risky.
When you’re working out these margins and risks in your head do you actually time different sections individually?
Well only in my head, there’s no actual timing. I don’t know why we haven’t looked at this sort of thing, telemetry or anything or testing different settings – I know others do it, but that’s just the way it’s been on the Monster team. It’s probably Sam’s legacy really, he’s been confident doing it his way. For me, I just know I’m not as powerful as some of those boys on the pedal, so I have to find some seconds elsewhere on the track.
Since that first South Africa round the big thing that’s changed is Aaron Gwin’s speed. How do you answer someone that can take four seconds from the entire field in the first minute at Leogang, and be running five seconds up at the last split at Fort William?
Is Aaron Gwin dictating that you simply need to ride faster to win? It’s clear the pressure is on for Gee (Atherton) and Greg (Minnaar), but for them the gaps aren’t so huge, since they were already running a second or two ahead of the rest. How are people like you and people like Sam Blenkinsop, and the others from last years top ten, going to bridge the gap now it’s grown?
It is worrying, you’re right, because I want to stay up there and stay in contact. Last year I had a couple of third places and I was on the pace, up and around the top spots, and I knew where my strengths were. I needed to put some work in on my power and fitness to close that gap. I did the training, and at South Africa I felt more confident in my head knowing I’d done way more work than any other season for me. Now something has backfired and I’ve got an injury and it’s just been so gutting. It’s devastating that I’ve already lost half a season. But still in my head I’m confident I can ride that fast. I’m never worried about how quick I can ride on the track, how fast I am, just about how I can miss half of this season and still get back into condition in time.
On that front, have you thought about writing this season off and getting the knee surgery done now to give yourself a bigger window for recovery and training?
I wouldn’t get paid. I’m contracted to race and I wouldn’t get paid to cut the season short. In terms of getting the operation done I’ve looked at a few surgeons to perform the procedure and talked to as many people as I can. Everyone seems to have a different opinion as to who the best person for the job is, but at the end of the day it’s down to doing it with someone you, or well me and my physio, trust. We’re looking at a four to six months for full recovery with training included to get as fit as you need to be to get racing again.
Younger riders like Danny Hart, Brook MacDonald and your team mate Troy Brosnan are now a couple of seasons into the game and getting more consistent in putting it all together. Is it more ruthless at the top now, and are you still as hungry for it as the first years you moved up yourself?
I just want to win a World Cup so bad. That’s my goal. The absolute main thing that I want to do, and I was 100% focussed on winning the World Champs at Champery this year as well.
So has the pace picked up, and made it even tougher to win one now? Everyone seems more determined – pedalling everywhere, and it looks like Gwin’s bike (for example) is set up ridiculously firm on the fork, and he’s prepared to just muscle his way through it. Are you particular about your race bike’s set–up, or do you just get on with it?
And your bike set–up?
I guess I set my bike up for speed and grip, how I want it to feel at that time on the track. Over the years I’ve gone harder and harder and more damping on the back end to compensate for how I ride.
You ride with your heels down a lot and your weight off the back compared to most other people don’t you?
Yeah, I know what you mean, I’m aware of it. Maybe it’s just because I’m sketchy in my runs, and I’m hanging off the back of the bike! I think I must find a lot of my riding grip through the back tyre, more so than most. I mean my suspension has got harder at both ends, but I still like the fork to be supple at the beginning of the stroke and then get more progressive. It’s seems to me people get really fussy with their set–up only when things aren’t going well, it’s a psychological thing. I see people telling the mechanic to move their brake levers a millimetre or whatever.
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It doesn’t worry me too much, I get on well with Troy. He’s a fair bit younger than me, and he’s doing well so he’s obviously full of himself at the minute (laughs). I know that I’m on a bit of a downer at the moment, so I’m kind of happy for Troy you know. I think if I’m riding at my highest level I can lift my game, but Troy has a lot of determination and he’s a great racer, he’s good at focusing and putting a solid run together and he tries really hard. But I’m still not too worried.
You’re not a kid anymore yourself, but one thing we’ve noticed about all your teams is you’ve always played second fiddle. Firstly to Steve Peat at Orange, then Greg Minnaar at Honda and now Sam Hill at Specialized. How does it feel that you never get to be the main man yourself?
I do think about it, and yes, I think it affects me in a way. That’s just how it’s always been for me, and you’re right, it is hard to deal with. It’s pretty annoying as you really want to be the top dog yourself, and so far I haven’t been able to be yet. Last season I got a taste of it, being the team number one, when Sam was out injured for the whole year, and it felt better to be honest, I enjoyed it and then it also led to having some of my best results. I don’t know why. As for being the main man on a smaller team, the reality is I always have to think about the best bike and the best team for me, and that’s been my priority. There are certain bikes I definitely don’t want to ride for example.
In terms of training, you often hear about so–and–so putting the work in, and now they’re getting the results. Aren’t certain people just better athletes than others naturally? Some little kids can run faster than others, and some have better balance and can react quicker than others. Can someone like you ever pedal as fast as someone more physically suited to it?
I’ve never really thought about it that hard. I was always a bit of an all–rounder at school, football and cricket and stuff, but I suppose some of the riders with less sheer power output might never cut it as a professional 4X rider or BMX racer. In DH there’s so many different aspects to it that it’s much more even. It’s also to do with technique and skill, and loads of riders with different physiques have been successful, from stocky and powerful like Gwinny or Sam, to tall and athletic like Greg or Peaty. A mixture of shapes and sizes can do well, but it’s definitely linked in to how much preparation and training you put in. I came from a background of dirt jumping and DH, and that was it. I mean I only even went on an XC bike in the last few years, it just wasn’t something I ever did, going on long rides or anything. But I’ve got to say I love that stuff now, and that’s pretty much all I do in my free time now is ride XC and a bit of dirt jumps. Getting the thrill from ragging the XC bike on the limit instead.
Your technique and style – it looks effortless. Did you realise you had this style when you were younger, and was there anyone who you thought looked good enough for you to want to copy?
I’ve honestly never looked up to anyone racing downhill, or had any DH riders I’ve copied. I’ve always just ridden my bike how I want to ride and how it feels to me at the time while I’m doing it. I come from just riding jumps all the time, and admired dirt jumpers to look at, so if anyone…just them or motocross racers. I never looked at Steve Peat when I was a kid and said, ‘oh I want to ride like Steve or I want to ride like Sam’ or anything. I was never interested in that. I looked at how Olly Wilkins was on mountain bikes and then amazing BMX riders like Mike Aitkin. I wanted to ride my jump bike stylishly like that. I suppose I haven’t ever spoken to people directly about what looks good, but friends have said how it’s not boring to watch me ride, there’s always body language, stuff going on, things to watch, which I guess is bad for me in pure race terms because I might just get a bit too loose and sketchy (laughs).
Are you trying to insult me (laughs)? That man can do a big whip for sure but maybe it’s the clips, cause I would have to say mine have more style and go a bit bigger (ha ha)… It’s weird, that stuff has never really been a vanity thing for me, it just feels good, if you know what I mean. I do them 100% just because it feels rad, and it feels like I’m relaxed back at home riding. Now and then I play up to the crowd and piss around – I mean you’ve got to – but just mainly so when I land I’ve got a good buzz on and a bit of a grin on my face.
I’m not really into doing the jumps in my race runs ike Cedric (Gracia) might. It’s opposite ends of the spectrum for him and me I reckon, it isn’t a bad thing, but he does it purely for that reaction and for showboating. People love Cedric though, and it’s what’s got him where he is today.
One of the other best things on the bike for me is just hitting a turn too hot. You’re coming in and you don’t know whether to brake or not, I mean you ought to, and you end up not bothering and you hit it right and just feel it you know, when you pop and the exit speed is amazing.
Are you aware of what the grip is doing in the turn in any moment, compensating for things changing, and constantly assessing it whilst it’s happening, or just smashing it and pushing through it?
Well that’s the funny thing…I’ve started to think about it…
Dunno, I guess it might be, I’ve definitely started to think about my speed over a whole run and what I’m doing while I’m riding. I’ve started thinking about – should I spot certain braking points, things to remember on the course, what’s that certain turn going to be like at the end of the day, or how deep those bumps and holes are going to get? And I just never used to bother. I think there’s a lot of things you can consider, but at the end of the day when I’ve ridden the best I haven’t thought about any of that, it’s always been me just riding my bike and I’ve stayed ignorant to all that stuff and it’s not mattered. So I don’t think for me personally worrying about any of that stuff does me any favours.
Just keep it instinctive and natural?
Yeah, exactly, that works best for me. Especially at the moment with everything that’s going on, I don’t really want to assess my riding too much and analyse little bits of it, I really just want to ride my bike more.
Are you going to re–evaluate your season after Mont St Anne and Windham if things don’t get better, or are you going to race the World’s regardless and give the rest of the season a go?
Well I’ve got to qualify for the Worlds first! So I’ve got to get a top ten World Cup result or win national champs to guarantee a place and that’s obviously not happened yet. So it’s extra pressure for me, and for the last five or six years it’s something I’ve not ever had to think about. I’ve been lucky. Whatever happens, this winter I just want to go back to California where the weather is good and I can ride and train full time. I had kind of half had a trainer this last winter, but this time I need to be fully on it, so I’m going to have a full time trainer working with me. I’m still signed to Monster next year and I just want to win World Cups. I want to be back in the game, I want to be back in that top three every weekend and I’m not interested in anything else.