eric carter dave cullinan mike king-featured
eric carter dave cullinan mike king-featured

From Dirt Issue 136 - June 2013

Words by Grant Robinson. Photos by Grant Robinson

Beep...Beep...Beep...Uuuuggghh, why is my alarm going off so early? Where am I? Oh yeah, California. F–k. Big day. Double f–k. Massive day. Can you have triple f–k? I'm gonna have it anyways. Three massive days in a row coming up. Wow. Butterflies. Haven't felt these for a while. OK, treat them just like any other day. Take your camera, keep them on your side and just do your thing. But they're your heroes…you know, the ones you wanted to be, the ones who were doing what you tried to copy every day of your teenage life. Coffee, that'll help. God I hate cheap hotels.

We've all been there. In our early teens, far too impressionable and with interests that run deep. Too deep. Once a month I rode my BMX on a 12 mile round trip when the bookshop in town called to say my special order of the new bike magazines had dropped. I did four paper rounds a week to pay for those things and I was desperate to buy a mountain bike. My best friend had just got one for his birthday, he'd let me take it for a spin and it was so much faster in the woods than my 20" (I grew up on the outskirts of a Canadian logging town, BMX tracks didn't exist). Plus three guys had just crossed over from BMX racing and made these new 'big' bikes look cool as hell. It helped that they were from California, the place of all things cool; and I'd heard that they hung out with supercross riders too, so they could have been gods for all I cared. On top of this, they wore THOSE helmets. You know the ones, painted by a guy called Troy Lee who, for some reason, I thought was a girl for a long time...don't ask 'cause I don't have the answer. Most importantly they brought with them something that had been missing all along. Style. Until they showed up the only rider that brought any of that to the game was Tinker Juarez and he was in a league of his own. As the alcohol fuelled Charles Bukowski once said, “Style is the difference, a way of doing, a way of being done...to do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art."

Who am I talking about? Well it can only be Dave 'Cully' Cullinan, Eric 'EC' Carter and Mike King. Between them their titles are many. The history books will tell you that multiple National and World titles in both BMX and MTB racing went their way and they were at the top of their game for a long time, but what the books can't tell you is that BMX and MTB racing would not be what we know it today if it wasn't for them. Brian Lopes could be a part of this list too, but sorry Brian, you didn't make my teenage 'cool wall' (and you are still racing) but I hope we can still be friends.

They were the first to use clipless pedals, the first to use riser bars and most importantly for MTBing, they were some of the first riders to develop suspension in the direction that we know it today. The crazy thing is that it all might never have happened. Girl's bikes, money and a whole lot of luck all played a significant part in giving rise to these three as giants of our sport. ‘Who cares’ you might say? Time has moved on, riders and equipment today would put them to shame. Oh yeah? Think again. You would weep with joy if you had even a fraction of the style, speed and finesse that these three still possess.>>

[part title="Eric Carter, Rattlesnakes & Reality - Page 2..."]

Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013
Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013

ERIC CARTER

Coffee helps no end, I'll dive in here to the clown shop and get two egg muffins and two hash browns for breakfast. Wow, even the drive–thru window exudes the stench of grease. OK, only 27 miles to go but this traffic is mental. California, you are an assault on my senses. I went snowboarding in –10ºC two days ago and now I'm sitting in +25ºC with the air con on full blast and sweaty armpits. Why do people live here and put up with this? Probably all the hot girls. And the beaches. And the spectacle of it all. Right, now right again and...security man at the gate wants my details and asks who I'm seeing...I'm in.

Second left and wow, there it is. Hero house number one. It looks like every other house on the block, except for the muddy 4x4 in the drive. I hope he doesn't see the sweat patches...Knock, knock. "Eric. Nice to meet you. I need the toilet." Great intro you dumb dumb...I need the toilet...what were you thinking, work harder next time. "

Grant, nice to meet you too, thanks for coming. Come in, I'm just finishing up a Skype call, the bathroom is there, I won't be long." The walls are covered in photos. Lots of them. Nice family photos in big frames. The ones taken by professional photographers in studios. Big house too and well kept, everything has a place except for a few little people things scattered around, I like houses this way, they feel like homes. I sneak a look out the patio windows and see a desert of a back garden with not a blade of grass, only a child sized pumptrack winding its way around a treehouse and plant pots. Paradise.

Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013
Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013

At present Eric is the marketing manager come product designer/tester for Hyper bikes. Hyper was big back in the day of his BMX career and now spreading their wings in the MTB world and with Eric's opinions feeding directly into the product design the bikes will soon be on the market for you and I to ride. He is very open about his racing career and why he was fast. He doesn't like drugs and BMX was rife with them for a period. So, he believes, was mountain bikes. We talked about money and he is straight up that the money was big for a time, six–figures big for a number of riders, which is why so many tried their hand at racing. He thinks that Aaron Gwin and Greg Minnaar are the top racers of the generation. We talked about partying and how Peaty and Palmer were the best at it but behind the scenes they may have been training harder than everyone else.

He admits the transition from racing to family life was hard but it's what he wants. He is proud of his kids, massively proud, and doesn't want to push them into riding. "They can decide for themselves", is what he says. He talks to his kids not like a dad but like a friend who has been there before and is trying to help. It's time to get out and ride.

We load the truck and drive five minutes behind his house and into semi desert. We step out of the truck to scout a couple corners. The sound of gunshots greet us and when bullets start raining into the hillside on our left Eric starts shouting in the hopes they hear us and stop. "Between rednecks with their guns and rattlesnakes this isn't the safest place in the world." Sure enough less than a minute later and we've come across our first snake. I've never seen a rattler but Eric goes into Steve Irwin mode and gets a stick and is straight on it, poking it to make it rattle and trying to get it out of the rocks for a picture. He warns me to never go off the trail without first throwing a few rocks into the scrub and hitting the bushes with a stick otherwise you may come onto one that will put an end to the day and possibly my life.

Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013
Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013

It was one of the best and most informative afternoons I've had in a while. Later on we're back at the house watching his two boys Ethan and Cole tear up the pumptrack whilst wearing their dad's old race helmets. "There are only a couple I want to keep for myself, otherwise it's all theirs." The garage walls are adorned with framed jerseys and medals but they're covered in dust and have ‘another world’ feel about them. Like walking through a grand estate where famous old paintings and furniture have been under lock and key for years only having just been rediscovered. They seem detached from their owner but deeply engrained at the same time.

Dirt: So Eric, bikes?

E.C.: Yeah, bikes. All my life. I started racing BMX really young, about 8 years old. I grew up in Long Beach and we rode most every day.>>

[part title="Eric Carter, Rattlesnakes & Reality - Page 3..."]

Why was racing so important?

Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013
Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013

Were you fast from the start?

Well I was consistently making mains finals but never really got above top 5–10. Actually there was one race weekend that was the turning point of my career. I was about 14 I think and my Mom and I were driving to Reno for a national race and I just said, "Mom, if I don't win this weekend I'm done racing". She got really upset as the race circuit had been our life for so long, but I meant it. I was tired of doing OK, I wanted to win. I had just come off a winter of injury and looking back it's strange because I won that weekend. Not just one race but all three. That was the switch flicked right there, I proved to myself I had ‘it’.

What would you be doing now if you hadn't won?

Well I wanted to be a supercross racer. I did everything I could to be one. I would ride all the time with Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael but I was too old, and although I might have been OK at it I couldn't have made a career from it. I don't know, selling houses probably…it seems the best way to earn money, you just talk to people and show them what they want and maybe kiss their ass a little...Ha ha, just a little.

Why did you cross over to MTB?

Well Cully did it first…or at least he did it first and did it properly, and we saw the success he was having. The money back then was too big to ignore, so that made a lot of us in BMX at the time pay attention. I mean some contracts were six figures including bonuses, and we knew we could win. Also for a time you could do both so a lot of us were on double contracts with our BMX sponsors and MTB sponsors.

So you guys turn up and within a year are dominating. Putting it over on guys who had been around a lot longer than you. Why?

Why? Because we had style! Natural style. Part nurture and part nature. I mean look at how many tried to cross over from BMX and never made it. I think a big part was the racing format. They didn't allow practice like they do now. You walked the track then went straight into knockout qualifiers. It was tough because you might drive across the country and get two runs and then your weekend was over so it favoured riders like us who could turn up, read the track and actually ride a bike.

Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013
Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013

Yes in a way. I mean pressure was on as the money coming into the sport was getting bigger all the time. Forty foot super–trucks for support, big corporate sponsors, it was an exciting period without a doubt. You never think it's going to end so looking back there is more realization of the fact that we were part of an 'era' than you could make sense of at the time.

Who was your hardest dual slalom or 4X opponent?

Well, in the gate I think we all feared Lopes. He was fast. But depending on the course he could be beat. Cully and I always raced clean, we had our battles but I would never intentionally rub him out…I’d cut him off for sure, but never contact, and I think he was the same with me. King had a target on him at all times. If there was an inch, I would take a foot. Same with Lopes, because sometimes it was the only way to get past them. That said we were all great friends but come race time that has to go out the window because we all desperately wanted to win.

What about downhill?

Well it's different because it's you and the clock. Nico (Vouilloz) obviously was the guy to beat back in the day. But he also had this crazy support network around him that tracked and tested every millimetre of his runs. He had a telemetry truck for his suspension set–up and it was support that no one else had then or since. He was also very good at knowing what worked, why it worked and what he could change to make it even better. I would say maybe Peaty (Steve Peat). He was never the outright fastest but no matter what you or anyone else did he just seemed to keep upping his game. I think it pissed some guys off because no matter what they brought to the table he had, and still has, this amazing ability to just keep going and I think this is what makes him one of the greatest racers there has ever been. He also has an innate sense of balance that I have yet to see in another rider ever. It allows him to hit lines that should be impossible and that not many can follow. Also the thing you have to realize with Peaty and is that he makes it look cool and fun. His work ethic for riding fast is the same work ethic he takes to partying and having a good time.

What do you have to say about the Palmer effect?

He was great for the sport without question. He made everyone up their game and brought the party to MTB. But don't believe he was just a turn up, party all weekend and race fast kind of guy. Behind the scenes he was training harder than probably everyone else combined. He is on the very short list of racers who had all the elements to succeed: speed, balance, fitness, bike handling and his mind only thinks of winning at whatever he does, so although his career was brief in comparison to many others, he put his life into it and has likely affected the sport more than any other except for Peaty.

Who do you see as the new king of downhill and what sets them apart from the rest of the field?

Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013
Eric Carter, Temecula California, March 2013

The garage is full of jerseys and trophies, how much does this mean to you?

Not that much. I mean they're nice to have but that was then and this is now. I'm proud of my achievements but I haven't kept my bikes or anything like that. Jerseys on the wall are as sentimental as it gets. I was recently nominated into the BMX Hall Of Fame and that was special, but I can't hang my hat on that.

How do you want to be remembered?

As a good father, husband and friend. I think honesty and keeping your head down and doing your best at whatever your doing is the most important. Seeing my boys grow up and spending time hunting snakes and watching them get into their hobbies does it for me now.

My time is up, the boys have soccer practice but they are desperate for me to take a picture of their two pet bearded dragons Ozzy and Monty before I go. They get them out of their cages and almost immediately there is a dragon fight and they have to be separated if only we can catch them. I end the day literally chasing the dragon in the hallway of a hero.

[part title="Dave Cullinan, Rattlesnakes & Reality - Page 4..."]

Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013
Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013

It's day two and hero house number two. It's another California street that looks like every other California streets. The houses are all the same, it's baking hot, the grass is all being watered by timed irrigation systems and the cars on the driveways are so clean they gleam in the eternal sunshine. There is one house with the garage open and a rack of bikes behind a pile of household things. It looks like someone is moving out. I assume without looking at the number that I'm in the right place.

“Hi, my name is Grant. I'm here to see Dave." "Oh hi, I'm his wife Brijette and this is our little girl Davyn, say hello Davyn." She calls into the garage, "DAVE, Grant is here to see you." He appears, he looks like Cully just a lot greyer and he's big. Like kick my ass big, I hope he didn't hear my thoughts..."Dave, hey, how's things?" He shakes my hand. "I'm good, well except for the crazy day going on here. It's meant to be a day off but we have builders, furniture appraisal lady, cable men, a kid and dogs running all over the place. Sorry for the mess, what do you want to do? I hope not see the house. Did you bring a bike? We should get some breakfast. Do you like bagels? There's a good bagel shop around the corner. Ah, here's the cable guy. Hey can you help me move this massive piece of furniture so he can get at the cables behind it?" OK, this is good, big character and he likes to talk, I'll leave him to it. We get some bagels and sit with Brijette and Davyn in the garage at a faux Spanish dining table that they've sold and is awaiting pick–up. All around me are the helmets. I try not to look and keep my mind on the conversation. This guy can talk. It's refreshing. I can sit back and listen.

Like Eric yesterday he has opinions that seem to have been formed through much thought, experience and time away from the sport. He is blissfully unaware of the top names in the sport today. He recognizes names but the race scene is not his day to day world, bikes are now a way for him to keep in shape. He works in digital publishing and could sell the idea to a caveman. In fact everything he talks about it seems as though he is trying to sell you the idea or at least convince you that what he is saying is right, not that he isn't. He seems bitter that he had to leave the sport due to injuries and health issues. Not bitter and holding a grudge, far from it, but bitter that what he loved was taken away by circumstances that he had no control over. He calls Brendan Fairclough (who is in California training) for directions to a trail. "Ha ha, I don't even think Brendan knew who I was except for the fact you told him!" We jump into the truck and find the trail. It's crazy what natural ability allows you to do. Third time in and he's cleaning a 10x30 foot jump on his ‘brand new for the shoot’ Santa Cruz DH bike.

Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013
Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013

We move on to a local jump spot, ‘The Sandbox’ as it's known to the locals. It's full of kids who are left standing in awe at this old dude who's just showed up and, despite being off his trail bike for two years, has flowed the entire line third time through. If only they knew. He pushes his front wheel in so hard I find myself catching my breath thinking it's over, but then remind myself this is the style that so many wish they could possess. There's no effort to his riding, it's floaty and silky smooth. He stops for a rest under the shade of a tree and everyone there stops riding to and gathers around to hear what he has to say. Although they have no idea who he is they seem to understand he is someone that knows the score. The sun is setting so we head home stopping to look for comet C/2011L4 that is meant to be in the sky for the next two nights. We end up in his garage talking custom paint, motocross and getting old. He is over repeating the heart issue but gives the rehearsed answers when I ask saying it was the most painful thing he has ever experienced. An internal organ shredding itself is a feeling like no other.

Tell me about bikes.

Dave: I can tell you I won my first competition on a girl’s bike! Ha ha, yeah, it was called the Green Pea or something like that, big green banana seat and the set–up belonged to my sister. I won this bike rodeo thing at school and this older kid was all pissed at me because he was a racer and his only leg to stand on was that he was the best bike rider in school. Well, obviously not 'cause I just beat him. So he challenged me to a wheelie contest. He bet he could wheelie further across the school ground than I could. Well, he made it about half way and I carried on going until the fence at the edge of the field. So he said to me that I should race, so I did.

Why the switch to mountain bikes and how much did money play a part in you racing MTB bikes?

Well, I was tired of what BMX was becoming. Don't get me wrong, I loved the sport just not some of the elements of what the race scene had become. You were racing guys who were putting on 25–plus pounds of pure muscle in the off–season...call it extra vitamin D if you want...just extra agro vitamin D. People know my thoughts about it, I don't like juicers, I always say they should have had a 'stock' class and a 'modified' class then it would have been a little more true to life. Myself and bunch of others rode clean and relied on natural talent, style and determination. I was the first to ride clipless in a BMX race…first ever. But I had to because all these f–king meatheads would tear you apart out of the gate then get in a fight with someone else at the finish line because they were so full of goods. A friend of mine said I should try this new sport called mountain biking. It was off weekend for BMX racing so I took him up on it. He lent me his wife's bike and we went to Mammoth, this was 1989. I had so much fun, it felt grass roots and it felt real. The next season I was offered a pretty nice deal from GT to race. I did and became the first racer to have both a BMX and MTB contract. At the first race that second year my rider pack had two free beer tickets and our team was sponsored by a condom company…what else can you ask for. It was MTB for me from then on!

[part title="Dave Cullinan, Rattlesnakes & Reality - Page 5..."]

Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013
Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013

No, it stops there...I gave up all the underwear ages ago!

You were the first to run riser bars?

Yeah, I couldn't understand the skinny flat bar idea, I just wanted my MTB to be set up as close to my BMX as possible. I went to Walmart and bought some shitty riser bars of a women's bike (!!!), slammed my seat and went racing. Everyone else in the pits thought I'd lost my mind but look where we are now. It wasn't just me, there were some crazy ideas that everyone was trying to be faster and make the bikes work better, because to be honest, in the beginning they were pretty sketchy.

What part of racing do you miss the most?

Shit talking was rampant. I mean you would line up against your buddies and if anyone overheard us the rumours would fly that so and so hated each other but it was just part of the game, a part I loved. It made it exciting and got you ready to race. I miss the actual racing and if I wasn't such a f–ked up old man with injuries and body limits I could still go faster than most of the kids.

Who was your hardest dual slalom competitor?

A lot depended on the tracks, but I would have to say Lopes. He was like a rocket. I had to hope that the track would throw something my way because on the less tech tracks he was gone. I think Carter, King and I had more natural riding ability but Lopes could kill us with his power. He would rocket into a corner, then rocket out so it was a real chess game to see where you get under or over him. Carter had a great racing sense and could read tracks really well and King the same, Mikey could also make great starts. I think my strengths lay in the more technical tracks and I was never happier than when I saw a short first straight followed by a big jump or corner or something that would allow my natural bike control to come to the fore.

What about downhill?

Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013
Dave Cullinan, California, March 2013

I'm looking at the helmet collection you've gathered up, their are some pretty special ones collecting dust here.

Oh yeah, I was the first mountain biker to have 'custom' paint. We were all just failed MXer's actually and I've known Troy (Lee) for ever. All the first helmets were hand painted by him and he was doing stuff 20 years ago that people hadn't dreamt of yet. I would imagine some are pretty valuable, Troy has even hand signed the back of most of them.

How much riding are you doing now?

Well, I last rode a DH bike about a year ago and that had been the first time in about eight years. I can't believe what they are capable of now. We were getting all pumped on four–inches of shitty bounce back in my day, now these things are like full–on moto bikes and you can hammer them. Hopefully we can ride trails later too, this will be the first time in about two years that I've ridden any of that stuff. I'm still going to show the groms a thing or two.

Did you know at the time that you were part of something special in the development of the sport?

Well yes. Money was big, teams were big, corporate sponsors were lining up to have their name attached and you could just see by the product development that what we were doing was pushing the envelope. I mean you could suggest something and in a matter of weeks, or even days, it was built and ready for you to test. At the time you are just doing your thing and riding the wave, so looking back it isn't necessarily more special I'm just glad that I could be a part of the heyday if you want to call it that.

Where do you see the industry headed?

This all–mountain or enduro racing seems to be taking off. A lot of it has to do with the bikes. I mean just look at my Santa Cruz bike, it's a killing machine! If we had seen this back in the day to race downhill we would have gone berserk. But I can't really say, bikes to me now are just a way to stop becoming another old fat bastard!

How do you want to be remembered?

Ha ha, I'm already forgotten! I love bikes, they’re in my heart, so as long as I'm as a good father and person then I know what I did in my career and that every time I rode my bike I did all I could to win.

It's late when I leave and as the electric garage door closes behind me I steal a last glimpse and staring back at me is a massive 3’x6’ B&W framed print leaning against the wall. It is the famous image of Cully, shot by Geoff Waugh, flying over the heads of spectators at Big Bear California from sometime in the late 90's. Riding a hardtail with V–brakes and an XC helmet, Cully put one over on Palmer, Lopes and Pistol Pete who had all failed to clear it and beat Mike King in the final. He told me earlier in the day it was the first race after his father had died and one of his favourite race shots ever. I have to agree.

[part title="Mike King, Rattlesnakes & Reality - Page 6..."]

Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.
Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.

It's day three and I'm running late. The directions don't seem to match up. Ring...Ring...Ring, "Grant, where are you?" "Ahhh, Mike, I'm good. I'm where you said to meet, am I meant to be at your house?" "No, at a park, what road are you on?...OK, turn around, I know where you are I can guide you here."

Nicely done Grant, you can't even use a GPS. Getting things wrong put me off my guard and now I'm on the back foot but I keep telling myself it's like any other day. I pull up and we do the formal hellos. He is quiet…quietly confident. It's unnerving until we get to putting our bikes together and he's forgotten his wheel skewers. He doesn't seem bothered, "I'll be 15 minutes", and off he goes. "I've never done that before" he says when he gets back. We choose a route up the side of a hill that he rides regularly as it's a five–minute drive from his house. I follow slowly in the heat and wish I had brought more water. His calves are massive and he still shaves his legs. As much as he claims he doesn't ride much it isn't showing and when he lets slip that he has the top Strava time for one of the sections I'm starting to wonder how much 'off time' he allows himself. The same as the past two days, I'm amazed at the riding these guys can take in their stride considering their riding careers are long over.

One of my favourite shots of Mike is from Mammoth where he has had a puncture, and in complete control, is laying the bike down speedway style in a right hand corner, because running on a rim at 50+mph doesn't allow for much braking consistency. I wonder how much of this Mike I'm going to see today. We hit the top and have a rest. The views over San Diego are amazing...if you like smog. In the distance the tops of city towers are just pushing through the thick brown fug that hangs in the air. He has yet to break a sweat and his demeanour is still level, maybe this comes from running the US national BMX program for the past six years or maybe he is always like this. I ask about USA cycling and the BMX program. "Well, the facilities are just over there so it was great being a 15 minute drive from my house, but it had to end. They wanted certain results and those results didn't come from London so we had a mutual parting. I'm in transition and considering my options." I say surely the options are many for someone of his experience? "Yes", he says, "but not all ones that I want to do". I can't figure him out. His responses to questions are slow and methodical. Different to the others.

Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.
Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.

Dirt: Did you feel that you as an individual or as part of a group were in a special era in MTB?

Mike: Carter, Cully, Lopes and I were top ten in BMX when we crossed over so expectations were pretty high. Then when you look back there weren't that many riders who were naturally talented on a bike, so instantly we were winning races. There was a lot of synergy between the BMX and MTB world at the time, which made the crossover happen very fluidly. My BMX sponsor Balance put together a package that let me race both formats and built me a MTB, and on my ninth DH race I won the worlds in France and the rest is history as they say.

How big was the money for you come over to MTB?

I'm not gonna lie. It was substantial. No one at that time or even now in BMX is making that kind of money.

What were the bikes like then?

At the time they were ground breaking but I would love to have the bikes we have now and go back ten years! Suspension technology has made a lot of average riders very good riders and now you have riders that are coming up having only ever raced MTB. I mean we rode motocross, BMX, all these things that allowed us to feedback to the suspension designers of the day to make it better week in and week out. We came into the sport at the right time enabling us to utilize skills that we had learned from other bike sports.

[part title="Mike King, Rattlesnakes & Reality - Page 7..."]

Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.
Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.

To be honest I just tired of top 10 and 15's. I realized I didn't have the mental focus to go over the limits of my capabilities and sustain the all–out speed required for consistent to DH results. 4X for me was easier in that it was pretty much the same as I'd done my whole life on a BMX and I was comfortable with it and good at it. This is the same time as all the technology in DH really went wild and a number of other riders started specializing as well.

Which discipline was your favourite?

I liked them all fairly equally in their different eras. BMX in the 80's was the best it could be. Downhill in the 90's was a whole new level of money and professionalism, and then 4X in the late 90/00's was a huge spectator draw. The crowds were massive, especially in Europe and those races in particular were really exciting to be a part of. It's a real disappointment that 4X is gone, I don't think the money excuse by the UCI was that valid, as these resorts could build a track and keep it there permanently (like they do their DH tracks) with minor changes each year. The fan draw and the noise at 4X races was like no other.

Best bike you ever rode?

My GT LTS carbon that in '96 was light–years ahead of its time. It floated down courses compared to the aluminium frames that we had before. I broke a lot of them, but just knowing that you were on the top technology with engineers actually at the races waiting for your feedback was good for your race head. It made you confident that you had the best equipment. I haven't ridden a modern DH bike since I left racing almost 10 years ago, and the Trek 29er I'm riding now has more and better working suspension than anything I ever raced on. I would love to get try some of the new DH bikes and ride somewhere like Whistler, it sounds amazing.

Did it ever get boring being at the top for so long?

No. Never. When you make good money and then you’re offered four times that plus bonuses you put a lot of pressure on yourself, so a podium was a result for yourself as much as for the brand ethos of ‘race on Sunday and sell on Monday’.

How close were the friendships back then?

We were as close as you could be. On the racetrack you had to put friendships aside sometimes but that was just racing. I keep in touch with a lot of the guys through Facebook nowadays but my job with USA Cycling took a lot of time and travel and keeping up with everyone hasn't been easy.

Drugs. How big were they?

I never saw it done.

How did Palmer affect the sport?

Me personally? Not too much, I was at the top of my game and he was really good for the sport and for everyone involved. He pushed the level for a lot of guys and made everyone faster. He had a flair that hadn't been seen then and hasn't been seen since in any sport. He came in at the right time and cleaned up money wise…if what you hear is to be believed.

Who was the best racer you ever raced against and who do you see as the best now?

In my era, Nico (Vouilloz). He just kept winning, I think I beat him maybe a handful of times and it felt good because you were beating the fastest guy. Podiums were nice but when it was the same guy on the top all the time it could get frustrating. He had a great support around him but he was a very smart racer and rarely made mistakes, and if you look at racing now it is coming back to that because the racing is so tight. The guy with the least mistakes will win. Greg Minnaar has been the most consistent for the past decade but then Peaty winning the Worlds a few years back is pretty unbelievable considering his age at the time. That win goes to show just how mentally tough he is.

Why has there been such a gap in US DH superstars?

Because BMX became an Olympic sport. I genuinely believe there are a number of BMX riders capable of winning DH races but there is no reason for them to bother with MTBing because they can make a good living racing BMX.

What did you do after racing?

My last race was 2005 Worlds in Livigno, Italy. I then worked in BMX marketing for a short period from where I was recruited by USA Cycling to head up the Olympic BMX program. BMX and MTB are in my heart, I'm passionate about the sport and athletes. I miss the travel since finishing that job, most people like staying home but not me…it's hard for me to stay grounded sometimes.

Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.
Mike King, San Diego, California, March 2013.

I'm just an average fan and nothing more. I would write the book no different to what it has been. I had a great career and was happy to hang up the bike to have a family and move on to the next chapter.

Will we see you back in MTB in the future?

We'll see. I wish I had known some of the things I have learned over the past six years as Olympic director in regards to training and riding that I could have applied to my racing career. We were all training but the science behind it now is just at such a high professional level. It's a big transitional period for me right now but I would like to take my experience with coaching and training and utilize it in developing some sort of MTB program. Since I've been away from the sport a lot has changed but the MTB industry is very healthy right now. I see more racing participation and bike sales and with racing being on the rise again I feel there is a market for a personalized and MTB specific training platforms.

So that was it. Heroes who turned out to be normal people. Three guys who were nothing like I expected, yet three guys who were exactly as I expected. One of them needed a shave, the other didn't like heights and one had farts that nearly made me sick. I learned you find out more about ex–World Champions when you go snake hunting, move furniture and climb water dams with them rather than riding. They have real life issues just like you and me, they worry about work and life and they have a wife and kids and a future to plan for just like me. They live in real houses on real streets with other real people and talk and move just like you and I. The only difference between us and them is they still have 'it'. They still have a passion and the ability to get on their bikes and charge everything with the same look in their eyes and the same riding shapes that I remember from over 20 years ago, which can only mean their hero status is well and truly deserved. They say you should never meet your heroes. I say it was three of the best days I've ever had.