Harry Heath - why I fell out of love with World Cup racing - Dirt

Mountain Biking Magazine



Harry Heath – why I fell out of love with World Cup racing

Harry Heath talks racing, retirement and the future

At 25, most World Cup riders are looking forward to another five years of racing before moving onto a cushty industry job. Not Harry Heath.

In three years, Harry has changed from a rider who was willing to sell everything he owned to chase his dream as a privateer, to someone who started to resent a “grating” industry he saw as money-grabbing and wasteful.

Something snapped earlier in the year when the British rider posted on social media: “I’ve decided this will be my last year racing bikes professionally. Such diverse people have given me the best life lessons I could have ever hoped for and continue to do so.” He retired from the sport he loved just as he was on the verge of breaking into the top 10.

To have a successful rider retiring so young is pretty much unheard of. Being a pro is supposed to be everyone’s dream isn’t it? We grabbed Harry for a chat to talk about the decision and what he told us was insightful and unique. When you combine it with Josh Bryceland’s recent 50/01 interview, maybe it’s time we all adjust how we think about World Cup racing and the athletes involved.

Read the full chat yourself below:

Let’s start at the 2013 season. How hard was it to set yourself up as a privateer after racing on a pro team?

That year I was so motivated that I didn’t mind being on my own. Being on a team isn’t what I was doing it for, going fast is what it was about. All I wanted was a wicked bike and to not mess around with it for the year… it can be difficult not to!

I got a Devinci frame cheap from Freeborn (UK distributors) and built it up with what I thought would make a proper machine. I loved that bike.

That year was a lot of work for sure and I had to sell everything I had to make it happen but was so worth it because I was doing it how I wanted.

Travelling across Europe in the camper van either on my own, with my mates or my Dad were some of the best times and those stories will always make me laugh. It is such a good way to travel as well after a race, you get to chill out and think about the race and what you can do better.

How long would you have carried on as a privateer?

Good question. Without backing there was only so long I could go on doing full World Cup seasons because I was putting all my effort into it to be my best and see how fast I could be. It was definitely a live-and-breathe-it time of racing, any money or time I had went into it, that’s where my motivation was at and the way I wanted to do it.

Stopping wasn’t a option until I got to where I wanted to be, which at times burnt me out for sure, but I couldn’t figure a different way to do it.

2014 was your breakout season (Harry picked up his first two top 20s – 12th in Mont Sainte Anne and 19th in Windham) on Dirt/Orange. Do you think that year as a privateer re-ignited the hunger and helped you break through into the top 20?

I’d been trying to progress to the top and doing all the work on my own so when I had people behind me again I did appreciate it that much more.

I don’t think it re-ignited the hunger though, thats something you have to have already. It was the support for sure helped break through to the next level for me. Thanks to everyone behind me.

On paper, 2015 was your best year (Harry picked up his first two top 10s – ninth in Val Di Sole and Windham). What clicked that year?

There wasn’t one for thing that year. It was like 2014, just everything progressed again. I spent the most time I’ve ever spent setting my bike up and that played a massive part for me. Reg Brench, my mechanic that year, really believed in me and he was really helpful and wanting to get a consistent race routine between us two.

Things like that gave me another edge and helped me be faster. For a long time I knew I could ride the way I wanted but then when other people believed it, and started to see it in me, I started to actually race like that. Expectations can be a powerful thing.

How did you feel coming into the 2016 season? 

Empty! There wasn’t the same feeling that I’d had starting any race season before. There was something missing for me and I couldn’t put my finger on it. After I got my first top ten at Windham in 2015, I felt the buzz for a day or so then quickly realised I had achieved a big goal of mine. But it didn’t feel as fulfilling as I thought it would be after all the time I’d spent chasing it.

It felt good getting that result but I didn’t have the same drive to keep progressing in downhill racing like I’d always had, which was a strange feeling. I’d been in it for years and always progressing so I knew how to keep doing so for the next season but it just wasn’t sitting right.

When did you know you wanted to retire?

Crankworx Rotorua 2016. A lot had led up to that for me but that’s when I woke up one morning and felt it was time for a change. It was tough going into a season feeling like that but you’ve got to go with what feels right for yourself.

What were the biggest factors in your retirement?:

I’d raced for 11 years and in that time I’d changed from being a kid who’s only consideration in life was to build a kicker or a berm to rip. The race industry has also changed from the days of hillbilly bike riders owning the companies.

The faster I got the more support the industry gave me so that in turn enabled me to keep racing and get faster, which is what I wanted to do. However the bigger the industry got and the more it wanted to make money, the less I liked it.

It started to grate against what I was feeling but at the same time I was still on the rise with it. I like where I got to in the sport competitive wise and as a profession, and I don’t feel I had to take to much to get there, but I think to progress another level it’d take a lot more consumption of materials, fuel, money and other people’s time that wouldn’t morally feel right to me just for my own gain of being faster.

I can still be a better bike rider, be faster and still do UK races but it’s going to be me and my family traveling in the van using as little amount of stuff as we can.

I realise new product needs to be made and the progression of that is fun too, but I wish some companies would chill out, stop trying to rush all of the new fads out at once and care more about the quality of how products are made, what they’re made of and the longevity of them instead of trying to make as much money as possible.

If more companies in the industry followed Patagonia’s business model we’d be in a much better place. For anyone who wants a top read check out “Let my people go surfing” by Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia. 

I think this point and the mass use of travel that has to be done to race the World Cups were the biggest turn offs for me as I still think the raw racing is rad and has been some of the best years of my life.

Are you happy with how your final season went?

Yeah. Result wise it wasn’t as successful as I’d been before and sometimes I didn’t even enjoy riding the tracks but overall I had loads of good times and made the most of everywhere we travelled to. There were places I might never go again so I wanted to see and do as much as I could.

At the races I still put all I had into them but it took until Crankworx, Whistler to get in my groove. From there out the season was great and felt the best I’d rode all year. There’s always going to be bobbles its just how you bounce and keep on trucking really.

Knowing what you know now, what would you change about World Cups?

Let’s use DH tracks that the riders want, not just straight lines on a machined-out hillside. This feels like a rant but it’s the same thing really – money. The organisers, promoters, governing bodies and all that want to draw in as many people as possible for the money, but as riders the main thing is how much fun we have on the tracks.

The first time I went to Mont Sainte Anne, it was wheel deep in braking bumps with some of the biggest, raddest and fastest berms I’ve ridden in my life after you’ve just come screaming in sideways off a hip jump. Then this year the same section was one drop into a 600 metre straight line on grass and rocks. Stop grooming the tracks and let it get wild.

Also I get that for it to be a “World” series there has to be a lot of travel but take it back to the days when there were back-to-back weekends racing and the tracks were still in the same area not different continents!

What are your plans for the future? Will bikes still be involved?

Bikes will always be in my life but I don’t think as a job, I’m going to keep it just for the buzz. I’m currently building a camper van I’ve wanted to make for a while so we’ve got something we can travel around the UK in to see more of the country I live in. That I’m really looking forward to.

I want to get more people enjoying activities, whatever that is, but that plan is going to take some time. Above all that though, just enjoying good times with family and friends is the most important.

Harry is currently growing his hair out to make a wig for the Little Princess Trust. The wig will be given for a young child with cancer. To find out more and donate, click here.


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