Exclusive Interview: YT Mob Team Director Martin Whiteley
The man with the plan
Martin Whiteley is one of those people that the general public would not normally come across. One of his job titles is ‘Team Director’ for the newly formed YT MOB, but Whiteley’s influence and authority goes far beyond that. For the last 16 years, whilst racers have come and gone, he has been there in the background, behind the scenes helping shape and form the modern sport of downhill under the guise of 23 Degrees Sports Management (the company he started in 2000). He’s an important man.
Photos: Seb Schieck
His approach to his job has (probably unknowingly) guided the way in which many of today’s current team managers go about their business. He has brought knowledge and professionalism to the role, and that has rubbed off on everyone else. His track record is ridiculous: from the Global Racing Team (2001-2003: Missy Giove, Greg Minnaar, Mick Hannah, etc.), to Team G Cross Honda (2004-2007: Minnaar again, Brendan Fairclough, etc.), and then Trek World Racing (Gwin, Moseley, Leov, MacDonald, Greenland, etc.). He has manufactured some of the greatest teams to grace the World Cup circuit (XC too). He was way ahead of the curve with his Global Racing Team, and too the Honda team… in fact how the hell did he get Honda involved with downhill racing? That all seems a bit of a distant memory now. With Aaron Gwin and Tracy Moseley on board he steered Trek World Racing to multiple wins, but then things turned a little sour. In 2013 Gwin mysteriously split from Trek and went off to join arch rival Specialized. Talk about rubbing salt into the wounds.
We are not going to go into the whys and wherefores here, it is history, and some things are best left. But after almost three years of near radio silence the two put their differences behind them, starting talking again and are now amazingly back together again. To say we were shocked that when we heard that Gwin and Whiteley were the main force behind the YT Mob would be a huge understatement. There is one thing to start talking to someone again, but quite another to be back working side by side as a team. It’s great though, and we could all learn a lot from this ‘forgive and forget’ attitude.
So what do we now have? By all accounts a slightly rushed team. The title (and frame) sponsor YT wasn’t really looking to hit the DH World Cup circuit until 2017, but when this opportunity came about they just had to take it. The Gwin/Whiteley set up is arguable the strongest and most lethal on the circuit. There are many amazing racers out there (Bryceland, Atherton, Minnaar, Smith, Brosnan, etc.) but on his day Gwin is seemingly unbeatable (who can forget that insane chainless win in Leogang last year?).
We needed to know more. So we dropped Martin Whiteley a line to try and get a bit more information about the news, how it came about and the team structure.
Martin thanks for giving us your time. So first off, wow! What an announcement. We don’t want to rake over past here, what’s done is done, but how did this all come about?
You know, it was a combination of a lot of factors that all seemed to come together at the right time. Straight after Aaron’s chainless win in Leogang I simply sent him an email entitled “It Has To Be Said", as I was blown away by that run. Not as a former team manager of his, but as a fan of the sport. That was the ride of a real champion, such composure in adversity, such skill. We had not spoken or emailed since he left Trek World Racing (TWR) and honestly, that was getting old. Turns out we’d both wanted to reach out over the years but neither knew when to make the first step. That run sealed it. So his reply to me was extremely generous and we both agreed to meet up in Mont-Sainte-Anne to return to the friendship we had prior to 2013.
His time with me on TWR was an amazing period for both of us and we had an extremely solid professional relationship, and it was great to be able to meet and catch up on life. As the weeks went by after MSA we were chatting more, and he came to me with the idea of putting together a new program. We spoke in Andorra on the eve of his meeting with YT and covered a lot of ground. All of this happened at a time when Trek clearly wanted to move in another direction.
You ran the highly successful Trek World Racing Team for many years, but that then came to an end. So how did the timing work with all of this? From what Aaron has been saying it all seems to have come about very quickly?
Over a period of time I had seen the desire from Trek’s point of view to brand all their race teams, Road, XC, Enduro etc., the same… same colour bikes, same themed kit, and same name, “Trek Factory Racing". As a non-factory team owner, I was pushing back on some of these changes as I felt DH had its own audience and TWR was catering well for them. In the end, they decided to move on, and we were both extremely fine with that. It was a very amicable end to an amazing seven years. The results tally is impressive, and the impact the Trek Session and brand has had in DH in that time is not insignificant, so we’re all proud of that.
So pretty much in mid-October Aaron started laying out his vision for a new team, and it really appealed to me. He is super competitive of that there is no doubt, but he wanted to have more fun at the races, surround himself with the right people, and enjoy the whole experience. Anyone who really knows him knows how funny and personable he can be, so I felt privileged that he had the faith in me and my experience to get me onboard with this project.
If the Gwin/YT deal didn’t come off did you have other plans?
Owning and operating race teams is one part of my company 23 Degrees, so had there been no new team project, I would have shifted focus onto the other aspects of the business, while investigating options to go racing again in 2017. In fact for a month after the Worlds that was pretty much what I had started to do.
This very much seems to be an ‘Aaron Gwin’ deal. It looks like he has set out to do things just the way he wants to. Your official title is ‘Team Director’ but how do you fit into it all? To the man in the street what does ‘Team Director’ actually mean? Will you be providing other support staff?
This is not a typical Team Owner, Star Rider relationship. I see Aaron as a business partner and we both bring things to the table, but clearly the star of the show, the drawcard in all senses, is the number 1 DH rider in the world. My job is to make his racing experience as seamless as possible, and to be able to have some good laughs with our mob while on the road.
Secondly, in YT as our title sponsor, this is the first time Aaron has ridden for a European bike brand and there are subtle cultural differences that my experience of having worked at the UCI and lived in Europe for the past 20 years, allows me to negotiate.
Technically as the team owner, all contracts are signed by 23 Degrees, so that’s either team sponsors, riders or staff, and we comply with all of the UCI Trade Team regulations. When deciding staff Aaron and I were completely on the same page… that took 5 mins to sort out! His mechanic John is an amazing guy who is a big part of Aaron’s racing and social life. My head mechanic from TWR days Ben Arnott is an incredibly positive guy with great skill. Paul Schlitz has been my Road Manager/Soigneur on TWR and Team G-Cross Honda, and previously worked with Volvo Cannondale. His knowledge is invaluable and was the first person Aaron asked for. In the spirit of Young Talent, we’re bringing in Isac Paddock as our team photographer and social media manager. He’s a young guy from Manchester that’s done work for me before and impressed me a lot.
Aaron appears to have been heavily involved with working with companies, sponsors, contracts, etc. From personal previous experience this can be a bit of a distraction for racers, it is difficult for them to be able to concentrate on their main job. How do you think Aaron has handled this?
One of the things that was abundantly clear when I first sat down with him in Mont-Sainte-Anne was just how much he’s matured in those three years. He has learned a great deal through all of his business experiences and relationships, and apart from having an articulate manner of expressing his professional goals, he knows his value in the sport. He is still learning, as we all are, but I think it’s been an amazing experience for him to have his hands on the process and to feel a sense of ownership in what he’s been instrumental in creating. He knew from the outset of meeting with Markus (YT’s CEO) and the crew from YT that they not only got him, but got the sport. In YT we have a company whose focus is gravity… we’re not third or fourth in line behind road or other race programs, and that’s a big part of why this partnership is going to be so special for Aaron and YT. They live and breathe it.
The choice of YT is a slight political hot potato within the bike industry. Do you have any views on direct sales companies or the way in which the retail side of the industry is heading?
My expertise is in putting race teams together, and making them as successful as possible for the sponsors, so I’m not really a good source for retail politics. One thing is clear to me though as someone who wants to see participation numbers grow, is that the more young riders we get on affordable DH bikes, the better off the sport is. There is no question that the internet has changed the way some industries operate, but if the consumer is the winner, then they’ll ultimately vote with their wallet.
Has this caused any problems with other sponsors? We notice that Aaron is running SRAM gears but is not officially sponsored by them.
Honestly, not at all. From mid-October through to mid-December Aaron did a huge amount of product testing… the most I have ever witnessed in any of my programs; a whole range of brands, in a whole range of categories. Aaron knows that the team needs to be competitive from race 1 so nothing was done for money alone; it had to be tested and needed to work on the bike in race like conditions. SRAM are still helping the team out but not in a major way as they were already full committed to other contracts when we surfaced with this project.
And there are some ‘interesting choices’. HT were pretty much unheard of until Aaron helped champion them. Do you think it will be the same with brands like TRP and Onza, two brands that are not usually seen on the World Cup circuit?
TRP brakes are new to top level MTB race teams but have had great success in Cyclo-cross and Aaron tested them thoroughly, and is super happy. We also feel that working with the non-orthodox approach of sponsor combinations gives other brands a shot. I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of the teams I’ve run. Working with relatively new brands and watching them grow.
Lifting the profile of Orange and Trek in World Cup DH racing, and working with Honda and YT as virgins to World Cup racing, is exciting stuff. Same with brands like Alpinestars who entered the sport in 2004 with our Honda team, and SDG as well. Tyres are always key, and in my last team we brought Bontrager on as a brand to be a World Cup winner. We have a long term development contract with Onza which allows Aaron to design tyres to his liking, and they’ve already made some great steps forward.
Everyone involved must be pleased that this is a three year deal. Are all sponsors tied in for three years?
For the most part yes, and you need that when you build a team from scratch. Having that level of commitment and certainty allows you to focus on the future without too much concern about having to re-negotiate things annually. We’ve also had some very solid interest from non-industry sponsors which we plan to bring in for 2017 but the timing just didn’t work for 2016. That will allow the team to expand to three riders ideally.
So Angel Suarez, not many people will have heard of him. You are well known within the industry at being able to find young talent and help them achieve their goals. Is this the situation Angel?
My good friend David Vazquez (ex-World Cup racer and now at the UCI) gave me the heads up about Angel in Méribel 2014. That was his first W/Cup race. I walked the course a couple of times to check him out in practice. I was impressed with what I saw and you could see the motorcross background (he’s pretty well known in Spain for his past sport). He managed to qualify for a full season in 2015 and after his 16th in Lenzerheide with very little support I decided to offer him a management deal. As the owner of a Spanish company it’s always a good feeling when you can find a Spanish rider to work with. When it came to selecting a second rider for The YT Mob, Aaron and I had discussed quite a lot of names. We put together a short list of around 15 riders, and that got narrowed down to around four. In the end, Aaron was super keen to mentor a rider. They have a similar background and both come from super supportive families and knowing them both, I knew they would click. Angel is the ‘YT’ in the team, and Aaron is excited about helping Angel reach his goals this season.