Manon Carpenter: "My head just wasn't in it"
The full story behind Carpenter's shock retirement
To retire at 24 is unusual. To retire mid-way through a season at 24 when you're fourth in the world and still winning nationals is unheard of.
That was the difficult decision Manon Carpenter had to make in August this year. She had long been a young star of British downhill with a World Cup overall and World Championship under her belt. While she would never re-mine that rich vein of form from 2014, she also never seemed stretched to deliver the consistent podiums of the past three years. Energy drink sponsors, an new team courting her and mainstream media recognition, it seemed Carpenter had it all but suddenly, shockingly she turned her back.
The worm was first implanted in her head after her race run crash in Val Di Sole last year. Clattering through the braking bumps on a rough, open corner, she crumpled into her bars and then over them. It was a huge knock to her confidence, and one she would never fully recover from. Less than a year later, she would turn her back on racing at the highest level.
Now the season has finished, we were able to talk candidly with Carpenter about her decision and what the future might hold for her.
At the start of this year, you got your BDS win and three World Cup podiums so you must have been feeling good coming into the season?
After the crash at World Champs, I enjoyed working towards getting back to full health and preparing for the season to come. I felt good at Lourdes and had a pretty good qualifying. I think the first sign of things was before finals when loads of wind picked up. All the pits were blowing around as we went up for our runs and I think that spooked me a bit - I had it in my head that I didn't want to crash first race.
In the start hut, they told us to be careful of the step down at the end of the track, but it's racing and you have to do it. There wasn't really an option really not to jump it you just have to go for it. That was probably the first thing that spooked me a bit that year.
Let's go back to that Val di Sole crash last year, what was it that spooked you that time when you've had big crashes before?
Through my racing career I've had some high speed crashes and some broken bones and I've shaken it off. The section I crashed on was flat-out into a rough corner and that showed more what the race tracks are getting like these days.
Speeds are probably the highest that they've ever been and with rough, fast sections, a slight misjudgement, or just coming in with the wrong speed, could go wrong pretty quick.
Do you think it's getting a bit silly course deign now? You look at Leogang this year, is it all just getting a bit much?
For me, yes, I guess it has got a bit much. People talk about the tracks getting less technical but they are still very fast. Some sections are quite straight forwards but you also have to race them in any conditions and go as fast as possible, which means consequences are high.
There were things at different events that bothered me on the tracks - stuff that I wasn't prepared to do, things that I wasn't prepared to go fast enough for. As a competitor if you're bothered about things on the track that probably means your head's not in the right place. You should have the confidence to be able to tackle high consequence sections, but I was realising that I didn't.
You mentioned there were things that bothered you at each event. Can you give any examples of that?
In Lourdes, it was that step down when it was windy. The Fort William infamous woods were just frustrating. In my qualifying, I went over my bars because there was a rock at the bottom of a foot-deep rut. Same thing in finals really, I crashed in a corner just before the section.
Leogang there was that big, massive step down that Remi had a big crash on. I didn't like that jump all weekend, you quite often get a side wind in that section and there's a big, massive run in.
If anyone wanted to hit that lip, they could hit it, there's nothing that you have to do to qualify you to do that jump, you just have to hit it. I was really angry actually because you could see that it was sketchy and there was potential for something to happen and then one of the top ten racers got taken out in a pretty bad way.
So what's it like racing without being in the right mindset? Were you conscious of it at the time or do you look back and think: “yeah actually my head wasn’t in it"?
I was definitely aware of it this year. If you want to win you're going to do whatever's put in front of you but I had that feeling that it wasn't worth it for me. There were a couple of rock gardens in Andorra and Lenzerheide that you just had to hit no brakes, it wasn't an issue but if it was a bit wet or a bit greasy there was something that was making me brake more than I needed to.
I was aware of it and I was allowing it, thinking that I just needed to be patient and that I'd get over it. I'd linked it to the crash last year and was getting the feeling that if I made a mistake I’d instantly go over the bars again. I realised it wasn't worth it for me any more and I didn't want to take the risks involved.
In your post at the time you said National Champs was when you knew. Obviously Bala is a flat out course in its nature. Was there a particular moment at Bala that it became obvious to you?
On Saturday, I had a crash through the stumps and I was fine but during practise I just got the feeling that I wasn't up for it anymore. There were some fast sections of the track that were greasy and slippery and you just have to go fast on them. I wasn't really prepared to go as fast as I needed to try and win the race.
It was a weird one for me because there were sections of the track that I really enjoyed but then it was just the other sections that I wasn't willing to push on. I just got the feeling that my head wasn't in it any more. I said to my boyfriend that I assumed it was my last year racing and then kept it to myself for the rest of the weekend.
It was a sad realisation for me. I obviously raced the race and then in the weeks that followed, told my family and the team what I was thinking, which wasn't the easiest.
Were they all understanding?
Yeah, everyone was really understanding. I thought I was going to finish the season for the team, obviously that would have been a lot better as I'd made commitments at the start of the year.
Downhill's a dangerous sport and if your head's not in it, it's probably not a good idea to go and race super gnarly World Cup tracks. That is what happened in the end, my head just wasn't in the right place for it.
What about the public’s reaction?
I was really nervous for the announcement to go out. I wanted to be really honest and fortunately everyone was really understanding and really respectful, apart from the rumour I was pregnant!
What are your plans now?
Bikes are still involved. I definitely still enjoy riding my bike on my own and I'm just seeing how it goes. It's coming out that I’ve definitely got opportunities to be involved in bikes through sponsors so I guess I'm just working through a lot of ideas I’m planning for next year.
I'm going to be involved with British Cycling as well with their Breeze Program which is getting women into mountain. I did the women's weekend at bike park Wales a few weeks ago and that was really fun and I'll just be seeing what I can be getting involved with.
Is the door completely closed to World Cups?
Yes. I’d never say never to anything but I don’t see me going back to World Cup racing so I think that chapter's over but I’m going to wait and see what comes out in the next chapter.