Matt Walker - eyes on the top
We chat to Britain's fastest junior
Finn Iles may have stolen the show in the juniors last year, but there could well have been a different 16-year-old taking the headlines.
Photos: Schiek and Jones
Matt Walker was always a dominant force on the domestic scene (he only once finished out of the top three in two years as part of the Madison Saracen Development Team), but the step to World Cup level can often be overwhelming. Not for Walker. A second place in his first race was quickly followed by a win at Cairns that left him leading the series coming into Fort William.
Unfortunately, it all went wrong on home turf. His first two splits were on winning pace but disaster struck after the tricky woods section. Just as he prepared to light up the motorway he rolled his tyre and was left face down in a cloud of unseasonal Scottish dust. The rest of his season was plagued with illness and injury but he still managed to finish in a very respectable fourth place in the overall, despite missing two races.
2017 is set to be an even bigger year for the young lad from Shropshire. With his eyes on wins, World Champs and, of course, Mr Iles, there’s nobody putting more pressure on him than himself.
We caught up with Britain’s fastest junior to get his thoughts on the season ahead:
So, at the start of last year, at your first ever World Cup, as a 16-year-old. It's the stuff of dreams, but how did you find it?
Racing in the youth category in the British Nationals and the Pearce races, you get comfortable and feel like you're a big fish in a small pond. You can only go so far. When they send you off to a World Cup, it's another world. I was in a trance with my eyes just wide open all the time, I couldn’t sleep. I was just absolutely buzzing to be there.
How confident were you going into it? It's one thing to be dominant domestically but the World Cup is a big step up.
In my heart of hearts, I was aiming for a top 20. All Will [Longden, team manager] expected from me was just to qualify at a few races, get a few top 20s and find my feet to press on this year.
At what point did you start to feel comfortable. Was there any inclination that you knew you would do well?
I stopped at the Wall and in B-practice it was absolute carnage. There was people crashing everywhere and making it look so difficult. I thought: "this is going to be a hard race". Then I dropped in for the first time, rode through it clean and I realised it wasn't so bad. From that moment on I knew what I was doing.
How did you feel after getting second at your first World Cup as a first year junior?
I was like hang on a minute, am I even at the right race here? What's going on? I was completely shocked.
It was such a confidence builder and I almost felt like the job was done. Being on a big UCI elite team, people look at you differently. You have all the support you can ask for and you're expected to get results. It felt like I said to a few people, “yeah, actually I think I’m worthy of it".
And then we moved on to Cairns, and the fairy tale was complete. Talk us through it.
Practice was pretty dodgy. The conditions in the rainforest would go from dry to wet and it was so hard to find a consistent line. The first day I was just crawling down the track trying to learn where it went. I just thought, “if I'm struggling then the rest of the juniors will be too" and that was my mindset all weekend.
In finals I just nailed the sprint at the bottom and I remember there were spectators on the left hand of the track screaming “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie".
I thought: “no chance."
It fired me up and I hammered it into the finish. The crowd were just disappointed because it was going to be an Aussie 1-2-3 and I’d beaten them. There was just Charlie Hatton, his brother and Will Longden absolutely screaming, everyone else is just like "uhhh". I guess everyone was thinking I'd flown across the world and I'd stolen an Aussie win from them.
You must have been so stoked for Fort William then?
Probably the coolest thing about Cairns was flying home knowing I was going on to Fort William with the number 1 plate. I went to the BDS and I put three seconds into Finn and I was thinking, “this is amazing". I was riding so well and I was so confident in myself.
It turned out to be an absolute nightmare. I set off out of the gate for my race run and honestly it was the best fun I'd ever had on my bike, it was amazing. I was hitting every turn, I was battering across the rock gardens and you couldn't hear yourself think because the crowd was absolutely screaming. When there's people on the side of the track leaning over and screaming your name, you don't feel any fatigue you're just pushing deeper and deeper.
I was on an absolute minter, I think I was three seconds up at the second split and I knew the best bit of the track for me was the bottom bit. I'd done a lot of sprint training and I'd saved myself well. I went off the take off of the road gap and as I landed, the rim hit the dirt. Then I banked into the left at the bottom and went completely 180. It happened so fast. I got back on, saw I had a flat tyre and I realised it was all over.
I couldn't put into words how devastated I was but even riding across the motorway with a flat tyre, it was the best crowd I'd had all year. It was ridiculous.
How do you rate the rest of the season? It must have been a disappointment after such a strong start.
Yeah it was pretty tough. In Leogang I was a bit ill and I think I was 7th but it wasn't what I wanted. Lenzerheide, I'm not lying to you, absolutely shitted me, I absolutely hated it. The dirt is so hard and so marbly I'd never ever ridden something like that in my life before. In my race run I got my shorts stuck on the front of my seat like Aaron Gwin on the Plunge, overshot it, went out of the tape.
After winning National Champs, I went to Revolution Bike Park and it was a little bit greasy and I was jumping over this blind crest. I remember looking down and thinking: “this is going to hurt, I'm going to have to tense pretty hard for this one."
The next thing I come back and James Foster is pulling me off the track and my bike was totaled. I was out for 30 seconds max but I knew as soon as I came round my wrist was not in a good place – broken in two places. That ruined the rest of the season for me.
How do you look back on the season as a whole though? Did the second half ruin it for you?
No, it was an amazing season. I've achieved so much already and I'll be forever thankful for that. Without a lot of people, I wouldn't be able to say I can ride my bike for a living. Not many people can say that they do what they want to do for a job. I just want to keep having fun.
From an outsiders perspective it seems like the longer, rougher tracks suit you best. Do you feel like your fitness is a step above the other juniors?
Yeah. Every time I go to the gym and I've absolutely nailing myself, on the floor sweating, Phil Dickson (coach) says: “Look mate, there's no other junior in this country or probably in the world that's trained as hard as you have done in this gym session."
I just batter myself and put myself in pretty dark places just so that the work's done and I feel I can just literally go out, grab my downhill bike and have fun. From now until September is my reward to go and have fun and ride my downhill bike.
You vs Finn Iles is probably going to be one of the big stories this year. Do you worry about what he's doing?
Nah, I don't worry about him. He has got the biggest target on his back of any of us by a long way. He's Whip Off champ, he's World Champion, he's a phenomenal bike rider, and I have a lot of respect for him, but by the same token, I want to have what he's got.
How much of an eye do you have on Seniors at a race weekend?
I'm really bad for it. I come home from a race weekend and I could have won juniors by five seconds but if I haven't beat a certain senior I get upset about it. I just don't like getting beaten by anyone. In a year's time I'm going to be racing those boys every weekend so I've got to try and be there. Simmonds and Beaumont are good lads to have on the team because if you're riding at their pace you're riding well
Every 17-year-old reading this will dream of the life you're living. What do your mates think of it?
The thing is, where I live my mates from school don't have any interest in mountain biking at all. They really struggle to understand it. A lot of my friends are just into football and I didn't really have much chance to talk about mountain biking because nobody really cared, I was always the odd one out. Since I left school I haven't been to college or anything and I'd say 90 per cent of my mates are at the races anyway.
Looking forward to next season what are your goals and expectations?
I'd say I've got as good as a chance everyone else and I'm in a pretty good position where I feel like I can ride my bike well so I am confident.
I've got a bit more knowledge this year than last. Every track I go to I've already ridden, so that helps. First runs won't be so blind. But obviously I haven't ridden Mont Sainte Anne so that'll be interesting. That'll be a good one to because it's man's track, if you win there you're balling.
I'd like to do well at Fort William this year. High speed tracks probably suit me the best - where you can grip on and go for it. Obviously I've done well at Cairns before and that's where Worlds is so I have to be in with a shout...
Any last words?
Just a massive thanks to the Madison Saracen team and all my sponsors