MYLES ROCKWELL INTERVIEW | GETTING OUT ALIVE
Myles Rockwell was a hero to many…a blonde haired Californian giant that could party hard and win a World Championship title...
Myles Rockwell was a hero to many…a blonde haired Californian giant that could party hard and win a World Championship title. Ever since his re-emergence from seemingly self–imposed exile we knew we had to track him down. Writer and photographer Ian Collins went deep into the northern Californian woods in search of the legend…
DIRT ISSUE 132 - FEBRUARY 2013
Words by Ian Collins. Photos by Ian Collins
Myles Rockwell isn't really a downhiller – at least not according to him – or in the general sense I was picturing from the nostalgic late 90's images of him I had rattling around in my brain.
“I'm not really a downhiller, I'm a mountain biker. I just happened to be good at downhill and I liked it. If I was into cross country I would've put the time in and I could've excelled at that as well" Myles confidently claimed.
After exchanging a few emails I was surprised to hear that he doesn't even own a DH bike. Apparently I won't be awkwardly trying to shred around on a borrowed extra large DH bike in the soggy, coastal forest. Even on a foreign bike it would've been a nice change of pace from San Diego's parched, jagged trails that are disturbingly devoid of trees. Damn. These days Rockwell divides his time pretty between a trail bike, road bike, and shaming the young guns at the San Jose motocross track.
Shortly after I anxiously boarded a plane to Santa Cruz (CA) to visit the ex–World Downhill Champion I learned that those ethereal, backlit scenes of him raging across the finish line at the Mount Snow, Vermont NORBA course didn't really personify him. Then again, that was when Americans called it a “course"... not a track. The sport was healthier then. More on that later. There are probably hundreds of Dirt readers who don't know very much at all about the enigmatic legend that is Myles Rockwell. Apparently I didn't either.
For those who don't know, Myles is statuesque, at around 6'3" and 200lbs he was the 1990's poster boy of elite American downhill racing. Given his size he was tailor made for the fast wide–open ‘courses’ the sport was built upon. A motorcycle injury in Hollister Hills left him sidelined with two broken femurs in 1997 and made for a gruelling rehabilitation, and a two–year struggle to get back on form and winning major races again in 1999. After an impressive comeback he won his World Championships title in Sierra Nevada, Spain in 2000. In 2004 controversy shrouded his name when he was arrested in Durango, Colorado for possession of marijuana plants. Ironically it was recently legalized in Colorado just a couple of weeks before writing this feature, and had that event happened today it would go without consequence. How times have changed. Personally, I'm a bit floored that the man had to serve time in jail less than a decade ago for possessing something that is now legal and barely taboo. Pretty messed up if you ask me, but he barely seems miffed by it.
Last season he had been traveling the World Cup circuit with the Trek World Racing team and seemed to re–emerge and get back in touch with the sport after many years away. Anyhow, I ventured north to find out what he's been getting into since going off the radar, and also to see what the future holds for him. Just five months ago Myles and his wife (and cross country legend) Willow Koerber moved to Santa Cruz from Durango with their baby daughter Raven.
A few miles down a one–way dirt road I arrived at his seemingly reclusive, but cosy, and oddly European house. It's tucked away on the fringes of redwood trees and coastline where mobile phone coverage vanishes amongst moss, ferns, loam and the occasional cabin. This is where people who don't want to be bothered choose to live...
I expected a big living room full of proudly displayed medals, helmets and jerseys from the glory days. At least some of his wife's? Wrong. Maybe in the shed? Wrong again. They were all boxed up and tucked away, just a simple hearty environment where the emphasis is on Raven and the wood stove warming the place. I didn't want to heckle them just for a gaggle of cheesy photos of said memorabilia, so I respected their humility and after a few cups of coffee we got cracking and loaded up his truck with a couple of trail bikes for a crack at some local loam on his gigantic bike. We got to riding and I we got to chopping it up. I haven't done a formal written interview of this sort in the past, and although I didn't quite know how to go about doing it, I was dead set on a couple of things. I didn't want to alienate Myles with a bunch of obnoxious questions, and I wanted to take my time and just have fun and ride bikes with him. That's exactly what we did...>>
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[part title="MYLES ROCKWELL INTERVIEW | GETTING OUT ALIVE PAGE TWO..."]
So you've been laying low and haven't been in the limelight for a while now. What have you gotten up to for the last few years Myles? Tell us about the ‘quiet years’.
Well, the quiet years must be from the time I quit racing until recently I suppose. My life changed enormously about a month after the final race of my career. I was in a relationship that I should have been out of long before and things got real when I became an expectant father. I had to do what I could, I found the best paying job available to me in the little Redneck town of Durango, Colorado, doing construction. I needed a break from the bike world. After all, that is part of why I stopped competing. I needed to know that I was more than just a bike rider, a man in the world with a strong back and a work ethic that could pull me through, apart from my accolades as a racer. That is who I was before, and at the time I felt good learning the trade. I was involved in a six–year, $15 million mansion build, and I was determined to see it through from start to finish. I went to jail and got divorced, been through custody battles, been unemployed. I have more than the legal limit of character. I focused on my motocross riding and feeding my family. Though I never lost touch with my mountain bike. I stayed fit and still enjoyed riding. After all, I always was just a mountain biker, not necessarily a new school DH only guy. I am from the old days of learning to ride downhill because I rode to the top of mountains to get the thrill of dropping in. Real life treated me a bit rough. I had never been beaten down so hard as I was in the last ten years. Making mistakes and learning the hard way is tough when there is no one to rescue you. I was an ‘only man’ until recently. After officially separating from the mother of my son in 2008, I met Willow in the summer of 2009. During the ‘09–10 seasons, I helped my wife (then girlfriend) Willow become the best in the world for a period of time...saw her win two bronze medals at the worlds. Then I was a catalyst in that falling apart, as I gave her the gift of life (Raven was one year old December 31st). I am a complete man now, not the boy racer who was king of the pits in ‘93.
So you haven't exactly been under–stimulated it seems. Last season you resurfaced as part of the Trek (TWR) team, and we were quite fascinated by your return. What's the story?
I got involved with the Trek team when Willow and I were contemplating how to orchestrate her return to racing post–baby. Like I said, I was involved in a long term project and was used to being busy bringing home the bacon. I made an offer to Martin Whitely (TWR team director/manager) to be a part of his team in order to make the World Cup tour a feasible undertaking. I would have gone to all the rounds of both series had Willow continued her mission beyond South Africa. Having made the decision to retire, it left me with the schedule I had committed to and I wanted to follow through with my arrangements with Martin. I was excited to be a part of the Trek team in any way regardless of the circumstances and enjoyed the experience.
Well, you knew we'd ask...but what was it like working along side World Cup downhill champion Aaron Gwin? He's clearly a machine, but he's difficult to figure out. What makes him tick?
What makes Aaron tick is as much of a mystery to me as it is to any one. I think he may be able to answer that question better than I. If I knew the answer to that, I may have been a multiple time world cup champion, and beyond that, I would still be out there. Man, I would be racing wheel chairs right now if I had that kind of passion.
Aaron's faith appears so resolute that perhaps it gives him a mental edge or a boost in confidence. He often mentions that there are bigger, better things out there and typically when he encounters challenges he shrugs it off and says “God has a plan" or something along those lines. This almost makes him seem less emotionally invested, and perhaps helps his nerves in the gate. What do you think?
Religion is not something I am into personally, but to each his own. I have never had that discussion with Aaron but it's definitely a factor. I do believe that we are all a part of the same whole, and feeling connected is feeling connected. It is the life–force within.
Was there anything else that struck you as totally unique in terms of his approach?
Aaron is there to work, but he's also very cerebral. One thing he does that's different is that he spends a lot of time on the overlooked sections of the track. He doesn't overanalyse all the parts that everyone else is looking at. He focuses on the simpler sections and improves those. The sum of those parts makes for a faster time. Gwin also doesn't ever go too full–on in practice. He rarely rides 100% unless it's during a race run. I was the opposite, and pinned it full–on all the time until I got injured.
Well, aside from his struggles in chasing that elusive World Champs and taking it as the first American since you did in 2000 he seems to be quite consistent. How long do you think he'll stay at it and remain on top?
I can't say where he is going to go as far as his long term plans for racing. Speaking from my experience, it is a real challenge to be an undisputed force at the top in competitive sports. It may take a bit of anxiety away to think to yourself that you only have to make this type of effort for the short term. I honestly just wanted to make it out alive at the end. When you are at the top, everyone wants to knock you off. The only way to avoid trash talk is to remain at the top, anything else is subject to criticism and speculation. My take on how long any one can stay at the top is a matter of reflection. For me, I was at my best when I was hungry, when I owned nothing, and had nothing to lose. All people are different, but for me, the more I had and the more comfortable I was, the greater my ability to justify and rationalize avoiding the things that scared me. Not to mention, things are easy until you aren't indestructible. I started feeling pretty vulnerable around the age of 30. Rock on, I just like seeing people go out on top and remembering them at their best rather than when they are all broken down and failing.
The Trek team seems to have really groomed him as an athlete and at least to the average enthusiast it seems like the program is incredibly well run. Martin Whitely is the driving force and a catalyst in this. What was it like working with him?
Martin does an amazing job with the team. I have nothing but good things to say about the way he does business. I want to publicly thank him for supporting my wife during her pregnancy and giving her a legitimate shot at a return to racing. Martin truly loves racing and is possibly the biggest fan of the sport.
Speaking of the sport, it's come quite a ways since you were racing. Both with the elevation in talent, level of risk and the drastic improvement of equipment; yet in contrast, financially speaking the sport seems to be struggling worse than it ever has, especially in America.
Modern downhill racing is fantastic. It has truly become what I always hoped it would be. I dreamed of the race tracks that exist today. My fantasy has become reality, the equipment has evolved into a form that has surpassed my expectations. What's amazing is the athletes are competing on real race tracks, not just a thrown–together random trail down the mountain. It’s nice to see the sport come into it's own.>>
[part title="MYLES ROCKWELL INTERVIEW | GETTING OUT ALIVE PAGE THREE"]
I think the industry has done a superb job of delivering the products that have been desired to this point. Like any industry it takes time to reach a level that is satisfactory to the consumer. The bikes and components actually work properly in contrast to some of the early versions of things we saw back in the day. It is hard for the companies to keep everyone happy though. In my opinion, the love of riding, and just getting out on the trails, is bigger than racing and competing and always will be. As long as the industry keeps that in mind, I think it will be a healthy industry forever.
Sadly, I do think DH in the US needs some reassembly. We need a true national series, a real title sponsor, real marketing vision and lets get these guys some money. How can we expect our racers to compete internationally and put it all together with such a small amount of support? The USA Cycling people don't do much for downhill as it is not an Olympic sport, and that is the inherent problem. There is a genuine lack of respect for the athleticism that is required.
In the grand scheme of things the sport does seem to be on the up and up. At least all of us enthusiasts can watch races live online, and it really is an entertaining circus. The UCI seems to be a bit out of touch with downhill as a sport though. Do you think we could grow more with a different governing body?
Globally I think downhill is strong, it is hard to say what it really is capable of becoming. I don't think it has fully matured, the sport is really only a bit over twenty years old, but in all reality downhill is, and always will be, it's own sport. What is the UCI to downhill, is downhill actually cycling in the traditional sense? I think it is its own thing. Why not ask Red Bull that question, they have the money to transform anything to the next level. One of the inherent problems is the viewing format, and the fact that it isn't exactly spectator friendly.
So you recently moved after spending a good portion of your life in the Rockies. Why Santa Cruz?
Well I grew up in San Francisco, just a bit north of here, so it's nice to get back to my roots a bit and obviously it's closer to some family, but also I just wanted a fresh start and this is a good place to raise Raven.
So, Fox, Specialized, Fox Head, and obviously Santa Cruz bicycles are all located within arms reach, was that a factor in the move?
Those are nice to fall back on and that was a bit of an underlying factor I guess, but not the primary reason for the move. It was time to just get out and start fresh.
How about the active life? After today at the track I realized you're clearly no slouch on the moto and you said you got into some racing out there...what exactly were you doing? Cleaning up in vet?
Ha ha, nah. I did a few hare scrambles and actually won one in New Mexico...not a ton of competition, but still they're tough and it was a blast. I actually mostly raced in pro class against the kids at the local tracks because there weren't all that many fast guys in vet, so that was cool.
Any bike racing? I would think the enduro thing might appeal to you seeing as you aren't fully invested in downhill and spend a good bit of saddle time on the trail bike.
Not really, I did a handful of races here and there...Downieville, etc. and did pretty well, but at this point in my life with a family I can't afford the time to 100% commit to being competitive and I really don't want to hear a bunch of clowns bragging about how they beat me because they went faster than I did uphill 'cause I'm not fully ‘vested and not training. I don't want to taint the ‘legend’ that is Myles Rockwell. Really the bottom line is I just would rather not be competitive if I can't be fully ‘vested, as I don't really like being beaten by people who are less talented than I am.
Well, you showed up in Malibu at the Red Bull road rage in 2007 and stomped everyone. That must've been cool?
Yeah, it was funny, most of those guys were out there testing various set–ups and getting super serious. I just showed up on some old bike, slapped road tyres on it, put on a moto helmet on and had a blast.
And you still managed to beat Brian Lopes in his custom aerodynamic Oakley skinsuit...
I guess so...that race was super fun.
So I noticed a Supermoto bike in the shed. You gonna go out and get sideways on that thing for me and the camera later?
I don't know about sideways, these days I keep the wheels in line, but that thing is super fun.
Let's backtrack a bit, how did your whole career transpire anyway?
Well, like I said, I grew up in San Francisco in the 1970's in a rough part of town and I wasn't going down the best path. Bikes literally saved me. I didn't have a lot of direction but had a lot of energy. Somehow, I started riding a 1988 Gary Fisher Mt. Tam and I got to be pretty good. At some point I had overheard some guys in the local bike shop talking about how impressed I'd be by the guys riding at Mammoth, Greg Herbold and the likes. I was a cocky kid and just said, ‘pfff...wait til you see me at Mammoth, you're gonna be impressed’. I got motivated, started going to the gym and training. Being a top contender on a bike became the goal. I stopped lying, stealing and being an all around punk kid, then started channelling that energy towards racing. That was a pivotal time in my life.
So it all started there and really took off, now you're here, and you've been quiet for some time now. You don't seem like you're actively trying to be the next Hans Rey or Rob Warner. You're haven't been creatively sourcing out ways to make a ‘career’ out of your career. What does the future hold?
As opposed to starting a ride school, I have decided to start my own non–profit to benefit up and comers right here in the Bay Area. Rockwell Ride Well will be focusing on finding aspiring young mountain bike riders who could use some direction and assistance in their efforts. By contacting high school race teams and by marketing my services, I hope to ultimately create a race team to help propel these guys on to the next level. Eventually I would like to mentor athletes all around the country. As for a real job, I am putting myself out there in the industry to see where my old school roots lead me. I still love to ride!
You mentioned you are writing an autobiography. It should make for a good read. You've had a wild ride and your stories are entertaining to say the least. Care to share anything from that? What will it be titled and what's the premise?
It's called ‘Confessions of a Mountain Bike Junkie’, and it truly is no holds barred, I spill all my guts. I've got nothing to hide; this is a chronicle of my life on the bike and on the bong. I'm pretty sure everyone in the mountain bike industry knows about my weed bust. I am just putting it all out there, ‘It's the journey of a man’...
It was time to pack up and leave. I dove into this interview without much of a clue, and zero preconceived notions. Pure curiosity I suppose. I left feeling a bit more human. It was comforting to meet someone I looked up to as a teen, realize his own confusion, and see that he was so at peace with his anxiety, and his demons. Still, somehow he is raging into his 40's with more of a zest for life and an addiction to speed than anyone his age should. Myles overflows with character, and it's exciting to see him come around again.