In 2012 Steve Smith (left) and Brook Macdonald finally broke the Aaron Gwin/Greg Minnaar stranglehold of the top step of the podium. Brook took the win in Val d’Isere, whilst Smith ended his 2012 season on a high with a win in Hafjell, Norway.
CWX Crankworx Whistler MTB

ON MAKING IT TO THE #1 SPOT

Breaking into the elusive and exclusive winner’s club in World Cup downhill racing is no easy feat. There are many parallels in other mainstream sports; Kelly Slater, Tiger Woods, Federer, Schumacher, Carmichael, Michael Phelps, Shaun White, Tony Hawk and Lance Arm…umm wait…regardless, these are all gifted athletes and human beings that in their prime had or still have a stranglehold on the top step of the podium.

DIRT ISSUE 132 - FEBRUARY 2013

Words by Sven Martin. Photos by Sven Martin

Over the last five years in World Cup downhill (prior to the last two rounds) only eight riders have stood on the very top step of the podium. That is 32 opportunities up for grabs and only eight takers. In a sport with so many uncontrollable variables as ours, where riders are often separated by milliseconds, it’s almost a statistical anomaly. With the gaps in technological advantages narrowing and truly professional training regimes being embraced by more than just the top three riders you would expect to see a lot more names being etched into the record books. Greg Minnaar (11 wins) and Aaron Gwin (9) have the lions share, followed by Atherton (4), Sam Hill (3), Steve Peat (2) and a retired Fabien Barel with one. Marc Beaumont and Sam Blenkinsop also sit with one apiece, but without a follow up, theirs looks to be the result of an opportunistic grab when others faltered, or simply the alignment of the stars and planets for that one near–impossible perfect run.

Early on in the 2012 season when Dirt explored the making of a Dynasty we made our own predictions as to who would be the next group of riders to make the final leap onto the top step. Deputy Editor Steve Jones came up with a pretty solid list. Danny Hart, Brook Macdonald, Troy Brosnan, Cam Cole, Stevie Smith and Josh Bryceland. Not a bad call, he was perhaps overly ambitious and a little premature for a list that long though. He had no way of knowing Hart and Brosnan would both be sidelined before they could fulfil his prediction. Danny was on his way with a 4th, 3rd and a 2nd. It is only a matter of time for him, as he showed at the World Champs in Champery, but a World Cup is a different beast. Now that Danny and Troy have felt the pain of being sidelined with serious injury will they be able to bounce back with that same reckless abandon often found in the wild youth or will their trajectory to the top be tempered by dragging brakes in a mental tug of war? Cole almost hit gold with a number one qualifying in Val d’Isere, lets see how he gets on with the new team and bike this year. That leaves Josh Bryceland. Is playing third fiddle on a team with the sports greatest two riders (Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar) hampering his destiny or helping? Two podiums are not bad but it’s not the same as a win. Just ask Brook Macdonald and Steve Smith.

Brook and Steve are the latest two to join that short list of winning World Cup riders. What was the tipping point for them? What is their secret? How did they achieve what so many are vying for week–in and week–out every summer? What does it take to topple; the most current in–form riders; Minnaar, Gwin and Atherton? Both Macdonald and Smith are tenacious, stubborn and strong, with an abundance of natural talent that was spotted by the big red and blue liquid talent scouts at a young age. They have not disappointed. 2011 saw a successful and consistent season for both of them; finishing 5th and 6th respectively. Steve, graduating two years earlier from the junior ranks, was somewhat overdue his maiden win. His has been a slow and steady rise, but also an invaluable personal learning experience both within himself and in the art of racing. Brook on the other hand, having tasted the sweet podium nectar three times at an early age, simply wants more and attacked all year long. The temptation of the top step, the ‘precious’, was all too strong for the young Kiwi. Both approaches were very different yet both struck gold over the last two rounds of 2012.

THE STEVE SMITH STORY

Steve’s beginnings were the same as many of us that got into racing downhill.

When I was young I was always a racer. I raced BMX from an early age but I burnt out racing the same tracks and kids. The repetitiveness of it got to me. So when I switched to mountain bikes I didn’t even have thoughts of racing. I was just straight into dirt jumping, but obviously being a racer at heart after a year of just jumping I started getting into BC Cup races at around the age of 15. I was always just naturally good at racing but I was mostly freeriding and dirt jumping and only doing a little racing. I was a pretty loose unit riding Garbanzo (in Whistler) with a half lid and no pads or anything. I first met Gabe Fox (his current team manager and ex Cove and Evil team manager) when I had an old used Intense. I didn’t have a bike so he got me a Cove back then and got me on the Cove factory team after that.

Why the lack of Canadian Pro DH role models?

I think when you have this much good terrain and this much easily accessible riding, so you take it for granted. When you have guys from Australia, SA, NZ and UK where there are smaller hills, I think the World Cup venues elevate their excitement and drive and that allows them to go faster and want to succeed at racing. A way out to ride good mountains in a way. I asked Gabe Fox if I could ever make a living being a Canadian downhill racer, he said that was a tough one, not many people have done it other than Andrew Shandro. That wasn’t very motivating, but I was still young then and looking up to the top National guys like Andrew Mitchell and Tyler Moreland and looking beyond that at guys like Sam hill and Peaty. So it was motivating but a little hard as there weren’t many fast Canadians to base myself off of, so I just did my own thing, kept racing and hoping for the best.

How was it racing as a junior at Worlds?

At my first one in New Zealand I finished 6th. I had no idea of my speed or potential coming into it, nothing to base myself off. I qualified 3rd on a mellow run, so I wanted to win and like a typical rookie junior I blew up and crashed. As soon as you reach a spot you want to surpass it. The next Worlds in Scotland I broke my wrist a week before, so I went to the doctor with an ODI grip and he cast my hand around it. I tried but I couldn’t hold on tight enough with the broken hand and I crashed.>>

CLICK THROUGH TO CONTINUE READING...

[part title="STEVIE SMITH INTERVIEW | WELCOME TO THE WINNER’S CLUB PAGE TWO..."]

On his way to victory. Smith’s win in Hafjell was a long time coming. He has proved over the years that he has what it takes, but that all–exclusive World Cup number one spot has eluded him…until now.
UCI World Cup, MTB, Hafjell Norway, 2012, World Champs

Qualifying 5th in your second ever World Cup as a senior in Vallnord Andorra in 2008 must have been special?

It is scary when you are starting after Minnaar, Chris Kovarik and Nathan Rennie…all the guys you’ve looked up to and the only guys after you are Atherton, Hill, Barel and Peat. It scared the hell out of me. Those were all my heroes. It was pretty nerve wracking for me. I ended up in the top ten.

When I think back about Steve Smith the first memories I have of him at the World Cups were of him absolutely attacking the courses. Laying it all on the line. He quickly earned the moniker ‘Sender Steve’ as he would try everything first and with full commitment and seemingly always ride at 100% until he could no longer. Loose and wild, hit or miss, was the best way to describe his style. But in 2011 his approach radically changed. He found consistency and smoothness. I asked him if this was a proactive cognitive decision.

Oh yeah it’s been a long process. From 2008–2010 my aim from the beginning of the race was just set on the finish line. That is how I thought of it. I just wanted to instantly win. But it’s a long build–up of putting things together and at that time I wasn’t that fit. Even though you think you are. I wasn’t very strong and I wasn’t mentally strong, but I could still just fly on a bike and that’s all I was really relying on, going as fast as I could. It wasn’t until around the end of 2010, that I realized I had the speed but I needed some consistency there. So 2011 was the year for me for that. I changed from flats to clips because I just wanted to ride with a smoother style and work on consistency. Then getting that confidence through 2011 with a couple of podiums and 5th overall showed me I was doing something right and it was what I needed to come into 2012 focusing on the next step above that. I knew now I could race and ride consistently, but now it was about putting that fast speed I had together with consistency.

And what about the switch to flats?

It wasn’t hard. I used to race clips in the beginning when I went from BMX to MTB, then one day when I was filming in 2007 with The Collective guys, I put some flats on so I could hike up all day. I was like ‘holy crap, I can slide around’ and it was so comfortable so I thought it was a good idea to switch. That was the beginning of a bad time, but could I could just ride way more out of control than with my clips and I thought that was making me go faster.

Wasn’t that a necessary process and part of your learning curve into developing his style, finding and knowing his limits?

Well yeah, but when I made the switch back to clips it felt like I had just added the biggest thing to my bag. It was just so helpful. I had found the limits riding loose, now I had to just put that together with clips and a more fluid style.

2012 wasn’t the greatest of seasons to begin with?

I trained really hard for South Africa and was pretty happy to finish 5th. During the massive break we went to Italy, where I dislocated my pinky really bad, it was the hardest track of the year and even though I really liked it, my messed up hand really slowed me down. I was able to get tenth there. But it was hard. Especially after crashing there the year before when I thought I could win. Then going on to Scotland I was still hurting as it was the week right after Italy. My hand slipped forward on the bar because I couldn’t hold on tight and I fell off on corner near the bottom, I slipped on the bridge fell off into the creek had to climb back out and up and still finished 19th.

At World Cups I’m thinking about the overall and going a safe speed, which is hard to work out. Like at Mt St Anne, I’ve got seventh two years in a row now, which is only just a fraction of a second off the podium. That just pissed me off because I know I can ride fast there.

Then I was pretty pissed at Val d’Isere, it is probably the most angry I have ever been in two years of racing because I actually didn’t make any mistakes, I felt good and ended up eleventh. I went from Windham finishing on a high and my best result ever with a second place so I was confident looking for a great result in France. Times were tight and it was a pretty fast track. I just came down in eleventh place and was so angry, I felt like a little girl and wanted to throw my bike. There was nothing to blame it on. It is motivating though, after that we had a bunch of time off and I went into Crankworx knowing I needed to step my shit up.

Most guys don’t take Crankworx super seriously. A lot of the top riders like Gee and Minnaar find it hard to find that spark when it’s not a World Cup event. You don’t seem to have that problem?

No I’m kind of opposite to those guys a lot. I can kind of always go my fast speed at every race. I wouldn’t say a World Cup makes me go that much faster. This year at Crankworx I went there with a different mindset than usual. Most of the time it’s like a little break where you go chill out and ride and race, but I was pretty angry after Val d’Isere and after talking to Todd my trainer we went there with full race brain as if it was a World Cup. We were doing yoga every day and going to the gym training knowing Worlds was coming soon, so for me Crankworx wasn’t a break.>>

[part title="STEVIE SMITH INTERVIEW | WELCOME TO THE WINNER’S CLUB PAGE THREE"]

Stevie Smith 6
Stevie Smith 6

Steve went on to win Garbo, Air DH and Canadian Open giving his confidence a huge boost with just two races left in the year. His training is key. Training now is quite diverse. Lots of conditioning and cross–fit; not just the usual old school gym and road riding of the past.

When I started training with Todd Schumlick from PerfomX I thought I was working hard, but it’s like a result, once you get that result you want to do better. And I hadn’t noticed back then until now how poorly I was putting those efforts into that training. I’ve realized now what my body is capable of and how I should be doing it. At the time back then I thought I was fit and strong but now I’ve figured out what it really takes. It’s like my bike, I know my limits, I know how hard I can train now. I feel like every year I can get stronger. I’ve definitely felt myself improving on every little thing each off–season and during each race season.

Hafjell in Norway was the final round of the 2012 World Cup. You couldn’t change much ranking wise. Did you throw caution and consistency to the wind to clinch your first win? What did you do differently or what was different to this race from the others?

It was just straight up actually wanting to win. There’s a difference between saying ‘I want to win this race’ and actually wanting it and for me forever I’ve laid out all my goals and I know what I want, but I know in the back of my head I’m always not sure if I’m 100% capable of it. But going into Norway I was feeling extremely confident after Whistler and I just straight up wanted it and had the feeling that I could and that was what gave it to me I think.

Was this ‘want’ before arriving in Norway, after walking the track or after the first practice?

It was after Worlds. I was third and knowing there was one race in the season left I just wanted to end on a high note. It was different too, when you are that confident and comfortable riding that speed does not feel fast. So in Norway I honestly did not feel real fast I just felt comfortable. And when I did my qualifying run that’s when I knew 100% that I could win, because my quail run felt pretty mellow but I won by like five seconds or something. My bike felt as good as it could feel, everything was perfect, I wasn’t even thinking about the bike and that was just allowing me to focus on the trail itself.

His Mechanic Nigel Reeve recalls Steve’s focus in Norway, “He had pure stone cold focus. You know when you look in someone’s eyes and they are staring back at you and they are saying ‘I’m going to do this’? He had failed as far as he was concerned at Leogang. It was all or nothing now. He had nothing to lose and everything to prove. I don’t know, that was a pretty weird weekend for both of us, we both knew he was going to win but he had this calmness about him."

Team manager Gabe Fox adds, “Steve was on a tear after his second at Windham, it was a major let down. He made a mistake at the top of the course. You can’t make up the time needed against the Worlds best on the second half there. Crankworx proved his anger, he won everything, smashed the f–k out of everyone. Three very different races, three decisive wins. Not much more to be said. Worlds again and he decided to give the world’s best a massive head start by blowing corners at the first split, a disappointing third place finish for him, I knew shit was going to get real in Norway. The race was won well in advance. After his first run down the course, there was no way he was going to lose. He came back to the pits and said the course was amazing. The burning intensity in his eyes. I knew it was it on!"

We will tackle Brook Macdonald next issue, but I wanted to know what Steve thought of him and the more experienced riders.

Brook is still like two years younger than I am, and Minnaar is…I don’t know how many years older than us. Minnaar and those guys have perfected their racing, they know exactly what they can do and what they are capable of. They can ride at that comfortable level and win. But younger guys like Brook and myself, we are still learning these things. I think Brook had a great season in 2011 with multiple podiums so he came into the 2012 season just looking for wins and pushing it hard. So maybe this was another learning year for him. He was able to win, but he had some slide outs and crashes and that will probably help him for next year.

There are a handful of guys who are capable of winning. You look at the times and you see how close it is. We have all done timing and we know we can go seconds faster all the time…every race. You never finish a race going ‘holy crap that was the best race ever’. Norway was a great run, but like I said, you always feel like you can go faster, that’s just how it works. Once you have reached a speed, that speed is no longer the fastest speed you are capable of…you just think you can do better. Like if I was to go the speed I did in Norway three years ago I would probably shit my pants because I just couldn’t handle it then. This year Norway I was completely comfortable at that speed but it just takes a long time for those things to come along perfectly.

It seems like Steve has found the delicate balance between comfort, speed and consistency, all built on a solid base from a dedicated training regime that might just make him a regular contender for that top step. Even so, he still sees the bigger picture and is one of the few people not to lock his bike away in the closet when the season is over. He ended the 2012 year riding with mates and going on trips positively motivated and still enjoying riding after ending the season on such a good note. Not one to take the sport of DH too seriously he realizes there is more to just racing in this short DH career. He once again has film projects he’s involved in, this time in Brazil with the Coastal Crew in January. He says, “It’s no big deal hiking up the hills for filming, it’s what I’d be doing anyway, now there are just more cameras to document it and make me look cool."