Kenta Gallagher - from privateer to pro
How Kenta Gallagher grabbed a factory ride in just two years
Moto, BMX, 4x, the current crop of World Cup riders come from a variety of backgrounds, but perhaps the most unusual is Kenta Gallagher's.
Kenta won a World Cup in cross country eliminator at Nove Mesto in 2013 and success in lycra beckoned, but it wasn't his dream. Kenta was raised on gritty SDA downhill and only weaned himself onto cross country as it presented a way to make a living from bikes.
Fast forward to 2014 and Kenta was ready to follow his true passion. He gave himself three years to find sponsorship, in December he announced he had signed for Polygon after just two.
The story involves a chance meeting with Mick Hannah, a lack of bike set up and a lot of hard work. We caught up with Kenta to get the full briefing:
Coming into last season what were you aiming for? Were you hoping to perform well to get on a team or were you doing it just to see what would happen?
A bit of both really. When I decided I was going to give the downhill a go, I thought, "I don’t want to half arse this". I set myself three years to get on a team and if I couldn't do that I’d just go into real life and carry on.
I guess going into each year I just thought I would enjoy it as much as I could. I did a few years in cross country and I didn’t enjoy it. I know that's the main reason why I didn’t do as well as I’d like to have done.
I knew if everything was stress free and I was doing it the way I want to , it should all just sort of come together. I tried to treat last year the same as the season before because I had loads of good fun and met new people. I just went in with an open mind again and thought: "as long as I stay injury free it’ll work out, hopefully".
You said you have a bit more of a relaxed mindset in downhill than when you raced cross country, does that naturally come easier in downhill due to the nature of the sport?
Nah, I think it was more to do with me to be honest. In cross country I had someone hounding me all the time and it was something I never really wanted to do but the downhill was really my choice. I went into it off my back and everything was to do with me.
I made the decisions at the end of the day. In that sense I could relax a bit more because it was something I wanted to do rather than an opportunity I was handed.
You talked about staying injury free, was that something you were consciously thinking of as you were racing? Would you back off to stay injury free?
Obviously no one wants to get injured and it’s not always in the back of your head, but you have to be sensible at times. I felt like if I wanted to be on a team in the next three years I’d have to not miss any races or time on the bike because I was learning so much. It would all just get put back and then it might not be easy to come back.
Even when I raced it did scare me a bit because I was bit like: "woah, this is throwing it in at the deep end already." You see boys hitting the deck left, right and centre and you think: "maybe I shouldn’t do that gap". It was just little things. Some of the big lines I wouldn’t hit because I knew that it wasn't consistent for me to do it. If I want to get anywhere in the sport I'd need to use everything as a building block.
If I’m confident enough to do it then I'll hit it but until then I’ll just take a back seat and go round it. I'll just choose my line that I'm confident with.
What other things did you think you’d need to do to get on a big team? Top 20s? Good qualifiers?
I guess I always aimed to qualify. To be in the finals is always a big thing and it's always a lot harder than it's made out to be. The whole weekend you’ve got to not have mechanicals and keep everything smooth and running, then in the finals you can go for the result you want.
I did quite well at Lenzerheide qualies last year so I always knew a top 20 was in me this season. I didn’t know when and where I would get it but I knew I would get it somewhere. I managed to get it twice so I was happy with it to be fair.
At what point did you start to feel like you might be able to pick up a sponsor?
Maybe Fort William. I qualified 22nd and then 17th in finals because I knew the track. The year before I went to all these tracks everyone had ridden hundreds of times in the past six or seven years. It was always the same so it wasn't new to them. At Lenzerheide I knew the track pretty well and I qualified top twenty and got top twenty in the final again. If I could do that and show the consistency as a privateer then I knew it was a box ticked to fight my corner.
So when did Polygon first approach you then? Was that after the season or during it?
Mick Hannah contacted me just on the internet. He said: "We’re looking for a rider and I’d put your name first, would you be keen on that?" He’s always helped me out and I’ve always looked up to him because he’s been in the sport for so long so he knows all the ins and outs.
He’s not one to keep everything close to his chest he will actually help you improve. Then Alex Fayolle did well on the team so I thought the set up can’t be that bad. It seemed the most organised laid back team that I could have a chance to get on if you know what I mean? Like it was probably my best bet.
What sort of things was Mick doing for you?
I came into contact with him a few years ago when I first started and he came to the Scottish downhill at Glencoe. I think I managed to beat him [by 2.5 seconds, Kenta beat the entire Elite field as an Expert rider], but it was cold and wet and he is Australian so I did have a bit of an advantage.
Ever since then he has been interested in what I was trying to do and where I’d come from. At the races I’d just get the craic going with him and then bump into him on track and discuss lines or just little things. He tells me it’s all a mind game just gives little pointers here and there. I just thought he’s a really nice guy and just normal.
How will life change now you’re on a team at a race weekend. It must make life so much easier for you?
Oh yeah for sure. The free bikes and the fact that I can be full time is amazing but I guess the thing I’m going to appreciate the most is having that back up. There's loads of little pieces that have a knock on effect.
I can go to a race without stressing about what I haven’t bought because I haven’t had the allowance on the flight. I did a few races where I used the same tyre all weekend because I either didn’t want to change the tyres because it was tubeless and I didn’t know if I’d get it back up tubeless, or I didn’t have a spare so I just rolled with it.
And setting up my bike. I’d never, never ever looked into that. I’ve just sort of built it, bounced on it a bit and thought: "that’ll do for me!"
Do you think you’ll now be less concerned about holding back?
I don’t know, I'm obviously not going to just go all out and keep crashing and getting injured. You always have to use your head and have some sort of preservation.
I guess I'll just be the same as I have been but with the support from the team. I'll just keep enjoying it, keep having fun, train hard and if you can get all that right then everything else all falls into place. It’s just trying to get it right in the first place!