Words and Images By Steven Jones
Those seventeen years of trying for the rainbow stripes might well have led many to drift off, but in last month’s nationals at Revolution Bike Park here was a man as vigilant as he’s ever been, on the look out, watching after Britain’s downhill interests.
For the first time ever maybe Steve Peat was happy with a half-second defeat? Now the painful reminders of Sierra Nevada, Vail, Kaprun – those agonising fractions, wheel-spoke-widths of what was ultimately failure – have faded. After Canberra 2009 the man from Sheffield has possibly slept a little easier, but in North Wales he was seemingly as hungry (and thirsty) as ever.
It was a moment in time. With all the pretenders on parade, young bouncers to a select club for that elusive place on the national team still at stake, the outgoing frontman of World downhill was cooking up some steaks on the barbecue, sleeping in the van, hatching a plan for a good evening. The youths had little to fear surely? A forty-two-year-old man in the fading light of his career about to eclipse the new guard was never on the memo. Except six-foot-four of Sheffield was never going to walk out of last orders without a word or two to the doormen.
Steamrollering the field to within half a second of winning yet another national title, 2016 will stand as one of the greatest rides for a long, long time. But then Steve Peat has been doing this for a long, long time.
Indeed for 20 years I’ve been lucky enough to have raced with, photographed and written about this incredibly durable competitor, a racer of immense technical skill, of unrivalled mental toughness, a man that always finds a way. Over that time, and away from the ticking clock I’ve shared many a boozy night, witnessed a few bar room brawls. Beer and Peat, well they have become synonymous.
In a way he has been a key conspirator to the post world cup parties. He was central to so many. The life, the soul, Peaty pulled the pints and the party along, dragging everyone with him. But ultimately it has been all about leading.
From the proto-superstar that hid in the GT tent between practice runs at Cheddar in the summer of ’97 – a man back on home soil after a run of podiums at world cup – to a man that stood ten feet taller later that balmy year as he walked the Swiss thriller at Chateau d’Oex World Championships. In just this short time he became very much established, easily one the world’s finest and most recognisable racers.
It was a year later that Peaty won his first world cup. This was in Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state, taking the win from Nico Vouilloz, his nemesis, the man who won seven World Championships in the same era, the race it seemed that Peaty simply couldn’t nail. Yet it was a battle that raged strongest on the world cup circuit.
By 1999 he was the figurehead of the GT race team, these were the golden days for the brand. Still, given his superstar status he still found time to race/support the first Dragon series at Mynydd Du in a dirty bog in Wales before getting back to the big stage to win Les Gets world cup a few weeks later. A grounded man, it made no difference, later that year winning Eastridge National Champs (after losing to Warner the previous year) after which it was a case of sessioning some jumps with the lads in the midlands, downing some beers, before heading off to Mount Saint Anne to win another world cup… again from Nico.
In 2000 Peaty could/should have won his first world cup series but Vouilloz was simply irresistible podiuming all eight races and winning half of them. Peaty had no control over such magic. Steve also finished second best at the Worlds a fraction (0.58) off Myles Rockwell. But Steve was steadfast, and a few weeks later I watched him win Vail, his third… again from Nico.
A year later they were back to fight out the 2001 Worlds on the same track, Nico paid back the result by the same margin of the previous year. Peaty/Vouilloz was rivalry of the highest order – it was utterly absorbing if not scary. Tooth and nail they would slug it out week in week out, they were contrasting styles and radically different personalities on the outside. In person intense, warrior like, calculated… way too similar to admit to.
The battle of Kaprun was drawing inexorably closer, it was becoming increasingly pressing that Steve delivered.
So 2002 was a big, big year. Fort William’s first world cup turned out a mess for Steve although the party was similarly in the same vein – which was great. Having won two world cups on the trot Steve was heading for his first world cup series title but not before that appointment with Nico at Kaprun, late summer. I witnessed much of this behind the camera and on the keyboard and in the bar… it was all deeply emotional and certainly not for the faint hearted. Such was the gravity of the Steve Peat story that even the BBC were there.
After such a truly devastating result, Nico 1st, Steve 2nd, the full character and potency of Steve Peat walked centre stage a week later at Les Gets world cup final. It was all guns blazing, paint the town red material. It’s the closest any race has come to High Plains Drifter. It was fervid stuff. Many were locked up. Steve headed four Frenchmen to win the race at which point his great rival departed. It was yet another day with an insanely charged atmosphere, of which the Sheffield man was such a key figure.
2003 was a weird year and in ’04 there was talk of the Athertons taking over. Peat beat Gee at Ae, crashed out of the Les Gets Worlds when up on time, and cleared off with the world cup series in Livigno. Sound routine? It might well sound almost prosaic, after all it was 2002 tipped on its head again, a lost rainbow but the events of Les Gets Worlds were that of a horror show. Up on the clock with a few hundred yards remaining Peaty goes down in a cloud of dust. The following year nobody sees much of Steve, what with injury and such but there was unfinished business.
The 2005 series finale in Fort William was mesmeric. It was all-round drama, both on the hill, on the screen and in the crowd. It was impossibly gripping and another pressing race to win. The manner in which he approached the race and delivered the killer blow was full Steve style. Beer and wine was obviously part of the preparation.
In 2006 I watched him nervously wrap up the series in Schladming having been unable to sleep in his van post final. It was a first for Santa Cruz, a third for Peaty.
That was a decade ago. And he still hadn’t won a Worlds in about 15 years of trying. He now had Hill, Atherton and Minnaar to deal with. But was he fading? In ‘08 he missed yet another Worlds by a whisker after Hill crashed, but took another national championship title so seemingly not.
Peaty wins two world cups in 2009, La Bresse and on the 17 May 2009, Andorra, his last win and where the 2016 final has just been held. But the unforgettable date is the 6th September that year when finally Steve Peat became World Champion, holder of the Gold medal and now able to don the rainbow stripes.
There would be no decamp. He was not ready to bow out. Everyone loved him, he loved racing. And so he’s jumped in the van every year since then. What we saw in Revolution was possibly the last draw of a gunslinger. And if you believe that then you’re a fool.
We can talk about the number of wins, the series wins, the national and international titles but Peaty transcends all this with the bigger picture – his approach, the help he gives to younger riders and his attitude. Charismatic, a whole load of trouble and fun, it is essential that the sport of downhill finds a key role for him. One of the most liked but equally, as any racer on the planet will tell you, one of the most feared. A racer.