Matt Walker Interview | The Next Generation of World Cup Racers
We catch up with newly signed Madison/Saracen rider Matt Walker and his pack...
On Friday 28th of March, 2014, the cream of the UK downhill scene came rolling into the slate mines of Llechwedd, Gwynedd, North Wales, all looking for the prestigious prize of ‘best in class’...
From Dirt Issue 147 - May 2014
Words by Steve ‘the Butcher’ Walker. Photos by Laurence Crossman–Emms.
Crufts, the greatest dog show on earth, where champions are crowned, from schnauzers to weimaraners to wirehaired poodles. It’s not an open competition, dogs (riders) must have qualified throughout the previous years at licensed Kennel Club events (in other words UCI ranking rounds) where only the cream of the doggy ‘shampoo and set’ brigade rise to the top. It’s a cut throat business that involves poopa scoops (jet washers), paw type nail clippers (tyres), de–matting devises (pedals), bamboo brushes (riding kit) and flea combs (helmet and goggles). If the ‘pampered pooch’ in question finally makes it to ‘the show’ it’s because of successful breeding from when they first became a puppy. This is something that doesn’t just happen. It takes planning, whether male or female, dog or bitch. A strategic plan of fitness training usually in the form of walks around the park (sessions down the BMX track), a strict schedule of stamina building exercise of sniffing at every other lamppost (riding XC), a diet of tinned food with the odd bowl of homebrew (but only on none race event weekends), followed by intense sessions of digging holes to bury bones in (pushing weights at the local gym). After all this the chosen puppy is placed on (or clipped–into) a DH bike, taken to the top of a rock strewn, steep and slippery hill and told to pedal like a bitch (not a dog) and not to touch his/her brakes. Onlookers who don’t know anything about DH bike racing would call this crazy. We simply like to call it the ‘breeding ground’ where legends are born and hearts (sometimes paws and hind legs) are broken…
On Friday 28th of March, 2014, the cream of the UK downhill scene came rolling into the slate mines of Llechwedd, Gwynedd, North Wales, all looking for the prestigious prize of ‘best in class’. Word on the street is that Antur Stiniog is the Welsh equivalent of the epic race track Fort Bill (but on a smaller scale I suppose). It’s a year–round mountain bike rider’s paradise, and whilst eavesdropping on a conversation recently at Hopton Woods you can tell that Adrian Bradley (who runs Anthur) and his team are truly passionate about their chosen sport, and it shows. Riders go ‘barking mad’ to get on to the Antur uplift on a weekly basis (I know because I can never get a bastard place when I try and book) with the view of riding the four active runs on offer. The old slate mines are a massive hit with weekend warriors, but this is the first time a British DH national has been held there. Is Antur the type of venue that will ‘breed’ our young pups into DH riding legends such as Steve Peat, the Athertons, Josh Bryceland and Brendan Fairclough? So, instead of doing the run of the mill type race report, the ‘guvna’ at this here mag decided that it would be cool to tell the story of an up and coming racer.
Our chosen puppy is newly signed Madison/Saracen rider Matt Walker and his pack. We want to know how his first national of 2014 went, his thoughts on the track/venue and whether the UK DH race scene is a good enough ground for breeding on!>>
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Yeah overall it was an amazing weekend, it was my first event with the team so after training all winter it was good to get back to racing. Practice started a bit wet and greasy, mud over the slate was a sketchy combination for most of the track, but throughout the weekend it dried steadily so the race run was done in the best of the conditions but this meant that every run was slightly different and hard to judge how hard you could push in certain sections. Qualifying went well and I put down a generally smooth run with a few mistakes. When it came to finals the track had dried further and a good run secured me third in the Youth Class and the fastest speed trap.
So are you happy with that result?
Oh yeah, going into the event I believed a top 10 result would have been a fair estimate of my chances. As the weekend went on I felt more and more confident with my riding and felt my track pace was good. After a solid qualifying run my expectations had risen and I was keen to make the podium in finals. Taking the third spot was rad as it rounded off a great weekend of racing and has boosted my confidence going into round two in Fort Bill.
It’s a brand new season and also the first time a national has been run here. What do you think of the venue from a racers point of view?
Facilities are great, café, real toilets and showers are rare at DH events, so Adrian Bradley has built a 5 star DH venue and Si Paton (BDS organiser) did good to include it as a round of BDS this year. It’s a top track it is good to see such a gnarly course getting included in the championship.
Describe the track?
Well the weather was superb, it’s the first time I’ve actually been there and been able to hit the jumps on the top straight. The track is fast, gnarly, and very physical. It has got a good range of jumps and technical features, so yeah the track is wild. Having a lung bursting sprint at the end it brings a unique twist to downhill racing, which favours strong and fit racers.
What was the best bit?
The highlight is coming over the massive drop in to the arena jump section lined with crowds of people both sides of the track all heckling and cheering you on as you scrub past, it was hard not to crack a smile even with the pressure of race runs.
Personally the track had no bad bits, but having been there previously in bad weather the top section is prone to wind which often spoils the flow as you cannot leave the ground for fear of being blown off track. Luckily this weekend we were blessed by the weather and you could hit the top section fully pinned.
So, is the track, in your opinion, national standard?
Hell yeah, it may not be as long as Fort Bill but sections are definitely as gnarly. This sort of track is definitely the way DH should be going.
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Will was entered, and rode Saturday practice and he is one rad dude on the track, he looked to me like he was enjoying the track on the corners that I could stay in touch with him!
Si (Paton) seems to have really made leaps forward in terms of race organisation.
It was a big event, lots of people came and watched, it was a fair spectacle for the public and for the racers it all went off on time with no delays or problems, so yeah he did well.
How does this national compare to the first one you did?
My first national was Llangollen as a first year juvenile, the track was super steep and the uplift was… slow. Things have definitely improved since then, the uplift at Antur was super–efficient.
So all that training has paid off then?
Yeah I’ve put in some hard work over the winter, had I not done I would definitely had a different result this weekend. The sprint at the bottom to get back to the finish arena after the jump section was probably where the event was won and lost for many.
Where do you hope to be as a rider in say the next two or three years?
Hopefully with enough support I will get to go do some World Cups, that is definitely the plan as it has been a dream of mine since starting riding to compete in World Cups. I am inspired by people like Laurie Greenland and Innes Graham who are amazing riders and have such a great attitude towards their future racing careers
Without a national championship series the best riders will not get noticed or recognised for the talent they have. Regional race series are great events, they tend to be more relaxed chilled events with good tracks and often impeccable organisation (Pearce Cycles for example), but without competing in a national series it would be difficult to compare riders and highlight the best riders in the UK as they come up the age rankings.
I bloody hate thank you lists. But let’s do it anyway. Thank away Matt.
Will Longden and Madison Saracen for spotting me and giving me an amazing opportunity to ride in their Development Team this year, and of course Mum and Dad for karting me round the country and providing everything I needed to get me to this point, and also for your continued help and support, cheers…
But our young pup would be nothing without the help and guidance from his dad Ian and his mum Sarah. Every good pack has a leader. Ian just so happens to be into bikes (and not tinned food).
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Mountain biking was my idea initially, I had the bug and Matt wanted to come and do some XC with me. After making him ride the Llandegla red route aged 10 on a BMX he was still undeterred and I bought him a extra small Giant Trance frame which was too big for him but he still managed to overtake most of my riding buddies on the descents. Downhill was his love, YouTube and online videos of freeride and DH stars riding bike parks and DH tracks inspired him to want to get into it.
It’s pretty dangerous. What does your wife say?
Sarah has been used to me racing cars and motorbikes since we met at 16, that’s a few years ago now, but she knows boys must be boys and although she wouldn’t do it herself she’s cool with it.
Do you think taking Matt racing as helped in the age old bonding of father and son?
Matt racing is great, we get to do loads together through the sport. We have always both raced Pearce Cycles events and these weekends are hectic, with both of us racing we don’t get to ride together much through the weekend, I always manage to see him complete his run though before getting the uplift to do mine. The BDS though is a whole lot more serious in my mind, I have enjoyed taking the support role and not riding myself. This year, now Matt has a professional team behind him my role will change again, but we are both buzzing about the season’s racing.
Are there any negatives about going DH racing?
Great people, great bikes, great tracks, I cant see any negatives there… it’s hell on the washing machine though!
Usually the whole family come to a race weekend, including our Boxer dog Millie and her Pal Rosie the Cavalier, joined on race day by the Grand Parents, so yeah we get though some tea bags in a weekend!
Talking of costs, how much do you think you’ll spend on attending this year’s BDS rounds?
BDS this year, Fort William is the big haul, eight hours each way, Ae is a fair drag too, but our Shropshire base is well situated for Llangollen, Antur Stiniog and BikePark Wales, but with practice at these venues as well travelling alone will see a bit of cash off, I don’t even want to add it up! Luckily we will be using the camper to get to all the events so we have no additional hotel fees, etc.
Bloody hell! That’s still relatively cheap in comparison to say going go cart racing though?
Compared to any motor sport DH is cheap, I raced Superbikes for 10 years and each race would cost £600–£1k, and that’s doing it on the cheap.
So, you’re ploughing your money/time into racing bikes down a hill. Is there a goal that yourself and Matt are hoping to achieve?
Last year Matt was a second year Juvenile and he won the BDS, National Champs and Pearce Cycles Championship, so as far as 2013 goals he smashed the lot. This year he steps up to Youth Class, and it will be a learning year, but we hope he can bother the podium places. As for the future Matt has his eye on winning, I have seen Matt’s skill level grow faster than I could have expected, he has put lots of effort into training over the winter, his strength and fitness has come on quickly. He has done this without me pushing him, he wants to be faster, with a professional team like Madison Saracen and support from the likes of Will Longden and the rest of the team riders to aspire to it is going to be great to see how his speed develops.
Have you a time factor in mind on Matt’s riding career, where you say ‘enough is enough son, you need to go and get a paper round’?
Not really, Matt is a bright kid, his schoolwork is top notch, we as parents are so proud of his achievements so far, he really seems to have found his thing, he has his own drive and desire to do well, whilst he continues to grow in the sport and be competitive I’m sure we will be there to back him all the way.