From Dirt Issue 109 - March 2011

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Somehow I’d half expected something a bit showier, an extravaganza of silverware beneath the whiff of burning rubber, oily engines and clear blue skies. Maybe that’s what would be expected over here on this damp island. Here the only noise is the cicadas, I’m dodging wild goat shit as a warm breeze pushes up from the Med. High up above the bells ring in the village of Peillon a medieval eagle’s nest. Rocks…hell they are everywhere.

Surrounded by olive trees and vines food is obviously a very important part of this household. It’s all much more simple to what I’d anticipated. A small rickety gate leads into the orchard and onto the side of the precipitous cliffs, it’s dusty, rocky, incredibly hot. Luca (Vouilloz Jnr) is tearing about on his little bike; the table is getting loaded with home made food.

For a second it left my mind that I was with the ten–time Champion Du Monde, but then there was nothing really to remind you of his eighteen years as a World–class sportsman. Except maybe that Nico had just got back from what had clearly been a particularly testing interval work out. He appears every bit as fit as he ever did in the days when he was the most feared racer.

What you notice most about Nico is his acute level of concentration; he is truly engaging to talk with, each question ticked off like a section of track. Measured but very simple. He still has that steely focus, and immoveable single mindedness that always set him way apart. Then again here, living in such uncomplicated surroundings is a great place for clear thinking.

Nico quit in 2002 as World Downhill Champion and since then has concentrated on rally driving whilst still keeping a hand in with enduro and Megavalanche series. When I met him again a few years ago he talked of being in a transition in his life. Where then exactly is the king of downhill at?

click through to read the interview...

[part title="It's Not Easy to Turn the Page..."]

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The bike racing was working OK, but only OK. It was physically difficult. 2006 was OK but after that in ‘08 and ‘09 I realized I was not so good.

Because?

Of the car racing mainly, I rode my bike, but not with any goals, I like to ride bikes but without a focus it’s difficult.

A hard winter last season (2009/2010)?

Yes I did a hard winter and I did not do a complete season in the rally car. I knew that the new downhill bike would arrive so I had to train to be in good shape to develop it and have a good feeling. And it worked well, but seriously I started from quite far back physically. It was really difficult at the beginning. I improved quite well but probably I did too much because I was really motivated for the first time in eight years. I was really happy to train and ride and everything like it was before. I was young again.

Why was it difficult to begin?

Because when you start from far back you really realize there is a lot to do to get a good level. You train and it’s coming slowly and you start to feel good, but the problem is that your body takes time to recover and your body is not used to training for so many hours during the week and you feel it. I was focused and motivated and it was OK, OK, OK, OK…but in April I think that I started to have no benefit. I was motivated and didn’t stop when I needed too. People tell me “don’t forget that you are older than before and you recover less" but I think it’s more the fact that my body had worked really hard up until 2002 and then I started doing it again after a long break and the body was like…“hey come on, ease up. Go easy."

What was your focus?

My focus was to get good at enduro but also to get a good level at downhill back for me…for my pleasure, just to feel good on a bike. My focus was to train hard to feel good on a bike. It’s really good when you have a good feeling on a bike (feeling it at this point)…a good sensation and I train mostly for this.

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It’s technically but also physically. My biggest problem, and it’s getting better, is going fast for over two minutes. I remember before that I was finishing races almost with a smile, and when the other riders were exhausted I was fine. And this I really forgot about because it was a long time ago. To get it…I now realize it’s incredible. And this is something I learned in 2007 at Champery. After one minute in Champery, where you don’t have to pedal, I was dead. No power in the steep parts to keep me on high lines…one minute, one thirty, I was gone. And even in 2009 when I did a race at the beginning of the year it was one thirty, but after one minute I start to breathe heavy, I didn’t breathe too well...its like it was too strong for me ..the effort was too powerful.

Breathing too hard at the start of the race?

I don’t know, OK I stopped downhill for many years but I still rode bikes and raced enduro, but downhill is more aggressive and you have to go fast and maybe to go fast I didn’t breathe, I don’t know, but now it’s starting to be better.

So what exactly is involved in your preparation?

I did like before…well not like before. I rode cross–country, I did power lifting…it was not enough. I didn’t do BMX, I didn’t do motocross.

Power lifting?

Yes, I have never been really strong, but I was always doing power lifting – I’m far from where I was before but I think when you train like this you can catch everything in one year. I don’t want to mention the numbers I was doing before with lifting, but this year it was still good but thirty percent less than previous.

Stefan Girard, your trainer for much of your career, once said that the reason you were so good (different to everyone else) was that you were very, very good at different elements and not brilliant at one aspect. What technical and physical preparation do you have to do. What’s involved to achieve a high level in each of those things? Is there a structure to your work? How do you know what elements need working on?

For example at the moment if I was thinking about competing I really don’t feel ready because I feel not very good physically for downhill, I’m not strong enough for three or more minutes. Shit in the jumps…(laughs) but yeah it’s true I need to do more BMX…not more even…I need to do BMX! When I was racing I was not so good at jumps either, but I did BMX and then it was OK. I remember that turning was natural for me, even if I didn’t practice during the winter for two months. But even if I stopped riding I could get back on and do turns fast. But jump, if I didn’t do them regularly, I lose everything. So at Champery last year for example there are a lot of roots and jumping in the air, and as a rider you have to look at yourself and say “yes OK, I’m not bad but not really good" and ask why? Maybe previously I had too much braking with the front brake, maybe I didn’t look at what I had to do. You can always improve every year because you have the knowledge of the race and you can say “OK, I was good here but this is missing and I have to train here". Or train too much in middle of season and I was tired.

[part title="It's Not Easy to Turn The Page"]

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Maybe the vision is better from outside, but maybe if for example on what we say previously a mechanic or someone at the start says “OK, go 100%, go full attack!" I think it’s not the right thing to do. I don’t know, it’s important to see that every rider is different, and for example there are some riders that you have to push them at the start because they are a little bit stressed or others you have to say “OK, look lets just do a clean run". Some push too much.

OK lets talk about Lapierre, your future. Is biking the future for you?

Yes.

And rally?

(long pause)…I don’t think I will work in rally after I have finished racing. I spent ten or eleven years in bike and six or seven in rally car, but I’ve never stopped riding bikes. Working for Lapierre and BOS is for me, the future is still riding bikes in the mountains, trying stuff, two wheels, it’s more natural. I mean I really like rally driving, driving the cars but the mountainbike is more my world.

You were in a strange place in 2009 after eighteen years as a professional sportsman, in a transition. Within a year you seem a lot more sorted.

Yes it’s not been an easy part. I started at 15, I’m now 34 and yes eighteen years of racing and at such a high level it’s not easy to start to think what I can do if I’m not racing – what can I bring to a company? Even my image. I have to think about what I would like to do, so it’s not easy because I also like competition and it’s not easy to turn the page and like OK say to yourself “now I have to think about working and not racing". For me it’s not easy, honestly, when you are high level.

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I never stopped mountainbiking, I stopped racing downhill. Yes I race enduro and I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s different, it’s not the speed of downhill, it’s physical, but downhill is the real speed. Enduro is longer, more physical, it’s different.

Let’s get back to Lapierre.

For now we are just talking, testing and R and D, even trying the road bikes, the cross country, everything. I try to be involved more at the beginning of the project, in the past it was that I was more involved later in the process, for testing. It was different for the downhill bike last year, I was involved straight away. These are things I really like, I was really young when I began testing. I have done it from early on and it was one of the things I really liked to do when I was racing. Training and testing – I was with Sam Blenkinsop in Chatel even after two runs I go to the truck and change something, even just a click to feel it. If it feels better I change, then I change the tyre, I will change a spring. I like to test.

Until you get the good feeling?

Exactly, because always it’s training…to feel it requires training. There is nothing you can…there is nothing special involved but the more you do it, the more you do it the better you are. OK so I was maybe better when I was racing ten years ago because we were working with data and so with my feeling the guy behind the computer can see it and he can understand, and we do only this and I was really good at it. I lose a little bit but I try and get it back.

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For me I know there is a difference because I was really involved with them in the past. Over the past two years it’s different because (long pause) it’s a small company compared to the other ones. It’s really different and they work really well. I find this a really hard question to answer…(sighs)…before it was a different kind of working to everyone else especially when we were working with the data and everything, but still they really do specific training for a rider for competition. A bigger company is different, they adjust and then adjust more but (struggling)...I’m happy with what I’m doing with BOS. For example, I have three or four shocks and I test them. BOS didn’t come specially to do the test, so I test and I test and I try the four shocks on different tracks and I say “this is good here, the compression is good on this one the rebound better on that one, the high speed on that", and then after that they make me a shock and so now I would like to try this and this and this, so they send me three more different shocks and we go on and on. It’s good to work, it’s incredible in comparison. And they have the machine to see what they are doing. And the speed of what we are doing is good, I like to work like this, it’s not just to get a shock and do some clicks.

So testing damping is one side, testing geometry and production bikes another. How about riders?

The overall idea would be to be more involved with the team, Cyril Lagneu is the team manager. To be on the track to help, starting to help during the winter to set the bike, to test the geometry, I would like to test differences in geometry, longer, see where we can go. Soon I will ask to get a few different front triangles to see about the next production and team. I think the first thing to do this winter is to set the bike properly. For example Blenky broke his wrist, and now I am riding his size…

….he needs to go bigger.

Exactly. I need to train also, but for Blenky he needs to ride different sizes even just to realize it might bring something. The question that is now given to me is ‘I do not know if the size of the downhill bike is compared to the size of the men’. For example, Spagnolo is not so tall and the bike is huge.

Maybe an optimum size?

This is something I would like to see. In motorbikes there is the same size for everybody. It’s something I would like to see, if arriving at one size I don’t like and if Blenky likes. There are many questions I would like to answer.

What about enduro?

There is more pedalling and there are tighter corners, more pedalling. You also need to integrate the size for pedalling, it has to fit right. Yes you need length also.

Much more riding ahead then?

At the moment I know that I will ride a lot this winter and train and maybe also gain some more weight.

Put on?

Yes I’m a bit light at 68kg. It’s a girl’s weight.

How tall?

76…no, but when you look at the girls weight and you see in downhill the girls are heavier than that. Rachel Atherton is 66kg for example.

How do you know that?

I looked yesterday on the web. I also wanted to know the weight of Gee (Atherton) to see if he is heavy or not, and from it I see he is 85kg. So yes, to add some weight, but my question now is to go with the team just to help or I don’t know if I go to race and walk the track and help. Try and help the best I can from the side or I don’t know if the best thing is to ride and have fun, to continue to ride, test prototypes, sometimes to ride and try new lines

Do you see many riders with the wrong strategy?

Not at all, they are all different. It depends on each one. Sam for example he just likes to ride fast, but he is starting to think and work a bit more on his line, but for me, and what we saw from the side, maybe not enough compared to other riders. I think he could be faster if he looked a little bit more. Not to pass his time, but to work on the track, to look.

The possibility of an increased presence of Nicolas Vouilloz at World Cup races will certainly keep some people on their toes, for he brings with him an approach quite different to the rest. His knowledge on so many levels will carry an undoubted advantage to whoever races on the Lapierre team. Still. What everyone will be expecting is the sight of Nico behind the bar breathing at full tilt.