The art of playing the hand you're dealt
Words: Tom Davison
Do you know what one the hardest but most important skills in Poker is?
Knowing when to fold a good hand.
Trusting your instincts when the chips are down, to know regardless of past success that sometimes the stakes are just too high to continue, requires a different courage than the one commonly celebrated.
Such it was with the news that Manon Carpenter, previous World Cup series winner and World Champion, announced her retirement at the fledgling age of 24. A shock to many who already saw her as an established name of women’s downhill with yet more to come. 2014 was an auspicious year, with Manon now following in the footsteps of fellow compatriot and winner of the elite men’s competition of the same year, Josh Bryceland.
Manon’s reasons for no longer enjoying the head games involved with World Cup racing after some tough years make you realise just how much riders lay on the line in pursuit of those elusive wins. Yes, risk, it’s expected, lauded even, especially in a sport like downhill. Talk of knowing when to call it quits is rarely ever heard over the chest puffing cries of “pedal, pedal!" and “send it!" Maybe too many egos fear getting bruised over the bodies they inhabit, yet calling time when the clock’s still ticking is no sign of weakness or lack of commitment.
Las Vegas is a town built on losers who can’t give up on winning, and while you wouldn’t bet your house on a World Cup, few walk out of casinos with broken backs either. There’s a fine line between risk and reward - those who best strike the balance take home the spoils, but for how long?
In downhill racing, winning is the consummate word. Those who chase it will do almost anything to attain its glory. Shaun Palmer once described winning as the best drug out there, and he’s qualified to make such a claim. The feeling of being the best in the world, which on the day no other person on the planet can deny you, is dizzying. For those who become accustomed to such sweet and rarefied nectar it’s understandable that little else will do. It’s why winners have the hardest time letting go, to relinquish the very thing they’ve invested so much in order to achieve.
Regularly we hear the stories of sacrifice that riders and families have made in order to succeed in the sport: Year after year of driving up and down the country to compete while funding the financial costs of race fees, travel, and maintaining a bike that can cost nearly as much as a small car.
Then there’s the injuries that invariably come with competing at the highest level. Broken bones, punctured lungs, torn ACLs, hospital visits, x-rays and hours spent in rehabilitation. Its part of the sport but when do the risks begin to outweigh the rewards? After winning a World Cup in 2007 and coming 2nd in the overall series, Matti Lehikoinen went on a horrendous run of injuries that cut him down in his prime.
That’s why I respect Manon and her decision to leave the table while the choice remained her own. Precisely because she was one of the few who could regularly up the ante, go all in and win the jackpot. Aged 21, she’d already wrapped up a World Cup title and secured the holy grail of the Rainbow Stripes. She has nothing more to prove to anyone.
The common expectation might be once a winner always a winner. To keep chasing the glory because nothing else will do and If you get knocked down you get back up again. Yet real life isn’t a Rocky movie and as much as we want our heroes to prevail against the odds, we’re not the ones who pay the consequences when the stakes are raised.
Downhill is a risky business but just like in Vegas there will always be new players rocking up willing to try their hand and roll the dice. When it comes to high rollers, chances are the house usually wins. Manon Carpenter on the other hand, not only pulled out a Royal Flush, she knew when to fold her cards and leaves as a champion of the sport. Whatever she ends up doing next, one thing’s for sure.
You wouldn’t bet against her.