by Mark Alker
March 29, 2013
This week we’re going back to issue 10, published in summer 2003, for a look at what Steve Worland was up to then. Steve’s been a regular contributor to Singletrack in recent issues and his first bike test for us appears in issue 83, which is out today. Even a decade ago we thought he was the most-tested individual in the bike industry, so imagine what else he’s crammed into his history now…
The Steve Worland Interview.
Steve, can you let us know how you got to where you are today? Can you mention how and when you got into bikes, how you got into the bike industry and how you’ve moved through the magazines in your time as a cyclist, racer and venerated bicycle journalist?
I started riding off road when I was about 11, building ‘tracking’ bikes from any old stuff I could get hold of. One of the kids I rode with learnt to weld when he was about nine, so our bikes became interesting bodges of repaired stuff. Most of them were single speeds with a large freewheel sprocket welded on to butchered cranks, done so that we could do steep hills. We called them diddy cogs. We kept exploding freewheels so we often ran them fixed, great for pedalling fluidity or backwards riding.
I got a ‘racing bike’ and started riding nine miles each way to school from the age of 12, then started racing at 13: track, cyclocross, circuit racing and time trials. I was never a winner, but consistency often got me results in season long competitions, both on and off road, and I even did a bit of cyclocross in Belgium for a couple of seasons.
The only time I’ve had off the bike since then was when I wrecked my back and had to wear a full torso plaster for ages. I was off the bike for two years. My brother got me back into it.
I’d had occasional jobs in bike shops but I’d never really thought about working in the industry. I worked in a bank, then started training as a surveyor but I got fed up with formality culture, drifted through a load of interesting odd-jobs then went to uni to study environmental science. After that I worked, voluntarily, for Friends of the Earth for a while then went to Germany with a girlfriend and, sort of by accident, got a job in a bike shop at around the time MTBs were starting.
I raced downhill and cross country at the Worlds.
I started racing MTBs and ended up managing and racing for the Muddy Fox sponsored German team. Drew Lawson, the marketing guy at Muddy Fox, told me to let him know if I wanted a job in the UK. Shortly afterwards, I did. So I worked for Muddy Fox just as the MTB thing was really taking off. I did some work for Bicycle Action magazine, which Muddy Fox owned, then left Muddy Fox to ride for the Fisher team and go self employed, doing occassional work for MBUK.
Occasional work became regular when I got to do the MBUK bike test every month. I was at a reasonable level in MTB racing back then, on a good day only a couple of places behind Gould and Baker. But I was already ten years older than most racers so my only chance of winning anything came when I became a veteran, which was at 35 back then. I still didn’t win (I’d come to realise that I had podium phobia) but I raced downhill and cross country at the Worlds, three years running I think.
Work wise, I spent a few years with Pace in their early days and I’ve contributed to most English language bike mags and a few non bike titles, but in particular MBUK, MTB Pro, Mountain Bike World and What Mountain Bike. I’m still self employed, but Future Publishing has kept me as busy as I want to be over the last ten years or so…
And how old are you these days?
In racing terms, nearly a Grand Master Flash, or whatever it is they call the category that comes after Veteran. Oddly, I still think of myself as a bit of a race-head, even though I only do two or three races a year and they always remind me that I’m slowing down.
Experimenting with bars that were a cross-fertilisation between risers, dropped road bars and a top section of a zimmer frame.
Can you describe a typical work day for Steve Worland?
The ‘work’ part of the day is about six hours sat in front of a computer or on the phone. I still don’t really see stuff like bike testing as work in an ‘I’m being paid to do this’ sense but I’m very aware that it influences my riding. I ride on my own most of the time, partly because I see riding as a discipline (as well as a pleasure) in the way some see meditation as a discipline, but also because my thoughts are always processing the bike as well as the trail and whatever’s going on in my life. I have an office about two miles from home, but I extend that two miles into an hour or so of off road each way most days, on lots of different bikes.
Apart from the obligatory purple Lycra and Etto helmets, what do you most remember from the early days of mountain biking in the UK? Is there anything in particular (bikes, products, people, events) that you look back on with fondness, embarrassment or horror?
Etto helmets were wonderful. I still wear mine… in the dark. Most of my fond memories relate to racing tussles with friends who are still in the industry and/or still riding… like Rory Hitchens, Tim Flooks, Andy Pegg, Mike Newton, Jo Burt, Paul Hinton… and travelling to different parts of the world with them. It was like a travelling circus.
No one took it more or less seriously than any other part of their lives, everyone went for a big fun ride the day before the race and a lot of the events had everyone competing in downhill, uphill and even trials as well as cross country. The ‘best’ riders had to show a genuine combination of fitness and skill.
I think my major embarrassment/ horror relates to pictures that still exist of some of my odd experiments with handlebar shapes. When everyone else was riding 20in flats, I was experimenting with bars that were a cross-fertilisation between risers, dropped road bars and a top section of a zimmer frame.
You’re probably one of the furthest travelled bike journalists. Where did you enjoy riding the most? Do you have any trails that are particular favourites?
I love riding around Chamonix, and I like the fact it’s so easy to get to, and I think the epic rides in Moab will always have a place in my heart (especially the Porcupine Rim Trail, all the way from the town… I’m a firm believer in earning the best bits of a trail). But I never get bored with riding all the hidden single track around my home town, Bristol.
How many bikes do you think you’ve tested in total? Were there any you didn’t want to give back, or that you couldn’t wait to give back?
Over 1500 actually tested, but way more than that ridden. There were three that I didn’t want to give back… a top of the range Pro Flex, which was the bike that got me racing on full suspension (I kept that for two years), a Marin Mount Vision, because the Pro Flex was wearing out and the Mount Vision appeared to do everything better (that one got nicked) and a Santa Cruz Heckler SL, which I’ve had for about three years now. I’m afraid there’ve been plenty that went back as soon as possible, far too many to name names.
I’m still waiting for someone to produce hydraulic brake lever reservoirs shaped like lever hoods on a road bike.
Have you seen any new bikes or cycling technology that should have been a success, but wasn’t?
I’ve always thought the ‘Softtail’ idea could have been done well in low price brackets, and I’m still amazed that more riders haven’t realised how well good parallelogram seat posts work compared to telescopic ones. Stan’s No Tubes liquid latex kit is another relatively undiscovered gem: I’ve had no punctures for over a year on my own bikes. Pace’s one piece stem-steerer was a brilliant idea, but relied on using bolt-fixed, rather than bond-fixed, fork crowns. And I’m still waiting for someone to produce hydraulic brake lever reservoirs shaped like lever hoods on a road bike: they’re in exactly the right position: I suggested it to Magura.
How, what and where do you like to ride for fun? You have a legendary affinity for singletrack and near peerless speed through it. Where has that come from?
Most of my fun riding is on the southern edges of Bristol. My best rides are usually hour and a half singletrack blasts with a few riders of very similar fitness and ability – follow the leader stuff. I ride fast in single track mainly because I ride a lot of singletrack, but also because I tend get most of my thrills (and injuries) from really pushing it. This gives me an awareness and spark that I’ve never experienced in anything else.
You must know everyone worth knowing in the cycling world. Which famous figures do you really respect? Are there any you’d still like to meet?
Lots of top racers, mainly old school, and mainly the ones who love just riding as much as racing. They all appear to have one thing in common… they’re modest and unassuming off the bike but become almost demonic on it: John Tomac, Greg Herbold, Barrie Clarke, Tim Gould, Ned Overend, Thomas Frischnecht. I have lots of respect for Gary Fisher, because he’s found his place in life and he just loves riding, and Keith Bontrager, for the same reasons, although his persona is almost the opposite to Gary’s. And Mike Ferrentino, because he says things as eloquently as he writes them (I can’t)… and Guy Kesteven, for the same reason, but also because he can write about a bike as though it’s a living creature waiting to be tamed. I don’t like meeting stars. I get nervous.
Have you ever been offered any sort of ‘sweetener’ to give a bike a better review than it deserved?
Surprisingly, no. In many cases manufacturers and distributors actually seem to think they’re doing the mags a favour by lending us bikes rather than us doing them a potential favour by writing about them.
The next big development surge in bike use will have to be political: any rational person realises that car culture is shutting out human culture.
Where do you think mountain bikes are going? Has the technology peaked? Or is there life in the old beasts yet? How about the riders? Will we see a steady decline in riders? Or are there going to be more people coming to the sport attracted by the image?
Mountain biking has nearly become mainstream, and like all mainstream activities it has diversified to cater for the diversification of people in need of different sorts of gratification… from spiritual and physical to material (including ego/image led) and practical. There are lots of new suspension developments on the horizon, and that’s all before a trickle down effect brings great new technology to the cheapskate masses. The next big development surge in bike use will have to be political: any rational person realises that car culture is shutting out human culture.
What about events? In five years time, will it all be Enduros and 24 hour races? Or is there room for traditional XC racing?
Enduros and 24s will eventually become predictable too, just as XC has. Like most things in life, market forces will dictate the mix of events we end up with each year. There’ll be a ‘next big thing’ being hyped every few years, but I suspect most of us will go back to riding in bite sized chunks. I’d like to see more central and local government money going into maintaining and developing local trails. Getting local people to ride locally is easy to promote and is a great boost to the health and sanity of a population increasingly in need of quick and easy escape fix from difficult or stifling aspects of their lives.
Work more efficiently, or less, or both…
Do you have any views on the ‘built trails vs natural trails’ debate?
If the built trails idea spreads to all parts of the UK and serves people who currently have to drive for ages in order to ride, all well and good. I love riding the trails in Wales, but I rarely travel there because I don’t much like driving. But I do like seeing other parts of the world and I try not to preach. My big worry is that built trails might conspire to create a situation where other trail users expect us to stick to trails being created for us… like the cycle lanes argument.
What cycling and personal ambitions do you hope to achieve in the next few years?
Work more efficiently, or less, or both, get rid of the current problems I have with my lower back, and start making progress in something I’ve been dabbling with for years… making good use of all the music creation equipment I bought a few years ago. Oh, and I’m hoping that my five year old daughter will one day develop a passion for riding. I’d love to be able to share that with her. But I won’t be holding my breath.
This interview originally appeared in Singletrack Magazine issue 10 Summer 2003, available in the Singletrack Mag Archive.