by Paul Smith
June 16, 2014
To celebrate his win at the UCI World Cup in Leogang, here’s our recent interview with the Ratboy himself, it’s Josh Bryceland…
What does it take to get to the top – and then stay there? Snapper Sam takes control of the keyboard to find out a little more about the legend that is Ratboy.
Words and pictures by Sam Needham.
The weather outlook is fairly bleak and the wind seems to have picked up as I pull into the lay-by in front of, what I’m guessing must be, the van I’m meeting. Out of the understated Transit, with its freshly angle-ground bonnet, steps the man himself, known variously as Brycey, Miami-Bryce, Ratboy, and The Rat: Josh Bryceland.
At 23 years of age, the chap with the infectious laugh has made a career for himself out of much more than winning gold at the 2008 Downhill (Junior) World Championships and threatening to win at every race since.
What you see of Josh and his self-cut hair in films like ‘This Is Peaty’ paints a pretty good picture of his bubbling personality, but even then, it’s still like the saturation has been turned down a little. Catching even a slight glimpse of Josh is a rare occurrence, for he is too damn fast for most human eyes to see. But if you do manage it, you’ll see a truly talented, fun-loving and friendly character who has more than the world’s share of enthusiasm for pretty much everything, especially riding his bike.
Like father like son
Josh’s love for two wheels started at an early age, thanks to the influence of his dad, Iain, who would race motocross most weekends. Naturally, Josh started off pursuing the route of horse-powered rather than pedal-powered bikes, spending his weekends racing motocross too. It wasn’t too long, however, before cycling was taking its hold on the wee lad.
“I remember one time, Dad had been down our drive and turned around at the bottom on his motorbike and he’d made a rut. It was only, like, a couple of inches deep, but I’d sprint down the drive on my pushbike and try and rail this rut like he would on his motorbike. I’d just do it over and over and over again. I was in primary school at the time. I remember because I got called into school for a bollocking because I’d sworn at school [laughs] and I really didn’t want to leave this rut. I must have been about seven or eight. I was spending more time on motorbikes back then, but during the week I couldn’t ride my motorbike, so I’d pedal my pushbike instead and save the motorbikes for racing at the weekend.”
Josh laughs and points out a photo of himself on the wall. Among a selection of heart-warming family photos sits a framed shot of Josh, mid-air on his pushbike, noticeably wearing a selection of fairly burly motocross kit, pads and helmet. Funnily enough though, he wouldn’t look out of place at an uplift today. After a couple of years of racing motocross, Josh took downhill under his wing – rather than the other way around – and decided to race a few regional races alongside motocross.
“When I was ten, we used to say I was 12 so I could sneak in to race the Pearce Cycles Downhill rounds. You had to be 12 to race in the Juvenile category. I’d been racing motocross for a couple of years already and loved riding my pushbike anyway, so racing didn’t feel alien to me. My first podium was in Juvenile and I got second place to Brendan Fairclough, but I should have never been in that race really, because of my age. Brendan was, and still is, two years older than me. The year after, Brendan moved up to ‘Youth’ and I started doing all right [laughs] and that’s when mountain biking really started to kick off for me.
“When I used to go racing motocross, Dad would race too. When I used to race downhill, Dad wouldn’t race and would come to help and support. That’s when it started to get massive really; Dad put himself second and started to cart me around the races. We would race motocross every now and again, but it was mainly downhill from age 12 onwards.”
Josh then stuck to the racing, competing in the Pearce Cycles summer and winter series events – or ‘Super Series’, as it was known back then. A couple of years later, Josh was stepping up from racing in those regional rounds to riding at national level.
“I think in my second year as a Juvenile I was already racing the NPS’ [National Points Series] as they were known back then. I remember Andy Kiffin [Steve Peat’s old race mechanic and owner of North West Mountain Bikes] saying to me ‘You know, you’ve just got to go and f***ing win them’. Obviously I didn’t at first, but it was really great to have some motivational pressure. My Dad was always really chilled out and just wanted me to enjoy the race and have a good time, which was amazing, but to have Andy say that pushed me. [He] ended up being my first sponsor, helping me out with bikes and kit right at the start.”
The Santa Cruz Syndicate is now one of the most successful downhill race teams ever, with Steve Peat, Greg Minnaar and, of course, Josh forming its medal-winning trio. Over the years Peaty has taken plenty of young riders under his wing and shown them the ropes: Brendan Fairclough and Marc Beaumont were protégés of his in the early days. So when did Josh first establish a relationship with the legend that is Steve Peat? Well, it’s all on Andy Kiffin (again)…
“Every now and again, Andy would take me along to one of Steve’s uplift days with Marc Beaumont and I’d just go and ride with them. Steve used to go up to Innerleithen, training for the day. We’d get up at the crack of dawn, drive up there, do ten runs and come home. This was when he was making the jump between GT and Orange. Obviously now he’s too busy drinking coffee [laughs].
“He’d f***ing chase me down the hill and I’d be going as fast as I could. I always could hear him behind me, laughing at me and then he’d tyre-buzz me… I’d be thinking ‘No way!’. At this point I had no affiliation with Steve, I was simply along for a day of riding with him because of Andy really. I think Steve took a bit of a shine to me and thought he saw a bit of potential, so once I started getting better results he took me under his wing and asked if I wanted to ride for him.
“When I started riding for Steve, Marc and Brendan were also on the team still, which was absolutely mint. I got a free bike as well as kit and when you’re 14, it’s like a dream come true. It’s funny too, with Steve being the hero of the sport since, well, day one almost; it took me a few years to be able to have a proper conversation with him. Steve would take me places to ride and I’d be sat next to him in the van totally star-struck, in awe of the guy, even though I was riding for him.”
With Josh still being in school, things were fairly relaxed on the racing front. While Josh was doing well on the race circuit, the emphasis was on just enjoying it and having fun on a bike, while learning from his mistakes to better himself. With the support of his dad and with Steve helping him climb the ladder at the races, things started to pay off for Josh and the results were coming in.
To this day, Josh hasn’t really left Steve’s side, unlike the likes of Brendan, Marc and Neil Donoghue who now all pursue their own ventures within downhill, and in Neil’s case the booming enduro scene. While Josh isn’t particularly under Steve’s wing anymore, they still have a strong and admirable relationship. You only have to watch any one of the ‘This Is Peaty’ episodes to see the bond they share.
“The thing is, life presents you with a lot of different opportunities, there are always multiple doors open. I started getting lots of sponsorship offers ‘ride for us, ride for them, wear this label etc.’, which I found really tempting at the time. It was appealing simply for a change, a bit of individuality you know… It would be my own thing. I’d sit down and think about it and always ended up thinking: what I have is perfect – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“It’s funny, the times have always been great with Steve and Co. – now more than ever with the whole Syndicate set-up. Who knows where I’d be if I had chosen another path. I doubt it would have been as well suited to me.”
Highs and lows
Anyone who follows the Downhill World Cup circuit to any degree may well remember Josh missing out on a medal at the 2007 World Championships in Fort William.
Practice in the weeks and months leading up to the event proved that Josh was fast enough to win, but an unlucky puncture in finals meant a medal was out of his reach that year.
“The puncture sucked, but that’s racing. I actually think I overdid it leading up to Fort William. I was young and desperate to do well and make an impression. If I won this race, it would set up my career and I’ll be totally honest, I really didn’t want to have to work for a living. I just wanted to ride my bike [laughs]. I had a really strong focus back then, probably more than I do now [laughs again], so I’d really kill it with the training, which wasn’t a good thing. Not back then when I was going through puberty and shit.
“I was out one day, doing sprints on my downhill bike up a big hill. I was hammering it and hammering it and hammering it and when I did my final sprint of the day, I just fell off my bike – I’d had it, everything in me had been used to get me up that hill one last time. In the weeks leading up to Fort William I’d be lying in bed almost unable to move, ruined. It was gnarly. It’s really hard to explain, but over-training really takes its toll. For the next couple of years I really struggled to train. Every time I did, I just felt as if I was going backwards; I was physically drained.”
Despite that, Josh placed ninth overall in a field of elite men at the World Cup Finals in Maribor the week after the 2007 Worlds, despite still being classed as a Junior at 17 years old.
“I was a first year junior and I qualified fourth overall [in] my first year racing World Cups. I went to the top of the hill for my race run and sat there while everyone warmed up on turbo-trainers around me… I just had a banana [laughs]. I was at the start with Sam Hill, Gee Atherton and someone else who I forget, thinking, this is absolutely insane. My nerves were ridiculous. That race got me a one-year deal on the Syndicate. It was a huge confidence boost and really got me back together after what had happened at Fort William.”
Welcome to the club
Josh’s first pay cheque for riding his bike arrived on 1st January 2008. Later that year he went on to win the rainbow stripes at the World Championships in Val di Sole, Italy and secured another two-year deal riding for the Santa Cruz Syndicate with Greg and Steve.
“Winning the Worlds and sealing the deal was an absolute dream come true. Though in my first year on the team I really didn’t get on with Greg. He was really f***ing harsh to me man, just because I was the new kid. He was f***ing mean! [laughs]. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but we’re good mates now… things are mint. The team now is solid. Kathy Sessler has played a big part in making it what it is. We’re obviously all dead serious on race day – if we weren’t, we wouldn’t get the results – but it’s about knowing where to draw a bit of a line. Once we’ve done our work we’ll have some fun and we all appreciate that. There’s a really great atmosphere created when all of us [The Syndicate] get together. We all just have a good vibe together; it suits us all and it’s mint.”
Josh is an amazing rider to watch. I’ve seen very few people riding who ride as effortlessly well as he does – Chris Akrigg is the only other contender who comes to mind. Unlike many riders who spend relentless hours fine-tuning finesse though, I think Josh’s comes totally naturally and it shows. It’s evident that Josh rides bikes because he loves to do so. Success and results are obviously important, but for him it’s pointless if he’s not enjoying it.
“I’m driven to get good results definitely and I’d never give up racing but if I could do a riding video a week, or a video a month in a wicked location and make as good a living, I’d probably do that, just because it’s so much fun!”
Josh’s honesty has us both laughing, again.
“You obviously have bad days on your bike, it’s not always the best braving the cold and slop in winter, but I still love it. If I ever wake up and stop enjoying it, I’d probably quit because what would be the point? Luckily, I absolutely love it.
“I don’t try and force my style, it’s just how I ride and to be totally honest when I look back at videos I think I look ugly on a bike. I think I look really goofy because I’m lanky, but fortunately not everyone thinks that [laughs]… When you’re having fun, it just happens, you know, shit happens!”
I shift topics a little and ask Josh about having fun on more wheels than two – something for which he is renowned.
“Ha ha, yeah, I like getting sideways in my cars. It’s good fun and oddly there’s a lot more crossover skill between bikes and cars than you would think. The same goes for skating actually. Things like understanding traction from a car make a huge difference to my riding. Generally, because I’m not as good in a car or on a skateboard as when I ride my bike, I really have to think about what I’m doing. When I’m on a bike, I kind of just get on with it, but when I’m driving or skating I’m really thinking about my body position, balance, the traction and so on. It’s tiny little things like that, but they make a difference to my riding, for sure.”
There is something quite humbling about Josh’s attitude to life in general.
While it’s not easy to get to the high point he’s reached in his career, or to stay up once there, there is no doubt that the racer/rider lifestyle has its perks. At 23, Josh has probably ridden his bike in more places than I can count, has his feet firmly planted in what’s regarded as the dream team in mountain biking and will live a mainly expense-free year. All this (and a lot more) could really shape a person – and not necessarily for the better. The more we chatted throughout the day though, the more I thought that Josh’s outlook on everything was brilliant. I really get the impression that it’s the simple things in life that make Josh tick – and one of those simple things would be barge life.
“My Dad makes a living out of building and renovating barges and owns a marina just up the road. He used to buy an empty hull, fit it out and sell it. Before he and Mum bought a house, we all used to live on one too. Barge life has been in the family really and I think it’s absolutely mint, its just basic and I love how relaxed it is. I actually bought a boat a couple of years ago for a project. It’s currently still a work in progress but I’ve stayed on it a few times. I’ll be moving onto it one day, that’s a given.”
In the brief day we spend together, I’ve confirmed it: behind the wild hair, infectious laugh and Manchester accent that most Americans need subtitling, is one of the most stylish and approachable bike riders in mountain biking. Josh evidently has the Midas touch, though it’s the simplicity of having fun and enjoying life that turns things to gold for him. It’s only a matter of time before the hard work pays off and he has another gold medal draped around his neck. All the best for the future, Ratboy.