Ahead of the final round of the Downhill World Cup, we managed to get a few minutes on the phone to Aaron Gwin thanks to his sponsor GoPro. The American rider seemed to come from nowhere to shake up the world of downhill and since moving to the Trek World Racing team, he’s been an unstoppable force, dominating both last year and this year, sometimes winning by gaps that haven’t been seen since the days of Nico Vouilloz’ domination of the sport in the 1990s.
We chatted about his freak World Champs run crash, what motivates him, how chasing records is dumb, training with Johnny Tomac, fast cars and more. Don’t forget you can see the Hafjell World Cup live on Redbull, right now…
Singletrack: Hi Aaron, How’s Hafjell then?
Aaron Gwin: Yeah it’s good, sun came out today so that’s good, been raining ever since we’ve been her,e so a little bit cold but it’s a really awesome place, pretty scenic.
ST: So how you feeling about about the race then, even though you’ve already got the World Cup title in the bag?
AG: Yeah good, it’s definitely nice to have it in the bag already so I can just kinda enjoy this one a little bit and not have too much pressure.
ST:You’ve done something that no-one else has done by winning five races in a single season. What do you think gives you the edge over riders than have been on the circuit for years? Is it the years of moto racing? How do you think that’s helped you?
AG: I started racing BMX when I was four and I started racing moto when I was twelve, so I kinda have a pretty extensive racing background. With downhill I guess it’s my fourth season so I had a few under my belt. Everything just came together really well last year, with the training and the new team with Trek [World Racing]. Just my whole programme I guess – it wasn’t really one big secret, just a combination of everything coming together at the right time.
ST: You training is notoriously intensive, so what’s your average week like?
AG: It depends on what time of the season we’re in. Normal off-season, like earlier off-season when we’re putting in more hours, it’s like six days a week and one day off. We do a little bit of everything, whether it’s gym or road bike or cross country, BMX, sprint work – Johnny’s really good at mixing things up for me so I don’t get burned out. It really depends what part of the season we’re in though…
ST: So Johnny is Johnny Tomac – what’s it like working with someone with a reputation and history like that behind him? Is it strange or does it just feel like working with a regular guy?
AG: Nah, I think it’s good for me ‘cos I know that he’s been-there-done-that sorta deal with racing, so he knows definitely what it takes to be fit – and especially for our sport because it’s a unique style of fitness so I don’t have a road trainer trying to train me or someone from motocross or a different sport – its more sport specific as he’s been there before. For me that’s good, knowing that whatever he gives me is the best stuff in my mind.
ST: Has he tried to get you on drop bars yet or has he left that one?
AG: Haha – no, no drop bars.
ST: The last person from the states that made such an impact on the world of downhill was Shaun Palmer – but your approaches are miles apart. Do you think the days of the hard partying downhiller are dead and buried?
AG: I don’t know – to each their own. Whatever people are into. It’s not my thing and with the need for professional sport, you know, as the level of competition gets higher, people will have to cut back on the stuff that’s going to hinder their performance. I think it’s like a lot of sports, some guys like to have their moments when they go out and do that, but overall I think it’s becoming really competitive these days. You gotta be on top of your game when you show up at the races. I think it’s just sort of going in that direction naturally, as competition gets better.
ST: Moving on from that, which are the athletes that you look up to – who inspired you when you were starting out?
AG: When I first started I’d say Sam Hill was probably the guy I looked up to the most. He didn’t do a lot of talking, he just got out and rode really fast and he won by bigger gaps and I like the way he approached things and his riding style. In the year that I was first getting into racing he had a really good season where he was kind of dominating everything – and had that amazing run at World Champs and Val di Sole. I think he was the dude that I definitely looked up to.
ST: I’ve got to ask it – what happened at the World Champs? [Gwin crashed in his race run due to brake failure]
AG: We just had a freak brake problem. That was pretty much it, just really bad timing for us – I’ve never actually had a mechanical in a race run since I’ve been on Trek. We just got the report back from Shimano and it was – I’ve been running those brakes for two years because I really like them, the exact same ones – the second full season on them. Had a couple of big crashes on them, bent some stuff on the inside that we didn’t really realise was as bad as it was. It was just wearing into one of the rubber pieces, put a little hole in it that allowed fluid to get through.
ST: Those were still your prototype [Shimano Saint] versions?
AG: Yeah – just bad luck. We ran the same ones all weekend, done thousands of runs on them over the past two years. It was just the front one I think, just decided to full go. It felt like it was both in my race run but when we got back to the pits after my run, the front one was gone but the rear one was still pretty good – but the front is where you get most of your power from. The rear one wasn’t helping that much – haha.
ST: So are you a bit upset to have missed out on that title despite having dominated the World Cup? Would you have liked to have had that jersey?
AG: Yeah, mostly I think I just wanted to be able to throw down a good run. You put a lot of training and and we had a month off, so there was a lot of hard work that went into preparing for that run and I was feeling really good that weekend. After qualifying I found some new lines, I really thought it was coming along really good. It’s mostly just a bummer not to have a shot at it but at the same time it’s just one of those things – its going to happen sometimes and there was nothing I could do so so I’m not really super bummed about it to be honest, that’s just the way it worked out.
ST: That leads on to my next question – if you don’t mange to beat everyone on the day is that something that frustrates and annoys you or are you just happy with knowing that you’ve done your best?
AG: Yeah, I think it’s always just important for me anyway to give it my best shot because that’s all you can ever do. You can never really control the outcome beforehand its just trying to go through the process the best that you can and make sure that you put 100% effort into your preparation and your race days, so that’s all I really try and focus on that, no matter what the result is I’m usually happy with that.
ST: You wouldn’t say that you’re a person that thinks that winning is everything then?
AG: Yeah, for sure.
ST: You’ve just signed for another three years with Trek World Racing, how important is the team setup to your success?
AG: It’s super important. Trek is a brand I’ve always kinda looked up to since I was a little kid, even when I was racing BMX – even though they weren’t really in BMX. They’re sorta like the Factory Honda of mountain bikes if you will. They’ve given me amazing support for the last two years, everything from the bike to the guys at the shop – you know, product development, the hard work they put into the equipment. And as well, Martin [Whiteley, TWR team manager] with the team, the whole team structure is dialled, we have everything at the races. For me it’s the best program out there for sure. I was stoked to stay on Trek – hopefully for the rest of my career.
ST: Last time I saw you, it was as Fort William World Cup was coming to a close and you were wandering around the pits, still quite happily signing autographs for people. Is that sort of thing important for you as a racer and for your sponsors? Do you think you need that level of professionalism, being happy to deal with the public?
AG: Yeah, for sure, I think that’s part of the deal and I really enjoy it, so for me that part’s not really a job. I remember looking up to people when I was coming up in motocross and stuff, so a couple of the guys I met – those are the things you remember forever as a kid and it’s crazy to have people look at me the same way. It feels kinda weird to me but at the same time I’m definitely thankful for it. It’s cool meeting everybody, I think that’s the best part, things that you’re going to remember once you’re done racing. It’s kind of the memories you had with people , experiences and all that stuff so I really enjoy the fan part of it. Without the fans we wouldn’t really have a job so…
ST: What do you want to do with your racing career? Does the thought of being the ‘greatest’ drive you?
AG: Nah, I’m just happy to see where it takes me. I think that chasing records, for me, is kinda dumb cos you know I kinda got a late start and at the same time it’s one of those things, there’s always going to be somebody coming up or somebody that’s better, so yeah, for me it;s trying to enjoy the experience. It’s like I said, being able to hang out with some cool people and ride your bike and see some amazing places – I think that’s the stuff you remember. I just wanna give 100% and try to have as much of a good time as possible and I think thats the big goal for me.
ST: That’s interesting considering that all the numbers point to you being well on your way. It took Peaty 20 years to build up his current records and you seem to be doing quite well at playing catch up…
AG: Yeah, we’ll see. I think those guys have got a lot of wins and a lot of podiums and all that stuff but we’ll see when the time comes, I don’t know – I could stop riding in the next three years or I could keep going for the next 10, I don’t really know so we’ll just play it by ear and see what happens.
ST: What do you see yourself doing when you decide to hang up the helmet and finish racing?
AG: Erm, I definitely still think being involved with racing somehow. I really enjoy the coaching side of things, I did a lot of it when I was racing motocross and I feel like I’m good at it and I understand how to teach people. We just did a camp up in Mammoth [Mountain], a skills clinic for downhill at the bike park there and it went really well, I really enjoyed it. I think definitely something with coaching once I’m done, or helping the next level of kids come up, but yeah, we’ll see, something involved with racing for sure.
ST: The work that you do with Trek and people like Fox and Shimano, testing and prototyping, is that another interesting thing to do? Do you run a lot of secret squirrel bits on the bike or are you a pretty standard gear person?
AG: It depends, I think that downhill is a really unique sport that way, we ride exactly what you can buy for the most part, we don’t have a lot of crazy prototype like in other forms of racing that you can’t buy. You can pretty much go out and buy the exact bike that I’m racing on – like 95% of it, so that’s pretty cool.
Testing’s a big part of it, I talk about that with Trek and we do quite a bit of testing with them and Fox and some of my other sponsors. That’s a big part of it. I think when I’m done racing I’ll probably continue with doing that, I definitely enjoy that process and I feel like I can give them the feedback they want. It’s part of the job as well, they’re pretty big on wanting feedback on stuff and I enjoy the process, so it works out.
ST: Talking of that, the red Camaro in the Shimano Saint video, is that yours?
AG: Haha, yeah.
ST: Do you have a bit of a soft spot for fast things then?
AG: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, I haven’t really been into cars growing up, I was always into motorcycles and dirt bikes and bicycles and things like that but I just kind of… I guess I’ve always liked old cars, I’ve not been too into new cars, and I was kind of looking around for maybe three or four months last off-season and kind of ran across that thing and it was more money than I wanted to spend originally – haha – but it was exactly what I was looking for so I went ahead and got it. Yeah man, it’s been a blast – it’s actually been in the shop for about four months now, getting a bunch of other stuff done to it so I’ll finally get it back when I go home, so I’m pretty stoked on that, haha.
ST: Talking about recent events, American cycling icon Lance Armstrong has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons – do you think people tend to build up heroes to take pleasure in knocking them down? How do you feel about the Lance Armstrong saga?
AG: I don’t know. I don’t know Lance at all, he was definitely someone I looked up to as a kid, I was reading his books and that was part of the thing I really like about Trek and the brand, but I don’t know. I don’t have any facts to go off of it, unlike most of the dudes on the internet…
I mean everyone can have an opinion on things but I don’t have enough [information] to really. For me it’s hard to comment on because I don’t know any basic, solid information. I do think it’s maybe not so good for the sport, going back that far, it doesn’t seem like it’s good for the sport, but at the same time I’d never agree with cheating and taking drugs, so that’s definitely not good for the sport either. There’s so much grey area with who was doing it back then and what was going on…
ST: Do you think downhill mountain biking will ever suffer a doping scandal or is it not in the nature of the sport?
AG: I don’t think so, downhill is just so specific, it’s not like this crazy endurance sport where you have to go for weeks at a time, it’s just one sprint – I mean I don’t know anything about doping or what benefits you get, but I can’t see it helping you with downhill racing. There’s so much that goes into it mentally as well as other things to put together a run, so it’s not just fitness. I don’t really see that ever being a problem.
ST: No brave pills then?
AG: Nah, I don’t think so.
ST: You live in probably one of the driest places you can in California, how do you find the transition from riding somewhere super dusty to somewhere like a wet Champery?
AG: Yeah, it takes some practise. Like here in Norway, it’s a sunny day, but it’s about as cold as it would ever get where I live so… haha. We’ve had a lot of wet races – the past year wasn’t too bad but the first few years I started racing world cups it seemed like every race was muddy so I kinda got thrown in the mix pretty quick and just had to adapt. Realistically it’s what we ride on more than 50% of the time, it’s something I’ve had to try to get better at the best I can and yeah, it’s worked out pretty good. I definitely still feel like I’m improving and there’s room for improvement in wet conditions so yeah, that’s exciting for me, that’s a challenge. It kinda separates the field a little bit so if you can make it work for you, it’s an advantage, but it’s not easy to do.
ST: Would you ever say that you’ve had the perfect race run yet? Is there such a thing?
AG: Yeah, I think that I’ve come pretty close at a few races for sure. I think that at Val di Sole this year was one of the first times that I’ve been able to throw a run together top to bottom and keep the intensity up and not make any big mistakes, so that run was about as close to what I would want from a race run as I could get. I’ve had a couple of other ones; Fort William last year was a really awesome run but then I had a crash – and I remember the first year I raced National Champs in Vermont, that was a perfect run I had going and about thirty second from the finish line my tyre blew off the wheel, so.. haha.. I think Val Di Sole is the first one I’ve had that I’ve finished…
ST: How you feeling about Hafjell this weekend? Do you think you’re going to put in a good result, does the track suit you?
AG: Erm, yeah, it’s got some challenging sections on it, I think it’ll be physical, it’ll be a good mix. I think it’s a good track, there’s definitely a couple of areas that are the most technical stuff that we’ve really ridden all year. I’m sorta looking forward to just enjoying it and just being able to hang out and sort of enjoy a race weekend a little bit without all the pressure behind it.. haha.
ST: Thanks for the interview Aaron and good luck for the weekend!
“Aaron is a member of GoPro’s team of world class athletes. Visit www.gopro.com for more info.”