Words by Jenn, photos by Jenn and Chipps.
With this being Women in Sport week, we look back to issue 72’s interview with Manon Carpenter and Annie Last. Grab a cuppa; it’s a doozy…
There’s something odd about riding trails which are within your capability in the company of folk who you know are far, far better riders than you will ever be. Up to a point you can use Jedi mind tricks to convince your brain to follow where they have, at their speed, simply because the laws of physics confirm that if their bike can go through there like that, then so can yours and it’s only having you as the pilot that’s holding it back. Forget that momentarily though and you’ll be instantly, inevitably dropped.
And so it is that, a minute into the first descent of the day, Chipps is already nowhere to be seen and I’m having to concentrate very hard indeed on sticking to the Junior World Downhill Champion’s wheel, although she doesn’t seem to be working much at all to stay close to the top class cross-country racer who is picking up the pace at the head of the line. I am in rare company, and loving every moment of it. The trail switches left, then drops us into a series of berms; the first two go well but I run out of focus on the third, get the line completely wrong and have to brake hard to avoid overshooting and landing in the tree stumps. Just like that, they’re gone; two world-class riders chasing each other away into the mist. Well, it was nice for the 90 seconds it lasted…
Think back to what you were doing when you turned 18. You might have been riding bikes but it’s pretty unlikely that you were embarking on your first season as a full time racer. And, at the age of 21, you probably weren’t dividing your working week between trade and national team commitments, either. Manon Carpenter and Annie Last are two of Britain’s top mountain bike racers and are excelling in their own specific disciplines, yet neither are one-dimensional riders. Top-level racing is a very different sport now from the stereotyped cliché of uptight, early-to-bed cross-country whippets and slack, hell-raising downhillers that it perhaps once was; cross training of all sorts is essential to remain competitive and both of these riders know the value of mixing it up a bit.
They’re both signed to big-name trade teams for 2012 (Annie races for Milka-Superior, while Manon is in her second year with Madison-Saracen) and have very different experiences of British Cycling as an organisation. Annie was picked up by BC’s Olympic Development Program (ODP) early on in her career and has progressed through its various training programs, while Manon credits her father, Jason Carpenter (organiser of the Dragon downhill series) with supporting her as she’s progressed rapidly through the national ranks and on to the international race circuit, where she took the women’s Junior World Championship title in 2011. Annie is currently competing for UCI points in advance of Olympic qualification; although the two riders face different pressures in their racing they also share a lot of common ground, as we found when we spent the day at Llandegla with them.
Early? That’s not early…
When we wander into OPA Llandegla in search of a restorative Tuesday morning brew, a bright-eyed Annie is already sitting in the cafe drinking tea. Our ‘early’ 8.45am start seems even more half-hearted when we discover that Manon has enjoyed a 3.5 hour drive from her home in South Wales to get here. Both girls are clearly dedicated to their careers and know the value of professionalism; they’re straight down to business while Chipps and I are still mulling over how the day is going to work. Before you can say ‘healthy appetites’, mugs of coffee are on the table and knives and forks are poised over sky-high sausage sandwiches, bacon baps and the tastiest-looking veggie breakfast I have ever seen. While we eat, the girls catch up on their early season plans; Manon is off to Portugal shortly to begin the race season while Annie is chasing UCI points through an itinerary which includes racing all over the place before both girls are off to South Africa for World Cup number one.
Second breakfast over, we adjourn to the sofa to chat. Although it’s term-time and a weekday, the cafe sees a steady stream of riders coming and going and we blend easily into the background, both girls looking entirely at ease with the surroundings and talking about their experiences. Annie is every inch the polished professional while Manon is quieter, thoughtful and perhaps a bit more reserved; anyone expecting the traditional downhill versus cross-country stereotypes to be reflected here would be disappointed. As Manon says, she doesn’t perceive herself to be a typical downhiller, while Annie clearly relishes the opportunity to let her hair down with her friends when it arises (out of season, naturally). Both girls race, train and travel with male team mates; we wonder how they feel being deprived of female company for the racing season and whether they just see themselves as one of the boys?
MC: I’m travelling with a couple of my team mates. I get on with them both but I don’t know how well they can look after themselves!
AL: Last year I was with the younger Academy guys. Sometimes if I’ve been away for ages I could do with a bit of girl company because I’m always with the lads but otherwise I do really enjoy it.
MC: It is gonna be different, we’ll have to see how it goes, we’ll have a team manager with us which we haven’t had before.
AL: You’ll have a group of people to train with when you’re away as well. Is this your first full time year?
MC: Yep, I was in school last year. First time winter training, first year just racing, first year of senior…
AL: So it’ll be a big difference. Did you find it easy going straight into full time training?
MC: It was really weird actually, I got back from Champery in September when school was starting and everyone was going back to school and I was like, well, what do I do? I have a structure now.
AL: My winter always feels like that, everything’s always quite routine.
Although the World Cup schedule means that not every venue hosts both cross-country and downhill events, there is some crossover and Annie and Manon do sometimes get to experience each other’s events. They’re both excellent all rounders, as we find out when we hit the trails later on in the day, and conversation soon turns to the epic conditions at Champery, where rain turned both cross-country and downhill courses into slippery chaos that played to the British riders’ strengths.
AL: We were watching the helicopter going up every five minutes [in practice] to get people.
MC: I was in anti-doping, watching all the helicopters going up and nobody coming down, and the officials were talking about cancelling the race, so many people were crashing.
AL: Did you like the course?
MC: I did, it was a shame it wasn’t as good as the year before. The track was the same, just the conditions were bad. It hadn’t rained for ages and it was really hardpacked, so the track was really hard underneath with a layer of grease on top. It was like the plastic in the pits – trying to ride on that. You pulled your brakes and your wheels just slid out from under you, whereas 2010 was a complete mudfest and I loved that, sliding around a foot deep in mud. It was really weird. I think the ground conditions cut up a bit more for the men but for us it was like riding on ice. Your race was quite technical, wasn’t it?
AL: It had rained in the morning so the roots were so slippery but our race was the wettest race.
MC: Did you have quite a few crashes?
AL: I was bouncing off trees the whole time but I was fine until the last lap, I was off my face [demonstrates gurn of extreme tiredness] and I was coming down the last downhill, thinking about unclipping and swinging down it with my foot out, thinking “I think I’m gonna crash down here so take it steady”… I sort of bounced down it and cut my knee, after getting through the whole race. And then you’re there trying to stop it bleeding before you get on the podium.
MC: I rode round bits of the [cross-country] track leading up to the race just to see how hard it was and – well, I put my saddle down! I was wheel spinning on the roots, I was really surprised how hard it was. I can’t imagine riding it when you’re that tired at the end of your race, on the last lap…
AL: You could put mud tyres on and set your bike up to be perfect for the technical sections but then you’ve got to make it go fast on the fireroads too and you have to weigh that up. Some of the downhill sections were really muddy and cut up but other bits were really dry and fast fireroad or tarmac. It’s a good course.
MC: I remember sitting on a chairlift in Canada and watching the cross-country riders practicing, it goes over one of the hardest bits on the course at Mont Sainte Anne, it’s proper gnarly.
AL: It’s good when you’re course training, working on difficult sections and the downhillers are on the chairlift going overhead shouting stuff at you and you’re like “Come on! I’m on a hardtail! I’m practicing!”
Ah yes – the good old rivalry between downhillers and cross-country riders. Do the two disciplines have a bit more respect for one another now or is it still as divided as it used to be?
AL: There’s an element of mick-taking…
MC: …but people have started to realise that cross-country is technically hard.
AL: People have realised that downhill isn’t easy, that everyone is an athlete and trains full time.
MC: This is the first year we’ve had a structured training programme through Madison. British Cycling don’t get involved in the downhill training side of things. I’ve been thinking about getting a skills coach but I ride all sorts of bikes: motorbikes, BMX, cross-country, dirt jumps, hardtail. I think that’s the best for me, but it’s hard to know what’s best to do. I don’t know what other people do, I just ride and my dad gives me advice, I watch what other people do…
AL: Do you ride with guys or girls?
MC: Guys, there aren’t many girls in South Wales that race nationals, though I’ve started going down to Bristol to ride with Emily Horridge and Katy Curd. With motorbikes as well, there’s so few girls that do it.
MC: Maybe because it’s hard to get into.
AL: It’s not easy, is it?
MC: I’m different to most girls that do downhill, some are pretty mental. I’m quite reserved for a downhiller really, you have to be a certain sort of person to do it. It’s a minority sport anyway, isn’t it?
AL: And because there aren’t many girls to ride with, it’s not as easy to get into.
MC: Less girls take it up. It’s a hard sport to get into, I know if my dad wasn’t there helping me I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
AL: There seem to be more female cross-country riders in World Cups now.
MC: There are maybe 30-40 girls, and 150 men, so the girls are a fifth of the downhill field? Maybe even less.
AL: Whereas there’s not as many cross-country women as men but still more compared to downhill.
MC: It [cross-country] is an Olympic sport…
AL: …which helps. I’m only 21 so I’ve not seen that much of it but even since I’ve been in it there’s a lot more girls, which is great to see. A lot of it is down to making it more accessible. When you’re younger, if you’re a lad there’s always someone at school you can go and ride your bike with who’ll be interested in it, but when you’re a young girl – well none of my female friends did anything like that, so it’s hard to get into. It’s okay now, but when I was younger it was intimidating to go out with a group of lads who are all faster than you, but from what I see from races there’s definitely a lot more girls coming through. After this year I’d like to do more to encourage more girls into riding and getting on bikes… I did some work with Sheffield schools and they really loved it.
MC: Mountain biking as a sport is great, one of the fastest growing sports in the UK I think.
AL: I see a lot of the track and road riders and I think that when you’re younger, on the British Cycling program, everyone seemed to move towards road and track, there didn’t seem to be much mountain bike emphasis. But when you’re a kid mountain biking is so much better and easier, you can’t go out on the roads on your own but you can play on your mountain bike.
Do you both find that everyone’s looking to you to be the saviours of British cycling? ‘You’re our next hope in cross-country/downhill, now go win stuff!’?
AL: Generally everyone just wants to see you do well. For me there’s not that much pressure, but I guess you put pressure on yourself to do well and achieve because you know other people want you to do well. It’s the Olympics this year and I guess that will bring pressure with it if we qualify and I get selected. The top 18 [by UCI points ranking] nations get one place, with the top eight getting two places. We’re 14th at the moment so that’s okay. In my second year of [racing as an] U23, they changed the qualification process and I felt like I had to score the points although I’ve not had that many elite women’s events. I’m the main points scorer so I have to do well to be able to get the nation into a position to compete.
MC: Once you start doing well there’s always the expectation that you’ll carry on. Once you’re at a certain level you’re expected to stay there or get better, and you expect it of yourself as well, you have to improve. I was thinking the other day that I wish I hadn’t worked so hard in school [laughs] but if I hadn’t worked so hard I wouldn’t have been happy and it’s the same with training; you can work less hard and have a bit more fun but then you don’t get what you want. It’s worth it really.
AL: I want to be the best I can be and to do that you’ve got to do the best you can do. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself but if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t achieve. You’ve got to have self-motivation and drive.
MC: People I know who ride for fun, they can be shocked and surprised about what you’ve been doing, you know, if you don’t go out or don’t drink because you’re training, but I don’t mind too much because it’s what I want to do.
AL: Sometimes you do feel like you’re missing out but if this is what you really want to do… When you’re not enjoying it enough to want to do it, then there’s no point in doing it but you only push yourself because it’s something you want to achieve in. There’s always winter to go and have a couple of drinks, though when I’m away for ages I do miss my friends.
What bikes do you ride – do you do all of your training on a road bike, or on your race bikes? Do you mix it up in other disciplines too?
AL: Some on road bike, some on mountain bike, I’m sponsored by Boardman so have both. In the off season I do more freeride type stuff but none in the season, partly because it doesn’t fit in with the training. Technical training is on my race bike. Sometimes we do a bit of BMX in the winter, none this year but I think it’s really good for skills. I’ve always ridden hardtails. When I was younger, it was good because you develop better skills on a hardtail, and I stayed on that this year. Some race courses a full sus is beneficial but on some courses a hardtail is better. Always on a 26in hardtail, too – I want to try a 29er but I’m – well, everyone tells me I’m short though I think I’m normal sized. 29ers with normal people on don’t always work, [with] bigger guys on 29ers the bike looks really good and it looks like they can handle it really well but with some of the shorter people it doesn’t look like it’s so easy to handle. I’m getting one to try, so I’ll give it a go and see what it feels like.
MC: I started using clips this winter for the first time ever, I’ve never used them before.
AL: Do you like them?
MC: I’ve only just recently had them on my downhill bike, I’ve been riding lots of cross-country. They make jumping easier, your bike stays with you but I’m still trying to get used to it. I’ve been on flats forever really, another change for this year just to try. When I rode at the velodrome I used toeclips…
AL: …and baggy shorts?
MC: I tried, they wouldn’t let me! My bikes? I’ve got a BMX, a hardtail, a cross-country bike, a downhill bike, the motocross bike, a skatepark bike, it’s pretty ridiculous really, we have a mental garage but they do all get ridden, I make time to ride them all. Oh yeah and a road bike. I go through phases, I ride lots of cross-country and then lots of BMX. At the start of the winter I did lots of motocross, BMX track and skate park. You wouldn’t imagine lots of the top downhillers in the skate park – I can’t really imagine Steve Peat on a BMX but my dad says he’s done quite a lot.
MC: How involved are British Cycling in your training? You have your trade team and your BC team…
AL: BC have a lot to do with it. I was on the Olympic development program when I was a junior, then on the Academy, and I’ve had the same coach throughout that time. When you’re younger you set your program, then as you get older you discuss your program and your schedule. For the cross-country side BC are very supportive. There’s not a downhill program though is there? This year I’m riding for my trade team but I still do a bit of my training with the GB team.
MC: Do you travel with the trade team?
AL: Some of it with the trade team, some with the national team, depending on the race. The trade team are based in Holland. There’s really good mountains in Holland [laughs]. I’m looking forward to this year, it’ll be something a bit different.
MC: I’m still with Saracen, which is bigger and better this year. We’ve got a team manager and mechanic coming along to all the races and a manager, Will Longden. He’s BC’s downhill support officer too, so there’s involvement there. He knows what he’s doing so we’re in good hands. He’s got us three to look after so he’s going to have his hands full!
Yes, we can imagine… We know how much gear we need when we go to races here in the UK but taking the whole shebang abroad with you must be a logistical nightmare. How much kit do you travel with?
MC: We went to America and Canada last year, four of us turned up at the airport and we might have had five or six bikes between us. They don’t have vans in America, just these massive SUVs. We had things strapped to the roof trying to fit it all in… It’s a pretty crazy amount of stuff you take along.
AL: How much does your bike bag weigh?
MC: My downhill bike is pretty much 30kg on the dot.
AL: So you don’t want to fly with Ryanair do you?!
MC: We’re going with Ryanair to Portugal, actually. £50 a bike each way.
AL: But as soon as it weighs one kilo extra…
MC: You can be pretty lucky though.
AL: It helps if you smile nicely…
MC: My dad talked and talked and talked at the check in guy ’til he let us on with no excess. It all depends who you get on the desk.
AL: If there’s a woman on the desk we always send one of the lads to check us in, get them to be charming.
MC: We travel with all our tyres, squeeze them into the bags… if it’s overweight then we end up taking stuff out, then going round the corner between check in and large luggage and put it all back in again!
By this point the rain we hoped we’d left behind at home is spattering against the windows. It’s time to ride before the weather gets too grim for the cameras. With the tape recorder away, conversation turns to the suitability of the bikes on offer for the trails and the company (Manon is on her 140mm Saracen Arial and professes not to have done much cross-country riding lately, while Annie is on her tiny Boardman carbon hardtail and Chipps and I are both on fast-rolling 29ers; knives and gunfights are mentioned), the state of women’s downhill racing in the UK (healthy and in the most part welcoming, though there’s always room for improvement), and what both women get up to in the off-season when the consequences of injury are less dire (we’re impressed, although not surprised, when Annie expresses love for her Santa Cruz Nomad – not your average cross-country racer’s off-duty plaything…).
We rattle off for a quick lap of the trails, where both racers take advantage of shared pedal preferences to grab a turn on Chipps’ Lynskey. Annie’s clearly immediately at ease as she carves rapid turns behind the “way too high!” bars, while the bike sees more air under its wheels in a couple of minutes with Manon than it has in its entire life at Singletrack. The descent back to the car park sees the girls tearing off ahead again, both clearly more than happy keeping their wheels under control on the sharp kickers that deliver final thrills here; their talent – and hard work – is evident in their riding and presence, and something we think a lot of people are going to be noticing in the coming year.
Thanks to Annie, Manon and One Planet Adventure, Llandegla.
- Lives: South Wales
- D.O.B: 11th March 1993
- Rides for: Saracen Madison Downhill Team
- 2011 Junior UCI Downhill World Champion and overall Junior UCI World Cup winner.
- Lives: South Manchester
- D.O.B: 31st March 1990
- Rides for: Milka-Superior MTB Racing Team
- 2011 National Cross-Country Champion and currently ranked 13th in the world for women’s Elite.
- 2011 UCI Mountain Bike World Champs U23 women silver.