Words & Photography Pete Scullion
As I stand in a frozen Innerleithen car park trying to wrap my arms tighter around my torso in a vain effort to warm myself up, I’m slapped by the irony of having Ruaridh Cunningham battle through Edinburgh rush hour traffic and an icy mountain road in early December to discuss the less glamorous aspects of being a professional mountain biker. At least the sun is out, right?
From the get-go up a frosty Glenbenna, Ruaridh (say ‘Roo-ree’) is in his element. There’s a tempo to the gentle spin up the fire road and between buildings where lumber harvesters are being serviced that has me forward on the saddle and going faster than I can sustain as my legs struggle to loosen up.
Even on the steep, slippy push up the trails in the woods here, I can’t keep pace and every time Ruaridh points the bike downhill, there’s an effortless urgency about his riding that I quite quickly stop trying to match. It’s no real surprise that downhill speed comes easily to the man from the Tweed Valley, but it’s far beyond what I was expecting.
Keeping moving in -3°C is key, and I’m not in any danger of cooling down keeping up with Ruaridh at any point during the day. We’re out to beat the sun’s low dash across the horizon before the forecast rain comes and ruins play.
The trails are slick from having never seen enough traffic or the sun’s attention, and I’m squirming about as the red dot that is the man in Trek Factory Racing colours gets further and further away through the thick pines that are synonymous with the Tweed Valley.
Few can forget arguably one of the finest moments in British mountain bike history that was Ruaridh’s Junior gold medal-winning run at the Fort William World Championships in 2007, but the journey through a full decade as a professional mountain bike racer that followed has certainly not been all sunshine and lollipops as I soon discover. In fact, a year or so prior to this meeting in a chilly car park in the Borders, there was a very real chance that we might never have seen the man himself racing a bike again.
From a Clan training day at Kinnoull Hill in Perth to earning those Rainbow Stripes was a matter of a mere five years. That progression wasn’t super smooth as Ruaridh recalls he dropped the chain from his fully rigid, V-brake equipped hardtail, and rather than potter through the section he opted to try to send a small kicker, not realising there was a small chasm on the other side. Some bruised pride didn’t seem to harm the selection process too much.
Rugby might well have had a sniff at taking Ruaridh’s interest before then but even compared to riding mountain bikes, the injury risk was too high. Since that day, it’s all been pretty much bikes from start to finish with maybe some cyclocross or motocross to mix things up a little bit from just straight mountain biking. Both now make up a part of the training routine, meaning what was ‘fun’ is now just a part of the machine.
A promising 2006 junior season under the wing of Chris Ball and Geraint Florida-James catapulted him into the fairy tale that was 2007. A win at the opening National Points Series on home turf at Innerleithen saw Ruaridh second overall to Peaty. The naysayers would claim ‘home advantage’ and even that the timing was wrong, but a week later that result would be backed up by an 11th in Elite at the Vigo World Cup and ownership of the Junior Leader’s jersey.
Then came that 2007 home World Championships. With the Leader’s Jersey in hand, and with both himself and Josh Bryceland being the favourites to win that race, Ruaridh remembers there being little in the way of pressure, but a very real abundance of confidence. Having caught a slower rider on the motorway in qualifying, dropping six or so seconds to the other top Junior riders, he would still qualify first.
What came next was that winning run and perhaps the loudest noise Fort William had produced since Steve Peat’s win there a couple of years prior. For Ruaridh, being at the centre of all that, having been the last man down and watching plenty of World Cups that finished the same way, being in the middle of it all was a surreal experience indeed. The win had been arguably on the cards as the year progressed so it was more a sense of relief compared to numerous friends who were found in tears in the pits afterwards.
From winning a World Championship as a privateer on a bike bought by his parents and with support from Bikelove in Glasgow, things unsurprisingly changed that winter with Iron Horse interested as well as a few other teams. While being a professional can be hard sometimes, suddenly becoming a hot ticket isn’t a particularly easy ride either with no experience to back it up, certainly when deciding which team to ride for. The Iron Horse call never came, and when Ruaridh contacted them it was too late, but a meeting with Nigel Page and advice from Chris Ball and one Steve Peat, the deal to join the Chain Reaction Cycles/Intense team was signed.
The fairy tale that was 2007 did not continue into 2008 or 2009 and saw a stall in Ruaridh’s upward trajectory. A misdiagnosed knee injury left the 2008 World Cup races more a case of counting how many times a knee would pop out. Not exactly the best recipe for progression in a super-competitive field. Having the knee fixed solved that problem, but 2009 saw less time on a brand new bike with all-new suspension and made coming back competitive even harder.
It was that year, 2009 as Ruaridh remembers, that the top dogs were augmented by the new breed of pinners like Sam Blenkinsop and Brendan Fairclough. It also saw the reign of terror that Sam Hill imposed on the two previous seasons start to come to a close and the standard at World Cups jumping massively. While that was happening, Ruaridh was almost going backwards.
Rather than seek help, he found himself so immersed in the game that he was unable to see the bigger picture and battled on trying to figure it out by himself. While there were moments of brilliance, a few good splits or qualifying results, Ruaridh would lose his way a little during this time.
Fort William wouldn’t be as good to the man himself in the years that followed. Rapid upper sections followed by a front flat or a crash in the woods would see podiums left wanting. After qualifying ninth in 2009, Ruaridh overjumped one of the motorway jumps, slapped his head off the bars and found his goggles and helmet over his eyes. 2012 would see a third place first split only to get a front puncture lower down the hill. In 2016, a top 10 first split would see him finish 17th after a crash in the woods. The wins or good results here certainly seemed harder fought than winning it in the first place in 2007.
A move from Maxxis-Rocky Mountain to the Unior Tools team would see some steady return to form, but Ruaridh still cites “doing the same shit every winter and expecting different results” as the main reason behind the stalling upward trajectory. A hard-earned lesson that would, unknown to him at the time, pay dividends later down the line.
Joining the Canyon Factory Downhill team for 2017 and beyond promised serious opportunities. That winter should have seen a change from Innerleithen in the winter to training and racing down under with Troy Brosnan, ahead of the World Cup season. It was a make or break season.
Nothing is routine.
What should have been a routine shoulder surgery to repair torn cartilage was where all of 2017 turned to dust. Four months after that operation and when Ruaridh should have been getting ready to make the long-haul flight to Australia, the shoulder was worse than it had been prior to the op.
Multiple scans and scratching of heads later, it transpired that part of the shoulder socket had worn away and would require a bone graft to fix. On the face of it, not the end of the world until a meeting with one of the UK’s top shoulder surgeons had a fairly stark message. Clinically, that shoulder operation would make a return to professional sport almost impossible. A surgeon in Edinburgh backed that up. The cartilage would need to be removed, leaving no cushion on the joint and making riding a bike particularly challenging.
Faced with the prospect of living with it as it was or having the procedure done and maybe never riding a bike again, the options weren’t exactly ideal either way. Recovery time on the fix could have lasted a full year and if the bone graft from the hip didn’t knit, then the prospect of cadavers and bone donation added a grisly note to what was already a hellish prospect.
Several months in a box sling later and thankfully the bone graft had knitted. After rehab, the shoulder felt like a ratchet, as the graft healed larger and then shrunk as it resorbed. Cue another shoulder operation to make the graft flush.
As the shoulder healed, Ruaridh was invited to race the Finale EWS if he was able and he decided to head down there with the shoulder “taped to the nines and just held on and survived but in reality I should have been nowhere near it”.
Canyon was less enthusiastic about his return to the team for 2018, and would “make room”, while an offer from Trek for a ride on the factory enduro team was far more emphatic. What do you do when the heart says downhill and the head says enduro? Trek’s offer certainly helped soften the blow of leaving a discipline that he’d put absolutely everything into for a decade or longer.
That gets us to February 2018, and what followed shortly afterwards was Ruaridh’s first EWS as a Trek Factory Racing rider.
Rather than deciding to switch to enduro after a long downhill career, 2018 was originally set to be another year of the same, with a spot on the Canyon team, albeit in a slightly less comfortable position than when the deal had originally been signed. A good relationship with Trek from the Unior days prompted a message out of the blue about plans for the season and a keen interest from Trek to join their enduro programme. It was ultimately Trek’s enthusiasm that outweighed Canyon’s offer, and the rest speaks for itself.
Transitioning from downhill to enduro wasn’t as much of a leap as it might be for some people. Stage wins at the TweedLove Enduro World Series while still a professional downhiller showed Ruaridh had the pace, but the fitness aspect would need to be worked on. Having the same trainer as Mark Scott, already an experienced convert from downhill to enduro, and Ruaridh’s former teammate, has certainly helped ease the pain of adding interval sessions into trail rides.
Ruaridh is keen to point out that change has been the thing that drives him forward, from being a top 20 World Cup racer to a podium threat at an EWS. This is far more than just a washed-up downhiller cashing in on the switch to enduro. Preparation for the enduro season was fuelled by a friendly competitive spirit with fellow Scot Mark Scott. “We both have the same trainer so if we both have a three-hour ride to do and one of us says that we’re meeting here at this time, then you’re kind of bound to it. The good thing is that even if I don’t want to, say we’re coming for a ride here at Glentress on a shitty wet day, if I say Glentress at 10am, it’s easier for me to write that message than it is for me to want to do the ride.” Knowing Mark will always reply to the positive means Ruaridh is bound to go out regardless of the weather, since Mark isn’t afraid of putting in a shift.
A big change for 2018 was the bike, and Ruaridh gravitated towards the Slash after much deliberation between that and the Remedy. For racing, the Slash lends itself better to high speeds and after a summer of puzzling with the Trek and RockShox brains, and taking the time to learn how to sling such a long and capable bike about, the sweet spot has very much been found.
Plans for the current off-season are remarkably simple, but likely much harder in the execution. Time to reflect on the season gone and figure out how to improve. A lot was learned in 2018 and that’s already been put into training and preparation for next season. A bit of motocross and also going to do a few cyclocross races in the New Year is the ‘fun’. The idea is to keep things fresh, but also try to have a plan.
That plan is to build on 2018 and get into the top ten overall. If things are going well, aim for top five and podiums. To keep learning, keep improving and stay healthy. If Ruaridh can manage those three, the results will surely follow.
The decision to leave downhill certainly was the right one. A wiser person and a wiser racer followed. A greater respect for the task ahead and the opportunities past and present makes Mr Cunningham a more dangerous proposition at the races.
2019 should see your former Junior Downhill World Champion a serious EWS contender. All that recovery time has left him with an appreciation for the now and that pro riders have a shelf life as well as what life after racing might include. Hints of what that might involve have already borne fruit in the shape of former BASE/Dirt School alumni Reece Wilson, the man who found himself on the fourth step podium at Fort William in 2018. While Ruaridh doesn’t claim to have taught Reece everything he knows, them being close does lead to parallels with what Chris Ball had done with him a decade before and he’s keen to help nurture the next generation of Scottish World Champions.
Being part of the BASE programme through Dirt School is a way of coaching his own performance, while giving back and helping develop and mentor future talent that doesn’t detract from any racing obligations.
While there might be a number of excellent places to base yourself for a mountain biker, the Tweed Valley keeps pulling Ruaridh back in. The Queenstown and Whistler questions have been mulled, but never really with much seriousness. There are definite plans afoot to move to the Tweed Valley permanently, in a place of his own, but for now he will need to be content in Edinburgh, which handily puts him closer to his trainer and the gym.
Ruaridh reckons there’s no better location, with such a massive mix of trails it makes it the best place to get the miles in through the winter, and that it’s really no surprise that the top three British Elite men all hail from there, as well as the fastest lady.
The road has certainly been a rocky one for Ruaridh Cunningham but a test of that person’s character is how you come out of those battles. Ruaridh is adamant that while it might have been an unpleasant journey, it’s set him up better for what’s in front of him and for life after racing. It’s sometimes easy to look at a rider’s career and draw conclusions on their performance, but there’s often far more than meets the eye, as Ruaridh’s story proves. You have only lost when you fail to learn from what is going on around you.