Pete Scullion catches up with Steve Peat, one of the most successful mountain bikers of all time, and a giant of the sport in many ways.
Words & Photography Pete Scullion
Rolling down Steve Peat’s driveway seems awfully familiar, although I’ve never set foot in this part of the world until now. The area that surrounds the house of one of our most famous cyclists has appeared in magazines and videos for around two decades – long before I turned my hand to the media side of riding.
The greeting at the door hammers home why he’s known by some as ‘The Big Man’. A slab chest precedes that iconic grin over the threshold, and at six foot three and fourteen odd stone, Steve has a foot and six stone on me. I’m offered a handshake, but warned to go easy following an excursion off the trials motorbike the previous day that has left his right thumb somewhat sore and swollen.
Coffee is poured and we retire to the conservatory, which is already warm enough courtesy of the strong late-March sun. Chat turns to jumps in the garden, parenting, Winter X Games wins and fails on a gold GT i-Drive, being overtaken by John Tomac in the air, and the plan for our day ahead.
With Grenoside and Wharncliffe Woods straddling Steve’s house, there’s no surprise he’s been happy here for the last 18 years, and on a dry, dusty spring day there are few riders who have this quality and quantity of trails on their doorstep. There’s no loading of vans – it’s just bikes out of the shed and off we go.
There is no faff.
Few rides I’ve been on keep the faff as low as this one. With coffee done, we saddle up for a lap of one of the most famous woods in the UK for mountain biking. Two minutes after we set the coffee mugs down, out rolls a box-fresh Bronson, suitably sized for a man of Steve’s stature and, naturally, glistening with the very best kit. Steve is ready to rock and I’m doing my best not to slow things down. Imagine my horror when less than an hour after meeting the man himself for the first time, I can’t get out of the toilet in ‘The Man Cave’ because the latch nearly defeats me! I spend a few moments trying to calmly assess my options, desperate not to have to be helped out of the loo – all is well in the end and I join Steve.
Although I’ve ridden for two decades, Sheffield and surrounds is a spot I’ve never visited so I’m looking forward to enjoying it in all its bone-dry glory. As soon as we’re wheels turning, I’m already struggling to keep up. I try hard but Steve is sitting down and gaining distance on me just by freewheeling. This is exactly what it should be like riding with a pro, I think to myself – it shouldn’t be easy, and it isn’t. I know it’ll only get harder to keep tabs on the man himself once things get steeper, narrower and more technical. I know my very best isn’t going to get close to his cruising because of his gammy thumb, but I’m giving it my best shot regardless.
I’m just lucky that we’re already at the top of the hill and not having to winch myself through the blazing sunshine, skin leaking as I try to wake my legs up after the drive down from Scotland the day before. That said, there’s an easy urgency to everything Steve does and that only seems to increase once he’s wheels rolling.
Old school and new school are very much alive in Wharncliffe. We start off with a fast, rocky blast down ‘Fast Track’. This sits next door to ‘Peaty’s’ – which Steve had a hand in building and that ended up taking his name, though others had finished it. A track that Steve used to do twenty runs a day on with the help of a quad. Needless to say, Steve knows these trails like the back of his hand.
Next door to that are some monumental jumps that you couldn’t pay me to try to ride. We both agree we could probably overjump the first one if we did decide to have a pop, but that would likely be it. Thankfully we stick to the easier options to keep Steve’s thumb in check, but there’s plenty tamer than these booters that would still get the pulse racing. The thumb is definitely causing Steve some grief, but I genuinely wish I could ride that fast with a purple thumb…
Steve has had a fair share of injuries over the years and battled on, today being no exception. Lesser mortals would have called the ride off, but there’s an air of knowing what he can and can’t do on the bike long before we’ve wheels on dirt.
It’s probably fair to say that Wharncliffe Woods wouldn’t have the attention it does today had it not been for him having grown up just down the road and having essentially called it home for the better part of the last two decades. While we see walkers with and without dogs, and the odd horse rider, it’s hard to ignore the sheer quantity and variety of trails dropping off the top firebreak.
Steve’s riding is smooth and, accurate – more than I can say for mine. He clearly knows the trails here better than most, and has the skills to attack them. There’s an eerily quiet quality about Steve’s riding. Riding blind on technical trails while trying to keep the gap from becoming embarrassing is no mean feat. Despite the multiple square edges, you can only hear the buzz of a freewheel coming from the big man ahead as he effortlessly scythes his way through whatever is in front of him. It’s impressive to watch.
After the first couple of runs take us through thin oak into tall pines, we’re into what is quintessentially Wharncliffe. Every photo I’ve ever seen of this place looks exactly as I’d imagined it. Old twisted oak trees have found their way through the mess of gritstone boulders and give the place a unique charm. It’s here where Steve’s smile is the widest as we make our way through to the more technical parts of the woods, and where the gap between us on track is even greater. While we might have sampled bits of everything Wharncliffe can offer, where things get more sniper and technical is when Steve really starts to make me small in the rear view mirror – clearly this is where that particularly accurate riding style comes from. Going offline here would spell disaster, and that can be less than a tyre’s width either side of the main line.
The big man is obviously right in his element. When we happen upon two other riders sessioning a very rocky, technical trail, Steve takes the time to talk them through the best lines on a section where the strikes on the rocks show how tricky it can be, before giving a demonstration. Moments later the two riders nail the sections they’ve been struggling with and go whooping off into the woods below.
Horses first, then pies.
We pull into a viewpoint to let some horse riders pass and chat soon turns to bikes. The new Megatower comes up and Steve’s pretty excited about picking his up in a few weeks at Sea Otter. “It’s reet quick,” he beams and points out that 29ers tend to suit him better, which explains the box freshness of the Bronson. Not entirely surprising that a long-travel 29er with a downhill-derived linkage would suit a tall downhill rider. It’s cool to see someone who has been riding bikes as a job for decades continue to get excited about them. New bike day is still a thing even if it’s been what you’ve done for most of your life.
By now the sun is starting to make me really hot and keeping pace gradually becomes even more of a sweaty affair as we weave through the boulders back to Steve’s house. “Pub lunch?” I’m certainly not one to refuse, and we convoy down to Steve’s local, the very excellent Wortley Arms for a chat and some post-ride fuel.
I’ve always wondered how different people consider how busy they are, and after spending a few hours with Steve Peat, it’s pretty obvious there are fingers in many pies. That’s part and parcel of being a professional in the modern world, but it seems Steve has built the world around him by being driven and willing to put in a shift. While he’s certainly got the right talent around him to help, it’s easy to forget that he’s working for Santa Cruz, helping out with the Syndicate, has a hand in Royal Racing, the SPS Syndicate and Peaty’s Products, and that’s before you add any of the day-to-day being a dad and a husband into the mix. It seems to be a running theme of those who have enjoyed longevity in the industry that they do more than focus on race results, and get their feet in doors and fingers in pies.
Size XXL please.
Conversation now turns to bike sizing, set-up and New World Disorder. It must be pretty obvious by now that Steve is not a particularly small human being, but even his custom-made GT i-Drives were small for him, and the infamous bumblebee Orange that took that famous Fort William victory had a fair old chunk of metal added to fit his frame. While Minnaar might get most of the attention for running big bikes, it was Steve who pushed for the XXL V10. He reckons the current wave of downhill bikes definitely suits him better, and you can see why. Geometry has come a long old way since Steve started racing – and there’s a wry, knowing smile as I must have known he was going to say that.
Unlike his former teammate and good friend Greg Minnaar, the ultimate puzzler, Steve reckons he and Luca Shaw have a similar approach to bike set-up. Find a decent base setting and just learn to work with it, rather than looking for the minutia in the pits between runs. Time on the bike here is key, not time with the Allen keys.
That base set-up is firm – “because I’m a big unit” – and progressive, with no real oddities in the rest of the set-up. Custom kit is low, which Steve attributes to bike kit being much better these days, meaning tweaks and alterations can be left to lines on track.
What stands out most from a day trying to keep up with one of mountain biking’s legends is that there’s little time wasted, combined with the drive and skills to pull things off. Our ride landed squarely in the few sunny days at home that Steve has between now and the end of the race season. Jet lag is still playing havoc, having just got home from the NZ Enduro before diving straight into the Howard Street Dual, phone buzzing and pinging all the time, branded kit everywhere, either from a company he co-owns or has been an ambassador for since forever… You can see why Steve Peat has stayed relevant on and off the track for as long as I have been riding bikes.