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ROMAIN PAULHAN: ONE-TRACK MIND

Thanks to a recent results renaissance from French downhill racers, the eyes of the mountain bike world are once again fixed upon this cycling-obsessed nation. But away from the champagne-soaked podiums of the World Cup circuit resides a community whose influence and impact extend far beyond the confines of the trophy cabinet. Someone who epitomizes this is former downhill-racer-turned-coach, guide, trail builder and full-time fun-haver, Romain Paulhan.

BAGUETTES AND BMX

Growing up in the small village of St. Jean du Bleymard, in the foothills of Mont Lozère’s intimidating 1,699-meter shadow, Romain spent much of his childhood immersed in the outdoors. “It’s so peaceful here with few inhabitants, lots of large open spaces, little pollution and a great environment for riding bikes.” But before mountain bikes entered the fold, Romain’s life revolved around BMX and a bit of baking.

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While it might sound like a cliché, Romain is a dab hand when it comes to baking bread, something he inherited from his father. Known locally as ‘Guytou The Flying Baker’ (thanks to his penchant for enduro motocross), Romain’s father was more than just a local hero, but his son’s too. After 20 years of baking traditional Sacristains (sweet pastry) and Miches (rustic sourdough), a flour allergy would divert Guytou into the world of earth-moving and construction.

“My father was a huge inspiration. I admired him so much, and he is someone to whom I owe everything,” asserts Romain. Guytou lost his battle with depression in 2018, but his impact upon Romain remains. “He was this super active guy, a real rocker and someone who loved madness and above all, people.”

It all began when a young Romain, lacking a BMX track to ride, gathered a crew and built one. “It was always about the jumps and having fun,” reflects Romain. Two things which still ring true for him today. Crafting their own jump trails first by shovel and later by excavator borrowed from his father’s construction company, Romain was unknowingly already on his path.

BMX would continue to be Romain’s extracurricular focus until 2004 when a close friend, Alexis Raguet, a successful local downhill racer introduced him to a new world of possibilities. “It didn’t take long for me to take the plunge as well,” enthuses Romain. He persuaded his father to add him to the company roster and after shifting a lot of rocks on various construction sites, Romain saved up enough money to buy his first mountain bike,a 150mm travel Lapierre, in 2005. After three years of racing regionals, Romain made the jump to the national series.

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CHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVA

The French Cups are one of the world’s most hotly contested domestic series and a fertile hotbed of future World Cup talent. Sandwiched between the epochs of Barel and Bruni, Romain and his friends made their mark on the series. Supported by local sponsor ​VTT Lozère​, who he’d race under for five years alongside childhood friends Alexis, Raph, and the Nicole brothers. In 2010 at the age of 22, after just two years on a proper downhill bike, Romain did the unthinkable in Val d'Isère. “To everyone's surprise, I became the elite men’s national downhill champion!”

“Seeing everyone getting stressed at the bottom while I impatiently watched the last 12 riders come down the hill was so crazy. When Damien Spagnolo (the last rider on the course) crossed the line 1.12 seconds behind me, time seemed to stand still. I soon found myself propelled into the air and onto my friend’s shoulders. It was definitely the best moment of my racing career, and it still gives me shivers when I think about it today!” Beyond the result and putting the run of his life together that day, Romain learned some important lessons.

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“I remember bumping into Pompon [long standing friend, Myriam Nicole who had won the women’s event] in the anti-doping room. She ran up to me crying. It was crazy remembering all the hard work we’d put into our winter training sessions. We were both so proud, and that's why I love this sport. It’s not really about the results or the victory, but the emotions and the bonds it creates between fellow riders.”

NEW CHALLENGES

“After winning the national title, my career as a racer really started” reflects Romain who continued to race for the VTT Lozère team throughout 2011 before joining a big factory team in 2012​—a​ dream come true for any racer. But a crash at the first round of the World Cup series in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa would throw a spanner in the works, sparking what would be “a dark period” in Romain’s career as a professional downhill racer.

Struggling to find his form over the next two years, Romain would later come back swinging, winning the French Cup overall in 2015 and 2016. Romain’s World Cup results weren’t perhaps as promising as his domestic performances, but he was still in the mix with the world’s best and regularly sporting top-30 results. Regardless, Romain knew that there was more to mountain biking than just racing and began exploring opportunities elsewhere in the sport.

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Having completed his mountain bike coaching diploma in 2012, something which he considers one of the most daunting things he’s ever done, Romain had his eyes on the world of professional trail building as well. Having built jumps with his father’s excavator in his youth, it didn’t take long for his local cycling club, ​Le Roc de la Legue​, to approach him with a request for some jumps of their own. “It's cool to mix building trails, coaching kids, and guiding with racing and good times on the bike.”

“I did a camp last year with five kids from a BMX race club and man, they’re so good and so comfy on the bike...they jumped all the big jumps in the Portes du Soleil even though I tried to talk them out of it...even the ​Vink Line,​ which was not the easiest to watch!” For anyone unfamiliar with the reasoning behind France’s dominance in this sport, talking to people involved at a grass-roots ‘club level’ like Romain, it’s easy to see how. Through fostering the riders of the future,, France is perhaps creating a road map for success we could all learn from.

Having established ​O Vélo​ (his coaching company), Romain would soon add ​PRP Trail Building to his resumé. In early 2018, he built his first asphalt pump track for brothers Gaetan and Thibaut Ruffin (from the Vallnord Commencal team) at their home in Maurienne, La Chambre. Romain has since gone on to build another pump track in his hometown and helped construct a full-on trail center in Besson (central France) featuring green through black graded trails. At the time of writing, he was busy in Morzine building private dirt jumps while conveniently looking for a Chalet to buy and renovate.

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MIXING IT UP

Romain is quick to point out that juggling all of his duties and responsibilities is far from easy, but the sense of accomplishment he gets from digging trails and helping others join the sport he loves is understandably a driving force for him. “When you’re taking little kids into the mountains and their parents are saying ‘be careful, I would like to see my child in one piece this evening’, there’s a lot of responsibility, but it is crazy...the level now is so high and the kids are so fast!” he enthuses.

From building trails to coaching the next Loic Bruni or Myriam Nicole, Romain maintains his own race program and continues to place his tires between the tape and compete at the highest level.After joining Santa Cruz Bicycles in 2017, Romain was, for the first time, under no obligations to deliver results and was free to pursue his own goals.

This new approach and with it, a departure from a “pure race focused program” worked for Romain. He quickly adapted to spending more time on his trail bike and started bringing in results in the world of Trans Racing.

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SHARING THE EXPERIENCE

“It's so cool to have everyone riding together on the same trails, in the same conditions and mixing with new people from all over the world...it's great that you can enjoy the mountains like this together.” Romain’s first taste of Trans Racing would be served with a hefty portion of South American heat. “Andes-Pacifico (Feb 2019) with the 50to01 crew was so good,” recalls Romain, who would finish the race in second place behind Chilean pinner and local hero, Pedro Burns.

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Romain’s next taste of Trans Racing would come a little closer to home at the final Trans-Provence. After “a long but good battle” with Marco Osborne, Romain, closing in on the points, crashed​—​aggravating injuries sustained earlier in the event. Regardless of his misfortune, Romain thrived on the “positive vibes” of Trans-Provence and would once again come second overall. After two events and two second place finishes, Romain would complete his inaugural year of Trans Racing in America’s Pacific Northwest.

“Trans-Cascadia was my best riding experience ever...the corners, the flow, the hero dirt, and even with all the rain and snow...it was so perfect!” So perfect that he won. “Riding and racing together like that...sharing the experience and meeting so many new people. It’s a totally different atmosphere to any enduro race. With Trans Racing, you just enjoy the trail...either on your own or in a train of riders. I love it!”

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Romain’s passion for mountain biking is hard to ignore and while he might look back at what could have been as a professional downhill racer, diversifying his energy as he has is evidently working out. Furthering what could be considered a lifestyle choice,​— Romain is seeking out opportunities to connect with countless riders from all walks of life, positively impacting their lives and the way in which they connect with the sport he loves.

Story provided by Santa Cruz Bicycles, photos by Adrian Marcoux

 



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