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Interview: Olly Forster
Photography: Jake Orness

Duncan Riffle has been racing bikes his whole lifegraduating from BMX to mountain biking when he was twelve and now, a pro racer on one of the most prestigious factory teams in the sport. A familiar face on the international race circuit, Duncan has worked hard to brand himself as more than just a racer, but as an ambassador for the sport, his country and the sponsors who back him.

Adorned with tattoos and well-presented at all times, Duncan’s appearance, attention to detail and creative flair are all hallmarks of what make him such an interesting athlete and the consummate professional he is today, but there is far more to this young Californian than meets the eye.

Duncan’s focus on his image and maximizing coverage for his sponsors is something he has done very well from day one and something other athletes could really take a closer look at and learn from.  In a sport where representing your sponsors both on and off the racetrack is vital, having an edge outside the tape can be a bonus for any athlete making their mark within such a competitive industry.

After a good season in 2009, running and managing his own team, Duncan signed to the Giant Factory Race Team; a team whose history in downhill racing goes back all the way to when the legendary John Tomac represented the brand, starting a legacy that still exists today.

With the 2011 season kicking off and a less-than-favorable season behind him, Duncan has everything to play for. At 24 years old, Duncan has matured into a professional athlete, respected amongst his peers with a promising career ahead of him, showing on many occasions that he has what it takes to succeed in MTB's upper echelon. Currently residing in the wet Pacific North West, a world away from the sun-kissed trails of his native Santa Barbara, Duncan is preparing for what is surely going to be a great season of racing.

Olly: I’ve heard your path to mountain biking was due to your father cross-training for free diving. Tell us about how mountain biking became a part of your life?

Duncan: That’s right, my dad was, and has been, an avid free diver and lover of the ocean all his life. He first started using bikes as an avenue for cross-training his lungs to build better capacity…or so I have been told from the big man. I picked up bikes at a very early age, started getting real serious with BMX when I was in the single digits and then naturally started hanging out at bike shops that had full-scale DH and mountain bikes. 
     Two other influences that most people don’t hear about from me were Cortina Cycles and my Middle School that I attended. Cortina Cycles was one of my first sponsors and one of the first companies to be making custom, long-travel Downhill specific mountain bikes. They were just a few minutes from my house and that family really took me under their wing to show me a lot of the mountain bike ropes.
     Santa Barbara Middle School was also a huge part of my mountain bike influence. It’s a private school in SB that, among many other things, was highly focused on bikes, believe it or not. We would go on three or four yearly trips biking around the western U.S. It was a very unique experience and has had a very big impact on my life, as I know it today. It really is an amazing school. 
Olly: Santa Barbara is well known for its good weather, trails and downhill scene, and somewhere a lot of people would dream of growing up. What was it like getting into the sport when you were younger?

Duncan: When I was growing up in SB there were actually a lot of “names” living and training there. Shaums March, Kirt Voreis, Colin Bailey, John Kirkcaldie, Adrian Cortina, I had even seen Palmer and Missy in the area.  It really was an ideal place for me to grow up and get in the cycling scene. The DH shuttles there are amazing and really one-of-a-kind. Very unique and like nothing else really.
     Having the Cortina family in SB was a big help as well, Adrian, the middle brother would take me out riding quite often and introduced me to the NORBA scene. I never really got in to any other winter sports because of how nice the weather always is, we could race and ride year round, no worries.
     At the time Don Jackson of ODI/Southridge racing (the man behind the “Fontana Series”) was doing races at Mt. High, a local ski resort that was behind the once-famous Big Bear. Those were my first real chairlift access races that gave me a sense of some of the bigger mountain downhill races…I was hooked from that point on. 
Olly: What’s the downhill scene like in California and does it benefit from the massive BMX and MX scene that it’s so famous for, or does it struggle to flourish against sports so similar and yet more established? 

Duncan: I don’t think downhill or mountain bikes in general get a lot of direct “benefit” or influence from the BMX and MX scene, it's kind of all on its own in my opinion. I really see it as struggling to find its place in the two-wheel community as far as an image and niche goes. Too often we try to be something we are not. I really feel that mountain biking is an amazing sport and culture that is growing substantially in many areas of the world. However, in SoCal alone I do think it’s a bit shadowed by the BMX and MX culture rather than flourishing off of it.
     We in the gravity mountain bike scene can look forward to benefiting from the growing image and exposure of MX and BMX industries. Companies making gear, clothing, and related products will benefit and therefore see the value in our sport and have the resources to get behind it. It really is an exciting time in the action sports world right now. Everybody fueling and growing off of each other. 

Olly: Looking back as a kid, did you always have an aspiration to be a professional athlete?

Duncan: To be quite honest I can’t remember a time when I wanted to be anything else. It seems a bit odd when I think back but I always had a very strong drive to be racing and pushing myself to become the best that I could be.
Olly: When you first started competing, the U.S. scene was massive. Looking back it’s hard to imagine the scale of the NORBA’s now, almost comparable to a World Cup in every way. Having seen how it was, do you think mountain biking in the U.S. will ever get back there?

Duncan: I sure hope so! Those were some of the best times I ever had on a bike to date. The NORBA’s were huge and had such a great atmosphere, the scene was really flourishing! I came in to it all during what most call the “hay-day,” where things were a lot different. Jr. Expert kids had full factory rides and nearly every pro was pulling a decent income. I guess I was a lot smaller, but it really did seem big!   
Olly: What are your views on the current image and state of mountain biking and downhill racing both in America and abroad?

Duncan: I’m sure I could go on for days with this one but I'll save you all the long-winded babble. I see the World Cups as the only place to be if you want to expand your image and continue to gain speed as a racer. It’s a much different pace than over here in the states. Dudes are going out there as if it's life or death and just hurling themselves down the hill. You have to get up to pace quick and keep it up these days on the World Cup.
     I see the downhill scene growing in both the states and abroad. The whole thing has really helped us out in my opinion; to bring what we do the masses. It's without the TV and media coverage that we will suffer. Face it, not everyone can get out to the races and watch what’s going down. It's just like SX or BMX, not everyone can make it out to the arena or Dew Tour, but they can get their fix on Fuel, Speed or Eurosport. I’m not too sure what to think of the U.S. racing at the moment, I have always been a big supporter of it since I know what it once was and could be again, but it's so hard to see where it is at the moment. 
     Media is paying less and less attention to the races here and less teams are going to events. Until we all make a strong effort to go and support, I don’t think we can complain anymore that something isn’t working. We as a whole, teams, athletes and media alike, all need to jump on board. Europe however is unique because it pulls in a lot more fans it seems. Maybe Americans are just lazy and don’t want to hike their In-N-Out-loving selves up a mountain to watch some crazy dudes rip by. Then again cycling is pretty massive in general over in Europe; there is a much larger following it seems whether it be in road cycling or mountain bike. 
Olly: Going back to 2009, you managed your own race program, funded and co-ordinated with sponsors to put a really ‘factory’ looking team together. It must have been a massive undertaking and looking back it must be something you are very proud of?

Duncan: Yeah, I do think back on it quite a bit actually. I set out in the 08’ winter after my season with Cannondale to piece together my own program. I have been doing this for quite a few years now and have a lot of great relationships within the industry. Thanks to my upbringing I have a pretty good sense of how to present myself and make it all come together, even up against some tough odds. It was definitely a big task. At first I wanted it to be just myself and a mechanic traveling the WC but it changed quite a bit and I ended up supporting another two riders, another elite DH on the full tour and a junior here back in the states. At the end of the season, I had maxed credit cards, no way to pay them off and a 20th overall in the World Cup that I was quite proud of. I learned a lot about others and myself in the process and wouldn’t give that knowledge up for the world. It was a blast really and cool to take ownership of something to that scale. 

Olly: How did 2010 pan out for you and what are you taking with you into 2011?

Duncan: 2010 was a pretty tough year for me results-wise obviously. It was great to finally be involved with such an amazing team that I was working well with. Giant really is an amazing company and I am honored and excited to be with them right now. From the first race at Maribor I was just pushing a bit to hard, ended up crashing (something I hadn’t done in years in a race run) and it all ended up snowballing from there. I was trying way too many new things with my training and really just needed to go back to some of my old routines, but I didn’t really figure that out until the end of the season. Ha, go figure.
     I have a lot to take in to 2011 that’s for sure, I learned a lot and feel that a lot of things are more suited to me for this coming season than the past. We have a lot of things going on with the team that I am very excited about and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the season starting up. 
Olly: The Giant Glory received a good response from the market with regards to the suspension and overall package, but some felt the geometry unaggressive for modern race courses. Did you run stock bikes through 2010 or was there any experimenting with angles and changes to the bikes geometry?

Duncan: We ran stock frames from the very first run, a lot of people speculated that we had different frames, but I can assure you we are on the same frames that anyone could buy from a local shop or dealer. There are always things that racers are trying in regards to set up and geometry to get more comfortable on a bike depending on personal preference. It would be a bold face lie for every racer out there to say they are 100% happy at every moment with set up and angles of their race bike for every course. We are always changing little things, ride height, seat height, bar height depending on the course and conditions. I know there were some consumers trying shorter shocks and headset cups to drastically change angles and what not, there are a few companies that are making options for the bike now which I think is quite cool. Look at a lot of the other competitive DH bikes on the market, a lot of them have options for head angle and BB height, and there is no difference to mewhether it’s the manufacturer or an aftermarket company offering those options. It just makes things more adjustable to each specific rider. 
Olly: How did you find having Danny Hart on the team and did you understand his accent? 

Duncan: Mr. Hart is a good kid, a real entertainer. I was quite impressed with his riding to say the least; I think we all were obviously. The kid is fearless really and luckily he has some crazy skills to back that up. Otherwise he would probably be on his face a lot more. I still have no idea what he is saying, though.
Olly: The Giant team has a new recruit for 2011 in the shape of South African, Andrew Neethling and by all accounts, Giant is looking increasingly like a team on a mission. What do you feel ‘Needles’ brings to the team?

Duncan: I first heard the news about Needles at the end of December. Needles has been a great friend, inspiration, and motivation for me over the years. He is one of my best friends on the tour and has taught me a lot about the ropes of the industry, racing and training. I think he will bring a great attitude and is a level-headed addition to our program. He is one of the few riders only a few years older than me that has actually been around with ups, downs and sponsorships that I feel I can relate to. He has a great, positive attitude and is a very fun and enthusiastic person. I couldn’t be happier to have him as a teammate and be traveling the World Cup with him. 

Olly: Big changes all around with new sponsors too, some more familiar than others for you, such as Sram, a company you have worked with pretty extensively over the years. It looks like your bikes are going to be losing a few pounds too, especially with DT Swiss on board as well.  Exciting times, how are you finding the new gear?

Duncan: Couldn’t be happier! No joke, I got the news about SRAM/Rock Shox/ DT Swiss and Schwalbe all in the same day and it was like Christmas came early. I consider the SRAM boys to be family and have worked with them extensively over the years in development and testing. I love all of their product and am very excited to be back on board with them. DT Swiss wheels and Schwalbe are new relationships for me but I am extremely happy with the product thus far. I heard some really good things about the tires last year and now testing I am quite impressed with the new rubber from Schwalbe. Yes, the bike is 36lbs, not a joke. I’m thinking about throwing some lead weights on the down tube for the steeper courses...NOT!
Olly: You’ve probably been on more bikes from different manufacturers over the years, than most of your competitors. Do you find it is easy adapting to new bikes or is it just something you’re used to and take in your stride?

Duncan: Yeah, it’s never easy and definitely not preferred to be changing bikes so often. I have definitely had my fair share of getting used to new rigs. You have to take it as it comes and there is always an adapting period no matter how you look at it. Luckily this will be one of the first seasons in over 4 years that I will be on the same bike and consider it to be extremely well-suited to me now. 
Olly: You take your training and preparation very seriously and you’ve got to be one of the fitter guys on the circuit. If you weren’t a pro bike racer, would fitness be a key part of your every day life?

Duncan: 100%. It is so hard for me to just sit around and chill in the off-season, even on rest days. I feel so unaccomplished. I really to enjoy pushing myself physically and being fit is something I do because I really do find it enjoyable. My parents are the same, its just normal for my family and upbringing. 
Olly: Some of the guys and girls coming into the sport now have immense speed and skill on a bike, but often lack the self-discipline to train the body and the mind to maximize their potential. I know you have experience with coaching, is this something you’d potentially look into after your racing days?

Duncan: Yeah, it has been in the back of my mind for a few years now. I enjoy helping people and I feel I can express myself well when it comes to coaching and putting training programs together. Shaums March was a big influence on me and he is one of the best coaches I have ever come across. He has helped me understand how to break things down properly and understand why things are happening or not happening. Being able to outwardly express or explain that is a developed skill and I feel coaching/personal training would be something I could take on later in my life for sure.  Taking the mental aspect into account is important and crucial as well, I started understanding that at a very young age. I think I would have a few things to offer down the road. 

Olly: The sponsor logos on your helmet, the graphics on your Leatt and the bright blue Vans race shoes you wore last season all show that you put a lot of effort into your appearance and brand representation. These could be considered “little touches,” but they are sometimes the things that stick in people’s minds. How important for you is attention to detail?

Duncan: Extremely’s not everything, but it’s a lot at the end of the day. Some people look at it as not necessary or distracting, but I don’t know a single company or sponsor that doesn’t appreciate their athlete being well-put together or standing out in a crowd. Luckily I have always been aware of my appearance and put a bit of time and energy in to it regardless of where I am or what I am doing. I feel it is important to look professional and have some things that stand out in people's mind. I have always taken pride in the way I put myself together, I don’t think that’s a bad quality at the end of the day, no matter how you look at it. Look good doin’ it! 
Olly: Talking about the Leatt, you were one of the first guys to adopt a neck brace system. With Sam Hill, Rachel and now Dan Atherton being some of the latest converts, do you think we’ll see more of the top guys and girls adopting them?

Duncan: I hope so, I think it’s a great piece of gear. All the hype of being the cool kid not wearing pads is just crazy to me. I don’t really get it to be honest. The no gloves, no elbow/body pads theme is just a little nuts when you look at what we're doing these days. I don’t care, I'll pad up and I think the Leatt neck brace is one of the most important pieces I am wearing these days. 
Olly: Away from bikes, you have an avid interest in art and tattoos. Is tattooing and getting tattooed just a hobby, or is it something you’d like to take further and who are your favorite artists right now, in ink and on canvas?

Duncan: Tattoos have definitely become a huge part of my life. I have always been very in to art, drawing, graffiti, paint, oil, on all sorts of mediums. I did every art class my high school had to offer all the way to studio art in preparation for art school, but it was all just for creative outlet really.  Once I found the skin medium, I was hooked. Tattoos will be big in my future I'm sure, if not already.
     I had a huge influence from Andy Warhol who remains one of my favorite artists along with Banksy. There are some really amazing things happening with tattoos these days as well. I was actually fortunate enough to get my left hand and knuckles started this past off-season by my current favorite artist Ben Grillo. We are setting up next year’s appointments already because the dude is THAT good. 
Olly: You’ve recently taken up residence in Washington State, a beautiful part of the world, but not as luxurious as the life down in Cali, at least in the weather department. Was this a strategic move with regards to training or is it just a change of scenery for you?

Duncan: A little of both really. I have heard some amazing things about the riding up here for years. After the Port Angeles Pro Gravity Tour race we had at the beginning of last season, I knew I had to make moves to get up here to train a bit going into the 2011 season. It worked out great. Lars Sternberg and his girlfriend Asta have let me rent out a room in their house for the few months leading into the season. In a matter of a week I have ridden some of the best DH and XC trails I have ever ridden all over the globe, hands down.
     I love Santa Barbara, and will always be a Cali kid through and through. It's just too nice there right now and it's not pushing me mentally at the moment, knowing every trail and turn like the back of my hand. Getting out of your element and comfortable in different conditions is extremely important. Yes, it's cold and very wet, but so is the race season! 
Olly: What else do you do back home, away from the races and do you do any other sports away from bikes?

Duncan: When I am home, which is pretty much just the winter months after the season ends, I have a ton of great friends who I enjoy catching up with when I get back. There is so much to do there. Our winter months are like most people's summer climates, so it's quite nice. I get all of my tattoo work done in the off-season and that’s an important change of pace for me away from racing. I can ride year round there which has led me to stay pretty two-wheel-oriented. Lots of moto, road riding and DH goes down over the winters for me. If drinking and sitting on the beach was considered a sport I might throw that in to my bag of off-season tricks as well. 
Olly: Where would you like to see downhill racing and mountain biking go. Where do you think it will be in five years?

Duncan: Good question. I'd like to see the World Cup get to some other parts of the WORLD, i.e. not just the European Cup. I’m stoked that we have a World Cup here in the states again but it would be rad to get back to Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, West coast or even Middle America. Colorado, Idaho, Mammoth…really mix things up a bit. It’s pretty frustrating having all the racing being in the same area and conditions really.
     I’m hoping to see a pick up in media coverage; I feel that would really set things off again. It's great having spectators and all but I feel the key missing component is TV coverage right now. Freecaster is really helping out, but we need recognition from channels like FUEL, ESPN and Versus to really get downhill recognized as mainstream again. There is no reason we can’t do it, it’s an amazing sport and people would love to watch if only we could deliver it to the masses. 
Olly: How are you feeling going into the 2011 season?

Duncan: Things are great, physically and mentally I am in a very good place. Being in the PNW is helping me stay focused and excited about riding right now. Things couldn’t be better with the Giant Factory Off-Road team with all the new sponsors and teammates. I am very excited to get things going. 

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Olly: Last question, the 2011 Giant team press release has to be one of the best to date and might hopefully make the other teams get a bit more creative with their efforts next year. Other than throwing down the gauntlet with regards to the rad PR, did you have much direction with the shoot and was it as fun to make as it looked?

Duncan: When I was first approached with the concept I was quite excited. Yeah, I did have a bit of input and they let me run with it once we started filming. I’m no actor but I had a lot of fun doing it. There were a few times when we all had to stop and just laugh between takes when we realized how ridiculous it was. I was a bit skeptical about it being done right in the beginning when we were brainstorming but if you can't laugh at that, I don’t know what you consider funny. We definitely need more things like that in our industry, give it some personality and humor. I am quite proud of that video and am thankful to be involved with a company like Giant that can see the value in pushing the media envelope like that. It is a real honor to be involved in something like that. 

Olly: Thanks Duncan and all the best for the upcoming season from everybody at Vital MTB. Time for the shout outs!

Duncan: Thanks a lot! Much appreciated! A big thanks to everyone at Giant bikes and the Giant Factory Off-Road Race team, my boys at SRAM, the Schwalbe crew, Vans, Leatt, my parents for always being flat-out awesome and an inspiration to me. Thanks to all my fans and supporters, and the boys at the Riffle Waffle house! And anyone who got through this whole interview! THANKS!
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