This story was originally published in May of 2015

Feature and Photos by Johan Hjord

Speed. If there is one thing we all can relate to as mountain bikers, it's speed. It's a natural thing for most mountain bikers looking to get a kick out of a trail to want to go faster. Whether on a solo ride, chasing our buddies down the hill, hunting for KOMs, or at the weekend league race, most of us want to be faster. But as anyone who has ever dragged a brake into a turn knows, simply wanting to go faster is not enough.

When it comes to racing, the story is similar but different. Yes it's you against the clock, but at the same time, there are 100 other guys or girls who want that top spot and are willing to lay it all on the line to get it. And while these racers all look superhuman to us mere mortals, there's more to the story than just an uncanny ability to get rad on a bike. So what separates the best of the best from the rest? Where do you go looking for those few extra seconds or even tenths of a second that mean the difference between a solid top 20 and a podium? What does it take to win a World Cup race? How do you stay on top of your speed game, week in and week out, across different tracks while facing the unpredictability of the elements? We asked some of the world's fastest racers and some of those who support them to weigh in on the issue, to see if there is a magic ingredient. The answers may not be scientifically conclusive, but we're pretty sure you'll find some inspiration and perhaps a little more speed in what they had to say - and don't miss part 2 when you're done here.

Aaron Gwin

Vital: Aaron you are a bit unique in that you came into DH racing later than usual, and straight from MX. You had a lot of speed from your first DH races already, obviously a direct consequence of racing MX?
AG: Yeah, that was a big part of it for sure, that and racing BMX as a kid growing up. Between those 2 sports, DH is kind of the perfect mix of 2 things, and with both in my background it put me in the perfect spot to jump on a DH bike.

Vital: After a few years of good but not stellar results, you put together 2 seasons of mind-blowing domination, such as is rarely seen in our sport. What makes a racer suddenly go that fast?
AG: For me, I didn’t feel like I suddenly went fast, I think it was just a matter of time and everything lining up. I feel like I was in a spot where if things would have gone my way the year before I could have won a couple of races, I was on the podium a lot and top 5 overall so I don’t feel like it went from sucking to winning by any means, it was just a matter of all the pieces starting to click. I wouldn’t say I was expecting to win as much as I did, in a row, but when it happens, you’re just stoked and so you roll with it.

Vital: It's probably not going to come down to just the one thing when it comes to speed, but if you had to single out one aspect that really makes you faster, what would it be?
AG: I think just time, for me. It’s not really just one thing, it’s your training coming together, your experience, bike handling skills, traveling, there are so many things that go into it. So for me it was just time, time to let it all come together, and continuing to put in the work. It all came together when it was supposed to.

Vital: We wouldn’t say you slowed down since those 2 years, but you haven’t dominated in the same way. In a pattern that we’ve seen with other racers, there comes a point where the outright dominance isn’t there anymore. Do you feel this is something you lose on your side, or is it more about the competition stepping up?
AG:For me it was a little bit of both. I was struggling with my set-up a bit, and for some reason, I just kept making weird mistakes in my race runs. I felt like I could have continued to win races in 2013, feeling good in practice, I was having awesome sections of race runs but I just kept making mistakes in places that weren't normal for me. They weren’t mental mistakes, you know, it was hard to put my finger on it, I was confident going into my runs, everything felt fine I was just…making mistakes.

I got a lot of hate from people that year and I was honestly just a little pissed off, I wanted to win so bad that maybe I was just over-riding certain sections. I wanted to shut everyone up. That's probably the biggest mistake of my career, I've never raced for anyone else but myself and that year, it affected me and I wasn't having fun. With that being said though, for me personally, I consider it the best year of my career so far. I learned a lot about myself and it challenged my beliefs in ways that I'm very thankful for. In the end, God used it all to speed up my growth in certain areas and as He promises, He worked it all out for my good.

Vital: We always hear about how important it is to stay loose. Is it simply impossible to always be on the bleeding edge of what’s possible on a bike, while staying relaxed? Do you get a “demon” in your head for some races that will rear its head just before the gnarliest part of the track?
AG:For me, I’m not the craziest rider out there as far as risk goes. At the same time, I don't let fear hold me back from doing what I know I'm capable of. Once you drop in for a race, you’ve already committed to this as your job and you’re gonna do the best you can, sure there’s risk involved but you have to put that out of your mind. Every race I show up to, even if I’m a little sketched out with a section, I’ll figure out my line and commit to it before I drop in for my race run. If you end up crashing then fine, but it won't be from a lack of committing or focus.

Vital: Can you only roll the dice so many times before it catches up with you?
AG:I guess so. I'm not really that kind of rider, I don’t usually just "roll the dice", if I’m gonna do something I’m confident I’m gonna pull it off, I don’t like to take a lot of big chances. For riders who do ride like that I think injuries and stuff like that will happen more often – but at the same time, everybody has different styles, some guys can get away with it a little more. There are a couple of dudes in the World Cup that get up there on the podium regularly or have won big races, and they have squirrely moments all the time. You see the same in moto and a lot of sports, but that’s just not really me – I’m a little more calculated I guess.

Vital: Does the “fear” of getting injured grow stronger with time? Do you more often feel like “I’ve won enough, I don’t really feel this track, I’ll go safe and live to fight another day”?
AG: No, not for me. I hate feeling like I don’t have a chance at winning. I always feel like I’m gonna somehow figure it out and put it down. I’ve won on days when I felt really crappy, and I’ve got smoked on days I felt good – it all just comes down to how you end up putting that race run together. So for me, that fear isn’t really there, and I feel like if it would be there consistently, it’s probably time to stop racing.

Vital: During the years when you couldn’t seem to lose, you never seemed to be riding over your head. You were just that much faster than everybody down the same section of track. Yet, at some point, the train derails a bit and it becomes clear just how elusive that kind of speed can be. Do you feel like you’re looking for something you’re not quite sure how to find, or can you draw on your past experience to build up to it again?
AG:For me, I’ve been pretty confident that I know what the issues have been over the last two years. It’s been a couple of different things, and honestly, like I said earlier, sometimes it just hasn’t gone my way. I feel like I show up ready to win and things just don’t go my way, you blow a tire off a rim, or you have that weird costly mistake – that’s just racing, especially now when times are so tight and everybody’s going so fast. You can't afford to leave time on the track. I’m confident that if we can figure out a couple of little things and I can have my best runs, I’ll be back up there consistently.

Vital: Looking back at 2014, did it seem to you like Josh Bryceland was in that zone you were in a couple of years ago? A bubble where almost nothing can get to you?
AG: I don’t know. To be honest, I never really think about anybody else, I try to focus on my own thing. Josh had an amazing year, Troy rode really strong. Sam rode really good. Gee, Greg, all those dudes had good years. Josh was definitely putting it together consistently, and Stevie did the same the year before that. I guess it’s just that when you get your confidence going you have good results and you know you’re capable of it, it helps, but for me, it’s not everything – I’m not really one to roll on confidence. If things are going bad I don’t expect it to keep going bad, I can come off my worst race and feel like I could win the next one, I take it one race at a time and just do the best I can. But yes, when you do start stringing wins together you get that confidence going – it’s definitely not a bad thing.

Vital: We look forward to seeing you out there again in 2015, pinned as ever! Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.
AG: Thank you guys, I’m stoked, I think it’ll be a really exciting year for everybody and a really good season for me and my team – just looking forward to getting it going in a month! (Editor’s note:Aaron wasted no time getting it going again, with a resounding victory at the season opener in Lourdes).

Tracey Hannah

Vital: Tracey, you won World Championships as a Junior in 2006, and your first Elite World Cup the following year when you beat Sabrina Jonnier in Schladming in 2007. Was speed on a bike a natural thing for you back then? Where did it come from?
TH: I grew up with 2 older brothers and my dad was pretty crazy too, going fast in cars and on bikes was pretty normal at our house. When it comes to downhill, I love going fast.

Vital: You then took a long break from racing World Cups, and it wasn’t until 2012 in Pietermartizburg that we would see you race one again – and you won! Quite the comeback. Did you think that was even possible? What were your ambitions coming into PMB that year?
TH: I came into PMB with no expectations and no pressure, the track was super fast and dusty so it really suited my style. I had no idea that I could win, but I didn’t care if I didn’t. I think that mindset was one of the reasons I did so well.

Vital: Did you ride PMB 2012 without any restraint? Were you fully pinned, not a care in the world?
TH: No restraint, I wasn’t really scared of the track and I didn’t care where I finished because I was just happy to be back riding my bike at a World Cup.

Vital: The following races were not quite as impressive, 5th in Leogang, 9th in Val di Sole…was the pressure getting to you? Were you holding back? Or was this actually more of a thing to be expected, after 5 years of not racing World Cups? What do you think the deal was, looking back?
TH: Leogang and Val di Sole were completely different tracks. I hadn’t raced in 5 years so my riding wasn’t up to the ‘'European Track‘’ level. I wasn’t really surprised with my results in that sense. I knew that it would take experience to be the best and I was just lucky to be there and in the Top 10. The pressure was there for sure, but I had to accept that I had only ever done one World Cup season and these girls had been racing the whole time. I wasn’t disappointed.

Vital: Then a 2nd place in Windham saw you back on track, and you headed to Val d’Isere. You took a horrendous crash there, breaking your femur and collarbone, the start of a long recovery process. Did you ever consider not returning to racing at that point?
TH: I felt really comfortable at Windham, we had done a few races and this track was high speed. With some experience behind me and confidence riding that track I felt good enough to get a good result. Crashing in Val d’Isere changed my life, I had never even been to the hospital before and I ended up staying for almost 3 weeks. I always thought about what I could do today, I didn’t think too much into the future, or racing yet. I knew that if I could walk I could ride, if I could ride I could race. There was a lot of pressure to never race again, but with the support of close friends and family, not going back was out of the question.

Vital: Recovery, then more injuries, more recovery, and an amazing bronze medal at PMB World Champs in 2013 – but you’re still 12 seconds off Rachel Atherton and Manon Carpenter. 2014 sees you complete a full season, but the times tell us you’re not up to full speed yet. Why is that?
TH: It definitely puts a dampener on things when all you feel like you're doing is getting injured every time you get on a bike. It was and is one of the most mentally challenging times in my life. The bones heal but they leave a scar and fear. I’ve had to spend a lot of time getting over the fear of crashing, that fear is what held me back.

Vital: Do you feel like you know where you lose time?
TH: There are a few things that I had to work hard on this off-season. It wasn’t really one big thing, it was a few small things. So it will be good to see where I gained and where I need to gain after the first race back.

Vital: When you look at the times to beat, do you feel like you know how to get there (you’ve done it before), or is it hard to pin down what is holding you back from truly challenging for top spot? Where does that last burst of speed come from? What’s the magic ingredient?
TH: I don’t think there is a special ingredient, everyone is different. For me I needed to come back from injury and then play a bit of catch up. There’s only so much time in one off- season so it could take two or three to mix up the perfect batch ready to be the fastest. For me getting my confidence back has been the main struggle for the last few seasons.

Vital: Has the level of riding reached a point where to win you need 105% in some section – rolling the dice in other words – or is it more about putting it all together and staying smooth?
TH: I believe so, yes, because I know that you can’t roll down the hill chilling out and expect to win. You have to do the best run you can and that’s not always the fastest, sometimes not even close. Learning to ride on the limit in a race run is a key to standing on the podium.

Vital: You’re always one of the few girls who take on the big jumps on a course, and we’ve even seen you race urban DH – fear isn’t something that holds you back, is it?
TH: If I know I can do it then I’m not scared. If I’m not sure, then it’s harder. I know that I can jump and I always ask big bro Mick if he thinks I can jump this or that jump. If he says yes, then there’s no question and I do it.

Vital: There are massive gaps in women’s DH racing, the podium contenders here are really in a league of their own. Is the rest of the field just lacking the skills to ride the fast lines/big jumps etc, or is it more a question of learning how to carry speed throughout the course?
TH: That’s a good question, I guess the level gets better every year and you have to be on that train. You have to be good enough, you have to be confident and then you have to have the best run. The girls at the top seem to have learned how to live on the limit. I know a few under-rated riders that we haven’t seen at the top yet. I know once they get through the fear barrier they will be seriously fast. If they ever get there or not is another question.

Vital: You just won the Australian National Champs as you more or less always do – what can we expect from Tracey Hannah in 2015?
TH: You answered your own question. You are going to see Tracey Hannah this year!! (Editor's note: Tracey obliterated the Elite Women's field by 6 seconds in qualifying at the first round of the 2015 World Cup Lourdes, with a time that would have been enough to easily win finals as well. A race run crash threw a spanner in the works, but it certainly looks like Tracey is back up to speed again!)

Vital: Best of luck, thanks for taking the time to talk to us – anything to add for the DH fans out there?
TH: Thanks to all my fans :) I love riding and racing and it’s so good to have the support of so many riders and friends.

Ben Reid - Team Manager Dirt/Orange World Team

Vital: Ben, you’ve won practice quite a few times, and by that, we mean you’ve always been one of the guys capable of trying the sickest lines and getting up to speed quickly on a new course. Was it always like that for you? Did that sort of stuff “come easy”?
BR: It think so, yes, but mainly I was just riding my bike. I knew time was limited in practice, so I just went about trying to learn the track as quickly as possible. As a kid, I’ve never just really jumped into doing something without having a good understanding of what might happen, so I like to think I was quite calculated and I wouldn’t just hit a line without really thinking about it. I would spend quite a lot of time looking at options and analyzing them, so when it came time for practice runs, I had all this stuff in my head that I could try. Getting up to speed on a new track was my thing, really. Ultimately, the difference for me between practice and race runs was that in practice, I was just riding my bike, and the race run is obviously very different. There’s a difference between a good rider and a good racer, and sometimes, I was perhaps not as good a racer as I should have been.

Vital: What does it take to get to your skill level on a bike? Talent, training, falling off 1000 times? Take us back to the early days, where did it all begin?
BR: My dad raced MX, and me and my brother always had bikes. We couldn’t afford to race, but we rode. My brother was bigger than me, so I always got his old hand-me-downs – which meant he was always on a bigger bike than me. I had to learn to really pin the corners to catch up to him after the straights, and I think that really helped me. I wanted to be competitive in something, but as said we couldn’t afford to race MX. My first “DH” bike was a BMX that I put a set of MX forks on, off a little Italjet 25cc. They were upside down forks and wouldn’t fit a pair of brakes, so my first 2 seasons in the Irish DH series I rode a BMX with front suspension and no front brake. The back brake didn’t really work either, so I had to take my foot off the pedal and jam it into the wheel to slow down. I had some good results on that bike. In the under-14 category I beat quite a few guys on DH bikes. One day I was out on this BMX and there were all these guys doing drops on their 3-grand DH bikes, and I wanted to do it as well. Well my fork snapped, and I had a race that weekend, and I remember going home crying to my dad “these forks are rare, how am I going to get a new pair now?” We went to the MX shop and got a pair of forks off a KTM 50cc, which were way too big and heavy, but I made it work. By then I was hooked, so I sold my RM80 MX bike and bought a Giant ATX. I rode that for 7 years, and even did Rampage on it. I was only meant to ride it for 3 years, but after saving on apprentice wages to buy the new Giant DH Team, I had that stolen at my first World Cup. After that, I had to go back to the ATX and I rode it for another 4 years. Not being handed everything and really wanting it at the same time probably helps explain where my speed came from.

Vital: Looking back over your long racing career (you raced in the Youth category in 2001), you’ve been a regular top 20-30 guy at World Cups for a number of years. Excellent results obviously, yet, watching you ride, we were always expecting you to do even better. What is your take on why that is?
BR: The last season I was happy with was 2007. To go back a bit, I was 4th at the junior World Champs in Les Gets, and I had some offers to ride on different teams after that. At that point, there were a lot of companies who had helped me get to that stage, and I felt a lot of loyalty towards those companies and I didn’t want to just drop those guys and go a ride for a wholly-different company. I decided to continue to manage my own deal, but at that point, it was just me – it wasn’t that difficult to organize. I drove myself to all the races and I enjoyed it that way. On the back of some success (10th in Schladming, 14th at Worlds), I started to try to make the team more sustainable and I started to add bits on. An extra rider came on, and then we got involved with Dirt. Since then, the professionalism of the team had to reach a new level. Now, all of a sudden, I’m a full time manager in the off-season, and I didn’t really have a lot of time on my bike between race seasons. I’d manage the team, I built this race truck we’re sitting in, as well as trying to find time to train. At the level that DH racing is at now, a pro athlete needs to be just an athlete – a full time job in itself. I didn’t really understand that, I thought I could do it all. For several seasons in a row, I’d get really sick before the start of the season – I think I was getting run down. And then at the actual races, it was hard to focus on my riding at the time when the team also needs you the most.

Vital: Obviously, there is more to going fast on a DH bike than going for tough lines and talent for it in general. What do you feel might have been missing for you? When you looked at the guys consistently in the top-10, was anything in particular visible to you?
BR: In 2007, I felt like I had sort of cracked the code, I had really figured out what I needed to do. I could see the differences with the fastest guys, and it was close enough that I could see where I might make up the missing time. I was starting to look to the podium, and I felt like 2008 might have been the year I would have done it. Fitness also plays a huge part in finding those last seconds, and the way I get the most out of myself is when I do timed practice runs. I used to have a killswitch wired to a stopwatch, and I’d bang out runs trying to take seconds off the clock. I’d start to understand where it would be safe to let off, and I felt like if I didn’t do timed runs I’d be flying blind, and even put yourself at risk that way. So I needed to be fit to be able to do all that properly and ride my best.

Vital: Would you get nervous for race runs? Did it come down to not being as loose as we are used to seeing you ride in videos or in practice?
BR: No, I really think it was more about not putting the whole run together. I was able to ride certain sections good, but because I often lacked fitness to be able to string together full practice runs, I pretty much felt like I was having to save my energy for race runs, and I knew I was missing training sessions all throughout winter. That doesn’t work for me, I need more runs. The thing is, most people will watch a World Cup in a rad section, and I’ll probably go by looking like I’m on it, but it’s all the other sections where I just didn’t have the power and the strength to push through. There was this one World Champs, and as always, the French do a lot of video analysis of different riders, and Fabien Barel (who won the race) said to me “I watched all the riders through the woods, and you were XX faster and I used your line in my race run.” So I know I can ride fast, but having the mental ability and fitness to put it all together in a full race run is a different ball game.

Vital: Watching World Cup level DH racing, a lot of guys roll the dice, sometimes it works, often times it doesn’t. Do you feel like everybody is even closer to the edge of reason today (or beyond it)? How wild is it?
BR: Yeah, it’s been at that level for a long time, but there’s even more guys going after it today. People have the right training and tuition going into the season, which makes the margins tighter, but I don’t think that at the top end, they’re going way faster than Sam Hill when he was winning races by 6 seconds for example. Sam’s had good seasons, then Gwin, and Gee, it’s not like then somebody new comes in and they’re beating everybody and going way quicker than anybody else has ever gone. I don’t think that’s the case, it’s just that guy is the guy with the confidence at that period of time. Staying at a good level is quite mentally challenging, and a lot of focus goes into it – it’s easier to come from being an underdog than to be at the top and stay there.

Vital: How do the Top 5-10 guys stay so consistent? Is there a magic ingredient? What is it that REALLY makes them so fast top to bottom?
BR: I think those guys just naturally have it – they are naturally good racers. Gee’s bad day is a top 10 – that just points to a really robust rider. Those guys are at a different level, I guess they can process stuff quicker and react to what goes on in a race run at a different level. I haven’t been a podium guy myself, so I don’t want to comment too much on it either.

Vital: How you are approaching coaching your team these days? Has that changed since you were racing yourself? What are you telling your guys?
BR: I definitely have a good understanding of what a rider needs, and I can relate to it all being fresh off the circuit myself. I’m trying to give the guys the confidence that they are doing the right thing, whether it’s a training program or keeping the riders in the right state of mind. All of that comes from knowing what worked for me – I did a lot of trial and error! I also have a really good understanding of how bikes work, so I can help with that angle as well.

Vital: Best of luck for the new season! Who do you think will walk away with the overall when it’s all done and dusted?
BR: There’s a lot of cool guys out there, and there’s too many guys who could do it for me to try and pick one.

Claudio Caluori - Team Manager, Gstaad SCOTT

Vital: You’ve been around racing and fast racers for a long time, what in your opinion is the one factor that stands out when it comes to winning races?
CC: YOUR MIND!

Vital: There are some very, very talented riders out there, who look like they can do absolutely anything on a bike, yet against the clock, they are not able to challenge for the top spots. Why is that? What’s missing?
CC: If you want it too much, you can't win. This was pretty much my problem when I was racing. You have to stay cool when it counts and let it go!

Vital: It’s obviously not about who has the biggest balls or can take the gnarliest lines, it’s about top to bottom speed. Riders like Sam Hill and Steve Peat are very different in how they ride a track, yet they have both won a lot of races and both have dominated the field at times. So is it more about what we CAN’T see, than the obvious line choices etc?
CC: They both have incredible skills, and lots of others have them too. But they both found a way how to attack at a race without getting all tight and cramped, without wanting to win too bad. Keep your momentum instead of sprinting at every possible bit to then hit the brakes. Josh took this to a whole new level in 2014.

Vital: How do you explain the “streakiness”? I.e. riders dominate for a season or two, then suddenly, they are not immortal anymore? We’ve seen it with Hill, Gee, Minnaar, Gwin, we don’t know if Stevie would have continued to this day without his injury, or whether Ratboy will come back as strong yet…but you get the picture. Is it just not possible to ride that close to the edge (or even beyond it sometimes) for that long?
CC: It would be quite boring if such domination lasted more than two years, and it wouldn't be such a good sign for the level of a sport. Winning gets you flying, and after your first win, you can suddenly win again and again. But with time, it gets harder and harder to stay focused and stay positive, to not get distracted or afraid of your own mistakes, to stay confident when others get closer to you. As said earlier, it's all in your mind, and it takes a lot of coolness to keep that one calm. For me, people that come back after a low period are much more interesting than guys who dominate for a year and then disappear.

Vital: Does there come a point where a dominant rider will back off just a tiny bit, or not take as many risks? Or are there physical or other mental reasons that somebody “slows down”?
CC: There certainly is a point where a dominant rider wants to save what he's got, and not risk it all at every single race. Physical and mental reasons always go together. Now the question: is your mind strong enough to change the physical reasons?

Vital: How do you help a rider get to that “zone”? To take the talent and turn it into winning races? What is the number one aspect of their “game” that you work on?
CC: To be honest, I'm not very good at that. I might not have the psychological skills or the sixth sense for it. But, I did get somebody on board who definitely has what it takes, and the riders who know that person certainly would wish that this person would work for them. I won't give you a name...

Vital: People moan a lot about some of the World Cup tracks, but if you look through the results sheets, the cream always rises to the top. That seems to validate the theory that there is a magical ingredient that goes beyond the tech and the gnar when it comes to speed?
CC: Yes, the top guys will always push their limits on any track. A top athlete wants to win. If a World Cup takes place on a track that sucks, the athlete still wants to win. But it doesn't change the fact that the track sucks. As an athlete, you can have your own opinion about a track. You don't need to love them all. But whether you like or dislike a track should not change your riding or racing.

Vital: Good luck to you and your team for 2015! Anything to add just before the season kicks off?
CC: Thank you! Ohhhh, I can't wait to see Neko racing the first world cup in Gstaad-Scott colors! (Editor's note: equipment woes struck Neko again in Lourdes for the first World Cup of the season, as he broke a wheel pretty much out of the start gate. Brendan Fairclough came though for the team with a solid 6th place, just a few tenths off the podium)

Check out part 2 for more!

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