My name is Andrew Driscoll. I am a 19-year-old, first-year elite privateer from Bow, New Hampshire. Racing downhill mountain bikes at the highest level is extremely difficult for everyone competing—the logistics, mental and physical requirements, not to mention the fine line you have to push to even be competitive. Those difficulties and expenses multiply for racers who are funding the efforts on their own. Those like myself, racing independently, not part of a team that receives financial, logistical or staff support from a company, are considered non-factory riders or privateers. Last month, I spent four weeks in Europe competing at the Leogang World Cup, Crankworx Innsbruck, and Val Di Sole World Cup downhill races. I finished things off with some bike testing in Morzine, France, with my bike sponsor, RAAW.
The goal of this article is to provide insight into what it takes to race European mountain bike downhill World Cups as a U.S.-based privateer—from preparation and packing to travel logistics and, of course, costs.
I began riding mountain bikes when I was six and racing when I was twelve. I've always been fixated on racing due to my competitive nature and search for progress. That focus has taken me from local races to U.S. Nationals to racing World Cups as a Junior the past two seasons. Thus far, my most notable finish has been 10th place at the 2022 World Championships in Let Gets, France. I've had some success, but not nearly enough to earn a spot on a factory-supported program. Fortunately, I have some awesome sponsors (and parents) that help make everything possible. Some of which include RAAW Mountain Bikes, Reserve Wheels, Monster Army, Maxxis, DHaRCO, Factor Components, Burgtec, Crankbrothers, Oakley, FOX, and a local bike shop, The Notch Cyclery. Despite all these companies' amazing support, there are logistical and financial roadblocks privateers face that factory riders don't. Don't get me wrong, every factory-supported rider has earned their spot, but the ratio is skewed when you compare the amount of extremely skilled bike riders to the number of factory spots available.
Most privateers live a 'normal' life outside of racing, and for me, that's being a traditional college student at the University of Vermont. The daily grind of college definitely takes time away from racing and training, but the long-term benefit of a college degree is obvious. I work part-time at Highland Mountain Bike Park throughout the season between races. Although this does not cover the cost of racing, working at Highland is a great job that allows me to stay on my bike.
Vermont has some amazing riding during the season but also a long winter, lasting from November to April. Due to an exceptionally rough winter and academic commitments, I focused mainly on gym time this off-season. Ideally, I would have attended a few pre-season races to log some bike time and work on setup. However, I only made it to one pre-season race before leaving for Leogang: the Mountain Creek Spring National in late May. I surprised myself by qualifying 2nd and finishing 4th in my first official elite race. Looking back, that was a good confidence builder, but I would have preferred more racing and bike time before leaving for Europe.
Being a first-year Elite, I did not earn points to compete at a World Cup without a national jersey. Doing well at a World Cup is the best way to earn points. Other ways include competing in South American races in the off-season or a podium at a National round. The petition process may vary depending on a rider's federation/country. For U.S. racers, points are few, hard to come by, and certainly not easy to earn. As a result, I had to petition through USA Cycling to get a spot on the start list. The tricky part is that the USA Cycling selection committee notifies you four to five weeks before an event. Once you're given the green light from USAC, it is full throttle confirming bookings and logistics reserved months prior. I spent the early winter months browsing online accommodation sites for cheap places to stay that also offered free cancellations. Finding an economical, nonstop, round-trip flight months before a departure is not easy. And as a privateer, it is key to fly nonstop to limit the chance of luggage and bikes getting lost.
There is a large presence of bike companies and vendors at World Cups, and there is always a chance they might offer mutual support if something really goes wrong, but being self-sufficient is crucial as a privateer. Preparing for the worst, aside from an extra frame and fork, I essentially brought an entire extra bike of spares with me—extra wheels, tires, shock, bars, brakes, brake pads, and not to mention tools and a pump. Making room for a bike stand (something I don't think twice about having at races in the States) is virtually impossible to fit in luggage without going over weight limits. Preparing for what could go wrong with my bike means packing more luggage, which means more luggage fees, a larger rental car, and more money. Most times, a Sprinter or 8-passenger van is a necessity when traveling with this much luggage. In the end, I brought a bike bag, wheel bag, checked bag, carry-on, and backpack.
It is important to note I would not be able to do this without the help of my parents, both from a financial and logistical standpoint. As I mentioned above, I do work a summer job, but I don't make nearly enough money to cover the cost of racing at this level. Getting to experience all this at such a young age is amazing, but I truly could not do it myself for several reasons - my age and my credit line. I'm nineteen years old, and without my parents to rent the van, I would incur a 'young renter's fee,' which could add up to the cost of the rental. I have a credit card, but I do not have a high enough credit limit to allow me to book an airline ticket, a rental car, a few Airbnbs, and other expenses over the course of one month. Not to mention, most people my age don't qualify for a high-end credit card with travel benefits, including lost luggage reimbursement and rental car insurance. Adding car insurance to vehicle rental can, in some cases, double the cost of the rental itself.
- Estimated days spent training in the offseason = 30 on-bike days // 100+ days in the gym or on the trainer
- College credits earned during the offseason = 28
- Estimated time spent booking travel = 10 hours
- Airline ticket (nonstop/round trip) = $1,930
- Shipping bike / Luggage fees = $450
- International drivers permit = $20
- UCI/USAC license = $290
- International Phone plan = $100
- Euros / spending cash = $208 (including the bank's transaction fee)
- Comprehensive Medical insurance plan = $120 (As a 19-year-old, I don't think much about insurance, but knowing the realities of downhill racing made finding a comprehensive travel insurance plan that covers medical and evacuation services essential. Most travel insurances exclude what they call 'high-risk sports,' and mountain biking is usually on that list. If not, the fine print almost always includes exclusions related to "competitions" and/or 'racing.')
- Rental Van = $2430
- Gas = $560
- Tolls = $200
- Laundry = $30
- Additional costs = $145 (including 2 days of Schladming lift tickets = $100 and sightseeing = $45)
TOTAL = $6,483
Leogang, as a whole, was an unreal experience. This year there were some small but critical changes to the track. It rode better though it was faster and seemed more dangerous. Now as an Elite, I was in A practice, which was a massive benefit. Riding an already-developed track makes the first few runs feel less gnarly. I felt amazing in practice, and looking back on it, it was the first time I felt comfortable enough to really attack a World Cup track. From a logistical standpoint, there is only one road running through the Leogang Valley, making parking extremely difficult. We had to park a ten-minute walk from the venue. If I were to have any issues or mechanicals, this would have been a huge inconvenience.
I raced Leogang in 2022 as a junior in the rain and was hoping for a dry race this year. I almost got what I wished for. Practice was dry, but the weather came in just in time for qualifying. After several course holds and delays, I found myself waiting at the top for over two hours before qualifying. Standing there, I couldn't help but notice the factory riders keeping warm on their spin bikes and chatting with their mechanics, who were able to keep them up to date on course conditions.In the meantime, I did my best to stay warm with bodyweight exercises but found myself focusing more on when my start time would be than my actual warmup. I ended up crashing in the infamous stump section, then again in the lower woods, trying to make up time, resulting in a DNF. I was happy with my riding but bummed that I couldn't put it together once the clock was ticking.
The Cost of Racing Leogang
- Accommodations = $930
- Entry Fee = $160
- Lift pass = $55
- Food = $225
- Runs = 9
- Cost per run = $152
TOTAL = $1,370
Crankworx Innsbruck was a great break in between the high-stress World Cup weeks. The event felt more like a festival than a bike race, and I was more confident and less stressed. I didn't know what to expect at Crankworx. I was surprised the venue lacked parking, hotels, and just space. The "athlete" parking was a 10-minute bike ride up the mountain. The track was relatively flat, something I would expect to ride back home in New England, certainly not in the Austrian Alps. Nevertheless, I was stoked. Even though I knew my bike setup was off, I was gelling well with the track. While riding in Schladming on the way from Leogang to Innsbruck, I had put my bike through the wringer, blowing out a shock and roasting a set of tires and brake pads. It didn't end there. On the morning of seeding, I blew out my fork and backup shock. I suddenly felt helpless. Both shocks I brought were blown, and the FOX race support crew was in Italy at the Val Di Fassa EDR. After a bit of a tantrum, I started to problem-solve and network. I borrowed a friend's fork. I called a few bike shops in downtown Innsbruck but struck out. I resorted to working the crowd and asking around. I found a kind-hearted Norwegian mechanic who loaned me a shock and even let me have it until Val di Sole. At the bottom of the mountain, I swapped the fork and shock an hour before seeding in the dirt and hot sun, with a set of hex wrenches someone had lent me.
Ironically, I think the stress of dealing with the mechanicals took away the stress of the race. I felt more relaxed and surprised myself with a 13th in seeding - good enough to be on the live stream on race day. I was feeling great! The broadcasting schedule made for a long day. I dropped in for my run at 5:30 pm. In the end, I slotted into 16th, a result I'm proud of. My run felt smooth and fast, with only one costly mistake. Reflecting on it, I'm a huge fan of the Crankworx format!
The Cost of Racing Crankworx Innsbruck
- Accommodations = $1180
- Entry Fee = $175
- Parking = $68
- Food = $225
- Number of runs = 11
- Cost per run = $150
TOTAL = $1,648
Logistics at the Races
I obviously don't have access to the luxuries of a factory rider or a real pit setup. My pit consisted of the back of our rental van. My spares remained in the van parked outside each venue. If I had a mechanical during practice, the time used to get to the van and fix my bike chewed away at my already limited practice time. Lucky for me, my brother, who is a great mechanic/engineer, traveled with me and was able to help with any necessary bike work.
With how physical downhill tracks are these days, nutrition and hydration are more important than ever. I know this, but it felt like a hassle to properly prepare meals and nutrition during race weekends. My parents picked up the slack with lots of food shopping and meal prep, but eating in a different country and culture and ordering in a different language can be challenging. I found myself grabbing food and snacks here and there throughout the day, all while walking by the factory pits, where I saw tables stacked with nutritious snacks and cooks preparing meals for their riders. Looking back on it, I should have prioritized nutrition more, which likely impacted my performance.
The top teams also have people supporting them everywhere on the track, analyzing and videoing lines and riders, reporting what's faster or changing. As a privateer, I am essentially riding blind as tracks evolve. My brother was able to scope lines on track and send me video updates, but I learned the most from watching daily recaps, like the Vital RAW videos.
Val di Sole Recap
I had the privilege to compete at the 2021 World Championships in Val di Sole, and it was one of my favorite tracks as the roots and rocks reminded me of home. However, this year's conditions and track updates made me question that.
We were able to pay $20 a day to park super close to the venue, making mechanical and pit logistics simpler. I was stoked that the organizers brought in dirt to smooth out the track and added more corners. I believe a World Cup track should benefit the most physically, mentally, and technically sound riders, not those who care the least about the repercussions of crashing. Unfortunately, after Junior practice, the layer of fresh dirt quickly deteriorated, leaving inches of dust over the existing rocks and roots. This made for some of the gnarliest conditions I have ever raced. I felt solid in practice but lacked my normal confidence. I felt that if I pushed it, I would make a mistake with all the unpredictability. Weather threatened qualifying, but luckily it held off. I had a smooth, consistent run and finished 80th, around 3 seconds off of qualifying pace. I could have pushed more to make up that time, but I also would have risked crashing. Overall, I was happy to get a baseline and understand where I need to improve. My goal is to qualify while riding within my comfort zone, something to continue to strive for.
The Cost of Racing Val di Sole
- Accommodations = $905
- Entry Fee = $160
- Parking = $56
- Food = $140
- Number of runs = 11
- Cost per run = $115
TOTAL = $1261
After Val di Sole, we travel to Morzine for some LOAMERS and testing with RAAW. Dan Roberts, someone instrumental in the development of the RAAW Yalla, was nice enough to make the trip from Champery, Switzerland, to help dial in my setup. He equipped my bike with the BYB suspension analysis system for the day. We made some solid progress that followed a theme of more sag and more reliance on rebound and compression damping. Additionally, we played around with rear axle dropouts, which lengthened the chainstay. Overall, I was pleased with the direction of the changes we made and was stoked on the progress. It felt like multiple steps in the right direction. On top of the testing, it was great to do some laps and talk bikes with Dan!
The Cost of Riding Morzine
- Accommodations = $536
- Lift pass = $110
- Food = $140
- Number of runs = 12 of strict testing and another 30 of LOAMERS
- Cost per testing run = $66
TOTAL = $786
Overall Cost of Racing = $11,548
I'm well aware of the fact that I'm damn lucky to be able to ride and race in Europe. But the reality is, as a privateer, the odds aren't always stacked in my favor—from traveling with spares and luggage, rental car pit setups, self-sufficient mechanical support, and staying up on nutrition in foreign countries. Some privateers feed off these challenges, but personally, I have the best chance of performing well when I have people or family members around to lessen the load and pick up the slack.
The privateer lifestyle often is the ticket to securing a factory ride, which adds stress, especially when things are not going to plan. When I was chosen for the 2021 and 2022 World Championship teams as a junior, I was able to compare what it's like to be a privateer and a pseudo-factory rider. At World Champs, USAC provided the team with mechanics, nutrition, riding coaches, and a physio. Interestingly, I had my two best European World Cup finishes at these races. Reflecting on this, I have realized the support and atmosphere helped my mental preparation.
In the end, I was able to visit five beautiful countries and experience amazing people, cultures, food, and languages while racing and riding at some of the most amazing, iconic downhill tracks in the world. Anywhere between $115 to $152 per run, and even though I spent close to $12,000, I'd say this type of experience is priceless!