Number One: Steve Peat
Posted September 4 2009
Words and Photography Luke Webber
The interview you have all been waiting for! What can we say about Steve Peat? The most World Cup downhill wins - currently standing at 17, the most World Cup podiums - currently standing at 50. The oldest guy out there and still tearing up the top five. When it comes to creating an identity for mountain biking Peaty has proven he's not just a business man; but a business, man! The only thing missing from the trophy cabinet is a rainbow jersey, but surely, for the man that is mountain biking in the UK it's not going to end like that? Luke Webber asks the how, the when and the why of the World Championships to the man himself and gets all the answers.
But why is one race so important to Steve, his fans and the mountain bike press? It's all down to a little history and one of the reasons why Steve Peat and the World Champs question returns every year. He is the most successful rider to never wear the rainbow jersey, with four podium appearances and four silver medals. The closest he came to the win was in Les Gets 2004, where he was set to win the race as a British rider on board a British bike. Up at the final split and almost guaranteed the win, he infamously washed out on the final corner, handing the title to Fabien Barel.
In 2005 fourth, 2006 fourth, 2007 at Fort William on a track where he'd won the World Cup the previous year, in front of a home crowd and tipped for the win his saddle snapped off. And who could forget 2008, where Sam Hill crashed, leaving Steve in the hotseat with only Gee Atherton to follow and an impossible run which for the first time made even the biggest fans doubt that Steve would ever have the perfect run and little bit of good fortune needed to race with the rainbow.
But still, every year, everyone believes it will be Peaty's World Championships. Can 2009 be the one?
This champagne NEEDS to be opened. Please let 2009 be the year.
Two weeks prior to the race, Luke Webber visited the man himself to find out. The trophies were on display, the champagne was in the rack and the bike boxed and ready for a 28-hour flight. We know you don't want to miss a word, so here's the exclusive transcript, detailing exactly what happened on a windy Friday afternoon in Sheffield.
2007 and the World Championships at Fort William were billed as the year you had to become World Champion. After winning the World Cup on the same track in 2006 it became a countdown to your final ambition in racing being realised. But for that week anything that could go wrong, did. A dislocated finger from Vigo and then your saddle snapping off in the race run. Since that year you've been the underdog and the surprise of the season. How do you manage to stay in the top five when every year younger guys like Brendan Fairclough, Sam Blenkinsop and Aaron Gwin are coming through?
"I don't know what you'd put it down to - definitely a better training programme coming into this season. I did a lot of work with Sheffield Hallam University, they put me a programme together and I did a lot of off-season gym work with Dave Edinburgh and also a lot of sports psychology stuff with Robert Copeland, did some fitness tests and all sorts of stuff. So that definitely gave me a better physical edge coming into this season. We also made a couple of little tweaks to our bikes, that made the bike a lot easier to set up for every different type of course, that made it corner a lot better, I think that helped a lot. And really I just enjoy riding my bike when I'm riding and when I'm racing so that's all part of it for me. If I can have fun and get as fit as possible then I reckon I can kinda do well.
"I just got some emails yesterday from people saying "why are you retiring - tell me it's not true" and I seem to get them every year now. I think that's people clutching at straws now, they know I'm going to retire at some point but they're still guessing as to when that is."
And every year you are scoring the top five results - I suppose that is making it easier for you to decide to carry on?
"Yeah. From my side of it I don't see any point where I'm going to cut it off or pack it in. I'm still enjoying racing, still doing a good job for sponsors so I don't see any point in packing it in." (laughs)
You say you have been getting far more involved with the Sheffield Hallam University for training and fitness testing. Is this the first year you have been so involved with that side of preparation for a season?
"Yeah. I've always done training and have used various trainers. Not 100% but little bits over the years and sometimes, it's never really worked out for me. Last year I got awarded a doctorate by Sheffield Hallam University and when I went on a faculty visit they showed me all their facilities. They said I should come in and get some training and a programme. So last winter I went in there and got it all together. I think it gives me a lot better structure for my training. Because I have a young family I need that structure, I need to plan it a lot better. So those guys helped out a lot with that. Planning when I train around my family, that helped out a lot. It was what I knew I should be doing but they just bought it to the foreground. Because I could go to Sheffield at seven in the morning, be in the gym doing my workout or whatever, I could tick that off and then crack on with the rest of the day."
You said you knew you had to do it before but you weren't fully dedicated to it, now do you feel more of a bike riding athlete than just a downhill bike rider?
"I've always done the training, when I started out I did cross country. But my training has always been fun. Somebody looking at my training plan might think that if I changed my ways I could make some big improvements, but I think the reason that I have been in racing for so long and still enjoying what I do is down to having fun with my training. I do have a structure and I tick certain things off that make me feel good and make me feel happy but I don't have a regimen that I must follow with eating, drinking and sleeping. With the family that would be impossible and just to be that organised. And definitely year after year I am busier with business interests and family interests that it gets harder and harder to do that training fully focussed. But I know what makes me feel good and what makes me quick on a bike and those are the things that I find fun and that's the way I like to do it."
Has it helped this year having some measurable training to map your progress against?
"I think a lot of the stuff I have done with Dr. Robert Copeland on the sports psychology side has helped out a lot. When we are talking we often discuss the little one percents, there is a lot more to downhill than just riding a bike down a hill. The mental side, the preparation, the pressure that you put yourself under and the pressure you've got from the start gate. I don't think that any other sport has the pressure that we have to get everything right on that one run, so the work I have done with Dr. Copeland has been really good for me. I've always had a structure and a little routine but he's bought it to the foreground with the technical aspects. For instance I did something in December, and I picked numbers that would chart how good I had felt over the years. And then we did it again after I had won a couple of World Cups. I felt a lot fresher and a lot better about myself, the numbers were a lot better at that point. Doing that keeps you in the right frame of mind. It's so mental, you have to stay on top of your game all of the time. Practice has got to go well, sleeping, eating, everything has to fit into raceday and that one run."
Steve crashes out of the 2009 British Championships within sight of the finish
I think it was obvious to me how much winning downhill races mattered to you at this years British Championships, where you had crashed on the final corner while virtually leading the race. You looked like it was your first race - the disappointment was that obvious - even though you have been racing these events for a long time.
"Once you've won races, standing on the top of the podium, cracking the bottle of champagne and knowing that you're the fastest guy on that day is special. I really like that feeling. I've been winning for many years now but winning races and world cups this year I had been in good form. On that run at the British Championships I knew I was on a good run and to throw it all away on that last corner makes it all the more difficult, when you are so close to the finish line. So obviously I take it out on myself really. That is the hardest bit, immediately after the race. You just want to analyse what you did, you want to get home but there's kids wanting to have posters signed and people wanting to know what happened so you have to get out there and put a front on before you can get those five minutes on your own. But it was definitely a long drive home from that day!"
But I've seen you less frustrated coming top ten in a World Cup than missing out on the National title - why so?
"I think it depends on how you have ridden that day. After Bromont I was pretty annoyed, after Maribor I was annoyed because I'd made mistakes myself - not in Maribor - but a flat tyre is annoying because you can't do anything about it. But in Bromont I made a little mistake on a section that I didn't have a problem with all week. I had a little problem in that corner, when it is a mistake down to yourself it is always going to play on you a lot worse than if I had a mechanical. Or if you had a good run and came in tenth. But if you have a mistake then it will play on your mind.
"You could say that a flat tyre is your fault too, picking lines and hitting rocks. It was a similar sort of scenario, I'd not hit anything bad all weekend and then in the race I was just pushing it a bit more and got a flat tyre. Not winning is always hard anyway. And not capitalising on certain scenarios in races. In that race a lot of other riders had bad luck, it could have been easy to get some points in the bag. In Bromont I felt like I was riding really well on that track but I had been ill before the race and I couldn't get in a racing mind. It has to be the first time in a year that I've been at the top of the hill and not being able to get focussed, not feeling nervous, but just going for a ride down a hill. And that's just not me I'm usually up for it. Strange old season that way - all the top four guys have had a bad race somewhere along the way and it's kept points close and it's going to be close going into the final."
Not many people would have put money on the current situation - that Greg Minnaar, Sam Hill, Gee Atherton and yourself would be so close going into the final round. Even less so that you would be one of the favourites and taking big wins early in the season, before taking the record for the most World Cup wins and podiums.
"I was never actually gunning for that record, I wasn't even aware of it until a couple of years back somebody bought it to my attention. I had a two year drought since they told me about it I think! I'm not happy about that so it's nice to be back winning in La Bresse, but Andorra was a strange one really, I didn't feel good on that track, I knw I could easily get a top five but didn't expect the win. But luck was just on my side at that race."
How much of a part do you think the Worlds result will play in going into the World Cup finals?
"If one of us wins it I think it could go either way. You could get the view that you have done your bit for the year, or you could have an amazing ride at Schladming. It all depends who it is and how they deal with it."
2008 Worlds in the hotseat. One rider to go. You know what happened next...
After Fort William and Val di Sole do you feel that this year can still be your year?
"I feel good, I feel like it suits me, suits others too but out of it all it'll be good for the bigger guys. There's technical bits but it's more about carrying speed and getting on top of your pedalling."
I heard they had changed a lot of the bottom section?
"Yeah, that NEEDED changing."
Would it be the kind of course that would have chosen to have had a World Championships on?
"Definitely not. I don't think it is a good course for a World Championships at all. The hill is too small, not steep enough."
But putting aside your personal opinion on the quality of the course, do you think that this course is favourable for you to win on - does it give you the best chance for a good result?
"I don't think it would be exactly the same as this track, no. I like to put the technical stuff in I like having a hard physical track rather than just the pedalling. I like both. Hopefully it has changed for the better anyway."
I suppose it is a good marker of the course that Brian Lopes is racing.
"Yeah, I was on the Skype to Lopes the other night and he was getting into it, trying to decide what tyre to use, what the dirt will be like if it rains and how dry it might be. Lopes is always serious so he should do good for the Americans."
With the World Championships in Mont St. Anne next year and Champery in 2010, do you think that Canberra provides the best realistic chance of winning the Worlds in the near future?
"No, Mont St. Anne suits me, I like it a lot. Champery is a bit of a lottery with the weather and Sam on that kind of track. Canberra track could easily be my best chance I guess but I don't look at it like that. I am trying to do well on every track. This track is going to be a lot easier for other people to do well so the times will be a lot tighter I would have thought. The thought that this is my only chance to win the World Championships is not on the forefront of my mind because I don't think this is."
So you aren't approaching this Worlds any differently than in past years?
"Every year it changes a bit, because of the way the World Cups fall. Worlds is always the race that people put the spotlight on so I think the training can be similar, with the specifics decided by the track. Definitely there is a lot more pressure. I don't think my focus on how I want to win a Worlds or how I go about training to prepare for a Worlds has changed that much really. I wouldn't say that compared to ten years ago - back then it wasn't so crucial to win. But as people around me, as they are counting down to my last opportunity to win the race, it is definitely a tough thing to think about."
Is it more a case of people bringing it to your attention than you are putting importance on the race yourself?
"I like to feel that it is just another race definitely when I was training at the University over the winter it was a huge goal on the plan. Like I say and everyone else says, it is the only thing I have never won. So it's definitely more at the forefront of my mind for that reason."
If it remains the one race you don't win, will you keep going until...
"Why not. I want to push the boundaries. Who says there is a limit on how long you can go on for? Just because others have stopped around now why not carry on. I don't feel that time (to stop) coming soon."