The term legend is used all to often in life, but in mountain biking circles one man who has earned that mantle is Steve Peat.
You’d be hard pushed to and find mountain biker, or any athlete for that matter, that has been at the very top of his game for 20 years, and who is still battling it out for World Cup honors; yet Steve Peat is doing exactly that, and quite successfully too.
It’s been a long old bumpy ride for the Sheffield ace, as he recounts; “My first World Championship ride was back in 1993, in Metabief (France), but I’d been racing well at national level for a few years before that.” He told me with a sense of realization of just how long he’s been sharp at the competitive end of mountain biking; “Back in the early 90’s we all rode everything; on a Saturday it was trials and downhill, and on the Sunday it was cross country.” He lamented, recounting the early glory days of early mountain biking, an era from which the names on the trophies are all long since gone, and often now appear on branded down-tubes, names that mean little to modern day riders; “I used to ride the same Kona hardtail for everything, and was competitive in cross country at national level too. I finished second in the Expert XC category National Champs as well as in downhill.” He continued with his usual air of modesty.
The sport was just “barely legal” back then, having only achieved UCI World Championship status in in 1990, yet it was already trading its youthful soul for a more mature outlook; “Things were a lot more relaxed, maybe even more fun back then. But, it’s inevitable that things would go the way they have. If you want to do well at a particular discipline then you have to specialize in it. For me, at that time, downhill made more sense.”
From being a major player on the British national scene (which was a long way off being competitive worldwide in those days) he scored a couple of great World Cup results and earned a birth with the GT factory team, which was to transform his career; “Suddenly I had all of the support. I wasn’t doing everything for myself, which made a huge difference to my performance.”
As he begun to rise through the ranks the decision was made to become a privateer, effectively turning away from the team support that had helped him towards the top and going back to basics; “I think doing things my own way, and independently, fitted better with my character. It’s harder work, but it suits my persona.” He concluded.
Doing things his own way is partly what has kept him at the top for so long. He handles his own affairs and makes the choices he wants to, but it’s certainly not easy task; “It’s a lot of work for sure. My wife helps out a lot with things, and I have a partner in the running of the SPS (Steve Peat Syndicate), but it takes up a huge amount of time and energy. At times I wish things like Twitter and Facebook had never been invented, but I feel it’s an athletes obligation to let their fans know what’s happening, more so than self promotion. People tell me that I should get a PA; but, maybe sometime I will.”
As he hit’s 40 years of age his results may have slacked off a little, but times have changed a lot in the past few years too; “With running everything and also with a young family, it does get tougher to find time to train. Maybe I do take a few less risks than before, but in this sport if you don’t push it then you will not be competitive, so I do push when I feel I need to.”
That said, he is still very much one of the best around, still; “I don’t think that I’ve slowed down at all, or at least not much. The thing you have to look at is just how close it all is these days. Go back 3-4 years and there were seconds between riders. The time difference between top 8 in a World Cup of 4 years ago is about the same as the top 80 now, so it’s much tighter. These days you can’t have a problem and still win.”
Needless to say bikes and equipment have moved on light years during his 20-year reign at the top, which has pushed the financial envelope as much as it has the technical end; “Things have moved on, there’s no doubt there, but I think it’s great for the sport, it keeps things interesting. Obviously suspension and braking have been the prime areas of progression, and now newer frame materials are being used in downhill racing, which is another step forward. It has made the discipline an expensive one, but I like to think of downhill as the Formula 1 of mountain biking. It’s the crème de la crème of the technical end of the sport, which I think is important, and I think it will stay that way.”
It’s a far cry from the low-budget one-bike fits all early days of his career, and through the SPS he’s been pivotal in helping younger many riders get over the finical hurdles; “The SPS is a totally different set up to the Santa Cruz Syndicate. This is a buy in scheme; the riders buy their bike and then we give them full back up at national and international races, they get help with other kit, coaching, and also at times I will help them in pre-race course inspection. I had a lot of good people give me a leg up during my career, and want to offer the same to younger riders.”
I’ve known Steve almost since the day he started out, and for sure he has a huge reputation – both on and off he bike, yet you’ll rarely hear a bad word said about him, and his professionalism and humility are clear to see; “I love racing, I love hanging out with the guys – not just racers, but riding trails with regular weekend riders, it’s what keeps me going. I also like to let my hair down and enjoy myself – but that only happens when the job is done, when the work is finished.”
With the mergence of gravity enduro as a major discipline in its own right many “older” riders have turned their attention in that direction, will we see Steve Peat focusing his efforts there now? “I will do a few, I enjoy them. But, I think they need to get their act together on certain things – otherwise it just is not fair. Riders should all get the same one-off blind ride. When a rider knows and trains on the course then it’s clear that they have an advantage, which is wrong.” He said, referring to an enduro in 2013 where Fabien Barel won over Greg Minnaar as he knew the course very well.
Could gravity endure put the old should spirit back into mountain biking? “It could do, possibly. The best thing about it is that it opens things up more; you can ride any bike, so anybody can ride – which is different to downhill.”
When Steve started out British cycling, in general, was very low key, with less than a handful of world level competitors to chose from between all of the different cycling disciples. Things have come a long way since then, yet mountain biking still seems to draw the short straw when it comes to British Cycling policy; “Huh, British Cycling are way more interested in road and track cycling, because of the Olympic status. But we’ve had XC riders capable of top results, and we’ve had the bulk of the worlds top downhill riders right through from junior through to elite level for 10 years now. Yet they only come up with any form of help when the World Championship comes around. I do feel that they neglect the sport some, I’m sure there is enough room in there to help mountain biking more.”
While the likes of Chis Hoy and Bradley Wiggins have become Knights of The Realm, and have reaped the rewards that go with such accolade (and rightly so) Steve has been on top of the world right through, an inspiration to generations of young mountain bikers, yet has not been bestowed with such rewards, does that grind his gears? “At times, in a small way. But I’ve been lucky and done well out of mountain biking, so am happy enough with things.”
It was only in 1996 that mountain biking gained any form of Olympic recognition, when XC was included in the Atlanta Games, although downhill has not even made it close to Olympic inclusion, something which would most likely put it right up there alongside road and track cycling in terms of recognition.
Even cylco cross is being championed for Olympic status by newly crowned UCI president Brian Cookson, the former head honcho at British Cycling, how does he view this? “I think Brian Cookson will probably be good for the UCI. But, I can’t say that gaining Olympic status for downhill really bothers me too much. I think that it would not do the discipline any favors, it would take it to a city environment which is not where it should be, something that it’s also done to cross country.”
Brit’s still pretty well rule the roost when it comes to downhilling, yet it hardy as any real mountains. It would seem that Peat himself has been a leading inspiration in this rise? “I’d like to think I helped some, by being their as a target for younger riders. But, I think overall that it’s part of the British mentality – we don’t have long man made runs like in Whistler, or uplifts like in the Alps, and the weather is usually bad too. It’s hard work, you have to push up every time, and if you’re doing that for a short run then you’re going to make the most of it, which I think makes for a certain kind of character.”
With the new season already rolling in Steve Peat will again rumble out in search of victory, and as the oldest true competitor on the World Cup scene, will it be his last season? “No, as long as I still enjoy it, and I do; I love racing, so I’ll be there. I think I have 3-4 more years left in me yet. I want to up my game some, and to be back on the World Cup podium on a regular basis.” He told me with a sense of determination, and who would argue with that?
Despite being considered amongst, if not the very best, downhill racer of his very lengthy era, and with an impressive 17 individual World Cup round wins and 3 overall titles to his name he has only once pulled on the rainbow jersey as World Champion, perhaps the desire for one more title will be what keeps him hungry; “It was a long time coming, it took 15 years, which is why it was so special. I think if I’d won 3-4 times that I would have stopped long ago…”
Watch this space, there’s plenty of life left in Peaty yet.