The World Cup downhill circuit has definitely become a bit larger than life over the past few years. With Red Bull pouring money into live broadcasts, web outlets pushing for strong photo and editorial content, and teams of all sizes employing photographers and videographers to tell the story, the excitement from each rounds is very much up in everyone's face whether you like it or not. And while maybe not as big time as it was in the late 90's it's getting pretty damn close with each passing season.
With all of this added attention to the biggest and the best, we often overlook what is going on at the other end of the paddock. Overshadowed by massive factory team trucks and pit setups, the majority of the World Cup field is on a do-it-yourself program with little more than a shoestring budget. In Fort William and Leogang there were over 200 riders competing for just 80 spots in the pro men's final. Add to that the impressive number of juniors and women and you have what equates to the population of a small village traveling from round to round and setting up camp in the parking lot week in and week out.
From expensive motor homes, to $1500 vans and everything in between. There are fathers & sons, husbands & wives, and groups off good friends trying to live the dream on the road. From makeshift repairs to stranded vehicles and the bitter taste of just missing out, we take a quick walk through the privateer side of things to give some insight into what it's all about.
As the setups of the big teams keep getting bigger and bigger, and sponsorship budgets often times not reaching outside the top 20, it takes some clever planning and a unique lifestyle for the dedicated up and coming riders who are looking to make a name for themselves on the World Cup circuit. While definitely not as glamorous as a full factory ride, and with many many unforeseen challenges along the way, it is the privateers who truly make up the backbone of our sport.
It's all about having the basics covered. Food, water and shelter being the most obvious of course, but often times this is easier said then done. When your main form of transport doubles as your pit space it isn't so simple to drive to the grocery store or nearest restaurant, and when a storm rolls though you had better have a way to stay dry and keep everything from blowing away. For this reason the go-to privateer setup these days seems to be converted vans. While some have the budget for full on motor homes, more often then not it's more of a do it yourself and build your own style that is most common.
Sometimes when far from home for weeks at a time in a foreign country, it's all about trying to find some sense of normalcy and just a little, if any comforts that remind you of home. Access to wifi is limited so communication with loved ones can be difficult, as can staying on top of current events around the world and in you own country. For many there is definitely a sense of being cut off from the outside world.
While there is definitely a stark contrast between the factory pits and the privateers, there are a few teams out there who blur the lines a bit. Team's like Dirt/Orange, Begamont Hayes, and Pivot all have some degree of industry backing to help with some cost and logistics, but in the end they are still very much out there on their own.
Privateer life is all about rolling with the punches, improvisation, and looking out for each other. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst the privateers, and while I wouldn't suggest that their isn't amongst the top riders as well, it is just simply different at the other end of the spectrum. Lots of favors are given and owed over the course of a weekend and riders do what they can to help their fellow competitor out.
It's not just the riders looking to get by with a little help from their friends.
Regardless of setup or budget it still comes down one common goal, and that is to compete and to race at the highest level. With fields pushing 200 riders and only 80 spots open for the finals, competition is stiff and all riders need to bring their A-Game to qualifying if they stand a chance to make the final cup. Travel nightmares, sleepless nights, dirty gear, and lingering injuries all take a back seat with your in the starting gate. Once those final 5 beeps begin, all is forgotten. Nothing else matters, that's the beauty of racing.