By Colin Meagher
Back in 2008, I was hitching a ride with the Yeti team truck from the US Nationals at Mount Snow, Vermont, six hours north to the Canadian round of the World Cup Downhill at Mont Sainte Anne. Sprawled out in the back seat was a quiet, red-haired racer named Aaron Gwin. "Keep an eye on this guy," said friend and Yeti mechanic Patrik Zuest. "He's gonna go places." At Mont Sainte Anne, Gwin became the first American to crack the top ten at a Men's DH since anyone could remember. It was Gwin's first year on a mountain bike. Riding for Yeti, Trek, Specialized and now, YT, he's since claimed four World Cup overall titles and fifteen World Cup wins. The story that Gwin came out of nowhere and set the World Cup on fire has been well documented, but we know very little about his past, beyond Mont Sainte Anne, Team Yeti and some talk about racing motorcycles. Where did Gwin come from? What forged him into the legendary rider he has become? A quiet conversation this past winter sheds light on Gwin's unlikely Cinderella story.
Colin Meagher: So, where did Aaron Gwin begin on the path to where he is today?
Aaron Gwin: Well, my parents used to take me to the local parks a lot when I was a kid. There was a BMX track near one of them and it looked like a lot of fun, so for my fourth birthday, my parents got me a bike and we started going. My parents say that I had a lot of energy as a kid – I had a hard time sleeping, they tell me (laughs). So initially, BMX was just something fun to burn off energy so that I’d sleep at night. I’d say that everything started from there.
How did your first race go? Where was that track?
Gwin: The track was in Desert Hot Springs, which is just north of Palm Springs and about 15 minutes from Morongo Valley where I grew up. I rode there for a couple of years before the track eventually got shut down due to gang violence in the area, and threats of a drive-by shooting. The track was in a super rough neighborhood so they were always having issues.
What's crazy, is that after the track shut down, they plowed the jumps and the land sat empty for about 13 years. When I was 18, the city decided to build California’s first BMX-only skate park
on the property. I was riding skate parks a lot at that time, so it was pretty cool to be back riding on that same piece of land. I still go out there occasionally when I’m home and not much has changed. It’s still a rough neighborhood and they still deal with the same issues. A kid that I used to ride with actually got shot at the park a few years ago, he lived thankfully, but yeah, crazy place.
Gwin: Once I got strong enough to make it over all the jumps at the BMX track without falling over, I entered my first race. That was a funny story. There were probably five other kids in that race and we were coming down the final straight towards the finish. I was in second place and the kid in front of me crashed on the very last jump, about ten feet from the finish line. I was worried that he might be hurt, so I actually stopped to help him up. We got passed by the kids behind us and I think he even pushed his bike across the line in front of me after I helped him up. I remember being surprised that nobody else stopped and that they just let the race finish as normal (laughs).Were you as competitive as a kid as you are now?
Gwin: Once I figured out that the trophies were bigger for first place, I wanted to win pretty bad. I always wanted to go faster and jump farther. A few years later, when I started getting really fast, I’d make deals with my mom. She’d say, “If you jump that rhythm section over there, I’ll take you to the Jelly Donut after practice and buy you any donut you want.” I was usually successful, but sometimes those deals backfired. I almost killed myself jumping a triple in the wind one day – for a banana split. Huge crash, I wrecked myself and the bike. (PS: If you’re reading this, Dairy Queen, I still love your ice cream and I’m ready to chat possibilities.)How successful was your BMX career?
I was the district number 1 champion for three or four years in a row and a top-five, nationally-ranked expert in my age group. I won a bunch of Nationals, but weird things would always happen at the Grands (ABA National Grand Championships). It’s funny, that race went about as well as my mountain bike World Champs have gone (laughs). I'd win the big races all year, and we'd go to the Grands in November and I couldn't even qualify for the main. I’d get T-boned in the first turn or some kid would crash in front of me and I’d mow him over taking out half the pack with us. It was always something.
Besides that race, it was a lot of fun, though. I was factory sponsored by the time I was seven. I rode for a big mail order company called Dan’s Comp and they flew me around the country to race. The team was sponsored by Vans, so I got free shoes, which I thought that was the coolest part. For an eight-year-old, I was living the life.How was your attitude towards winning at that age compared to now?
Gwin: Yeah, I think it's evolved. I have grown to enjoy racing more as I get older. As a kid, I always loved riding my bike, but the pressures of racing sometimes took some of the fun out of it. Currently, I enjoy my riding and racing regardless of the pressures that surround it. Competition is something that I’ve always loved, and I seem to enjoy it more and more every year.Somewhere back then, you stopped racing BMX…
Gwin: Yeah, right after I turned nine. I picked it up again, on and off, for the next few years, but we never got serious.Was there a particular event, or was it just time to move on?
Gwin: I was just ready to move on. At the time, I was riding three days a week, racing locally most weekends and racing a national or two every month. For a little kid, it was starting to get pretty busy. BMX wasn’t an Olympic sport back then, so I never really had any huge aspirations to ascend to. So, at the time, I just wanted to be a normal kid and have more time at home to play with my friends – and not be traveling so much.What inspired you to get into motocross?
Gwin: For the four years or so between BMX and motocross, I played baseball mostly. I made it onto the All-Stars team for a few years as a pitcher. I really enjoyed certain elements of the game, but it was just never the excitement that riding a bike brought.
Motocross was what I always wanted to do as a young kid. I always thought that motocross was the coolest thing. My parents both worked in the medical field, though. My dad is a physical therapist and my mom was a nurse. My dad especially just thought that it was too dangerous. He saw the injuries and the young kids that would show up at the hospital all busted up from dirt bike crashes. He didn’t want that to happen to me. So, for a lot of years, I wasn’t able to get a dirt bike. With the help of my mom, though, we finally talked him into entertaining the idea, and he bought me a Kawasaki KX 80 for my twelfth birthday. I was so stoked, I’d go into the garage every two hours to sit on it for those first few weeks (laughs). We started racing about six months later.And you started winning right out of the gate?
Gwin: Overall, I did pretty well for the time that I raced. I never rode a dirt bike until that first one that I got when I was 12. I had BMX skills – that helped out – but I had a heck of a time figuring out the whole clutch and gear situation at first. We still have home video of me trying to ride that bike for the first time. It probably took me twenty tries to ride from a stop without stalling the bike (laughs).
For the first year of riding, we usually rode about once a week, since the closest track was about an hour away. After the first year, I was starting to get more serious, so we started going a lot more. I moved up to 125's when I was 14 and started winning beginner and novice class races, and by the time I was 15, I was starting to beat a few factory sponsored kids in the intermediate class and really beginning to focus 100-percent on a pro career.Rumor has it that you suffered a number of injuries racing MX.
Gwin: Things were really starting to go well, but then I had a few injuries, which kind of put a halt to my progress. The first big one happened in Texas at an amateur national. This kid checked up and decided to double this big triple on the first lap. I was behind him, so I had to double it too, and the kid behind me went for it. He landed on me and I ended up breaking the humorous bone in my left arm.
I was out for three months and, shortly after I got back on the bike, I crashed again and popped my shoulder out. Eventually, it started popping out all the time, so I had to get a surgery done, which put me out another four months. After that healed up, I was out practicing one weekend and slipped my hand off the bars on the face of a big jump and hit the eject button. I was fourth gear, wide-open and just jumped off the bike in the air. Probably the gnarliest crash of my entire life. I don’t know how I walked away from that one. I did knock myself out pretty bad and jacked up my back for a little while, but other than that, I was OK.
After I healed from that, I had another big crash a few months later and I broke my foot. It was literally just one crash after the other those last few years (laughs). It was really tough on me mentally. A lot of the crashes were just weird, most of them my fault, but just kind of freak situations and they kept happening. I loved riding my dirt bike, but it was so frustrating to keep having those setbacks and at that age, it just wore me down. I wasn’t having fun anymore and I was constantly frustrated with these hurdles in my progress.
One day, I was at the track with my trainer, Mike Fedorow, and we were getting ready to put in laps, as usual. I did my first three warm-up laps and my mind just couldn’t focus. I didn’t want to be there. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I came off the track, rode into the pits and just said, “I'm done. I need a break.”
Mike and my parents were kind of like: "What!?" And I said, "I'm just done. I'm not having fun. I don't want to do this right now."
At the time, I was starting to get strong off my last injury and we were full steam ahead with training, and trying to turn pro and that whole deal. But, once it clicked in my mind that I just didn't have the passion for it, it was just over. I didn't end up even riding a dirt bike again for the next few years, which was kind’a crazy.
Now I ride my dirt bikes all the time and love it more than I ever have. I put a lot of pressure on myself as a young kid to perform and that weight just got to me. I wish I would’ve been mature enough to handle it because I would have enjoyed life and racing a lot more. I've come to that point now, though, where I love my racing and I’m thankful for those past experiences to have given me the skills to do what I do now.After motocross, a lot of people think that you went straight into downhill, but I heard somewhere that it was almost three years later.
Gwin: Yeah it was. I stopped racing motocross shortly after my seventeenth birthday, so I was actually still in high school. The school I was going to wouldn’t allow me to miss all the days that I was racing, so I had switched to homeschool. I worked hard through the summer and winter breaks and finished high school early. I graduated in the summer of 2005, and made plans to go to college in the fall.
I started playing tennis a lot around that time as well. Our local community college had a really strong tennis team and my dad knew the coach, so I started going down there every day to practice. As with everything I seem to do, I was super competitive from the beginning and decided about a month later that I wanted to play tennis full time (laughs). My hope was to go to the community college for two years playing tennis and attempt to get a scholarship to a big four-year university from there. I had about six months until I planned to start school, so I started taking all of my placement tests, figuring out my classes, and all that.
I was playing tennis every day, and within a few months, I started entering local tournaments. By the time college was getting ready to start, though, I just didn’t feel ready and I was playing tennis so much that it almost immediately felt like a job. Although I really enjoyed it, I didn’t get the same enjoyment out of it that I had racing motocross. I quit playing tennis competitively and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Committing to full-time college started to feel rushed. I wasn’t ready. I had bought all of my books for my classes and, with about a week left until classes began, I took them all back. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I decided to take whatever time I needed to figure it out.
All I had really known since I was a little kid was racing. I had never pursued much else. When that was over and it was time to go to college later in the year, I was in the same place that a lot of kids get to. I was facing four to six years of school and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I believed that I’d figure it out eventually, but at that time, I just wasn’t ready to dive into it. I wanted to live and experience life in other ways, I wanted to see where it took me. I believed that within a year or two, I’d find what I wanted to do and I could go back to school at that time.So, how did the path of self-discovery work out?
Gwin: My parents always told me that they’d support my racing or college, but if I didn’t do one of those two things, then I’d need to find a job if I was going to live at home. It was the winter of 2005, and I found a job at a local restaurant (The Spunky Monkey) doing basic janitorial work. I worked nights and would show up as the restaurant closed to clean the floors, bathrooms, coffee machines, and things. I made minimum wage and worked about four hours an evening. I got my first paycheck at the end of the first week. After taxes, it came out to around $100. I took the check and quit right there on the spot (laughs). I remember sitting in my truck in the restaurant parking lot afterward, staring at that check and thinking: “You have to do better than this.”
Next, I found a job at a septic company digging ditches and pumping old septic tanks. I worked with a buddy of mine on a four-man crew. At the time, a lot of the houses in Palm Springs were switching from septic tanks to the city sewer system. Our crew would dig out the old septic tanks, pump them out and then back-fill them with dirt. I had skills with a shovel, but this job definitely wasn’t as fun as shoveling jumps in my yard. We’d dig trenches from the house to the main road, where a six to ten-foot hole was required to find the city sewer line, which was buried underneath the street. We dug everything by hand with shovels. We’d go under walls, concrete driveways – whatever the job required.
I worked through the spring and into that next summer. If you’ve ever been to Palm Springs in the summer, you know how crazy the heat is. It’d be 120 degrees some days and we’d be shoulder deep in the trenches, digging and pumping crap, literally (laughs). It was tough work but I made fifteen dollars an hour and we worked ten-hour days, which made for a decent income for an 18-year-old kid living at home.
The owner of the septic company actually had a mini bike team (motocross pit bikes), and after hearing that I had raced motocross previously, he offered to let me ride one of his bikes as their “pro rider.” Minibikes were huge back then and I could actually make about $1000 a month by winning local races. I’d race pit bikes on the weekends and shovel crap during the week.
Around July that year, I had saved up about $5000 from working and racing, so my friend and I took a break from our job at the septic company and decided to go to Woodward West Action Sports Camp
to ride for a few weeks. Our plan was to go for two weeks and then come home, but my friend ended up breaking his femur the very first night that we got there and obviously had to go home. I decided to stay and actually ended up working and riding up there for the rest of the summer.
Gwin saved enough cash digging ditches to spend a few months riding his BMX bike at Woodward West. – Woodward West photo
At the time, Woodward would let you stay and ride for free if you worked a few shifts a day as an instructor or camp counselor. While I was there, I met a couple of kids and we became good friends, so towards the end of the summer, we all took a job working together at the summer X-Games in Los Angeles for Woodward. One of those kids lived in San Diego, so when we finished the job, we all went to his house and lived there for about a month. His dad was wealthy and worked out of town, so we pretty much had the house to ourselves. He lived a few blocks from the beach in Del Mar, so we would pretty much ride bikes and hang out at the beach, all day, every day.
By that time, I was practically living like a homeless kid. I was sleeping in my car, on friends’ couches, or wherever I ended up at the end of each day. I lived on Arizona green tea and fast food (laughs). After a few months of that, I was running out of money, so it was time to find another job.Time to get serious, or were you still searching?
Gwin: I was definitely still searching, but I was starting to get serious about work instead of just kind of drifting around. I had a lot of fun during those years, and I’m happy that I was able to experience the things that I did. I can honestly say that I never thought about settling into any of those jobs, or that lifestyle. I always knew that it was only suitable for a time until I decided that I was ready to fully focus my mind on pursuing something great. I really believed that I would do something great with my life, I’ve always believed that since I was a little kid.
At that time I was really starting to miss the racing scene, so at the beginning of 2007, I took a job as a motocross mechanic. During my time as a mechanic, I worked for a Factory Yamaha supported amateur team, then for an amateur factory KTM rider, and after that, for a friend of mine who was riding Kawasakis. The first race I worked was in Texas and my parents actually drove me down to a gas station off the side of the 10 freeway in Palm Springs. The team truck driver was driving through there and he picked me up on the way and off we went.
When I switched to KTM, I moved out of my parent’s place so that I could live closer to the rider I was working with. A friend of mine had a spare room with a mattress on the floor, so I moved in with him and lived there for the rest of the summer. I was making about $1000 a month at the time and living out of my old motocross gear bag. At the end of the summer, I actually applied for a job with KTM to be the full-time dyno tester for the race team. I didn’t get the job, but looking back, I’m so happy that I didn’t. With the hours that I would’ve been working, I don’t think there’d be any way that I would have discovered downhill.
When the race season was over, I was starting to think about college again. Working on bikes was OK, but my passion was way more in working with the riders directly. I really enjoyed the on-track coaching and physical training aspects. I felt like I had more to offer there, but to be great at it, I knew I needed to understand it better. College would give me the education and understanding of human anatomy that would set me apart as a trainer. Mostly, I just remember missing racing and I was feeling like the opportunity had passed me by a bit and I thought coaching would be the next best thing.
Is this when Cody Warren ruined your life? When did you ride a mountain bike for the first time?
Gwin: In September of 2007, Cody had invited me out to the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. We were good buddies at the time and would ride skate parks and hang out often, so we loaded up all of our bikes and made the drive out there together. He picked me up from my parent’s house on a Tuesday morning I believe. We bought a dozen donuts on our way out of town and the road trip was on.
We decided to take back roads the whole way there and he actually got a speeding ticket for doing 110 in a 55 zone at one point (laughs). True story – we were in the middle of nowhere on a two-lane road near old route 66. There wasn’t a town, a gas station, or a car in sight for, seriously, 100 miles. The road had these big rollers, as it went in and out of the washes, so if you went fast enough, you could actually catch air. So yeah, we were wide open, trying to jump his truck off these rollers and got ticketed by a park ranger, which we didn’t even know were able to give speeding tickets. The guy was cool, though, so he wrote it down as an 80 mph ticket so that Cody didn’t have to go to jail. Anyways, I’m getting sidetracked. Back to Interbike.
So, we completed the drive out there and the following day Cody had to be at the outdoor demo for a sponsorship appearance. We get out there in the afternoon and he was like, “Hey, go rent a downhill bike and let’s do a few runs. It’ll be fun.” So, I walked around the pits (Dirt Demo Expo) and grabbed the first downhill bike there with an open rental time. The bike was this blue Giant. I think it was still called a Glory back then, right? Anyways, I rented one of those and we went up for a run.
If you’ve ever been to Bootleg Canyon Mountain Bike Park, then you know how gnarly those trails are. I had no idea what I was in for. So yeah; there I was, jeans and a T-shirt, no pads, just a helmet, and goggles. I was expecting a chill downhill cross-country type trail and quickly realized that this was not that (laughs). The bike was hammered from the previous rental abuse and crashes. The suspension felt terrible straight-away, the brakes levers were bent and pulling into the bars, and I was scared out of my mind (laughs).
They have a section on the main downhill trail called “Poop Chute” and I remember seeing Cody drop into that thing, and I was like: “Dude, there is no way I’m riding that.” I literally felt sick just looking at it, like I was standing on the top of a ten-story roller coaster of razor sharp rocks. I didn’t get scared of much back then on a bike, but that experience definitely freaked me out a little. I pushed around that section of trail and managed my way to the bottom, thankful to be alive.
I remember thinking that I kind of never wanted to do that again, but at the same time, it was a crazy amount of fun. It felt like the perfect combination of BMX, and motocross – like this is what I was made to do. The realization that I had just found such a crazy new challenge was strangely motivating. I kept picturing that section of trail in my head later that night and thinking: “Dude, you really wimped out up there. Are you just going to go out like that?”
That is still one of the gnarliest trails and sketchiest sections that I have ever seen. I had no idea how much I had gotten ‘thrown into the deep end’ that first day, but I’m thankful that I did. It motivated me to assess and conquer (laughs). So yeah, that was my first real downhill experience. I still go out there to race almost every March for training and when I ride that section of trail, I always have a laugh when I roll up to it the first run.So, Gwin becomes a downhill racer?
Gwin: Yeah. After that first experience in Vegas, I instantly had this desire to become a downhill racer. I don’t know why that seemed logical, considering that this was my first and only experience on a real downhill bike and I was half scared out of my mind. But regardless, I wanted to get back on a bike real quick. A few weeks later, there was a bike demo day out at Fontana and I was back on a downhill bike. I met Cody out there and ended up renting this bike called a Nicolai. I don’t remember what model it was, but it felt loads more comfortable than the Giant. That was probably due to the fact that the trail was way easier and the bike wasn’t completely thrashed, but either way, I was loving it and my speed was coming along pretty quickly. I still had no idea what I was doing, but my confidence was growing with every run and, by the end of the day, I was completely hooked. I had found what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted to race downhill mountain bikes for a living (laughs).
At the time, I was turning 20 years old, I didn’t have a job, and I was planning to start college full time the following semester. That didn’t seem to matter though, I just kept thinking, “I need to get a downhill bike and start practicing. I could do this with a little practice.” Racing is what I always dreamed of doing and, deep down, I was really bummed that it never happened. As unrealistic as it seemed, this experience somehow felt like my one last shot at racing professionally had just punched me in the face.Legend is that you had only ridden a mountain bike three times before your first DH race in Fontana.
Gwin: Basically, a few days after that demo day in Fontana, I went to my buddy James’ bike shop, where I would hang out often. James and I had been good friends for a few years. He was a fast downhill racer back in the Big Bear days and he’s actually how I had met Cody years earlier. We used to hang out almost daily and he’d let me build bikes at his shop to earn some extra money.
Anyways, I went into the shop shortly after that demo day and I was like: “Dude, I want to race downhill professionally. I think I can be really good.” James and I had ridden BMX and motocross together for years and had become close friends, so he knew me about as well as anyone did at that time. I think he could tell that I was being serious, so he was like: “OK, I think you can. Go do it then.” He had the same belief in me that I did, which is crazy, thinking back. At the time, I didn’t have enough money for my own bike, so figuring that out was the first step. I told James that I really liked the Nicolai bike that I had ridden so he was like: “OK, let’s email them. Maybe they’ll sponsor you.” (Laughs)
I don’t know why we thought that was a possibility, considering I had only ever ridden downhill twice and never even raced, but I didn’t have many options at the time, so we figured, “why not?” James put together this email as a type of sponsorship proposal that basically said I was a past expert BMX racer, intermediate motocross racer and a successful professional pit bike racer (laughs). We listed some of my past accomplishments and James just said, “I’ve known this kid for years and I believe he will be successful at anything that he puts his mind to. He wants to race downhill and I think he can be a World Cup level rider, would you be willing to help him out? He just needs a chance to prove what he can do.”
To my surprise, they actually emailed me back a few days later and were super cool. They didn’t have a team, but they ended up offering me a 40-percent discount on a frame and wished me the best in my new venture. I was stoked that they replied, but even at that price, I was still far from affording a complete bike so the search for help continued. After calling or emailing all of the other possibilities or connections that I could think of, I came to the obvious conclusion that a brand was not going to just give me a bike based on past amateur motocross results (laughs).
After the search for a bike failed, I told Cody that I wanted to race and I needed to find a bike. He was like: “Well, I’ve got an old Haro that you can borrow for a while. And, if you want to race, there’s a local race at Fontana in a few weeks. Come race!”
The Fontana race was in late November and, by that time I had ridden a downhill bike maybe three times. I showed up in my old Fox MX helmet, a flannel shirt, ripped jeans, and some old-school Vans shoes – like the OG low-top shoes (laughs). Someone posted a photo on-line from my race run that day, it is on the internet somewhere, but I’ve never been able to find it again.
The format was practice on Saturday, race on Sunday. I had no idea how downhill races were run, or what classes to sign up for, so I asked Cody and he was like: “Just sign up for pro.”
I was like: “Dude, I've never raced before. Aren’t you supposed to have some experience or a special license to race the pro class?” But he said, “Nah, it's a small race and I know Donny, the promoter. Just sign up and see if you can get in. If they say anything, I got your back. I'll tell them that you're fast. You’ll do fine in the pro class. You’ve got the speed.” I’m not sure if I fully believed him, but since he had all the experience, I was like: “Sweet, pro class it is then!”
To my surprise, nobody noticed or said anything. I was just a name on the entry list and I think people just assumed that I must have had some experience. We stayed at a friend’s house close to the track that night, showed up first thing the next morning, did a few practice runs, and it was time to race. I rocked up to the start gate in the line of pros – nobody stopped me and I raced. I ended up getting third – almost tied the guy for second. I think I was a tenth of a second behind him.Who finished ahead of you?
Gwin: Yeah – Cody won, and Waylon Smith got second.Kings of Fontana, back then.
Gwin: Yeah, Cody, Waylon, Rich Houseman, Eric Carter. Those were the main guys from what I can remember. It’s funny. Over the next year of races that I did there, Waylon and I seemed to almost always finish on the same second of each other at every race. Sometimes I’d beat him and sometimes he’d beat me. I don’t think I actually won a race there for two or three years. I usually got on the podium, but winning there, with the huge pedaling section, was tough. There was actually a point in my career, around the end of 2012, where I had won more World Cup races than Fontana races (laughs). I’d always get smoked by Eric Carter and those older guys on the pedal. It took me a while to get that man-sprint strength.How did you get the offer from Yeti?
Gwin: At the time, I had been planning to start college again in the spring. I wanted to race, but even if I could find a bike, affording parts, travel, and lodging for a season of nationals that I knew nothing about seemed improbable. I knew that I had about three more months before I’d have to make a decision, so I basically told myself that I’d do everything I could over those next few months to find some support. If I didn’t have any help by the time school was starting, I’d make the decision on what to do then.
When January came around, the Fontana Winter series started up and my buddy Griz McClendon
was kind enough to let me borrow his GT for the month. I raced the first two rounds on that and finished on the podium both times. I was riding, training, and doing everything I could to get faster. The consistent podium finishes didn’t go unnoticed and sometime in February, I got the call I had been hoping for. Ironically, I was at a James’ house. Cody texted me saying that Rich Houseman was wanting to call me and asked if he could give him my number. I said “yes,” and he called me a few minutes later.
I picked up the phone and he said, “Hey, I'm Rich Houseman.” And, I was like: “Yeah, I know who you are” He then said, “Yeti’s given me the opportunity to start a regional development team. They're going to let me pick two riders, and I'd like you to be one of them.” He told me they’d give me a complete downhill bike and a dirt jump bike, as well as a few sets of riding gear. They weren’t going to pay for travel, parts, or anything else, but they’d give me a bike and the basics to start out with. I knew that I only had enough money to get to a few local races. This was my shot and I believed that if I could finish well enough, it would somehow work out. I also knew that college would always be an option. Racing at a professional level might not be. So, with that, I had to go for it. I told Rich that I was in.Not many racers move up the ranks that quickly.
Gwin: That next year was definitely pretty crazy. I got the Yeti deal at the beginning of February 2008. I finished out the Fontana winter series with more podium finishes and in March, the first NORBA National of the year came around, which just happened to be in Fontana as well.
At the time, Yeti had three different race programs going: the Regional team, National team, and World Cup team. The regional team riders got a bike and gear, which was what I was on. The National team got bikes, gear, parts, pit support, travel and expenses paid to races inside of the US. The World Cup team was obviously the full factory team with salaries and everything paid for to race the World Cups. When the NORBA race in Fontana came around, Yeti had a national level team rider who was hurt, and they offered me his spot for the Fontana race. That was my local track, so they knew I had speed there and thought I was worthy of the spot.
Justin Leov and Sam Blenkinsop were both riding for Yeti that year on the World Cup team and they came out to the race, so that was super cool. I got to pit under the full factory truck and everything. I was definitely stoked. I ended up 13th in the race, which was a solid result in a pretty stacked field.
After Fontana, Yeti was stoked on my result, so they offered to give me National level support again at Sea Otter the following month. I drove up there with my parents and finished tenth in the downhill. Sea Otter, obviously, isn’t the craziest track, but back then, almost all of the World Cup riders would show up, so a tenth place result was pretty big. Yeti was really happy with my result and basically said that, if I could make it out to the next few nationals near Colorado, they’d continue to give me the same level of support at the races.
I was stoked, that was exactly what I was hoping for. I don’t think I could have afforded racing more than a few more races without additional help. While I was at Sea Otter, I ended up meeting Keith Darner. Keith was running the same style of regional team for Yeti in Colorado that I was on and he offered to take me to the next few national races if I wanted to come stay in Colorado with him for a few months.
Keith lived on a huge cattle ranch with his wife Taf, way out in the mountains, a few hours outside of Denver. The next race I was scheduled to do was actually a Mountain States Cup National 4x and slalom race on the ranch where he lived. So, when May came around, I loaded up my little Toyota truck with my bikes, gear and suitcase full of clothes, and made the drive out to Colorado for the summer.It sounds like you were living one race at a time – hoping for a good result, so you could make it to the next one.
Gwin: Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly how it was going (laughs). Those next few months were pretty crazy. I ended up getting a second and a fourth at the National race on the ranch, and then just stayed there with Keith when the race was over. It was an 8,000-acre ranch with a full XC loop, a slalom track, and two 4x tracks. Keith and Taf both worked most days, so I just hung out on the ranch and trained by myself all day, every day. They gave me full reign with their 'dozer and tractors, so I built a bunch of dirt jumps and a super cool pump track.
It was definitely a really fun time of my life. I matured a lot as a racer and an “adult” during those months by myself on the ranch. Fontana and Sea Otter are not “real” DH courses. How did you fare when you first raced the bigger venues on the National circuit?
Gwin: The next race that I did was at the end of May. It was the next Mountain States Cup National in Angel Fire, New Mexico. Keith and I loaded up his trailer and made the drive out there. That was my first time on a “real downhill track” with an actual ski lift, so I was definitely excited (laughs).
Fontana and Sea Otter were cool, but I knew that my skills would suit the rougher tracks more than the flat, pedally tracks that I had been racing. I ended up qualifying in first for the race and, man, did I get nervous for finals. When I was riding the chair lift up for my race run, one of the riders beat my qualifying time by a few seconds and I could hear the announcer going nuts and saying the time. I actually didn’t have a great qualifying run, so a more mature me wouldn’t have freaked out, but at the time, two seconds seemed like 20 to me, so I felt like I needed to step it up big time for my final run.
It was a five-minute-long track at crazy high altitude, but when my race run started, I sprinted out of the gate like it was World Champs and I’d die if I didn’t win (laughs). The first straight out of the start was pretty long and then the track made a right into a super technical rock section. I had been pedaling
so hard that I came into the rock section way, way too fast. I pretty much didn’t even touch my brakes and just sent it in there absolutely yard sale’ing myself within the first 15 feet. I cartwheeled and my bike literally launched and got caught in a small tree about five feet off the ground. I jumped up, drug my bike down from the tree and took off in a panic. About a minute later I hooked a pedal on a rock and had another huge over the bars crash. I knew at that point that my run was over and I was gonna die if I kept this up. I made it to the bottom and ended up in 34th place or something.
I was definitely bummed, but it was a huge learning experience that I never forgot. The guy who had beat my qualifying time by a few seconds ended up winning, and I knew right there that I could have won the race if I would have just chilled out.
The next big race was a NORBA National in Deer Valley, Utah. Sam and Justin came out to do a few races with me that month and they ended up finishing first and second. I won the slalom and got fourth in the downhill. By that time I was definitely developing some speed and competitiveness. I remember not being super stoked on fourth. I was bummed that I didn’t at least finish behind them in third. (laughs)Having the opportunity to race with guys like Sam and Justin must have been a good gauge of speed to see how you were progressing.
Gwin: Absolutely. Those guys were so cool to me and they were a huge help those first few years. They were always encouraging and offered help wherever I needed it. I’m very thankful to have had them around at the beginning of my career. Like you said, it was a good gauge of speed too. Justin and I would talk about it a lot and he was always encouraging with telling me that my speed was coming around and that I could be fast at the World Cups.
After we got back from Utah, we all did the next Mountain States Cup National in Snowmass, Colorado and I had another shot at seeing where I stacked up on a track that I really liked. The track was crazy fast and suited my style perfectly. (It is still one of my favorite tracks that I’ve ever raced.) I instantly felt right at home in practice. That was the first race where I really felt like I had the speed to compete for a win with those guys. When it was time to race, I threw down what seemed like a perfect run. I rode everything exactly as I’d hoped and I crossed the line knowing that it was going to be a hard run to beat. I watched the last few guys come through the finish and that was it – I had just won my first big National!
I was stoked and, thankfully, Sam and Justin were stoked for me too (laughs). That was the race where things really came together mentally for me. I had believed in my abilities since the beginning and I believed that in time, I could become a top-level rider. I didn’t know how long it would take, but after that day, I knew I was getting closer, and that was a good feeling. Justin sat me down after the race and was like: “Dude. That was an awesome run. If this was a World Cup race, that would have been a top-ten time.”
That win was a massive boost of confidence to me and after that, all I wanted to do was get to a World Cup.So, one victory at a National event and you want to race the World Cups. “That happens every day,” said no racer ever. How did you get your big break?
Gwin: After the race, I had a talk with Chris Conroy, the owner of Yeti. He was stoked on my result and just basically asked, “So, do you wanna race some World Cups?”
I was pumped, man. I was never planning or expecting to race any World Cups that first year. I just wanted to build my skills and see where it took me, so I was excited, to say the least. I knew from that race in Snowmass that I could be competitive with a solid run. I was scheduled to race the US National Champs in Vermont a few weeks later and our race truck was scheduled to go straight to the Mont Sainte Anne and Bromont World Cups after, so I hopped in with Patrik Zuest, my mechanic and the team's truck driver, and off we went.Less than a year on a mountain bike and you are gunning for the number one plate? How did that first National Champs race go for you?
Gwin: When I first met Cody, he had just won the National champs race in Mammoth. I remember just looking at him with his whole Factory Haro setup and the Number One plate on his bike – I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Full on super fan (laughs). When I raced my first National Champs in Vermont it was a cool feeling, since that was the race I always looked up to. The track in Vermont was super gnarly. It was about 50 feet wide all the way down with lots of lines, incredibly rough and just really, really fast. The track honestly scared me a little, but I knew that it was a track almost tailor made to suit my strong points.
Coming off of my win a few weeks earlier, I was confident that I could win the race and that got me super excited. Everything went perfectly all week, and my confidence was even higher after practice. When race day came around, I threw down a perfect run. That run is still in my top five of all-time best race runs, as far as hitting everything perfect and just flat out laying it down. Unfortunately, about 20 seconds from the finish line, I bottomed the bike out super hard in a rocky creek crossing and just exploded the rear tire off the rim. We were running tubes back then, so that thing came out and wrapped around my cassette, putting an abrupt halt to my perfect run – and my happy feelings (laughs). So, your big day arrives – the World Cup at Mont Sainte Anne. What were your expectations?
Gwin: After Vermont, my confidence was pretty high, despite the bad luck. I had never ridden on the East Coast in the mud and roots until Vermont, so after feeling fast there, I believed I’d adapt to that World Cup track well too. My main goal when I got to Mont Sainte Anne was to qualify for finals. I believed I had the speed, but my nerves were on high and I knew that I needed to keep the bike on two wheels and avoid any big mistakes. It had rained most of the week, so the track was definitely tricky. I managed to put down a smooth, somewhat conservative run and qualified somewhere around 20th.
That was a huge relief. I was probably more stoked on that than anything else (laughs). Once I was in the finals, it was game on. My hope, when I showed up, was to make the finals and finish in the top 20. After my qualifying run, I was definitely hoping for more, but I didn’t think about it much. I just wanted to have my best run.If I remember correctly, you finished tenth in that race. That is a big accomplishment for any rider, but only eight months after stepping onto a downhill bike? You must have been pretty happy with that result.
Gwin: It felt good, man, really good. My race run was solid, I rode well and didn’t make any big mistakes. I had a bet going with my mechanic at the time, Patrik, that if I was on a good run, I would “Goon Air” the last big jump in the finish area, in front of the whole crowd. At the time, he was trying to eat healthier so I told him if I Gooned the last jump, that he had to eat salads for dinner every night for the next two weeks or something. He didn’t think I’d actually do it but I most definitely did (laughs).
So yeah, I had a good run. I threw down a big bar hump on the final jump and blew my foot off the pedal shortly after landing, but managed to get myself across the finish line (laughs). I was so tired at the end of that run, I was honestly afraid of sending the Goon too big and crashing, so I kind’a tamed it down. I think a lot of people who saw it just thought I had terrible style.
That race felt like 15 years of hard work had finally all come together to achieve what I always dreamed of: being a top level professional racer. I know that a lot of people saw the quick success that I had that day, and might have thought that it came easy. And from the outside looking in, I can see how that could be logical. To me though, it was so much more than just quick success. My path to get to that moment was anything but easy (laughs). There were so many long days, late nights, injuries, ups, downs, time, effort, and money that went into those 15 previous years to get me to that moment. I knew I still had a ways to go before I’d be winning races, but I believed that I could do it in time – and that race really solidified my belief.How did you celebrate?
Gwin: The team was so stoked, Sam, Jusso, and I all had top ten results that day, I believe, so it was a fun night. I wanted McDonalds for dinner, so we all hopped in the team truck and drove over there. We had burgers, fries, Mcflurries, the whole deal. It was rad – except for Patrik, I’m pretty sure he had his first salad (laughs).
I’ll never forget laying in bed later that night, reminiscing the whole day in my mind. It was raining outside and I was sleeping on the top of a bunk bed just listening to the rain fall. That feeling of accomplishing a huge piece of my lifelong dream was pretty cool, I was definitely stoked.
Gwin: After Mont Sainte Anne we drove to Bromont for the next World Cup the following weekend. It was only a few hours away, so I hopped in the truck with Patrik and made the drive over there to meet up with the rest of the team. The Bromont track was super cool. It was shorter than Mont Sainte Anne, which was good since my fitness wasn’t great yet and I felt like the shorter tracks suited me better. It rained a lot that weekend, but I felt fast all through practice. I really wanted to repeat my performance from the previous weekend, so I was definitely a little nervous. I ended up pushing a little too hard and crashed in this super tight, awkward turn. I managed to pick my bike up and finished 34th, but I was pretty upset, not gonna lie.
I really wanted to prove that my first result wasn’t a fluke and I believed I had the speed to get in the top ten again. Despite my initial rage, I knew that 34th place was still pretty solid, considering the crash (laughs). It was a good learning experience and I proved to myself that I could be fast on any track, I just needed to keep the bike off the ground.
Team Yeti must have been happy with their decision.
Gwin: After the two World Cups in Canada, I drove back to Colorado in the team truck with Patrik. When I got back, I had a meeting with Chris Conroy again and he was stoked with my results. I had missed my shot to qualify for Worlds with my tire explosion at
National Champs so I had to sit that one out, but he offered to send me to the final World Cup race of the year in Schladming, Austria, a month later. I happily accepted the invite and headed back to the ranch for a month of training to get myself as ready as possible. I raced and won a few more Nationals in Colorado that month and when September came around, I was confident that I could do well over there.
At the time, Yeti and I were beginning to discuss future possibilities and I was beginning to get the vibe that, if I could finish well at this final World Cup, I’d have a solid shot at a full factory ride with them the following year. I still wasn’t making any money outside of prize money at the races, so despite my good results, I was still struggling financially. This last race felt like my big shot at my ultimate dream – to race for a living – was finally here. I just needed to ride fast and not crash.Had you ever been to Europe before?
Gwin: I had traveled a lot within the US while racing BMX as a kid, but, besides a few surf trips to Mexico, I had never been outside of the US at that time. When September came around, I was a little nervous, but definitely more excited. When it came time to leave, I packed up my truck with my bike/gear and made the two-hour drive through the mountains to the Denver airport. I had an early morning flight so I woke up around four am and left the ranch while it was still dark. About ten minutes into my drive, I nailed a deer that had run into the road. I never understood how people hit deer. I always thought, “They’re big. How do you not see them and just run into one?” Well, I found out that deer don’t react logically and the thing basically just jumped backwards straight into my truck. The impact instantly blew the right headlight out and the hood was jacked too. It was sticking up and rattling around. I knew that I’d miss my flight if I wasted too much time, so I hoped the best for the deer and just kept driving. I parked my now sketchy looking truck in the long-term parking lot and off to Europe I went (laughs).European racing is a different world. How was that experience?
Gwin: It was a cool experience for sure. When we grabbed our rental car and started the drive to the track, I remember just sitting there, staring out the window and being stoked. It started to set in that I was in a different country on the other side of the ocean to race bikes. That was pretty cool. Regardless of my result, I just wanted to enjoy that experience and kind of soak it all in while I was there.
The next day, we did track walk and that was a bit of an eye opener. The track in Schladming is no joke. It looked like the coolest track I had ever seen, but I was also the most scared I had been to ride a track since my first day on a bike back at Bootleg (laughs). Practice started off good, but the root sections were definitely something that I wasn’t used to and needed to figure out quick. Sam and Justin were both super cool with letting me follow them in practice and showing me their lines, so that helped out a ton. It rained almost every night that we were there, so that was my first experience on full mud tires as well.
Back then, qualifying and race runs happened on the same day, so I put down a smooth, safe qually run to get myself into the finals and saved all the energy I could for my race run. When it was time to race, I just thought, “I’m finally here. Last race of the year and there’s a factory ride right in front of you, go get it.” I threw it down in my race run, hit all my lines and actually rode the root sections pretty well too. I crossed the finish line, saw my time, and I was stoked. All of the feelings kind’a just came rushing in. I finished up in eighth place that day.Two top-ten World Cup results. At that point, it was pretty obvious that you had the potential to be a top-level World Cup rider. How did that first deal come down?
Gwin: The day after the race I hopped on a plane back to Colorado. I think, a day or two later, I drove up to the Yeti HQ and sat down with Conroy again. He was kind of just grinning ear to ear and in short, just said, “Great job over there. Heck of a first season. What do you think about racing World Cups full-time for the next two years?” That was pretty much it. We worked out the numbers over the next few weeks and the deal was done.
I actually had another offer come my way during that time, but I wanted to stay with Yeti. It felt like the perfect place to continue my racing and future hopes of winning World Cups. I drove back up to Yeti shortly after, signed the contract, and that was it. I was going to race my bicycle as a “job.” I was so happy.Crazy year, to put it mildly. Looking back now, what are your thoughts?
Gwin: At the time, I was so focused on just doing the best that I could at each race that I never really thought about how crazy the process was. In less than a year, I went from a broke kid with no job, looking at four years of college and having never ridden a downhill bike, to signing my first professional contract to race downhill full-time at a World Cup level (laughs).
Looking back at that time now and remembering all of these details is definitely something very special to me. Doing this story is maybe the first time that I’ve ever actually stopped since then and gone back through all of those little details and memories in my mind. It’s been an equally crazy ride since that first contract that I signed and maybe someday, I’ll share those stories too.
There were so many individuals that helped me out hugely along the way, and I’d just like to say a big thanks to them. It was awesome to have so many people who believed in me the same way that I did. Without them, that process would have been epically more difficult, almost impossible.
I will say that, despite my level of success, I was never surprised by it. I was extremely thankful that it worked out as well as it did, but not surprised. As I’ve said many times, I always believed that I could be great, it was just finding the right thing to focus my mind and energy on. If downhill wouldn’t have worked out, I really believe that I would have found something else to enjoy and been highly successful at.
The same goes for anyone else who’s reading this interview. You all have the ability to become extremely skilled at whatever it is that you put your mind to. If you have a dream, chase it. You never know how good you can be unless you try. The experience you will gain in those pursuits, despite your ultimate level of achievement, will only build your skillset and increase the odds of success once you find the thing which you are truly great at. Don’t give up. Don’t settle for something if it’s not really what you want. It takes a lot of hard work, mental effort, time, and sometimes multiple direction changes. That doesn’t change the simple fact that you are capable of learning, understanding and doing great things.
See you guys at the races!