would be the first to tell you that 2018 will not go down as the best year of his life. It marked the final season of the YT Mob's contract - the dream team that Gwin himself had assembled. Results were important. Gwin started strong, with a decisive win at the first World Cup round in Croatia and was handily in the green at Fort Bill before a crash sidelined him with a dislocated thumb, of all things. The YT Mobster then had to watch as the series overall was decided before he was cleared to race again. Literally, to add insult to injury, YT announced shortly after the World Championships that they were going to drop out of World Cup downhill competition. Gwin was informed that he didn't have a job the evening after the race.
The road that led to today's announcement
began an hour later, after Gwin shook off the disappointment, picked up his phone, and called Jeff Steber from his hotel room in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Earlier this month, Aaron and I talked about the events that led up to the new Intense Factory Racing Team, and his thoughts on the transition from racer to team owner.
How have the last few months been going? A new team, rehabbing your hand, a house under construction... You’ve got a lot going on.
Everything’s been great man. Definitely busy, but all is going really well. My thumb's all good now and it doesn’t limit me at all when I ride or workout - so that’s been sweet. That was definitely an annoying injury last year. The house is coming along great as well. I should be moved in there in the next month or so, we’ve just got a few things to finish up.
The rest of life is good, just been really enjoying hanging with my friends and family, riding, and going about my business. I’ve learned a lot in the last few months and made some big steps forward professionally as a team owner now, so that’s been exciting. I’m just working hard to dial everything in.
Before we get too far into the new team, let’s go back in time. Towards the close of the 2018 season, it appeared that you were back on form and all was good. After the Worlds, however, we heard that YT wasn’t going to have a DH team. And, now they do. What was all that craziness about?
Ya, that whole situation came as a pretty big shock to me for sure. I had been chatting and negotiating with YT for the new contract since the Croatia World Cup earlier in the year. We went back and forth a bit to find an agreement that everyone was happy with and I felt that things were going well. I was happy with where everything landed and it looked like we’d be moving forward. I even had a chat with YT as late as Friday night before Worlds. I was told everything was good - to just focus on the race. We planned to meet again Sunday after the race to get it all finalized. I had a meeting with the owner of YT after dinner that night and was surprised when I was told that they wouldn’t be moving forward with the program. They thanked me for my involvement the last three years, and that was it.
Martin Whitely was managing the YT Mob and he’s known for his sharp insight. He didn’t see the YT break coming? Did he give you a heads up of any sort?
I believe that they told him later that night after they told me. I don’t know for a fact when they began negotiating their new deal together, but a few weeks after Worlds, I got an email from Martin informing me that YT was continuing with the program and that he was going to stay with them moving forward - but without Neko or myself.
I had talked to Martin prior to that email and was already working on finding a new frame (title) sponsor to support our team, so when he dropped out, that news was pretty tough to take at first. In the end, it was more of a blessing in disguise, which resulted in this awesome program that we have now, so I’m stoked with everything.
When you formed the YT Mob, didn’t you ask Martin to run the program that you were putting together?
Well yes and no, I brought him on as a manager but allowed him to keep ownership of the team when he asked me if I wanted to own the team. At that time, I didn’t want the administrative burden and I told him I was fine with him owning the team. He agreed to be an extension of my desired team structure, management, oversight, and administration, and to manage the logistical side of running the program. I already had the YT deal lined up before I chatted with him originally and I negotiated the rest of our contracts to meet our budget.
Gwin, powerful and confident, winning the opening round of the 2018 World Cup for YT.
I’m sure you’ve read the posts. Do you think it was just about the money and a crop of fresh talent that could be acquired for a substantially smaller investment?
I was told by Martin that YT got everything out of me that they had wanted and that they didn’t need me moving forward. I suppose it was just “business” and as to their future plans, I don’t know.
By the time World Championships roll around, most teams have nailed down their key talent and major sponsors for the next season. I imagine that didn’t leave you with many options. What were your thoughts then?
Haha! It was a tough spot, for sure. I took about an hour to gather my thoughts in the hotel room that night after Worlds and then just picked up the phone and started making calls. Jeff Steber at Intense was one of the first people that I called. I also had a lot of our other sponsor deals already verbally agreed upon, so I wanted to inform them of the news. It really hit us all off guard. From there, everything got put on hold for a few months until I could find a frame sponsor and put together a new program.
Were there any other offers? When did Intense come onto your radar?
I had interest from three other main brands at that time. Intense was one of them. Jeff and I have been buddies for a long time, but the timing had just never worked out right for us to seriously discuss our options. Intense, as a brand, has been in a bit of a transitional stage this year and there are a lot of big things happening behind the scenes. A few key pieces finally fell into place for them around September and October which ended up making the timing of my availability pretty perfect for all of us.
It would be heroic if Intense could fund a World Cup DH team on its own, but I imagine there are some other sponsors in this story, who stepped up?
Primarily, it was Intense who stepped up. They saw the value and wanted to make it happen. It takes a lot of money, time and infrastructure to run a World Cup race team at the highest level, so the amount I was looking for was well worth it to them. They never questioned my value from the beginning. We’ve got a great group of co-sponsors as well, and everyone has been working together so well to support me running this program now. It’s been pretty amazing to put this all together like we have and I’m just excited to be back at the races, doing what I love and supporting our guys the best we can.
How did Jack and Neko get selected for the team?
Jack was still in the middle of his previous contract with Intense, so we agreed to bring him on to the new set up, which was awesome for all of us. Jack’s a great rider and very professional. I’m really looking forward to working with him.
I was under the impression that Charlie and Dean already had other offers and were on the move when I began talking with Intense, so that left one remaining spot open on the team. I discussed it heavily with Intense and we all agreed that Neko was the perfect fit. I’m so stoked with our group of riders. We’ve got a fun team and I think we’re gonna do some damage at the races this year.
You, Neko and Jack each have different kit sponsors. What's up with that?
I've always fought pretty hard to wear my own gear. It's caused some conflict over the years, since that's not traditionally how teams are run, but I believe that it's fitting to have. Now that I've been in a position to decide on team gear with YT, and now Intense, it's been very important to me that all of the riders are able to pursue their own gear sponsors. A rider can make a good amount of salary on a gear deal and I believe that, in most cases, the rider should be the one benefiting from those funds, not the team. There's also the image thing and I think it's fitting to allow each rider to wear what they want to wear and create their own image that they're stoked on.
I believe it’s good for the sport as a whole to have that diversity. Wearing cool kits is one of the things I've loved since I was a kid and taking that freedom away from a rider just doesn't fit on our program. There's also safety and other things to think about with helmets, which preference of shoes, pedals, and goggles. I wouldn't feel right demanding that a rider lock up all of those categories and be forced to wear something they’re not comfortable with, especially when the athlete is not being compensated additionally from the team for it. There may be a situation where I'd be open to all of our riders running the same gear, but they'd have to be completely stoked on it and I'd split the moneys up appropriately. I think it’s better to just leave it up to them to run what they want.
Being a team owner now. That’s a job in itself. How will you manage the day to day without it cutting into your performance on the track?
Proper infrastructure is really key to me. I’ve put in a lot of hours these last few months to get our foundation solid and I’ve hired some great people that I believe in to help me manage the varying responsibilities. My goal has been to dial things in super solid from the beginning so that everyone will have what they need and be set up for success in a fun, supportive atmosphere.
Todd Schumlick and Cathy Zinck are a huge part of executing my desires about how I’d like this program
to be run. When the season starts, they’ll be the ones carrying out the day to day responsibilities and I’ll be freed up to ride and to oversee the program from the background. I was already doing a lot of these things on my previous program, so this is just another step up as a racer and professional.
Sponsors you have worked with say that you play an active role in their product development. Should we anticipate Gwin-influenced bikes from Intense?
Absolutely. That was a huge draw for both Intense and myself. Jeff and I love to work on product and we’ve already got ideas and projects going to push things forward. We both got pretty excited when this whole program began to take shape because it’s kind of always been the ideal scenario. Our whole team will be in this development process together as well, so we’ll have all of the riders and mechanics involved to make these bikes as good as we possibly can.
How does Aaron Gwin today envision Aaron Gwin four years from now?
Haha! Oh man, I guess you never really know, but I am extremely happy with where I’m at right now. I’m excited about these next years with Intense in a unique kind of way. I enjoy riding my bike and racing now more than I ever have, and that passion somehow seems to keep growing by the day. I get to work with some great people and I’m just excited to be back on the track racing and hanging with our fans. I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun these next few years.