Matt Walker Matt Walker has been quietly going about his business in the junior category at the World Cups for the past 2 years with way more speed, success, and professionalism than he has been given credit for. Finn Iles has been drawing attention (quite rightly) since being a grom and it has been a similar story at the WCs with Matt’s raw pace and talent not gaining the limelight it deserves. Take Fort William for example: fastest at all splits, 5 seconds clear off the pack, and a time that was good enough for the top 10 in elites… Take note, Walker is stepping up to the big show for 2018.
We’ve had a chat with Matt to get to know a little more about him as he sets his sights on the new season:
Who is Matt Walker?
I’m Matt Walker, not the Kiwi one…The local newspapers’ articles will come out and it’ll just be pictures all over it of the Kiwi Matt Walker, it’s good for him getting publicity in Shropshire but it’s confusing a lot of people I think! I’m 18 years old and ride for the Madison Saracen Factory Team, this year I’ll be going into my first year of elite.
Where do you call home?
I’m from West Felton near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England.
What bikes are you riding the most at the moment?
This time of the year I’m starting to ride my Saracen Myst downhill bike a lot more. In the off season I still ride just as much but just on my Ariel LT trail bike, I don’t get out on my dirt jump bike at all as the weather is shocking! I’ve been riding the Ariel a lot recently, it’s mega for the riding around me - there isn’t big hills so it’s suited to that bike. You aren’t riding up fire roads for hours or not doing any big mountain stuff, it’s a really playful bike with a lot of travel, the riding around me is short ups and downs so it’s perfect for that really.
You were on the prototype Myst 29er towards the end of last season? Are you still riding that coming into this season?
Yeah I think so, that’s the plan. I gelled really well with the 29er, I’ve got a 650B trail bike and it just feels like you’ve got the brakes on all the time! Like it’s really weird to go back, if I had a 29er trail bike and a 650B downhill bike I think that would be really hard as the trail bike would be real fast and the downhill bike would feel a bit sluggish. But because I’ve got 29er downhill bike and a 650B trail bike, when you ride the downhill bike it’s bigger anyway, it’s a bigger bike, bigger suspension, it’s got bigger wheels… It’s just a completely different mindset of riding so you don’t really notice it too much. There has been so much hype around it that it’s made you think about it more but it’s not really that much different. I just enjoy riding it and I think I get the best out of my riding on that bike, it’s my job and I want to be in the top 10, top 15 or whatever at that sharp end kind of thing and that’s the tool that’s going to help me to get there. So why would I not try it? That’s what I think about it anyway!
What would you say your strengths are?
Maybe growing up riding at all the Pearce Cycles races there’s quite a lot of tight, flattish stuff. Which is completely different to a World Cup, but I feel I’m quite strong when it’s flatter and quite tight, awkward and nimbly, that’s what I grew up riding so maybe that… As a junior I worked really hard in the gym at home which maybe others didn’t or not quite as hard. This last year I felt stronger in the junior class, obviously elites is a whole other ball game.
Do you have any weaknesses or terrain you don’t feel so strong on?
When it’s really deep dust it’s always a bit strange. Like Cairns Worlds was really weird because I don’t really ever get to ride it. When it’s steep and real muddy it’s fine, I’m just used to that I guess, but when it’s really dusty it’s weird because it almost gets slippy again. It’s maybe not a weakness but it’s just the thing I find the most strange when I ride.
What’s your favourite race venue, national or international?
National it’s Fort William definitely. Just because it’s an iconic race track, it’s a big race track, one of the longest, one of the toughest. Internationally it’s definitely Mont Sainte Anne. I just think it suits me because it’s fast and straight, you just have to hang it out. I really enjoy riding that sort of stuff.
Where’s your favorite place to ride as opposed to race?
There’s quite a few tracks around me, or within an hour of my house that locals have built. They don’t put too much in, it’s all soft dirt and loam which weaves through the trees. It’s just mint on the trail bike.
What’s your career highlight so far?
The big one obviously is World Champs in Cairns I think to be fair as results goes it’s probably that. But for me the best race weekend I’ve ever had and will remember it forever was Fort William World Cup last year. The whole weekend was kind of stacked against me a little bit, there was pressure from family and friends being there which is quite hard sometimes, I got a puncture in Lourdes which meant I was in B practice so that was quite tough. I felt like the odds were against me a little bit there, but then I did qualis and did pretty good, knew I had something left for finals and then just rode really, really well. I was just chuffed to put it all down in front of the home crowd, it’s one of those things you dream about as a kid and obviously Fort William is one of the best for crowds and support, and being British as well and winning there, all my friends and family were there. It’s just pretty special to me. I think in a weird way it meant more than World Champs because I was on the other side of the globe and there was no one there apart from my team. Although it’s a big thing, you get the jersey and a gold medal, I don’t think I rode to my full potential there, like I did in Fort William.
So you’ve come up through the Saracen Development Program, what’s it like to have that full process with them and now move into elites?
Yeah it’s been really good, they’ve given me support right from the off pretty much, I only had one year where I wasn’t supported by the same team kind of thing. It’s nice to see it grow from when I started, how the bikes have developed, this that and the other, how it’s gone into more of a professional team as it’s gone along. I’m really happy to stay with them for as long as I can, it makes such a difference. All the staff are British and everything from Madison here, your kit gets to you the next day, anything you need is just a day away, it’s not like it has to travel or get stuck in customs, you can all travel together, it just makes life a lot easier. Everyone on the team is so supportive and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
What was it like pulling the rainbow stripes on for the first time?
One of those things that you never think about, well it’s in the back of your head, like imagine the moment, but you don’t really want to think about it too hard in case it doesn’t happen. I remember being stood on the podium and just looking down and being like what has just happened? It’s crazy, it still gives me goosebumps now. It’s pretty nuts.
Growing up what riders inspired you?
I think a few different riders for a few different reasons. Maybe when I was younger I wanted to be someone like Steve as everyone looks up to Steve, he’s such a big ambassador for the sport. For rowdiness and someone you watch for excitement, if you watch Danny there’s no one more exciting than the riding in some of Danny’s race runs… For the style factor Danny has inspired me quite a lot. Then as I got older and started racing, Greg inspires me in a way. Just how consistent he is, whether he is on the back foot or riding well, or has a bad day or whatever… He always seems to work it out and ride well by finals. That’s quite inspiring. But Gwin as well just for raw pace and how he handles himself, he doesn’t get stuck into the social media too much or get caught up in it all, he stays back and out of the limelight a little bit which is pretty cool and quite mentally strong. Personally I just try and be Matt Walker and do it the way I want to do it and what works for me. Just try and take the best bits from everyone else and try to use that to my advantage, that’s quite important.
Any WC tracks of the past you wished you could have raced on?
I still haven't been to Schladming, I’d love just to ride it. I was trying to do the IXS this year but I don’t think they are running it. Probably Maribor, those two look proper sick.
Aside from bikes, what sort of stuff do you get up to?
I just bought myself a little kit car so probably razzing that around, I booked on a few track days local to me at Oulton Park, just doing that with my Dad, he’s pretty big into cars. That’s the cheap way of doing it and it’s proper fun, it’s just like a go-cart it’s awesome. In the winter when you’re not so focused on bikes it’s probably driving that.
Moving up to elites now how do you look back on your years as a junior?
Pretty good, coming out of juniors I couldn’t have really asked for too much more really. I felt like I rode well as a whole over the two years, I was consistent and ticked everything off that I wanted to tick off really. I feel like I’m ready to move up now, I feel like I need something different. It’ll be interesting for sure. I’m excited.
You mentioned your puncture in Lourdes, that wasn’t the only bit of misfortune in the last couple of years. Do you look back on any missed opportunities with frustration?
Yeah definitely this year I’ve had a few where it’s quite tough, like Lourdes I had a puncture, the first national at Fort William I punctured on both runs. It was just down to running too hard a spring, there was too much force going through the back wheel and it was just making me puncture. We figured that out for the World Cup and dropped the spring rate a little bit and it was fine. I’ve had a couple of crashes as well, at times where I really didn’t need it, race runs where I haven’t crashed the whole weekend until that moment. It’s been frustrating at times like Lourdes I qualified first. The thing is it’s been pretty tough, Finn has been the rider to watch and everyone wanted to know what Finn was doing and he was the best, which I can definitely understand. But I feel like I was definitely there and definitely pushed him…
Yeah you were a lot closer than you got credit for…
I think so yeah. I don’t think that’s too unfair in saying. I pushed him in Lourdes and qualified first then got a flat, then Fort William I beat him in qualifying and the race, Leogang I finished second by just over a second… Lenzerheide I didn’t race as I crashed and knocked myself out in practice. Mont Sainte Anne I was faster in qualifying and then crashed in the race when up at the split, things like that. Yeah, it’s cool… It’s just kept me hungry and motivated for it, so it has been good in away.
What’s the atmosphere in the team like?
Yeah it’s awesome. I think a lot of people say it that it’s not like a team but a family, I guess it’s exactly like that. I try to put myself in other people’s shoes and look in, it’s not like The Syndicate… It’s hard for me to say because I’m there, I’m just trying to think how other people might see the team. Maybe from the outside people can see it as a bit business like and regiment at times, but once you’re in there it’s completely the opposite to that, we’ve always got tunes on in the pits and it’s always a good laugh. We never argue about anything and everyone just gets on and does their job really well. It’s a great vibe and I think that’s one of the most important things, I guess if there is tension in the team it could really affect your riding, even subconsciously without you knowing it. It’s been really good, I’ve enjoyed riding in the team, all the staff at Madison are great and really helpful, that’s the reason why I really don’t want to move. I’m really happy with it.
What is it like having Danny as a teammate now?
Yeah it’s awesome, it’s kind of surreal I guess. When he first joined it was like, aw man it’s Danny, he is one of the biggest riders in the sport… It’s exciting for me as obviously I’ve looked up to him and now I get the chance to ride with him and train and really find out and understand why those top boys go as fast as they do, which is good and eye opening for me. It’s really exciting, we can go out and ride and I can try and tag onto the back of him and do some good runs. I think he is going to pull me up to pace without me even knowing about it.
If you weren’t a pro mountain biker what would you be doing?
Right now I’d have just finished 6th form or college or whatever I’d have been doing so I really don’t know! For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to ride my bike, I finished school and never really thought about college. I just wanted to ride my bike and Madison gave me an offer and the opportunity to join their factory team and I never went to college or anything, just rode my bike. It’s been a while since I’ve had to think about it really, I’d like to say I’d be in the bike industry but I don’t know how. If I wasn’t a rider I’d try and stay in the industry somehow, I think maybe as a journalist or something. I was always quite good at writing what was on my mind kind of thing in school, so maybe that, testing bikes for people and working my way into a magazine or something.
What do you make of the sport’s current direction?
It’s just getting faster and faster, straighter and straighter. I like how it is now with how professional it is, the sport is really showing itself as a professional sport and I think it’s really good. I haven’t seen it change so much as it’s relatively new and I’ve only been racing 5 or so years so I guess it’s pretty similar. But like you were saying I’d like to go and ride some of the more natural tracks like Schaldming and Maribor. I think tracks like Leogang make sense, it’s good for showing people how downhill mountain biking is in one way, people might not like racing it but I think it’s important to have 1 or 2 rounds of the World Cup like that because it is really relatable for people who just go and ride the bike park. If they watch Val di Sole they are maybe so mind blown by it that they aren’t really taking it in and they don’t understand it, but if they watch somewhere like Leogang where they can just go and ride with their family or their mates or whatever and just ride down the World Cup track that we race, when they see it on TV they might gain more respect for the riders as they see how fast they are going on tracks you can ride down yourself. I think people can appreciate that and so I think it is important to have tracks like that. It’s got to test everyone in all various terrain and this that and the other, I think that over the last couple of years is has really shown that. Each round is different and I like that they are doing that. If it were to just stay like that it’d be cool, there’s a couple of different venues for me this year. I think it’s good to keep it fresh and it’s important to keep changing the tracks up a little, I can imagine people do get bored of going back to the same venues all the time. So over the next couple of years keep putting a fresh one in and it’ll be good, keeping everyone hungry and excited!
What are your goals for 2018 and beyond?
I think 2018 the main one is to stay injury free, I want want to keep riding my bike and enjoying it. As far as results go I’d like to see myself inside that top 20 and on the edge of that top 10, top 15 bracket. Some of my results last year, I think I was in the top 10 at Fort William and most of the rest were inside the top 20, just to stay there really is where I see myself realistically. I’ve trained harder than I did last year, just because I’m getting a little bit older and stronger naturally anyway. I’m just excited, I feel like I’m ready to race my bike, I’m gelling with my bike really well and I don’t think I’ve ever been so comfortable at this stage of the season. Hopefully it goes my way, we’ll see! I’m just taking it as it comes, I’ve signed with Madison for 3 years which is good and gives you a little bit of security, going into your first year of elite worrying about a ride for next year is probably a bit stressful. They’ve offered me this chance to build into it and really show myself, I think that’ll take a little bit of pressure off and work in my favor. I guess just over the next few years, just keep riding my bike, enjoy it, keep having fun at the races, surround myself with good people and yeah that’s it really.
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