Lourdes 2017 was a race of serious significance for the world of downhill. In the French pilgrim town, the sport was shown a vision of the future as the Syndicate turned up with 29 inch wheels for the first time. Grey clouds overhead reflected the mood in the pits as teams looked on enviously at this new technological innovation and whispered conspiratorially about a Judas-like betrayal of the sport's values and history.
The weekend marked nearly 2 decades since a French DH rider won a World Cup on home soil and, when Vergier went fastest by 0.5 in qualifying, it looked like he may have been the rider to break that record. However, it was another rider who would scoop it away from him - Alex Fayolle. Fayolle had picked up his first-ever podium at the previous World Cup and looked to have put down a scorcher in finals in Lourdes, just 0.1 off Vergier's qualifying time. Almost as soon as he crossed the line, holy water fell from the skies with a vengeance and the limestone track turned slicker than ice in an instant. 10 riders were still in the start gate but the race was clearly Fayolle's as the live feed showed the sport's fastest squirming and sliding over a film of slick mud.
Fayolle isn't the first rider to have been gifted a World Cup win by the rain but it quickly became an albatross around his neck and he was unable to ever find that pace again. Earlier this offseason, he described it as a "stolen victory" and now, just two seasons later, he's leaving full time racing behind to run a privateer program, splitting his time between downhill e-MTB racing. We caught up with Fayolle to get his thoughts on that fateful afternoon and his new start.
How were the early days on the UR team?
It was really difficult in the beginning because I didn’t speak English so I had to learn fast and train with everyone. The 2 years before I was a privateer and had my father as my trainer, I didn't have really big sponsors so I had to learn a lot about being a professional mountain biker, not just a rider. My mechanic was the brother of Andrew Neethling so he had a big accent but he was really helpful when I broke my bike or had a problem.
What results were you expecting when you joined Polygon?
I knew that I was fast on some steep tracks like Lourdes, Val di Sole or Andorra so at those races I was hoping for some top 10s and then in Andorra I got fourth, so that was amazing. I did a lot of work with everyone and it was just the dream come true to be on the box with Minnaar, Bruni, Hart, it was really crazy for me.
Did that first podium give you a lot of belief going into 2017?
Yes, I had a lot of motivation but I had a new mechanic and I wasn't sure we could work together because it needs a special person. You can not just work with anyone, you have to be 100% with him or you won’t be ready, there is no middle. I know I have a big character so I wasn't sure how it was going to work with him but we became friends so that was a really big help for me.
He taught me a lot about the mechanics of the bike and we worked a lot. The bike was right for me, everything really fit me, suspension and everything so I had a big winter training that year because I knew 2017 would be a good year for me.
I remember that I was in New Zealand and I called my trainer and I asked him, “do you think I can win in Lourdes?” and I remember that sentence - “yes, you can win but you are not ready.” He was talking about my head because when you win everything changes in your mind.
Lourdes was the first race of the year and it was a strange weekend because the Syndicate had their 29ers and took everyone by surprise.
I remember everyone was looking for that only. They were talking about the battle between 29 and 27.5, not about Bruni and Gwin or something like this. “Do the 29 go faster than 27?” that was the only question everyone was asking so it was a little strange.
In qualifying you got 52nd which probably isn't what you wanted but were you aware of the weather?
In qualifying, I had a flat tyre before the rock garden so it was a really long way to the finish pushing hard and just trying to qualify. I had a good time with a flat tyre, I was 52nd I think. I was in France, my family and everyone was here for me so I was really looking for a good place. The year before I had a flat tyre in my finals run so I was a little stressed about that.
Did you know on the morning of the race that the rain was going to come?
No, I wasn't aware.
Your race time 2:52.7 was only 0.1 slower than the fastest qualifying time, which was Vergier. You put down a good run that was potentially one of the fastest of the weekend. Do you not think that even without the rain you would have got a really good result there.
Everyone told me without the rain you would have got a podium or really close to the podium or even better because you never know what can happen. When I crossed the line and saw my time, I was really stoked about my riding and I think that was the best run of my life. I can't describe the feeling on my bike, I've never had it again, I was just on another planet in my head.
I was really focussed and during my run nothing could stop me. I was really feeling good. This is why I am really disappointed about the weather because I really would like to know which place I would come in the middle of the best riders in the world with my best run. And this has not happened because of the weather and nobody was really close to me.
In the moment I was really emotional and all of this but the night after I just ate with everyone and went to bed.
So you didn't celebrate at all? Were you upset?
We just had a big dinner with my team and my family but after that maybe it was 21:30 or 22:00 but after that I went to bed, no beer, no party. I wasn't happy about that. For me, I didn't win this race. I beat the other guys but I didn't win. It's hard to be happy after that.
Were you putting a lot of pressure on yourself to podium and win at every race after that?
In Fort William, I was really excited about the leader’s jersey but I was too stressed in the start gate so I was riding like shit. I found some good speed and I remember I was 12th at the first split and I crashed in the woods but even with the crash I came 25th.
That was actually my best result in Fort William, even with a crash, so at this moment I didn't mind. I knew it was a big step in my career because I was faster on every track now. Even if I did a bad run, I knew it was better than the year before. I knew I was good physically but after Lourdes I wasn't really good mentally.
I think after Fort William overall I was fifth overall and after Leogang I was tenth. I knew tenth was my place, so I didn't have a lot of pressure.
Vallnord was good as well.
Yes, that was not a crazy run, just a good run and in my place, 11th. All my family was here for supporting me so that was a good weekend.
What position did you finish overall that year?
So you must have been pretty happy?
Why did you not race World Champs that year?
I was selected for the world championships with the French team that year, and I decided, with the agreement of Manu Hubert [France's National Coach], to leave my place to another rider because I was totally exhausted physically and mentally.
Do you regret winning in Lourdes?
I do not regret it because the weather is part of the race, but to be on a podium among the best riders had more flavor than this victory. I cannot wish that it did not happen because for all the people around me it was a magic moment.
What happened after 2017?
I knew that it would be really hard to win a World Cup again, I just wanted to be between 5th and 15th - just be consistent for the year. I was thinking that 20th would be my worst and 5th would be my best. Sadly, the opposite thing happened.
Do you think it was mental struggles in 2018 or was there another factor?
We were having some problems with the team and with the bike so that year went really badly because I didn't feel really good with the team and with the sponsors. I was more battling to be good with everyone than training or thinking about my racing so that was really bad and finally at the second race of the year I hurt myself. I was protected all year and that helped me a lot because without that this year I would miss a lot of finals.
The only good race I had this year was Andorra I think, and Hardline. But 2018 was really bad for everything and I never found a good feeling on the bike so that was really hard for me.
I had a two year contract so I knew the year after I had to work harder. Between 2018 and 2019 I wasn't sure I would like to continue with UR, we had some big discussion together. We tried a lot of things but that was never like the feeling I had on the bike in 2017.
If you're not feeling good on the bike it's hard to push yourself, everything's got to come together.
Now, with the standard in World Cups, if you don't have everything good, you cannot perform. Yeah, you can be 40th or 30th but you cannot be top 20 because the top 20 is so fast now. When I started the World Cup, if you were 20th, that meant you were good but not fast enough. There are a lot of guys that can win and a lot of guys that can do a top ten and even more that can do a top 20 so you cannot just be a talented rider and come along and do top 10s, you have to work, you have to train, you have to do a job.
You said you won't be riding with UR anymore in 2020
After Val di Sole, I told them I was looking for another team just to be fair. I had 1 or 2 teams in mind where I could have a good bike and everything I wanted to perform but they were looking for other riders, so that's life.
In my head, I was stopping riding at a high level. So until I think November I was retiring from World Cups but I knew I wanted to find something maybe just to ride and do as a privateer. My previous mechanic was happy to come back to the World Cup and so we started looking for little sponsors together, nothing crazy but just a little help and finally we found something so I know now I will do three World Cups next year.
The three best. Maribor, Val di Sole and Vallnord. The three I know and can get some good results and have a lot of fun. This is the thing I miss the most, having fun on my bike and just riding, enjoying it and not having to do videos or something, just ride and have fun.
I also found a sponsor for ebikes because I really enjoy it. I had an ebike from Polygon and I think I had the most fun ride in 3 years! I will do the one in Finale Ligure, the final EWS with ebikes and I will do some events for them during the year. But I didn't train a lot because I thought I would be not riding but actually I will do 7 or 8 events or maybe more. So that made me happy and I just can't wait to ride again and maybe I will get some good results.
So your motivation is back now?
This is not the same as 2017 for example because I was looking for results and the overall and everything. I'm motivated to just give my best and get a good result. I feel more excited now than the two years before could be.