From racer to track-builder to team manager to commentator, World Cup racing has always been a huge part of Claudio Caluori's life and he has been a huge part of the sport.
It has been a topsy turvy offseason for Claudio though, with his race team closing its doors
after ten years, followed by the announcement of a new racing venture with the Izimbali team
and finally Josh Bryceland taking some very public swipes at him in a recent interview
. We caught up with Claudio to trace his steps from first picking up a shovel to becoming mountain biking's most famous trail builder and get his reflections on a manic six months.
How did you first get involved with track building?
The whole track building started when I was training in San Diego. All the pros back in the day used to go to California over the winter and out in San Diego there were no real good downhill tracks. So Sean Heimdale (who later became Sam Hill's manager and the manager of the Mad Catz Iron Horse racing team
) and myself said, “let's just build one somewhere.”
Two weeks later, the trail became the hotspot for downhillers to train and the Cannondale team had their training camp on it. That was pretty much the start of my trail building career but it was not anything professional, that was just for us to ride.
One of the first Velosolutions projects was Champery, did you set out to make something that difficult and gnarly?
You know, I didn't build it that difficult on purpose! The mountain was so incredibly steep and I actually just tried to find a rideable line down. In fact, when I walked the mountain the first time with the client, I told him, “hey, should we just find a different mountain because this is crazy?" His answer was, “listen Claudio, if you don't do it, I'll just find someone else.”
I had a dog at the time but my dog did not even want to walk down the mountain because it was too steep, it took a couple of days just to find a line down the mountain that would be somehow rideable. The track was purpose-built for the World Cup and World Championships but it was never meant to be a permanent track for public use.
So how did you go from steep downhill tracks like Champery to pump tracks, where did that switch happen?
Well, we had an old national cross country coach in Switzerland who was really pushing mountain biking in Switzerland. He asked me if I could help him build a little track in Zurich in '99 and back then nobody knew what a pump track was, I didn't either, we didn't even call it a pump track it was just a little loop with rollers. 10 years later, another guy had the idea too and he wanted to get the mayor of the city to donate some money to get a proper pump track and that's pretty much where it started.
The idea came up of doing it with asphalt in 2012 for the city of Chur just below Lenzerheide and we did it with a super motivated road construction company who taught us how to lay asphalt. Once we did that one we knew we would never go back to concrete, it is so good.
We have a special mix that gives you a smoother surface and you can also build it steeper. Normal asphalt is designed to be built on a flat surface and with the special mix that we have we can go really steep. In total, we're approaching 170 pump tracks around the world now.
How did the new Izimbali South African team come about?
Last year we founded Pump for Peace, which has the goal of bringing pump tracks into underprivileged areas. In the city of Durban, where we built two pump tracks into townships, there's the GO!Durban Cycle Academy. Within that program, they have two cross country racing teams for young riders from the townships.
Towards the end of last year, they asked me if I was willing to sponsor the team. I just quit my work on a racing team so I asked them to give me more information and let me think about it. It turns out the other sponsor they had for the team was a meat producer and there's no way I'll put Velosolutions as a brand next to a meat producer because I'm a vegetarian, I would rather pay double to lose the meat brand.
And they said, “OK, we have the women's only team” so they kept the meat sponsor for the guy’s team and now I have the women's team.
I had no expectations really because I know the circumstances these kids live in and I know how hard it is for them to compete against the privileged people who race in the same categories. It’s a cool thing but I really had no idea how big their chances could be on a competitive level but it turns out they’re already winning races.
You’ve stepped away from the Black Pearl and World Cup racing, are you still part of Red Bull’s commentary team?
Yeah, I'll still be commentating together with Rob.
Was it your decision to close the Velosolutions World Cup team?
Yes, with how everything is going with Velosolutions and what we do with Pump for Peace in the different countries, it’s just a whole different level of what we can achieve.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not against racing at all and I don't really want to step away from racing because that was my life for the last 25 years and I still love the sport, it just feels like I can have a lot bigger impact.
There are people who can manage a racing team better than me and maybe also are better at managing athletes and it's easy to replace myself as a team manager in the World Cup but what we can do with Velosolutions and with pump tracks around the world is something that I'm really grateful for every day. When I see these riders in Africa and India and the Philippines, this is something so fulfilling. I really had to say I cannot spend that much money on the World Cup team when the same money would do so much more if I invested it into pump tracks.
It doesn't mean it's forever. At some point, there will be a brand that shares my vision of cycling and the whole world and then we can approach World Cup racing in a different way and maybe then I'll be back with a racing team. It’s simply not a priority right now because of Pump for Peace and the Pump Track World Championships.
Are you fully recovered from your Losinj crash?
Yes, I am. I've just had some more checks a couple of months ago because I noticed how I was forgetting things a lot but the doctor said this is just completely normal after surgery on your head. Your brain will take up to two years to recover so there's no need to freak out. Even being told that by the doctor took so much pressure away that I feel fully recovered now.
The crazy thing is that I'm one of the people who says, well everything happens in your head, right? But when you're not sure if your head works right or not, you question everything. Every time you forget something or feel slightly dizzy you immediately start freaking out because you think, “Oh shit, am I falling back? Is something wrong again?” It's 99% that you just slept badly or you drank one too many last night but after a surgery every time you feel dizzy you're immediately panicking and thinking something's bad again. You have to get over this.
So we won't be seeing any more Claudio course previews?
Well, to be honest, I was actually trying to be back all last year but for Red Bull it was just too big of a risk to let me do it again because they would never risk some of their people's lives. It was really tough for me because I'm approached on a daily basis by people who ask me when I will do it again but it probably won't happen anymore.
I do respect Red Bull's decision because they are protecting me but they also need to protect themselves because it would be pretty bad for them if I crash again and then something happens. Everybody would say, well Red Bull pushed Claudio to do it, you know how it goes.
Regarding Josh Bryceland and his comments - what are your memories of the conversation that was had and the broadcast that followed it?
Well, first of all, I would never, ever use my position in the media to do any harm to any athlete. That's just the basics.
I considered Josh as a friend, I was a real fan and funnily enough the day before his interview came out I had a meeting with Red Bull TV and they asked me, “who is your favourite athlete,” and I said “Josh”. So I go home from that meeting, someone sent me the link to the interview and I could not believe it. I was like holy moly what has happened here?
I feel like I'm fully in line with what Josh decided back in 2016. His decision of quitting racing because of his carbon footprint was an inspiration and I really respected and admired it. This is why I went over to him and we were spinning ideas together. We sat together in my bus and I told him, “I think this is super cool” and I said I might have a connection to Elon Musk and maybe if we can activate that connection we can have a team that only drives Tesla cars and that only goes to races with a Tesla truck and that doesn't fly to races overseas and all of that.
We just spun ideas as friends, it was not a professional talk. He never ever mentioned that this was to be kept secret because the whole scene knew about him quitting. It was no secret and that's why I did not know I was not supposed to say anything on TV.
The reason I did say on TV that Josh was quitting is because I wanted to show the people what a cool dude he is. I live my life with similar considerations, I'm a vegan, I'm trying not to drive my car more than needed, I'm trying to limit my flying as far as possible and so I truly respect his decision and I just wanted to show that to the world. For some reason, this was turned around into something negative.
What was the reaction at the time?
At the time Rob then made the joke that maybe Santa Cruz should build him a bike out of weed and I was in the situation not reacting very well to it and doubled up the joke by saying, “yes, then he could smoke it”. And obviously, that was a mistake.
I doubled up in the live show that I really, really respect that decision from Josh. I wanted this to be seen as something positive and I believe it is something positive but a couple of weeks later I hear from people that I should not have gone public with the information because it was not supposed to go out.
A year later I met Josh and I asked him, “hey, can you explain the whole thing to me? I don’t know what went wrong there.” He said it was a real a*shole move and I said, “Well I'm really sorry I didn't know that, I did not mean to do any harm, I wanted to show how cool you are and how much I respect your decision,” and I thought the story was over then. That was two years ago and it was a big surprise when a couple of weeks ago this topic came up again and I don't really think we need to discuss this any further.
It was a misunderstanding, I wanted to do something good for him and it was taken to the wrong side that's all. I don't want to talk bad about him, I still think he's one of the coolest riders out there.
How did the Pump Track World Championships go?
Obviously, it was the first year and we had a lot to learn but people loved it. It brought together riders from all levels, from all countries and because we let all bikes ride together from all categories we had the same amount of winners on mountain bikes as we had on BMX.
It has the same philosophy as Pump for Peace, we want to make it accessible to any country in the world so we are bringing to qualifier to Lesotho next week just as well India, the Philippines. I want a kid from a township in Durban to have the chance to qualify for the World Final just as well as any top rider from the USA or Europe.
We have Pump for Peace projects lined up in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Central African Republic and Nepal plus all the normal projects as well. With all those projects we want to bring the Red Bull Pump Track World Championships to these countries so it's going to in a direction that cycling has not before. We are looking to develop cycling in a way that it has not been developed yet and I think the whole cycling industry is going to go big steps with that.