Connor Fearon may be one of the quietest men in the World Cup pits but his name is never far from everyone else's lips. When it clicks for Fearon he's magical to watch, there's simply nobody else in the world who can corner a DH bike like the quiet Aussie, and he has established himself as one of the fastest riders on the planet with strings of podiums.
After a stumbling, injury-hit season in 2017, he returned to his usual, consistent self in 2018 and ended up taking the number 10 plate into next year. We caught up with him for an in-depth look at the past season and to get his thoughts on the biggest talking points of 2018.
2017 was going great for you with three top tens and then you got a hand injury, seemed to struggle at Lenzerheide and pulled out for pretty much the rest of the season. What happened there? Were you riding with a broken hand in Gamble?
I actually crashed in Andorra, that's when I broke my hand and still finished that race. I didn't know I'd broken it so I tried to race Lenzerheide and I could hardly ride it.
I rested it for a week after Lenzerheide and it felt alright for the first bit of filming. I remember getting real sketchy like in one turn, I squeezed the bar really tight, just like a reaction and I felt it crack. I just batted on for another day of filming but I knew something was real bad after that so I got it checked out straight after Gamble filming.
This section becomes even wilder when you realise Connor was riding with a broken hand
Coming into 2018, you had the new 29-inch Operator. Did you have much time testing it before the season started?
Erm not really. Where I live there's not heaps of downhill, so during my offseason I mainly just ride on my trail bike and my hardtail. I raced national champs on the new 29er and then we went to Tennessee for RockShox testing as well, but I didn't have heaps of time on it.
I usually wait until the season and when I'm overseas, I'll ride my downhill bike heaps, but I guess the first couple of races I was still learning about it and making a few changes, which probably isn't the ideal situation.
Were you one of the guys that wanted the 29-inch wheels?
Yeah, I was really keen to try it out. You just hear different stories, some people hate it, some people love it. Obviously, the Syndicate guys were going really good, but I heard some other guys had tested it and they went back to 27. I was keen to try it out and make up my own mind.
I swapped back and forth a bit. I never timed the different wheel sizes, but the 29er just feels easier to ride. It doesn't feel like you're out of control. With the flat pedals as well, it just keeps everything a bit more under control. I think I can tell when I watch replays of me riding the 29er, it just looks a bit more tamed down than the 650b bike.
The first race of the year was Losinj. What did you think of it?
It was a weird race. It’s not often we race a World Cup on a track that nobody knows anything about. I saw a couple of helmet cams and it looked just pretty rocky. The town was really cool, but I just didn't like the track. You can't really say that because people are pretty quick to shut you down when you're being honest. I just found it had no flow and it wasn't really much of a mountain biking track. I hated the track so much and it was hard to go fast when I wasn't having fun riding it. It's not something I can change, it's our job to race that, so if it's on the calendar again then I'll just have to suck it up and make the best of it.
I got a pretty bad result there that I was pretty disappointed about so I went home pretty motivated after that race, actually.
When you came back it was for Fort William, that's taken a bit of stick recently. Do you like Fort William?
I really do. We do race there every year, but it's really fast and it's got a lot of turns. It just kind of snakes the whole way down. This year I got 13th, but the times were so close, if I was one second quicker I would have been eighth and my time was the closest to first place it had ever been, so that was a positive to take out of there. It was weird how close the times were at Fort William this year. For a track that's that long and gnarly, it's crazy to see that everyone's pretty much going the same speed down it.
You were hit by the start order changes there, qualifying seventh but starting about 20 places back. Does that affect you as a racer?
Yeah, I'll just get on with it. I just think it's weird. Ever since I started racing, the order is what you qualified in. I'm not really fussed where I go unless it rains, you don't want to be stitched up in the race. I think it's just weird how they can just change the order, I don't think it's true to how it should be, but whatever, that's nothing we can change, so just got to deal with it.
Is it safe to say Leogang's your favourite track?
Yeah, it's definitely one of my favourites. I remember the first couple of years when I started racing. There were a couple of woods and there was a big long motorway and that was about it. But now, pretty much from the start until you get to the woods at the bottom, it's pretty much just like a gravel, blue jump trail.
I really have fun riding it but I would like if there was a bit more woods. You can go there outside of the race and ride all the cool tracks out there, it would be cool if they could make it a bit more through the forest and a bit more technical stuff.
What makes it your best track?
I don't know. I was top 10 for the last six years, but I think just going there knowing that you can do well, mentally. I think that's probably the biggest thing.
Everyone remembers Aaron Gwin's chainless run in 2015, but you were the guy in second place and he beat you by one of the tightest margins in World Cup history (0.045 seconds). It must have been a roller coaster of emotions.
I didn't actually know he broke his chain until he got pretty much at the bottom, I honestly didn't. I was going to be second at worst then, which was my first podium and I was l so happy I didn't even care if he won. I thought that was a pretty big achievement, so to me, it made no difference if I won or came second. Looking back on it now, it would have been nice to win, but at the time I was just so happy anyway, I didn't care.
If Leogang is your favourite track, which is your least favourite?
Val di Sole is probably the biggest track I struggle on, It's pretty hard to get down there in flat pedals and sometimes I wonder if I should just put on clips and deal with it.
Back home I'm riding tracks that aren't that steep and then in Val di Sole you're just on the brakes the whole way, charging through big gnarly rocks and holes. I don't ride a heap of that stuff and I wasn't super devastated with 20th there.
Is there anything you do differently when you're struggling with flat pedals
It's pretty much just Val di Sole is the only track I wish I wasn't riding flat pedals on. I don't think I make any changes on the bike to help me stay on the pedals but you've got to ride a lot heavier on your feet. It's a lot more on the way you ride the bike more than anything else. I think at Val di Sole, where the hits are so big, you're just getting pushed around a bit more maybe than people that are riding clips. But that's my problem and I don't use it as an excuse.
Have you ever raced in clips?
Yeah, every so often I'm like, “oh, I should just ride clips and learn,” but I always end up just having flat pedals on my bikes at home and then the season rolls round and I'm stuck with it. I raced Leogang one year in clips and I got ninth and then I've ridden Fort William in clips in 2013/14. I can honestly say that clips are better, kids who want to race World Cup downhill should definitely ride clips but I just can't bring myself to do it, I just love riding flat pedals.
It's quite an Aussie thing isn't it?
Yeah, when I was growing up, loving downhill, it was just Chris Kovarik, Rennie and Sam Hill that were my three biggest idols, so when I was growing up it was the only way.
Is it the same in Vallnord?
Andorra is weird because it's a similar track to Val di Sole, but is a bit faster and has a bit more flow, and usually I do pretty good there. I think I got tenth this year. I was sitting down there watching Luca and I really wanted him to win, but then he went down and I think that got me into the top ten, so a little thing that got me there.
We ended the year in La Bresse and it was one of your best results of the year despite the rain, you mustn't get much of it at home...
I like riding in the rain and I never do it when I'm at home. It hardly ever rains anyway and when it does, I'm not going to go riding because it's going to be dry in two days. I always seem to do better in the wet, so I wish it would rain more for World Cups. Maybe it's just something with the flat pedals, just having a bit more confidence bombing through slippery bits than other people but I've noticed that I seem to do better when it's super wet.
You were especially fast at the bottom of the track.
There was so much pedaling in the top half and then after the middle split, it just snakes down the hill in a single track with all these ruts. That's pretty much what I love to do most, like hitting ruts and having not many straight lines in it, so you're just always leaning the bike over.
Everyone was just dead halfway down, they were so tired. I was really hoping for a podium but I just slipped out of my pedal right out the start gate and I smashed into the seat. I got it together for the bottom and got a top ten but I was really hoping for more.
Are you gutted you didn't get a podium this year?
I really thought La Bresse was going to be the one but it just didn't happen. I wasn't too worried about not having the podium, that wasn't a goal of mine, I just wanted to finish in the top ten after the slow start I had.
It's funny, they changed the points around and I was all angry about it at first but then but I only beat Aaron Gwin because they changed the rules. If they kept the old rules I would have got 11th and he would have got tenth overall. So after that I was like, “oh yeah, this is a sweet rule”.
That tenth spot is so important now you're protected for every race next year...
Yeah, it's a massive pay off. Anything can happen and if you're ready to go you're going to be in every single final. I guess it's also good for team managers to tell sponsors we've got a spot on Red Bull TV every single race so yeah, the team was pretty stoked about that as well.
Do you feel like the standard lifted this year?
Yeah, it's like Loris, Luca, Laurie Greenland have lifted the bar again this year. At some of the races I was watching this year it was insane, they were going so fast. Andorra really stood out, Loris was riding so fast.
It feels like every year people say that it's been stepped up but I think this year was a big step. I'm not sure why, it seems like every year gets more competitive. The top 30 seems to be as close in times as the top 10 was when I started in 2011. There's just young guys like Finn coming up every year that's fueling the fire for the older guys that want to beat them. Every year, more people are getting good, I guess!
You've been with Kona since you started racing in 2010 and you're always one of the first guys to come out and says you're staying put. Have you ever been tempted to switch teams?
I guess we don't have the biggest team and my goal isn't to win. I'm just really happy being part of the whole show and riding my bike for a job is pretty sick. They're not pushing me to win the World Cups and we can go do video shoots on the trail bikes and in my contract I don't even have to race all the World Cups, I can go and race the EWS if I want to as well so. It's just kind of the perfect match.
I've had a lot of really good offers over the years but I just love riding for Kona. I feel like there's a certain freedom I have. On some of the other teams, your job is just to do well at the World Cups and at Kona I don't have that pressure. They're really happy with what I'm doing and I'm really happy riding their bikes so it's hard to want to leave for sure.
Do you think you'd do worse with that pressure on you?
I might not do worse but I'd definitely enjoy it less. I couldn't imagine signing for a new team and knowing that they've just got me on board to get results for them. I don't want to ride with that pressure and Kona have been really good to me. I like the bike and I just think it's a good match. I'm looking forward to one day when I retire still riding for Kona and doing some other stuff for them so. I'm just really happy so there's no need for me to want to leave.