When Manon Carpenter announced her immediate retirement right in the thick of the 2017 season, it shocked many throughout the sport. After all, it was only a few years after her all-conquering season in which she clinched multiple World Cup wins along with the World Cup overall and the World Champs title to boot. At just 24 years of age and at the top of her game, she'd recently switched teams from Madison Saracen to Radon with everything pointing towards a lengthy career with plenty more success. Even in Manon's head, retirement wasn't remotely on the radar. Those feelings came on thick and fast during the intensity of the race season and were impossible to ignore, Manon knew her head and heart weren't in it anymore and that left her with only one option.
We are now 3 years down the line from Manon stepping back from racing and she's been enjoying a more "normal" life now that the constraints of a race season and training schedule have been lifted. Over the past few years university has been her main focus alongside a more ambassador-esque role within the bike industry. She's recently graduated though and says there are a few exciting plans in the works so we should be seeing and hearing more from her soon, just don't expect it to be between the race tapes!
To start off can you give us a little update on what you’re doing at the moment, you’ve just finished university is that correct?
Yeah, I finished my degree in geology at the end of May and I’ve just been at home with everything being in lockdown in the UK. Alongside university, I’ve been working on various bike projects, and just riding bikes and sharing some bits and bobs of what I’m up to. I’m just about to head off for a summer in Sweden!
Was university always something you’d planned or wanted to do, even in the peak of your racing?
I’d always planned to go to university at some point. I did geology at A-Level in school and really liked it. I was initially going to do Zoology with Spanish in Manchester, which I deferred to focus on racing for a year, but I ended up cancelling that one to carry on racing full time and then 5 years later I felt like I wanted something else to be doing in the winter. In the end, it was a super spur of the moment application. I found out in July of the summer before I went that I could study geology at Cardiff, which just made sense to me because I could carry on training where I’d always been training, so I called up the university and asked if I could go. I hadn’t thought about going so close to home before.
How have the last 3 years post-racing retirement been?
It’s gone very quickly! It’s been great, I’ve just been exploring some other things, different styles of riding and different activities. A lot of bike riding really, a bit more adventure-y stuff but it’s been a whole mix. It’s gone really quick.
So enjoying a more “normal” kind of life I guess?
Yeah, more normal and more relaxed I guess. I’ve been enjoying taking more time when I’m out and about on the bike. I don’t have a training schedule anymore so I’ve had to figure out my own schedule I suppose. Not having a training schedule is quite different to what I’d become used to, but just figuring out what works for me.
I think a lot of people probably struggled to understand why you’d retire at such a young age but you’d already been around racing for the majority of your life at that point?
Yeah that’s true, my whole life really. I was at the family run Dragon Downhill races, organised by my Dad, when I was super young and then through school I was racing the Dragon series and nationals, then international races, so to be fair I was already travelling for international races when I was 15 which I was really lucky to be able to do. It’s funny, occasionally homework from primary school pops up where I’ve written about my weekend at a bike race. While on Madison Saracen we also raced almost the entire UK National series from 2011-2016 alongside World Cups, so I guess if you added up all those years it’s a lot of racing! There has been quite a bit of figuring out what else works for me away from the race scene.
Have you managed to strike a pretty good balance between your “normal” uni life and the mountain biking side of things? You’re still involved with brands and sponsors in a more ambassador style role.
Yeah I have really enjoyed the mix of study and bikes, it’s been hectic at times but in the end it’s always worth it. It wasn’t planned at all when I stopped racing. I was told by some to be prepared to have to give all my bikes back and that being it. Not from brands but people who I spoke to before I actually quit. I was completely prepared for that, to live a normal uni student life, and didn’t expect anything from Radon, but then I ended up getting involved with the launch of their new trail bike that autumn. Going into the next year I asked if they wanted to carry on working together and they were keen so it just went from there really. I’ve just tried to do what makes sense for me and what I want to do. I’ve managed to get hands-on with quite a few projects, and just be involved which is nice!
The announcement of your retirement came as a pretty big shock to everyone but had you been toying with it in your head for some time?
I hadn’t been thinking about retirement at all, that realisation came on pretty quick, that I thought I was done. I guess I had been trying to figure out how to make things work better for me, it wasn’t easy so I was trying to figure out how to make training and racing work better for me. Away from the races a lot of self-motivation is needed to keep things going over winter, and I think for a lot of DH racers it’s a fairly solo effort. I’d just joined the new Radon race team and I was planning on racing through university, but the actual realisation that I thought I was done, and that racing didn’t mean as much to me anymore, came pretty quick.
When did those thoughts begin to start? Was there a specific moment?
Yeah at the national champs that year, I’d been getting frustrated at the races a bit after I had a big crash at Val di Sole World Champs the year before. I remember discussing with a few people at various venues, about how I was getting frustrated with some of the built features at races that didn’t seem well thought out, or seemed to cause issues. So I was getting bothered by some things that year, and then at national champs I realised racing just didn’t mean as much to me, and that I wasn’t up for going 100% on the sketchier sections of the track. I had a lot of other life things going on as well and it just didn’t feel as important to me anymore, or that I was racing as fast as I could down a hill. Once I realised that it wasn’t for me anymore then it’s quite hard to carry on.
Do you think those thoughts were already impacting on your results in that 2017 season?
I was fired up over winter to come back strong after crashing at Worlds. I felt pretty good at the first World Cup, despite a minor break in my hand from an incident with a tree early in the year which was a bit stressful with being on a new team with a new bike. Lourdes was the first race that year and I’d felt good, but it got really windy for race runs and I got this thing in my head that I didn’t want to have a big crash first race back kinda thing. Then at the following races there would always be something on the race track that I had this thing in my head that I was going to instantly go over the bars on, I guess like my crash the previous season… So I was having flashbacks a bit, I guess, or I was just not as confident in certain sections. I was thinking it was just something I needed to go through, you always have to rebuild confidence coming back from injury anyway. I wasn’t thinking anything along the lines of stepping away at all until it dawned on me.
So it was just a sudden realisation?
Yeah. Racing has highs and lows anyway, everyone has periods that are harder and I was just thinking it was that. That I needed to work through it. I had some things happen in my family that same year which, looking back, took some of my energy and made me reprioritise things a bit, and I think that also had an impact on my decision. I decided at the time that life goals should be to be healthy and happy, and at that point I didn’t feel like racing was giving me that.
Did people struggle to understand your decision both from a sponsor's side and the general public?
From the general public not really actually! I was so nervous, it was really hard making the decision because obviously there are a lot of people involved and counting on you when you’re racing for a team, but once it was out there everyone was really understanding. I had some really nice replies when I told some people why I wasn’t at the race in Mont-Sainte-Anne, friends from racing, a lot of the girls who I raced or rode with back home. Then when it went out to the public, a few weeks later when the press release went out, everyone was really understanding. Quite a few people have said how brave it was to step away but for me I just had to, I didn’t really have a choice. It was hard and scary. I think everyone was understanding really. From the sponsors, everyone who I spoke to was understanding too. Obviously it's not what anyone wants or expects, but no one pressured me otherwise once I'd made my decision.
You had just signed with Radon that season on what I’d assume would be a longer term deal… How did they take the news?
It was 2 or 3 years, definitely more than a year as they’d built the race team up that year, it was a long term thing and obviously I had been planning to carry on racing for a good while longer. Joost Wichman was managing the team and he said to me that part of him wanted to try and encourage me to race, to get me to finish the year, but the other part of him knew that if he did that and I went and hurt myself he wouldn’t be able to live with it, and that’s kind of what I was thinking myself. I could have tried to make myself finish the season, but if I’d hurt myself before the end I would have been pretty annoyed with myself, and that was the main factor behind stepping away before the end of the season. I also didn’t want to get flown all the way to Australia for World Champs when I knew I wasn’t up for it. I think once you realise that, it’s hard to carry on. Joost actually came over to Wales later that year to ride with me for the launch video of the new Jab trail bike, which was good fun. Radon themselves have mostly stepped away from racing now. For the past few years I’ve said at the start of each year what I’m planning to do, whether it’s more adventure style stuff or different projects, and so far they’ve been happy to continue working with me. It’s pretty nice, and I get a lot of freedom really. Some projects come through Radon, like we did a trip to Scotland last year, and other times I can pitch ideas. I’ve also worked with other brands to bring different projects to life, so so far it’s been great.
3 years down the line now how is it looking back on your time racing and all you achieved? Are there any lingering regrets about not racing anymore?
Not so much. There was a replay of one of the Fort William World Cups this year that I was involved with, and Fort William is a bit of a regret. I always felt like the track suited me but I never managed to hold it together on a race weekend, or I’d get a puncture or get ill or whatever, so maybe that’s a regret but not really otherwise. The time has passed quickly and lots of stuff has happened since, I always manage to find something to be doing anyway. I haven’t really found myself wishing I was at a World Cup weekend, it’d be nice to go along and see everyone but it’s passed really quickly. I didn’t realise it’d been 3 years. Some of the race tracks do look really fun, and some of the Crankworx race tracks. I think I saw footage of a race track in Rotorua that looked good fun, but then some other race tracks I know I wouldn’t want to ride them flat out and I’m happy to admit and accept that.
You haven’t thought about any other disciplines like the Enduro World Series?
There have been thoughts of it. I always thought it might be fun to just try an EWS. I don’t think I’d want to commit to a full series again though. There’s a lot of commitment required, and it takes a lot from your life, from family and friends and things. It’s been nice being able to make my own summer schedule and keep time aside, rather than being scheduled by the race calendar. I’ve also re-evaluated all the travelling a bit, doing a full series like that involves a lot of travelling, but it might be fun to pick a few events at some point. For the last 2 years I’ve had plans to race ‘Ard Rock and some local enduros in the UK, but things keep getting cancelled due to extreme weather and viruses…
Have you been to any World Cups since?
I haven’t, I’ve watched them if I’ve been at home on a weekend but that isn’t that often really, normally out on a bike instead! I end up bumping into people through various events, but I haven’t been back to a World Cup. It would be nice to do at some point. I went to Crankworx in Whistler in 2018 but that’s it, I was going to Vancouver for a year studying abroad and it was a nice opportunity to do some events for fun. That was the year after I quit racing and I did actually manage to break myself… Probably the worst collar bone break I’ve had, and it came after I finished racing because I didn’t want to risk so much anymore! So taking part in Crankworx again was fun, but the trip to Whistler did end quite badly with a badly broken collarbone.
How do you find it watching the live streams?
I just watch them as a fan I guess. I haven’t watched that many, I saw Val di Sole last year when Laurie and Marine won and that was really cool to see. World Cup finals last year was also a great race! I do follow what’s going on, looking at results or general race content, just interested really.
Do you have any thoughts on the current direction and health of the sport?
I guess I’ve been out of it for 3 years now so I don’t know exactly what it’s like around the races. I don’t know really…
You already mentioned that you were outspoken on track direction in the past?
Yeah I guess I have my own opinions from when I stopped racing, I’m not that great at the fast, flat out hold on and hope kind of stuff which was the direction it felt it was going in. I got frustrated at some of the features, I didn’t like how features quite often get built very close to the race weekend and don’t really seem to get tested. Often certain features can end up getting fixed or changed during or after practice, or only once there has been a bad accident. In a World Cup series where there’s quite a lot of money being made by certain people… I’m surprised that more attention can’t be given to the tracks, or that money can’t be set aside to send a team to properly test or advise on features before each event. So yeah, I got frustrated by that I guess, I could probably rant or pick quite a few things.
We mentioned the B-Practice earlier…
I really don’t think B-Practice was a positive step for the women. I liked mixed practice, and while I do see the issues with having a range of abilities on track at the same time, practising super early in the morning is just not fun. You get up at 6 am sometimes to get to the pits and get ready for practice, you go up and it’s freezing, it’s generally greasy from morning dew and sometimes there was ice on the start hut in Lourdes at the start of the year. I think that’s pretty rubbish and the fact is the women are stuck in Group B, Junior Men get older or lower-ranked Elite Men can progress to Group A. The track gets changed a lot during practice and I get that the schedule is difficult because obviously they’ve got to fit everyone in, but yeah, looking back it makes it a hell of a lot harder over a race weekend. The Group A guys could get to the pits at 10 or 11 am, whereas you have to go to bed earlier so you’re also out of sync with the rest of the team riders. It’s a harsher schedule for sure. So just for an example, this year at Fort William on race day Women and Juniors would have been at the top of the hill for 8.15 am, with one hour to practice, and then Elite Women had another 15 minutes at 10.50 am for a final run before race runs. The Elite Men had an hour at 11.05 am.
I’ll note that now the top 5 Elite Women in the World Cup standings get to practice with the Elite Men in Group A for practice and qualifying days, but I’m still not sure about that. Swapping Group A and Group B schedules on practice or qualifying days could at least even things out a bit without affecting the rest of the schedule.
Have you been paying much attention to the racing in the women’s field of late?
Yeah, there’s been quite a lot of moving around on the podium which is cool, but there have also been a lot of injuries which is always noticeable in the women’s field, when you miss 3 of the top big players I suppose. It’s been really cool to see Marine coming through, as well as some of the new up and comers, or underdogs I suppose, like Nina Hoffmann, or younger riders like Valentina Höll, Mille Johnset and Anna Newkirk all coming up from juniors. I think it’s the first time there’s been a good handful of juniors that are all promising. I don’t know what it’s like for women getting on teams at the moment. It was interesting to read about riders like Nina starting their own privateer style team setups. Maybe it’s easier to focus the team around yourself.
Do you still keep in touch or hear from many people in the race scene?
Bits and bobs, lots through social media I suppose. It is weird because you don’t feel that out of it because you can see what everyone gets up to, which is nice but also weird as well. It honestly doesn’t feel like 3 years ago, I was thinking yesterday that it would be nice to go along to one at some point and just say hi. What has been nice with what I’ve been doing recently is that I end up reconnecting with people who I got to know during racing through various projects, which is always nice. It was great to ride with Vero Sandler while she was living in South Wales, when we were both around at the same time anyway! I’ve been able to reconnect with quite a lot of people who I didn’t get to when I was doing World Cups as well I suppose, and I also do my own thing quite a lot, but it would be nice to go and say hi!
Do you think enough is being done in both encouraging more women into the sport and in terms of equality too?
I think a lot has moved on which is good. There have definitely been improvements since I started racing and it’s really nice that women are just seen as riders in their own right, which has been the case for a while now. I see some people asking what can be done to get more women into competition, and staying in competition, and as much as it’s not all about money I do think that’s a massive part of it. Comparing the top female and male athletes, if you’re paid a 6 figure salary to compete through your prime years you don’t have to worry so much about what happens afterwards, whereas if you’re paid a more standard job salary that sees you through year on year, you can’t really invest in the structure around your racing and training, and ‘afterwards’ might feel more pressing.
It’s also the case that a lot of full time athletes get paid a base salary and make up the rest of their earnings from prize money or bonuses, which are never guaranteed and that adds uncertainty. So I think that issue is part of it, along with the obvious differences in available team support. Like I say, I’ve been out of it for 3 years now so I don’t know exactly what it’s like, but pay is still one of the big, obvious inequalities. I also understand that athletes are generally paid based on their worth to sponsors so, while there’s a way to go, fortunately women are becoming increasingly recognised thanks to increased female participation, coverage and general progression in the approach to the female side of the sport.
What do you think now looking back on your experience as a female in a very male-dominated sport?
The years I was racing for a team I spent 7 years as the only female, apart from one or two years when we had a female staff member along to some races to help out, and I guess that’s just standard, just how it was. Since stepping away from racing I have wondered what it might have been like to have been on a team with more women around. I imagine it’d be a completely different feeling not being the only one. Going to uni also opened my eyes to a much more fair, equal and PC environment. I’ve grown up around racing, and from 18 was full time in the race environment. It’s definitely a different world to ‘normal’ life or society, and while MTB can be a very welcoming sport with a lot of great people, I think on the race circuit especially the male-dominated bit can be more obvious at times.
You definitely get the feeling, not from everyone, but you do get the feeling from certain people on the circuit quite explicitly that the women’s event is lesser than the men’s, and you can get so used to that view that that’s just how it feels, which is a shame. I do think it’s improving, and the women have their own live stream now as well. Something that still bothers me is when some people think the women should be as fast as the men, like, ‘oh you’re just going downhill, what’s the difference? Why can’t the women be as fast as the men?’. It’s such a physical sport. Anything physical, it’s just how it is. Which is unfortunate for females but that’s how it is. I always think that it’s not necessarily the absolute speed you go at, but the competitiveness within a category. It’s exciting when there is tight racing and people changing around on the podiums. You get that in the women’s XC as well, with amazing events because of tight and competitive racing. When you get some really good racing you can see how everyone gets really behind it.
Moving onto your racing more specifically… 2014 was your season, what was it that clicked that year?
It was definitely momentum, that was my third year racing in elite and I was getting faster and more confident each year. I’d crashed in South Africa at World Champs the year before so I was super fired up because I’d felt really confident on that race track, and was excited to go back at the start of 2014. I just felt confident. I’d moved out from my parents’ home at the start of that year and everything was just going good, I ended up excited and keen to see what I could do. It was a massive surprise though, you always say oh I want to win a World Cup, but then it happens and you’re like wow okay… I think I didn’t really know what to do with myself at first, it felt super weird being on the top of the podium. You’re just used to being on the side with someone else being the centre of attention, and then suddenly it’s you. I was just kind of on a roll from then.
I got pretty lucky because I had a puncture at Fort William, which I was gutted about because I felt good, but Rachel, Tahnee and I think Katy Curd actually all got punctures as well, which kind of nullified the fact that I punctured for the overall. It was a bizarre home race for us Brits. I ended up winning 3 World Cups that year, I just got on a roll really. I took myself out in my van to the Mega Avalanche in the Alps that summer, so I was having a great time and didn’t seem to feel the pressure I think. I was just enjoying it and wasn’t expecting to end the season the way I did, with both the Overall and World Champs title!
The mental side to downhill is pretty big…
Yeah, massively. I guess it depends on the kind of person you are. For me it had to be fun and exciting, when I was loving a race track and excited to ride I had a good result, and if I didn’t it was maybe affecting me a bit more. I think some racers can be more neutral, calculated maybe, but it’s got to be fun and enjoyable. If it’s not it makes it a lot harder.
So is that what happened towards the end?
Kind of. Lots of things. It’s hard to decide what’s an excuse or what played a big part but there were lots of things really. I burnt out massively after winning World Champs. January the following year I was burnt out and the team structure changed so it was different going into 2015. I’d also tweaked my arm in the gym. I had a metal plate in my humerus from 2010 and after injuring it in the gym it wasn’t right until I got the plate taken out at the end of 2016. Heavy landings hurt and that arm was weaker. So there were a few things that were slightly different. I didn’t feel ready to start the season, and I don’t think I was ready at all to deal with the expectation I felt from being World Champion.
After a rough start to the season in 2015, I came second or third for the rest of the year, and second at Worlds, but at the end of the year I got the impression, not just from myself, that it wasn’t really good enough. It was a weird thing, I’d got second at World Champs and second at the last 3 World Cups maybe, but after having won the year before it just didn’t feel good enough. I think that sucked the fun out of it, when you’re beating yourself with a stick, trying too hard. I think you are seen differently as well, you get this status as World Champion and it didn’t sit that well with me. I’m sure for some people it’s great but I didn’t really expect it or know what to do with it. It was strange! I changed some things up going into 2016, and obviously again for 2017, but after some big crashes and life changes I guess it dawned on me that maybe I was done.
Does that World Champs win in Hajfell top the list of achievements for you?
In terms of racing for sure, obviously it’s the World Champs. I was really proud of that run because I had to push myself for certain sections of the track throughout the week, like the rock garden at the top that was a bit of a hold on and hope section. At World Champs there are a lot of cameras out filming practice and I knew I wasn’t as fast through it as others. But I was just excited again, the morning before race runs I overshot a lot of stuff in practice, blew through some corners and remember pushing back up to try some sections again. There’s a head cam from that run and it’s nice to be able to watch it back, I was stoked how fast it looked when I saw it! I got the bottom section smooth and it was super close, when I was sat in the hot seat and Rachel was coming down it was so close…
What’s your plans and thoughts for the future?
For the future there are lots of ideas and plans in the works, if I don’t have anything to do I’ll generally think of something. I’m still figuring out the details so can’t say much, but there are things in the works and we’ll see. I’m lucky that so far I have the freedom to pursue projects that interest me, and that I can manage and come up with my own ideas for projects. There are a few subjects that I want to pursue, so we’ll see how that goes! It’s been nice being a student and working on a few bike projects. I feel like I’ve been able to experiment a bit, not exactly taking a risk but doing things a bit differently and if they work they work, which is a nice place to be! I quite like having a mix of things to do, to try and keep a good balance. It does feel strange sometimes, I’ve spent so many years focused just on riding, on just being the best rider I can be, so it does feel different not to be spending as much time solely on training and riding, but it’s also rewarding to explore some different avenues and try new things.