In an era of growing professionalism, there's one rider who is still willing to drink G&Ts on the hotseat, ride down World Cup tracks on hardtails and still be capable of podiums - Phil Atwill.
Phil burst on to the scene through his rowdy edits with the Dirt Propain team but he was soon proving himself on the race track too. In 2017, he grabbed his first ever podium and seemed poised to break into the upper echelons of the sport. Unfortunately, a couple of off-season knocks last year stopped him in his tracks and he struggled to reclaim that form in 2018.
This year he's back with a new team, Cube. It's fair to say Cube have been a largely straight-laced presence on the World Cup circuit, so how does that fit with Phil's wildman image? We caught up with Phil to talk about his struggles in 2018, his new team and how he's settling in to his new home in Greece.
How do you look back on last year? Especially the first three rounds? Coming off a season with a podium to then struggling to qualify. I mean obviously there was an injury at play but people didn't really know that.
Man, last year was hard. Snapping my ACL in late November and getting surgery in December 2017 wasn’t easy for me or my manager Ben [Reid] at the time because in a way we had to keep it quiet to get the deals secured during the off season. This was good and bad but it meant I still had a job coming into 2018. Not a nice position for anyone to be in.
After my surgery I got on the road bike pretty quickly and worked hard with my trainer at the time, Joel Llande, to get some fitness and strength back. After a month and a half, things were feeling way better, I could straighten my leg properly and was able to walk without crutches but I was a long way off riding my DH bike. In my head I was convinced I was going to be at the first World Cup and as competitive as I had left off the season before. I was also lucky enough to get a deal with CTi and got custom braces made up before the races kicked off and without that left knee brace I wouldn’t been anywhere at any of the races last year.
The first three World Cups were hard mentally, Croatia was really tough. No one really knew I had an injury and I’m sure they just thought I was riding shit. In hindsight I shouldn’t have even been trying to race. My knee was the size of a melon and I’d ridden my downhill bike three or four times prior. I was still so certain in my head that I could be back racing where I left off but practice was tough. When I missed quali by half a second, that was a cruel reminder I was way off the pace and had a lot of work to put in, and with the new top 60 rule it felt even harder to get qualified and get some confidence back.
In Fort William I was feeling a bit better on the bike but definitely wasn't my old self, my knee was pretty swollen but better than it had been. I was dead nervous up top before my quali run and crashed just after the deer gate missing the finals once again. I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t miss it by much at all but my Dad was there watching and that really hurt. A few beers were had that night to try ease the pain.
Leogang came around and I felt way better on my bike, I felt like myself a little bit, which was cool. Everything was going pretty smooth, I just made a few little mistakes in quali and it’s a tight track to qualify on, like within ten seconds of the fastest dude. Yeah sh*t, 60th, that was lucky, honestly I think I would have taken a step back and had a rethink what I wanted to do for the rest of the year If I hadn’t made the finals at that one but luckily it worked out the way it did and it was a huge relief.
Did that give you a confidence boost?
It was a relief, I honestly reckon if I didn't qualify 60th then I would have just pulled out of the rest of the season but it gave me the light to keep going and try and pull everything back together. It’s fair to say me and Ben weren’t getting on great at the time and going to the races was something I didn’t look forward to with in that situation but that gave me the drive to keep cracking on.
But after that pretty much top 20s right?
Yeah, I had four including Worlds but Val di Sole was the race of the year for me by a clean mile. I was just having fun on my bike like I used to. It rained for qualifying but I just took it dead steady and got 14th. I was like, “yep, sweet, back in the game”. It was dry for race runs and I just put down a clean run. I made one mistake on a left hander at the bottom but I was absolutely over the moon with 15th and got real drunk that night. Dad was there to which made up for Fort William. All the shit that had happened previous was forgotten and I was hungry for it.
When did Cube first approach you?
I've always been friendly with the guys at Bliss because I used to ride for them years ago. I always chat with Andi a bit at the races and he came up to me and asked me what my plans were for next year and if I'd be interested in having a chat with him. In Mont Sainte Anne he invited me for a meeting and we had a chat and then just continued talking throughout the season and it worked out pretty cool.
Were you looking to leave and ready to move onto something new?
To be honest I think it was pretty mutual between me and Ben, I think it had come to the end of the relationship within the terms of being able to work with each other and I knew if we wanted to keep a friendly relationship in the future it wasn't going to be a good idea to try and work with each other for another year. But with all that said, we parted ways in good terms and I’m sure I’ll be round there pits this year for a cuppa tea or two.
What sort of benefits are you expecting at Cube?
Yeah it’s cool. Cube being a factory team means the support is insane, we got invited to a Christmas party to meet everyone and get drunk for a day or 2 and they looked after us like you would not believe, it was ridiculous.
If you need something it's in the post that week, they're bending over backwards to make the schedule around my needs. They're supporting us with all sorts of media projects and letting me have a bit of a say with developing their new DH bike, which is really nice. Keep your eyes peeled good things to come.
What about the races themselves?
It's hard to comment really as they haven’t started yet but we've got a nice trailer, a big old pits and the team's sponsored by Nissan so there's smart cars to run around in, which is sick. We're flying Lufthansa and I even got flown business when I visited Cube, which was pretty cushy. It has been stress free so far, which I’m into.
What differences have you noticed with the bike so far?
The bike is very light and the components are very sexy. It's cool to be on Fox and Magura, some good bits you can trust. My first thoughts when I rode the bike was, "holy shit", thing’s light, pedals well and the suspension is impressive.
It's a completely different bike, the Propain was a good bike and so is the Cube but it's hard to compare at the moment as I haven’t spent much time on the Cube yet. My first thoughts are its light and corners well. I get my new XL bike this week so I’m excited to get some good hours on it.
Are you a bit worried that Cube are a bit more straight laced than the old Dirt team was?
Yeah before joining the team I thought they were straight laced and to be fair they do come across a bit that way but after meeting all the guys it’s a cool place to be and I’m excited to get stuck in.
In a way I think that's one of the reasons they’ve employed me to try and add some more fun to the company.
Are you just doing World Cups this year?
I set my goals at World Cups this year, I want to finish top 15 for sure.
We're going to go to Maribor for the first IXS the weekend before the World Cup and it'll be like a little World Cup. I'm going to do some of the Greek enduros and DH Nationals I think and I want to get out to a couple Crankworx events there always so much fun and maybe even an EWS at the end of the year but let’s see.
How's life in Greece?
It's cool man, there's a good little crew and I've started meeting a few people out here. The bit where I hurt myself in Gamble is just above my house but someone wrecked on the same tree so it's all cut out now. I want to help the Greek riding scene grow because there's some real talented kids but there's no one really over here that's got the experience to guide them in the right direction, if you know what I mean?
But Greece in general is rad, well if you want to do anything bureaucratic it’s a complete night mare. It took me three weeks to buy a car! But on the plus side there’s limited laws or the locals don’t seem to abide by them. One or the other. For example if you're stuck in traffic on your motor bike and can’t get through it seems like to norm to drive down the pavement to avoid getting held up.
Is there much of a race scene?
Yeah, I did a national as soon as I got here and it was a bloody good track. I woke up race day morning and I still hadn't walked the track so I rode up the track on the TTR, had a look at a few sections and rode back down. There's boys that had done their own uplift that are dropping in and riding down as I'm like riding the TTR up the track and I get to the bottom and the boys from Red Bull Greece are all there, it was brilliant. So much fun the whole weekend and some good competition.
How are you coping with the language barrier?
Ha. Yeah, I can do a couple of bits now, I can understand when Kat my girlfriend's slagging me off now! I've learned enough to get by politely-ish - as long as you know the word 'malaka' you're pretty sorted. My road rage now is in Greek, it just comes natural!
Any last words?
It is so fresh and exciting, I am over the moon that I signed with these guys. It's cool signing for a new team especially my first factory ride with Cube. It has really made me get my shit together and focus on the job in hand. The main thing is that it's less stressful for me and good for my mental health. I didn't realise being a professional cyclist could be this easy!
Ben Reid asked for a chance to respond to some of Phil's comments. His words are below:As Phil said, this [2017/2018 offseason] really was a difficult time for him and with a lot of new sponsorship deals signed only days before his incident we had to be careful what went out until we really knew what was going on with his knee. Phil had the choice to sit out as much of the season as he needed with zero pressure from his team, with his recovery going so well Phil made the decision to race at the opening World Cup after he raced Maribor IXS as a trial the week before which gave us a good gauge for where he was at.
Naturally Phil had high expectations of himself after his 2017 season where he scored his first World Cup podium and showed he was a force to be reckoned with, coming into 2018 on the back foot was undoubtedly hard for him and also for the whole team, as a manager and former World Cup racer I understand the importance for a racer to maintain a strong head and felt I was often looking for other things that Phil could blame even if that was me at times and just anything that would help him remain head strong at the next race. It took its toll and as a result neither of us were in an easy position.
We had a great four years together and I'm proud of him for how far he has come in that time. I look forward to seeing Phil on the podium again soon, he is one hell of a talent and with a bit more structure and forward planning I think he could find some real consistency which would be great to see. I really look forward to taking things back to just friends with Phil and its definitely time for someone else to have a go.. Don't be surprised to see Phil under our tent again this season.