When Peaty hung up his World Cup racing helmet in Andorra back in 2016, it was done so with a big grin and a well-deserved beer in one hand. After well over 20 years racing in the topflight of downhill, the announcement wasn't a surprise as such, but it did take some time to get used to not seeing Steve's name on the start and result list or blasting down the track with that unmistakable stance and stature. He might have retired from World Cup racing, but he is still very much a prominent figure in the pits and track side as he remains an integral part of The Syndicate's movements, offering his wealth of experience to Loris, Luca, and Greg as they chase the top step of the podium.
We sat down with Steve to chat through everything from his pathway into the sport, to chasing those rather illusive rainbow stripes, and his thoughts on Josh Bryceland's departure from Santa Cruz Bicycles:
You're now two years post racing retirement, but you still seem to be keeping yourself busy?
It's been well busy! This year for sure has been really busy, it's kind of a weird transition for me to quit racing after so many years and then work out what I was going to do from there. I'd always said I was just quitting racing World Cups, and that I'll still do other races like British nationals, some enduro races and stuff like that. But that first year was a weird year, I didn't ride that much and just felt like I was hanging around a little bit, not doing much. That was kind of a transition year for me really. This year I've been at all the World Cups helping the boys out, I've done a few 5-day trans races so I've been really busy this year and I have quite enjoyed doing a bit of racing!
How did you find that transition from racing and training full time where you very focused on yourself, perhaps selfish isn’t the right word... but most of your time had been devoted to yourself?
I think selfish is the right word really. When you are at the top of the game you've got to be quite selfish, you have got to have a lot of time to yourself, just to train and prepare the right way. If you're not selfish you're not doing enough training and maybe that's something that in the last few years I kinda relaxed on a little bit, spending more time with the family and things like that which I had missed previously. When you're racing World Cups you have got to be at the top of your game so there is no point in halfheartedly not preparing for it, so that was one of the big decisions for me to actually quit racing.
You've always been proactive with projects outside of racing like product development, is that something you've always been interested in or that came later in your career?
It's always interested me, we started Royal Racing back in '99 so that will be 20 years old next year. Other kinds of business interests and stuff around mountain biking have always interested me, the way I've always looked at my career is that I could get injured and it might not last too long, so if I can set something up that will keep me in mountain biking forever and keep me and the family with a steady income then I'll try and set it up and deal with it. That's the way I've always looked at it. Peaty’s Products is a good example of this, I have a great group of guys helping me with the development of new products and I feel we are coming out with some pretty special stuff. It's exciting to be moving forward and building a brand this way. We are having fun with it too so I hope that comes across to the end users. We are being supported in many countries by great distribution companies so it's getting to a good point and makes it better / easier for us to focus on quality new products.
Going back to the start, how did you get into riding and racing?
I've been riding bikes since I was about 3 years old. My dad had a motorcycle trials background and I had two older brothers but we never actually got into trials as my dad couldn't really afford trials bikes for us. We would follow him on the weekends, he would go around the trials and we’d take our push bikes and ride around the local hills and mess around. Then I got into BMX a little bit, I never raced BMX but just got into riding BMX bikes in the late 70s / early 80s, building jumps in local parks and that. I reckon it was about the beginning of ‘87, a mate I was knocking about with back then turned up one day on a mountain bike, so I jumped on his mountain bike and rode around, changed gear and stuff on it... I had never seen an off-road bike with gears. I saw that and instantly fell in love with mountain biking, I ended up buying my own bike which I still have today, my first ever mountain bike. I just rode with my mates at weekends for about 4 or 5 years really, then when I left school and started working my boss joined the local mountain bike club. He took me along and I beat their fastest guy down a hill and that was it! I did some local races and I started racing cross country, I took every weekend as it came and just enjoyed riding and racing. My parents were still doing trials, so I’d just go with my mates and it was like my thing, it was my own thing to do. It wasn't trials. I just loved it.
There’s a pretty standard route up through the categories and rankings into World Cup level these days, what was your route up to the top level?
I think I raced one year or maybe two years as a junior, sort of XC and a little bit of downhill, but my first senior year was in 1993 I think. I was racing cross-country and also racing downhill the next day on the same bike that I’d raced cross-country on. I ended up winning the British series - the Senior series as it was back then. Then I got picked for World Championships in 1993 in Metabief. That was my first taste of international racing really. In 1994 I went out to Mammoth Mountain with Jason McRoy, his dad, and Paul Plunkett, that was like my first big trip abroad. In 1995, I turned pro with Saracen and did a full World Cup season with them, and that was it. It was World Cup seasons after that, 96 was with MBUK, 97 I signed with GT and did 5 years with them.
You’ve been able to see the sport grow, develop and change over the years, especially with the advancements in bike technology and performance. From your side, how do the sport and racing compare now to say the 90s?
I see the whole thing as a progression really. Start with the bike, obviously everything is massively updated, whether it be lighter, or stronger, or just better performance. Then there's also the clothing, the shoes and the helmet, the riders are also pushing harder to be fitter and faster. The techniques the riders use for cornering differently or jumping differently... I see everything as a constant progression, it's hard to just pick one thing. Obviously, you can take a bike from those early days and compare it to a downhill bike today and there's a massive difference, but it's the same with helmets, shoes, and everything. There’s been massive progression.
You've been outspoken in the past regarding the current crop of tracks becoming straighter and faster, what do you think of the current direction of the sport?
Yeah, I'm not that into it. My favourite track last year was Andorra, where it’s got a little bit more tech. Tracks like Leogang, when we first raced there, there were quite a few hard off-camber turns, trees and roots and that sort of thing. Now they just bring material in and make it quicker. It's just a bike park track now so it makes the time a lot closer which I think Red Bull and the UCI are pushing for because it probably looks a little bit better on TV. It p***** me off that TV is forging the way forward on the tracks, I'd rather the riders get to pick what they want.
Do you not think that, because bike parks are the terrain that so many of the public ride, that there should be one or two races each year on that kind of terrain?
Yeah, I don't mind one or two, but Mont-Sainte-Anne used to be really technical and now it's just mega fast. There are a few little rock gardens that are tight down the bottom, but even the sections that used to be technical, they’ve just taken material into the woods and made it a bike park instead.
What do you make of the general health of the sport?
I think the sport is healthy, the riders have got good contracts. The contracts don't run deep in the field, but the top guys are doing alright. I think the sport is really healthy, there's a massive following, good crowds to support the riders, and there's good numbers on the TV shows so I think it's definitely healthy.
You've been locked in plenty of tough battles over the years, does one season or rider stand out in particular?
Yeah, I think my main guys are Sam Hill, Nico Vouilloz back in the day, and Greg too, Greg has always been one of my main competitors. Maybe my last good season was 2009, I won a couple of World Cups and won World Championships. For me, that was a good year. The year after that I was in the World Champs jersey, I didn't train that hard but I was mega busy just promoting the sport. I took a step back from trying to be prepared for World Cups that year so I’d do school assemblies, loads of magazine interviews, loads of TV interviews... because it had took me so long to win that World Championship jersey I wanted to promote it the best I could the year that I was wearing it. That was my focus back then. I won the first World Cup back in '98 and my last one in 2009, that was a pretty big gap.
Are there any races you look back on and think about the what-ifs, or as a racer are you pretty good at moving on?
I've always been pretty good just ticking it off. The one that's stuck with me for a long time was 2004 Les Gets World Champs and crashing on that last corner. I felt really good at that race and just blew it in the last corner, that was the monkey I needed to get off my back kinda thing. I was pretty upset about that race for years until 2009 really when I finally ticked it off.
Are there any particular wins that stand out?
In 1998, my first win in Snoqualmie Pass in America. Up until that point, I was on World Cup podiums and doing pretty good, I mean nearly every weekend on podiums, but that day when I stood on top of the podium and I kinda got that feeling of being the fastest guy in the World, and until that point I hadn't really set myself any goals to tick off in racing. To get that first win was huge.
Fort Bill is still the best atmosphere I have seen at any sporting event anywhere in the World whether it’s a car race or whatever. I came over that line in Fort Bill with 20,000 people banging on those boards and cheering for me, it was really emotional for me like really, really, cool. That was huge.
And obviously World Championships. It had taken me 17 years of riding for the British team to finally tick that one off, I’d had four second places on the way, crashes while leading and stuff like that, so for me that was a massive sense of relief. Mainly relief like I've finally done it for all the people that supported me all the way through my career, family, sponsors, fans, it was more huge relief than anything.
What is it that makes World Champs such a coveted achievement for racers?
To be honest, up until winning it I actually preferred winning the overall World Cup. I think you're a more consistent rider if you win the overall World Cup. If you're doing good at World Cups you should be ready for World Champs anyway, but winning the World Championship now in my career people will go “oh he was World Champion in 2009!” It means so much more to people outside of the sport, I think it's strange that we have a separate World Championship. You should be World Champion if you win the overall World Cup, but that's just how it is in our sport. Until winning it I didn't really realise what it meant to everyone else outside the sport, that's the big thing with it.
Does everybody just turn up their riding that little notch more, it's all or nothing really isn't it?
I think so yeah. I think everybody just wants to take that jersey home, some people realise what it means and some people are just happy to take it as it comes. It's definitely a different beast. I think whenever you go to World Championship you get people that come out the woodwork for that race, you never see them at any other race but they always turn up for World Champs. It's just a different beast.
Coming back to Fort Bill, do you think it deserves a permanent place alongside the likes of Mont-Sainte-Anne on the calendar or do you think it's time for somewhere fresh?
I think the track is needing a little bit of a freshen up now. It is getting freshened up over the years and changing a little bit, but I think that top section that's not too wide or a little bit goat pathy could do with the change. But the nature of Fort Bill is that it's really hard land to work with, the terrain is proper hard. It's hard to change it too much but it's the best race on the calendar. It's got the most fans, the organisation is the best, Mike and Lesley do an awesome job with that, people flock from all over the World to come to that race, and yeah it deserves to be on it permanently for sure.
You were chasing the rainbow stripes for a long time, did you ever think at some point it was never destined to be?
Yeah for sure. It took me 17 years until I won it. I think in total riding for the British team for 22 years, obviously that’s a massive achievement in itself. I actually went out to Canberra, Australia feeling s*** about myself. I had a bad back and hadn’t been training very well. I went out there just thinking I was making up the numbers. For the other 17 races I went there trying to win. That was the one race I did when I went there thinking that I was just making the numbers up, I didn't focus on the win as much as I had at the other races. Whether that was part of it or not I'm not really sure, but I had a lot of up and downs on the way and for me to have that attitude coming into that year was quite tough for me to deal with. You get picked by Great Britain to race for your country and for me to think that I didn’t feel that good, I'm just making up the numbers, I felt bad that I had that kind of attitude going out there so it was weird.
Did that change as soon as you got on track?
It did. I had a sports psychologist at the time and I played golf with him before I left and I told him that I felt s***, I've not been able to train, and I knew that it was quite a pedally track as well. He was like don't worry about it now, I'll touch base with you next week when you're in Australia. He sent me an email when I was out there, I've still got the email today, there's not loads of ins and outs to it but it was basically, just pick something each day to tick off and see how you build on your confidence kind of thing. Just from getting that email and changing my attitude up a little bit, everything seemed to fall into place for me over that weekend, there were loads of little bits and bobs. It just changed my mentality. Reading that email I just felt confident, every time a little thing happened I just felt a little bit more confident and a little bit more confident…
And when you finally took it, can you recount that at all?
Yeah, I can recount it definitely! It was mega emotional, there was a shot in the finish line when I'm sat in the back of the truck and I'm crying. I lay back in the hot seat, it was a pick up at the time, I lay back in the truck and I just wanted to be on my own. I just wanted to soak up what had just happened and be on my own. I only lay there for a few seconds really, but it felt like 10 minutes to me! I just wanted to be on my own. It was a massive overwhelming sense of relief to finally tick it off. I kinda mentioned it before but for all the people that had supported me over the years. I ended up with 800 emails after that race from all my sponsors, from everyone who supported me, people all around the World basically, whoever had been to races, fans... I downloaded my emails before I left, and I had 800 emails, all just congratulating me on the race that day, it was unreal. Adele my wife was pregnant with our second kid, Jake was maybe 3 years old so they were back in Sheffield and they were watching it on the internet but I think it froze and one of our neighbours actually had to call my wife and say “he's done it, he’s done it!” I remember there's a phone conversation in "Won’t Back Down” like “Daddy's won his race” and my kid was 3 years old and doesn't really get it, but it's a pretty cool moment to look back on.
I was in the hot seat and there were Greg and Gee left to go, I smoked Greg by 0.050 of a second! I was up 1.22 on him, I knew I was quick on the top of the track in the technical rock garden bit, there wasn't much time to make up on that track and I just had to dig deep for the rest of it. Three-quarters of the way down, I was up like 1.22 on Greg, I wasn't that fit in that last pedal because I hadn't been able to train before I got there so I just dug as deep as I could. Greg almost beat me just on that last pedal section, if I’d lost it on that I would have been pretty pissed off!
Your career has had longevity few could touch, what do you put that down to?
I started a little bit late, I had 1 year as a junior and went straight into senior. Everybody asks me that, but I just don't know. Every time I ride my bike I just enjoy riding my bike, but I love racing, I love that feeling of the crowd shouting, and the beeps in the start hut, and crossing the line and seeing how you've done… I still enjoy that today. I think putting injuries and s*** results behind you as quickly as possible is one of the things I've always been really good at, I don't dwell on anything. I'm just like, right it's a new week, it's a new race. Forget what happened last week and crack on. Maybe that's helped a little bit.
When you did decide to step back was there a particular moment that triggered the decision?
I just felt like it was the right time for me. I mean World Cup racing is the top of the game and I was busy with family life, with other business commitments and other stuff really so I wasn't focusing on training 100% for World Cup so it was just time. If you're not going to be 110% in trying to be fast at World Cups there's no point trying really.
The Syndicate had a bit of shake up with Loris and Luca joining a few years ago, they seem to be a super good fit and the team dynamic almost seems the same as it was with you and Josh?
Yeah, it is. We’ve got a couple of good ones there and they have fitted straight into the team. At first, it was myself stepping down from WC racing and then Ratboy deciding to retire at the same time from World Cups, and it was like oh s*** what are we going to do now? We got those guys and they fitted in straight away, now we've got a really good core group of guys that are all capable of winning a race on any day. Yeah I'll be at all the World Cups over the next few years, on track looking for lines for them, and basically helping them in any way that I see fit to make them get in that start line and to not have to worry about anything else apart from riding that bike down the hill. I get a buzz out of that too. Obviously, I'm not racing World Cup anymore or getting on the podium, but if one of those guys wins and comes up to me after like “Steve that line you showed me was awesome” which happened at a couple of races last year, I get a buzz out of that.
Loris took his first win this year and Luca was knocking on the door all year, do you think when he finally takes one that’ll be him away?
I'm hoping so yeah! I think this year they were both really consistent, they might have a couple of races where they messed up. It's usually the wet races so maybe I need to get them over to Yorkshire and teach them to how to ride in the mud! Like you said Loris ticked one off but Luca has been knocking on the door and Greg will be back to full strength next year so 2019 will be an exciting year.
So obviously Josh has moved onto pastures new, was that a shock for you?
Dickhead! [laughing] It was a little bit of a shock, I mean Rat is his own free spirit, he's his own man and he always has been. There's obviously something that he feels he needs to do and I wish him good luck. He will need it with those bikes! [laughing]
Josh fell out of love with downhill towards the end of it, can you relate to that in any way?
Yeah, I could relate to it from Josh's side. I don't agree with it, but I do relate to it. I think that injury in Hafjell really set him back a bit. It put him off a little bit and although he came back really strong that next year and had quite a good year, I think he didn't like the speed that he had to ride at on the tracks to try and do well. I think that was a massive thing, the tracks really forced him to fall out of love with downhill, he's a proper technical rider and loves riding all that tight and techy stuff. Tracks are just not like that anymore, so I think that was a major part in his decision... and the fact that he couldn't smoke weed and ride his bike as he’d get tested! [laughing]
You were hugely fundamental in Josh's development, do you take much satisfaction looking back on how far he's come?
I don't really take any credit or anything like that. I do take satisfaction yeah, to see him move on through the ranks and get better deals and that kind of stuff. For me, from day one, all the riders I've helped out, Rich Barlow, Neil Donoghue, Stu Thomson, Brendan Fairclough, Ratboy, Mark Beaumont... They were all the early guys I helped out and every one of them has gone on and done really well and got more sponsors. That was my whole idea for it, to pass on my experience and make their transition to senior racing as easy as possible and quicker to get to the point they needed to be at. I don't take any credit for it, it was fun having all the young kids to ride with every day, it helped me get faster.
Throughout your career it seemed like you had a serious approach to racing but a relaxed approach around it, was that balance pretty key to performing?
It is for me. Everyone performs differently, some people take it really seriously and some people don't. I've always taken myself seriously and take my training seriously, I used to do my training on my own, all of my rides on my own and I used to go quite hard. If I'm having fun at the races I feel more relaxed. Everyone's always said about me drinking beer and partying and that stuff, but for me that's just a release after the race. I do the race, have a few beers and forget about the race, it's just the way I've always done it. When I was 15/16 I grew up in a little town in the outskirts of Sheffield and I had a couple of older brothers, I knew all their mates and we had a pretty big pub culture so that's what I did for most weekends for quite a few years before I started mountain biking, so for me that’s a kind of release and a refocus.
Over the next few years are there any other projects and plans you are looking to get stuck into?
No, I need to not take as much stuff on I think! I've been really busy this year, I'm in the middle of this talk tour now and they're quite busy but they're also quite satisfying to stand in a room full of people and talk about my experience and stories of how I see my career. They'll be over in a couple of weeks and I'll be in need of a few weeks off really. Some of the main things I'm going to focus on are obviously the Syndicate, it’s a massive part of my everyday, doing whatever we can to get those three riders as fast as possible. Then there’s Peaty's Products with the tubeless sealant and all the lubes and stuff, I quite enjoy that with all the product development, talking to the labs and the guys we work with. We're starting to do a bit better with that so we can start putting back into a few teams and sponsoring a few people which is what I've always done through Royal Racing or whatever. Those are my main focus, I don't want to take any new projects on.
So you don't fancy racing Worlds as a master?
I probably would one day, but I think if I turned up next year then they’d all be pissed off with me! I don't know where the balance lies between racing it being a fast ex-pro. I'd be a vet so I kinda skipped the master's generation. It’s a tough one, me and Warner have talked about it before. Really anyone should be able to race masters World's because that's your category, that's your age. It's not really working that way at the moment!