Vali Höll could well be the most exciting rider of a generation. There's not much more that can be said or written about the young Austrian who has rocketed towards the top of the sport. She had a lot of eyes watching her as she made her junior World Cup debut in Croatia two years ago and she duly delivered, taking home the overall with a clean sweep of wins and the World Champs stripes to boot. It wasn't long before Vali's times on the stopwatch were being compared to that of the elites, and whilst track conditions can be fickle to read, she fared well, very well. The comparisons stop now though. In 2020, she's in with the elite women and she's naturally got her sights set high, quite rightly too.
It's easy to forget how young Vali is given what she's already accomplished and the fact she's been on the YT program since she was 12 years old. As well as stepping up to the elite category next season she has to contend with her final school exams in amongst it for good measure. We managed to sit down with Vali for an hour in between riding and studying, and here's what she had to say about her career so far and what's to come:
First and foremost, it'd be cool to know a bit about your background, how you got introduced to riding and then when did the racing side come in?
Basically my parents were always riding bikes, more so uphill until they went on holiday to Whistler in 2005 I think. Then my Dad built a trail down to our house in Saalbach, that's where I grew up. I had my first bike race when I was 3 years old but it was just a race in our village around a house. It was quite funny because anytime there was a photographer I stopped so I got last, but it was my first race! I think when I was 8 I did some dual slaloms and then in 2013 I did an iXS Rookies Cup and then I started racing the Downhill Cup.
And you were hooked on racing straight away? You knew you wanted to do more of it?
I think because at that time the only friends I had were boys. In Saalbach, there were not that many girls my age. So I always did boy's things like riding bikes, riding moto and stuff. I was also ski racing and my Dad knew that I was pretty competitive so we went to a race and the thing was I had to race with the boys... He knows what I'm like when I'm not winning so he was like, so Vali, you are racing against the boys, you're not going to win, it's not going to happen because it's your first race... Then at the end of the day, I beat all the boys in my category and I won! The boys did not like me at that time because I think when a girl beats a boy it's not that cool.
How easy would it have been for you to go down the skiing route instead of biking? I guess downhill mountain biking is minuscule in comparison to skiing in Austria...
Skiing is super easy because everyone is in ski training from an early age. If someone is not is ski training it's kind of weird. But biking isn't normal. For example, in Saalbach, we've got like five lifts open the whole summer and maybe only three of my friends would go riding bikes of all the young kids at that time. It's super weird and I don't know why it is. I'm 17 now and there's still not a lot of kids coming up. I don't know why there are not many juniors.
Do you think there are now more Austrians riding and competing at a younger age?
I think now, especially because of Fabio Wibmer and his YouTube thing, there are a lot more coming. And with Crankworx in Innsbruck because they have a big bike club there, there are already four really fast young girls I think, and that is pretty sick to see.
What was it like progressing up through the ranks and categories in what is a very male dominant sport?
I think I was used to there not being many girls. When I was at school I was the only girl in my class. I was used to doing stuff with boys all the time. With the racing, it was weird because we were only two or three girls in a category and it was easy because you were always on the podium even if you crashed. It's weird but it's cool to see now that there are way more girls, and even in the last two years at World Cups, I read there were only three girls the past four years in the junior category and now we are always between five and ten girls.
Why do you think there isn't the same level of participation in the girl's categories and what do you think could be done to encourage more into the sport?
I think in Austria and Germany, it's because at the IXS Downhill Cup you had to race against the boys in the under 13 and under 15 category. I think that is really intimidating for girls as you are always scared that the boys will catch you or crash into you. I think last year or 2 years ago they changed it so there are now separate classes for under 15 and under 13. I think that helps to get more girls into racing. But why aren't there that many in my age? I think even the last 4 years there are not that many girls... It's super weird, I don't know why. I think now it's going in the right direction, with Rachel and Tahnee... I think more girls around, Nina and myself for the German-speaking area, it helps a lot to get girls into biking. I think the whole industry changed a bit, I mean I'm not a huge fan of the whole ride like a girl thing or just pushing girls into riding all those women workshops, although they are good for getting more girls on bikes. I just think girls should do it because it is fun, they don't need to worry about being a girl. It doesn't make a difference. I think it is starting to go in the right direction which is cool to see.
So would you say the women's racing at World Cups is becoming healthier?
Yeah, I think definitely. You could see it last year that the level is so high and the previous years it was almost always the top 3 and then there was a big gap. It was not really that interesting to watch the racing, I mean I wouldn't say the other ones were s*** at that time but now the sport has evolved so much and now everyone trains way harder and rides faster, it's getting really, really cool to see.
When did you start to think about World Cups? Did that happen as soon as you started racing or was that further down the line?
I think that it was never the intention to race World Cups, it kind of progressed naturally. I was talking to my parents and friends, nobody pushed me to race World Cups, it just happened. For a girl I think it's super easy to get into World Cup racing if you can ride a bike, I wouldn't say it's easy to ride the tracks but it is definitely way easier for juniors. You don't have a qualifying, you don't need points as a junior... I think it's also cool that girls can try a World Cup and if they get the chance to ride one and think it's still a little bit tough they can do easier tracks and get into the World Cups when they know they can ride the track. I mean I did the Rookie's Cup for four years and I did some European Cups for two years, it was always stepping up and up and then suddenly I was in the World Cup and now I'm right before my first elite year. It just happened pretty naturally.
How long have you been with YT now?
I think it's my 6th year.
So you signed with them when you were 12? How did that come around?!
It was super funny. YT did a photo shoot at our house because we live up in the mountains and it's a really cool spot for riding. They were shooting photos of their athletes and their new 24” kids bike. I think they only had 500 of them to sell or even less. My Dad was really interested to buy the bike for me but at the time it was €1200 and he was like woah, it's expensive to pay that much money for a kid's bike. Then the owner, Markus Flossmann from YT was like, okay we shot the photos at your place and the bike was a little bit dirty because we shot with it today so you can get it for €800... I raced the bike and then when I did the first iXS Cup in Winterberg where I won and beat all the boys they were like, ah... you have to come to our headquarters. We got there and they had the contract for 6 years on the table. It was super crazy because my parents and I never thought about having a sponsor for me and getting stuff for free just because I won a bike race... Everything worked out pretty well! It's pretty sick.
You were super young, it was a big commitment at just 12 years old... Were they pretty flexible and open with what you wanted to do?
Yeah, they were super open. There was no push that I had to race and I had to get results or I have to do things... If they asked me about doing a photoshoot they were like, if there is a friend who has a birthday party you don't have to come... You can do it if you want and if not, we don't mind. But actually I wanted to do the photoshoot because I love to ride bikes. Also with SRAM, it was so cool to keep the contract running and really get through those 6 years as it's so cool to have a partner for such a long time. The contract is running through the 2020 season.
When did SRAM enter the picture then?
I think it was already in my last year of European Cups so four years ago. I got the stuff for free, then they talked to me, then I was on SRAM TLD. I got TLD gloves and everything which was really sick. Then we talked about racing World Cups and they said yeah you can pit with us. I got a mechanic and they helped me so much.
The SRAM TLD setup feels like the perfect place to find your feet in World Cup racing, in a way that seems super relaxed?
Yeah for sure, it's super relaxed. I don't feel any pressure that I have to win. The first year was unreal, I won all the World Cups and I had my own little team with Matt my mechanic, we are really close and everything worked out totally fine, the travelling was awesome... It couldn't be any better.
You are now in your final year of school, how hard has it been to balance that together with all the riding, training, and racing?
It's super hard but it also motivates me to be good in school so that I can miss school and go to the races. At the same time, especially last year and this year, I feel like if you see all the elite riders and I know that I can nearly ride as well as they can, even though I have no preparation over the winter... Like before Maribor I had three weeks time to be able to ride my bike, so not even a full 21 days maybe there was like 15 days I spent on my bike before the first race. I think that is pretty cool to see that because I don't know how well I'm going to do if I have time to ride the whole winter. At the same time, it's super hard because I live in Saalbach and we have big skiing, a lot of snow, it's always dark and super cold. Then I see on Instagram everyone is chilling somewhere and I'm sitting there in school, being super cold and not able to ride my bike and getting a little depressed! It's only half a year and then I'm free!
Have you had any thoughts after school? Are you thinking about going to university or just focusing on racing full-time?
No, my Dad said I should take a year off, not go to university and just ride my bike and have fun, travel around and just enjoy life. If I want I can start going to university but it's my own thing and I can decide what I want to do. If I want to race for 3 years just concentrating on racing I can do that. If I want to start studying I can do whatever I want to, it's pretty cool?
Do you have any idea what you might like to study at university?
Yeah, I would like to study Sports Marketing. I think it's pretty cool in the bike industry as you get to know so many people if you need help or a place to work it's super easy to get into and get a lot of knowledge. People can help you.
I guess you've got some useful experience going into that anyway with your own social media presence. Do you enjoy the social media side of things or can it be a bit of a pain to keep on top of?
I'm already addicted to my phone so it's super easy for me to post something! Especially now when I'm doing nothing and just sitting in school, I kind of get nervous because I don't have anything interesting to post and I feel like people expect me to do something cool, but to be honest my life is super boring from September until I guess Christmas time when I have holidays. I don't know whether I should show what I'm doing, just showing that I'm sitting in school and waiting until it ends. I think that is the hardest time for me because I don't do anything cool so I don't get excited about something until I get on my bike for the first time again, then it's easy to be good on social media again.
You were talking about your exams being super close to World Cups next year, are you going to be able to do a full season?
Next year after Maribor, straight on the Tuesday I have all my A-Levels... I'm so scared already! It's going to be hard! I think for sure I'm going to miss two World Cups. It's hard for me to skip two World Cups and I think it's going to be super hard when I'm going to be sat at home and watch the live stream and at the same time have to study. That's going to be super hard for me but I guess it's only one year of my life. I think it's Fort William and Croatia I'm going to miss. Croatia is straight after Maribor so I'm coming home from Maribor on Sunday night and then the following Monday I have my exams so I don't go to Croatia. I'm really sad because Croatia is sick, the place is so beautiful.
Do you and try to keep a good life balance outside of bikes?
Yeah, especially in wintertime in Saalbach, there's so much partying going on and I feel so bad but all my friends are going out drinking and if I don't go out with them I don't see them that often so I kind of have to go out with them... Only in winter! It's hard because I'm going to school and then I'm going to the gym and then it's dark and then I go to bed. You have the weekends and you go out partying and go skiing a bit... It's fun but I wish I could ride my bike more often. It's super cool in winter but I think at the same time it's super hard because they are into partying so much and going out and drinking... Then I'm like ahhh I have to do endurance stuff on Sunday and I feel so bad, I'm so sick... I'm young so it works kind of, but when I get older I have to stop that!
Outside of biking do you have many interests?
Actually I don't have that much time as I always have school until 3 o'clock, then I'm in the gym for 2 hours and then it's already dark. Actually only skiing in winter and then in summer I love to travel around or meet my friends, I don't have that many hobbies to be honest.
What do your classmates that aren't into biking think of it all? Do they understand it?
It was kind of weird, especially my teachers because I go to a sports school but they didn't really accept downhill as a sport because you are only riding downhill so it's not that hard... Even though we have a World Cup like 15 minutes away from my school in Leogang, they still didn't know what the sport was like. Some of my teachers came to the race because they knew I was going to be racing there and then they kind of realised wow, she won a World Cup, that's actually pretty impressive. Skiing is so big in my school, if someone wins a regional race they get hyped so much and I got home with a World Championship win and well, they didn't even care. They've kind of got into it and there were newspapers writing about me and it was a little bit more appreciated, so slowly it's getting better!
Coming into your World Cup debut a few years back it's fair to say a lot of people were watching what you were doing with a lot of interest... What were your goals coming into your first season?
Like I said everything happened so naturally, nobody pushed me. I know there were people writing articles and stuff because I was so young I don't think I recognised what was going on. My parents were really trying to help me with stuff and they didn't push me for anything and just said do whatever you want to because if you want to stop the next day you can, there is nothing that can push you in the wrong direction and if you need any help then we are here for you. It just happened so naturally that there was no doubt that it was going to be bad for me.
So you didn't feel any pressure going into it then?
No, not at all. When I signed with YT they said something like we have signed the World Champion of 2020 or 2022 or something like that... Then people were writing that and I was like, hey guys I have no idea if I'm even still going to be racing in 5 or 6 years. Maybe I don't want to ride my bike anymore, maybe I want to be a ski racer or I just want to do something else. Then I think I kind of got that under control, well I'm still racing now but I'm just doing whatever I want to do!
People were then quick to start comparing your times to the elites, did you pay much attention to those comparisons?
I think the first year I wasn't really looking at the elite times because I was so into my category, but when I won everything the first year I started checking the times more this year. At the same time I know you can't really compare the times all the time but it was cool to see the progress I made, especially at tracks like Mont-Sainte-Anne or Vallnord where I was so far behind the first year, more than 25 seconds... Then the second year I was only 8 seconds behind the winning time. It's cool to see the progress at really hard tracks. It helps if you race a track for more than 2 years so it is cool to see that. I was super stoked about Les Gets, even though some people say you can't compare it, I don't think it changed that much. I don't want to say I would've won that and that it was super easy blah blah blah... but I think I was riding really well, and even at the speed trap I was a little bit faster than any of the other girls and I think that is super sick to see the progress. I felt really good that weekend.
I remember talking to you in Leogang two years ago about bike setup and you were unsure about what you wanted from your bike and what changes to make and that sort of thing – have you grown more confident with that?
I still don't have any idea! I trust my mechanic Mat 100% because it worked really well and we never had any mechanicals apart from Lenzerheide where I crossed the finish line with a front flat, but it didn't bother me in the race because it happened after. I think it shows that I have a good setup and confidence on the bike when you don't have any mechanical for two years straight. I really trust Mat and I think it worked out pretty well the last few years, I think when I have a bit more time when I'm done with school I'll have more time to test things and compare, think a little bit more about it, and read into things. I'm pretty happy to learn new things when I'm done with school.
I swear Mat told me you are both the same height and that he has set up a bike for himself the exact same way you would run it?
Yeah! Don't tell him but we are the same height! Yeah, the exact same lever position, bar setup and everything, it's super funny.
Does he try different things and then come back to you with suggestions of setup changes?
It happened once. I was in Nice testing the new 29er prototype and I got super sick and I couldn't ride - I was laying in bed and throwing up all the time. I couldn't ride the bike but it was so close to the order time when he had to send SRAM a list of all the stuff we needed for the next year, I haven't ridden a 29er at all. He was riding the 29er and said Vali, trust me, the 29er will be better for you. I hadn't been on the bike and wasn't comparing the bikes at all and then I was riding a 29er the next year... This year it was super fun and I was getting on really well with the bike. I don't know why but if I had been older I don't think I would have trusted him, maybe because I am young and don't have that much experience! I still have trust in Mat, I like him a lot and we get on really well that I think he only wants the best for me, and it was the best.
How was that transition to the 29er when you finally got on it?
The first few laps were so weird. Only the cornering, I was like oh my god what have I done... I'm just going to take my old bike even if it might be broken and stuff! I would say after 3 days of riding I got on with it really well and it's so smooth and I think it's way faster and more stable, I can still whip so that's the most important thing!
What's the relationship with the other girls like? It seems super friendly but competitive too?
Yeah for sure. I felt really bad the last year when I won all the races and I was like ah, maybe they can get on and win a World Cup... I'm so happy that both Anna and Mille won a World Cup this year because we are all riding so well and we all earned it, I think we are not that much slower than the elites and we had some tough conditions. We had big crashes all season, we were fighting hard. Everyone got the possibility to see how a win feels which is really sick. I think what I wanted to say was that the relationship in the World Cup scene is so different when you compare it to the EWS girls. At the EWS it always seems so friendly, they're always going for coffee and riding together, going for lunch...
At World Cups, everyone is super friendly and super nice to everyone and talking, but as soon as they go back to the pits everyone is so into winning and so into it... I think that is important because downhill is like Formula 1, it's still super friendly but I wouldn't say it's like an EWS race where they all get on so well with each other. I don't know how the Frenchies are doing it, like Loic and Amaury. They get on so well, you don't know how it really is but it seems like they are really happy for each other when they win a race. I think the girls are too, but girls are a little different to boys I think! I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy seeing Anna win a World Cup, I was really happy for her as she pushed so hard and we have been racing against each other for 5 or even 6 years. I was really happy for her to win a World Cup. I think I've been racing with Anna for 6 or 7 years, and then Mille maybe 4 years. It's cool to see that everyone is growing up, getting a boyfriend, it's funny to see, everyone is getting older!
What are your thoughts on next year and moving up to elites?
I'm more nervous about my school exams than racing! I just want to be done and forget about school. I know it's important but if you get to know the lifestyle that a World Cup racer is living, the summer is a dream... Going to Whistler and just riding your bike, race some World Cups and have the best time of your life. Then straight after Snowshoe I flew back on Sunday and then on Tuesday I had my first day in school again. I was like oh my god this is terrible, I had the best time of my life this summer and now I'm back here studying with weird people and everyone is so boring... It is how it is.
Is there anyone you look up to?
Definitely Rachel Atherton. Since day one. I think the first time I met her was in World Champs in Leogang. That was the first time I met her and it was pretty funny because at that time I wasn't racing and I didn't even want to go to Leogang to watch the race, ah it's just a bike race, it's boring... I still went and I was like oh my god this is so cool! I knew Rachel from videos but I couldn't speak English so I didn't really understand what she was saying but I was so happy meeting her. At the World Cups, we didn't speak that much and I was like ah maybe that's how it is at the World Cups, they are so into racing...
After Les Gets she wrote me a long text message and she was apologising for not really talking to me the last 2 years, that she was so sorry and she was so happy that I was doing really well. It was so cool. I think because everyone is so into racing, everyone is scared to be a bit more open with speaking to people. Some people think it's a little bit arrogant but at the end of the day, they are just normal people and scared about talking to others. I think people might think that about me as well as I'm not that open at the races because I'm so intimidated by what's going on, all the people looking at me and I'm like ah what the f*** is going on! You just have to come and talk to me and then I'll talk. I'm not the kind of person who runs up to everyone to greet them because I am scared of the people!
You mentioned Les Gets already but is there any victories you are particularly proud of?
I think also Whistler this year where I raced against the elites for the first time, I was super close to Tracey who won and no one could say at that time the conditions were different as I was racing 3 minutes before them. That was really sick, to see I'm not that far away. Also so they see I'm here, hey guys I'm stepping up next year, watch out!
Any moments you look back on and think you learned something from?
Yeah, I think Val di Sole. Mille won and I didn't crash, I was riding really s*** and my mindset was totally off. I remember going there and I was thinking I don't want to race here, the track is s*** and blah blah blah... It's good that I didn't win because if I had won that's not how it should happen. With that mindset you shouldn't be able to win a race, it's good that I learned from that. You have to be into it and be happy to be able to ride your bike at a race, I learned a lot from that.
Is there any advice you'd give now to your younger self starting out in riding and racing?
I would tell my self to cut my bars. I was riding massive bars when I was 12 years old! I don't know why my Dad never cut my bars! Maybe he didn't have a saw! Nah, I would do everything the same. It was so chill and I had so much freedom, I could do whatever I wanted to do and everything lined up so well with YT, SRAM, Red Bull... It all happened so nicely and it was calm, it was sick.
What would you say your strengths are?
I'm still young and I have to learn a lot but I think my mind is pretty strong even with that one s*** moment in Val di Sole. I think the last two years were pretty intense and it worked out pretty well, even if I have my low moments when I come home and I'm super tired. When I get into racing and have to be concentrated and be on it, I think I'm on it if I have to be.
Is there any tracks that suit your riding style?
I think Les Gets with the technical jumps. I really like Fort William. Those two tracks are really fun, I love them. They're super fast and Les Gets with those open grass corners is like ski racing, you don't see where the turn is, you have to look further forward and know where you have to turn. I think that helps a lot coming from ski racing.
And then your weaknesses? Things you can improve on?
Roots. I hate roots. I don't know why, we have so many where I live but I am just scared. Super s***!
Did that play a part in your performance in Val di Sole this year?
No, I think it was just my mindset in Val di Sole. The year before I won. I don't know what happened, I wasn't riding well. I'm never normally scared of riding a track but at that time I was super scared riding my bike, I made so many stupid mistakes like what the f*** is going on?! I think it was all in my head, and that's really impressive to see what your mindset can change and what you can reach if your mindset is in the right place.
Then finally, your hopes and expectations for next year and beyond?
I think next year is going to be pretty chill, I think it's going to be good that I'm going to miss a couple of races because people can't really expect a lot from me. The overall is already gone. World Champs at home... That's a big thing. It's the end of September which is good as I have a lot of time to ride and train more. After June when I'm done with school I can do whatever I want to. It's going to be sick. Then the following year I'll be thinking of the overall for sure. I don't think I'm going to stop racing after that year!