I caught up with Vali Höll last week in France, where she was escaping the snow and freezing temperatures in Austria for a fair-weather training camp with none other than Cecile Ravanel. While Höll has been ski touring and riding an indoor spin bike, this past week was the first time she was able to ride outdoors after she crashed and tore all the ligaments in her ankle at the World Championships in Leogang, an injury that required surgery. With only a couple races under her belt in the elite category, Höll said she doesn't yet consider herself a professional and was surprised by how many offers were on the table coming into 2021.
We talk about her first major injury and what the recovery process has been like, why she's excited about being a part of the RockShox Trek Race Team, finishing school and racing during a pandemic, and who some of her mentors and role models are.
How are you recovering from your injury?Vali Höll:
I think it's actually pretty good. It's only been two and a half months since surgery, and I've been doing lots of ski touring over Christmas. Ski touring and skiing were the first things I did. And I was a bit nervous about biking. Yesterday was my first day back on the bike, and I was just super nervous because being on a pedals. You take way more hits to the ankle than in the ski boot. But it was actually quite okay. I'm super slow, but it comes back.
Is this the longest you've had to take off of your bike for an injury?Vali Höll:
Yeah. I've never been into before in my life, so it was actually the first time.
Didn't you have a shoulder injury at Crankworx Innsbruck in 2019?Vali Höll:
Yeah, but that was only five weeks. But it was good because this year's the first year I don't have to go to school. I always had a big break for school from September to December. So it was actually nothing new to me to not ride my bike for two or three months.
What is that recovery process been like for you?Vali Höll:
It was actually quite interesting because, like I say, it was the first time, so everything was new to me. I wasn't down, I wasn't sad about what happened. I think it was pretty cool to be doing something. I think I would have been bored sitting at home and waiting and chilling for two or three weeks, not being able to do something because of the lockdown and stuff. It would have been really, really boring. But with my injury, I had so much to do, from Monday to Saturday, so that was pretty cool.
Now that you're back to training and doing physio full time, what does your week look like? How are you filling all your hours? Vali Höll:
A week after surgery, I started my rehab at the APC Red Bull Center, and it was pretty sick. I had two physio sessions a day and two training sessions. And I had a nutritionist, I had a mental performance coach, and that always from Monday to Saturday for two full months. So that was pretty intense, actually. It was hard work, but now that I can go skiing already and biking already, that's crazy. Yeah. I don't think anyone expected me to recover this quickly. I'm still recovering because I can't do squats, and I can't move my legs that great, but for biking and skiing, it's enough.
Was it Red Bull that gave you that support for the two months?Vali Höll:
After the crash, I went straight to hospital, and then I got X-rays and stuff. And then we went to the Athletic Performance Center, and they organized a meeting the next day with specialists in Salzburg. I went there the next day, and then I had surgery seven days after, because my ankle was so swollen, so they couldn't open it right away. Then I was at home another week, and we already started with rehab. It's pretty cool to have such as cool people in the background who really take care of you and just want the best for you.
You said the one part of it is the actual rehab, and then the other part of it is the mental side of it. What did you work with the psychologist on?Vali Höll:
Yeah, I was actually more concerned, and I told also the psychologist, that I'm not mad, and that I'm not sad, and that I'm not feeling shitty because I was always in a good mood. And I thought that was the craziest thing, that I didn't feel bad about it. And he was like, "Well, maybe it's because you're just super excited to experience it for the first time. And I guess if you have it a second time or third time, a fourth time, it's not going to be that cool anymore. But from now on, just be happy that you're not in a bad mood and that you enjoy what you do."
And I think also because the last few years, winter time was really hard for me because it was always dark, and I just saw other people riding on Instagram where it's warm and sunny, and I had to go to school in the dark. I just feel way better than the last few years right now.
Does it feel like you have more time now that you're not in school?Vali Höll:
Yeah, it's crazy to not have to do anything except trying to train and pretending to be a pro.
Pretending? I think most people would say that you're a professional mountain biker. Would you not consider yourself a professional mountain biker?Vali Höll:
Well, no, not really.
You qualified fastest at the World Championships, and you still don't call yourself a professional?Vali Höll:
No, I don't know what the other riders did, so I'm still thinking about what they did. Because it didn't feel special. I guess I just came down the smoothest. It's crazy. I still don't get it, what they did or why I won, but it's cool.
You were with YT for seven years. Did you ever think that you'd be with them forever?Vali Höll:
No, actually not. My parents signed the contract with YT for me because I was still too young. YT didn't have the Mob. Two years after I signed a contract, they started the Mob with Aaron Gwin and to be honest, I didn't even know at that time that I would be riding World Cups because I was still so young. But then when I was old enough to move into racing Junior World Cups in 2018, YT offered me to go to the YT Mob, but the offer from the Mob was only for 4 World Cups, not an entire season. Not sure what I would have done for the other races. So SRAM was on board, and I think that was the best decision ever.
Right, you were never actually with the YT Mob, you were with SRAM TLD Racing on a YT bike. So have SRAM and RockShox supported you your entire career?Vali Höll:
Yeah. SRAM and RockShox started supporting me super early on, and that was always super cool because they helped me so much. I'm super thankful for what YT has done for me and I'm excited to continue with SRAM.
Did you ever think about breaking the six year contract with YT since you signed it when you were so young?Vali Höll:
When I entered junior, the first year of junior, I still had three years left with YT, and the contract wasn't that tight, so I could have stepped out easily, but I thought, well, it's cool to say I did all the six years on the contract. SRAM was really open with it, and they said, "Yeah, no problem. You can stay on with YT, and we'll do everything around it." So that was really helpful. And I think it is pretty cool.
How does it feel to be moving on to a different frame sponsor after so many years on the same bike?Vali Höll:
Yeah. Last year was super exciting. I got so many offers that I didn't really expect that people would be interested in me because I just raced juniors, and that's nothing, but that was just crazy. I got so many offers, and one big offer from my most favorite team, I always wanted to be with them. SRAM said they're interested and the one special team asked me, and it was so hard to decide what I'm going to do, but I just realized that it's not the right time to go with them and I wanted to stay with SRAM. Because I knew all the people, I know that the products are really good.
With SRAM also, I could kind of create my own team. Angie is doing all the PR and media management. And then my coach who trains with me at home is going to be coming along to all the races. And obviously my mechanic. I just have a bit more control around the people in the team. And I think that's just the most important thing if you're racing World Cups is to keep around you who you trust and you feel the most comfortable with.
Do you feel like it's a big change then for 2021? Or does it feel more like you're continuing with the setup that you've had for the past couple of years?Vali Höll:
No, joining with Trek is a big step in the right direction. They're so organized, they have so much knowledge, they have the best racers, and they had Rachel Atherton obviously. With Andrew Shandro and Tracy Moseley on the mentor side, it's really exciting. Tracy already called me so many times and asked me how I'm doing with my recovery, and if I would need anything, any tips. I think that's something I need because I'm still so young, and I haven't been in that proper team where you always have someone better than you. I was always alone. It's never too late to learn something. And I think Tracy can help me a lot.
You and Jamie are both 19 and the oldest riders on the team. You mentioned Tracey Moseley earlier, who are some of your other mentors?Vali Höll:
Rachel Atherton is my all time hero. She's so cool. And it's incredible what she did. I would love to be in the same room as her because I don't know if she knows how much I admire her. I think it would be crazy if I would feel it how other people maybe would see me as a mentor because I think that's pretty cool.
Would like to have another young female teammate one day that you could mentor one day?Vali Höll:
Yeah, I hope so.
You said your parents signed your last contract when you were 12. How difficult was it for you to negotiate and manage all the contracts that you were offered this year?Vali Höll:
My parents never went to sponsors and asked things for me because I hated it. I hated it when other parents of other people did that because I think that's just super stupid. If you want something, you have to ask for yourself and don't ask your parents to do it for you or other people. Because that's not how you do it. It's not the right way. If I wanted a new sponsor, I always went by myself. I took a little coverage folder and showed it to the people. I always did it by myself. My parents just signed the last contract because legally I was too young.
How does it feel now to be signing the contract, the first contract for yourself on your own?Vali Höll:
Yeah, it's pretty sick. I think it's hard for women, knowing how much you're worth. But it's something, I guess, you learn, and it's something really, really hard, especially for me because I would never - because like I said, I don't feel like a pro - I would never ask for more. I guess you can though because especially last year when I got so many offers, I knew what was possible, and I think it's so crazy. It's fun to learn it because I think that's a cool part of being an athlete, that you also learn to be a business woman.
I read in another interview that you did, that you were interested in Sports Marketing. Is that still something that you're interested in?Vali Höll:
Yeah. I'm super interested, and I think it helps so much. My plan is to maybe start this September because I'm already a little bit bored.
You'll take the entire year to train this year, and then do you think you would pursue school while you're also racing?Vali Höll:
Yeah. I've met a lot of student athletes, some ski racers who have way more strict World Cup race calendars because they have so many races. It doesn't matter how long you need for your studies. If you need 10 years, you need 10 years, but you still learn something. I know I won't put any pressure on it because I have time.
But you like that idea of being a student and an athlete at the same time?Vali Höll:
Yeah. I think you need something to get your brain off of bikes. I think it's already good where I live because we have lots of snow in the winter, so I can't ride. So that's already a really good thing. I don't grab my bike the whole year long. If I look at other people who ride their bikes all year long, I think it's really tough, and I don't know how they stay motivated because I would get bored. With the big break, you're always super happy to get back on your bike, and you're hungry for riding.
Have you tried your new Trek bikes yet?Vali Höll:
Yesterday was my first day back on the bike. I rode the eMTB with Cecile Ravanel. That was pretty sick. France is super nice, like I expected, but they don't have any bike parks here. I was like, yeah, flowy trail, super flat, but they don't have that in France. It's all rocky. It's all narrow and sketchy and slippery, but I survived. And today I rode the Slash for the first time. It's always exciting to get new bikes.
Have you met your new teammates yet? Vali Höll:
I know Jamie, Tegan and Ethan from the World Cups, but we haven't met yet because Jamie flying over from the UK is a bit tough, and the other guys are in Canada. Jamie and I are planning to do some riding in February together. I think it's going to be really fun because I guess we're the youngest team in the World Cup, and Jamie and I are going to be the main World Cup racers. I think it's going to be cool. It's going to be a cool group of people.
You haven't had that many teammates, right? Vali Höll:
No. It was only one year I had a teammate. It was Luca Cruz, the big brother of Teagan. Yeah. It's actually weird. I never had teammates and other people to look up to. I'm really looking forward to it because actually, if I look back, it's crazy that SRAM just had one team, and it was only me. I think it takes some pressure off if you have teammates. And for track walks or looking at GoPro, going through videos, it really helps a lot.
In years past, who has helped you check out lines on tracks? Or is that totally on your own? Vali Höll:
Actually, it was Cecile Ravanel because she raced some World Cups in 2018. That was my first junior year. That was pretty sick because Cecile is an amazing bike rider. I've never seen such sketchy lines. Crazy. And Cecile is also a super cool human being. She's so down to earth and just a normal woman. So that's pretty cool, and I'm super happy that I've got to know her because I think people like Cecile, they're just the best people to look up to when you're racing bikes.
You've had some pretty strong female mentors with Cecile and now Tracy Moseley. Is there anybody else who's helped you? Vali Höll:
Definitely Angie. She's my godmother, and she's always coming along to the World Cups. She showed me a lot about how to get sponsors because she's also a bike pro in Austria. She's wonderful. She showed me everything, how I go to sponsors, and how I prepare myself to talk with them, and what I have to do for them that they happy. I think I have lots of strong female roles in my life already. It's pretty cool, actually.
What do you think it's going to take to get women's downhill mountain biking on a more similar level, the number of riders and the amount of money in it, to the men's World Cup downhill? Vali Höll:
I feel like this year, it was crazy that the level was so high, with Nina and Marine and Pompon. I think they just stepped it up. I think it's crazy. I don't know what happened. I think everybody had so much time to prepare because of COVID. So lots of people didn't have to work or they didn't have to go to university. They could stay at home and just go out and ride. So everybody stepped up their game. And with the amount of riders, I think it's getting more. It's also cool to see that there are more younger girls, 12 to 14-year-old girls. I think that's just amazing. Rachel and Tahnee and Pompon are amazing role models so I think they also inspired young girls. And now with Nina and maybe myself, hopefully, can inspire some German and Austrian girls.
Why do you think there are lots of teams that don't have a woman on them? Vali Höll:
You always need a room for the girls, and I think lots of people are scared that we are going to complain a lot, or we're going to be, I don't know, more difficult. I don't know what they expect from us, but we know to work. Maybe they've just had some bad experience with some girls on the team. You can have also some men who are a pain to work with though.
How difficult was it with the changes last year to the schedule, every other week? Do you think it was hard to motivate yourself for when the first race was going to be?Vali Höll:
Actually, I was way more nervous about my A levels being rescheduled, because that was the most important thing for me last year. I just wanted end my school year well, and I was so scared that it was going to be rescheduled to next year, or be moved into fall when we might race. I was way more scared about school stuff than rescheduling the World Cup. I think in the original schedule, I would only would have had three weeks on the bike before the first World Cup. So I was actually quite happy that that one got postponed and I could concentrate on school. They postponed my A levels to June and then I could just focus on riding bikes. So I think I was lucky with the whole corona thing.
What are your goals for next season?Vali Höll:
The next season is going to be my second first elite season, I would say, because I missed all the races last year. I just want to see where I am and experience everything, like it did this year. I'm really looking forward to them. Super excited. I actually I miss seeing all the people, and hopefully, there are going to be some spectators, and there are going to be some after parties. I hope everything is slowly getting back to normal because being 18, 19 and not being allowed to go out and party, it's actually really tough. I feel like I'm missing out, but everybody is.
Are you feeling more pressure next year than you did your first-ish year elite? Vali Höll:
Well, I guess with winning Crankworx and qualifying first in Leogang, that's how people think I will be entering, the same I ended last year. But I have to recover, I have to get back to riding, and then I start from zero to get back to where I was. Because even if I had a long break before, I wasn't injured, and I wasn't scared to be back on the bike, and now I am super slow, really cautious and be like, I don't know if I should jump already. Today I rode a track I rode last year, and I just looked at the gaps. I was like, "Wow, I did that? That's crazy." Today had a little mental breakdown, but yeah, I think it's going to come back, hopefully.