A World Cup weekend doesn't pass by without Aaron Gwin making the headlines for one reason or another, quite often for being the quickest man down the mountain. But the three or four minutes that we see of Gwin on race day is the culmination of a lot of hard work, and a team of people all focused on getting one man down the hill in the least amount of time possible. One of those men is John Hall, the Californian who Aaron entrusts to work on his bikes. ''He lives about ten minutes from my house here in southern California, so we spend a lot of time together working on little things or just hanging out. Whether it's bike work, mid-week shuttle runs, or an afternoon coffee, he's always down for the cause. He even drove up to Los Angles a few months ago to run a charity race at 3am with me.''
''John has been a big part of my program these last few years,'' Gwin said of the partnership. ''We had some changes within the team at the end of 2013 that left me looking for a mechanic, and John was working for our junior development team at the time and I knew pretty quickly that he was the guy for the job.'' Things started off in the best possible way, with Gwin taking a victory at Hall's first World Cup with the team in South Africa. ''Since then we've had a lot of success at the races, but it's his hard work away from the races that I'm impressed by the most,'' explained Gwin, going on to say how there's much more to being his mechanic than wrenching at the races.
Dan Severson caught up with Hall during some rare downtime for the mechanic in order to ask him about everything from how he got his start, to Aaron's jaw-dropping chain-less run at the Leogang World Cup. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and how was home life?
I'm just a laid-back dude living the dream and chasing a life, haha. I grew up in a little town called Spearfish in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Home life was awesome, man. I had great parents who I was lucky enough to have taught me the value of a dollar and hard work. My family raises black angus cattle and quarter horses, and I spent most of my youth living the ranching life and moved to town when it was time for school. The family still maintained the ranch, and up until about the middle of high school, when I wasn’t in school I was working cows. As much as I hated it then, I’m glad I grew up like that. That's where I learned how to work hard.And later on, you went on to serve in the Marine Corps. How was that experience?
I just did one four-year enlistment. It was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I wouldn’t change that experience for anything in the world. I’ve got all kinds of crazy stories! Let’s just say that I didn’t participate in anything unbecoming of a United States Marine!What did you take away from that time in your life? How did it shape you as a person?
It taught me things that you can’t learn anywhere else about challenge, hardships, and just learning how to push through adversity and come out better on the other side. There’s no doubt I’ve had my struggles, but I choose to deal with that in a positive and constructive way. Hopefully, this shows people that we’re not all “broken veterans” and to show other veterans that you don't have to fall into that victim role society often places us in after we come back from a deployment, and that you can use the skills you learned in the military to evolve and adapt, but do so to assert your own initiative to achieve new goals and new experiences to contribute to society in a positive way.When did you discover mountain biking?
Crazy story about that. I was racing BMX and was driving out to the Grands in Tulsa, OK, one year with my buddies I always traveled with, Rory Zimbleman and Jordan Leduc. We ended up getting in a pretty bad accident on the way and rolled my pickup two and a half times. Myself and Jordan were banged up but fine, but Rory ended up breaking his neck. Pretty bad deal and it really bummed me out; I almost quit riding after that because Rory couldn’t ride a BMX anymore because of the riding position the bike put him in.
He bought a downhill bike about a year later, a Kona Stab Primo or Stinky, I believe. It was the first downhill bike I saw in real life, and I was stoked on it. So after that I got into mountain bikes. Had to keep the riding crew together! Rory still rides to this day and actually works for SRAM Quarq Power Meters in my hometown of Spearfish.Where did you pick up your skills as a bike mechanic?
I’ve worked with a ton of really great mechanics, and I’ve taken a little bit from each one of them. Rory was probably the first one ever to teach me anything. He worked at the local bike shop I hung out as a little BMX turd, and he used to make me sweep the floors, break down boxes, and take the trash out in exchange for free labor on my bike or teaching me how to do things. Then my buddy Joe at the same shop taught me a lot about mountain bikes (he’d be pissed if I didn’t give him any credit.) And from there I just learned by trial and error, working in different shops on every kind of bike, from department store junkers to $15,000 Pinarello’s.And how did you transition from being a working for Aaron Gwin on the World Cup circuit?
I was working at The Bike Shop here in Temecula, CA, and Rich Houseman asked me if I could help him with a junior team he was running with Aaron (who was coaching the kids.) Of course, I said I would. That led to him asking if I could help Aaron out just during his off-season, kind of like a practice mechanic type of thing. Then I helped Aaron out at a Fontana race and then Bootleg Canyon, and when we got home from that race he pretty much just asked me if I wanted to go to World Cups with him. I said, “Heck yeah, I do!” So he went to Specialized and said he wanted me as his wrench, along with Eric Carter and Rich Houseman vouching for me... I was in! Then I pretty much crapped myself with excitement, turned in my two weeks, quit school, and hit the circuit with the boys.How does a typical World Cup race weekend play out for you?
There’s nothing typical about a World Cup race weekend, haha. Monday and Tuesday are usually travel days. Wednesday is when we’ll usually set up the pits, get the race bikes built up, and drop suspension off to be serviced. Once that's all done it's time for track walk and any bike work that needs to be finished. Then it's the first day of practice, which lasts pretty much all day, from about 10am to 4pm, with the last two hours being timed practice. This is the day when we try to get everything dialed in on the bike as quickly as possible as far as tire choice and pressures, suspension setup, etc. so that the riders can begin to focus on getting up to race pace. I have ways to speed this process up, but I don’t want to give away any secrets! I would say that is the most hectic day. That's when you find out how everything is going to hold up against the track you’re on and kind of sets the pace for the rest of the weekend.
Then comes qualification day, and the riders will have about one and a half hours of practice in the morning, which is usually one or two runs depending on how things are going. Then we’ll prep the bikes from that point on until it's time to qualify in the afternoon. Race day is pretty much identical to qualifying day except that your start time will depend on where you qualified the day before. It’s also the tensest and stressful day for me - I constantly go over things in my head ALL DAY LONG, checking all my boxes and probably giving myself more stress than I need to, haha. After Gwin leaves the start gate, you just hope there’s a champagne party at the podium and that you’re invited!
That's a very basic rundown that doesn’t account for all the crazy stuff that happens during practices when you’re trying to get them back up on the hill ASAP or things that happen moments before race runs. That’s when good mechanics really shine, in my opinion, when you’re under the gun to perform perfectly in the middle of your worst nightmare.Talk a little bit about pit etiquette. Are there unspoken rules as far as who can come in or be allowed to interact with the riders or yourself?
Everyone is welcome and able to interact with the staff and riders! That's what's awesome about our sport, and we’re not THAT special, haha. But you could say there’s some pit etiquette. But it's more just common sense. Basically, it comes down to: don't touch the race bike! The fans are amazing and one of my favorite things about what we do, but there's been a couple of times I’ve turned around and there is some random guy in your work space or trying to reach over the banner touching the race bike, squeezing tires, pulling brake levers or about to touch a rotor with their greasy fingers (my biggest pet peeve!) I always think about Supercross and there are thousands of fans that cruise the pits but I’ve never seen one inside the pit, touching Ryan Dungey’s bike and pulling levers.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is that everything on that bike is my responsibility, and I’m very protective over it. If someone is touching it or messing with something and I don't catch it, and they break it or damage it after I’ve already gone over the bike and said it was good, then whatever happens lands on my shoulders and my riders safety is jeopardized. I’m not afraid to tell someone to back away from the bike or tell them not to touch it. How do you stay focused when people are just looking for a friendly chat in the pits?
As far as staying focused when people want to chat, it's not too hard. If it's a fire drill situation and you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off, then people get the idea and know not to try and talk to you. But if I’m just doing stuff that I could do blindfolded, and I’m not under the gun then I’m more than happy to chat with people. I’ve met some really rad fans, and they usually get pretty stoked when you take the time to answer questions or help out if we can. Plus, getting to talk to people from different parts of the world is awesome. There're some really cool people out there with some really cool stories!How much advice are you giving Aaron on his bike setup or special tweaks based on the track and weather conditions? Do you do track walks as well?
Honestly, Aaron is SUPER smart when it comes to that stuff. I mostly try to take his feedback, translate it and apply it constructively to the setup. But he’s my boy, and if I feel like he’s searching for something or has questions, then I might throw suggestions at him or offer up an idea here or there. He’s a mechanic's dream and the kind of rider that knows what he wants and can probably tell you what to change and how much to change it. Sometimes an idea sounds crazy, but I’ve learned to trust him and his judgment and just make it happen.
I do try to do every track walk with him, not to help him with lines or anything because he usually already knows where he wants to go. It's more for my knowledge, so if he comes down from a run and starts talking about a section and what the bike is doing, then I know what he’s talking about and can make changes accordingly and efficiently.
Give us your take on Gwin's infamous chain-less run at the Leogang World Cup. What was going through your head?
|Anyone who knows John knows the kind of genuine person he is, and I'm very thankful to have him on my team. I'm looking forward to more good times and great years ahead. Thanks for sticking with me, broseph! - Aaron Gwin|
Oh man, I knew that question was coming. I was standing there in the start hut, trying not to throw up like usual as the beeps went off, and on the second pedal stroke I heard the 'pop' [of the chain breaking] and Aaron kind of fell forward. I knew straight away his chain had just broke. Some words came out of my mouth that would've offended a sailor, and all I wanted to do was scream to Aaron to JUST GO! But I knew the way he hit the first turn that he already knew what to do. So I went to gather my things and make my way down the hill when I saw Jason Marsh (Greg Minnaar's mechanic) and Doug Hatfield (Ratboy's mechanic) huddled around Marshy’s phone watching the race on RedBull TV. I walked over to them and told them what happened and they were bummed for me. I was freaking out so Marshy gave me a refreshment and told me to chill out and that it’d be fine. The feed was delayed by a couple minutes so we watched Connor Fearon’s run and saw him go into the lead. The three of us were so stoked for him to have such a great run!
Then came Aaron. When he hit the split and was only just under a second down, I knew right then that it was possible for him to still win if he just stayed up and smooth. I gotta tell you; that was the most nerve racking few minutes of my life, and when he crossed that line into the lead I threw whatever was in my hands in the air and ran around screaming like I just scored a World Cup soccer goal. Dougie and Marshy did the same exact thing. I think those dudes were just as amazed and stoked as I was to see Aaron win. That’s such a cool thing about DH, that there's such good sportsmanship and camaraderie between riders and mechanics and everyone is stoked for you when you have a good weekend. I remember Doug saying, “we’re going to remember this day forever, that was history.” I’ve gotta thank those two guys for calming me down and being up there with me for that.
The very next weekend Greg Minnar broke the record for most wins and it was Marshy, Dougie, Jack (Loic Bruni's mechanic) and myself left at the top, and when the news came in I was sure to be the first to congratulate Marshy and hand him a beer. All four of us shared it - that was another super cool moment that I won’t forget. It seems like when there are bike malfunctions, most people's first reaction is to blame either the brand or the mechanic. What are your thoughts on that? Any misconceptions that you want to clarify on your end?
Yeah, I mean I think people just want to be able to point their finger at someone or something and say it happened because of this or it happened because of that. But, in reality, in that particular situation you can’t put the blame on anyone or anything. It wasn’t the chains' fault; it wasn’t my fault or Aaron's fault. Chains just break sometimes, and especially when guys like Aaron put that much power down and bang a couple of shifts. It might be downhill, but some people don't realize that some of these guys are putting out wattage that compares to top track riders when they take off out of that start gate. I wish you could see the wattage numbers, it's incredible.
The important thing is that he didn’t stop, he encountered an obstacle and reacted quickly to it by putting it out of his mind immediately, pressing on and didn’t give up all the way through to the end. That's what champions do and how they handle things. I couldn’t have been prouder of how he handled that.Besides moments like the Leogang incident, what's the most stressful part of your job?
Probably sitting in the start hut waiting for him to drop in, and the whole time he’s on course while I'm on my way back down to the pits. We have radios, but they’re usually out of range so you just don’t know what’s happened or how he’s done until you get to the bottom. It’s not bad for some people, but that's when I stress the most, mainly because it’s out of my control at that point and you just hope that you’ve done everything possible to make that bike as fast as it can possibly be.If another mechanic ask to borrow a tool during a race weekend, how do you respond?
It hardly ever happens because all the mechanics on the circuit are dialed, but heck yeah they can! Those are the people I trust the most with my tools because, being mechanics themselves, they know how special they are to me. My view on it is this: we’re all there to race, and we all want our riders on the hill competing against each other, and if that means I’ve got to lend a tool or even parts to another mechanic so his rider can line up with the rest, then hell yeah! In the end we’ve all got each other's backs and what comes around goes around. How does it feel when the race is done and you guys come out on top?
Dude, anyone who has done it can tell you that there is no better feeling. People don’t understand how hard it is to win a World Cup... I know that I didn’t. It even took me a while to realize it because the first World Cup I did with Aaron was South Africa in 2014 and he won. I was just like, “Well, yeah, he won, he’s Aaron Gwin.” But after that and doing more and more races I learned really fast that you’ve got to work your ass off every second, and even then sometimes it's not enough. There’s a lot that goes on during the week and during practice that most people don’t get to see. Sometimes things go smooth and sometimes you’re fighting setup or some courses are just beating the crap out of the bikes and making life hard on you. So at the end of the weekend when the dust settles and the team comes out on top, it makes every busted knuckle and sleepless night working on the bike or building wheels worth it. Do you get much downtime outside of the race venue? You probably have some great travel stories...
Travel is awesome, man. I mean, look at what we get to do. We get paid to travel the world with all our homies from all over the place and work on bikes. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s really hard trying to explain to people you just met what exactly it is that you do, haha. There's not usually much down time outside of the race venue to do much, but when there is we always try to take some time to do something cool or go sight seeing. A lot of times it’s just about making time to do extra stuff or to get out for a ride. You’ve gotta take advantage of the places we get to see when you can.
As for travel stories, I think there's at least a few from every trip, haha. Aaron Pelttari (Troy Brosnan's mechanic) and I left Ft. William SUPER late this year pulling a trailer with the Sprinter van. We were hauling ass the whole way, and the roads through the Scottish Highlands are super narrow and twisty so when we would meet big trucks coming around corners it made for some “pucker” moments. The van kept overheating and we had to stop for fuel. We ended up getting to the ferry with ten minutes to spare before they closed boarding, and we actually had to jump a big grass median because I missed a turn right at the last second. If I wouldn’t have done that we for sure would have missed it and who knows if we would have made Leogang or not! When we landed in Amsterdam, they stamped Aaron's passport twice which bummed me out, but we were just lucky we never got stopped there because that would’ve been a tough one to explain. But, we made it and that's all that counts!What kind of trails and terrain do you enjoy most? Any favorite locations?
Those that know me know that I don’t ride nearly as much as I should, but my first love will always be downhill. There's no bike that’s more fun to ride than a DH bike through some nasty rocks, but I do love some tasty single track that's high speed, flowy, and has some techie rough stuff mixed in. One of my favorite locations would be up in Kernville, CA. The trails up there are gems and so much fun to ride. I go up every year for Eric Carters FOGFEST
.How has setting up Aaron's bike affected your personal bike setup?
Haha, it’s funny you ask that. I work on his bike so much that when I get on my bike, it feels weird. So I end up with a setup almost identical to his just to keep things simple and comfortable. Plus it helps speed up the process when building a freshie. Do you have a bike for each type of riding, or more of a one bike to do it all setup?
There was a day when I had a bike for every type of riding I wanted to do: DH, XC, DJ, BMX, road - you name it. But now I thinned the herd down and just have my one do it all bike. I’m a simple man.In your opinion, what area of bike technology needs the most improvement?
First thing that comes to mind is flat tires! There is nothing worse than spending the amount of time testing that we do and work we put in to travel across the world, let alone the money spent, just to get a stupid flat tire. After that I would say drivetrains are next. They’re awesome right now and have never worked better, but there has got to be something better. We just need to take the time to explore and develop it. I know it's possible and it's out there. You should see the list of ideas in my notepad, haha. Lets just say that I’m a creative thinker.What advice would you give to someone who is looking to pursue a similar career?
The biggest thing is that you just have to put in the work. Always surround yourself with people who are better than you and take any opportunity you can to learn from them. That doesn't just go for wrenching, it goes for anything. Take what they do good and forget what doesn’t work and build your own way of doing things. For mechanics, the best thing to do is to try to find a small team to work for or do neutral support for any local races or bike shops you can lend a hand at. You’ll learn a ton that way and it’s a great way to put your skills on display for people to see. Hopefully, one of them is in the industry and looking for someone like you. There’s no substitute for hard work and never stop learning.What does the future hold for John Hall?
The million dollar question! I’m excited for what the future holds and I’m just going to keep doing what I love with bikes, man. It’s where I’m the happiest, it’s provided a great life for me so far, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than tinkering on bikes with some of the raddest people and companies in the world. I couldn’t be more thankful to do what I get to do.Any special thanks or shout-outs?
Definitely. Gwinny for trusting me to do what I do. Rich Houseman and Eric Carter for getting me in there. Benno Willeit for being a damn good team manager. Everyone at Specialized Bikes. Jordi Cortes and the whole crew at Fox Suspension. All the dudes at SRAM for just being rad in general. Along with all the team sponsors, they truly are the best. John Canepa, Marshy, Dougie, Jack, Nigel, Ben and all the other mechanics on the circuit that have helped me out, let me vent or handed out advice to a rookie in need. Martin the masseur just for being a good soul and for all the chats. Todd Schumlick, who would’ve thought, eh? The Bike Shop Temecula and anyone else I’m sure that I've forgotten. There's a ton of people that have helped me get to where I’m at today and I’m thankful for each and every one of them!