There is a strong argument that Damien Oton is the most underrated rider in enduro. He's not the wild, outgoing type, so maybe he doesn't get the media attention of some of his more flamboyant peers. Yet he is nothing if not consistently fast. This year he quietly put in result after result, week after week, grafting away just behind the absolute sharp end of the action (except for in La Thuile, where he shared the podium with Richie Rude and Sam Hill). When the dust settled he was, for the second time in three years, number two in the world. When he is on form, the only two riders who have proved themselves able to beat him over a whole season are Jared Graves and Richie Rude when they are riding at the height of the powers, yet outside his native France, he is maybe a name that many race fans are not so familiar with. We swung by the home of the unassuming Frenchman to find out a bit more about where he comes from, how to be consistent over a whole season and what it takes to win an EWS race these days.
For most people who read Pinkbike, the first time they've heard of you is probably going to have been Valloire or La Thuile in 2014. How old are you now?
28. So you were like 25, 26 when a lot of people first heard of you. What were you doing before that? How did you get to be racing at that level?
I started to bike late, when I was 21, 22. And I started racing at 23, I think. So, yeah, I started late. I was a plumber before that and I went professional in 2014. Devinci was your first pro deal?
I was with Caminade before and I wasn't really earning a lot of money, so I was a part plumber, part pro. But yeah, I have money to live off my riding since my 2014 deal with Devinci. So where did you start racing, with the French National series?
No, it was only a small championship around here. In a small state in the south of France. And I did a couple, two or three French cups, and after that I went to the EWS. The EWS site doesn't list results from 2013, but you finished 14th or 15th that year, didn't you? Or maybe 13th even. A team manager was saying that at the end of that season that in 13th to 15th, there was you, Yoann Barelli, and Ludo May, the three kind of fast Frenchies... Even though Ludo's not French, but he comes from the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
I don't remember, because I missed two rounds because I had problems with my bike, and I did have a couple of good results, like seventh in Finale. And that was on the Caminade?
Yeah, the steel bike. Full steel. The company, the factory, is just like two hundred meters from my house! And the bike, it's made here in my town. They're friends of mine. That's why I started with those guys, because it's friends who built this brand. They asked me to help and to me it was a good opportunity, because they gave me money to ride the bike, so I said, "Okay, let's try." I did all the EWS on the steel bike, and it was a super nice experience because I was doing the development for the shocks, for the frame, for everything, and so it was a really good experience. And the Caminade was unique. There's nothing like it... When you see the bike, even if there is no paint, nothing on it, you say that it's definitely a Caminade.
Before the mountain biking, were you doing any other sports?
Yeah, I did moto since I was 16. What kind of level did you get to with the moto? Was it just fun, mainly?
Yeah, a league. It was an enduro championship in the south of France, not high level, but it was good. I did only one year because it was too expensive, but I won the championship in my category. Did that experience from the moto enduro make it easier going to mountain bike enduro, do you think?
Yeah, definitely, a lot. When I started mountain biking, I won my first. It was a small race for sure, but... it's just really hard to work on the fitness, you know? Because it was hard to climb and hard to finish the race. But for the stages, it was easy, because you have all the lines, you have the speed. For the mountain bike enduro, there's a much higher level of fitness you need than the moto?
Yeah, I guess so. It's different. For the moto, you have to be stronger on the upper body. For the mountain bike, you have to have the good legs, you have to be strong on the upper body too, but it's different.
Looking at the 2014 season, your big break came in just three weeks, didn't it? You were second in Valloire one week, then you won La Thuile the week after.
I had a strong season. I started with 11th in Chile, and then my first top ten with Devinci was sixth in Scotland for the presentation of the new Spartan. The next one was in Valloire, I was 2nd, then La Thuile... That was nice. In that period, going from 11th to 1st, did anything change for you? Did you just kind of go "Ah!" Was there a moment where you were like, "Well, if I just do this it works" or was it just more of the same thing?
Yeah. It was doing the same thing, but it's just the confidence. That's the main thing to be fast. After my first podium, I said, "So I can win a round. Because I have the speed, I have everything, so I'm gonna do it." When you think that and you seem to have the speed, so I'm just going to go full gas. I was confident. Nothing can happen when you say, "I can do it. [laughs]." 2015 for you must have pretty much sucked, really. The ankle in Scotland must have been a real low point?
Yeah, that was bad. Was that your first big injury?
Yeah, I broke my collarbone, but that was five years ago. It was super bad, because it was broken in four parts. I broke my arm, too, and some other stuff, but the ankle was really bad because you can't do anything. In Scotland the doctor, when I went to hospital, told me, "There is nothing on your ankle, so you have to stop walking and riding for one week and after it should be okay." So it was okay, that's pretty bad because I have to not ride in the EWS in Scotland, but I'll be ready for the next one. And when I went back to France I did one more X-ray in the hospital, and the doctor told me "The ankle is broken, the ligament is broken. The other one is stretched, so you have to stop for three months." What? Are you serious? That's impossible!" I stopped for three months. It was super long and painful, and after that it was super hard to ride with confidence, to go fast and not think about injury, it's a bit scary. But looking at your comeback - it was 48 in Whistler, then 11th in Ainsa, and 6th in Finale, wasn't it? So it's straight back to speed.
Yeah, I tried to come back early because I was so excited to ride in Whistler, so I said, "Okay, I think I can be ready for Whistler," but yeah... We tried, but it was too rough. Whistler is not a good track to go to after an injury. I had to stop, I remember, on the first stage, it was a long one, I had to stop because it was so painful. And I remember four people passing me. It was crazy. So I said to myself, "What are you doing here?" Then in Anisa, 11th is a fairly solid result and then the 6th in Finale, were you feeling like the speed was back, that you could do it again?
Yeah, that's true.
How did you go into the winter for this year? Did you come out of the 2015 Finale race thinking "We can do this?" Or was it, "Damn, I'm still not there." What was the mindset?
In Finale it was a good because I had really good stage results, I had some top fives. So that was really good for the winter, because I could say, "Okay, the speed is coming," just looking forward and I felt it should be good. What did you think of this last season, because you are number two in the world again. Obviously that's rad, but looking back to your results earlier there's only been one podium this year, and it's more like 6th or 7th every round. In your head, how does that feel to you?
It was not easy because I really wanted to win one round. It would have been nice... It's not easy because Richie was strong all the time, and there were people coming, like Sam Hill, or other downhill guys, and they were fast. But they weren't looking towards the championship. So, yeah. I think next year I'm gonna be looking more towards the one event pace, rather than trying to win the championship. I'm going to try to win the championship for sure, but more to be ready for one event pace. Would you say this year you were maybe held a bit back sometimes, thinking about the longer game, is that what you're saying?
Yeah. That's what I'm working with my coach on, looking to the championship. He asked me "Do you want to win one round, or do you want to be consistent all year long?" Because you can't be fast from March to October. It's impossible for the body. Or maybe Richie can, because he's on another level. For you, in 2014 and 2016, you were second in the world. But in 2014 you won La Thuile, you had three podiums, whereas this year you've only had the one podium, and it was third. How have the two seasons compared for you? Do you feel you were going as fast or faster as the games moved on, or do you feel that maybe in 2014 there was something there that you've got to work for next year?
No. I just think there are more people who are stronger, you know? You can see now the results, everyone is super close. It's hard to win a race. I think compared to 2014, the gaps between the top riders are much smaller compared to now, it's much closer racing. If you make a mistake, you see the result and you're 20th, 25th now. That was different in 2014.
So do you feel that you are riding faster now, it's just the level has stepped up?
Yeah. And sometimes, like in Valberg I was riding it safe. It was a long race, trying to make sure I didn't break anything on the bike, just trying to go fast, but not too fast, and I thought it would be good. It was not good. When you're not trying to do your best, you're back. That's one thing that interests me too, say you look at 2013, like Jerome's winning season, it's the consistent guys winning, whereas now I think you look at the way Richie rides, look at the way Martin rides, you look at the way Sam Hill rides, and Jesse Melamed, those guys that seem to be kind of coming to the front at the moment, they're much more aggressive riders than maybe we saw a few years ago. Do you think the kind of style of riding to win one of these is changing?
Not really. I think it's just, Martin, Sam, and Jesse were just in good shape the three last rounds. It's not easy to be on top all year long. On his Instagram Marco Osborne has a video from La Thuile, where Richie passes you on a climb, and then passes Jerome as well. Obviously, to catch Jerome, that's a good run 99% of the time, so to then have Richie come past both of you, how does that feel from your side?
It was unbelievable [laughs]. I was in super good shape, because I was working with my coach towards this race, and I said, "I want to be fast here." On the climb, I felt super strong. I dropped two or three gears, I felt like I had a lot of power. I saw Jerome just in front of me, like fifteen seconds ahead, so I said, "Yes, I'm fast. Let's go!" And just boom! [laughs] Like, what? What was that!? It was crazy. And then I was second at the bottom. And he passed me, and like was 32 seconds in front of me, and I said, "Oh, Damn. Maybe I feel good, but maybe I am not." And I see the results and I say, "What, I'm second?!" It's just a tough one. Does that give you more motivation?
Yeah, definitely. It definitely gives me more motivation. I say, "Okay, I need to train harder." But to be honest, it was just crazy. It was not a small stage, it was maybe 8 or 10 minutes, and the climb was steep. Normally when it's not so steep Richie is super strong, I guess because he's heavy and he has a lot of power. But that one was steep, so I say that's more for me because I'm light and I have less weight to climb. But no, definitely not... It was crazy.
So you say next year your focus is more towards winning races rather than taking a consistent approach to the championship. So what does that mean in practice for you this winter? How would you adjust your training to do something like that?
It's going to be more intervals before the events, like more and more intervals, and be ready for single events. But sometimes the problem is when you focus on only one event, the problem is you might be super fast, but you might be super tired. It's not easy. How much work does it take, like say on an average week for the winter, how many hours work is it to get to that point? Can you maybe explain to our readers how much work goes in to get to the level you guys are racing, how many hours a week you're training?
It's about fifteen, well it depends. Sometimes the big weeks in winter are about 20, sometimes 25 hours. But that's the big, big weeks when you do a lot of road bike hours during the week, and during the season it's a bit less. It's ten to fifteen, but it's with more intervals. It's shorter, but harder. Maybe people who don't train don't realise how much recovery time that goes with that. If you're doing those intense weeks, fifteen hours, twenty, you pretty much have to kind of stop for the rest of the week to get the recovery, right?
Yeah. The recovery is, I guess, more important. That takes a lot of time. It's easy for someone to say, "Well I could find 15 hours a week" but then it's the extra time, the time on top for recovery that makes it...
Yeah, but it's 15 hours on the bike, it's not easy during the winter. Sometimes you can say okay, it's easy. But all week, every week? When it's raining, when it's windy. You have to enjoy it. Often, I do a lot of moto during the winter. I leave for Italy in one week, so I can't wait, to go with some friends here. We will do three to four days riding motocross in Italy on the tracks. So you're racing for Devinci again next year?
Yeah, I have a three-year contract. It's going to be interesting. We're already working on the new bike. I hope I'm going to be able to race it in New Zealand. For 2017 it's going to be different geometry, we're working on different angles. For you, you're obviously not a big guy. There's the whole longer bike trend at the moment, is that something you're keen on? Or do you prefer to keep your bike a bit shorter?
No, I like the long bike. For my height, I should be on the small, but I ride medium because I like to have a bigger bike. But I don't like too stiff... Because when you're light, it's not easy to ride on the stiff bike. So it's hard to have a good compromise. Like on the bumps, if the bike flexes too much, it doesn't give you a good feeling, you lose time, you know? But if it's too much, it's good for a three-minute run, but after that, you're knackered. I think Richie needs to have a stiff bike, because he's heavy, and he needs it. But me on a stiff bike, I think there'll be some trouble. There aren't many companies that have adjusted the frame's stiffness according to size, they don't look for rider weight.
It's not easy. I think that's why some people ride with a big rim in front, and small in the back. And then rims wide or not? If it's too stiff, it's good in a USA race, because it's just straight and fast and flat, but when it's rough, it's not easy. You have less grip.
From your point of view as a rider, what do you think of the 2017 EWS calendar? Because next year it's Australia, it's New Zealand, it's Canada, America, Madeira. For you, it's easy, because you're number two in the world, so it's no problem. But when you think back to when you were riding for Caminade, do you think that would have been possible today, with how the circuit is?
I think it's super expensive. Even for us, Devinci is a small brand, so people ask the question, "Is that good to go over there?" Because it's expensive. I think we need to be more in Europe. For us, it's good. Because we're going to go riding in New Zealand and Tasmania, so it's amazing. I guess it would be better to stay, and have more rounds in Europe, more in the USA, or a couple more in Canada, like Squamish, or I don't know. There are amazing places over there. When I went to Chile this year, I said, "Okay. It's a nice race, but what are we doing here? There's nobody." Who's going to go riding over there? Are you going to go riding over there? Go take the boat every day? So it's amazing for us, that's true, but there's no way to go. I think Madeira will be amazing, because everyone over there is involved with bikes, and the track is going to be super nice I think. But Tasmania? It's crazy. I don't know why we're not going to Queenstown after Rotorua, for example. Some more rounds here, Ainsa was super nice. What would you like to see as the future of the EWS, how would you like to see it change from where it is now?
Practice. No more. We need to have practice, but I think we need to forbid them practicing for one or two months or even three months. Because the downhill guys, and other people, look at these guys and think, 'Oh, he's fast because he knows the trails' or he's been here for a couple of months. And it's not true. There are some riders that do it for sure, but it's not everyone, and I think we need to stop that, for the sport, for enduro. I think we need to know the map two or three months before. Because every organiser knows exactly where we are going to go. Some people will say, "Oh yeah, but two or three months? I don't know where.. " No. Because you have to know for the States, you have to say, "We're going to go over there for the authorization, for everything." It would be nice to know, because like in Finale.. if I want to go this winter, it's a super nice place. So you cannot say to everyone, "Don't go to Finale." Because it's such a good place for training for everything, there's good ice cream, good pizza, the sea, the trails, everything. Everyone wants to go over there, but if you know the trails, like 'this is going to be stage one next year.' If everyone knows, nobody is going to ride it. Because if you're going, you're a loser. You know shit. But if it's not forbidden, everyone is going to go. I think it would be nice to stop practice between. Like this year we have a race in France, or maybe between two EWS rounds, you cannot go to the next one for riding. But it's impossible to say you cannot go. Because like for US teams or New Zealand guys, people cannot go home, it's too expensive. So you see the map, and when you know the map, you cannot ride this trail. You're going to ride the other one. And that would be nice. I think that's not going to change anything on the results, the fastest will be the fastest, that's for sure. But it's just for us, for the sport, you know? That's the main, the big problem to me. So just change that, and that's it.