The Santa Cruz Syndicate have been at the forefront of World Cup Downhill for over a decade. Over that time they've become one of the most popular teams in the pits thanks to not only their success, but personality that has shone through in the various 'Syndicate' or 'This is Peaty' video series. 2017 is the start of a new era with Josh Bryceland and Steve Peat stepping aside and the youthful talent of Luca Shaw and Loris Vergier joining the fold, under the wing of Greg Minnaar. At the core of team since the start has been Kathy Sessler, the manager and 'team mom' when on the road - those of you who have followed Ratboy's, Peaty's and Minnaar's antics in the team videos over the years will be familiar with Kathy as she held the reigns and dealt with everything from cooking the team's food, to finish line injuries, and wild World Champs victories. We met up with Kathy in Lourdes to find out everything from how she keeps the team ticking over smoothly, to the transition of fresh faces into the team for the new season.
First of all, can you introduce yourself and give us a rough overview of your position.
I'm Kathy Sessler and I work for the Santa Cruz Syndicate as the team manager. The details of my job are I plan all the logistics and travel for the team, I have a great travel agent Jack Warshaw from All-Ways Travel who does the fine details, and then all the planning pre-season then at the races I'm the road manager and the Mom. I cook for the team, wash their clothes, and just make sure I do everything for them I can, so they can save their energy and time and they can go do their job. So they can have more energy and time do it, you know so they aren't bothered by the small details... Like washing their underwear. I did have to wash Loris' underwear the other day! I told him I'll wash it, I'm not looking! Don't worry about it!
What's your background, how did you work yourself into the current role? I guess there isn't a standard career path!
No there isn't, there is no typical career path! I started racing mountain bikes in 1989 and then I had a professional riding career from '92 to '97 where I was 3 time national veteran downhill champion, as well as silver and bronze medals in veteran world championships. From there I started doing team management for Intense Cycles and I was their first professional rider back in 1993. So I was good friends with Geoff from Intense and did some team management for him and then there was a team called Intense Tire Systems which was on Santa Cruz frames, that was in '03. In 2004 the man who set it up moved on but Rob wanted to keep the team going so asked if I would manage it, and that became the Santa Cruz Syndicate in 2004. So this is my 14th year managing this team! It doesn't seem like its been anytime at all... I just love it still!
Do you ever have to draw on your racing experience with the guys?
Yeah I definitely draw on my experience racing to understand what it takes, not only logistically, but psychologically and physiologically, these kind of aspects. That's why I know if I can take the little things off their plate that it's going to be much easier for them to have the mental focus and concentration to do what they do. You can understand that each person is different psychologically and I want to try and understand what's unique about each individual and how they work, then I can work with that and try not to make them into anything they aren't. Try and understand it and learn it, and work with them on it, and have some harmony with that.
How does a world cup team materialize? There are more factors than a manufacturer simply hiring a few riders.
Teams come together in so many different ways and I've found that there are quite a lot of former racers who end up in team management positions. A lot of them after their racing careers still love the sport and want to be involved. Some of them like Nigel Page (Chain Reaction Nukeproof Manager) for example, he wanted to formulate a team and went out and got all the sponsors for it and this is one way of doing it; a very difficult way but he's done really well at it. For myself, Santa Cruz, it's their team and they're a manufacturer who employs all of us. There are many different ways but that's the way ours works. It's not on size fits all.
It must be pretty challenging getting all the pieces of the jigsaw to fit with all the various suppliers, sponsors and other brands coming together.
Yeah we have different people to fill different rolls. So say Nigel Page has to go out and get all his sponsorships, I have other people that do that inside Santa Cruz. Rob Roskopp, and Will Ockelton which is a huge job on its own. They do a lot of the marketing and relationships with the sponsors and I try and facilitate what they've promised to them and make sure it happens. There's a lot of moving parts to it for sure.
Not asking for any figures but would you be able to give us a rough overview on where the budget comes from and how it's split between salaries, logistics, travel etc?
Yeah so I would say the budget comes from the money that comes through sponsorships and the money that comes direct from the company itself, let's just say it weighs heavily on the company. So the sponsors come in and it is a huge chunk, but Santa Cruz pays for the majority. Then divide it up, let's say the budget is between one and two million and let's just say most of that is salaries. How about that...
When it comes to riders, what are the qualities that make you sit up and take notice?
So what's interesting about our team if anyone has watched all along, it hasn't changed in ten years. Rob Roskopp picked the people that are on the team and what is important to Rob is personality, integrity, their sports ethics, and their hungriness for sport and their athleticism. You know with Steve, Greg, Josh and now with two riders coming in, we're not looking to fill those shoes, Rob is just looking at what individuals meet that criteria. With Rob it's not having a rider in the team for a couple of years and then changing them, it's more about having a lifelong relationship with those people. Rob wants to be with you forever, it's a family that you come into and it's wonderful.
We had Luca Shaw talk to Rob in Andorra a couple years ago but Rob wasn't quite ready for him yet. So when it came around that we knew Steve was leaving, me and Greg pushed really hard to make sure Luca got on. By that time Rob had got to know Luca a little more. With Loris, Rob didn't know him very well and we were asking for him. Santa Cruz were setting up a base in Morzine so from that marketing side of things it made perfect sense to have a French rider on the team. I mean I didn't know him very well either, if you don't know him he seems quite shy, but when you get to know him you realise he's not so shy. Yeah so there was probably a big question mark in everyone's mind over if he would fit, will he fit those really important points with personality and this type of thing. Will had some meetings with him and ensured us that yeah he's going to be a good fit and he most certainly is.
I guess Luca and Loris are two very different characters to Josh and Steve but in a way the team hasn't changed at all. The atmosphere still seems the same.
Yeah you've nailed it. It just goes to show the team is more than just the individuals, yet it's an individual's sport. So we try and form a support structure that each individual can retain their identity yet we try and give them the foundation and platform for them to work on. I think having the change in the two riders has really shown the structure we have provided is a really solid base. And yeah I agree with you, we've got something really special. We've just got two new riders who fit in really, really well and it's business as usual!
In terms of team dynamic it must be pretty crucial to assemble a group of individuals with strong relationships? Especially considering you spend so much time together, even more than your family almost.
Yeah for me that is the most important piece. For me it has to be people that can mesh. It's everything if you have one person in the mix that doesn't fit it can ruin your entire year. I don't care if you're the fastest racer on the planet, if you don't fit, you don't fit! It makes everybody miserable. Without that harmony it can't work.
And has that happened before...?
*Pauses* Eh... Not with riders but sometimes we have different staffing with mechanics and stuff and a lot of changes sometimes in the third mechanics. Some fits have been better in others let's just say...
How many people is the team made up of and what are their roles?
So we've got three riders and three mechanics. Each rider has their own mechanic. We've had Greg for ten years, Marshy came on a couple of years into Greg's career so he's been with Greg and us ever since.
Doug has been working with the Syndicate, I think he started in '05 with us and he is the one mechanic that different riders have come on and worked with. He has been Greg's mechanic, he's been Josh's mechanic and now he is Luca's mechanic. He works at the factory in Santa Cruz so he's our main mastermind of all the product ordering and making sure he's dealing with all the sponsors to get the products in. It's more than a full time role, he works his ass off! He loves it but works harder than any man on the planet.
Then for staffing you have me as the manager, and we have two physio's that we use, one is Lawrence van Lingen - he's a South African chiropractor who does some amazing techniques, and then we have Laura Robson who is working with us this week (in Lourdes). We alternate the jobs of the physio depending on what continent we're on and who is available. Basically, we run with seven plus a physio and now we have Steve in a team captain kind of roll, so he'll be present at many of the world cups. Then of course there's the people back at the factory too.
So you're in charge of all the logistics and sorting all the travel and accommodation bookings for the team? That must be a potential minefield!
Yeah I pull it altogether. I'm like the sun... and I have all these planets that are revolving around me and I have to pull them altogether and have them land at the same place at the same time!
Do you set out any target or results goals for each rider throughout the season?
Okay, so would you review a rider's results if they were going through a rough streak or just leave them to get on with it?
Nah, it's like this. We don't put any pressure on the riders. We hire the best riders in the world and they're their own critic. I'll maybe talk to them asking how their practice went today or whatever, but there are no pressure like 'oh man you've got to win!'
Perhaps that's a very different approach to other teams?
It could be, I don't know. Here's the thing, in the course of a year you can have so many different things happen, things that are out of your control. I've been doing this job for a long time and every year it's different, every year it's a different mixed bag. But it starts and finishes with a great season. Every time. No season is the same. So in one season you have wins, losses, crashes, tears, happiness, great successes, whatever – you just don't know on any given day what's going to happen. You just have to allow for that and not put any pressure on a rider, they're going to have a bad day, they're going to crash, they're going to have to deal with injuries, they're going to win some, they're going to lose some... Yeah so what's today? Who knows, we'll see!
So it's the start of a new era for the Syndicate with Luca and Loris, it must be exciting but in a way emotional if not a little strange to not have Steve and Josh around?
You know what's really funny is working with Josh last year, he showed a lot and shared with me, how he was feeling and how he was going to make that transition. I think working with that emotionally with him we saw it through to the finish, so it didn't seem so weird to bring in the new riders. It only seemed like the natural course and cycle of life, so we had the new ones come in and we had the infrastructure so that it was easy to put them into that mix and they meshed well from the very beginning. The only time I thought it was weird was the first day in the pits here in Lourdes... I was like f*** there's Loris, you're in my pit?! What are you doing?! Luca you're in my pit?! You're my riders now! That's when it became apparent because we'd been doing all the different testing and the launch video, I should say lots and lots of test sessions! So we felt like a team coming into it but that's when it hit me as weird having different riders. Like oh my god, Ratboy's poster is down and there's f****** Loris over there! *Laughs*.
Its not like Steve and Josh aren't around, does Josh have any plans to come to the World Cups at any point this year?
I don't know, I haven't spoken with him in some time! I know he's loving life and loving what he's doing and that's where he's at in life so that's good. It's very honourable that he honours himself enough to do what he's passionate about!
It must be an emotional roller-coaster over the weekend. How hard is it dealing with everything from injuries, to poor results and then the jubilation of winning?
It's interesting because you're talking about a lot of different emotions that are going on. So today, when the riders leave the pits, everything is 100% perfect and then it's just up to whatever goes on with the rider. What I get really excited about is when the rider has a really great performance, let's just say if they are struggling with an injury and they go out and do the very best they can and they get 13th place. I could be more proud of that than say a win that came because it rained and it didn't rain for you, and then you win, like big deal. It isn't all about the position, to me it's about getting passionate about the performance, so if the rider can have a performance that's really solid and they pull it altogether and they get the win, that's pretty awesome. Like Greg in South Africa when he won World Champs, that was really amazing because of the things he was battling through. Not only the fact he won in his own country but his hometown, the pressures that were on him were unreal. Some people might think he had a home own advantage but it was such a hometown disadvantage. He couldn't even go to the market without people stopping him and asking him if he was going to win, it was mental, it was so hard. Then his dad had been deathly ill in hospital in an induced coma, what that man can overcome in his head is mind blowing. So when he won that... The emotions... It was just crazy, so yeah it can be very intense. It's not the same race to race it's just whatever the storyline is. Like today [Lourdes Qualifying] 1st, 3rd and 6th that's really amazing but I'm not super excited about it, from the standpoint I can't say I expected it as you never really know how the results are going to be, all I know is the guys come into it super super prepared so that's why I'm not surprised. And it wasn't the race was it, so it's not like you get all excited as it not the real race. I'm just super pleased and super proud, not surprised, just really satisfied with that. It's always different.
Now that I think about it, I can't think of any other female team managers past or present. Is that something you ever think about?
No, I don't think there ever really has been as far as I know. Yeah it's pretty funny, Loris he's super funny and I'm getting to know him and he'll be like “oh I'm just being a girl” or “I'm 20% girl”, I'm like you're more of a girl than I am! I'm like a 14 year old boy! So when you say I'm the only female team manager, yeah its a fact and it is kind of funny. Some people come up to the pits and ask me if the team manager is here and I'm like yeah it's me... It happened today actually and the guy just looked at me like what? A girl? Really? Yeah it's really me, what are you going to say!
Every team manager I know has come from a cumulative experience bringing you to this point. I don't think there's really a lot of women who are maybe there in their life. For me I started racing late in life, and then after I stopped racing I had the opportunity now my children had grown up I had time where I could leave, as it wasn't like I was leaving a family behind. Sure I'm married I've got my husband, but it's not like I was leaving small children behind to do my job. So maybe some women couldn't do the job as perhaps they didn't have the interest, but also couldn't have it in their time frame of life, perhaps.
What's the hardest part of being a team manager?
There's not really a hard part. But there are some funny parts. I only have a couple of rules, Luca and Loris follow my rules it's really amazing! One of them is if I ask you to do something could you please do it, like hey Josh I'm really tired I didn't get much sleep last night could you please not bring any girls in your window tonight and wake me up... And then he does it and I go mental and scream and yell... but I don't want to get that mad! It's like dude, I already asked you and you just disregarded it. That can be hard, but there is no real hard part! I love the job, I love the travel, some people can't imagine how I still like to travel but I love it. The actual physical and mental parts of the job there is nothing hard about it exactly as I just love what I'm doing.
And finally, the best part?
Just enjoying the love and appreciation from the individuals on the team, that is the best part. That's the best part and is the only part that matters to me. Just having that harmony of human beings coming together and the like-minded motivation to bring everybody to the race day and finish, but it brings us all together in a harmony and to me that's the most satisfying part.