The surprise move of Aaron Gwin to the newly formed YT Mob team for 2016 had fans on tenterhooks. When Gwin stormed to an April season-opening victory in Lourdes, the ramblings and ranting was silenced. Early season form continued for the Californian, not stepping down from the podium at any race through to August and claiming another World Cup overall title. September's rain and dust didn't see the season out with a bang (except a wheel related one), a muddy slip and slide in Andorra and a rare DNF in Val di Sole. Angel Suarez struggled; injuries and crashes plagued the young Spaniard—perhaps the pressure was too much? Although his potential did shine through with three top forty finishes at all the World Cup events where he crossed the final finish line.
On to 2017 and a new face joins the team, Neko Mulally. Fellow American and previous teammate of Gwin, as well as prior team rider of Martin Whiteley. A new dynamic and high hopes for all involved. We talk with the entire Mob about errors of the past and their ambitions for the future. – Paul Aston
Due to the issues that you had in your final two race runs last season, are you excited to compete for more wins this year?
Yes, it was a rough plane ride home after those last two races (laughs). I prepared really well leading into those and I felt like I had everything I needed to win. I showed up in Andorra and felt great from my first run. I qualified well with a smooth run and was ready to throw it down in the finals. Unfortunately, the weather had different plans and that “biblically epic” rain just completely ruined the last few of us down the hill (laughs). I was sitting there warming up in the tent thinking, “Seriously, this couldn’t hold off for just 20 more minutes?” My initial game plan was to go for the win regardless of how wet it was, full-on throwing caution to the wind and just hammer down. A few turns into my race run though I realized that the track was a lot worse than I had imagined. I almost had two huge crashes in the first minute of my run and I just thought, “Dude, you’re gonna die if you keep this up” (laughs). I knew who was in the hot seat when I dropped in and since I still had to score one point to win the overall title, I had to finish. I decided to make the wise move and back it down to finish safely. I knew that if I crashed and hurt myself or broke the bike, I could have lost the whole deal. It was awesome to wrap up my fourth overall title that day but as a racer and someone who just loves to compete, I still felt robbed, empty, and without hope in the world. (laughs)
Moving on to Val Di Sole, it just seemed like the same result all over again. I believed I had everything ready to win and ended up breaking that wheel about 20 seconds into my race run. It somehow held together, with the tire going flat, for another two minutes or so but eventually exploded where everyone saw on camera. Breaking the rim was obviously my own fault but it still felt like months of preparation, travel, and hard work went down the drain in a second. I was on the plane flying home thinking, “I never even got to race!” I flew over here, did some practice runs for a few weeks, and now I’m flying home….And I’ve got seven months to wait before I’ll have another shot at it!” Both of those races just kind of felt like walking up to the world’s greatest buffet table and someone kicked it over as I grabbed my plate (laughs).
So ya, you could say I’m excited to compete again.
We saw that you had a knee surgery this offseason, how did that come about?
Back at the end of September, I had a small crash and ended up slamming my knee into the handlebars super hard. The crash was seriously minor but I hit my knee cap directly onto the bolt that holds the front brake lever clamp onto the bars. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing knee pads, lesson learned. I didn’t think much of it initially, my knee hurt for sure but after a week or so it felt fine. I rode for a few months after, moto, downhill, gym work, everything as normal. Towards the end of December, I had about 14 days in a row where I was filming for different projects and riding almost every day, all day. The last few days my knee started hurting, which was weird. I’ve never had issues with my knees thankfully. Anyways, it kept hurting so I went in and had an MRI done. Turns out I had chipped off a small piece of cartilage in the crash and it was catching on my patella tendon every time I’d make a pedal stroke. The more I rode, the more it would swell and catch, which is what caused me pain. It was only getting worse so I made the quick decision to get it removed. It was a super basic surgery, they just went in there and removed the loose piece that was floating around and that was it.
Now that you’re back on the bike, was the surgery successful and how are you feeling?
It feels great, I’m so stoked to go for rides now and not have my knee killing me after 20 minutes. I kept up on all of my upper body training and everything during the downtime. I was actually in my home gym working out the day after surgery. I had a friend come over and help me out, hand me the weights while I sat on the bench and did shoulder presses and stuff (laughs). I don’t feel like I lost much strength and I think it was actually good for my body to have a little rest. I feel fresh now and I’m having so much fun being back on the bike.
We’ve heard that you are working on a new personal project, what is that all about?
Yes, I’ve got a series of videos that I’ve been working on. The videos will be focused around general wisdom that I’ve gained and/or come to understand throughout my life. I will be discussing a variety of different subjects but my hope with these videos is to simply encourage the listeners, specifically the younger kids out there. I’ll explain the details a little further in the near future but that’s the basic rundown. I’m excited about this project and really believe these videos will motivate a lot of people.
In the past few years, you’ve taken on some seemingly large challenges which would require a lot of thought and wisdom. Team changes, contracts, creating your own team etc. Do you have someone that helps you think through these pursuits?
I do, I have a friend, Greg Williams, whom I regularly seek wisdom from in the areas of my life where I’m developing at the time. He went to a few races with me last year and was dubbed as “the mystery dude” in some of the track walk photos that popped up online (laughs). It’s an interesting story of how we originally met, which I’ll save for another time, but in short, we met towards the end of the summer in 2011. For about a year before that, I had been speaking to Christ and asking that He would bring me someone to understand His Word clearly. I also wanted to understand how His Word applied in respect to my life and specifically, in respect to my career as a racer. Greg ended up being the exact answer to that request. When we first met, the focus was on building a solid foundation in Christ’s written truth but once that was understood, the focus shifted more toward applying it in the different contexts of life which were applicable at the time.
The reason I am mentioning him in my response to this question is because he has been an integral part in helping me to establish how Christ’s word is the basis to the wisdom that I needed to build this great team that we have, both from the internal workings to the external presentation. Being able to discuss those things with him gave me a really clear vision of how I wanted to set everything up. In addition to building the team, I also ask him to travel with me to certain events when he’s available. I benefit a great deal from his wisdom, feedback etc based on his observations at the time. It’s also just a lot of fun to have such a close friend with me when I’m on the road. I’m very thankful that he sacrifices so much time to travel with me considering his devotion to his wife and six kids at home, as well as the other people who frequently request his time.
How is it that you’ve created such a positive vibe within your first year of establishing your new team?
There’s one word that I’d use to explain it, happiness! Our goal is to provide an environment within the team that allows us all to have a happy life, which is ultimately what we all hope for. To explain that, we just simply seek to support each other and encourage each other. We have a definitive authority structure so that everyone knows their specific duties and where their job begins and ends. Martin and I also work hard to provide quality working conditions, lodging accommodations, proper compensation, etc so that life on the road and at home is as happy as possible. Winning is always our hope but that is not always guaranteed. Win or lose, happiness can be guaranteed, so that is the focus with everyone. We have a great time at the races and if you’ve ever been around our tent, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
You seem to have a broad range of personalities and experience levels on your team. What was your thinking behind hiring such a diverse group?
Well first, it started with looking for the most experienced and successful person that I could find to manage the team. Thankfully, Martin Whiteley was available and willing to become the team owner-manager, which then set up the managerial foundation for a successful team. Martin truly is excellent in all of the areas needed to have a team run smoothly, such as accommodations, logistics, pit set up, etc, the list goes on and on.
Once Martin was on board, we sought to find the most highly skilled people for each job, people who are excellent at what they do, while fitting within the team budget that we have. Our goal has then been to give them the opportunity to pursue their dreams and grow in a supportive, happy environment, where they can enjoy their work to the fullest. I’m very pleased with the people we have found, they have all done an excellent job and I am so stoked with the outcome.
Seeing that you're only three wins away, is one of your goals to exceed the current all-time World Cup win record?
Well, it’s kind of impossible to make that a goal but it is definitely my hope and what I am shooting for. It would be a great honor to hold that title. As a racer, I hope to win and I plan to win but you never know how things will work out. My focus is on doing the best that I can at each race and I hope to continue the success that I have had by winning more races in the future.
When you’re at a race, what do you draw from when fighting to win? Is it pure passion and determination?
Well, passion alone will oftentimes lead to bad things, such as huge crashes and injuries. Knowing this, I seek to mix wisdom, with passion (laughs). Finding the right mixture of both of those things can be tricky though, I’ve been on the winning and losing side of this equation at times. I sometimes joke about having a “checkers or wreckers” mentality but in reality, I use wisdom to hopefully achieve the checkers and avoid the wreckers. How was that rhyme of a sentence (laughs)?
Do you love racing?
That’s a good question. In short, yes, but in reality, I just love competition as a whole. I think we all do. As someone who loves to compete, I naturally love to race. I think it’s the funniest form of competition. A few years ago I may have said that I loved riding my bike but that I didn’t “love to race”. That was actually a huge misrepresentation of my actual belief based on my lack of understanding-maturity at the time. It’s true that I haven’t always enjoyed certain logistics (long flights etc), or pressures that naturally come with racing but racing itself, I have loved since I was 4 years old. Over time, I have come to actually enjoy the pressures as well and I don’t see them as negatives anymore. If I have a bad race, I have never thought “I hate this, I just want to quit”. My first thoughts are always, “I can’t wait to get to the next race and redeem myself!” (laughs).
I think that most people can relate to that, we all love to compete right? Even if it’s in small ways, competition is fun. If you work in an office and you see someone throw a piece of trash into the bin from 10 feet away, what do you want to go do? You want to grab a piece of paper, wad it up, and throw it into the bin from 15 feet. You can literally get an entire office of business professionals on their feet celebrating because some dude yells “Kobe” and sinks a 20 footer with a piece of fruit or something (laughs).
It’s not even logical how much I love to compete, but sometimes I just can’t help it. When my tire blew off at the Leogang World Cup, the wise move was definitely not riding the rim down the rest of the track with the tire flailing all over the place, but in my mind, there was no other option. I was there to compete and I was going to get to the bottom of the hill as fast as I could, with whatever I had to work with. I willingly risked life and limb that day based on the hope of gaining just 1 or 2 extra points. At what other point would you ever do something like that in life?
So to answer the question again, yes, I love to race. I love to win and I shoot to win every time. No tire, no chain, no brakes, half a handlebar, whatever man, I just love to compete!
We know you involve yourself heavily in off-season testing trying to eke out every millisecond from your bike, we saw a modified 29er Scott Gambler on your Instagram recently. Are we likely to see you or other riders rolling out of the start gate on wagon-wheels in Lourdes?
Exploring the benefits of larger wheels was something I learned a lot from. I will be on a stock 27.5" Tues in Lourdes but I would expect to see other teams on 29" bikes this season. I know a few are testing them now. I'm excited to see what the future brings us for the next evolution of downhill bikes.
What real-world differences have you found between the Gambler and early testing of the Tues?
The bikes have many similarities and a few distinct differences. The geometry of both bikes is very similar, and they both have a very stiff chassis. Riding the Fox suspension that I’ve become familiar with on both bikes has made the differences easier to understand. The YT is very progressive and I feel a really good balance of traction and support. Right away it was very easy to ride. The Scott got there this past year with the new linkages we had and it had a very similar feeling leverage curve. I felt that the influence from the chain and braking made more of an undesirable change to the Scott chassis than I can feel on the YT. The Scott frames we rode were slightly larger than what most brands would call a stock L, and my YT is a true XL, so that is something that took a few rides to adjust to. I think the size will suit the tracks we race on really well. I love the guys at Scott, and they put a lot of effort into making me comfortable on my bike these past few years, but after riding the YT for only a few weeks I'm feeling even more comfortable than I have in a long time.
Do you think riding alongside Aaron will improve your race results and fulfill potential? Was riding with Brendan bringing on your whips and flips, but not helping you to push against the clock?
I think that riding with Aaron and being exposed to what it takes to be the best each weekend can only improve my racing career. I really enjoyed being around Brendan these past few years and learned valuable insights from his experience of being at the top and being a valuable person of the industry.
Martin Whiteley played a big part in pushing you onto the World Cup scene. How happy are you to be involved with him again?
There is no person more passionate about World Cup downhill racing than Martin Whiteley. He has been the one who has believed in me most during my career and has given me ongoing support, unconditionally. I truly feel at home working with the whole crew again, and could not be more grateful.
What aspects of the overall team set up will help you in 2017 and beyond?
Aaron won the World Cup overall this past year, and that was a team effort. I will have access to the same environment, support and equipment as it took to achieve the highest accolade in the sport, and everything that comes along with riding on a program like that will surely help me to improve my racing. I feel genuinely excited about racing this year, and that feeling gives me a huge advantage.
How was your first season on the Mob? From an outsiders point of view, you seemed to struggle at many races but offset this with some great results including 23rd in Leogang, and winning the Spanish National title for the first time. What steps have you taken in the off-season to crush last year’s demons?
It was a strange year for me, my motivation for the year was at the highest level that it has ever been because of the good news I had about this new team with Aaron. I had one of the best off-seasons ever with my training, but it all went really bad in the first two races with two really hard crashes before qualifying runs; maybe because my motivation was too high. So after this, I went back home and while training I had a stupid crash that ended in a shoulder dislocation that made all of this even harder (laughs). For sure I learned a lot during the season with the team, having Aaron and Martin with me was awesome but the biggest difficulty was to put my confidence back to the right place after many issues. That was how I ended the season and before the year finished I had two surgeries to fix my problems in my both shoulders.
What are your goals for the 2017 season?
First of all, I want to have fun and enjoy as much as possible spending time with everyone on the Mob! Regarding results and my goals, it would be to have the cleanest season I can, I think that the surgeries I had will make my work harder in the beginning of the season, but after I think that I will be able to do what I want, that’s to get in the Top 20 again.
You are 186cm tall… so how did the move to the XL bike help with finding confidence and speed?
I always knew that the Tues XL would work well with me because of the way I like bikes – I always like to have a lot of space from my legs to the handlebar so a bigger reach helps me to ride faster and easier. I rode the XL for the first time at the World Cup in Andorra and after that, I felt that I have the best bike possible. I didn't ride the XL a lot but I can’t wait to get back on it!
What are the most interesting tips or techniques you have learned from Aaron in the last year?
It’s funny for me because he always says to me that I need to be patient and ride smoother but I always feel like that (laughs)! But the most important thing that he told me is that I need to trust in myself and that the training is really important because all the work you do will pay off in the races. For me, it’s difficult to understand how he can ride that fast, but the hardest thing is going at that speed, he just makes it look so easy, it’s really amazing.
Neko was part of the Trek World Racing team under the 23 Degrees umbrella in 2014. A rider who certainly has bags more potential to bring to the World Cup circus, how excited are you to get him back under your wing for the foreseeable future and what do you think he is really capable of?
Both Neko and I are now of the same understanding; that he left our TWR program earlier than he should have and I know he’s super keen to get his career back on the track it was on before. I mean, the last two years weren’t a road smash; they were affected by injuries and unlucky mechanicals, but I always thought a shift to a new bike and program at the point his career was at after 2014 was a little premature. Riding with Aaron again, and with the level of support he’s used to with us, means he can slot in easily to our program – work with a staff that has been invested in his career since he was 16 – and turn that into results he’s happy with. This is a podium World Cup rider that deserves to be back where he belongs. I know this rider better than most I’ve worked with, and I’m hoping this knowledge will only be a good thing for his continued development.
Was Neko a deliberate addition in order to create the ultimate chainless wonder team?
It does look like that doesn’t it (laughs)! Actually not really… while both of them have that fame, the selection criteria for a third rider onto the YT Mob program was a little bit more involved. Firstly, the dynamic between Angel and Aaron is so good that the last thing Aaron and I wanted to do was disrupt that. Angel is just as good for Aaron’s mental state at the races as Aaron is for Angel’s growth as a rider, so bringing in a third rider could have easily disrupted that for sure. In Lenzerheide last year, Aaron and I had our first conversation on whether or not we should look for another rider for 2017, and if so, who? The short list was very short, with only two riders that we thought could slot in… and Neko was obviously one of those. So team chemistry, the potential to grow, what the rider would bring to the program, and so on, these were all key factors.
Have you had to downsize the European YT Mob race truck, rumors are rife that the UCI has clamped down on pit space and many teams with big-rigs are downsizing to save paying an extra chunk of money for a double pit area, is this true and do you think it will affect the presence and perceived professionalism of the travelling circus?
For 2017 there are no new rules or regulations on this. We have no plans to downsize our rig in the US or EU. We are the only European based team that has a full set up in both continents, all privately owned and operated by us because we really believe the fans deserve a great show in the pits. It disappoints me greatly to see some major teams put up blank white tents in Mont-Sainte-Anne – the fans deserve better than that, as do the organizers. The UCI is, however, struggling with the financial balance of giving away too much real estate in the pits to UCI Elite Teams, who get their first 80 square meters free of charge, and a discounted rate (less than half what Expo exhibitors pay) for anything above 80. The events need to sell real estate, and they also have a limited amount of it in most cases. We don’t want to see quality venues disappear because the financial model just doesn’t work for them, but we also don’t want to see what is happening in XC World Cups, where teams are mainly Ezy Ups or converted campers. Big rigs suit DH and they need to be accommodated.
/ @foxracingshox / @Royal-Racing