Manon Carpenter needs very little introduction. Born in South Wales, the 23-year-old has gone from strength to strength on the DH World Cup circuit. A consistent threat and podium finisher, Manon has national and international titles to her name, including 2011 Junior World Champion, 2014 DH World Cup Champion, and 2014 DH World Champion. She spent six years with Madison Saracen following her signing with them as a junior in 2011. Following her departure from Madison Saracen, she signed with Radon in early 2017. We caught up with her to talk about injury, the new team, racing, starting her degree and her hopes for the season ahead.
A new year and a new team, how does it feel to be moving into the season starting everything essentially from the beginning?
| It's always such an unknown going into a race season to the first big race of the year and finding out what your speed is like, but that's exciting as well. I want to be strong, fast and fierce! - Manon Carpenter |
It’s really refreshing and I’m excited to get things underway! I wouldn’t say I’m starting from the beginning, I have all the experience I’ve gained over previous years and there are always new faces to get to know within a team. In some ways I’m going back to how things were a couple of years ago, training with Alan Milway again and being based in Wales for the majority of the winter. It’s fun having the new race bike to get used to and I’m looking forward to some trips and testing with Radon before the season kicks off. Once your contract was up with Saracen did you get a lot of offers, or was it you that approached other teams?
Joost (Wichman) approached me early on asking what my plans were for 2017 and beyond, but as it was the first time I’d properly looked at moving teams I wanted to make sure I’d considered all my options first! Having never raced for a different team before I wanted to get an idea of how different teams work and figure out what sort of environment I would race best in. It was interesting speaking to and hearing the responses from teams, some who were very supportive including existing sponsors and others who simply aren’t focused on women’s DH racing at the moment. You finished last season with a broken collarbone and you also had the plate removed from your arm, how are things progressing now?
Everything has come along really well, I’m excited to be getting strong again. The broken collarbone was honestly a blessing in disguise—I’d been scared to make the decision to get the plate taken out of my arm due to the risks involved, but seeing as I already needed one surgery it seemed like now or never to get the metal plate removed from my humerus. I’d had weakness in that arm for a while and pains that we couldn’t find a reason for other than the plate so I’m really glad I had it done, so far so good!
Once everything once healed, we spent up until Christmas rehabbing the parts of me that needed it; right arm, shoulder and other parts of the body that get pulled around during the season as well. Along with conditioning in the gym, I spent some time swimming which I really enjoy, to help get my shoulder strong, and running before I got back on the bike. It was fun to mix things up and I think it’s healthy for the body as well to work in different ways to the norm. It’s amazing how much sorting out little niggles helps and it’s been great riding since with everything feeling like it is working properly. As always, now the aim is to get into the best shape possible before the season starts and I’m glad I’ve got Alan to help me get there! What’s the story behind Radon, what was it that attracted you to the team?
After meeting with Joost for the first time and hearing about Radon’s plans for the new set up I got a positive feeling about the team. It seemed like Radon were producing some great bikes, then at World Champs, I got the chance to meet most of the team again. I got a really good feeling from the group of people involved and went with that! It’s clear Radon want to make a mark on the World Cup scene next year with both the DH and XC teams and it’s exciting to be involved. At our first team meet it was almost intimidating to realise how many World Championship titles were sat around the table, counting those from current riders and team managers! But everyone has been really welcoming so far. Being involved in an international team was another attraction for me, along with being able to make a lot of important decisions for myself such as who I train with and prioritising which events I put in my calendar. You spent six years with Madison Saracen and went through a lot with the team, how do you feel looking back on that time?
Mostly, I’m really grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. Simon Wild from Saracen first approached my Dad at Fort William World Cup where I was racing as a first year Junior. It was only the second World Cup I’d raced but Madison, who had just brought Saracen bikes were starting a development team and interested in me riding for them the following year. It was a completely new experience going down to Madison HQ and meeting everyone in charge there! 2011 was the year the team started in the UK, with my Dad supervising my final year as a Junior at World Cups. I won the Junior World Champs in Champéry that year and my bike has been on the wall at Madison ever since.
Will Longden took over managing the team in 2012 for it to become a fully-fledged World Cup team and I moved into Elite. I also began training with Alan Milway for the first time that year and after a promising season despite an injury mid-season, I wanted the chance to see how far I could go in Elite. I was given that opportunity by Madison and have been racing professionally ever since! Even though I always aim for the highest or best result I can get, and I know I’m capable, winning World Champs in 2014 was still incredible and so surreal—I really appreciate everyone who made that possible. I’ve learned a lot in my years racing for Madison Saracen and whenever I look back on photos it’s amazing to see where that time has taken me. As well as Radon, you’re going to be working with new sponsors, who can we expect to see you working with this year and were there any companies you particularly pushed to work with or continue your relationship with?
We’re actually going to be working with quite a few sponsors who I’ve been with for a long time; I’m lucky to have raced with Fox suspension and Shimano for my entire Elite career and Monster Energy are also supportive as ever. IXS protection and clothing, DT Swiss, Schwalbe tyres, Ergon grips and saddles, Crankbrothers, Raceface, Muc Off, and Acros are all the new team sponsors that I am looking forward to working with—a pretty cool list of brands!—along with a newly confirmed personal sponsorship with FiveTen which is also going to be great. Have you had much time to try out the bike and get the setup to your liking on the Radon Swoop?
So far I’ve mainly been riding it on all the local tracks at home and been having a lot of fun. The first day out on it after a couple of months off the DH bike and on some really muddy tracks was such a good day! Fox set the bike up to how they thought I would want it and I haven’t felt the need to change much so far, I’ve just been enjoying getting up to speed on a new bike! But it will be good to now start riding on some faster tracks and get the bike ready for world cup races. As with everything there’s always speculation, so what would you say to the people that think you struggled to cope with the pressures of continuing on from such a successful season in 2014?
Perhaps, I really wanted to follow up 2014 with another strong year and at the end of the season, in my head, there was no reason why I couldn’t. It’s hard to say it’s one specific thing and to not make excuses, but a few things weren’t as good for me going into the following season—which was a reason for me wanting to change things up. I didn’t feel all that happy or confident going into 2015, which is when the pressure of the World Champs stripes comes in, you want to do them justice and be at your best. I feel like I got better throughout the year but again didn’t feel like I had what it took this year. Which can be frustrating when you know where you want to be, have been and should still be—I want as much as anyone for the racing to be close and exciting. I’ve made pretty much all of my own decisions for preparations this year, so we’ll see how it goes! As we all know downhill is not just physical, you’ve got to be on your game mentally too, would you say you’re in a good place in that respect going into 2017?
Change is good. I like that I’m in control of a lot of aspects of my race season and I feel like I have more freedom this year—so everything is in my own head as such. I’ve been having a lot of fun riding and training at home and I feel like I’ve got some great support behind me. The mental game is huge in downhill, if you’re happy, confident and mentally strong that’s the best place to be to go fast. Perhaps a strange question, and although I could essentially be guilty of exactly what I’m asking about, are there certain questions you get frustrated about being asked about just because you’re a female athlete?
Simply, why are top guys faster than the top girls? Because we’re different. And yes—more women racing at the top would be amazing, please! Looking back on last season, how was it for you, and what you change if you could?
Finishing 2nd overall will always be something to be proud of, but the results I was after at individual races weren’t there. Always trying to learn is good and improving is what motivates me through the winter, luckily there will always be more races. If I had the chance again maybe I would have had the metal plate out of my arm and got my eyes lasered earlier, but it’s a hard decision to make when you’re fit and well. I don’t like to think about changing things that have happened, it’s not going make anything different! Another big change for you is the fact you’ll also be a geology student this year, how are you going to fit studying around racing and what are your hopes for the future in relation to the degree?
The studying term where I have to actually go into Uni finishes at the end of March so it works out well for the race season. It’s amazing how quickly it’s gone and now I’ve got less than two months left. I’ll have exams in May and I have to be organized but I like it. I’ve not looked too far into the future, Uni is just something I always planned on doing and I feel really lucky to have the opportunity. I did the work in school and now I get to learn some pretty cool stuff about the world we live in and how it works! It also makes me actually sit still when I’m not riding or training. I train in Cardiff University through the sports High-Performance Plan and get access to the facilities which have everything I need to train which makes my life easy, and there are some delicious burritos for after a hard session. Have you got any specific goals in mind for this year, or any events you really want to do?
Alongside World Cups, I’m looking forward to getting out to race more of the Crankworx events this year. For goals, I want to be at my best. It’s always such an unknown going into a race season to the first big race of the year and finding out what your speed is like, but that’s exciting as well. I want to be strong, fast and fierce ;-) Do you ever feel like you really get any real down time for just riding for fun, or does it always feel in some respects like part of the job, how do you find a balance with that sort of thing?
The riding part IS the fun part. I love getting to ride so many different bikes at home and calling it training or ‘part of the job’. Even the other training off the bike is fun at the moment. There’s a surprising amount of email stuff and logistics, and I’m not a huge fan of time spent in front of a computer like that, but it is more than made up for. And once you’re out riding you don’t have to worry about that anyway! Not to sound like I’m giving you cliché job interview questions, but look forward to, say, five years in the future, can you see yourself still racing, or is there something else you’ve got in mind, even vaguely, as something you’d like to do in future? And what would you want to have achieved in those five years?
I don’t feel like I need to worry about putting any time limits on anything at 23. I’d love to get involved with coaching at some point, people talk about progression a lot but that is one of the best parts of bikes – trying something you’ve never tried before! Being able to help or encourage others to do something new is a great feeling as well, and the few days I’ve been involved with getting groups of girls together to ride have been a lot of fun and really worthwhile. So in the future, I would like the chance to put some more of my time to that. Wales is arguably a huge part of who you are, from being born here, to your career, I know you’ve recently moved into a new house, but do you ever get tempted to move somewhere else, possibly somewhere warmer for training, or would you say home has everything you need?
Yes, I’ve finally flown the nest for good. I spent a few years in and out of my parents' house so I love having my own space now, I’m basically a control freak so I like doing things my own way, haha. I took a while thinking about where I wanted to be as I could have gone anywhere really but I decided South Wales is a great place to be at the moment and I feel like everything is working out well. So I have sentenced myself to Welsh winters for a while, but I’ve always liked having our changing seasons anyway – I feel like it makes you appreciate summer so much more and it’s good to toughen up over winter. In the future I would like to spend some time elsewhere, there are lots places to go. I have the option of taking an International year with Uni and I’ve thought somewhere California could be fun for a while. Maybe after the next presidential election haha. I don’t see myself living somewhere else forever, though, South Wales has just always been home for me! What are you most looking forward to this year and what can we expect to see from you in 2017?
A summer of riding and racing bikes! There are also a few media projects in the pipeline that I’m looking forward to being involved in so watch this space!