Racing history is made up of stories. There are big narratives and small narratives that tell the week-in and week-out battles, between riders, the clock, and the course. Few stories though are writ larger than the home win. To take victory at the sport's highest levels in front of your home crowd is the pinnacle of any racing career. For Fabien Barel, that pinnacle came in Les Gets back in 2004 as he clinched his first senior World Championship and a race that was ultimately decided by almost the last corner as his main challenger, Steve Peat, who exploded out of a corner, sealing the title for the Frenchman. It is a story that has everything any good racing story should have - skill, determination, speed, victory and defeat. So a reunion between that rider and that hill was always going to be a special moment.

In the twelve years since that day and the Mont Chery side of Les Gets had not seen another run against the clock until this weekend. And Fabien Barel? Well, he has not raced downhill on European soil since 2010 when he bowed out from professional downhill competition. This year something changed, though - for several years now, he has been quietly working on developing Canyon's new Sender DH bike. With the bike now ready and coming to market he feels he has something to prove once more - he wants to show the world that the bike he has been so instrumental in creating can hold its own at the highest levels of competition. To do that he has signed on to compete in the downhill races at all three stops of the Crankworx tour this year - in races where the field looks not too different to the sharp end of the World Cup circuit. Round one this year in Rotorua did not go to plan for him as he crashed in his race run. So coming into this weekend he did not know if he still had the speed to mix it up with riders who are for the most part ten years younger than him. It was also a very emotional weekend for him as he returned to the very spot where he waited, heart in mouth, those twelve years before to see if his time was going to be good enough...

We spent the weekend with Fabien to take a look behind the scenes at how one of the sport's most meticulous athletes deals with such a big weekend.



Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The day starts with breakfast with the Canyon crew - it's still very relaxed and fun at this point.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
While Fab finishes eating, his mechanic, William, is out making the final checks to the bike - tyre pressures, suspension pressures and any little specific touches for the day.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
One final check of the kit and the bike and it's time to head off for practice.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Despite the bad weather, the views out from Mont Chery are not too bad...

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Dropping into the first run of the day. With one day of practice done it's straight up to speed on the first run of the day.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The road gap is the first big hit of the day - no worries there.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
A quick check of the bike with William and then it's straight back up for a second and final run for morning practice.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Fabien is meticulous in his practice runs, analysing what he was happy with and what he wasn't and working on it for the next time.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
After a couple of hours rest, a good jet-washing for the bike and some lunch, it's time to head up for qualification an hour before his time in the start gate.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Here in Les Gets Fabien seems to know pretty much everyone, with plenty of time to get to the top he can stop and catch up with old acquaintances.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Between the two lifts it's time for a quick look at the section above the lift station to get a feel for how the ever-evolving track is coping with the weather conditions.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
At the bottom of the hill it was sunshine, in the ten minutes it takes to reach the top station on Mont Chery the weather has changed its mind once more as it closes in once again.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The weather is moving in quickly across the valley.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Because Fabien is no longer a regular rider on the circuit he doesn't have one of the top plates, which means his qualifying run is some half an hour after the top-ranked riders. That kind of time at the top of the mountain brings much uncertainty with the weather.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Ten minutes to go and the weather makes up its mind - it has decided to rain. This is a big unknown for the qualifying run - will rain make the track greasier? Or could it mean it actually runs better as it stops the mud clinging to the bike so much?

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
As his start time approaches, it's time for a few laps around the top to get the blood flowing.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Followed by a few stretches to get the muscles warm and mobilised.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
William comes with Fabien right the way up the start gate.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
And qualifying is a go! Coming into this weekend, Fabien set himself a goal of a top ten result and if he did that he would come away happy but if he could reach the top five, then he would be over the moon.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
With a seventh in qualifying and tight with the times for the top five, it is a result worth celebrating for Fabien and William.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
There is more analysis too - Fabien has always been known as a rider who commits to whatever he does 100%, so the big question after qualifying was whether he would head up to hike the track in the afternoon. After his run, he knew he could make some more time in the woods, but there is also an understanding there that by obsessing over that kind of details he would get sucked back into the world of racing, let it take over his life once more. It's clearly a tough for call for him, but in the end, he resists... He is happy in retirement and does not want to pay the price for success once more.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Three-time world champion or not, your shoes aren't going to clean themselves after a run. It's one of those reassuring moments about the state of mountain biking - our champions still live in the same world as the rest of us.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Come race day morning and the weather has not played nicely through the night, raining for a good part of it, but stopped mostly by mid-morning - this opens up the worst possible scenario for the conditions. If it had dried over night the grip would start to come back, but by raining through the night then drying slightly until race time, it is a recipe for the stickiest, heaviest mud imaginable.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
With the conditions changing as they are, Fabien breaks his usual programme and grabs three runs, rather than his usual two, in the morning.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Plastered from head-to-toe, but still smiling.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The weight of his bike before...
Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
...and after.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
One last jetwash session to get everything prepped for racing in a few short hours.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
While Fabien rests and eats, William puts the finishing touches to his bike.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
After his strong ride in qualification, he gets a bit of a number plate upgrade for the race.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Here we go... race time. Fabien leaves his room over an hour before his race run to start his preparations.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
First up is his take on the ubiquitous car park test - taking the bike for a quick roll up and down the streets to make sure everything works, is where it ought to be, feels how he expects it to.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
As he heads for the lift, the weather is still not letting on what it plans to do during his race run.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
For one final time this weekend, William accompanies him to the top of the mountain.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
It's hard to know if Fabien would have looked this relaxed during the peak of his career, or whether he is enjoying himself more now there is no pressure other than his own high expectations.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The final leg of the final ride up the mountain.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Once more through his warm-up and stretches.


Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
And he we are - the moment of truth for the weekend.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The split times were good.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Retired or not, nobody would expect anything less than complete commitment on track from Fabien once he crosses the start line, power towards the line in the slick mud.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Nobody else sprinted as hard as Fabien for the line, physics suggest that he shouldn't have been able to push that hard on that surface, but it all held for just long enough to cross the line before reality caught up and he found himself sliding to a stop on his side. Unfortunately, that tape around his bar tells the final story of his race run - he ran wide at the very same corner where Steve Peat went down some 12 years before - earning himself a disqualification.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
First order of business was to congratulate Remi Thirion, who would go on to hold onto the hot seat and earn himself the victory in what is being talked of as one of the toughest DH races in many years.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The finish line here in Les Gets holds one of Fabien's clearest racing memories, which he recounts to Brett Tippie - the nerve-wracking wait on that afternoon in 2004 to see if he was fast enough...

DQ or not, it was all smiles from Fab and while his time may not have stayed on the results sheet, it was fast enough to have been fifth overall, exactly where he was aiming for. What makes his time all the more remarkable is that Fabien isn't training as such any more, of course, his ideas of not training involves far more time riding bikes and motos than most normal people, but for a rider closer to forty than thirty, to place like that among a field that included many of the top riders from the World Cup circuit is no small achievement. It also achieved his larger goal - he came to Les Gets to prove that the bike he has been so instrumental in developing can race at the highest levels of the sport, and without question, he succeeded there.

Fabien Barel at Crankworx Les Gets France. Photo by Matt Wragg.

69 Comments

  • + 87
 That man is pure class. Fingers crossed, one day I'll be lucky enough to meet such a legend of this amazing sport!!
  • + 6
 I was lucky enough to meet him last year in Finale, and congratulate him for the amazing career.
  • + 22
 I have been very lucky to share few laps in Our local bike park few years back I took the afternoon of for riding, the only guys on the lift line was Fabien Barel !! we went together on the chair and told me I don't know the place show me the trail, go ahead. Well afet few hundred meters I let him go and try to follow him. I was going on well know trail as fast as I never been able to do again when he went even faster I start to realised how fast I was and pull the brake... Well awesome experience and real legend!
  • - 35
flag weebleswobbles (Jul 1, 2016 at 6:57) (Below Threshold)
 Pure class that has been penalized for cutting course and shuttling ?
  • + 8
 @weebleswobbles: One was a practice day and the rules weren't clear, the other was a poorly marked course. Lots of other rides took the same line.
  • - 11
flag hamncheez (Jul 1, 2016 at 8:07) (Below Threshold)
 are we all going to forget that awkward moment when he tried to put Bruni on his shoulders and Worlds? Like when your college professor farts during lecture and everyone pretends it didn't happen?
  • - 25
flag weebleswobbles (Jul 1, 2016 at 8:08) (Below Threshold)
 @mattsavage: down vote, negative props whatever..humans don't have to lie steal and cheat, they choose to. my parents raised me with morals and ethics, which seems to be missing in professional sports these day and seems like cycling is not immune to it, what with Lance doping, EWS riders shuttling and cutting course whenever it's convenient.
  • + 10
 @weebleswobbles: must be awesome being morally perfect. The shuttling incident was completely innocent and he was honest about it. Most peopel would call what he did "driving to the trailhead".... he "shuttled" to the BOTTOM of a stage in practice. The rules were really vague/not written. www.pinkbike.com/news/Fabien-Barel-In-The-Penalty-Box-Five-Minutes-For-Shuttling.html

But by all means, feel free to twist his situation to make yourself feel superior.
  • - 14
flag weebleswobbles (Jul 1, 2016 at 8:54) (Below Threshold)
 @bkm303: I am not perfect, I am human, yes I believe the info I gathered from the link you posted shows class, he admitted not knowing and took the penalty. Maybe if the riders would have attended the prerace meeting they wouldn't have been confused about the rules?
  • + 5
 @weebleswobbles: possibly, but from Fabien's interview it sounds like many people weren't clear on that rule. Personally I think it's BS to have a race rule that isn't in writing - especially when it's as silly and counterintuitive as the one he was penalized for.

Either way, it might be bad form to miss a pre-race meeting but it's certainly not immoral. Based on the information available I lay the blame with the event organizers.
  • - 3
 @bkm303: and I guess I opened my big mouth before knowing fully the facts, thanks for setting me correct
  • + 1
 what an unbelievable feeling of satisfaction, scrolling down the pictures of the mudcoverded bike und suddenly its all clean Smile Smile Smile
  • + 4
 @hamncheez: Wasn´t it Cedric Gracia that attempted to do so?
  • + 3
 @weebleswobbles: did you even watch the race? There was no cheating as you suggest. find the video and see for yourself, the rules are clear and he got the DQ but in reality he didn't have any advantage over any other rider by going off course. Easy to be the perfect rider behind your keyboard without knowing the facts.
  • + 2
 @weebleswobbles: your parents may have raised you to think that lies and cheating were bad, and they were right. Sadly, it appears that humility may have been skipped right over. To suggest a mistake by Fab is equivalent to old one nut's repeated doping charges is absurd. One of those two people told the world the truth, and the other denied for years. Not the same at all.
  • + 1
 @VwHarman: dang guys he already ate some humble pie. I think we can leave it alone now
  • + 1
 @bkm303: didn't scroll that far down before hitting reply tbh. Not wrong though, well played @weeblewobbles for recognizing your mistake. That's the right way to play the game.
  • + 1
 @spirit-of-enduro: I think you're right.. I wish someone would have corrected me before instead of just downvoting
  • + 1
 @bkm303: thanks, but I guess I did kinda ask for it right? Mom told me once after my mouth got me in trouble, son better to keep mouth closed and be thought of as a fool than to open it and erase all doubt.
I noticed your favorite trail is skytop..is that close to the ramapo trails? NY/NJ border close to the bridge? I forget what highway it is..man I had a blast riding those trails back when I lived in Jersey
  • + 26
 I think the name "legend" applies.... Such a great long term ambassador for the sport and very nice bloke....
  • + 4
 Took the words from my mouth! Total legend!
  • - 2
 116 is that his number or his age?! haha just kidding - way to go Fab!
  • + 8
 osymetric chainring? intresting
  • - 5
flag ciechan (Jul 1, 2016 at 0:43) (Below Threshold)
 oval chainring, popular in enduro and even roadies... more pedal efficiency
  • + 13
 @ciechan: Fabien's chainring is a slightly different shape than a standard oval - it's custom made to make up for injury-related assymetry in his hips/legs.
  • + 8
 @bananowy: If I remember correctly one leg is about 3cm shorter than the other and mavic make him custom shoes as well.
  • + 1
 @bananowy: oh wow! i was just wondering!! What a weird shape!
  • + 4
 What a good read Matt! Fab is and will be a legend. I had the possibilty to ride a Sender in Les Gets - it was a blast! seems that Canyon&Fab did so f€#%ing right with this rig! Love it
  • + 2
 I broke canyon Sender frame 3 days ago .... that frame isn't anything awesome....
  • + 5
 @suja140: workman, tools,his, bad, blames... rearrange to make a sentence....Wink
  • + 1
 @suja140: what snapped? chainstays?
  • + 2
 @suja140: any frame can break. What happened?
  • + 1
 ENDLESS thanks to you matt for writing this piece !!!!!! WELL DONE... as someone whos watched the sport from the mid 90's on ,fabien has ALWAYS been one of my idols ...( along with nico, peaty ,minnaar, tomac, sam, CG..) TRULY a world class guy and all around f*cking LEGEND... I was going MENTAL during his run !!!!! beyond stoked to see him back racing even if its only for the crankworx stops !!!!!!!! TOTAL RESPECT.
  • + 2
 I got passed by him on the Pleney in Morzine about 11/12 years ago,I thought I was pinning it,then he came past me so fast and smoothly like i was crawling,so amazed at the pure speed of him
  • + 1
 @mattwragg This is a good article, as I'd expect from you, but you are a bit wrong in one respect. This phrase is not true: ”Well, he has not raced downhill on European soil since 2010 when he bowed out from professional downhill competition.”

Fabien was 10th in Champery in 2011, those incredible World Champs that Danny Hart took home. Not only that I was there to wittness those jaw dropping moments, but the history books confirm it. He announced his retirement from DH in La Bresse earlier that year.

www.pinkbike.com/news/World-Championships-2011-Danny-Hart-wins-in-Champery.html

Cheers,
Mx
  • + 3
 I bet Peaty had a smile when he found out that Barel lost it on the same corner!
  • + 5
 6kg of mud, so sick!
  • + 3
 Ya, that's a lot more weight in mud than I would have guessed. No wonder a really muddy bike behaves so differently.
  • + 4
 Love it.... Great read.
  • + 1
 Braaaaap!! Love the man,s style, dedication, commitment and vision of mountain biking being DH or enduro. Hope to see him participating in more races.
  • + 1
 Bike Nerds love him as much as the downhillers. He seems like a great guy. I'd love to sit in on a conversation between Barel and Graves. I think it'd be very interesting.
  • + 2
 Everyone has a dream riding buddy and this guy is mine! Fab is my mancrush - there, I said it.
  • + 1
 He is a legend of our sport thats for sure. His level of professionalism and commitment are amazing. Would be interesting to see him on the WC again. Contender for sure!
  • + 1
 " he talks fast he rides fast..... "
rob warner

he is a true legend in the bike world
  • + 1
 I Love that Canyon Livery Urge Helmet! I wished I could get one in that color scheme..
  • + 1
 I thought that weight was in LBS Hahahaha I almost shit my pants
  • + 1
 I don't known many names in the sport, but Fabien is one of them.
  • + 1
 Awesome article,could I have that muddy helmet??
  • + 1
 How can I buy that Canyon jersey ???
  • + 1
 Such a cool dude. That's how ya do it.
  • + 1
 Barel Hero.ah great pictures.great work Wink
  • + 0
 Fab stayed at Le Boomerang???!!!! Amazing, I might have even slept in the same bed as him!!! Great place.
  • + 20
 That was weird...
  • + 3
 Le Ewwwww
  • + 2
 I feel like I've just picked someone else's underpants up
  • + 2
 Not sure I meant to type that out loud
  • + 1
 Awesome photos, can't wait to get over there at the start of August!
  • + 1
 what front mudguard is he riding?
  • + 2
 I believe it's a D'fender. I think he helped develop them? You can get them over here from Mojo Suspension (who are the UK Fox distributors). They are good - my mate has one - but also expensive. We relentlessly take the piss out of my pal for the cost. It's about £40 I think, though the crash in the Pound might help you there...
  • + 1
 Mud huggers are cheaper
  • + 1
 Are they new Mavic dh shoes?
  • + 1
 Great piece - thanks @mattwragg Smile
  • + 1
 Nice bike looks sooooo long. Should be very stable
  • + 1
 Got the life
  • + 1
 Great photos....
  • + 1
 Fast Fab'!!!!
  • + 1
 Great photo story.

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