In racing circles this year there has been a lot of talk about the difference between winners and champions. One man who undoubtedly falls into the latter category is Fabien Barel. Throughout his racing career he has always been a man apart, approaching every race and every challenge in his own inimitable style with ruthless determination and clockwork precision. Over the years he has flown at the highest altitudes of our sport, winning at the highest levels, but his journey has never been an easy one, plumbing the depths of adversity with horrific injuries that would have ended many careers. After taking on the challenge of racing enduro in 2013 and winning the first ever EWS race in Punta Ala, he has continued to be at the forefront of the discipline - despite yet another horrific injury in the first round in Chile that ruled him out for most of the 2014 season. 2015 marked his 20th year racing - a milestone he decided would be fitting to call time on his professional racing career. We caught up with the French racing legend at his home in the South of France to ask him why now was the right time to walk away from competition, what's next and where he sees the development of mountain bikes going in the future. Looking at your results from this year, you won the most stages of anybody this season...
Yes, I won the most stages and the best performing rider if we take points for top three stage results. People are going to ask why you are walking away when you are this fast?
I always wanted to stop while I was at the top of what I was doing. It was the case in downhill and I did not stop downhill to get involved in enduro. I got involved in enduro for developing the Strive for Canyon. I definitely believe that racing is the best base for testing and development. I also got involved to help the growth of the sport and kind of involve my legitimacy for the general industry to push enduro to where it needed to be. There have been some highs, some lows with the organization, with the races, with everything and clearly it has been a whole challenge. I had to re-adapt myself physically, technically, in my bike setup, in my way of riding, etc. It was a challenge, but I really feel that I achieved what I wanted after those three years, especially coming from the injury. The reason I stop now is because it has been 20 years of racing, it is time. What is next then?
Next is... There are definitely other challenges in the sport that I will do. I am not planning on stopping completely my sport's career and not doing any racing anymore. I will keep doing different sports and I will still be involved in races now and then, in enduro and even in downhill, which I miss. But I want to use this outside my professional work and everything I will be involved in the work side of things is on another side of the industry. Can you talk about that now?
There is not much we can say now. Lots of people are talking about me being a manager, which is not going to be the case. I am not going to be a team manager. I am going to be involved in supporting riders and helping them to grow and perform. I will be closely involved in R&D with both Canyon and Mavic and with definitely developing a very good program with Canyon for next year and the future. It is a long-term relationship that we are working on at the moment. You said there were high and low points with the racing. Where do you think the sport needs to go?
I do believe that enduro is going in the right direction, those are the words I said when we had the riders’ meeting in Whistler. We have to realize that nowadays we have a sport with a value equal to downhill with just two or three people running it and a few organizers. The cost of an EWS race is maybe 1/10th of a DH world cup. I do believe that the job that is done is a good job, but there are clearly evolutions that need to be done on the race format, technicality of the terrain, the right balance between climbing and downhill and also a right balance between the sport side of the events and the festive side of the events. All these are compromises to find ballance and one aspect cannot make the other fail and the success of the EWS will definitely be in general aspect and compromises that will be done on all of it. It was interesting seeing the Enduro de Portes du Mercantour this year - a lot of the top ten were there, but the ambiance was very different to an EWS race.
When you go to regional races, you kind of find the real spirit of enduro where you just go out there for fun and play and laugh, etc. EWS, with the commitment of the industry, with the money, with the media, with everything, it is putting pressure on the riders, it kind of creates animosity between the riders, which should not happen. I still believe we are in a sport in which we are fighting against the clock, same as downhill, and the best one wins, that’s the way it should be. Finale felt really symbolic, with you stepping aside, with Tracy as well. It seems some of the downhillers are stepping back.
I do believe some of the downhill riders got involved to help the sport grow. Even if people were saying they were jumping in for the money side, I do not think this was so. I do believe there is a position we have in the industry. I believe when you become a champion or you have certain notoriety, it gives you rights, but it also gives you a duty to carry a certain message to the people. And I think in terms of rules, attitude, commitment, there are people looking up to you. When I see soccer players talking badly on TV and then kids are dreaming to be similar to them, this is not the right message. We need to make sure that our sport has the right message, which is nature, commitment, passion, and that is what our sport is about. With the young riders coming to the forefront now, you see guys like Richie, Florian, and Martin, they have the chance to do many things, but choose to race enduro which is a powerful thing for the sport.
I'm not sure it is not a choice for Flo; it is clearly a choice for Richie or Martin. I do believe that it is the case right now and we need to not make mistakes in the general format of the races in order to not lose people. There is clearly a fact that they are interested in it as there is the possibility to take a position in the industry and they have the physical and technical abilities to compete in this format. Enduro is not downhill. It is not as simple as thinking because you are good in downhill that you will be good in enduro, and if you are good in enduro that you will be good in downhill. It is not the same technically, it is not the same approach of racing, it is not the same physical capacity - it is a different sport. That is why for me, I am very proud to have been able to transfer from one to the other, lose weight, become able to accelerate for longer than 30 seconds and all that needed to be relearned for me. Something Enrico Guala said is interesting: with enduro it is the first time a major movement in our sport started here in Europe and has spread to America. Historically all the major movements in the industry have tended to come from America.
There is a large influence from America, just by the fact that the market is big and lots of the big brands in the past were there. I definitely believe this is changing right now and we can see that in the events. I am not sure it has to do with the racing side of it, did 4X start in America? Dual slalom probably did. I am not sure that downhill did start there, I am not sure, I do not want to say anything stupid. For sure, the influence from a large market has been affecting in the past the general sport and this influence was coming from the US mainly. But this is clearly changing, just because of the fact that we have more champions, a lot more big companies, etc. You have been one of the proponents of long bikes over the years and you were one of the first guys really pushing that. That seems like a very European idea at the moment, one that hasn't been embraced on the other side of the Atlantic.
You can definitely see since we brought out the forward geometry that Cannondale, Trek, Specialized have been extending their reach and front centre massively and the geometry because they realized we were going in the right direction. You can see this in the fact that they were looking at stability with 29ers and everyone wanted to be back on the bike because of the mass. Coming to 27.5, they began looking for this effect with stability through the wheelbase. The right compromise is to have a fairly long wheelbase and keep the dynamic through the wheels with 27.5, and that is what you see more and more now. If you look at everyone’s ratio through the height and position in the EWS, no one is riding with a short bike. Sure, a few years ago, you were the guy with the biggest, wildest bike on the circuit, now you look at the bikes, your bike looks fairly normal.
Even two years ago when I brought out the first geometry for the Strive, the forward geometry with the 0 stem was something people were looking at weirdly as a concept. But when I ride with a Strive, people even internally at Canyon were saying, “Fab, it is way too long.
” Today it is not too long. Everyone is going with it and for sure our technology, our thoughts, our needs are definitely stepping forward in Europe by the fact that the momentum on the bike is really changing, especially in trail riding and this influence is now massive in the industry. What do you see as the next evolution, the next direction for the development of bikes?
If you think of direction, we have been looking at suspension for the last 15 years. Now we can see geometry and wheel sizes having a big effect and a big influence. This still needs to be stabilized in the market, for me, as you can see that now they are going in with the plus size bike and they are trying new things. This tendency to bring out new thing is also to resell bikes. That move for me is also something that the industry is looking into what is the perfect compromise. Soon this will stall, I am sure that we are going to restart on a new concept, on a new direction. The only way of thinking is to make sure that every single product is 100%, suited to our discipline. I can tell you that the stem was useless, coming from road cycling, I can tell you that small wheels and small frames had to be changed. For me, today, there is no place for a derailleur on the rear, because that comes from road cycling. If today, you completely forget about the impact of the market, you restart fresh with a chart of what is needed on an MTB, would you place a mechanical thing next to the rear axle? You would not. That is an example, there is also the materials through the frames, there is also all the electronics coming in that are changing a lot, there is also a lot more development that needs to be done on what I call bike changes on the fly like we did with the Shapeshifter. There are for sure a lot more possibilities, everyone is looking at us weirdly with what we have done in the industry. But a lot of customers are really happy with what we did with the Shapeshifter and I do believe that the concept of a hybrid bike is needed and is the future: you want to climb up like a cross-country bike and ride down like a downhill bike and that is the first stage that we have done, but there will be more to come for sure. You mention getting rid of derailleurs, have you tried the Pinion or Effigear gearboxes?
Yes, there is too much friction and lot of weight. Now with e-bikes coming in, there is going to be a lot of discussions and lot of things on and off. I am not saying that we should go for a gearbox or get rid of the derailleur, I am just saying that this is something that will change in the future. And this is something that is fully controlled by the big brands at the moments, which are doing a huge amount of work to make those parts 100% reliable for us.