Words: Matt Wragg
I’m glad Aaron Gwin is back at the sharp end.
Through the years I will admit to not being his biggest fan. His whole approach to racing was very… American. It felt like it was all about success, winning, and money, and for me at least, it left me completely cold.
I remember the weekend he came flying down Leogang with no tire on his rear wheel, the weekend when he won without a chain, the great winning streaks, and the five overall titles… as a racing fan, impressive as it all was, I have to admit that it did nothing for me.
Then there were all the rumors around about how he was only in mountain biking for the money. Once he got to a certain point, he’d pack his bags and go back to hanging around with the cooler (and certainly richer) motocross kids. It didn’t take much imagination on my part to picture such a scenario.
Recently I wrote for our sister site, CyclingTips, about French road racer Thibaut Pinot
. Pinot is the opposite of everything Gwin used to show us - away from the racing he lives a simple life on a farm, on the road he frequently fails, yet you can always see his determination to fight, no matter the odds. He wears his heart on his sleeve and has a legion of loyal fans across the globe who adore his dogged determination.
Last summer, riding with a friend who used to work for a brand Gwin rode for, I asked him about how it was to work with him, gleefully awaiting much shit-talking about how the once-mighty had fallen. My friend took a moment to think, then told me a small story.
At the height of his success, Gwin and his teammate (a racer with more of a public reputation as a nice guy) popped over to visit the office my friend worked in and go for a ride. After the ride, without asking, Gwin went around and washed everyone's bikes.
It’s a simple story, but it has changed my entire way of thinking about Gwin. I realized that everything I had assumed from his public image was wrong. For several months I struggled to reconcile this new idea, and then watching RuPaul’s Drag Race I found the missing piece.
One of the things RuPaul has consistently told contestants on the show is that if you want fans to fall in love with you, you need to show them your vulnerability. When you strip away the drama and the dresses, much of RuPauls Drag Race is simply about helping people to express themselves without fear of how others will judge them. And that was my issue with Gwin in a nutshell.
Everything we saw looked strong, for whatever reason he did not want to show chinks in his armor. You didn’t see him struggling, you didn’t see him doubt himself, you didn’t see him question everything he believed on his path to victory. And without that, he just seemed like the pastiche of a racer - a bold image with no substance but great palmares.
Yet in his struggles to find the form he once had, I feel like Gwin is starting to show us that vulnerability. It has clearly been a long, hard road and his failures have been all-too-public. Through his struggles, we can understand how much he wants to be a part of the sport. He seemed happy to bag a podium spot at Vallnord last time out, while in the past anything less than outright domination looked like a defeat.
I didn’t like the racer who took those five titles, but I do like the guy in my friend’s story, I like the guy fighting to prove he can still do it - and that is what I would love to see more of. I just hope he listens to RuPaul’s advice, the drag is optional but encouraged.