Interview: Steve Peat

Downhill is often viewed as a sport for the young and crazy, yet Steve Peat is about to crack 40 and has been at the top of elite DH racing for more than two decades. Steve Thomas caught up with the ‘Sheffield Steel’ to chat about the race scene and how the sport has developed over the years.

You’d be hard pushed to find any mountain biker, or any athlete for that matter, who has been at the very top of his game for over 20 years, yet Steve Peat has done just that and he’s still battling it out at the top for world cup honours.

It’s been a long old bumpy ride for the Sheffield ace, as he recounts; “My first world championship ride was back in 1993, in Metabief (France), but I’d been racing well at national level for a few years before that.” He told me with a sense of realisation of just how long he’s been sharp at the competitive end of mountain biking.

The early 90s were at time when mountain biking was just mountain biking, nothing more, or less, “Back then we all rode everything; on a Saturday it was trials and downhill, and on the Sunday it was cross-country.” He lamented, recounting the glory days of early mountain biking, “I used to ride the same Kona hardtail for everything, and was competitive in cross-country at national level too. One year I finished second in the expert category XC national champs as well as in downhill.” He continued with his usual air of modesty. The big names of that era now adorn MTB down tubes as bike brands but you’ll no longer find them standing on the podium—aside from Peaty that is.

Back then the sport was ‘barely legal’, having only achieved UCI World Championship status in 1990, yet it was already trading its youthful soul for a more mature outlook. “Things were a lot more relaxed, maybe even more fun back then. But, it was inevitable that things would go the way they have with all the segmentation. If you want to do well at a particular discipline then you have to specialise in it. For me, at that time, downhill just made more sense.”

From being a major player on the British national scene (which was a long way off being competitive at world level in those days), he scored a couple of great world cup results and earned a berth on the GT Factory team. This change transformed his career, “Suddenly I had all of the support—I wasn’t doing everything for myself, which made a huge difference to my performance.”

Later, as he rose through the ranks the decision was made to become a privateer again. The decision to turn away from the team support was a personal one, “I think doing things my own way and having independence fitted better with my character. It’s harder work but it suits my persona.” He concluded.

Doing things his own way is partly what has kept him at the top for so long. He handles his own affairs and makes the choices he wants to, but it’s certainly not easy task; “It’s a lot of work for sure. My wife helps out a lot with things and I have a partner in the running of the SPS (Steve Peat Syndicate), but it takes up a huge amount of time and energy. At times I wish things like Twitter and Facebook had never been invented, but I feel it’s an athlete’s obligation to let their fans know what’s happening, more so than self-promotion. People tell me that I should get a personal assistant—maybe sometime I will.”

Not Backing Off

As he hits 40 years of age, his results may have slacked off a little but things have changed a whole lot both within the sport and for him personally during the past few years. “With running everything and also with a young family, it does get tougher to train. Maybe I also take a few less risks than before, but if you don’t push it then you won’t be competitive in downhill, so I do push when I feel I need to.”

That said he remains up there with the best riders around. “I don’t think that I’ve slowed down at all, or at least not much. The thing you have to look at is just how close the competition is these days. Go back three or four years and there was seconds between riders. The time difference between top eight in a world cup of four years ago now covers the top 80, so it’s much tighter. These days you can’t have a problem and still win.”

Needless to say bikes and equipment have changed immensely during his 20-year reign at the top. “Things have moved on, there’s no doubt there, but I think it’s great for the sport—it keeps things interesting. Obviously suspension and braking have been the prime areas of progression, and now newer frame materials are being used in downhill racing, which is another step forward. It has made the discipline an expensive one, but I like to think of downhill as the Formula One of mountain biking. It’s the crème de la crème of the technical end of the sport, which I think is important, and I think it will stay that way.”

It’s a far cry from the low-budget one-bike fits all early days of his career, and through the SPS he’s been pivotal in helping younger riders get over the finical hurdles. “The SPS is a totally different set up to the Santa Cruz Syndicate. This is a buy-in scheme, so the riders buy their bike and then we give them full back-up at national and international races. They get help with other kit, coaching and at times I will help them in pre-race course inspections. I had a lot of good people give me a leg up during my career and want to offer the same to younger riders.”

I’ve known Steve almost since the day he started out.  He has a huge reputation – both on and off the bike – yet you’ll rarely hear a bad word said about him. His professionalism and humility are clear to see. “I love racing, I love hanging out with the guys; not just racers but riding trails with regular weekend riders—it’s what keeps me going. I also like to let my hair down and enjoy myself, but that only happens when the job is done.”

Enduro Reflections

With the emergence of gravity enduro as a major discipline, many ‘older’ riders have turned their attention in that direction. Will we see Steve Peat heading down that path too? “I will do a few, I enjoy them. But, I think they need to get their act together on certain things—otherwise it just is not fair. Riders should all get the same one-off blind ride. When a rider knows and trains on the course then it’s clear that they have an advantage, which is wrong.” He said, referring to an enduro in 2013 where Fabien Barel won over Greg Minnaar as he knew the course very well.

Could gravity enduro put the ‘old school spirit’ back into mountain biking? “It could do, possibly. The best thing about it is that it opens things up more; you can ride any bike, so anybody can have a go—it’s very different to downhill in that regard.”

When it comes to world-level downhill competition, the UK is one of the leading nations, sporting names such as Gee Atherton, Rachel Atherton, Danny Hart, Josh Bryceland and plenty more. It’s a pretty good effort for an island that’s close to devoid of any real mountains. As one of the forefathers to modern-day downhill, you can only imagine that Peat has inspired many and helped to raise the bar for the Brits. “I’d like to think that I’ve helped some, mainly by serving as a target for younger riders. Overall I think the success comes from the British mentality. We don’t have long and man-made runs like in Whistler, or uplifts like the Alps, and the weather is usually bad too. It’s hard work, you have to push up every time, and if you’re doing that for a short run then you’re going to make the most of it, which I think makes for a certain kind of character.”

This year Steve Peat will again rumble out in search of victory. He’s clearly the oldest true competitor on the world cup scene, so will it be his curtain call? “No, as long as I still enjoy it – and I do – I love racing so I’ll be there. I think I have three or four more years left in me. I want to up my game some, and to be back on the world cup podium on a regular basis.” He told me with a sense of determination, and who can argue with that?

Despite consistently being amongst the best downhill racers over the last 30 years, amassing an impressive 17 individual world cup wins and three overall world titles to his name, he has only once pulled on the ‘rainbow jersey’ as world champion. Perhaps the desire for one more title will be what keeps him hungry, “My first world championship was a long time coming. It took 15 years, which is why it was so special. I think if I’d won it three or four times that I would have stopped long ago.” It seems there’s plenty of life left in Peaty yet!

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