Interview: Australian DH pioneer Scott Sharples

Felt's MTB product manager on BikePark Wales, wheel sizes and the evolution of mountain bikes

We caught up with former World Cup downhill racer turned Felt Bicycles product manager Scott Sharples for a feature in our April issue but had to cut some of his words of wisdom to squeeze it into the mag.

Here’s the full, unexpurgated interview for your enjoyment – check out what he has to say about BikePark Wales, wheel sizes and the evolution of mountain bikes.

MBUK: As an Australian living in California, what do you miss most from back home?

Scott: I miss a lot about Australia. Meat pies, beer gardens, white beach sand, long-time friends, family, downhilling in the gum trees, kookaburras, kangaroos, politicians who yell and call each other ‘bloody idiots’, the list goes on… 

MBUK: When we last saw you, you were riding at BikePark Wales. What did you think of it?

Scott: It’s awesome – and I’ve found out that there’s one of these [trail centres] on every corner [in the UK], like Starbucks in the USA! The trails accommodate every level of rider and every level of bike. The easiest run is doable by my seven-year-old son but is still fun for the best rider – as the speed goes up, the mounds become jumps and the turns make you feel like you’re on rails. The black runs are full national-level DH tracks for those needing to get ragged. Then there’s the fireplace in the cafe, where they serve killer burgers and coffee. Being from Australia, and then SoCal, I’m blown away by the fact that it was winter, below freezing, mid-week, and the park was full! It’s like you don’t even consider the weather as a part of the equation when deciding if you’ll go riding. Back home, everybody runs for cover when we see a cloud.

MBUK: Where do you see mountain bikes going in the next few years?

Scott: I see bikes being close to where they are now but more evolved, and all with 29in and 650b wheels. I see refined geometry designed for pure fun and handling, with light and efficient suspension so the bike can be pedalled.

Some bikes are low, some are slack, some can be pedalled efficiently. My goal is to make our bikes do it all – low, slack, shortish stays, but not so extreme that the bike feels like a dead slug. Our bikes pedal very well and are lively to ride. My Felt Virtue Nine is fun and fast – it’s got a RockShox Pike fork, dropper post and 2x10 gearing, as I hate walking up hills or grinding my knee cartilage into powder. We have a new bike coming out next year that’s bang on for fun factor.

When it comes to wheels, 29 is still the faster size, but 650b is more fun. I see 2x10 or 2x11 as the gear combos for most consumers from areas with big mountains. Eleven-speed parts are still very expensive, but as the price comes down, a lot more people will lose the front derailleur to make space for their dropper post lever. 

MBUK: You were one of the first Australian riders to hit the international scene and race for a big trade team. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into bicycle racing and whom you rode for during your pro career?

Scott: I got into pro downhilling as a natural evolution. I raced BMX for years, then did BMX freestyle for a few years, back when 6ft of air was considered outrageous and 360s were legendary. I’ve always ‘played’ on bikes – they’ve always been my favourite toy.

I started racing XC back when it was the only form of mountain biking, and I’d do the DH race after the hillclimb. I’d cheat sometimes by putting my seat down. Over time that turned into racing professionally on the World Cup scene for Trek, Diamondback and Haro. And over that time I was involved in the evolution of the mountain bike. So a gravity bike isn’t just an XC bike with the seat down now. 

MBUK: Can you tell us anything about what might be coming from Felt in the not-too-distant future?

Scott: We’re continuing to refine the Virtue and Compulsion platforms, which are both Equilink bikes. (It’s a linkage suspension system that allows us to build a longer travel bike that pedals very well.) We’ll have some new 650b bikes and a completely new model, which is my favourite. 

MBUK: As a former racer, where do you see enduro heading, and will it meet expectations as the discipline the sport’s always needed and perhaps been looking for?

Scott: To me, enduro is a sport that’s existed for decades – casual climbing with your buddies, then getting serious and racing them downhill. The bikes have existed for a while, without a formal race scene. It’s a great sport because it has a social aspect and it’s what we love doing. I think they should take it one more step and not allow any practice. It would minimise the trail damage. Over here, all the Strava junkies kill the trail when they learn it’s going to be in a race.

MBUK: Prior to Intense and Felt, can you give us a rundown of what you’ve done since retiring from the race circuit?

Scott: After I finished racing in 2000, I coached and managed the Australian national DH team for eight years and had the privilege to work with guys like Sam Hill, Bryn [Atkinson], Mick [Hannah], Nathan [Rennie], Chris [Kovarik], Amiel [Cavalier], Gravesy [Jared Graves] and [Liam] Panozzo. That ended in 2008 when my position changed to looking after the national BMX programme. Luckily Gravesy went into BMX as well and he kept me from completely losing my mind! I’ve worked with Jill Kintner as well, and seen her be a huge success at 4X, DH and BMX. It’s been an amazing journey.

MBUK: Having worked with some of the fastest riders in the world, who sticks out and why?

Scott: When you get to the top of the crop in any sport, you notice that each rider has a set of special characteristics, on and off the bike. Some characteristics were as annoying as f***, some were remarkable, but being around riders at that level I got to see it all, in full, unbound glory. Never a dull moment!

I guess Sam [Hill] stands out. A few years back he made the entire field shake their heads in disbelief as he annihilated them in the most adverse conditions, and then calmly and without a blown ego carried on with his quiet life.

MBUK: How excited are you about the World Cup returning to Australia and who’s your money on for the series win this year?

Scott: It’s great to see a World Cup back in Oz. That era when it was last there was a huge part of mountain biking – [Shaun] Palmer was in his prime, Missy Giove was still racing, Peaty was still in single digits for World Cups. I wish I could be there in Cairns this year. As for who’s going to win this year, wow, that’s a tough call. Greg Herbold?!

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