When MBUK went to ride with Shaun Palmer recently to find out more about his return to the sport as an ambassador for Intense Cycles, the opportunity to meet and ride with my biggest hero in mountain biking was finally right in front of me…
Shaun Palmer was one of the few mountain bikers who I idolised as a teenager. Not only is he a mountain bike legend, but one of action sport’s most iconic characters. He’s also someone well known for being as much of a bad ass as he is a hard ass, so I don't mind admitting I was a little nervous at the prospect of meeting him – after all, this was someone I’ve looked up to since I was 17. Even now at 34, and having been privileged to meet most of the sport’s biggest stars, the aura of cool that surrounds Shaun Palmer is as strong for me as it’s ever been. I’ve even had a copy of Heckler (a US board and lifestyle mag) since ’99 with Palmer on the cover, and I won’t lie when I tell you I’ve watched ‘The Miserable Champion’ (a video biography about Palmer) a fair few times to boot.
Shaun Palmer and Intense Cycles - a synonymous relationship that is thankfully back in action and set to do some damage at the races with Shaun managing their Junior development team, helping young US riders to become the next Aaron Gwin or Neko Mulally.
When Palmer burst onto the scene in the mid 90s, I was obsessed with all things mountain biking and by the time I could afford to get a decent enough bike and go racing, Palmer and Peaty were kings – they were cool, punk rock and, unlike their peers, had an attitude which appealed to a host of riders who would otherwise have felt disconnected with the Lycra-clad image we’d all accepted for far too long in downhill. But for me, Palmer was the guy who I thought epitomised downhill racing and extreme sports, which back then were making serious in-roads into popular culture.
Riding familiar trails with such an iconic rider was an experience I won't be forgetting any time soon!
Making my way to meet Palmer, I was really conscious of the prospect he could be anything but the person I thought he’d be, tarnishing a long held view that I’ve carried with me for over 17 years. I’d heard things that contradicted my opinion over the years, but like everything, I’d rather make up my own mind. I never thought that day would come when I could meet the man himself, at least until Intense Cycles announced Palmer was back – I knew at this point, meeting my hero was nothing more than patience and possibly a drive or flight away in the near future. Thankfully, Palmer came to us, well the Forest of Dean – one of my regular riding spots over the last 15 years.
Arriving at the FOD I walked through the familiar doors of the Pedalabikeaway café to be greeted by the very unfamiliar sight of Shaun Palmer casually drinking coffee and chatting to Rob Weaver and photographer Steve Behr. Things started to feel even more weird when I was introduced and found myself chatting to my all-time hero – and no, thankfully, I didn't dribble coffee all over him and although the nerves were there, I did my best to keep my composure and be the professional journalist I hope I am – but this is Shaun Palmer!!! Thankfully he’s a really nice guy with as many questions of his own, which only helped balance the nerves and keep the conversation flowing. While Shaun’s relaxed nature put me at ease, this still felt about as far removed from a normal pre-shoot coffee as possible, and what followed was anything but.
The skills that nearly earned him a rainbow jersey, a World Cup win and a whole host of other wins and podiums is still there - Palmer can shred!
It didn't take long to settle into the rhythm of a typical MBUK photo shoot with a guest rider, but I wasn’t alone in wondering how he’d get on actually riding some very un-Californian trails that the FOD presented in a wet and cold January. He confessed to not being in the best shape, which he mentioned a few times, as well as his intention to get back into racing himself. At 46, he’s no spring chicken, but as soon as we got to the trails and started hitting the jumps and easing into the day, the fact that this guy has won more medals in more sports than anyone else rained home immediately. Smooth, stylish and fast from the off, effortlessly weaving his way over the jumps – catching Rob’s eye, you could tell we were both thinking the same thing: this is rad and yeah, he’s still got it!
It didn’t hit me at the time, but the fact that I was riding with one of my biggest heroes was pushed out of my consciousness, which was odd, but in hindsight I guess it says a lot about how down to earth Shaun is these days. A lot of high profile professionals in this sport and others have certain demands and attitudes on shoots like this, but it felt like Shaun was just one of the boys, out having fun on bikes in the forest. We’ve got a closer association with the pros here at MBUK, but riding with Palmer that day, I needn't have ever been apprehensive about riding alongside him at all.
It was really the weeks that followed that brought the whole experience home. All my mates were eager to know what it had been like and how fast he was – more so than with any of the pros I've ridden with before. Guess that's if you're of a certain age and were following mountain biking in the late 90s, Shaun Palmer is pretty much as big a deal as it gets and possibly the reason you got into riding in the first place.
How many 46 years olds have this much steeze at the trails? Shaun Palmer still has it alright!
He's been described as one of the most naturally gifted athletes of all time – someone who changed the face of mountain biking forever, made a supercross main event, won countless medals at the X-Games. That's only really scratching the surface. It's great having a personality like Palmer back in the sport. He's back where he belongs, loving life and at 46 years old still riding the way most of us can only dream of. I for one am glad I got to meet my hero and he lived up to all my expectations.
For more on Shaun and why he's returned to mountain biking check out our feature in the latest issue of MBUK. On sale now!