Interview: Brian Lopes - Born to win

The life of the world's most successful mountain bike racer

With 25 World Cup victories and four World Championship titles, Brian Lopes has won more races than any other mountain biker.

When he stayed with the Mountain Biking UK crew over summer we found out what makes this seemingly unstoppable machine tick…

It’s not uncommon to see a grown man sweating in the presence of Brian Lopes. His legendary first straight made four-cross riders quake, his skills make downhill racers shake their heads, and his overriding urge to be the best has been fazing people out for years.

If you can bunnyhop 31in, he can hop 35in. If you can crunch 1,000 sit-ups after a full work-out he’ll hit 1,200 and if you can hammer up that one-in-three climb faster than anyone you know, he’ll do it 20 seconds quicker than that – and he won’t even be sweating…

Some people have it, and some don’t, and Lopes is one of those who most definitely do – he’s born to win. He simply does not give in, and that along with a depressing amount of natural talent has pushed him to the forefront of mountain biking history.

But Brian Lopes isn’t some 6ft hero figure like the Steve Peats and Greg Minnaars of this world. He’s far more modest. He’s a well presented, witty and calm – if a little excitable – man from California who’s seen something he wanted and has taken it. He’s a disciplined product of devoted training and a clear love of mountain biking.

Back in the day

When duel and dual slalom racing kicked off in the mid-90s, Lopes was one of the first BMX racers to cross over to mountain biking and get involved. He knew the difference between someone who loved the sport and had the ability to race, and someone who loved the sport and loved to win. Hard work on both technique and fitness was the winning formula, and Lopes cashed in.

From the very start, Brian dominated. Mountain bike legend Hans Rey raced Lopes in his first ever race and discovered his winning ways early on: “I could and should have beaten him, and then he would have gone back to BMX racing and could have told everybody that mountain bike racing sucks. But my apologies,” Hans jests, “things didn’t go down that way. Lopes is one of the smoothest and most talented riders I have ever seen on a mountain bike.”

But it wasn’t always about mountain bikes for Brian. From the first time his father took him to a BMX track in 1975 he was addicted. In the mid-80s he raced both National and World Champs and turned Pro in 1989, where he took the ABA and NBL Grands – a hell of a first year. In 1992 Lopes tried out mountain bikes with fellow BMX racers Toby Henderson (of THE products) and Dave Cullinan, who also went on to a great MTB career.

Lope’s first MTB race earned him a name and fifth place. He then went straight on to win a Norba National, and never looked back. Brian pretty much stopped racing BMX in 1995 and focused on MTB, where he’s built up a frightening resume that’s enough to make others pack it in and go home.

Hungry to win

Lopes vs. Gee Atherton in the Dual Slalom final at BikeRadar Live this year

Thanks to his astonishing turn of speed Lopes has always been king of the first straight. The power he can put down to the pedals comes from years of practice and specific training. “Training has always been something I’ve done on my own,” Lopes explains. “Never with a coach telling me what to do, just figuring it out. Every human is created differently so what works for one will not necessarily work for someone else. Training depends totally on what you focus on.

“When four-cross was my focus, starts and sprints at the local BMX track were part of the routine. Explosive weight lifting exercises and stuff like that.”

But training will only get you so far. It needs to be backed up with raw talent and the desire to win – two things that Brian oozes.

“It doesn’t matter what you are doing with Lopes,” smiles Greg Minnaar. “It will always end up in a competition.

“Even a mellow XC ride round Peaty’s local woods recently turned in to a three-man war. Every climb, descent and technical trials section became a competition. And he won – typical.”

As well as ungodly speed, Brian is incredibly good in all scenarios on a bike whether it’s wet, dry, up, down, rocky, rooty or airborne. On any bike. His array of DH, dual, slalom and 4X titles speak for themselves.

“I remember him challenging Cross Country World Champion, Cadel Evans to a single-lap cross country race in Canada one time,” grins former teammate Martyn Ashton. “Cadel dropped him about two thirds round, but it still shows just how strong and fast Lopes was.”

Over the hill

Lopes competing at the 2009 mountain bike and trials world championships

Being as competitive as he is, Brian’s shelf-life was only ever going to last as long as the time it took him to find something else – or win everything. “Retiring from 4X was something that just had to happen,” Lopes told us recently. “Truthfully, I was getting bored with it – and it never really quite went in the direction I had hoped. I always thought the courses didn’t showcase good riders’ full capabilities.

“I wanted some fresh new challenges – more along the lines of the type of riding I do on a daily basis.”

At 37, Brian Lopes has had an incredibly successful career – he’s shown the cream of the world’s best DH, XC, 4X and BMX racers a thing or two, and if he turned up at a race tomorrow all eyes would still be on him. But he’s not stopping there – the ever-growing enduro racing scene appeals to Brian.

It combines fitness, staying power and all-out skill. They scream for him. Already Lopes has checked out the Downieville Classic and the Maxi Avalanche race in Andorra.

“I see more of the Enduro style of riding as the bread and butter for Ibis and all the companies that sponsor me. The Megavalanche is something I’d like to try one day. It’s just a matter of timing and working in to my schedule.”

Wherever Lopes heads next, he’ll be upsetting more of the very best riders on the planet and will keep establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. But at the time of going to press, our eyes were focussed on the UCI World Championships at Canberra where Brian was making a special appearance on the US downhill team. It’s a fairly flat pedally track, with loads of jumps, so he was sure to be right up there, making the fastest riders sweat.

Shortly before the race Greg Minnaar told MBUK: “If he does it, he’s going to be a big challenge for us downhillers.”

It really brings things back into perspective when the 27-year-old current world No 1 can say that about a man who is nearly 10 years his senior.

Brian Lopes is a true mountain bike master – watch and learn.

Inside the head of Brian Lopes

The multiple world champ on...

…Greg Minnaar

“I think Greg Minnaar has the best style out there”

…his inspiration

“Jeremy McGrath used to really inspire me because I grew up racing BMX with him. When he started setting all his records in motocross I knew I wanted to be that guy in mountain biking. I’m sure one day my World Cup win record will be surpassed, but 25 wins is a good benchmark.”

…the sickest thing he’s ever seen

“To this day one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen was from Darren Berrecloth. At CrankWorx he 360’d off the huge ladder bridge over a big step-down gap. It blew my mind and every year I see that gap I still can’t believe he did it. To 360 something with no lip, going that fast and gapping to a landing that’s 15ft lower and not so big has enormous consequences if you don’t pull it. But he cleaned it.”

… his best moment

“It was my last World Champ win in Scotland. It was the day after my birthday and I had to fight hard to come back after a poor start in my semi to just make the final. To win at 36 years old in front of a huge crowd who probably doubted I could do it at that age. Great!”

…the best riding spot

“Whistler is hands down the best place to ride a bike. Riding there made me buy a house there, so it must be special.”

Nailing a 55ft double

Brian Lopes timeline

  • 6 September  1971 Lopes enters the world, probably already doing squats. His first bike  was a Schwinn Pixie. Learning to ride wasn’t enough – he was straight up the BMX track and was hooked.
  • 1975 First BMX race, turned pro shortly after
  • 1989 Won both the BMX ABA and NBL Grands
  • 1993 First MTB race, beats Hans Rey
  • 1995 Norba Series Champion in both downhill and slalom. He’s here to stay.
  • 2001  World Cup Champ and World Champion
  • 2005  Published a book with Lee McGormack about technique – Mastering Mountain Bike Skills
  • 2007 World Cup Champ and World Champion
  • 2008 Inducted in to the BMX Hall of Fame
  • 2009 A Brian Lopes Bell signature helmet lands in MBUK Towers. And very nice it is too…

Casing the jump

“This jump I hit at James ‘Bubba’ Stewart’s house was pretty big – I honestly thought I would make it no problem. I had to get pulled in by a moto and that was the big issue – I’d never been pulled before.

Between the moment I let go of the rope up and the take-off, I lost too much speed. Ultimately this made me case that jump – it was a 55ft double and I didn’t clear it. I cracked my thumb – it could have been worse.”

The proof is in the results...

1995

  • Norba National Series Champion – downhill
  • Norba National Series Champion – dual slalom

1996

  • National Series Champion – downhill

1997

  • National Series Champion – dual slalom

1998

  • National Norba Series Champion – downhill
  • UCI World Cup Champion – dual slalom

1999

  • Norba National Series Champion – dual slalom

2000

  • Norba National Series Champion – dual slalom
  • UCI World Cup Champion – dual slalom

2001

  • UCI World Cup Champion – dual slalom
  • UCI World Champion – dual slalom
  • UCI World Champion – 4X

2002

  • Norba National Series Champion – 4X
  • UCI World Cup Champion – 4X

2004

  • US National Champion – 4X

2005

  • UCI World Cup Champion – 4X
  • UCI World Champion – 4X
  • Wins A-line race at CrankWorx

2007

  • UCI World Cup Champion – 4X
  • UCI World Champion – 4X
  • Wins A-line race at CrankWorx

2008

  • Inducted into the BMX and MBUK Hall of Fame
  • Wins A-line race at CrankWorx
  • Wins Maxi Avalanche Andorra

2009

  • Wins Air DH Race (formerly A-Line) at CrankWorx
  • Selected for US team at the World Championships, Canberra

Secrets of his success

Lock down

In order to get a faster gate, Brian worked with Fox to develop a fork that had lock down, like motocross forks, until it hit a bump or Brian banged the fork on the floor to initiate regular movement.

100m dash

In one dual race, the fi rst and second straights were so short and tech that Brian checked the rules and found he only had to leave the start gate with his bike, not on it. So he carried it on his shoulder and ran the race, easily winning. While walking back up to the start, he heard another racer calling a mate to get his running shoes!

One SPD shoe, one flat

Before 4X races used BMX style gates that fall away from the racer, it used motocross gates that fall towards. For these, riders had to start with one foot on the floor. Lopes figured that by having his foot on the floor as a flat pedal shoe, and the other already clipped in he had a half crank advantage on the other racers. He won…

The art of sponsorship

As well as being one of the most distinguished professional riders due to his amount of wins, Brian Lopes has carved an image for himself that many have copied over the years.

Instead of going ‘ghetto’, or being a bad boy, he stuck to a clean image. He’s always well presented, his bikes are always immaculate and he always displays his sponsors proudly. Brian keeps folders with his media coverage every year and presents this to his sponsors – just like Hans Rey and Steve Peat do.

It shows he cares and that he works hard for a living. There’s many a pro and amateur rider who could do with talking a leaf out of Brian’s book...

Comments

Back to top