It’s been a tough couple of years for 2007 junior world downhill champion Ruaridh Cunningham but now a new team, Maxxis-Rocky Mountain, gives the young Scot a fresh chance to make good on his incredible potential. Ric McLaughlin caught up with him in the Scottish Borders to find out more.
The gymnasium at the Galashiels campus of Borders College is a tall, airy building. In front of us a group of BASE (Borders Academy of Sporting Excellence) mountain bike students are being put through the wringer by a man called Kenny who looks like he’d be equally at home on the front line of some medieval battlefield. Wielding an axe.
Amid the sweat and physical exertion, Ruaridh Cunningham looks every inch the ice-cool pro. His diminutive height is cloaked in skinny jeans and a monstrous North Face parka jacket as he swigs a Red Bull. This apparent nonchalance is deceptive though – he’s booked in for a longer one-to-one with Kenny tomorrow or, as he jokingly refers to it, “the house of pain!”.
“A lot of the younger guys hate the gym work to begin with,” he says of the BASE class of which he’s very much the figurehead. “Once they realise how much it improves your riding they soon appreciate it though.”
Cunningham's junior gold medal at the 2007 UCI Mountain Bike & Trials World Championships in Fort William, Scotland was the first for a British rider
After becoming the first Britain to take gold at a UCI Mountain Bike World Championships at Fort William in 2007, Cunningham was widely touted as ‘the next big thing’. A knee injury and two years spent on the expansive roster of ChainReactionCycles-Intense later, the Innerleithen local has yet to enjoy similar success in the senior ranks.
Was the bike a factor? “I think it was to begin with,” he says. “I went from my Iron Horse Sunday, which felt like it was almost designed for me, to the Intense [M9] and getting it set up properly took a while.” This year he’ll be onboard a Rocky Mountain Flatline, yet another new bike.
“I've only had it a few weeks but I’m impressed with the bike so far,” he shrugs. “I’m just on a practice bike at the minute so its a bit of a stocker with a steel spring and stuff but it feels good. It’s got some pretty sweet Maxxis [tyre] prototypes on it just now but that’s it really. I'll be going to California in a few weeks to pick up my pimped-out race bike so I’m well excited.”
Cunningham is also relishing the thought of being on a smaller team. “I think change is sometimes a good thing and I'm very happy with the Maxxis-Rocky Mountain setup so far,” he says. “I'm quite happy to be in a smaller outfit as for the last few years I've been in one of the biggest teams on the circuit and it’s easy to be lost in the background at times. It'll definitely help at airports anyway!”
CRC-Intense were the top UCI World Cup team last year, but Ruaridh's looking forward to being on a smaller squad
He adds: “I've known Sabrina [Jonnier] for a few years now and we get on really well. She's a multi-world champion so its awesome to have someone with that experience as a team-mate.”
Ruaridh’s coach and general man with finger in many mountain-bike-related pies, Chris Ball, wanders over to say hello. Judging by young Cunningham’s in-depth and excited explanation of how to best prepare a breakfast avocado, he’s taking his training seriously too.
“Training's been going good,” Ruaridh smiles. “I feel like I've been working on the right things and think it'll hopefully show in my riding. In the past it was too easy for me to lose track of what I was actually trying to achieve, whereas this year I feel like everything I'm doing has a reason behind it.
“My training regime has a lot of variation to it now. I have more fitness-related aspects such as gym and road bike work, but also some BMX and motocross in there for cross training. On top of that I obviously have downhill stuff.
The Scot seems to be getting on well with his new Rocky Mountain Flatline downhill bike
"Kenny (Johnston, Scottish rugby trainer, possible axe-wielder) helps me with all my gym work and has been a huge help. It’s good having someone with his experience and knowledge to help me with technique and motivate me when I'm slacking!”
Time on the bike is something Cunnigham's always taken seriously though. “Fitness is very important," he says. "But putting yourself in a race situation against the clock doing full runs is the closest you'll get to the real thing.”
Winning the junior world title in 2007 was obviously a massive deal for the then 18-year-old, but gaining such a high accolade at such a young age can have adverse effects. “Winning the World’s was pretty surreal," says Ruaridh. "Having a good contract and a salary at just 18 years old was something I found hard to take seriously at first.
"We had a World Cup in Maribor [Slovenia] the week after the World Champs and I found it really hard to get into it even though I was leading the Junior World Cup at the time! Not long after that I did my knee and was a bit clueless about how severe the injury was.”
Ruaridh is keen to put injury behind him and climb back to the top of the World Cup rankings
The knee injury would continue to plague Ruaridh for the next couple of seasons. “I'd been lucky with injuries up until that point and went with the ‘I know best' attitude," he says wryly. "I clearly didn't, and needed to have it reconstructed before 2009.”
A talent as bright as Cunningham’s always shines through though, and last season we started to see glimpses of the ‘old’ Ruaridh. “My highlight of 2010 had to be getting 10th at the Champery World Cup round,” he says. “I knew I was capable of it all year so to do it on one of my favourite tracks and get selected for Worlds because of it was awesome.”
As for 2011, Ruaridh is raring to go. "My main goal is to finish the World Cup in the top 20 overall," he says. "I feel like I've prepared for the season better than previous years and now I just want to get started!”
There's a full feature on BASE's mountain bike course in issue 263 of Mountain Biking UK magazine, due out on 6 April. Click here to subscribe.