After an incredibly successful 2009 – when he won two World Cup rounds and the World Championships despite competing against riders over 10 years his junior – Steve Peat has to be one of the men to beat in 2010.
With the first downhill World Cup round kicking off this weekend in Maribor, Slovenia, Ric McLaughlin caught up with him in Scotland earlier this year to discuss rainbow stripes, the state of the UK mountain bike scene and the 2010 race season.
Steve Peat ambles his tall frame out of the cool confines of his blacked-out Land Rover and into the cloudless sunshine of Tyndrum. Paddy’s Bar is an incongruous sight – an Irish pub nestled on the shores of Loch Linnhe an hour south of FortWilliam. It’s dimly lit and full of the usual tat including signs to Tipperary, vintage Guinness memorabilia and today, a hungry world champion.
Next week he and the rest of the Santa Cruz Syndicate team are due to head to Portugal for some final testing before the European season’s unofficial opener at the Nissan Lisboa DownTown urban downhill race. It’s an event Steve has won eight times (but not this year – as Steve crashed and went on to finish 23rd Ed), which still seems to bewilder him.
“It’s an odd one!” he chuckles. “I’ve never expected to win there, it’s just always come together on my race run. It’s an awesome event – the crowds and atmosphere are superb, and there’s a real feeling that the whole city is behind us.” Does he think the UK lacks events like this? “Yeah, there have been a couple but there just doesn’t seem to be the enthusiasm.”
2010 will see Peaty race in the world champion’s jersey. It’s a title he’s waited 17 years for and finally claimed in the dusty heat of Canberra, Australia last year. “I think it’s sunk in finally,” he laughs. “I keep wearing my jersey all the time and I still get a massive smile out of it.”
Joking aside, Steve sees the rainbow stripes as a duty as much as a title. “Winning that race, on a racing level was great but I think there’s a lot more that comes with it than it just being a racing title,” he says. “I always looked at it as just another race to tick off. It’s not though. Having won it, I now know that it’s a lot more than just another bike race.”
I push him for more details. “Training hasn’t gone brilliantly this winter,” he admits. “Winning the World Champs was awesome, such a big relief, but I didn’t realise how busy it was going to make me. I’ve been doing loads of photo shoots, interviews, video shoots – just loads of stuff! I’ve been invited to a couple of awards ceremonies – really cool stuff all to do with being world champ. It’s just made it hard to get into a training routine.”
Has it been difficult to adjust to wearing the rainbow stripes mentally? “At the end of last season I sat down with a sports psychologist and we tried to work out how I wanted to determine my year as world champion,” Steve says. “This year I want to do good things for the sport, I want to win races and have a good crack at defending the jersey.
“There was so much pressure and stress coming from getting that jersey, now I just want to try to relax a bit and have a different approach to it. Gee (Atherton) was world champion going into last year and he had a lot of bad luck at the races. I think he was trying that little bit too hard. Being in that jersey affected him.”
“Getting the book out has been a big thing for me in terms of getting used to being world champion too,” he adds, referring to Steve Peat World Champion: Seventeen Years In The Making. It’s a photographic chronicle of Steve’s 2009 and has obviously been a massive thing for him. “I still look at the front cover and smile,” he says. “It’s a great thing to have.”
As the food arrives he admits that he sees this year’s podiums being tighter than ever. “I still see it as being myself, Sam (Hill), Greg (Minnaar) and Gee (Atherton) as the contenders for the overall. Fabien (Barel) is always a threat at some races too, and is really fast (since this interview a crash in training has put Barel out of the running for the first few rounds Ed). Aaron Gwin looked good at Sea Otter as well.
“I can see Josh (Bryceland, Steve’s 20-year-old team-mate) having a good year this year though. He’s been training harder than ever and I think a lot of the tracks will suit him this season.” Steve is glad to be on an unchanged Santa Cruz Syndicate team for 2010. “It’s said a lot but we’re just like a big family,” he says.
I offer him my jalapenos in exchange for a question on family matters. Is it hard having one of your closest rivals (Greg Minnaar) in the same team race after race? The peppers along with the question are dealt with instantly. “Not at all. Greg and I have been friends for ages; even when he was on Honda we used to train and practise together.”
“When you’re racing, you race the clock. If he beats me then he’s ridden better than me. I might have made a mistake or he may have just plain ridden better than me. It can be hard for him as he’s so far from home for so much of the year. In between races he comes and stays at ours a bit too.”
Back in Blighty
“I’m looking forward to BikeRadar Live,” Steve adds. “I think for all of us who are busy with the World Cup calendar it’s really nice to go and ride at a one-off race. The fact that it’s in Britain is even better for me.”
The domestic scene is up for discussion next and Steve is impressed. “I think the national scene is really healthy at the minute. The entry lists are always over-subscribed at every race, we’ve got a lot of depth and a lot of quality. A lot of World Cup qualifiers too,” he says, finishing off the last morsel of chilli on his plate.
“That was part of my plan, to do as many national races as possible in the world champ’s jersey, but it’s not worked out. That’s pissed me off a bit,” he admits. “I wanted to do the whole series but they all clashed with something. The only thing I was going to do was Llangollen. I got my entry in and everything but now I’ve got to go to the States instead.”
With this we pay the bill and head back into the bright early evening sun. Steve will be back here in a matter of weeks to take on the second round of the World Cup, only this time he’ll have some rather special stripes on his sleeve. It would take a brave man to bet against him.