José Antonio Hermida is an institution in XC racing. From humble beginnings — winning his first race aged 14 in a hockey helmet, Caribbean shorts and a T-shirt — he has racked up a wealth of impressive wins throughout his 20 year career, culminating in his dominant performance in the 2010 World Championships bringing home Spain’s first XC gold medal.
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Hermida is not only admired for his racing prowess, the once moustachioed 38-year-old is also one of the most personable and best liked racers on the circuit and is well known for his approachable attitude and love of all things cycling.
Merida recently invited me to Hermida’s hometown of Puigcerdà and after an afternoon of trying my best to keep up with him on his local trails, I sat down with the affable Spaniard to ask a few questions about his career on the eve of his retirement from racing.
While Merida clearly produces World Cup winning bikes, being such a successful racer I’m sure you could have your pick of any team, so what has kept you with the team for so long?
I just liked them! It’s as simple as that. Of course I had lots of offers from friends in the industry and I was always grateful for those, but if you look through my career, you’ll see I’ve only been in three teams in the last twenty or so years.
The move to Merida came when I woke up one morning and just decided that I wanted to move from Bianchi. I was having so much fun in the team and I loved working with the Italians, but I felt as though I was going to burn out in a few years in that environment. I just wanted to try something new.
I already knew a bit about Merida and how they worked, and the rest is really history. I’ve achieved my goals with the brand and I want to continue working with them.
Despite retiring, no one imagines that you won’t be back between the tape soon. Now that you are more free to choose what you’d like to race, what events do you think you want to do in the future?
I think I’ll probably race some XC marathon and maybe some cyclocross, but I will primarily be working as a brand ambassador for Merida in 2017. I’ll enjoy my time off for a while!
People have also often asked me if I’m interested in coaching in my retirement, but to be honest I’m not sure I’d want to be a director sportif — I’d be a dictator sportif!
I’ve had many coaches over the years and too many of them are my friends — I know from experience this is not the best way to do it. Maybe this is why I have only won three World Cups!
It’s a standard question, but what was the most significant or enjoyable win of your career?
People often ask me this question and I find it impossible to give an answer. Of course there are high and low moments in anyone’s career, but cycling is my hobby.
Even when I have to get out and train, ride over a mountain in the snow — maybe crash a little — when I come back covered head to toe in mud I’ll still be smiling. I just love cycling and I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to ride my bike for my career for so long.
But if I had to give an answer, probably the first time I won a World Cup round [Napa Valley, 2001] — that was pretty cool! At that time, I felt I’d moved from this point where I was looking at my idols — and I don’t think I became an idol — but I moved a step closer to them and that was a really cool feeling.
And of course, winning the World Champs in 2010 was incredible. After fourteen years of hard effort, I finally got there and I was so happy to achieve my goal.
Who were your idols and which racer did you look up to most?
John Tomac was someone I looked up to massively when I was young. He shaped the sport in so many ways and competed in so many different disciplines.
I was also lucky enough to be able to race against guys such as Bart Brentjens. One of the most memorable races for me was the 2004 Athens Olympics and that epic battle with Bart, who was someone I had admired for a long time. That is a race I will never forget.
For me as well, just looking at magazines when I was young and seeing many people doing amazing things on bikes was very important to me.
It’s even better now, every day on Facebook or Instagram I’m seeing someone doing a double backflip on a bike and the next day I’m seeing a triple! Social media is amazing and I get to see so much more cycling than I ever could have when I started my career.
If you had to choose between getting a tattoo of your signature bar ends or moustache which would you go for?
I think if I really had to I would go for bar ends as they were my signature [José famously used bar ends in XC racing long after they fell out of common use] and something that kept me unique. I can always grow a moustache!
And I think if I had to get the bar ends tattoo I’d get them where my love handles would be. Something to grab onto.
The moustache thing is really funny because it started so small, just a dare with my teammate’s, and it has just become my signature.
I paused at the tattoo question because I’m someone who has always raced ‘naked’. In the race it is important that I am not distracted… I don’t have lucky tattoos, earrings or necklaces — just me and my kit. I don’t wear a heart rate meter either when racing, who cares if I explode at 1hr 30? Knowing what my heart rate was before isn’t going to make a difference at all… for training, yes of course. All of these tools make it so much easier than it used to be to improve, but for racing, I don’t feel I need it.
This has always annoyed my coaches because we have all of this data that could be used to improve my racing, but for me it’s just about performance on the day
How did your wife feel about the moustache?
Not good! And neither was I really!
You know for me, I sort of regret it as I see these posters and photos in magazines and promotional material from one of the most important races of my life, the one I worked 10 years to achieve, and I have this big dirty moustache. I’ll have to get Photoshop.
I guess the only thing I liked about it was the fact I was the only one in the team who could grow a real one — the rest of them are just metrosexuals with perfect eyebrows. And in fact, I’m only the second XC racer ever to win a World Champs with a moustache. The other was Miguel Martinez, but I think my moustache was far better than his.
What do you think would help further development and participation in mountain bike racing?
The sport needs characters to engage with people. You have people like Victor Koretzky and I’m so impressed by what he does, bringing energy and fun to the sport.
I also look at someone like Danny Hart and that race at Champery, mixed in with Rob Warner’s commentary, and pulling that whip. It’s incredible! It’s maybe one of the best race moments of the last ten years and we’re still talking about it.
I also think the importance of working with TV is hugely overstated. There are lots of sports out there which have almost no coverage and are doing incredibly well. I think what would be more helpful is to have more teams working with big media people like Red Bull as it brings the sport to this huge audience
From a tech point of view, what’s pushed the envelope of the sport for you?
I’m an old school guy, I come from a time when cantilevers and 7-speed cassettes were the norm and I look at a lot of this tech thinking that everything has gotten a bit easier
For example, 29er wheels. I didn’t want to move to them at first and though I am 1,000% faster on them for sure, I felt as though I was selling my soul — no, my skin — when I moved to them. I was selling out to the market!
I don’t think it’s just the change in wheel size that made the difference though. Moving to bigger wheels made manufacturers re-think geometry and XC bike development moved so fast when they were introduced. I think bikes are now the most capable they’ve ever been.
I also think the introduction of electronic shifting is huge. Although it’s amazing at the top level of the sport, when it moves down to beginner levels it will make a massive impact as it’s so much easier to understand and maintain than mechanical shifting.
I’m also really interested in e-bikes for this reason too. I get paid to suffer like a dog but your everyday consumer doesn’t want to. For example, my father in law was thinking about just moving to the couch and hanging up his wheels, but now he is on an e-bike he’s climbing cols.
I also think there’s a potential place for e-bikes for training, maybe even practice runs at races. Being able to do multiple laps of a course and work out lines without wearing yourself out could be really helpful.
Who’s the young and upcoming talent that you’re watching?
I mentioned Victor Koretzky before — he’s so bold, he attacks well, he acts a bit and I would say that he knows that Nino is probably going to dominate the sport for at least two years, so he makes the most of what he has. I’m really impressed by him.
Thanks to Merida for inviting us to meet José!