Words: Mike Rose
Photos: Nathan Hughes (unless stated otherwise)

Last weekend we should have all been sitting down to watch the first round of this year’s Downhill World Cup from Maribor, but as we all know, it wasn’t to be.

Back in early March we heard the news that the race would be rescheduled for mid August. A month later we heard the news that the Fort William World Cup (which was due to be the second round) was to be completely cancelled.

As race fans it was a huge (but totally understandable) disappointment to hear the news, but imagine what it must be like if you are a professional athlete whose training schedule and life is governed by the race calendar. So who better to talk to than INTENSE Factory Racing’s very own Aaron Gwin. We grabbed a few words with Aaron this week to talk about training, preparation and the season ahead.

Hi Aaron, so how frustrating has this year been so far? First Maribor was postponed and then Fort William cancelled, how difficult is it for you to plan your training and to keep focus?

Yo! It was a bummer to see the first few races cancelled but I was happy to hear that at least Maribor has been rescheduled. All of the rescheduling can make training more difficult but it's not a huge deal. I'd say the hardest part is to keep your mental focus and intensity up when the target keeps moving back and you're training for extra months without racing.

Obviously as an elite level athlete you target all your efforts on a particular time of the year, you want to be fully prepared at the start of the race season and carry that through, hopefully peaking at each race.

For me, I like to start strong at the first race with room to build throughout the year. It can be tricky to get the timing right but I try to be patient. I think it's easy to do too much with all the time leading up to the race season. I love to work out and ride so the challenge is to not over-do things.

I suppose you have to have a more flexible approach to racing and performing. You always seem very calm and logical, do you think that you are suited to this more haphazard style of race season?

Umm I'd say yes and no. I like knowing what the goal is so I can really time my training as effectively as possible. It's tough when you get really close to a race and then they cancel it last minute. Thankfully this year they've been making decisions on these races a few months in advance so that's been a lot easier to adapt to for sure. I try to just focus ahead, so if a change is made I just ask myself, “what can I do to be the best for whatever the new date or goal is”.

This year’s series is a predominately a European one, so just on a practical level, what is the situation for you and the team with travel, etc.? It’s difficult the way the calendar is currently set, four races over three months is a long time to stay away from home.

Last year we stayed in Europe for the whole month since all the racing was done in those four weeks. This year the races are spread out some, so it'll be a more normal travel schedule for me. I like to come home between races as much as I can usually. I feel like I'm able to train better at home and also just mentally refresh so that when I'm over in Europe I'm at my best. Some of the other guys on the team like to be on the road more so sometimes they'll stay between races. We end the season with a World Cup in the US this year so that'll be a lot of fun and make traveling a little easier being a team based out of North America.

Were you a fan of the back to back races last year at Maribor and Lousa? It was certainly a novel concept and as a race fan it was great to have so much racing concentrated in such a short period of time.

I think everyone was a bit curious with how those would go but after doing them, I really liked that schedule. So much of our time at the races is spent sitting around between riding, so having weeks with multiple races made for a lot more riding and less sitting and traveling, etc. It's fun to just get in the zone and keep racing without having to pack everything up and spend a week of traveling to get to the next one.

It will be interesting to see where the track goes at the first round in Leogang this year!? Whether they revert back to the old track or take it down through the ‘hell of the woods’... or a mix of the two? You weren’t really a fan of that section, especially in those weather conditions.

It was cool to see them put so much effort into the new section last year but I don't think they prepared to have the rain that we had. I like fast tracks that have good flow and where you can really carry a lot of speed. That used to be Leogang, but with the changes they've made recently the whole bottom half has turned into a really slow, technical, and tight type of track. I think they'll probably still run the new track this year but I would anticipate some changes to make it flow a little more and handle weather better. We'll see, I'm excited for the challenge either way.

I’m pretty sure that people say this every year, but the pro field seems to be absolutely stacked at the moment. There is so much quality… with a little lunacy! It’s interesting to watch the different styles of say someone like Pierron who is on the very edge, pushing the limit, real ‘heart in mouth’ kind of stuff, compared to someone like Minnaar who just makes it all seem so calm and effortless. I guess you just have to race your race?

The level and depth of competition has definitely stepped up the past few years. I think it's great for the sport having so many guys going fast. Everyone is committed to their training programs and the brands are all investing a lot of time and effort into making their bikes fast, so it's all adding up to really tight competition. I think it will only get better moving forward, it's a great time to be a fan of downhill racing.

How about the M279? You’ve been riding different prototypes over the last year or so. Are you finally settled on the bike and its geometry and sizing?

Right now I'm on my second proto and we've got it working really well. This bike was the goal from the start, we just wanted to take our time and make sure we got everything right. I'm really happy with where we are currently and we're still working and tweaking small thing's to see if we can find any more gains before we go to production. It's been a really fun process and I'm so happy to have the support of Jeff (Steber, INTENSE founder and CEO) and everyone at INTENSE. They like prototyping and messing with bikes as much as I do, ha ha.

And you are obviously comfortable with the mullet wheel size set up? It’s a combination that works for you.

For me, it's the best combination. I love the maneuverability and quickness of the smaller rear wheel. You get the stability and grip with the 29 up front without sacrificing that snappy feel that I like so much. For me with my height and riding style, the mixed wheel set up has been awesome.

It is approximately six weeks to the first World Cup of the year, what do those next six weeks look like for you?

Mostly just more hard work and preparation. I've been feeling really good and I'm just looking forward to getting the season started. We've made a lot of progress this off-season, it's going to be fun to see what we can do.

Cheers Aaron.

Thanks team!

Photo: Jack Rice

We can’t wait for World Cup racing to begin again but with the current situation with Covid things can change very quickly. Here is the most up to date schedule for this year’s Downhill World Cup.

DOWNHILL WORLD CUP SCHEDULE 2021 (updated April 2nd)
Round 1 12-13 June Leogang, Austria
Round 2 3-4 July Les Gets, France
Round 3 14-15 August Maribor, Slovenia
World Championships 24-29 August Val Di Sole, Italy
Round 4 4-5 September Lenzerheide, Switzerland
Round 5 18-19 September Snowshoe, USA

And just in case you missed it… Aaron’s teammates have been busy in the off-season too. Check out Seth Sherlock’s Bike Check that was featured on Pink Bike...

...and Neko Mulally’s latest video where he’s posing the question, is lighter faster?