By Mike Ferrentino
It's late in the afternoon on Sunday, September 6, 2009, just outside of Canberra, Australia. The weeklong mountain bike World Championships have just drawn to a close. The final event contested, as usual, was the elite men's downhill race. The shadows are lengthening and the remaining sunlight is slanting deeply, with an almost cliché golden hue. Rick Clarkson, Steve Peat's perennially stoic mechanic, is holding forth with uncharacteristic animation, his words cropped and shaped by his northern English accent: "Steve Peat, World Champion, well, nobody's said it, ever," he says with a broadening grin. "Steve Peat, World Champion, that's all you need to know. That's number one!" Then, breaking completely out of character, unable to restrain his pure ebullient joy, he begins hooting "Steve Peeeaaaat! Noombah One! Steeeeve Peeeeeaaaat!" Finger pointing skyward, head tilted back, full bellow, his chant is taken up by the surrounding crowd, a cacophony of horns and bells and noisemakers swelling the sound and carrying it far away into the cold and dry southern twilight.
Steve Peat's 2009 World Championship victory was a sentimental slam dunk. It could not have been choreographed any better by Hollywood. The star of the show—Peaty—as the grizzled veteran who finally beats the odds and throws a long-clinging monkey from his back. At age 35, now a father of two, he has been competing at the elite level of downhill racing since it first became defined as a sport. He's been nicknamed "Old School" by his young teammate, Josh Bryceland. His 16 years of World Cup racing have seen nearly all of his early peers go into retirement while he has retained an almost ageless grace and competitiveness. This, in a sport that has evolved so dramatically as to be unrecognizable when compared to its roots—the only common aspect held from past until present being that races are individual timed runs held on a downhill slope. In an impressive career arc, so often abruptly punctuated with other riders by injuries or burnout, he has won more World Cup races (17) than any other downhill racer in history. He has won the World Cup overall three times, and netted a phenomenal 50 career World Cup podiums. Along the way, he has carved out a reputation as a journeyman powerhouse, able to finesse the skill courses, but also capable of throwing down horsepower on the pedaling tracks. But until this September, he'd never won that single-day crapshoot, that amalgam of skill and strength and timing and luck known otherwise as the UCI Downhill World Championships.
In spite of his win record, regardless of his other accomplishments, in terms of the World Championships, fate has never been kind to Peat. Bouncing back from a disastrous 1999 season that included a broken ankle and a broken arm, he suffered a heartbreaking 0.57-second loss to Myles Rockwell in 2000 that began a back-to-back-to-back string of second-place finishes. But perhaps the most bitter race of all came at the 2004 Worlds in Les Gets, France.
"I came back from a plated collar bone just before the race and couldn't believe I could even ride down the hill, never mind pin it," Peat recalls. "Everything was going well all week and I was more up for it than I had been for any other race, maybe too up for it. I wanted to crush the other guys…. My run was going perfectly until the last real corner of the track—I was last man down the hill and two seconds up on Fabien [Barel], who was in the hot seat. Had I known that, would I have slowed down and milked it home? No, I kept 'er lit, and crashed on a corner I'd been nailing all week. I got up and crossed the line to see Fabien celebrating. That was the first time I went and hid in my van and cried…."
At the 2008 World Championships in Val di Sole, Italy, it looked as if Peat's World Championship curse might finally reverse its cosmic flow. This time, it was Australian rival Sam Hill who went down in the final corner. Interviewed right before the awards ceremony, always the diplomat, Peat recounted the event with a calmness that bordered on detachment: "When I first crossed the line, I didn't think I was going to win, and then obviously it got down to Sam, and he was up by so much, I knew I was going to get beat. But then he crashed in the last corner and gave me some luck…and I just thought, 'finally, maybe I'm gonna get some luck at this race!'" Fate had other plans, however. "Gee [Atherton] was the last man down, and he had a stormer, and uh, I got beaten. I'm stoked to be on the podium with Gee. I'm stoked that Gee won, as another Brit, but it's the wrong way 'round for me. I'm gutted, but that's racing."
A long, lucrative career as an enduringly popular athlete—shouldn't that be enough? By dint of his personality alone, Peat is a sponsor's dream. He's unpretentious, friendly, hardworking, accessible and an absolute giant on the landscape of downhilling, as well as a household name in his home country. Mike Rose, editor of the gravity-centric U.K. magazine Dirt, defines Peat as "just a solid, down-to-earth guy."
"He knows he has the talent, but he's always been grounded," Rose says. "I think that has a lot to do with his upbringing…normal. He has the touch of the common man, and he can get on with anyone—he'll talk to everyone, and always has the time. I honestly believe that downhill here in the U.K., in fact mountain biking in general, would be completely different without Steve Peat. There is no way that we would be where we are today—he is that important. He has helped and influenced generations of riders. He is an inspiration to anyone who races downhill."
Peat's down-home accessibility, combined with his prodigious talent, has elevated him into the rarified atmosphere of mountain bike superstardom, with all the spoils that entails. He is one of the most highly compensated mountain bikers in the world. He has a very nice house, a loving wife and two healthy sons, Jake and George. And he is the winning-est World Cup downhill racer, ever. But still, there are those rainbow stripes that only one person gets to wear for a whole year after winning them….
This is where we get into the murky world of what drives us. For some people, a single goal can burn their vision, consume them entirely, and the pursuit of that goal is etched clearly on their faces. With Steve Peat, plumbing those depths is not easy. He is so experienced at dealing with the media that it is tough to draw out any of the teeth and bile that we automatically assume to be at the core of every driven athlete. In almost every sport, when it comes to great champions who stay at the top of their game for a long time, that stratosphere is frequently occupied by mammoth egos: Eddy Merckx, John McEnroe, Bernard Hinault, Michael Schumacher, Kobe Bryant, Lance Armstrong…. The assumed paradigm drawn from this could read as follows: If you want to win, and want to stay at the top, you'd better be prepared to eat the souls of your rivals.
Peat affords this argument no traction. Born in 1974 and raised in Chapeltown, Sheffield, 2 miles from where he now lives, Steve (youngest of three brothers) got his first bike at age two. His dad was a service engineer and motorcycle trials rider, and that first bike was a hand-me-down from his older brothers.
"We used to build jumps and they would send me off first to check them out," Peat recalls. "Got myself nicknamed 'the Kamikaze Kid' because of that."
At age 16, he got into cross-country riding with a local club, which led to a sponsorship with Langsett cycles in Sheffield. Racing both XC and DHDH, his gravity skills brought him to the attention of Kona U.K., which led to him winning the 1993 U.K. DHDH series aboard a fully rigid titanium bike. From there, faced with the choice of taking to the trades and becoming a plumber, or rolling the dice and trying to make a living as a downhill racer, he gambled on the latter. No childhood trauma. No deep, dark secret pushing him forward. The most scarring character builders would include such horrors as having to share a bedroom with one elder brother, and being used as a guinea pig by both. Not exactly exceptional circumstances.
Throughout his career—even in his younger days, which fell smack-dab in the middle of the mid-1990s throes of mountain biking's brief flirtation with massive salaries, big-rig race support and purported media glamour—while in no uncertain terms casting his lot in with the rowdy kids, he has always maintained a gentlemanly equanimity. There is none of the tightly wound hyperkinetic tension of Cedric Gracia, nor the curled-lip "fuck you" energy of Shaun Palmer, and not a trace of the loose-cannon lack of discipline or focus that has caused more than a few talented downhill racers to disintegrate in their 5.10s. He credits much of his demeanor to his upbringing. "My parents are the ones to thank," he says. "They made me this way."
He also deflects his success back onto mountain biking itself with a slippery deference. "Mountain biking, more specifically downhill racing, molded me into who I am today," he says. "I didn't have much before I started racing, and I didn't have any goals in racing. I just took every day as it was, race after race, enjoying myself. That's why I think bikes have molded me. I was totally happy to sit back and let bikes do this to me."
When pressed more on the nature of the competitive beast, when nosy journalists come scratching at the surface for a glimpse of the monster beneath, trying to unearth some secret to his longevity and his success, the cryptic neo-Zen ratchets up a level: "I've been trying to come up with some reason other than 'I love to ride my bike' and I think I've got it," he says. "I love to race my bike as well. I love everything about it. I love to hear the start beeps, figure the track out in practice, set the bike up to feel best on different tracks, cross the finish line, hear the crowds, sign the autographs, stand on the podium, drink the champagne. For me, it's all part of my life."
Asked point blank to define the keys to his success, and the Zen approach turns toward a level of simplicity that alludes to either true mastery or a very strong wall of bullshit. "Downhill is a hard game, and you have to be mentally stable," Peat explains. "Once you have figured that out, you can then do the things that are needed to keep you at the top. Strict training schedules, the best bikes, gifted talent followed by hard tuning of that talent, the ability to not take yourself or the environment too seriously until it's needed and keeping good people around you. Those are all key points in having a long and successful career. To sustain that is another beast, almost impossible to answer, but here goes…Enjoy and have fun. That's all I've done and it seems to have worked out quite well."
No surprise revelations there, but the practice has served Peat quite well indeed. Except for those rainbow stripes.
By the time Peat arrivived in Canberra, he hadn't exactly given up his hopes of snagging that elusive gold medal, but he had developed a sort of fatalism. "This year in Canberra was different for me," he relates. "I came in feeling like I would never win Worlds. Other things seemed more relative, and the race wasn't the only reason I was there."
The course at Stromlo Park was a short little mindfuck. Initially criticized for being too flat and not technically demanding enough for the World Championships, it began to show some teeth during the week leading up to the final event. Many riders opted to ride lighter, shorter-travel bikes in an effort to milk speed out of the pedal-heavy bottom section, sacrificing smoothness—and possibly time—on the rocky and increasingly blown-out upper reaches of the course. With times running in the mid-two-minute zone during practice, it became evident that regardless of personal sentiment, this was going to be a tough track to win on, and there wasn't going to be room for any mistakes. That rule—no mistakes—is one to live by in a sport where victory margins are usually measured in single-second increments. In Canberra, it was radically amplified.
And on that course, 16 years after he became a pro downhill racer, Steve Peat delivered a surgically clean run. His entire campaign for the World Championships was defined in the two minutes, thirty seconds and thirty three hundredths of a second that transpired between the start gate and finish line. Squeaking out a razor-close five one-hundredths of a second margin over his friend and teammate, South Africa's Greg Minnaar, Peat found himself atop the podium of the World Championships for the first time, finally having a gold medal strung on a rainbow-hued ribbon draped over his head. He won the race riding his usual downhill bike, without opting for any light bike or tight clothing. And in what turned out to be some of the tightest racing of the last two seasons, with all the elite riders in attendance and healthy, he won the race straight up. There were no crash gifts, no equipment failures, no excuses from the beaten.
At this level of competition, nobody wants to come second. Winning is the goal. Second place is the first loser. Perhaps the greatest accolades Peat can claim from this victory—and probably the truest measure of the huge respect that he has earned by just being himself—come from those he beat. Minnaar, a former World Champion himself, was gracious in defeat. "I knew Steve was going to push it," he said. "The old bugger does deserve it, so I'm not disappointed that I didn't win, although winning would be nice."
Third step on the podium (and still only .69 of a second off the win) belonged to Australian Mick Hannah, enjoying a career renaissance after a year away from the circuit. His post-award comments best summed up the feeling among both racers and fans. "Steve just rode really well, and he deserves it," Hannah said. "He's been robbed so many times. I have to say I had a really good race, and it sounds like Greg had a really good race, and Steve deserved it. It would be unfortunate for Steve to win it in lesser circumstances, but everybody had a good race, and he beat them."
The two preceding quotes came from a video recap of the World Championships. Just before the video fades to black at the end, the viewer is treated to a smiling man holding forth. The smile is one of great satisfaction, as if the man wearing it is struggling to contain it from exploding into a face-splitting grin. He says, "My name is Steve Peat. Some people call me Peaty. But from now on I'd like to be called World Champion."
This content was originally published in Bike’s December 2009 issue.