In 2007, when she was just 16, Jess Stone turned her back on a promising football career to focus on downhill mountain biking. She soon became a regular on the World Cup circuit and won fans over with her enthusiasm and gutsy riding style. Mountain bike legend Tracy Moseley traces Jess’s early beginnings in mountain biking and reveals why she has so much respect for the rising star.
Having someone in your family pushing you along and supporting you can make a huge difference in a young person’s sporting career. Over the last 20 years Helen Mortimer, Kerry Bason, Fionn Griffiths, Rachel Atherton, Annie Last and I have all had very successful careers in mountain biking. The one thing we all have in common is a brother who encouraged us to get into the sport. Often you just need that one person or a certain experience to start you on the path.
For Jess Stone it was her PE teacher at Church Stretton School, who also happened to be former downhill racer Kerry Bason.
Kerry remembers Jess as a quiet girl who was always polite and determined. “She hadn't had the most supportive upbringing and could easily have got involved in the wrong crowd," says Kerry. “But she chose to take every opportunity that came her way."
Jess was already a sporty girl and played football for the school. She was an outstanding goalkeeper, Kerry recalls. Jess took GSCE PE at school and in that class Kerry used to talk to the pupils about her career in downhill. That was when Jess showed an interest in mountain biking.
When I ask Jess how she got into the sport she says it was thanks to Kerry and the stories Kerry would tell about her career. “It sounded like something I thought I would quite enjoy doing. I still didn’t really know much about it, so I did some ‘research’ - I bought MBUK and read that in class! I also found out that a few of the lads raced downhill at my school and Pearce Cycles organised races on the doorstep. I had no idea any of this was going on."
Kerry encouraged her to keep her options open. At the same time as she started mountain biking Jess was also offered a chance to play for the England U19 football squad. Kerry told Jess to go with whichever gave her the most enjoyment as she would be awesome at whichever she opted for. When I ask Jess why she decided to go for mountain biking over football her answer is simple: “I totally loved it. There was no other reason for me being attracted to the sport other than the fact I just enjoyed myself so much."
“Jess doesn't have ‘dreams’ she only has goals, as she really does achieve everything that she sets out to do," says Kerry. “She worked so hard in everything she did, she was an outstanding pupil and a pleasure to teach. I have come across pupils who have shown potential but I am yet to meet another Jess."
This dedication was pretty evident from the start as Jess talks about her first bike. “I had managed to persuade my mum and her partner to buy me a Halford X-Rated hardtail for Christmas in 2006," remembers Jess. “It cost £100 but it did the job. I bought a pair of £5 cheapo ski goggles from TK Maxx and my brother had a cheap full face I nicked off him. I really wanted to get involved in this biking lark.
“After school I would come home and go push my hardtail up Cardingmill Valley on my own, up to the top of Longmynd and come down Batch Valley into All Stretton. I didn’t really know of any other places to ride, so I would do the same loop all the time. I never got bored and I would go once a week up Longmynd and ride down the valley as fast as I could. It took me an hour or so to walk up to the top of the hill and about 10 minutes to come down!
“I remember coming home one day from school and it was raining so hard the sky was black, but there was something inside me, compelling me to go out and ride my bike in the rain. So I kitted up and went out and went up the hill."
Jess then spent the next eight months working overtime at a pub to save up for a proper downhill bike. With help from her sisters she bought a Club Roost for £550 on her birthday in 2007.
Jess remembers this bike well. “I got a train the next day to Bringewood, rode an hour to the track and pushed all the way to the top," says Jess. “That first ride down a proper downhill track felt like the most natural thing. I launched myself at the triple just before the fire road, though every time my feet blew off because I was riding in football shoes!"
Only a month later she entered her first race, an urban downhill race at Penarth. She was terrified. A few days before the race she saw top British downhiller Helen Gaskell was on the start list. “I plucked up the courage to email her and she gave me some great advice and said I should come say hi to her at the race," recalls Jess. “I shyly went and said hello before the race and after the race she told me I should go to her coaching weekend. Which she did. And this was the real start of it all."
Helen Gaskell remembers Jess at her coaching weekend as being so excited with a bike that weighed more than her van. “She was so enthusiastic, super excited to ride her bike and you could see she was so determined to get better at riding a bike and in her head she had a secret goal," says Helen.
During the weekend Jess won the prize for ‘most enthusiastic female of the day.’ The prize was an old Halfords team jersey of Gaskell’s. “I think from the day she got it she maybe didn’t take it off for a whole year," laughs Helen. From then on Jess was known as ‘Mini Gas’ as the tall figure with blonde hair people just thought it was Gaskell on the trail.
This is also about the time I first became aware of Jess. I had heard Gaskell speak of her and then at the World Cup in Fort William in 2008 a very shy Jess came to my pits and said hello. I think that was the last time I ever saw Jess shy, quiet and lost for words in my company.
She never expected to be racing at a World Cup just a year later. “It was amazing watching the World Cup," says Jess. “There was so many people and the track looked hellish gnarly to me. There was no way I thought I’d be ready to race a track like that the following year. I remember being terrified the first run down that track."
Soon after this I started to see more and more of Jess at races and soon found myself picking her up from random train stations close to the races. Jess has had absolutely no support from her family with her mountain biking and I began to really like her attitude and determination. She would catch a train to the nearest station to a race, then ride her downhill bike with her tent and kit on her back to the race site. Pretty amazing dedication for a teenager.
Jess started university in Worcester in 2009 and was then only 20 minutes from me so I began to spend a lot more time riding and hanging out with her. She really is a driven young woman and I have loved being able to help her over the last three years and watch her progression in the sport.
Jess Stone facts
Nickname: The Rolling Stone
Date of birth: 14/09/1990
Other sports, activities and hobbies: Boxing, pool, snowboarding, singing, writing songs, playing on my piano, football, pantomines, running. [When does the girl sleep? - Ed]
Favourite tracks: Hopton, Val Di Sole, Mynddr Du
Favorite foods: Roast Beef Dinner, Dark Fruits Crumble
Favourite drink: Water (or if i'm out, dry martini and lemonade)
Ultimate goals: To get as far as I can in the sport and it would be wicked to see what happens.
Favourite riders: Sam Hill, Greg Minnar, Tracy Moseley