Interview: Manon Carpenter – Eyes on the prize

Manon Carpenter’s strong riding and crazy good style have stolen looks since she started toying with elite downhill in 2010. Now it’s got her full attention. Y’all better watch out.

“The first time I did a backflip I’d say I was scared, yeah,” says Manon Carpenter.

“But that’s addictive and I love that feeling of when you’re frightened about doing something but you do it and it’s ok so you just want to do it again and again,” she giggles.

You know you’re in the company of a future world champ (or a psychopath) when they talk about being petrified with a smile.

Manon Carpenter exploded onto the elite downhill scene in 2010 at the age of 18. I remember watching her ride that year in Champery. It was pouring, the track was slick mud and so steep every step up sent you skidding back down on your face. Most people, including spectators, were finding conditions challenging.

Then out of the forest came Manon, going so fast you didn’t even have time to double take. She laughs when I tell her this.

“2010 was so weird because it was my first year doing World Cups. My dad and I had just looked at each other one day and gone: “Shall we do some World Cups?” and that’s how it happened.

“Racing them is quite humbling for me. I’m aware I’m the youngest but I’m still not the best.”

Manon has honed her skills with BMX and moto-cross riding. Photo: Jacob Gibbins

But she almost is. She finished that first season 11th in the elite series, following up with a Junior World Championship and World Cup title in 2011.

Despite breaking her collarbone in 2012 she still picked up bronze at the World Championships in Leogang, Austria and is sixth in the overall rankings. Not bad for your first full elite season.

To put it another way: she’s not really the one to watch anymore. She’s the one to beat.

“Last season was a bit of a mess really because I broke my collarbone and that put a spanner in the works and I lost fitness,” she says.

“I had started off really strong, feeling really good but after I broke my collarbone I lost confidence in my strength, it brought me back down to earth and I had to build myself up again. So getting third in Leogang was great.

“My goal is always to win. I’m not going to have a massive strop if I don’t but it’s good to see what you can do. I want to ride like I know I can because riding to my full capabilities makes me happy.”

Manon’s introduction to bikes came through her dad Jason, himself a keen downhiller.

“I never set out to focus on downhill,” says Manon. “I’ve always ridden bikes and I used to go to my Dad’s races to watch and help out. I tried a few races myself and I was quite good and things kind of snowballed from there.

“Dad’s always encouraged me and offered his support. My sister isn’t sporty at all and it’s just the two of us so I was the closest thing to a son!”

Braaaap! Photo: Jacob Gibbins

After finishing her A levels in 2011, Manon took a gap year to ride bikes. She’s postponed higher education again to see where her riding takes her.

“It was only in 2011 that I realized I could do this full time. I don’t want to stop yet; I want to get to the top.

“Obviously it’s a risk because there’s not really any money in the sport and the top five women don’t earn that much. I could go to uni and get a good job but at the moment I’ve got the dream job so I can’t complain.”

Making the decision to do downhill full time has seen Manon, via Madison Saracen’s team trainer, start taking her training very seriously putting in time on the turbo, the road bike and in the gym.

“It’s not the most fun but it works,” she says with a shrug.

“Riding any bike is all good training. I love moto-cross, BMX and dirt jumps. I don’t get to ride them much as I don’t have a load of time but it’s all bike handling skills.

“People ask which is the best bike to learn downhill skills on but to be honest it’s more about which bike you want to ride at that time. It should be fun.”

Hearing a woman say that makes you want to forget all your fears, head down the skate park and start learning to manual without throwing your back out.

“Actually I went down to Bristol skatepark the other say to ride BMX with a bunch of girls and it was the first time I’d ridden only with girls in ages,” says Manon.

“It was great! Being a girl in downhill isn’t really an issue because people are really friendly and just treat you like a rider. But people do notice and it’s a shame there’s not more girls to ride with.”

Why? I ask. “Erm. The gossip?” she replies with a laugh.

“But seriously I ride with boys all the time and I never get the chance to be a girl. Which is fine you know, but occasionally I like to wear a dress.”

Rocks? What rocks? Photo: Jacob Gibbins
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