Manon Carpenter is a name that crops up again and again in the field of Women’s Pro MTB racing. Consistently performing to the highest level, as a Junior she twice won the World Cup series, and was crowned Junior World Champion in 2011. Moving up to the Elite category has seen her continue to smash it, and in 2013 she has been a regular feature on the World Cup podiums.
We caught up with her to find out how she got into mountain biking, who her influences are, and how to encourage more women into the sport.
“I first got into mountain biking through my dad; I’ve kind of always been following him around. My dad’s big into bikes; skate park, BMX, cross-country, downhill. We used to go for family rides and things around our house in Caerphilly, but I was probably more into it than maybe my sister or my mum – or maybe I didn’t get put off it as easily, with the crashes and the mud and the hills and things!
We used to ride to school over the mountains, and we’d go on holiday to the Alps, often with other families, which was really good. I guess I caught the bug with that. You can’t help it, really, when you are out in Morzine for two weeks in the summer time with friends. It’s pretty good!
My dad also used to run a downhill MTB race series in South Wales. I used to go along and help with the organisation– he used to drag me out of the house at like 5 or 6 in the morning when it was dark and freezing cold, and raining, most of the time. I used to sit at the top of the hill and do the timing, and for some reason, I really liked it! I liked the atmosphere, and everyone who was there, and everything was pretty good fun.
Then as I got older, and I got better on a bike – or at least more confident – I started getting bored of timing and wanted to try racing instead so it went from there. I started winning those races so I tried Nationals, and started winning those too.
On to the World Cup series
When I was 15, which was my last year as a youth, we went out to Crankworx, Whistler. I did pretty good so my dad says ‘let’s go do some World Cups!’ I was kinda scared – I didn’t think I could do it. I remember saying ‘if I don’t qualify at the first two, that’s it – I’m not doing any more’.
So we went to the first one in Marabor in 2010, and I qualified 11th overall – out of the elite women as well! I was like ‘woah! That was a surprise!’
The track was the hardest thing ever – so muddy, so slippery, roots everywhere. I crashed in the finals but I think I still ended up 14th. For my first World Cup, it went pretty well!
Then I think I went on to an 8th at Fort William, so I though ‘wow, I can actually do this’, and it went from there. We did the whole year and I ended up with the Junior World Cup overall.
Before the World Championships that year, I saw in Dirt Magazine that they’d asked lots of industry insiders their predictions for the competition. A few different names came up for each category, but for Junior Women’s it was ‘Manon Carpenter’, ‘Manon Carpenter’, ‘Manon Carpenter’.
I was like ‘oh my god! I don’t like this!’ – it was too much pressure. And then I didn’t even make it to the Champs because I broke my arm the weekend before. I was absolutely devastated; I think I cried most of that weekend.
But the first year was good, because the Madison Saracen team saw me at Fort William, and I got picked up by them at the end of the season – it was great to be picked up by a decent sponsor!
2011 was my last shot at Junior World Champs, and I was absolutely terrified. It was mainly just getting through that race weekend – I knew I could do it, but there was a lot of pressure. There’s a photo of me from the finish, and relief is written all over my face.
In 2012, I moved into the Elite Category. It wasn’t very different; I still had to qualify, and I was still riding with all the other girls, but my aspirations had changed – instead of top tens, I wanted top fives.
I started the year with a second place position in South Africa, which was a bit of a shock for me. Although I sort of knew I could do it, until you actually achieve it, you’re still not sure.
Then I broke my collarbone at the second World Cup, which threw a spanner in the works. I was back to full strength at the end of the season, and I got the Bronze Medal at the World Championships.
I’m really happy with how I performed in 2013 – 3rd overall! In 2012 I would have been over the moon with that. Second at Fort William was amazing, with everyone there, it felt really good.
But then you get another second, and another second, and another second, and you get seconds at Nationals all year long – and it’s like ‘now I need to win one!’
In all honesty, when I’ve had people at races interview me and ask how I’ve improved so quickly, I think that in 2012, I could have done the same – I just injured myself. I started that year strong, and I finished strong – I think I could have had similar results.
So after a year of them, second place isn’t quite so good. Overall I was really happy with my performance. Apart from World Championships, which I’m just gonna put a line through and forget!
For me, off-season is October to November time. I really enjoy it, because you have time to do whatever you want – you’re not racing or training, so you’ve got more energy to do fun things! I’ve done a lot of photo-shoots, which are fun, and some filming. Lots of riding bikes, but again just for fun – which is amazing. And a good few nights out, where I can get into a dress and heels!
And as far as my plans for 2014 go…I want to win a World Cup!
As well as getting me into riding, my Dad’s had quite an influence on me – he’s always been quite strong-willed in getting me riding different types of bikes, not just mountain bikes. So he’s had me in the skate park, and at BMX tracks. So he’s definitely made my background as a rider very strong, particularly my bike handling skills.
I never really paid that much attention to the riding scene itself until I started riding world cups. It’s not like I’ve had an MTB hero all my life or anything.
Obviously now I know who everyone is, and respect everyone as they’re racers, but I would say it’s definitely girls who have influenced me the most, mainly ‘cos they’re so stylish; in particular, Tahnee Seagrave and Katy Curd, and Casey Brown!
I remember the first time my team mate met Casey Brown, which was before I did, and he was like ‘I just saw this girl do massive whips and hips in Whistler’, and I was like ‘No way! I didn’t know girls could do that!’
I know in racing, you race to go fast, but I’d never thought about the looking good side of thing. It’s those three who have made me realise that girls can look stylish on a bike.
They’ve made me see that girls can look cool on a bike. Girls can be rad!
More women in MTB = more women racing
Bike Park Wales is, I think, a great way to get more women into MTB. I go up there a lot and I see lots of girls riding. I took my mum up there for the first ride we’ve had in about 2 years, and she absolutely loved it!
Facilities like that are great for getting beginners into the sport, because it can be quite daunting to throw yourself down a mountainside if you’re not used to that. It’s nice to be able to start at the basics and gradually build up.
I think there’re more girls racing events being organised, and there are Facebook pages that girls can get involved with to find out what’s going on. Katy Curd is really good, she does a lot of coaching with girls, and I’m looking to get BMX coaching so I can help girls in the skate park – ‘cos we’re having a skate park built in Cardiff! You rarely see girls in skate parks, and it’s so good when you do see them.
We need to get more girls into mountain biking generally, and then they’ll get into racing. There were loads of girls at junior champs this year which was great to see – the most I’ve seen for a while.