Interview: Emilie Siegenthaler, Downhill MTB racer

If you follow the World Cup Downhill MTB races, Emilie Siegenthaler will be a familiar name. Regularly placing in the top ten, she switched from cross country to downhill racing in 2006. We caught up with Gstaad-Scott rider to find out why she made the switch, how she got into riding, and what it’s like fitting in university and racing.

Emilie Siegenthaler, pro MTB racer with the Gstaad Scott Team. Copyright Scott.

I got into mountain biking because my dad was a cross country racer in the 90’s. I started riding with him, then I started to do cross country races, which I did for almost 10 years. Then I had a bit of a health problem.

I felt like I couldn’t push my body any more with that kind of racing, and I had to change discipline. It was a real bummer for me because I was quite successful in cross country and I wanted to go to the Olympics and do all this stuff. It was not possible anymore, because my body didn’t want that.

But I loved mountain biking so much that I thought I have to find something to do on the bike, and racing also because I love racing. I was like okay, now what? I started to study at Uni, but I wanted to go biking. So I tried my first downhill race and I did really well. I decided to switch and yeah, it worked out pretty well.

I was always the better rider downhill in cross country. I was good technically. I liked steep trails, and mud, and slippery conditions.

The atmosphere is different at Downhill races, compared to cross country races.  I did both and I saw both. At downhill events, everyone is serious, everyone is doing their job properly, but you hang out with your competitors without being competitive.

In the team, I feel we are learning so much from each other. It feels like a big family, and you don’t get that in many other sports, I think. Downhill is very special.

Emilie and team-mate Floriane Pugin. Copyright Phil Hall.

Racing is about pushing limits. I found DH racing mentally really hard to deal with when I first started. Being alone at the gate and just knowing I have to do it NOW. My whole energy, my whole concentration, focused there for the next three minutes. Its something quite special, and when you manage to do that you feel really really proud of yourself.

My dad is a big influence because he taught me everything, but also my mum; she is like the balance. She’s not really into sport. She does a lot for me, just being there and taking care of the other aspects of my life.

I was an only child as I was growing up, but then my parents decided to adopt a little brother. He came when I was eight, and that changed a lot of things for me. I was really protective; I got angry with my parents when they were angry with him. I was like ‘no, you are not allowed to make him cry’.

Emilie and Floriane, riding together. Copyright Phil Hall.

When Florian joined the team she had a big impact on me and my approach to riding. Although she is French, and I would say the French are really competitive, she’s different. She just really enjoys the sport. I think since she joined I’ve learned to be more relaxed, and enjoy every aspect of the chance I have to do this, something I love so much.

I’ve been studying psychology at university, alongside racing. It’s a challenge. I go to uni 3 to 4 days a week, and I try to fit my training in around it. From next winter, I’m going to focus 100% on racing because if I have the chance to be a professional, I want to be at the top.

Riding is also something I do to relax. I still find time after school to hang out with my uni friends, who have nothing to do with biking. I like to watch my brother’s football games on Sundays. I’m also kind of a gamer, so if its bad weather I play games.

I like to party after the race, if I did well, but I’m not really the one who just has to go out. It doesn’t bother me to have to be serious and sensible. I don’t want to be tired. I don’t want to need to recover from my weekend, as this is just impossible.

Siegenthaler in action at the World Cup in Fort William. Copyright Phil Hall.

As a racer I get really stressed, and I want too much for myself. On a run today, I started off enjoying it, but then I made one mistake and I tensed up. Then I made another mistake and another mistake. You have to think, breath, get focussed and have fun on your bike.

If you want to become a downhill racer, I would say you have to have as much fun on the bike as you can. Fun is the most important thing. It sounds clichéd and rubbish, but it’s exactly what it is.

Also, if you choose to do downhill racing, you’re gonna get hurt, your gonna get injuries. So the most important quality is to get going, get your head up, continue and still have this passion, this fire in your eyes for when you’re going downhill.

It’s really nice to do a good run, and be happy with what you did. It’s an important approach, and I really have to fight to do it, because you can start comparing yourself with others. But if I’m getting fifth in a world cup, and I’m two seconds back from the first, it’s not the same as being 20 seconds back.

Success is important, but fun is the basis. Without it, you can’t do anything. They come together.

Headline image copyright Phil Hall.


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