The fastest American cyclist of his generation isn’t racing a road bike. Look instead at mountain biking. And not at the skinny kids in Lycra. Look for full face helmets, and Trek World Racing’s Aaron Gwin, who is presently leading the World Cup circuit in UCI points, and crushing the field from the rest of the planet.
Gwin’s rise comes after an entire generation of Americans never even made the top five at any World Cup in nearly a decade; Shaun Palmer was the last American to actually win a DH World Cup and that was in 1999. Now, after winning in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in April, and again yesterday in Leogang, Austria (with a win in between at the U.S. Open in Vernon, N.J.), Gwin will lead the world on points, and based on how fast he’s going, will clearly be the favorite.
If you haven’t heard of Gwin, it’s understandable.
Back when guys like Palmer and John Tomac were racing, downhill was on NBC and the party was bigger. Go to a DH World Cup today and it’s a relatively cozy affair. Whistler’s Crankworx is 50,000 drunk, screaming kids; but they come to see the huck fest, not the downhill. Most stops on the downhill circuit are, by comparison, more low key, with maybe one fifth that many spectators.
Still, bikemakers back DH because it pushes technology harder than any other aspect of mountain biking. Jumping and tricks are incredible, but downhill requires air, speed, precision and endurance — not just of the athletes, but of the bikes as well.
As for Gwin, he’s blowing up at the age of 24 after spending a few seasons with the Yeti / Fox Factory Squad. Chris Conroy, head of Yeti, will tell you that he was sad as well as happy to see Gwin go to the bigger, richer Trek squad, noting that if any sport has a shorter shelf life for its athletes than the NFL, it’s downhill racing. “I want these kids to make as much money as they can. They’re not going to be doing this for the rest of their lives.”
An interesting counterpoint is made by Gwin’s new boss at Trek, team manager and owner of Trek World Racing, Martin Whitely, who doesn’t see this as Gwin cashing in. “We believe Aaron is still very much in the development phase, and this is important as I’m not so keen on buying champions; we prefer to be the mechanism that gets them to where they want to be, and we know Aaron has a lot to give in the coming decade.”
Regardless of your perspective on Gwin’s rise, both Whitely and Conroy say that DH is again on the upswing in the U.S., with more juniors filling fields than at any time in the past 20 years. A secondary proof exists on the Trek squad in the form of 18-year-old phenom, American Neko Mulally, who was injured for nearly all last season but came back to win a silver medal at Worlds and is considered one of the most talented prospects on the planet.
But he’s still off the back of Gwin. By a lot.
If you want to see just how fast Gwin is going versus his competition it’s worth heading here and rewinding the video of announcer Rob Warner’s manic call of the men’s final to about 15 minutes from the end to see the last five riders.
Photo: Trek World Racing