By Steve Thomas
With his bug-man-like body armor and futuristic bikes, it was hard to miss the Swiss racer Philippe Perakis during the early years of downhill mountain bike racing. Not only was Perakis one of the most innovative and flashy riders, he was also among the fastest.
Long before Max Commencal and his Sunn-Chipie team invaded America in the mid-’90s with some of the fastest riders in the world (Nicolas Vouillouz, Anne-Caroline Chausson, Cedric Gracia, Francois Gachet), the Swiss Cilo team were the original Euro pioneers who traveled to America en masse. With their neon bikes and uniforms, they made an immediate impact.
Of all the Cilo riders, it was the amiable Philippe Perakis who stood out most—not only with this equipment, but also because he stole the Americans’ thunder by defeating the locals on their home turf at the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze in 1991.
A SWISS AGENT OF CHANGE
How did you get started with mountain biking?
I think it was ’88–’89 when I did my first mountain bike race, and we were all on rigid bikes. A road-riding friend said I should try off-road, but it was very muddy, and I raced with Look clipless road pedals. It was a nightmare, because I kept on crashing, as I couldn’t get my feet out or back in. I thought after that I would never ride off-road again.
Following that experience, however, my friend persuaded me to go with him on a ride on a sunny day, and it was beautiful! I had great fun, so I gave mountain biking another go. I think I was lucky in timing, because I was at the door to become professional on the road when mountain biking came around, and then I was also riding both cross-country and downhill.
You seem to have had a reputation for innovating products early on.
In 1988, I started to adapt road clipless pedals and made a few prototypes. I went to Look’s headquarters in Nevers, France, and took a black briefcase with my prototype clipless pedals. I had a non-disclosure agreement made, which I covered the pedals with, and didn’t want to show them the pedals before signing.
At that time Shimano didn’t even have a clipless pedal that I know of. It turned into a two-day visit in the end with Look, and after 20 minutes of negotiating, I signed an agreement with them based on trust. I came back with a consulting and royalty contract, and also a sponsorship contract.
Look knew that mountain biking was coming, but it took almost two years of development, and in the end, Shimano came out with a better product six months before us, which is why the pedal didn’t survive.
You started racing mountain bikes on the Swiss Cilo team, and, despite being a road rider, you excelled in downhill.
The Cilo team was one of the first professional teams in Europe. In the cross-country, I wasn’t so bad. I never won a World Cup, but I had some top-10 finishes. Mountain biking was like a video game to me, which is what attracted me to the sport. Of course, you have to train to do well, but when you’re riding, you play with the risk and go as fast as possible, which is what led me to racing downhill.
For a while, I was racing both mountain and road bikes, and was even the Swiss mountain bike champion, but I had to make a choice between the two disciplines. The feel of playing on the mountain bike was a part of that choice, and mountain biking was also a completely new sport and was very clean as far as I knew.
How did the decision to fully commit to downhill come about?
Since I was working with Look when the Look-Peugeot team opportunity came around, I logically became a rider with them. I was good at cross-country because of my road background, but the downhill was where I was best. When they started the downhill World Cup, I decided to focus on that, as for me it was the most fun.
You were one of the first riders to use suspension and rode some pretty crazy bikes with the ATZ forks.
From the early days, I was thinking “Wow, we need suspension.” Why did motocross have it and not us? It was before the World Championship in Durango (1990). Only a few riders, like Greg Herbold, had RockShox suspension forks, and I had the ATZ prototype.
About eight months before that, I knew I needed something. I’d heard about a guy, Francis Glatz, who was making suspension for a solar car for Swatch. He was a bit like Doc Brown from Back to the Future and was living in the Jura Mountains. He had a workshop with all kinds of prototypes. I worked with him to test and develop the suspension.
You finished a split second behind Greg Herbold in qualifying at Durango and were tipped for the win, but it all went wrong.
In qualification at Durango, there was about 2/10ths of a second between Greg and me. The next guy was around 30 seconds behind.
I made a big mistake. On the day before the race (after qualification) I decided to do one last practice run. On a very fast section, two guys were ahead of me, and as I passed one of them, I hit a rock and crashed, which resulted in a broken wrist. The day after I was on a flight and headed home for surgery.
Soon after that crash, we saw the emergence of your iconic “bug man” suit of body armor.
After the crash in Durango, I got to thinking, we were going downhill in basically just a T-shirt and shorts. It was like falling through the rocks in a swimsuit! I wanted to be able to crash and be okay for the next race. I decided to look to the sport closest to us, which was motorcycling.
Of course, there was no internet then, so you had to go to a shop and look for options. I went to the motorcycle show in Milan to investigate, and I saw the Dainese safety jacket. I knew immediately that was what I needed. I had a meeting with Lino Dainese (the owner of the company), and he was interested in the idea, so I came back with lots of product and a small sponsorship contract, which was a start.
You won the 1991 Mammoth Kamikaze, and this also spurred on some classic Perakis innovation. Can you tell us about that?
I won Mammoth in ’91, and I think the first Reebok Eliminator I did was the following year. I started to think about how to improve and to be faster. I had a friend who was one of the best speed skiers in the world, and I asked him about the suit he used and when it started to make a difference.
He said from 60-70 kph that the benefits started to kick in, and I knew I would be going 80-100 kph in Mammoth. He said I would gain a lot using one. I remember that first race; it was so easy. I was really gaining a lot. I stayed behind other riders and relaxed while they were pushing hard. For me, it was so easy to pass them in the last kilometer.
You turned down a good contract extension with Look-Peugeot and decided to become an independent. Why?
I was in the top three to five (at World Cups) for about three years, but I didn’t have an astonishing career. I didn’t go winning World Cups every week. Sure, I won Mammoth, which was a bit like the unofficial World Championships back then.
After that, I became the European champion in the combined cross-country and downhill. I don’t know why I didn’t win more. Maybe it was because ever since I started mountain biking, my energy was always put more towards developing products. Also, starting to work with Dainese, a lot of energy went into that.
I also started the first downhill biker’s association and managed that, plus I also managed my own career and sponsorships after leaving Look-Peugeot. I was always an entrepreneur, and developing or doing one thing was never enough, which is why I managed my own career, too—in the way Tomac and Herbold were doing. It’s a job, a big job.
How did you initially fund your own racing effort?
When I decided to quit Look-Peugeot, I had already arranged half of my budget for the next year (with Dainese and other sponsors), but I needed $100,000 more. I spoke to Dainese, and they couldn’t increase their part, and so Lino Dainese called Renzo Ross, the owner of Diesel.
He arranged a meeting, and I drove all the way to their office to meet the marketing director. When the guy appeared, he wore jeans with holes, hair everywhere, as if he’d just woken up. We went to the bar that they had on site. After 10 minutes, he agreed and sent me the contract. It taught me a big life lesson—not to judge someone by their appearance. From all that, I brought Diesel to the UCI, and they became sponsors of the World Cup Series.
You were something of a master when it came to marketing yourself—something few can manage alone.
I always made myself available for media, like for TV coverage. Sometimes it would take all day with an on-board cam-era on, but then they would always show your race run, too, and show your brand.
Even if I finished 12-13th, they would feature me because of this. And by having a nice chat with them, they would always ask me, and I was always available. I found a way, and my sponsors were happy. Many times I got more TV coverage than the winners. I understood that when a sponsor gave you money, it wasn’t really winning the race they were interested in; it was how many minutes of TV they got, how many newspaper columns, how many magazine covers and pictures, which were the important media back then.
Even some racers who were winning didn’t get a lot of coverage. Maybe they weren’t so popular or doing something different. There were a couple of us who built a character, like a product or service, something the media liked to talk about. Like with any product, if it’s not a little bit different, nobody will buy it.
Downhillers famously trained very little back then, but coming from a road background, did you approach things differently?
My career was maybe not what it could have been. I’d trained so hard for road racing and cross-country, and as soon as I focused on downhill, I decided not to train anymore and just did the odd ride with friends and racetrack prep.
I was so busy with everything else that I didn’t push myself. It’s also part of why I couldn’t be at the level I would like. I could never be like Nicolas Vouilloz, who was at another level. Instead, I was working more on my own innovation and marketing.
What made you retire from racing?
Dainese sponsored me, and I also got contracts with them to open up other sporting markets. After three years, they asked if I wanted to keep racing or work more with them. I was getting older, and a downhill career is short, so I opened a company and started working full-time with them and also some with Swatch, with Diesel.
After another couple of years, they called and asked me if I would be interested in applying for their communications director position. I worked with the Moto GP guys and other sports, too, and was in charge of a large part of the communication budget. And from then on, my mountain bike days were behind me.