Fast, Focused & French
With three Junior and seven Elite downhill world titles to his name (eight of them in a row), plus five Grundig World Cup titles, Nicolas Vouilloz was very much the dominant figure in male downhill racing during the mid-’90s and into the early part of the new millennium.
Much like his French compatriot (and 13-time DH world champion) Anne-Caroline Chausson, and unlike many of his more boisterous and flamboyant rivals, the young French racer possessed a more serious and unassuming style. He was definitely not one for partying or styling it to please the crowd.
However, at just 26 years of age, the French sensation retired from racing while still wearing the rainbow stripes and took on a successful career as a rally-car driver.
That’s not to say that he ever stopped riding. As with most of us, the trails run through his very soul. After a while, he returned to semi-serious racing with his new employer Lapierre Bikes, where he’s heavily involved in technical development and in the running of the enduro team.
WHAT ABOUT NICO?
Steve Thomas: You were really quite dominant as a racer. What do you think made you so special?
Nicolas Vouilloz: I’m not saying I had the full package, but I was quite focused and motivated in what I was doing and always at 100 percent. Maybe, compared to most of the other guys, many were doing things more for fun and because it was cool. I think my approach was different for sure.
I think I learned to ride the trails, find my way, read the terrain, to anticipate, to be reactive, and I think I was also quite light on the bike, a smooth rider. Back in the day, this was quite helpful, as there was not a lot of suspension travel in the bike.
My dad was quite good to have around, and also I met my girlfriend quite young, so I was quite stable. I had a good trainer in Stefan Gerard and a good team from the beginning with GT.
ST: How did the GT deal come about?
NV: I started with a Specialized Rockhopper, because my local shop was in Nice, and that was what they sold. Then, in 1992, I switched to GT to have dual suspension, and, in ’93, GT started to help through the French distributor. I had a great season and was able to integrate into the factory team in ‘94, with Mike King and Juli Furtado. Being only 18, it was cool that they bet on me.
ST: GT was really innovative with suspension at that time. How important was that to you, and did you have input on the development of their bikes?
NV: I’ve always been interested in the technical side of bikes and components, and with RTS & LTS, for sure GT was the leader in innovation. It was an American brand and one of, if not the, biggest brands at the time in BMX and mountain biking.
I was quite young and inexperienced, and it was more about testing what they were giving to the team and me and then giving feedback. For sure, they were working on this, and it was easy to get prototypes and custom frames—like for Cap d’Ail (with all of the switchbacks), I had a smaller frame and much slacker geometry.
It was pretty good to work with them, as they were very reactive, which is not easy to be. Sometimes the bigger the brands are, the more difficult it is to do this.
ST: You moved on to the Sunn team of Max Commencal, which dominated the race scene for a few years. How different was that?
NV: It was another step with Sunn. They were working even harder with some of their stuff. They were trying to do a specific downhill bike, and the inspiration for the bike was motocross.
They worked even harder on suspension, producing custom parts. Max really put a lot of money into the team; with cross-country and downhill, the team was huge.
The downhill bike was a bit more of a full package, especially with the suspension and the active shock. They started to work with that really early on, and I was looking at that when I was riding a GT and seeing how all of the downhill bikes were developing and performing. It was also easier for me to communicate in the way that I wanted, so I switched to Sunn. For sure, it was more European, and for a French rider, it was easier.
ST: When the Michelin tubeless tire and rim system came in, how important was that for you?
NV: It came really quite early on, from what I can remember. With Michelin, we had a “system,” and I always used that. It was a kind of tubular inside and inflated to put the tire in place, and that would help stop punctures.
I was not the only one with this system, but maybe I was the only one to have it in practice, because it was not easy to put on the rim without losing air. This was good; and during qualifying, it meant that if you got a puncture you were able to finish and not lose too much time.
ST: Which of the recent American riders really stands out to you?
NV: Aaron Gwin was what America was waiting for—a rider who was really fast and came from motocross. He quite quickly got huge success. From my point of view, it’s quite frustrating to see him trying to get back to his level. It’s not easy. For many years, he was at the top, almost unbeatable.
ST: During your era, there were a number of great American downhillers you competed against.
NV: John Tomac really impressed me in 1997 when he was second at the World Championships. He was really quick, but I never really considered him a pure downhiller. He was a great rider for sure, who was really complete as a rider.
But for me, he was not as technical as a pure downhill rider. He was really good when it was not too technical, and that’s why he impressed me in ’97 (as the track was really technical, with a bit of a flat section at the top and some switchbacks). But, apart from this race, normally he was really good overall in the World Cup, and I remember he won in Hawaii. He was at the end of his career, and so you knew that he wouldn’t keep increasing his level every year.
Shaun Palmer was a different story. He was impressive because he came from another discipline. I now know (after going from a mountain bike to a rally car) that it’s not easy to do. For me, snowboarding and mountain biking are really different. Sure, there are many things in common, but they are very different.
Palmer was a showman, and dedicated to that, and I’m quite shy. I would love to be like that, but when you are not, you are not.
I don’t think I really realized what he was doing at the time. I just took him as another competitor, not really realizing what he’d done in another sport and the level he had there.
He was a dangerous man, but not in every race or in every condition; he wasn’t able to win every race.
The biggest rival I had was not an American; it was Steve Peat. He was improving year after year and was consistent in every race.
ST: You were almost unbeatable in a World Championship race, while other big names could never seem to win.
NV: We can see with Loic Bruni in his approach; he seems unbeatable, too, and if you’ve been world champion, you also know how it feels. You get extra motivation from that and knowing that you can wear the jersey all year long. With this, you can be stronger in your head and do not put on extra negative pressure, only positive pressure.
I wanted to win this race more than a World Cup, and the positive things were just there. Of course, you have to be strong in your head. It’s just 3–4 minutes of racing, and you have to wait another year if you miss out.
It’s a really mental race; you cannot spiral down. To win, you need to be positive. If you can manage that, then you’re almost on another level compared to your competitors who are struggling to win.
ST: You were always a quiet and conservative rider, while your competitors were often party animals and showmen. How much did this impact you, and how did you fit into that scene?
NV: For sure, there are some positive and negative things.
Definitely, it helped with the racing, but not in being a “rock star,” or rather to be more liked by the people watching the race. It’s always better to encourage someone with a cool image rather than someone who is working hard, quiet, timid and reserved and doesn’t speak much (like me).
After the years, I have some regrets for that, but I always tried to stay myself and to be me. I didn’t do any of it (racing) for money or other reasons, and for sure if I’d been more like that (more of a typical downhiller), other people would have helped me in that way.
ST: Why did you stop racing so young?
NV: There were a few things. I started to have difficulty to be motivated for a race, something that had been natural before. I’d never had to think about it before—it just came. I don’t know why, but it stopped to come. This was the first thing.
Also, the atmosphere was a bit difficult to handle. When you are on the podium and there is more noise for the second or third place rider than the first, it is also not easy.
And, I was feeling a bit tired. I was focused 100 percent at every race, and it was hard. I thought a break would help, maybe not even one year, and then return to racing. But, I also have a passion with rally car.
Maybe two years before this, I started to think about rally car racing and thought it could be cool. I also thought it would be cool to stop at the top level, not when you are slowing down.
ST: Enduro didn’t exist when you were racing. What’s your take on it?
NV: If enduro had been around in my time, then for sure I would have continued with that. I rode enduro, and I was not the best; but, I was able to fight for some victory at times.
Physically, it’s not easy, and maybe my engine is not big enough for enduro. With the skills and speed I’ve had since being a kid, I’m able to compensate and be faster at times. It’s like the riding I do every day—climb up trails and ride down full gas.
ST: What is your role with Lapierre?
NV: I started in 2003 with my brand V-Process, because Lapierre didn’t have a downhill or enduro bike. V-Process became their bikes, but I’ve always been behind this.
I can’t remember for how long, but I’ve been fully employed by them since 2008/’10, working in R&D with the engineers. I’m in charge of working with the geometry and kinematics of the bike, and also in testing and promoting it. I worked closely with designers on all of the latest bikes.
I also look after the enduro team, working between them on development and also on the arrangements with sponsors.
ST: Technical developments in downhill bikes and race courses have really moved on. What developments really excite you?
NV: I started racing in 1991, almost at the beginning of things, so I’ve seen quite an evolution. There was almost no suspension, and then we went from only cross-country tires to a motorbike-like tire and bike design at Sunn, and then to the V-Process bike.
In the beginning, the wheel sizes and geometry were quite conservative, but eventually they got longer and almost more like a motorbike as the courses became straighter and had fewer corners.
The riders also changed and are a lot stronger now. The tracks were more, not enduro, but more enduro style. Now it’s more motocross style, and the rider’s training has gone this way, too. It’s good and quite logical to see this evolution. It was starting already when I was racing. We were fighting not to have too short of tracks just to make it easier to film.
ST: How did you train before?
NV: I had Stefan Gerard, who was a really good trainer, and he is still Greg Minnaar’s trainer. His strength was to be able to make me ready and be at my peak for the World Championship. It’s key to be able to be in the right shape at the right moment. It was more traditional in approach, with road riding, BMX and lots of work in the gym. But, it was more traditional stuff, not like now when there’s a lot of focus on balance and things. I was also riding motocross in the winter to be stronger in the upper body.
ST: How did you prepare mentally for a race?
NV: I was quite focused. I was always in my bubble and thinking about the track and what I could improve on—where I braked too much, where I could carry more speed and be more fluid. I was always a bit tired at the end of this, as I always focused 100 percent.
My dad was helping me when he saw I had a bit more stress. I would talk with him, and I don’t know why, but sometimes I would feel not so confident. He would always have the good words. He was able to look around more and not be so exacting as I was.
I started to think a bit more about this when I stopped racing; maybe it was maturity. Sometimes, when you are younger, you realize fewer things. From what I see now, I was maybe a bit too focused. Even when I finished, I was already really focused on the next race.
I never tried to do any more than I needed to win. I’m not a showman. I was always trying to put more of a gap between the opposition and me. When I saw that I had enough of a gap to win, I would know that I could ride easier and be safe. I’m not saying that I wasn’t always riding at 100 percent, but at the World Championship I gave it more and tried to put it together and do the best run I could.
ST: If you were thrown into a World Cup Downhill now, how do you think you would do?
NV: With how I am now and how I train, I’m not sure if I would enjoy it. You have to evaluate your sport; now the kids start earlier. They do more gym and training to suit the terrain. I don’t know; my weight and physique are not made to go fast in modern races, but you do see light riders who can go fast, and you see Greg (Minnaar) is still able to go fast. I hope, but I don’t know. I think it would be more or less the same—with the right bikes (for me).
When I go to ride with others like Loic, I can ride with them on trails; it’s not a problem. It’s just a different approach, and you need to prepare differently. The level is way higher now, and it’s very close between the riders, so the domination is impossible (as I had before). It’s just not the same, but I hope that I would still be able to be at the top and stay with these guys.
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