It’s tough for the privateers, racers and squids alike. This project came together at Windrock during the opening round of the 2019 national series. The athletes who gave me their time and honest insight are both friends of mine and people you should know more about. Here are all the rad folks I wanted to highlight and give a chance to share a part of their own story. I have left the copy as if it were to be run in installments:
Work hard, play harder – that’s the life of the privateer mountain bike racer. The degree of what constitutes being a privateer varies, from the desk-jockey-speed-demon, to the co-factory student. There is a diverse range of situations, but at the end of the day, none of these athletes are winning their bread with their skills…yet. The work/life balance for the average human is a struggle. Now, imagine piling on training in the gym, riding a bike, planning trips, writing sponsorship proposals, and all sorts of other nuanced minutia on top of grinding away a 9-5 job, a part-time side hustle, or even putting it all on a credit card while studying at school. That is brutal commitment and drive, putting the millennial “adulting” to shame and proving that grit counts when the odds are stacked.
During the first national round, the Windrock Pro GRT, we hung out with many of these intrepid riders who are on the cusp of the big show – the “privateer pros.” These feisty competitors are working and/or studying while try to break into racing at the elite and UCI-sanctioned level. Many have some level of support, whether it’s familial, a shop/distributor/co-factory/grassroots hookup, or some other form of benevolent benefactor. The costs of trying to leap into the top tier of the sport are intensely prohibitive, meaning that going it alone is nearly impossible.
How do they go from being successful self-supported local pros who climbed to world-class caliber competitors? What do they believe it will take to make that jump? Does it come down to factory equipment and mechanics? Is it the taboo conversation around financial support? Is it about training hard and aligning yourself with a good mentor/coach? There are countless factors in the equation, and it’s certainly different from rider to rider.
The Windrock Pro GRT was the perfect place to find these answers because Neko Mulally, Sean Leader, and the supporting crew aim to produce a downhill race that is of World Cup-caliber, but on a regional/semi-local scale. Instead of going to New Zealand in March, go to Tennessee. Their intent is to give North American riders a chance to stack themselves against the factory elite from the US, Canada and across the pond, as it’s getting harder and harder to make it into the highest tier of the sport with the new points restrictions and the general cost of travel. Since Windrock is a Cat 1 UCI event, it runs almost identically to how a World Cup is run, so riders learn the pace of competition and procedure throughout the week. It’s a unique event and a special one for what it represents in its efforts to grow the DH scene domestically.
The Privateer Pros are the underdogs and lifeblood of downhill, so we’ll get to know them, show them some support, and celebrate what is possible with determination, perseverance and savvy.
Our first Privateer Perspective comes from Rachel Pageau. The downhill shredder from eastern Canada took the Pro Women’s win at the Windrock Pro GRT. She earned that muddy victory while on spring break during a 17-credit semester studying kinesiology and science of sport at university in Quebec. While that incredible load of school and racing may seem like a lot, she says, “if I don’t ride, I’m going to regret it when I’m back in school.” That desire to maximize every moment on the bike is a key to her success, proving that often, the most difficult situations breed the most successful individuals. “I’m used to the struggle,” she says. Speaking of struggle, she raced the enduro at Windrock at pulled 2nd place behind Miranda Miller, all this after racing DH a day before.
Our next rider for the Privateer Perspectives series hails from Vermont and has been on the scene longer than most: Dylan Conte started out as the ultimate Grom, shredding DJ lines and hucking himself through the Green Mountain State. Like most, he discovered big bikes and was soon rocketing through the Junior ranks and then into the Elites. He’s had some highs and lows, but through it all, he continues to wear his signature smile and unending enthusiasm for going fast and sending it. No longer a Grom, Dylan is the captain of his land yacht van that he lives out of for a large percentage of the year, traveling from event to event while pulling in remote freelance work to keep gas in the tank and the dream alive. Listen in as we talk with Deez about how he approaches racing, riding, and navigating the scene.
The Canadians: Ben Wallace, Kirk McDowall, Forrest Riesco
Insta: @ben_wallace7, @kirkmcdowall, @forrestriesco
For this installment of the Privateer Perspectives series, we are going across the northern border to Canada, or rather, Canada came south for this one: Ben Wallace, Kirk McDowall, and Forrest Riesco are out to keep Canadian DH on the rise. Kirk has made the leap to a factory pro, but he was the original “almost there” guy, having won the National Championship several times before being brought up the ladder. His story is one of perseverance and self-belief. Ben Wallace is part of the new wave of young up-and-comers, while Forrest is somewhere in between the two. These guys are some of the hardest working riders around, and they have put everything they have into their pursuits. Everyone reveres Canada for it’s amazing terrain, and these guys are showcasing it with their speed honed from those hills.
Frida Helena Rønning
If you don’t already know who Frida Rønning is, well you will now. She has been crushing it on the US scene for several years now, putting down huge winning margins and riding with seriously aggressive style. Norway isn’t exactly “on the map” for riding, but it’s home to some amazing terrain, notably the Hafjell bike park, a once-WC track, and reportedly, some really expensive beer. Frida has been here in the US going to school, and has been able to continue her stay after graduating with an under-grad degree, as she’s currently pursuing her Masters Degree… conveniently, she is curating her thesis in Knoxville, just down the way from Windrock Bike Park. Hard work, tenacity, and just straight up speed are highlights of Frida’s story. She knows that this journey isn’t going to be easy, at any point in time, but knows that you get out what you put in.
He almost doesn’t need an introduction, as he’s close to a house hold name these days: Max Morgan is on the cusp, he’s right there with the speed, training, and riding abilities. He is still a privateer, but he doesn’t see that as a negative. He’s been grinding his way to the top since his days racing Collegiate DH for UVM, and how far he’s come. After finding success climbing through the series, from ESC to PRGT, he’s set his sights on the World Cup series. Knowing it is going to take a lot of dedication and focus, he does everything he can to set himself up for success. We had a really long and interesting conversation about the nuances of it all, with Max providing some really interesting insight and food-for-thought on the state of racing and what it takes to be in among the most elite group of riders in the world.
The Defiant Dudes: Isaac Allaire and Steve Estebrook
Insta: @isaacallaire , @steve_estabrook
The quiet riot that is Issac Allaire and Steve Estebrook paints a really interesting picture. Both reserved and quiet, these guys have been out at the ESCs for the past few years putting in the work. Isaac has been absolutely crushing it in the past few years, winning both the Enduro and DH on double-up weekends more than once. His methodical and calculated approach has the appearance of a seasoned pro, especially his training – he isn’t messing about, and it shows. Steve is newer to the scene, finding his way over from Motocross, but like all converts, took to things very quickly. He ticked off his first win last year and then got picked up by the local Intense co-factory team, Defiant Racing. With support and being under the same tent with friends and training buddy, Isaac, Steve is certainly positioned to keep getting faster and set his aims higher and higher. These two understated Vermonters are the future of racing in the North East.
It’s hard to come by someone more “Privateer” than Tanner Stephens. He’s won a Pro GRT (Port Angeles) and has been on the scene for ages. But, more often than not, he’s racing a blacked-out bike in matching kit, looking more like a shadow than a bright, for-sale-social-media-rider. He’s got strong opinions, knows what he’s about, and isn’t messing around. It’s been a rough road the past few years for Tanner, but he’s still putting in the work and wants to stay the course to a degree. The life of someone just trying to keep the dream alive isn’t all glitz and glam, and he’s not selling that image. With speed and skills to match, Tanner can make it happen, it’s just a matter of staying true to his own ethos and finding like-minded people with whom to partner.
Privateer Perspectives was a concept brought to life to showcase some of the fantastic riders and personalities that exist in the Elite ranks, but who are under the radar. No better example exists than Warren Kniss. Kind, hilarious, and one helluva rider, Warren is out on track doing it for the love. He’s working, going to school, and doing this all off his own back – he has a very limited amount of support considering he’s racing in Elites and is competitive. His main “sponsor” is Kiran MacKinnon, who provided one of his old V10s as a race rig. Though Warren may have had some mixed results the past few seasons, it’s his speed on track and overall attitude that really makes him stand out. He’s level-headed and not disillusioned about his position as a young privateer in the throes of one of the most competitive eras of racing in recent memory. His thoughtful perspectives and realistic approach to the race/life balance is admirable and impressive.
The Rooted Boys: Wiley Kaupas, Austin Hacket-Klaubb, Harrison Ory
Insta: @wileyk94, @austinhk44, @harrisonory, @rootedmtb
The desire to race and have a good time is the overarching theme with Privateer Perspectives. This is best exemplified through the likes of the Rooted team, Wiley Kaupas, Austin Hacket-Klaubb, and Harrison Ory. Based out of ColoRADo, the trio of rider and their trusty filmer, Cason, are chasing the endless send – they keep things fun, to say the least. They are a diverse group: Austin has a family background of racing on two wheels, with his parents knowing a thing or two about what it takes to be successful racers; Wiley is a skilled animator/graphic art/filmer/photographer… he’s got some skills off the bike basically; Harrison is a machine on two wheels, going fast is what he does. Bring these three dudes to an event and it’s going to be a good time. Their interests in trying to not take things too seriously is what makes them such an affable team, if you’re looking for some comic relief to shake off race nerves, they’ll be sure to help sort that out.
It’s interesting to have to type “National Champ” and “Privateer” in the same sentence, but that’s what happens when it comes to Sam Soriano. The pint-sized shredder from Winter Park, CO is mini-but-mighty, winning the sleeve last summer in West Virginia and suddenly throwing her into the limelight of US DH. Sam is incredibly humble and well-spoken, with exceptionally realistic goals and expectations of herself. She is taking a gap year to give herself a chance to have a proper go at Elite-level racing, with this being her first year in the top tier of the UCI categories. She knows it’s going to take tenacity and serious graft to reach her goals. Sam has a great attitude and sense of direction with her intentions, she is one to watch.