Compared to some of his competitors, Aaron Gwin hasn’t been riding a mountain bike for all that long. But his background as a BMX and motocross racer gave him an edge when he started downhill mountain biking in 2008, at age 20. Since then, he’s climbed to the top of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series, taking multiple world titles as the lone American in a field dominated by Europeans.
Aaron grew up in California’s Morongo Valley, a small desert town outside of Palm Springs. When he was four years old, his dad got him into BMX racing as a way for a rambunctious kid to let out some energy. It turned out, he was a natural. He traveled extensively for races, including Nationals, and he picked up his first sponsor at age six. But by eight years old, he was already burned out.
He took a few years off and played baseball, but he couldn’t stay away from bikes for long. At age 12, he got into motocross racing. Aaron’s dad, who works as a physical therapist, warned him of the many injuries he’d seen from other motocross riders, but Aaron was determined to give the sport a shot.
“My dad finally let me get a motocross bike and I did a bunch of races, but then I started getting injured,” Aaron says. He stopped racing at 17 due to the injuries.
After he quit motocross racing, he missed the competitive landscape and most of all, he missed riding bikes. So, at age 20, when his friend and pro downhill racer Cody Warren suggested Aaron give mountain biking a shot, he agreed. Cody lent Aaron a downhill bike and encouraged him to sign up for his first race, the Fontana Winter Series in 2008.
“What class should I race?” Aaron asked Cody at the time.
“Just race pro,” Cody said.
Just like that, in his first-ever mountain bike race, Aaron placed third amongst elite-level pros. After that, sponsors began rolling in and Aaron was hooked. In 2009 and 2010, he won two US National Championships.
He credits his background with why he was able to be so successful, so quickly. “Downhill mountain biking is really the perfect mix of BMX and motocross,” Aaron says. “There’s the pedalling and learning how to generate momentum on a bicycle that I learned from BMX. And then with motocross, you get used to reading speed and handling rougher tracks and line selection.”
In the 1990s, Americans used to be strong contenders in international downhill mountain bike races. But for years now, there hasn’t been a powerhouse athlete from America on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series. It’s mainly Europeans, Australians, and New Zealanders in the top 10.
Until Aaron Gwin showed up, that is. In 2011, Aaron became the first person ever to win five World Cups in a single season. He easily claimed the overall series title that year.
Then in 2012, he placed second at the first World Cup stop in South Africa and then won the next four World Cup races in a row. At the sixth stop in Val d’Isére, France, he crashed and ripped open his hand, requiring stitches, but he still placed fifth. That result was good enough to secure him the overall series win with a 260-point lead – a month before the season’s final race. It was his second overall World Cup victory in a row.
By 2013, he was officially the rider to beat, but a shoulder injury that benched him for the final two stops of the World Cup series kept him from defending his title. “I needed to regroup and work on a few things,” Aaron says. “You always want to finish strong, but that’s just a part of the sport.”
He returned stronger than ever in 2014, winning the season opener in South Africa. But on the third round in Austria, Aaron suffered a flat tyre mid-race – he still managed to finish the course with his tyre detached from the rim, much to the crowd’s amazement – but his results there ultimately cost him the overall title. He finished second overall at season’s end.
Aaron returned to the top in 2015, winning the UCI World Cup title, as well as US National Championships and Sea Otter. “I got a lot of good training in and I was able to overcome adversity and get back on top,” he says.
The American field of downhill mountain biking continues to grow, with younger guys coming up the ranks, but Aaron is still leading the pack on the world stage. “As long as I’m enjoying myself and staying competitive, I’d like to keep pushing it,” he says.
When Aaron’s not on his bike, he’s well, on another bike. For cross-training and for fun, Aaron goes on cross-country mountain bike rides, road bike rides, and he still rides motocross and BMX when he can. He owns around 15 different types of bikes. “I’ve been racing a two-wheeled bike for a very long time,” Aaron says. “I guess I just like riding bicycles in general.”Read more