Fastest man on two wheels

We talk to Janos Köhler World No.1 ranked Red Bull Road Racer
By Ben Marchant
Janos Köhler © Sulejman Omerbasic/Red Bull Content Pool

Hurtling down a mountainside at speed is part and parcel of mountain biking. Similarly in road riding, bad descending can cost you the race but combining the skills of a downhill mountain biker and a road racer into a unique type of event has been catching on worldwide with the success of the Red Bull Road Rage series.

Ireland recently held it’s first event of this format the Downhill Road Blitz. Event organiser Janos Köhler hails from Wicklow and has enjoyed considerable success in the discipline and is currently ranked first in the world.

Janos has racing in the blood and a heritage that can be traced back to the first downhill mountain bike races held in this country on the slopes of the Sugarloaf. At that seminal event he was first in the underage competition with a time that would have placed him third in Elites. What makes this more interesting is he was competion on a hardtail mountain bike with 50mm of front suspension, cutting edge at the time but half what today’s XC racers ride on these days.

However fate was to play a harsh card on the young rider who suffered first from a back injury that kept him out of competition and then a broken back sustained in a motor bike accident that saw him spend 4 months in a back brace. Years later in 2006 he returned to two wheels looking for challenges on the road competing in events like the Wicklow 200.

In 2009 a random email from his younger brother sent him off to his first Red Bull Road Rage where he surprised the field to take 6th. However this was no fluke and Janos continued to even greater heights. We caught up with him for a chat to find out what makes him tick, more about this kind of racing and the Irish event.

How did you get into Road Rage?
It was quite randomly one day in 2009, my youngest brother sent me a clip of one of the Red Bull Road Rage event 'call to arms' clips, advertising the next event in France, looking for riders and encouraged me to enter. I took his advice and did just that.

I found myself being selected to compete and stood on the start line at Saint-Lary-Soulan along side Tour de France champion Frédéric Moncassin, ex-Road Rage champion and the previous year's world #1 ranked downhill road racer Guillaume Gualandi, Red Bull Rampage winner Cédric Gracia and double Rally Dakar motorbike winner Cyril Depres to name but a few on the star studded start list.
Having last raced in '97, and never against such world class opposition, I had no performance reference, yet pitted myself well in qualifying with 4th and finished a respectable 6th overall in the end.

From here on I was hooked and progressed quickly through the ranks, taking my first qualifying pole position and podium finish with a runner up position in the following event in Switzerland. It was third time lucky when I finally climbed up on the top step of the podium taking my first international win at the Belgian Road Rage in 2010. I have never looked back since.

What locations has it taken you to and what is your favourite so far?
In addition to France, Switzerland and Belgium I have mentioned above, racing has taken me to Latvia, Israel, Poland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Colorado. A few locations stand out from the crowd, including France, Israel and Colorado, primarily due to the nature of the courses. I love the big mountains and racing at over 3000m altitude in the high Rockies in Colorado was quite an experience, but Israel probably stands out the most. The race was on one of the most technically demanding courses, then throw land mine fields along one side and 100m cliff drops on the other side of the course into the equation and it makes for a pretty unforgettable experience.

What makes a good Road Rage Racer?
There are several characteristics that play a decisive role in making a good Road Rage racer. The main racing takes place while racing as a group of four, similar to 4X in mountain biking. There are loads of twists and turns at speeds of up to 100km/h, so you have to be a confident technical bike handler capable of high levels of concentration. It's important to get the right lines through the corners to carry your speed through as well as having the qualities of a sprinter to accelerate quickly out of bends.

At the same time you should also be comfortable with the fear factor and high adrenaline levels. One's ability to memorise the course down to the last detail and to be able to read the race well and adapt race strategies accordingly on the fly often making multiple split second decisions at a time will give a definite psychological and competitive advantage. That said, doing all the above correctly doesn't automatically result in victory, as sometimes you also have to play it smart. Drafting competitors can give you the edge in top end speed down the finishing straight and help you cross the line in first place.

How did you select the location for the Irish race?
Several factors came into play. From a course perspective I wanted something that would be easily accessible, at least 2km long, as steep as possible and with some degree of technical difficulty. Then I had to think about getting riders up to the top of the hill and this is where a loop system would be ideal, enabling uplifts to continue if necessary while racing was still under way. Additionally I knew international riders would be attending, so I wanted to ensure accommodation was available locally.

Lastly, I needed somewhere to set up the race village, and if I could find somewhere to have a venue to feed the riders that would be make things even easier. With so many things to think about, it limited the choice down somewhat. I investigated a couple of locations running into immediate difficulties in one aspect or another which ruled them out straight away. It was then I decided to look at the Red Lane and approached the Glenview Hotel to see if they would like to partner as the official accommodation provider for the event and provide catering. They were and even offered to provide a location for the race village. Wicklow County Council were also very supportive as were the residents of the Red Lane and the location was sealed.

What were the major obstacles to setting up a race in Ireland?
This being the first event I have organised, it would be fair to say the biggest obstacle was likely my lack of experience, yet it didn't deter me in the slightest, only made me more determined to succeed. Looking back, I am very lucky to have found support in so many places, starting with my racing club Bray Wheelers Cycling Club who agreed to stand behind me as the promoting club to organise the event and provide marshals and Cycling Ireland who were willing to sanction a downhill road race, a first for any UCI affiliated national federation.

As I mentioned above, I also found support from Wicklow County Council who were happy to grant road closure and the residents of Red Lane who didn't object to the sought planning permission for the aforementioned road closure. Then I was lucky enough to find generous partners such as the the Glenview Hotel who provided accommodation, catering and a venue for the race village, and other sponsors such as who generously provided equipment to ensure the event ran smoothly, Bespoke Cycles who conducted the bike check and sponsored the women's prizes, Black Umbrella Productions who came on board to film the day's action, who sponsored the men's cash prizes, Black Sheep Bikes who provided high quality hoodies for prizes for the top men's and women's times of the day as well as t-shirts for all competitors, MET helmets who sponsored a prize for the best crash with a gravity lid, and last but certainly not least Red Bull who provided the event with PR support, the start and finish arches, a film crew and a team of Wiiings to ensure all athletes were supplied with the right fuel. I also had an amazingly dedicated team of helpers on the day ensuring any obstacle that presented itself would be dealt with without further ado.

What are your future plans?

After the successes of this first year, I plan to defend my world number 1 ranking in 2014 and try notch up some more international Road Rage wins. It won't be easy as everyone will be gunning to beat me, but I plan to continue working with my brilliant coach Jonathan Gibson from who brought me unprecedented success in such a short time this year and don't see why I can't improve to become even stronger next year. I am also looking to organise another downhill road race in Ireland, hopefully bigger and better than the last one. The experience this year will allow me to make improvements which should benefit everyone involved.

How important is bike setup and what do you ride?
I ride a titanium hand built Black Sheep Bikes - Road Rage Custom 2. Bike set up is incredibly important, from geometry, to tube diameter, to tube wall thickness and right down to the details including type of brakes, tyre compounds and pressure. In short every detail counts towards gaining a competitive advantage to take that win. I am lucky enough to collaborate with Black Sheep Bikes, custom titanium frame building specialists from Fort Collins, Colorado on a build project to produce the most advanced and world's first downhill specific road racer, the Road Rage Custom, currently in it's second incarnation.

Custom geometry has been employed throughout, including a slightly raised bottom bracket for better pedal cornering clearance, shorter than average chain-stays for better power transfer, custom head angle for quicker steering, a specially built truss fork (a Black Sheep Bikes trademark speciality) which creates a stiffer front end and facilitates the use of disc brakes without compromising tracking or handling.

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