Matt Walker: “I’m the one with a target on my back now”
© Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool
The 21-year-old Brit reveals what it took to become World Cup champion, and why he’s more motivated than ever for the 2021 season.
Matt Walker has had nothing short of an amazing 2020. The 21-year-old from Shropshire became only the fourth British rider to win the overall UCI DH MTB title in this year’s shortened season. He did so by being Mr Consistent, finishing 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd at the four UCI World Cup rounds to secure his spot amongst the likes of UK downhill royalty Steve Peat and Gee Atherton.
While not necessarily a favourite before the first race run of the 2020 season, his rise to the top of the pile didn’t come as a surprise either. The 2017 Junior World Champion has adapted well to the step up to the elite class, regularly breaking into the top 10 aboard his Madison Saracen Factory Team Saracen Myst despite his relative lack of race experience at the top level.
But his 2020 season was on another level – something that was beyond even Matt’s wildest dreams. “I kind of pinch myself at times,” he says now, back at home in Shropshire. “When I hear my name next to ‘World Cup champion’ it hasn’t really sunk in yet”.
Here, he reveals what it took to win in one of the most intense seasons in downhill’s history, why young British riders might have had the edge in 2020 and how he plans to build on this year’s heroics.
Congratulations on your win, Matt. How does it feel to be the overall World Cup winner for 2020?
“It feels pretty crazy to be honest. It’s so much more than I expected to achieve. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I started off well, kept the ball rolling and kept getting on the podium which was one of my goals at the start of the year – to get on a podium. To finish the season and to have not been out of the top five all year is really cool.
You’ve become part of a very select group of British riders to have won the overall crown. What’s it like having your name next to the likes of Steve Peat, Gee Atherton and Josh Bryceland?
“It’s really surreal because as a kid, they were absolute idols – they were superheroes to me. To achieve the same thing that they achieved is really strange. You really expect these people to be superhuman and to be able to do stuff that you’re not able to do.
“It’s a testament to hard work and dedication over the years. Like a lot of successful people say, there’s no secret to it – it’s just hard work and being committed to what you want and not losing sight of your goals. Riding the bike and racing is the easy part; the nine months to get you to that point, there’s nothing easy about it.
What’s quite nice is that I managed to win the title but I didn’t win a race, which really motivates me going into next year
“I’ve always compared myself to where I wanted to be next – so towards the end of my junior career I was going to World Cups and racing the same tracks as the elite guys and comparing my times to them. Moving into the elites, it was top 20 and then top 10 – just a steady progression all the way. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but it’s all worth it now.
“What’s quite nice is that I managed to win the title but I didn’t win a race, which really motivates me going into next year because I know that although I’ve been super consistent this year – which is something I’ve been looking for in the last couple of seasons – here’s still a little speed to find and I’m still really young and have loads of head room. That keeps me really motivated to go into next year and achieve and search for a World Cup win."
When did you realise you had a realistic shot at winning the overall?
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“The first moment when I realised I had a half decent chance was in the third round at Lousa. Loris Vergier was winning the series at the time. He had a front flat in his race run so he didn’t gain any points from that race. With only four races, you can’t really afford to have anything like that happen.
“I think I was about 14-15 points clear going into the last round so I took the leader’s jersey. A lot of people asked me if that put more pressure on my shoulders because I had one round left and I was leading the championship. To be honest, there have been points where I didn’t know if I would ever put an elite leader’s jersey on my shoulders – that that would be a little bit too far out of my reach. This year, I was looking for consistent top 10s and a couple of podiums, so to be leading the overall with one round left far surpassed where I thought I was going to be. I was really grateful to be in that position to even wear the jersey for one day – that would have been okay for me at this point in my career.
“[On the final race run] there was no pressure on me – I just rode my bike as usual. The track didn’t change an awful lot from the first race to the second race. It was a running thing that we had in the team that I was on this wave. I was confident in my ability, confident in my fitness and I just rode my bike down the hill again. When it’s like that and you’re racing so easy, there are no worries. I was in a good place and that was it.”
How did the 2020 season compare physically and mentally to other seasons in the elites?
“It was intense. Depending on how your riding was going or what place you were in, it was great or terrible. There was no room for error. If you were slightly off and weren’t getting the results you wanted, you didn’t have the time to turn it around. You were on a downward spiral whereas in a usual season you’d have a chance to come home, reset and go again.
I’m the one with a target on my back now if people want to take the overall off me
“For me, I was on an all-time high and I was loving being able to get the opportunity to race my bike and get on the podium. I came to the end of the year and it was really the first time that I wanted more races. I’ve always got to the end of the year and although I love racing my bike and it’s what I live for, after six-to-seven months of travelling and racing, it’s nice to come home and have a break. This year, I was in a much better place mentally and physically. I was excited to do more, which is a really good place to be in and a complete contrast to where I was at 12 months ago. I had a bit of a terrible backend to 2019 and I came into the off-season into a completely different mindset – I wanted to turn it around for 2020.
“This year, it’s different again. I’m the one with a target on my back now if people want to take the overall off me. I’m really happy to be in this position. I’m still young and there’s only me putting pressure on myself to achieve things.”
What did your extended off season look like?
"I think I might have had a few days or a week when I first realised that the first race was cancelled and rejigged our plans a little bit but I speak to my coach every day, so as soon as there was news that another race was cancelled or the race after that was cancelled, we were always readjusting the plan. For me, I think that was really key – getting fitter and stronger and using the time wisely when it could have been easy to take my foot off the gas a little bit, especially with no racing in the near future.
"It was also giving me a lot of confidence because I knew I was putting the work in. Looking at social media and what other riders are up to, you could see that they’d taken their foot off the gas potentially and they were taking it easy for the summer or not training as hard as they would in the winter pre-season. That gave me a lot of confidence that I knew I was ticking a lot of the boxes and was going to go to that first race the best prepared I’d ever been.
Did you prepare specifically for the back-to-back nature of the rescheduled race weekends?
Not particularly. I got myself to a level where I was mixing strength, conditioning and doing quite a bit of riding. Quite a big bit of my training is endurance anyway, which is sometimes odd as a downhill athlete. People ask me “why do you go out on the road bike or do miles on the trail bike when you’re only riding for 3-4 minutes at time?”. My answer to that is that while the race is 3-4 minutes, you do that 12 times in a weekend. The tracks are brutal and if you’re not fit from one day to the next, you’re going to really struggle. At the end of the day, if it’s a three-day World Cup, you need to be fastest right at the end on the last day.
"Endurance is a big part of it but you also go from race to race to race, and over the course of the season you can get tired. I knew I was fit enough to deal with the back-to-back World Cups and if anything it gave me confidence that I knew if people were slightly off, it was going to really affect them."
Your win in the overall followed 24-year-old Brit Reece Wilson’s World Championship win. Why do you think younger riders have had the edge in 2020?
“We worked out that, in the time we had off this year, you could do as much work as you’d probably do in three or four off seasons. For a young rider, that’s huge. If you can put in three year’s worth of work in a year, that’s huge for your development and your progress will accelerate. There’s potentially that factor.
“Maybe the older guys that have done it for a lot of years are in a routine where they train in the winter and race in the summer. Maybe the shake up didn’t suit them so much.
“We saw a similar thing in the XC – there were a lot of younger riders that came through. I don’t know if the younger people are hungrier because they’ve not been there and done that – they’re still chasing the top positions, the podiums and the wins. Maybe the more experienced riders have been there before and maybe took their foot off the gas.
“You’ve definitely seen a pattern where younger riders have come to the forefront this year. It will be interesting to see next year when it hopefully goes back to a more normal season if that pattern continues or if the older generation come fighting back."
Yours and Reece’s wins also made it two wins for the Brits. Do you think the autumn conditions had anything to do with that?
"There’s a really strong scene at the moment in the British field. It makes it easier for the Brits when it’s wet. I don’t think it actually makes a huge amount of difference to the riding – you’ve seen Aaron Gwin win in the rain and he’s from California – but I think it’s everything that goes with it; being in your kit wet and cold all day.
"I think it gets a lot of people down and it’s a mindset thing. When people look outside and it’s miserable, they don’t want to go and ride their bikes. For the Brits, it’s just normal. In the winter, it’s like that most days and we get out of bed and just crack on. I think we’re more resilient in that respect. I think that’s what showed this autumn season.”
Another change that seemed to work for you was the switch from a 29er to a mullet set-up. What brought this change about?
"Towards the end of the 2019 season, I wasn’t really having a particularly good time, so I think I needed a change. I could see that potentially a lot more people were going to be using the mullet set-up in 2020 than they were in 2019 and it was potentially the way to go. I saw no harm in trying it. Up until that point, I hadn’t tried it at all – I was happy with the 29er set-up and I was confident in it. At the end of the season, I felt like I needed a change and something a bit different and a new challenge – just something to spice it up for me.
"I started riding it in the off season and got along with it really well. I thought I could ride it more aggressively than the 29er. I could turn it quicker and I had a bit more control when I wanted to turn it fast. I didn’t notice that the rolling was any slower, and I was having a lot of fun on it. I could just ride a bit more aggressively and how I wanted to. That style has obviously suited me in the past. I was having a lot of fun on it so I decided to stick with it and it was a good choice.
Looking forward to next year, does going into the season as reigning overall champion bring added pressure?
“The media will potentially hype it up, but at the end of the day you get to the first round and everyone’s points get zeroed and you go again.
"I’ll take all my confidence from my work I’ll do this season and I know that although there are bike riders out there with more talent than me, they won’t work as hard as me. That’s something I’ll take into next season – I’ll work as hard as I can and tick all the boxes I need to to put myself in a good place and ride my bike down the hill again.”
What’s your focus for the 2021 season?
"Obviously your expectations change hugely when you have success like I’ve had. An obvious one though is a World Cup win. Just to be in the top five as much as I possibly can – that’s my aim – and if I can get on the podium at most rounds that would be fantastic.
"It’s really crazy to finally be in the position where I’m fighting for wins and fighting for podiums at World Cup level. It feels like an eternity to get to this point but I’m so glad I stuck through it and I’m here now. I’m enjoying my racing more than ever and I’m just looking forward to more."
Are there any races you’re targeting in particular?
"World Champs is a big one – I’ll be looking to have a go at getting the stripes in Val di Sole. Fort William is another one. It would have been so nice to race at Fort William in the form I’m in this year. It’s my favourite one to go to."
Matt Walker rides for Madison Saracen Factory Team aboard the Saracen Myst. To find out more about his race-ready set-up, check out Freewheel.co.uk