Tahnée Seagrave: “Downhill is more of a mental game than a physical one"
Tahnée Seagrave has dreamt of sporting glory since she was 12. But last year the Croydon-born MTB racer came to the realisation that victory isn’t as important as having fun. Then she started winning.
It’s a cold morning on a misty hillside in Mid Wales, and only two sounds disturb the otherwise perfect stillness. One is the occasional gust kicking up through the larches lining the track at Revolution Bike Park. The other is Tahnée Seagrave zipping through turns so quickly that her bike rattles from the sheer force of momentum.
The 22-year-old is a powerhouse of downhill mountain biking, a sport often framed as the F1 of cycling, though that comparison doesn’t quite do it justice. There may be packs of crew members slaving over one rider’s bid to be the fastest, and it's true that every millisecond can count. But once you’re out there, bounding over rocks and roots, pushing the bike to its limits, there are no headsets or dashboards to relay information, only your intuition and the gnarliness of darting down a mountain at speeds of up to 65kph.
“Downhill is so much more of a mental game than it is physical,” says Seagrave, curled up on the couch back at home in a navy hoodie, tracksuit and polka-dot socks. “Some deal it with better than others, and I think that’s how you can separate the winners from the losers. There are people around here who are genuinely the best riders in the world, faster than anyone I’ve even seen. Then you go racing and they can’t even qualify for the World Cup."
Winning has been an obsession for Seagrave ever since she began cycling at the age of 12. Growing up in Croydon, south London, she competed in gymnastics and, later, figure skating – but they didn’t quite feel like the right fit. “I don’t like all eyes on me, so being right in the spotlight was a big problem. But, to be honest, the adrenalin wasn’t enough...” She breaks into a laugh. “I get bored quite quickly.”
In 2003, Seagrave’s parents moved the family to an old chalet near Morzine, a ski resort in the French Alps. Bike rides through the mountains became the norm, and pro riders would stay as guests in summer. Among them was Vanessa Quin, who visited just weeks after being crowned World Champion in 2004. Seagrave lights up at the memory of it now: gazing at Quin’s baby blue bike, running her fingers over the championship jersey’s rainbow stripes, and quietly thinking, ‘I want that.’
It didn’t take long for the ambition to take hold. Her dad Tony remembers the teenager getting up to ride at the crack of dawn, bugging him to find more races for her to enter. Once she started competing at national level, and the investment rocketed, Tony found himself filling out sponsorship forms. “At the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Fuck, this is my daughter. Be objective,’” he says. “You can picture people rolling their eyes as they open the email and see it’s from her dad. But Tahnée had this passion, this style about her riding where, if she just kept at it, I knew she would take it to another level. By the time we sold our house and bought a motorhome – just so we could hit the road for races – it was like, ‘Right, I guess we’re in this for the long term...’”
Whereas the young rider is soft-spoken and easygoing, her father – a tall figure in flip-flops, jeans and a grey hoodie, glasses resting atop his shaved head – is the kind of gregarious character who could talk you into just about anything. Tony knows people will think of him as a ‘moto dad’ who goes all-in on everything – and he is a bit, says his daughter with a laugh – but the reality is slightly more nuanced.
That the family have now moved to a house in rural Wales, a mountain biker’s playground, reflects just how much faith Seagrave’s parents have in her. They still get to races in the same old motorhome; it’s just that these days the team includes a coach, a masseuse and two mechanics. In the room next door, her mum Jo is managing bookings for a ski school back in Morzine. Tony, meanwhile, gave up his job as a graphic designer to manage his daughter and her 19-year-old brother Kaos, a rising star in elite downhill racing.
“When I was younger, I didn’t realise the amount of effort – and money – Mum and Dad were putting in,” she says. “They saw that we loved it and wanted to do well, so they pushed and supported us the whole way. But you never know if your kid is going to make it or not and I think Dad got quite stressed when he felt like we weren’t matching the effort. He’d say, ‘Well, do you really want this? Because I can’t keep doing this if you don’t.’ He knew what were capable of, so when he saw us slacking it was hard for him to sit there and watch. But it’s a way of life for me now, so I think that’s paid off. I did make sacrifices of my own as a teenager but, looking back, it was quite an easy choice. When you want something that badly, the hurdles don’t seem like hurdles.”
This attitude has been put to the test over the last few years. In Seagrave’s first year of junior competition, aged 17, she entered the 2012 World Championships in Austria on a roll of wins that brought her close to a top 10 spot at women’s elite level. She’d heard about a fast Canadian rider named Holly Feniak, but didn’t consider her a threat. “Subconsciously I just thought, ‘I’m going to get here, win my gold medal and leave.’” She pauses for a second, exhaling in frustration. “That is the most – agh! – stupid thing anyone can think, especially at that age. And yeah, she ended up beating me by like [eight] seconds on a track that didn’t have much to it. I got silver, but as a racer it left me very confused and upset. I cried a lot.”
Sometimes Seagrave gets embarrassed talking about how competitive she is. The whole family is wired the same way, relishing any chance to beat each other in everything from Jenga to squash. But her experience in Austria supercharged her will to win. She realised that she’d been relying on talent, rather than hard work, and mistakenly assumed success would fall into place. So, at some point, the young rider picked up a line from the movie Talladega Nights – “If you ain’t first, you’re last” – and decided it was a motto to live by.
Once Seagrave graduated to elite level, she began preparing for races with tunnel vision: any placing other than a first would be a failure. But race weekends leave a lot of time to think – maybe four practice runs to learn the course in the morning, then another in the afternoon – and she spent her downtime focused on competitors rather than doing anything to improve her own riding, allowing self-doubt to fester.
“I went through a few years of being dead serious: training loads, not going out, not being your average 20-year-old,” she says. “I wouldn’t eat any chocolate, whereas now it's a massive part of my life!” She laughs again. “It’s like you want something so bad that you’re even willing to not have fun any more. But this is such an extreme, dangerous sport that if you take the fun out of it, what’s the point? You might as well get an office job.”
Seagrave spent much of those three years in a relationship that, looking back, only made things harder. She’d feel guilty about how her time was spent; she’d come home knackered from the gym, only to be drained all over again. It felt like her quest for a win was perceived as a game rather than a job. “I think when that relationship ended, I saw a light,” she says. “It’s weird. A lot of mentally strong people believe things like that don’t affect them, and I was one of them. But that was a turning point: I decided to relax more and start having fun for myself, not other people.”
The pressure began to ease when she learnt to put process first, focusing on the little steps that get you to a competition rather than just the outcome. On race weekends, she began tuning out unwanted noise – turning off her phone, not paying attention to competitors – and staying in the present moment by writing a journal. And by just trying to have fun, she has hit the winning streak she dreamt of: earning three World Cup wins last season – one by a margin of 5.7 seconds – and coming second in the series overall.
Her younger brother Kaos has played a part in the turnaround, too: he’s always the first to ride his bike just because he wants to, she adds, and seeing him come into his own as a rider has been inspiring. In person, there’s a playful brother-sister tension between them. Speeding through the countryside in their mud-flecked pick- up truck, she’ll needle him about not wearing a seatbelt, to which he rolls his eyes with a sigh. Up on the track, after barrelling after each other around berms, he’ll grab her by the front of the helmet – teasing that her flailing arms can’t reach him. But when you get Kaos on his own, and the wisecracks peter out, he admits he’s been learning from his sister, too.
Growing up, she was a tomboy who wore baggy jeans and big shoes to school and hung out with guys. He thinks that’s where she developed her elbows-out style of riding – scrubbing jumps and tweaking mid-air. With this aggressive approach, combined with the competitiveness of her family, she has thrived off proving others wrong, and Kaos never doubted she’d persevere through the setbacks. “From day one, she’s been like, ‘I want to be World Champion.’ And she’s done everything she can to get there,” he says. “She’s just taken her time and that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from Tahnée: it doesn’t all happen at once. You have to keep pushing, even when things don’t go your way.”
Dad Tony insists that both his daughter and the sport itself have yet to reach their peak, though the 22-year-old is less inclined to think in those terms. Other ambitions are emerging: she has a strong social media presence and would like to expand her profile beyond racing so that she can inspire young girls to get the most out of life. She cracks up again as she catches herself imparting words of wisdom. “All this is so easy to say now that I’ve learnt it. But if you were to say this to me a couple of years ago, I would’ve been like, ‘Nah, I need to get up there. I need to do more. I need to do this; I need to do that.’ The crazy thing is I’m still in the early years of my career. I’m still learning – I don’t think that’s ever going to stop.”