By Rob Puver
For a small island nation, the British Isles often punches above its weight in the world of sport. And when we’re good at something, we make it that bit more special.
Take cycling for example. Chris Froom battling in the peloton. Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy collecting medals like Pokémon cards. Bradley Wiggins breaking world records on the track. Right through to the other end of the spectrum, with Liam Phillips winning gold at the 2013 BMX World Championships, Gee Atherton winning the 2014 Downhill World Cup and his sister Rachel Atherton winning pretty much every title, record and award going in woman’s downhill, for the umpteenth time running. The Brits are dominating in the saddle right now.
Rachel is dominating the sport of downhill mountain biking in a way that echoes such greats and Usain Bolt in the 100 meters and Michael Schumacher (get well soon Michael!) at the height of his Formula 1 career with Ferrari. Rachel is seemingly untouchable, but if anyone can knock her off the top spot this season or beyond, it’s the two British friends and national treasures, Manon Carpenter and Tahnée Seagrave.
Both Manon and Tahneé are regular visitors to Morzine and Les Gets, Tahneé especially, having grown up here. We caught up with the girls whilst they were training for this year’s UCI Downhill World Cup Series.
What got you started in the sport?
Manon: I’ve always loved all outdoor sports but MTB has been the one that’s stuck. My Dad used to run a race series in South Wales called Dragon Downhill so I’ve been around Downhill races since I was seven years old, watching, working and eventually racing!
Tahneé: My parents moved to the French Alps when I was eight, so it’s just a normal summer activity out here and my Dad was pretty into bikes.
What in your career so far have you been most proud of?
Tahneé: So far it’s my second place at Fort William and dealing with the pressure of raising £10,000 for charity and giving away my bike!
Manon: Winning the World Champs in Hafjell in 2014. Results don’t get much better than that!
What would be your ultimate achievement?
Manon: Continue enjoying and progressing in all types of bike riding and create a fulfilling life from it.
What’s been the biggest challenge in becoming successful in this male dominated sport?
Tahneé: I don’t think I’ve had much trouble promoting myself as it’s what my Dad and I have done pretty well and it’s how I’ve managed to get where I am today. I would say the hardest thing is expanding the sport to the female audience. More brands should open up to the fact that there are a lot of girls out there that kick arse!
Manon: It’s not really a challenge because I have always been well supported by my team, it’s more of a frustration that when I’m talking to people working in the industry, the majority of female racers are still seen as less valuable than their male equivalent. We are still working to prove our worth and show that women sell bikes too.
What aspects of your training that are keys to your success?
Manon: All of it! There is so much that goes into training for Downhill; you need to be strong and fit but you also have to be able to perform on the bike, with confidence when it counts. Likewise you could be the best rider in the world but if you aren’t strong or fit then you won’t be able to last the full length of a World Cup track.
Tahneé: I would say it’s how smart you are with recovery. It’s all good to train as hard as you can and as much as you can, but you have to let your body accommodate the changes. And know when it needs a rest so it can go 100% and make the most out of the training sessions. Seriously, it’s the hardest part!
How many behind the scenes heroes are in your support team and what do they do?
Manon: From team sponsors to physios, there are a lot of people in the support network that I have accumulated over the years. Having team manager Will Longden at races has been very helpful over the years when I need advice, as has being able to work with Sport Wales psychologist Louise who I see from time to time and who always knows what to say to make me feel 10x stronger and more confident. There are people I can go to who I know I can trust to put the effort in to help me; physios, coaches, staff at the races and sponsors. It’s good to know the backing is there when you need it.
Tahneé: My mum and Dad go through HELL. They are awesome and support me 100%. They do everything. Also behind the sponsors names there are people who are so dedicated and excited to see my progression that they go beyond just the support with product. I have formed many great friendships from it, they know who they are.
What was the best advice you were ever given?
Manon: Be confident.
Do you have a saying or motto that you live your life by?
Manon: Not really, I just prefer to be positive rather than negative. I like a saying from a friend Monet Adams, ‘water your own grass’ – you’ve got to do things yourself to make it happen.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Tahneé: It’s only over the past few months that I’ve realised where it comes from. It’s imaginary. It’s a goal that hasn’t yet been achieved. It’s the picture of me, at my very best, at my fittest, strongest and healthiest. It’s not impossible, that inspires me. Is it egocentric? Of course not, I’m just very self-driven.
How many times in the last few years have you been to hospital, and why?
Tahneé: It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the hospital, the last time was when I was 14 and broke my femur and I hope to keep it that way!
Manon: I’m not so lucky, four times for injuries; a broken humorous in 2010 and a broken collarbone in 2012. Then a couple of times to get checked out after a crash. I tried riding the next day in 2012 when I didn’t realise my collarbone was cracked, so now I like to get checked out if I’m hurt! Also a few times recently just checking out the plate in my arm from the crash in 2010. Old injuries needing work to keep them in check.
If you hadn’t gotten into DH, what would you be doing now?
Manon: I had a place at University to do Zoology and Spanish before I decided to give DH a go full time. So I’d probably be studying a Masters in a South American rainforest somewhere! Or I’d be a Marine Biologist, I love the sea.
Tahneé: I’d be doing another competitive sport of some kind.
Where is your favourite place to ride in the Portes du Soleil?
Manon: Last year it was Pleney, the year before, Super Morzine. I love the steep stuff! Then finishing up with a swim in Lake Montriond.
Tahneé: I LOVE Champéry!
And in the world?
Manon: It’s too hard to pin point one place! I love the Andorra racetrack; it always gets me grinning. I’m out in Queenstown, NZ at the moment. We’ve ridden some great trails whilst being in New Zealand, be it in Rotorua, Nelson or Queenstown. Everything here is awesome!
Tahneé: You can’t beat some of the tracks in the UK to be honest, but Andorra and Norway World Cup tracks are pretty up there too!
What’s been the greatest advancement in DH in recent years?
Tahneé: Women’s racing for sure. I don’t think it’s ever been this hard to win a World Cup!!!
Does the huge TV coverage add much pressure when you’re racing?
Manon: I’ve never even thought about it! I’m so focussed on race day, it’s never crossed my mind. The only time it really hits home is when you’re on the gondola heading up the hill and you can hear noise from the spectators on the track. Meribel World Cup was pretty crazy, heading up on the chair lift we could hear chainsaws and all sorts of noise coming from the rock garden half way down the track. That definitely starts the adrenaline going!
Tahneé: Well, let’s be realistic, it isn’t huge. I like to think of F1 as huge. But no, that doesn’t pressure me at all. It’s more if I don’t qualify well that I’m like ‘Damn, Mum won’t get to see my run on TV!’
Which race are you most looking forward too this year?
Tahneé: I honestly can’t choose, I’m just so excited to get racing!
Manon: For me it has to be Fort William and Val di Sole World Champs.
And which are you least looking forward too?
Manon: I’m not not looking forward to it, but praying we get some good weather for the Fort William National this year. It’s such a shame whenever the weather plays against us – lets have some sun please!
Tahneé: I don’t think I have one. Val di Sole is tough, and the bar will be raised as it’s the World Champs.