Out of This World

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1999

Out of This World
Can a daring French rider called "the Alien" keep pace with downhill mountain biking's wild, wild ride?

"This is what I like," says French downhill mountain-bike racing phenom Nicolas Vouilloz, kicking back in the honey-wheat glow falling over California's San Bernardino Mountains at sunset. "This quiet, when you can just sit and talk to another person. It's not like the finish line, where everything is just crazy." That's hardly the sort of contemplative musing one expects to hear from a 23-year-old who makes his living by cranking fat air and bombing through serpentine singletrack at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour, and who has won no fewer than seven consecutive world championships, making him the finest rider in the history of his sport. But Vouilloz has reason to be reflective. This afternoon he logged his worst finish in a World Cup race thus far this season. After a crash near the top of the Snow Summit Mountain Resort at Big Bear Lake, where he lost traction on a blind turn and washed out, he scorched down the rest of the course to place sixth overallùan extraordinary recovery, but one that failed to make up for the fact that he dropped to second place in the WC series. Even more painful, perhaps, he conceded the race to extreme-sport poster boy Shaun Palmer.

Stripped of his body armor, which makes downhillers look like space-age gladiators on wheels, Vouilloz scarcely fits the image of a downhill racer who flashes courses with such otherworldly ease that his competitors, echoing the awe invoked by skiing sensation Hermann Maier, have dubbed him "the Alien." Among the bleach-haired, stud-tongued, Korn-cranking parade of riders on the circuit, the cattail-thin Frenchman's tastes lean toward a fresh bouillabaisse andùzut alors!ùthe music of Mariah Carey.

While few of his competitors consider Vouilloz a cream puff, his disposition has fueled even more interest in how, exactly, he manages to so thoroughly dominate a sport renowned for the tiny margins of error it exacts on exceedingly treacherous terrain. Some speculate that a childhood spent riding BMX bikes and motorcycles cemented the kind of muscle programming and piloting skills that have allowed him to flourish as a pro. Even at home in Nice during the off-season, his reflexes remain honed through a training regimen that includes motorcycle and stock-car racing, and he spins through a cardio-intensive cross-country cycling program year-roundù

a combination that has consistently translated into show-stopping performances on a bike. At Big Bear Lake, for example, racers were stymied by a 20-foot-long boulder garden. Most of the field lost precious seconds mincing nimbly through the rocks. Vouilloz simply launched himself over the obstacle, arcing through the air as if on a wire, and landing so precisely that he barely interrupted his pedal stroke. "He's so light, he just seems to float through the technical sections," says Steve Peat, 25, who finished fourth behind Vouilloz in overall World Cup points last year and has emerged as his biggest threat this season. "Weaknesses?" mutters American downhill veteran and former world champion John Tomac, 31, as if it's the most asinine question he's ever heard. "He doesn't have any."

All right, so maybe he is the RoboBiker. But the evolution of Vouilloz's prowess has closely paralleled the evolution of downhill mountain biking itself. Two decades ago, when hurtling down mountainsides actually became a sport, it was little more than a novelty populated by a few jeans-clad fanatics on fixed-gear Schwinn cruisers. In 1990, the crown jewel of the competition circuit was Mammoth Mountain's Kamikaze Downhill, a ski area fire road that rewarded headlong speed but presented riders with little in the way of technical challenges. By 1991ùright about the time that Vouilloz was just entering the sport as a junior competitorùdownhill had begun maturing into a respected (albeit relatively obscure) splinter of mountain-bike racing proper. But it wasn't until Vouilloz's reign during the last four years (his first three world championships were as a junior) that the sport saw its biggest changes, especially in course design.

By the midnineties, enormous jumps and drops began to appear on downhill courses, partly because promoters needed to enhance thrills to make the sport more TV-friendly, but also because the racers sent up a cry for more rigorous tracks. "In '96 we had a really boring national series on these ridiculously flat courses," says Elke Brutsaert, 31, a top woman downhiller from Durango, Colorado. "The Europeans were like, 'What the hell is this?'" The response was to build shorter and steeper courses, and to seed them with obstacles like root-choked gullies and double-jumps the size of school buses. Take, for instance, the course at Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, last Juneùa downhill track unlike any competitors had seen before. One section, called the Black Forest, required riders to carry speed over a six-foot drop and into a heavily wooded chute. "When the racers first showed up, they were saying it couldn't be ridden, that it was too dangerous," recalls Wendy Zupan, one of the organizers. "Then Vouilloz gets here and he's just psyched, saying it's exactly the way a downhill course should be. And of course, once he rode it, all the other riders had to do it, too."

Not surprisingly, changes in courses have prompted equally significant leaps in bike design. Over the last couple of years downhill bikes have become so tricked-out that they would make Microsoft engineers proud. Vouilloz's ride, a Sunn Radical Plus (see below) is not only kitted with many of the latest features, but also embodies the bond that high-tech gear can forge between a rider and his unit. Even though Sunn filed for bankruptcy in June, requiring Vouilloz to pay travel expenses out of his own pocket, he has stuck with his financially beleaguered Sunn team. "I couldn't change bikes in the middle of the season," he says. "It would be suicide."

The issue of whether he'll switch sponsors next year is no more clear than the question of whether his rivals stand a chance of usurping his perch at the top of the standings at the world championships in Sweden this month. At least some of Vouilloz's peers, however, speculate that beating him will require more than a mechanical edge. "No one else has his level of commitment," says Tomac. "He's not just all business at races; he's all business all year round." On one particularly dismal day at Snoqualmie last year, Joe Staron, a rep for IRC Tires, ventured out with a team mechanic to inspect the waterlogged course. "It was cold and raining and really just awful," he recalls. "It's like three days before the race and nobody's out there except for us and the guy loading the chairlift. But then we get on and look a few chairs ahead. And there's Vouilloz, sitting alone with his bike, heading up into the mist." ùNICK HEIL


BRAKES Hydraulic discs, similar to those on a motorcycle but far lighter. They also feature special reservoirs so that brake fluid can expand under the 600-degree temperatures generated during steep descents.

TIRES Michelin is so secretive about the design of its tubeless, flat-proof tires, known simply as "le systˆme," that bikes ridden by pro racers the company sponsors are scooped up at the finish line and spirited into a truck, where the wheels are swapped for more conventional ones before industry spies can inspect them.

SENSORS Vouilloz's bike is wired with a $200,000 computer that yields data on speed, rpms, braking action, and impacts on the course. The information enables his mechanics to make microadjustments in every aspect of the suspensionûcompression rate, spring rate, and rebound damping. Upshot: While other riders are using up training runs to determine how to tune their rigs, Vouilloz focuses exclusively on riding. ùGREG HERBOLD

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