How Oisín O’Callaghan won gold at just 17-years-old in his debut race for YT

World champion is a title regarded as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, something that usually comes – if they’re lucky – after years of striving. Not for Oisín O’Callaghan, the 17-year-old from Limerick, Ireland, who took home the rainbow jersey at his debut international race, becoming Ireland’s first ever mountain bike world champion. We sat down with him to try and figure out what propelled him to stardom with such apparent alacrity.

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Keeping the hot seat warm after his World Champs run. Pic: Isac Paddock

OK, just to start, for those of us who don’t know you and who aren’t from Ireland, how do you pronounce your name?

You say it like Ush-een.

Can you sum up your season in a few words?

Crazy. The past few weeks for me have been the craziest time of my life, from going into my first world-level race just wanting to see where I was with everyone else, to end up winning it and becoming junior world champion. Then heading to Slovenia to rounds one and two of the World Cup and winning both. It’s been crazy but in a good way. It’s what I’ve dreamed of since I’ve been a little kid and to have gone and done what I’ve dreamed of for years is indescribable.

O’Callaghan was on top of the Worlds after winning the junior title in Leogang. Pic: Isac Paddock

When did you start riding?

I was five, just going to the local trail centre up the road where my dad started a bike hire shop. And I just went out on the trails with my friends and it was really fun.

How did you progress from riding for fun to racing?

I spent two years racing small local races and some Irish downhill races then I decided to go do some of the UK Nationals. I was a second-year juvenile when I completed my first year of British races and I surprised myself by coming second in the first one, then I went on to win one later in the year. I continued doing British Nationals for another year and I was on the podium every race and coming close to getting the win once or twice. Then last year my dad decided we needed to go around Europe to get some more experience racing on a variety of terrain and tracks and see what other competition there was.

At what age did you start thinking about racing as a career?

It’s something I’ve always thought about and it’s never changed, I’m stoked to be doing it now.

The YT Mob found you through the WorldTour talent search, run us through the few days at the Finals camp in Granada.

From the start it was amazing just being able to see what World Cup teams do, from how they operate and organise to how the riders pick lines and approach racing.

It started with being picked up from the airport and seeing who else had been picked from the various camps, I still didn’t know who was going to be there. The following day we did a track walk with Ángel Suárez, who was a huge help with lines and suggesting new ideas. The next day we went and rode the track and practised, where I ended up falling and hurting my wrist, which meant I couldn’t ride for the rest of the week. It was pretty frustrating as I couldn’t show my true potential.

Did you think that was it then, your chances were blown?

I was just hoping they’d already seen the results I’d had over the summer but at the same time I was thinking I haven’t got a chance. Then when I was selected it was a dream come true and an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

At the World Champs you were looking good in practice and everyone could see it… did that put pressure on you?

I love the pressure, so I didn’t mind that part, it was just seeing for years how most Irish riders have struggled at World Cups. I just wanted to see what I could do and where I was in relation to the rest of the junior and elite riders.

When you went into top spot did you have any idea that the time might hold?

I had no idea. The World Champs was my rst race at that level so I had no indication of how I compared to other riders. I was one of the first off, so I was in the hot seat for over 20 riders. It’s all just a blur but I remember my team manager Martin Whiteley saying: “You’re taking home a medal, we just don’t know which colour.” From then on, the more riders that crossed the line, the more I thought I could actually win it.

You’d have been super-stoked even with just a medal?

Sure – to even get a medal would have been so good!

With being Irish you’re used to riding in crappy conditions a lot of the time, do you reckon that helped at all?

Yeah, I think so, all I ride at home is tracks with rivers going down them and puddles up to your bottom bracket.

On my local trails there are tracks that I haven’t seen dry in years. At Leogang, most people were struggling or finding it hard in the bottom section but I was loving it.

Coming from Ireland, there are very few cyclists at your level, how did it feel to become the rst gold medallist in mountain biking at the World Champs for Ireland?

When I was younger people used say an Irish rider will never make it. It’s only the last few years we’ve actually seen Ireland being represented in mountain biking. Being the first to bring home a gold medal for Ireland was crazy, my phone went mad with messages. I’m proud to wear the Irish colours.

You narrowly missed out on winning the overall, do you think you pushed too hard in Lousã and made mistakes because of it? Knowing what happened, would you change the way you approached racing?

I wouldn’t change anything. It would have been nice to win. All I needed was a top 10 to win the overall but deep down I know I wouldn’t have been happy with not giving my best. Coming second in the overall has made me hungry to get it next year.

You’re probably already training for 2021, what are your goals for the season?

I’ve been back training now, it’s a pretty short o -season! Next year I would like to defend the rainbow stripes and get the overall win that I missed out on. I’ll also start to compare my times against the elites to be ready to progress to that category in 2022.

Any advice for young riders looking to turn pro?

Have fun and don’t get caught up trying to have the best social media or results.