Time is a precious commodity for world downhill champion Steve Peat. It’s a good thing he has such great riding right on his doorstep
There’s a book lying conspicuously on the sturdy oak table in Steve Peat’s farmhouse kitchen. It’s titled Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-Free Productivity.
An odd choice of reading material, perhaps, for a man who has stood on the podium at over 50 World Cup downhills, won three overall World Cup Championships, eight National Championships and, in a victory that united the world of mountain biking, the world champion’s rainbow jersey.
As far as mountain biking can ever lay claim to having a household name, Steve Peat is it.
You only need glance at his schedule to see that this is not a man who likes to sit still, and who is certainly not alien to the concept of getting things done. In the last few days, Peaty, as he is almost universally known, has been in Leeds opening a new shop, then at a trade show in Hertfordshire, then, the next day, launching the Scottish Mountain Bike Framework in Glasgow.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff on”, Peaty explains. “That’s why I bought myself this book yesterday.”
“How long did it take before you got round to buying the book?” I quiz him. “About two weeks”, he replies, chuckling.
With a hectic international race schedule, various business interests and an incessant stream of requests for his time, as well as a young family, it’s no wonder that the big man feels in need of a little organisational guidance. At least he never has to waste any time getting to the trails.
“I never get out that much (to the Peak District) because I’ve got this on my doorstep. I’m spoiled. I know I can just go out and do a training ride really easily.”
In a profession where there is a constant need to be out riding, Peaty is an anomaly. While the competition warm up for the approaching season in Australia, South Africa and southern California, Peaty remains at home in Yorkshire, on a hill above Sheffield, pedalling through the mud and sliding through the snow. Does he not feel the need to escape the British climate?
“It’s home from home here”, he says. “I grew up in Sheffield. I’ve been riding here for nearly 20 years [Peat is now 35]. I managed to get a house close enough to the woods that I can ride straight out of my door.”
Outside that front door, the sky is blue, the air is crisp and the hills of south Yorkshire melt away into the haze of the morning sun. It’s all the motivation we need to down our cups of tea and go riding.
It’s not far, on long veins of frozen singletrack, to the main Wharncliffe car park — the start point for our route. Such is the popularity of the woods among local riders that, even mid-morning on a weekday in February, there are several cars with bike racks on the back.
“I get recognised on most rides”, he says. “I tend to ride quite early in the morning to get the ride done. Get my head down…”
We trundle off along a wide, well-surfaced track with the light slanting in through the naked branches of small oak trees like a venetian blind. At a barely perceptible gap in the trees, Peaty jinks off the main track and onto a dark strip of dirt spiked with chunks of gritstone.
On the tool of his trade — a Santa Cruz V10 with 10 inches of rear-wheel travel — it would be nothing. But aboard a spindly carbon Blur XC with emaciated cross-country tyres and a stem that’s long enough to reach Derbyshire, it’s a far more challenging prospect.
Yet almost immediately I’m fighting to keep him in sight. Peaty is a master of reading the trail and carrying speed, and even at a distance I can see this gift in action. He is massaging the terrain, kneading momentum from every dip and crest, deciding which bits of the trail he’s better off travelling over by air.
Some way back, I’m getting into all sorts of bother trying to replicate his lines. And to rub salt in the wound, I know he’s only cruising.
When he stops at a junction to let me catch up, I’m keen to find out if this is typical of a Steve Peat training ride.
“If I’m out on my own I’ll go a bit further. But that’s pretty much it,” he says.
“So you’re giving us the lightweight version then?” I reply, and that big toothy grin spreads across his face once again.
“I pick the trails that are more challenging, mainly on my Nomad, because they are so technical, even the cross-country trails, they keep your downhill skills sharp.”
We continue on, shedding height gradually on contouring singletrack spliced with sections of off-camber laced with slick roots. From corner to corner, the ground conditions change. Out in the sun the dirt is thawing out and turning wet, while the shaded areas remain frozen hard. It’s a constantly evolving test of handling skills. I’m beginning to see why Peaty values the area so highly as a training companion.
Wharncliffe has always been a big part of mountain biking for Peaty: “We had a mountain bike club at school. Our science teacher, Mr Milson, started it. I used to come after school and do like three laps. I couldn’t do three laps now I don’t think!”
But he had two wheels in his blood for many years before that.
“I rode bikes from when I was a little kid. Where I grew up there was a big park at the top of our road, and a big open woodland and a slag heap, so I’d always play there on my BMX and build jumps.
My dad used to compete in motorbike trials, so every weekend we’d get dragged along on our pushbikes to a trials event. Then, when I was about 14, a mate of mine had one of the first Ridgeback mountain bikes. He let me have a go. We used to ride around at night. Go to the off-licence, get a bottle of sherry and go riding.”
It wasn’t long before Peaty was lured into his first competition.
“The plumber I was working with got into mountain biking. I just used to go and ride with him and mess about. He joined a club in Sheffield — Bayton All-Terrain Squad.”
Peaty was persuaded to join them on a ride. “There was a kid there, John Strutt, who was their downhill hero. I smoked him down some hills! They all talked me into racing. I did my first cross-country race when I was about 18 at Rother Valley Country Park. I entered novice class and won.”
Racing immediately ignited a passion in the young Sheffielder. “It did grab me. I was winning races from the beginning. I hadn’t really been competitive before. Well, only because I’ve got two older brothers and they were chasing me around a lot. I think there’s a lot to be said for having older brothers. It’s often that the youngest kid is more competitive or better at sports.”
Even now, 17 years later, it’s obvious that competition, or more specifically being the best, is just as important as it was when he first started.
Learn to descend as fast as Peaty with this video
It’s all fun
“I really enjoy racing. Like learning a track or hearing the start beeps. It’s fun for me to race. Going out and having fun — like practising downhill, or like going out today and just riding, playing on trails — that’s fun for me as well.”
We’ve tacked north, traversing the side of the valley on which Wharncliffe Woods sit, and ended up at the top of a Singletraction-built descent. There are problems with unsanctioned trail-building in Wharncliffe — kids raking out downhill tracks that cross popular walking trails — but this one’s legit.
It’s fun from the very beginning, working the depressions in the ground and winding in and out of the gullies. It drops down over a rock step into a big banked turn and then a rock garden filled with Wharncliffe’s famous moss-covered gritstone.
The singletrack deposits us at the foot of a rise somewhat melodramatically known as ‘Heart Attack Hill’. It’s tougher than it looks, but it’s only a short ascent and soon there are stones pinging off our down tubes along an old fire road descent, as we fly down to the Trans Pennine Trail.
“I remember when I first started riding in Wharncliffe; even the fire roads were a lot rougher than they are now. I remember them being quite fun, blasting along, jumping off rocks,” he smiles.
All about the fun
The return journey takes us south along the Trans Pennine Trail, infused, here and there, with stretches of singletrack. This is followed by a meandering climb, on fire road, back to the car park.
We’ve been out a few hours, but subtract the time taken for photography and you’re looking at an hour and a half, max. It’s not long, perhaps 10 miles if we’re being generous, but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in technicality.
“Your training must be more about intensity than piling on the miles?” I ask.
Peaty grins again: “For me it’s all about having fun.”
A well-earned cup of tea awaits us back at Peaty’s pad, and alongside a furious dunking session that involves the death of a packet of Marks and Spencer chewy oat cookies, I ask him whether his success has been down to hard work or talent.
“It’s a really hard one to answer. I’ve done the hard work in the off-season; training. I seem to change little things every year and they always work for me. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of natural talent because I’ve kept going for a long time. I think getting fit for cross-country all those years ago helped me carry my fitness as well.”
It certainly appears age is an advantage where Peaty is concerned.
“Experience definitely plays a big part in my success. I know when I’m feeling good, I know how much practice to do, how to set my bike up. It is hard to replicate that success, but if you feel good…”
The sentence is abruptly ended as George, Peaty’s younger son, sinks a well-formed set of milk teeth into Steve’s finger. “Owwwww!”
Time with his family is a precious commodity in Peaty’s life, and something that he’s obviously keen to maximise.
“I’ve got all sorts of stuff going on. I’m involved with anyonefor.com; a trail-sharing website. I’m just trying to get the Steve Peat Syndicate together to allow younger riders to buy into a race package.
I’ve always looked after younger riders, but this year I’m going to try and expand on it a little bit. There’ll be some kind of training weekend somewhere. I’ll walk tracks with them if I’m at any of the national races. They’ll have a pit and a place to hang out.
“I’m in the middle of making a book, a DVD… Then there’s the Wharncliffe Weekender race: it’s a charity fund-raiser for the Weston Park Cancer Appeal. We just went and handed over our cheque from last year a few weeks ago. That was 15 grand. Our total is £44,000 over four years, but we’re having a gap year this year.”
Last summer, after 16 years of trying and more than his fair share of bad luck and near misses, Peaty ticked off the only thing missing from his distinguished palmarès: winning the World Championships. With the monkey finally off his back, where does that leave his objectives for the coming season?
“My main goal for this year is do good things for the sport while I’m wearing the jersey. Enjoy the jersey for the year, milk it! Hopefully put on a good face for mountain biking. And win some races along the way; that always helps…”
It’s exactly the answer I’d expect from Peaty; modest and forthright. Two of the very qualities that have made him such a popular figure for the sport over the years and the reason he is known, not only as a world champion, but a people’s champion.