Six years on from retiring from racing, Manon is still being recognised, still achieving results, and still inspiring riders – this time with no podiums or race tape in sight.
New stars of 2013 revisited: Manon Carpenter
Words and photos: Sim Mainey
“You know who that is, don’t you? That’s Manon Carpenter!” The three riders look over in our direction. Manon does a good job of suppressing a visible squirm and smiles. Being recognised out on the trails is all part and parcel of being, amongst other things, a former World Champion.
Ten years ago, when MBR talked to Manon for our New Stars of 2013 series, she was just about to break into elite level DH racing, having dominated the junior category. Her winning streak continued with tens of podiums, a World Cup overall victory and a World Champion’s jersey before, in 2017, Manon announced her retirement from racing.
Today Manon is in the public eye for the work she has done bringing attention to subjects that mountain biking has often shied away from. Manon, in partnership with filmmaker Tommy Wilkinson, has produced two films; Trails on Trial and Winds of Change. Both take a look at some big issues, namely land access and climate change. “When I finished racing six years ago I didn’t really have a plan. I’d always liked making riding edits, so I had a link to being involved in films. I’ve transitioned into making films through the lens of mountain biking on topics I’d like to see more on.”
In a sport that loves a 15 second ‘shredit’, and can sometimes feel more like a fashion show than an outdoor activity, asking people to invest their time exploring subjects that are large, complex and, in many cases, full of uncomfortable truths is no easy task.
“I’d always liked making riding edits, so I had a link to films”
But it’s taking these important, if unwieldy, topics and using mountain biking and filmmaking as a way to talk about them – and make them understandable – that has become Manon’s new-found skill.
Good racers have a methodical side to them. One that can calculate risk, understand where time can be made, and lost, and to judge what’s required for a race to be won. The best racers can then follow through with that plan and put it into action with unfaltering accuracy. Now an academic studying earth sciences, it’s clear that Manon has a brain that is hardwired for analysis. “When we were putting Trails on Trial together I was in my Masters year, and the first documents that I wrote had an introduction, method, results and conclusion structure. Which is a bit nerdy I know,” laughs Manon.
But it’s that kind of thinking that has helped her break down complex topics and make them not just understandable, but interesting. Ask Manon a complex question and there’s a moment’s pause in which you sense an answer is being carefully formulated before it’s delivered with considered precision. Just as with her racing. The partnership with Tommy has allowed Manon to flex her interest in information with Tommy balancing things out with emotions and opinions. “I like the information because it’s objective, but it’s often the emotion that gets the point across.”
Time, tools and talent all cost money, and without sponsorship making a film of the quality Manon and Tommy wanted would be impossible. Manon is quite happy to admit that her racing career has given her a platform from which she’s been able to approach brands to sponsor the films. In turn, getting large brands such as Shimano, Specialized and Patagonia onboard has reassured interview subjects, particularly at large public bodies, that the films would be serious, balanced, pieces of work and worthy of their time. Being a familiar face might be a little awkward on the trails but it does help open doors. Manon hasn’t just used her reputation to further her interests though.
“I recognise I know a lot less than other people about trails and I’ve been in the trail advocacy space a shorter time than many, which is why I’ve used my platform to bring in other people’s voices.”
The idea for Trails on Trial came about during lockdown when the acceleration and proliferation of trail use and trail building was creating tension, particularly between mountain bikers and land owners. Although they didn’t want to sensationalise the issue, it did feel like mountain bikers were coming under increasing scrutiny and the future of some trails was hanging in the balance.
“At the start we wanted to prod a bit, because as mountain bikers it can be frustrating how difficult it can be to work with land managers and land owners. But then talking to Forestry and Land Scotland, Natural Resources Wales and Forestry England you realise there are challenges from their side too. It felt like constructive dialogue.”
Not only did Trails on Trial raise awareness of the issues our trails were facing, it helped fill the gap between riders and land owners with knowledge that was useful to both sides.
“A lot of people who were already working in that space really appreciated it being talked about more and also maybe it raised awareness for what could be done and showing the examples that exist. What was quite nice was we heard how some of the public bodies were going to show it to their staff to show them the people who were behind the trails.”
As much as it was a film for anyone with an interest in how land in the UK was being used and managed for recreation, Trails on Trial was also a way for mountain bikers to talk to non-riders. By humanising mountain bikers, explaining what they wanted from the land and showing that they actually cared about the places they rode, it showed that riders weren’t just a problem that needed dealing with.
The film showed that there were plenty of conversations already happening around the topic. It also helped get more conversations going, and inspired plenty of action too – Trail Collective North Wales, previously featured in our Trailblazers series, were formed off the back of seeing the film and realising that a trail association was going to be the best way to save and manage the trails in their area.
Despite her custom painted, Soil Searching-branded Specialized Stumpjumper and Patagonia riding gear, Manon isn’t a sponsored athlete. Ambassador would maybe be a better title, but she prefers trail advocate, a subtle difference but one that comes with a different set of expectations. “I’m good at carving out niches. I’m a mountain biking geologist who talks about climate change!”
These days, rather than turning up for races, she’s turning up for dig days and screenings of films, chairing discussions and helping to join some of the dots that make up the UK riding scene. “I had no idea when I quit racing that this would be a growing area of mountain biking. It’s cool to see it. I think in the industry there’s more awareness of the need to get people interested in our trails.”
Soil Searching seems a natural partner for Manon. It started out with the premise that Specialized supported athletes, so why not the people behind the trails that everyone rides? It’s now expanded to holding dig days and fundraisers around the world. A big part of what it, and indeed Patagonia, does is share stories; showing proactive ways of looking after trails and the places where trails are built, and giving recognition to the people who make riding possible. This is a big part of what Manon does in her ambassador and trail advocacy role. “I had some good conversations with them that I maybe wouldn’t have had with sponsors in the past. Honest conversations about what I wanted to do.”
Sponsors like results. They like winning. But the idea with trail advocacy, regardless of who is putting money behind it, is we all win. “Supporting trails shouldn’t be a marketing exercise. There’s talk of whether a proportion of bike product sales should go into a pot to support recreation. Something similar happens in the US with the outdoor industry, with money going towards conservation in the areas that recreation takes place in.”
Manon points to how Trash Free Trails has managed to get support from three large bike brands, Specialized, Trek and Santa Cruz. Pulling together competitors for a common goal is how it should be. “There shouldn’t be brand politics in supporting trails.”
From supporting films that talk about wild trails and climate change to getting involved with dig days, Manon points out that these are huge brands that could have kept their hands clean and shied away from thorny topics without affecting their bottom line. But the fact that they stepped up to see conversations take place and help trails get maintained is hugely encouraging. Manon sees this as a trend that will continue to grow.
“That’s the thing, right? The industry relies on these trails so much. If you didn’t have wild trails, in the UK at least, there wouldn’t be a lot left to ride. I think the industry is waking up to how important wild trails are and recognising we can support trails in different ways. ”
A racer relies on the structure of a team to win races and trails also need a team to manage, maintain and fund them. A trail association gives a way for that to happen but creating one is often easier said than done. Manon says there are discussions taking place about creating a national framework to help new associations form and joining up existing trail organisations, helping unite riders for a common purpose. With a unique and wide ranging overview of the issues riders are facing, Manon is well placed to be the facilitator for the discussions needed to make this happen – both on and off camera. “I think that’s where I can be of most use.”
Trails don’t exist in isolation and Manon is just as passionate about the places trails exist as the trails themselves. She points out that getting mountain bikers actively involved in the places they spend time, and getting them to appreciate them for more than just somewhere that trails can be found, will mean they are much more likely to advocate for the environment on a larger scale.
Winds of Change, which looked at the storms of 2021-2022 and the damage they caused to trails in the UK, has enabled Manon, and other organisations like Protect Our Winters, to sit in a room of mountain bikers and talk about climate change. Something that hasn’t happened before. Manon finds this hugely exciting, especially when the reaction has been so positive with riders wanting to be part of the discussion and keen to find out more. “Part of the evolution of mountain biking is broadening the conversations it’s having but without taking anything away from what it’s always been.”
Playing in the dirt will always be fun – and the reason most of us ride – but being mindful of the issues around trails and the environment in general can happily co-exist with that hedonism.
It’s probably unsurprising that having grappled with some big issues Manon is now looking at one of the most contentious of them all, political action. “When you’re an athlete you’re not supposed to be political. But there’s a general election next year and I’d like to be a bit more vocal around that. What that will look like I don’t quite know yet, but I want to encourage people to have their say. That’s the biggest thing, right? How are you going to vote? What are your priorities? I care about how our environment is managed, but also things like climate change as well. A lot of conversations around climate change get shot down in mountain biking and people don’t want to talk about it, but there’s no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t talk about it. The more everyone talks about it the better. I want to normalise having those conversations.”
And what about the next film? Manon has some ideas, but is having a much needed break before sitting down with Tommy and deciding what topic to cover next.
Back in 2013 MBR described Manon as ‘a storm-force blast of fresh air.’ While she’s moved from successful racer to passionate trail advocate, filmmaker and conversation facilitator that statement still very much stands and her winning streak continues.