Fabien Barel with his Mondraker Foxy

Fabien Barel with his Mondraker Foxy

You’ve had a long and painful road to recovery. You had surgery this time last year?
I didn’t have the surgery. I rode without. I had a long recovery to try to re-stabilise it because if I had the surgery I wouldn’t have been able to ride the season last year. So that’s why we decide to re-stabilise it and then we start riding with a knee brace just at the beginning of the year before Maribor.

And then you had your accident. How frustrating has it been?
For sure it has been something challenging. I got a big injury at the beginning of last year but I managed to get back, win a World Cup, finish fifth overall and just getting back up to speed. So that was good and that was a satisfaction because it’s a challenge that you have to face, even if you didn’t do exactly what you want, it’s a certain satisfaction. But this year it has been a lot harder because my goal was to come back into the World Cup, but breaking a femur is a big thing. So they fixed it and put a rod in so I wasn’t expecting so I just try and think really positive to try and make it happen but when I realised that I had to face reality that it wasn’t going to happen, it has been really hard mentally. That’s the first time that I had to really face myself and face against the wall and that’s been a proper challenge. There are two solutions; you dig yourself down into a hole or you just try to find solutions. I’ve been working with people to understand better my mental function to try to step ahead with all that and set myself goals to be ready for next year.

So you did some soul-searching then?
In this kind of situation you got to develop a strong kind of philosophy first of all to make sense about what happened, especially when you just ask yourself ‘why?’ so just finding the answer to that, and then exactly finding what you want to do for your future and understand a little bit more how you are in these situations. So for sure it goes by philosophy and psychology and that’s definitely digging into myself is the most experience I got from the last few months.

Do you feel stronger mentally?
I always have an expression I use throughout my career that everything that is not killing you is making you stronger, and definitely it’s part of it because you learn everytime a little more about yourself and you get a chance to learn a little more about the others. Obviously you can imagine your situation is changing sports-wise, the people you have around you is not reacting the same way. So you learn about yourself, learn about the others and learn about life so it makes you better.

Were you close to quitting at any point?
No, no, no. I’m a pretty determined person so when I set myself a goal I try to stick to it. I always say I want to end my career when I’m at my best. My best doesn’t mean the best result but the best of the speed I can get and this winter (the beginning of 2010 before his accident) has been the fastest speed I always have of all my references, my tracks that I’ve got at home. I know that I’ve still got the capacity to keep increasing my speed. I need to go and see on the racing side. It’s a permanent change, for sure, and you never know. There is so many parameters in downhill racing, I’m definitely going to keep pushing, and I think the day I will stop doing that is the right time to stop.

Barel battles the wind and rocks

Barel battles the wind and rocks

What has been the biggest motivation in your rehabilitation?
It is mainly the disappointment of the people around me. That’s been taken by the others as a frustration a lot more than me. It’s like you know when you have a big win, for sure you’re amazingly happy for yourself but there is also the fact that all the effort that you share with all the other people is coming to a happy conclusion. I think on the opposite way this frustration; I mean I’ve got a lot of supporting persons on my side. That’s my real motivation.

It seems like your career has been a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?
I think it comes down a little bit to my character. I don’t want to be a consistent rider. I don’t want to make racing as my job, you know? I’m riding with my heart and I give all of what I have to give and for sure it’s an intensity that is giving me the best and sometimes the worst. And injuries and crashes in racing because you push too much. It’s all part of the game for me. When I hear the clock starting I just want to give it all. I don’t want to be there to say ‘OK, I ride 95% and I control and I make points at that race to make it better for the others. I ride a regional race and a World Cup at the same speed. For me you ride against the clock and you give it all when you have to. That’s also maybe why I’ve never won the overall of the World Cup. But it’s also maybe why I’ve won three World Championships!

It’s odd, because you’re also quite…

Exactly. Analytical, methodical. You try to eliminate the variables…
It’s still there. This is always part of it. You cannot calculate all of the parameters. In life there is a destiny and sometimes things happen. I broke my femur six weeks before on a track and a jump that I maybe do 250 times. It’s like why? Why this at that moment just before a World Cup, just at the moment I ride the fastest I can? But there is things that you don’t want to explain. You’ve got to be confident in yourself and confident in what life’s giving you. You’ve just got to deal with it and adapt yourself the best you can and for sure I am very calculating. With my bike I calculate every parameter, my tactic, my race, my lines and everything. I do calculate a lot, but when it comes down to being at the start the calculation is over; that’s when you just crank it up. So yeah, there is a bit of two personality in what I do, but I think everything is calculated for the fact that I have to just let go all the adrenaline, to take all the risk I want. That’s what I like.

Would you consider yourself an optimist?
Yeah, I always think positive. When you do all the trip like we do in Urge Kenya, in Nepal and we gonna do in Cabo Verde, we all are very lucky persons. Living in countries with the lifestyle, the developed life that we have, we all very lucky person. Not being optimist would be very wrong and bad for the one that is suffering. So I think the amazing thing that sport has brought me is the chance to travel, meet different people, meet different cultures and really realise the overall diversity of the world. When you have all that in your head you realise how lucky we are so you’ve got to be optimist.

The final descent back to Llanberis

The final descent back to Llanberis

Going back to your methodical approach, do you know where that comes from?
I don’t really know, but when I start racing, my dad come to me and say ‘ok, no problem. You can do all you want, you can miss school as much as you want as long as you get all of your exam going. I think I had to set myself a certain organisation to be able to manage school at the level I wanted to go and sport where I wanted to go as well, which was tow high levels. I just had to deal with it and be really organised and set things up and always anticipate on things to not be caught ahead by some other parameters. So I think it must come from that. Self-taught. Ok, you want to do things, if you want to do a lot of things you need to be organised you need to calculate and you need to be precise in what you do.
At 15 I start downhill, and I sign a big contract from 16-19 years old with Sunn, and 16 and 17 age has been really challenging for me because straight away a lot of questions. You’re very young you don’t have the maturity, into a sport and a team that’s got big money back in the Grundig World Cup. It’s been hard, and again the organisation and the methodical approach that I have has come from all that pressure that you’ve got on your shoulders. You need to learn and adapt and it’s either you crash yourself down and you never really popped out or you fight for it. it was definitely a great opportunity for me to talk to myself all I have to.

You’ve got a very strong support crew. They must be very important to you?
When I make a mistake I say ‘I’ and we win a race I say ‘we’. I think as a leader you need to take all the faults and the mistakes for yourself and fight for it and when you get a chance to win a race just bring everyone round and say ‘we did it together’. I think it’s a big part of it. we’ve got to understand something in life, alone, we’ve got to be honest, we are nothing. We’re living into social world; we’ve got the government that’s helping you and you’ve got family that’s helping you, what you do at work you don’t do on your own. I think in racing it’s the same thing; for sure I am the one on the bike and I am the one performing, but there is Paul behind doing an amazing job on the bike, you’ve got the coach that spending time to get the body I have and the shape I have, then you’ve got the family that is behind your giving you all the mental support and love. So for sure, the staff that you’ve got around you and the atmosphere that you’ve got around you is a big part of the result that you can have. Specially for me it’s a little bit the culture of the South of France, but I am someone who is very emotional and I need to fill myself with confidence and I need to fill my life with the people I love and that’s, for me, really important. The relationship with Chris (Porter) that we’ve got and the relationship with Mondraker that we’ve developed over the last three years by creating my own structure has been an amazing satisfaction just for that reason. Is to be able to link a real relationship with the work that you are doing. When you ride for a team plenty of sponsors that you’ve got on your jersey, you don’t even know who they are. So you’re representing them, you win on the podium, you provide them something and you don’t even know who they are. For me that’s one of the things that wasn’t making sense. Now, when I put myself on the podium, it’s personal. I know that I bring on the podium Paul, but I bring the sponsors and everyone I know. I would say I put myself as a businessman because I do plenty of things, but as a sportsman, for me sport is not business. For me sport is not business, sport is all emotional and all passion and I got a chance to make my life out of it, which is fantastic, but I don’t think I would ever see it as a proper business.

Do you think your competitors take everything outside the actual riding part of racing as seriously as you do?
I think today in the World Cup circuit everyone does; yeah. You take the top ten of the world cup and there is no one that doesn’t take all those parameters into consideration. World Cup racing today is like the Formula 1 of cycling.

It seems like your neighbour, Nico, is of a similar mindset…
…way more than me actually. He was in all the traits, like for me I had a peak of that at one point and I tried to bring people around me that would go into the details for me and me more focussed just on my skills and riding. That’s what I’ve been doing in the last two years. If you look at the new riding style, the new school, that you take your Fairclough, your Blinky, Atherton and Hill. All those guys really have the skills. They really ride around their skills. I managed to make all my results by my technology, my training physically and just working on my talents. At the moment I’m in a situation with my career when I say ‘if I want to keep progressing I need to go with the technology, but I need to improve my skills a lot, not only by commitment and not only by fitness or the shape, but also just be better technically to come with that new school. When you take a corner, don’t turn the handlebar the way of the corner, but turn it the opposite way to already prepare the drift. This is all resetting yourself into different style, different instinct riding, I would call it when you just do things naturally. So I’m actually stepping slightly out of all that calculating things, where I would put Paul more involved, where I would put Chris with the suspension more involved, but where me, I’m confident in them, and me more focussing on just letting go and getting the feeling, the touch…

It must be hard when you’ve ridden a certain way for so long to change the way you ride…

that’s what’s so fantastic, when you do so long a career like that I’m not looking after quantity, sure it’s hard but it’s bringing you so much interest. Like riding for 15 years the same way, it’s very… there’s all new work to do, all new skills to develop, all new way to train. That’s like every morning, you wake up in life, and it’s a different day. You’re a different person and that’s what’s great about riding. I think I enjoyed the last two years the most in the last 15 years. I just love it. I’m closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning, obviously, and I start thinking about new projects, I start companies, and two years ago I had the Monaco bobsleigh driver that came to see me, and I did the last two years I did drive bobsleigh and they did offer me three year contract which was really interesting going into Monaco which is ten minutes from my house, big opportunity and everything, and I just thought about it and I was thinking for sure it’s an amazing opportunity but that’s not my passion. My passion is mountain biking. I wake up every morning and you tell me to go ride three hours; I love it. I’m motivated for it. This diversity, this permanent changement, I love it. I just love riding.

Your first world’s was 2004. Did it come as a surprise to win?
I will say something that I’ve never said to press to anything. It’s so far back now that there’s no worry. I worked on it like hell to determine myself that I was going to do it, but inside yourself it’s still just a dream. When it actually happened… I just worked the last six months planning and making it happen, but when you actually think the chance that it actually happens is so small that when you’re facing reality that where you actually made it, it’s just unreal; it’s the best thing ever. You always say you got two solutions; I can ?? with you or I can try to live my dreams. Now that I remember the surprise the most happiness that I had after the victory was the people around me that had been supporting me for the last six-seven months when I was like. But for me the best souvenir and the most happiness was in the preparation. It’s so much luck, so much energy into just believing it. it was raining like hell, and I was like ‘it can’t rain, I don’t like riding in the rain as a race’. And I was so scared of that that I just take the bike and every time I was riding I was just ‘porwch’ just going outside in the rain and just training and training and training.

So it wouldn’t have meant as much if you had just treated it like any other race?
Not even a third or a tenth of the taste. I did the same thing the year after… The year after has been all the ego story, not taking it badly, but er…. Without saying what the other were talking about which I kind of don’t care, put that aside, but I won the World Championship in Les Gets and you need to pass the finish line, but I wasn’t the fastest. The fastest was Steve. You know the first thing when I wake up the next morning but the win, the famous thing, the sponsors; it’s great. But as a sportsman, as an athlete you like to have a victory where you really win by yourself and no one is falling, no one make a mistake… I did Les Gets with my heart and I did Livigno with my head. Livigno I was calculating, I arrive with this bike in the start line everyone’s looking at me like where are you going? It would look normal now, but five years ago it was like…. Long and slack… when you just make it happen it’s just fantastic. Les Gets was unreal because I dreamed about it so much, and Livigno was unreal because I wasn’t expecting to do it; the level was so high.

Mojo/Fox Trail Diaries: Fabien Barel in Wales from MTBcut on Vimeo

Urge is obviously your helmet company. Are you expanding that?
We just started two years and a half ago. Very original concept of design and marketing and everything, and that’s definitely one of the plans for my future years and try to be able to drive the message of the philosophy of the company that we have is that making money is for sure one of the goals to be able to live through the company, but also it’s an opportunity to drive a message at the events that we’re doing and the marketing we’re doing. We definitely use downhill as the elite, as the image, but we also use a lot of all-mountain for the popular side of it and the accessibility of amazing space like where we went today.

We try to regroup all the passion that we have for mountain biking through all the philosophy and the authenticity that you have around our sport. I think that people that are passion about mountain biking are passion about nature and you have a certain generosity for what you do. I think the sports side that is extreme, that is bringing you into the really high mountains in amazing context to be able to ride in amazing places on amazing trails is one thing, the humanitarian action we have on the side is just showing that we’re not just going in a place and take the best out of it and just go away. You go into a place, take the best out of it which is the nature which is something amazing, but you will give something back. In Kenya we drilled twelve holes in for the water. In Nepal we built three schools for 170 kids. The amazing thing is that you see actually things, we’re going through NGO, we go straight to see these things happening. The amazing adventure we had with the Nepalese NGO is that we brought solar panels. We had solar panel company; he wasn’t giving any money to the event but he gave us eight solar panel and delivered them into Nepal. So we put that into the school, and they have candle normally in the evening and for the first time they have electricity and they put a light on. The kids were all shouting; they never saw light in their life. And the dude from NGO had the reflex to take his phone and register it and send it to us by email and I tell you it’s an amazing emotion to realise how… you know when you take a shower and you have hot water, when you go in in the evening and you turn the light on. You all consider that normal. But those people see them light, they are all fifteen years old, it’s just like they seen something unreal. I think that’s the amazing side of the events we do. For me it’s a great marketing for Urge. I think we are really pure sport and there is an amazing message to go with it.

You said you were doing another one?
We’re doing another one in February. That’s going to be in the island of Cabo Verde. That’s a set of islands on the side of Senegal. The peaks are not massively high – they go up to 3000m – but for this year the new concept is we’re going to have four different stages. So four climbs to do, and they’re going to be all the time from 3000 on the first island down to zero, and the other 2500. So that’s two stages on each. So we’re going to cross over from one to the other and that’s going to be approximately the same kind of concept with the humanitarian action. It’s going to be around the child; around education and health. We had an amazing opportunity to work straight with the government that was first of all interested for the tourism aspect because mountain biking and trekking are big activity for them, and also we weren’t just there to take the best out of it. We are bringing something to the country. All the bike auction that we are doing we brought €18,000 in Kenya, €23,000 in Nepal and our goal is to go for at least €20,000 this year as well. So that’s a big amount. The event is costing money to us but we don’t touch the money we give to NGO. The bike auction is basically what people are willing to give and that amount of money is completely separate to the object of the organisation. That’s definitely something we want to stick to. I pay my flight from my own money to go. Fred, my business partner, pay his flight from his own money. The medical staff that come pay his flight, the photographer pay his flight. Everyone that is coming on board is coming because they believe in the event and they believe in the philosophy of it. Even if, one day, we get a big sponsor we definitely don’t want to change that. The Urge Cabo Verde will be even more amazing because there is as much need as Nepal or Kenya, but we’ve got a chance to have a very warm climate where it’s going to be an amazing season and the riding is massive black volcano at the top and you can ride everywhere you want. The first 400-500m is in the volcano. It’s going to be unreal.

Fabien Barel: glove puppeteer

Fabien Barel: glove puppeteer

What do you do to relax?
Time to relax is time with my friends. I’m hyperactive. I like to do things non-stop. But there are moments when I get tired when I just like to just sit down, but I don’t like to read, I don’t watch much TV, I just like to sit down and hang out and chat with friends. Relaxing is like a day we’ve had today; even if it’s intense it was relaxing. Having good laughs and having moments.

Are you still rider representative for the World Cup?
I’m still involved with them to get straight feedback on what’s going on. But now it’s managed by Martin Whitely.

If you were in charge of the World Cup, what would you change to make it better?

To make it simple, the way I would improve it would be to try to stabilise the location of each event. To make them more performance and able to make more investment to tracks and to TV to make a classic event. For the people to have a longterm relationship with the sponsors, a longterm relationship with the organisation. The first thing I would do would be to sign a minimum of three-year contract everytime I sign a new location. To make it simple! After there is plenty of things I would change! The second detail I would add is if you want to make our sport popular it needs to be high speed. It needs to go fast and it needs to be visible on TV and it needs to be track that are wide-open and you ride 60-70kph. Full gas. That is what I think downhill should be.

What are your goals outside mountain biking?
To be happy! That’s my main goal. To be able to wake up every morning and look at myself in the mirror and be proud of what I’m doing. That’s my main goal.

Have you still got what it takes to win a World Championships?

It’s a hard one to answer. I know I have some good points and some strong points that I can push ahead. But there is so many parameters and everything I would say that today there are eight riders that can win the world championships. And yeah, I would say I am part of it.

Who do you most respect among your competitors?
I really respect Steve for what he has been doing on the sports side, which is one thing, and also on the human side. First of all the fact that he’s able to share with his others be really open with the people all around, with the public, with the media, and I think that’s what Nico hasn’t been capable to do. He knows that and he realises that today. That’s what Steve does really well. I respect everyone for what they are doing. Steve is for sure sticking out of the pod because he has this charisma that he is capable to use in the right direction. Some people have charisma but they don’t use it in the right way. Sam, I respect him for his talents and all the younger that are coming, I respect them for their talents. Gee for the motivation and the determination he has put in the last two years to transform his talent into professionalism. Tracy for all the hard work that she has been doing, like winning the worlds this year has for me been an amazing satisfaction for her. I really respect everyone because they all got good points, but the only things is that some of them I don’t like because they can’t accept the difference with you. That’s maybe a more general attitude of everyone. We got to stop changing the others, just let everyone do what they want to do.

Do you have any sporting idols outside of mountain biking?
I’m not a very fan person. I watch all the sports, but for me everyone from the highest place you can have in sport or society, you can be president or you can be 20-time world champion, at the end of the day we’re all human being and I think that I would more have as an idol the person that has an amazing values and amazing character in life and a certain wiseness and philosophy. This would be more my idol than the simple sportsman or someone in politics or whatever. It’s more the human side that’s… I take an example of a French actor that is a great friend of mine and he is world famous but he has got an amazing generosity and way to share with people. He’s just an amazing man. I think it’s more important what you are that is important than what you represent. That’s more the thing that I’m looking at than who is winning.

What did you make of the riding on Snowdon?
Today was great! We didn’t reach the goal images-wise that wanted, as Stu and Roo could tell us, but no the riding was a great adventure. I love mountain biking because it’s brining you into amazing nature and for sure when you look at it, nature is… you feel so small in those conditions. When you are in the middle of the Sahara on top of a dune or you’re just at home in the evening looking at stars, or you’re on the top of Snowdon mountain with the wind blowing you and you can barely stand. You have your bike and you lift your front wheel… that’s what mountain biking is all about. For me it was a great day of riding especially now we are warm and have the food! It’s not so much what you do it’s who you do it with and we had a great laugh and you get into that situation when you have people getting grumpy or cold, but look; it’s been tough for everyone, everyone kept smiling, everyone kept enjoying, Stu had to walk I don’t know how many kilometres, and he’s still smiling. That’s what made my day, for sure!