"In This Sport, If You Fail You Die” | Meet The Fastest Man in the World on a Mountain Bike
"In some sports failing might just mean getting hurt. In this sport, if you fail you die.”
“If I was afraid standing up there I wouldn’t go. Fear is like a natural correction for your body. If you’re not prepared for something that you’re about to do you have failed, and in some sports failing might just mean getting hurt but in this sport... if you fail you die."
Markus Stoeckl has been in the saddle since he was a teenager. The Austrian, now 43, bought his first mountain bike when he was 15 years old. But neither he, nor the cycling world, could have predicted at the time where mountain biking would eventually take him.
The Austrian holds two separate, equally astonishing, world speed records. Markus is the fastest man to ever travel downhill on snow on a production mountain bike, and the fastest man to do the same on gravel as well. He has ridden a regular mountain bike faster than anyone else on the planet. And the latter record he achieved by riding down a volcano.
“I was riding my bike more and more and liked going downhill and then about 20 years ago I met Eric Barone and all these guys who were doing speed races, and that’s how I got into it, and into regular downhill as well," he says.
Stoeckl is a regular face on the downhill mountain biking scene. Starting as a World Cup racer, the Austrian has now been director of the MS-Mondraker team since 2004; a team whose formidable 2018 lineup includes Brook McDonald, Laurie Greenland and Mike Jones.
Those outside the downhill circuit may be more familiar with seeing Stoeckl in a speed suit than MS-Mondraker gear though. For Markus, a record speed attempt involves suiting up in custom-made skin tight lycra - “the same kind of thing downhill skiers use" - and a unique aerodynamic helmet, and then sending it down an insanely steep slope as fast as humanly possible - or ideally faster.
“It’s always a completely different feeling every time, doing something where in the worst case you might actually die"
“When I showed up for the first time in the French Alps we were going down these steeps in Les Arcs. That’s how I started to go on the big slopes," he remembers.
“It’s obviously way, way less technical than downhill mountain biking. There’s nothing too hard about going down straight, but still you have to know what you’re doing because you’re going so fast.
“You have to be sure of your position on the bike. You have to be sure of yourself too because you can’t really slow down or brake because you would crash for sure. It’s just for a few seconds but you really have to be focused on everything that’s going on around you.
“Decisions are made in split-seconds and you have to be prepared and the bike has to be prepared and the hill has to be prepared and you have to be sure about everything."
Markus first started riding for serious speed in 1999, in Les Arcs. Stoeckl couldn’t afford a prototype bicycle to compete on, so he competed instead in the series bike class and ended up setting a new speed record on snow, descending at 187 km/h. On September 2017, a full 18 years later, he would go on to beat his own record by riding an Intense M6 mountain bike down a ski slope in La Parva Chile, to set the current record of 210 km/h.
It was also in the Alps back in 1999 that Stoeckl would have his only crash so far in speed racing. In a sport where one crash in a career can be enough to end a life, Markus was lucky to walk away from a bail out at over 180 km/h in one piece.
“I was lucky that it was on snow. It was scary because the brakes didn’t work. When we talk about snow we talk about ice. Riding on ice is like gliding, there’s less friction than on gravel. Riding on snow is safer than on dirt.
“For this crash there was 50-100 metres off-piste [I crashed into] where I was just lucky I didn’t hit any rocks or something else. It was more luck than anything else."
So does he ever get scared before attempting to break a speed record? Put bluntly, the answer is no.
“If I’m standing there and I am scared then I wouldn’t do it because I don’t want to die," he casually states.
“We have the best team and the best gear. The chances of not making it are so minor that we really don’t consider it"
“We have the knowledge to do what we are doing. We have the best team and the best gear. The chances of not making it are so minor that we really don’t consider it. There’s always going to be a chance but it’s whatever [small] percentage."
It wasn’t until 2011 that Stoeckl would claim the gravel speed record from the legendary Eric Barone, going 164.95km/h down a volcano in Nicaragua. That’s 102.2 miles per hour, and an experience which Markus describes, somewhat surprisingly, as “kind of boring".
The natural question at this point, of course, is how going 164.95km/h on a bicycle under any circumstances could be considered “kind of boring". Markus’ answer gives an insight into the experiences and speeds he has become accustomed to in his career.
“It was kind of flat at the top so we had to really pedal to get into the steep part [after starting the run], and then the steep part was only a few metres before it started getting flatter again.
“The speed wasn’t satisfying and it wasn’t what I wanted to find. It was fun for sure but it wasn’t what we were looking for and that’s why right after that event we were already thinking about finding a steeper, higher mountain where we could go faster.
“Finally we found it in Chile."
Though Chile was some time later. It was in 2017, in the Atacama region, where Markus would set yet another bicycle gravel record with a speed of 167.6 km/h.
“It took us almost ten years of searching," he says. “We decided to really go for it and we went out for three trips to Chile, each of two weeks, and one trip we really got going.
“With the angle, the climate and the temperature in Chile we calculated that we [could get up to] 200 km/h but after the first run we found it was just way too soft. By the end we were lucky to even hit 167 km/h and that was just possible because the top part was rocks."
Never has one man been so nonchalant about such an astonishing, record-breaking feat.
So what’s next for Markus?
“We have one or two places in mind for the next challenge that could be something. There’s a mountain at 6000m. Sometimes oxygen is a challenge. It’s a long hike. We would make base camp on 5000m and hike up and then we would have to plan well. It’s hard to get to 6000m with the bike. And then to try and go down at 200kph is a challenge.
“This is what we have in mind when we’re planning. We have to think about all of this."
Markus outlines how he wants “to break the prototype record" one day, but ultimately for him it’s not about the records - it’s about the speed.
“For myself it’s just about going fast. My goal is just to go fast. Whether it’s mountain biking or road cycling or whatever kind of cycling. To be able to get on a bike without an engine and accelerate close to 200km/h in about eight or nine seconds is just… such a thrill for me.
“That’s why I’m doing it. It’s always a completely different feeling every time, doing something where in the worst case you might actually die. It’s very emotional sometimes.
“Things definitely change when you have kids of course. I miss my family a lot when I’m travelling but I need to be setting speeds as well."
It’s hard to picture a man who holds two world records and describes a 164.95 km/h bicycle ride as a “boring" ever giving up on the hunt before he’s fully satisfied, and with someone as ambitious and fearless as Markus Stoeckl, it’s hard to know if that day will ever come at all.
To read the rest of our March 'Space' issue on Mpora, click here.