Ultimate Renegades | Why Nico Vouilloz Still Feels the Need for Speed
A fascinating Q&A with legendary mountain biker Nico Vouilloz from the archives
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports - past, present and future. Nico Vouilloz is one of the standouts, a blisteringly fast downhill mountain biker who dominated the sport in the 1990s. This excerpt from an archive interview sees him talking to Steve Jones, deputy editor of our sister title Dirt, about his enduring love for the sport, the scene and the simple act of shredding on two wheels.
Interview by Steve Jones | Action shots by LaPierre Bikes
For any rider old enough to remember the 90s, Nicolas Vouilloz will need little introduction - the Frenchman spent a decade as arguably the best downhill mountain bike rider in the world. He exploded onto the scene by winning the Junior Downhill World Championships in 1992 and went on to take that title a further three times. When he graduated to the senior competition, he swept all before him aside. Between 1995 and 2002, he won the Downhill World Championships an incredible seven times out of eight - including five in a row.
Vouilloz also won the overall World Cup title twice - in 1995-96 and 1999-2000 - winning 16 World Cup races during the course of his career and regularly beating the likes of Francois Gachet, Shaun Palmer and, later on, Greg Minaar and Steve Peat.
"Between 1995 and 2002 Vouilloz won the Downhill World Championships an incredible seven times out of eight - including five in a row."
A natural speed freak, Vouilloz then went on to have a successful career as a rally driver, racing in the World Rally Championships and the International Rally Challenge series and regularly finishing in the top ten.
Through all that Nico kept a hand in the mountain bike scene by dabbling in enduro and entering the occasional Megavalanche race. And he's competed more seriously recently - in 2015 he finished an impressive 5th in the Enduro World Series, proving that he is as fast as ever. He also spends a lot of his time these days working with the French bike brand LaPierre, their pro team, and shock manufacturer BOS.
His many years of expertise have proved invaluable in helping them improve their products. Here he explains how the testing process works, why he loves it and why he feels mountain biking is his future, as well as is past.
OK let’s talk about LaPierre, and your future. Is biking the future for you?
Not rally driving?[Long pause…] I don’t think I will work in rally after I have finished racing. I spent ten or eleven years in bike and six or seven in rally car, but I’ve never stopped riding bikes. Working for Lapierre and BOS is for me the future. Still riding bikes in the mountains, trying stuff, two wheels, it’s more natural. I mean I really like rally driving, driving the cars, but the mountain bike is more my world.
You won so many world titles and then stopped, but then returned for a bit?
I never stopped mountain biking, I stopped racing downhill. Yes I race enduro and I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s different, it’s not the speed of downhill, it’s physical, but downhill is the real speed. Enduro is longer, more physical, it’s different.
So what's going on at LaPierre then?
For now we are just talking, testing and R and D, even trying the road bikes, the cross country, everything. I try to be involved more at the beginning of the project. In the past it was that I was more involved later in the process for testing.
It was different for the downhill bike last year, I was involved straight away. These are things I really like. I was really young when I began testing. I have done it from early on and it was one of the things I really liked to do when I was racing. Training and testing – I was with Sam Blenkinsop in Chatel and even after two runs I went to the truck and changed something, even just a click - just to feel it. If it feels better when I changed, then I'd change the tyre or change a spring. I just like to test.
"Testing requires training. There is nothing special involved, just the more you do it the better you are."
How do you know when you've got it right?
It’s training… to feel it requires training. There is nothing you can… there is nothing special involved but the more you do it the better you are.
Do you feel there is a difference between BOS [a small shock manufacturer that Nico also test rides for] and other companies?
I know there is a difference because I was really involved with them in the past. Over the past two years it’s different because [long pause] it’s a small company compared to the other ones.
A bigger company is different, they adjust and then adjust more but... I’m happy with what I’m doing with BOS. For example, I have three or four shocks and I test them.
I try the four shocks on different tracks and I say “this is good here, the compression is good on this one the rebound better on that one, the high speed on that", and then after that they make me a shock and so now I would like to try this and this and this, so they send me three more different shocks and we go on and on. It’s good to work, it’s incredible in comparison. And the speed of what we are doing is good. I like to work like this, it’s not just to get a shock and do some clicks.
What about testing geometry?
I would like to test differences in geometry longer and see where we can go. The question that is now given to me is "I do not know if the size of the downhill bike is compared to the size of the men." For example, [French rider Damien] Spagnolo is not so tall and the bike is huge.
Is there an optimum size?
This is something I would like to see. In <class="noskimwords">motorbikes<class="noskimwords"> there is the same size for everybody. It’s something I would like to see. If we're arriving at one size I don’t like and if Blenky [Sam Blenkinsop] likes. There are many questions I would like to answer.
What about enduro?
It's different again. There is more pedalling and there are tighter corners, more pedalling. You also need to integrate the size for pedalling, it has to fit right. Yes you need length also.
Is there much more riding ahead for you then?
At the moment I know that I will ride a lot this winter and train and maybe also gain some more weight.
Put on weight?
Yes I’m a bit light at 68kg. It’s a girl’s weight.
How tall are you?
176cm (about 5 foot 9), but when you look at the girls' weight and you see in downhill the girls are heavier than that. Rachel Atherton is 66kg for example.
How do you know that?
I looked yesterday on the web. I also wanted to know the weight of Gee [Atherton] to see if he is heavy or not. I see he is 85kg. So yes, I need to add some weight. But my question now is to go with the team just to help or I don’t know... if I go to race and walk the track and help. I'll try and help the best I can from the side. Or I don’t know if the best thing is to ride and have fun? Maybe to continue to ride and to test prototypes.
The Jeep Ultimate Renegades
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. The series kicks off with mountain biking, as seen through the eyes of one of the scene’s best-respected riders and trail-builders, Dan Atherton. Next month we’ll shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.