Ultimate Renegades | Shaun Palmer and <em>That</em> Magazine Cover
The story behind one of the most iconic mountain bike images of all time
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. Like Jeep themselves, Shaun Palmer is an American icon. A maverick in every sense of the word, Palmer relished a challenge and loved proving his critics wrong. Having enjoyed a hugely successful career as a pro snowboarder in the early 90s, he took up downhill mountain biking and in the space of a few short years proceeded to rewrite the rulebook. Here Dirt Magazine’s James Smurthwaite tells the story of his career, and this seminal 1998 cover shot.
The world of downhill racing can be roughly split into two distinct eras, BP and AP - that is Before Palmer and After Palmer. When Shaun "Napalm" Palmer strode into the infant sport in 1995, it was still dominated by skinsuits, bullet helmets and a European, road cycling mentality. Palmer's short lived eruption of panache, punk and pig-headedness would leave it irrevocably changed.
Along with motocross legends Randy Lawrence and Mike Metzger, he joined the factory team of Jeff Steber’s Intense Cycles. He had already acheived great success in snowboarding but he shocked everyone by finishing seventh at the second round of the 1996 World Cup and missing top spot at the World Championships by a mere 0.15 of a second from Nico Vouilloz.
It wasn't just the success that made Palmer a legend though. He rocked up to races in a party bus and swaggered around the pits in a gold top hat and <class=''noskimwords">suit jacket<class=''noskimwords"> while swigging champagne. Sponsors scrambled to be associated with him to the point where he was turning down offers of up to $100,000 - he was arrogant, American, abrasive but more than anything sickeningly fast.
At the time Palmer was the face of the 'extreme sports generation', a god in the eyes of many. His attitude (and success) also earned him many enemies but that's the price you pay for being a true renegade.
If there's on image that sums up Palmer in the sport it's Dirt Magazine's Jan/Feb 1998 cover. It's become one of mountain biking's iconic images. Napalm screams down the upper section of the Chateau-d'Oex 1997 World Champs track in Switzerland for the lens of Malcolm Fearon. The track was a six minute monster that pushed riders to their physical limits - most notably Francois Gachet, the golden boy of downhill racing during the mid 1990s, who suffered a career ending crash in practice.
Palmer shrugged all this off though. He proudly flies the stars and stripes on his jersey with baggy moto pants and bright red Vans on flat pedals. Palmer looks every bit as rowdy on the bike as he was off it. He finished 16th but in a field that included to-be legends such as Steve Peat, Rob Warner, Cedric Gracia and John Tomac, you could already feel his influence written large on the sport.
Palmer's reign in downhill was short lived and he stopped racing in 1999 after his crash within sight of the finish line at the Åre World Championships. To this day, the look and attitude of a downhill racer is heavily inspired by Palmer's ethos. Motocross clothing and flat-out racing has superseded the ruthless drive for efficiency and even at the highest level there's a sense that riders are still there for the good times rather than the results or, as GT Factory Racing's Wyn Masters would put it: "Win or lose, we're on the booze."
Watch the Miserable Champion documentary on Palmer's time in downhill here:
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.