Mountain Biking

Fabien Barel Interview | The Two-Time World Champion on a Season of French Resurgence

Even in a country that's no stranger to producing mountain biking legends, Barel is right up there

We caught up with Fabien Barel after he was just back from watching the 2018 UCI Mountain Biking World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland in September. Having won three of the things himself, one as a junior and two as an elite rider, the Frenchman knows a fair bit about what it takes to win on downhill’s biggest day.

These days, he watches from the bottom of the track rather than riding from the top, with allegiances to the Canyon Factory Downhill Team (Troy Brosnan, Mark Wallace and Kye A’Hern) where he’s team director.

“History is happening at those events”

Despite team allegiances though, as his compatriot Loic Bruni crosses the finish line in first place to take his third World Championship title in four years the ecstasy on Fabien’s face is clear to see; as well as the clear joy of his childhood friend next to him, fellow mountain biking legend Nico Vouilloz. It’s the kind of the scenes that can happen when another year of French rule over the rainbow jersey is secured.

“Lenzerheide was super exciting,” Fabien tells me. “I have to be honest – seeing the French win and Loic doing it again, emotionally, was absolutely fantastic.

Fabien Barel is quite good at riding bikes. Credit: Canyon

“There was this moment when I was with Nico at the finish line and we both had Loic in our arms and you felt like all of the history was the same, even if years had passed since we were riding and all the riders are different now. History is happening at those events.”

Before Loic’s first World Championships win in 2015, it had been a full 10 years since a Frenchman had worn the rainbow jersey. That Frenchman had been Fabien Barel, who won in Livigno in 2005, defending the title he won in Les Gets in France the year before.

“Winning in 2004 on home soil was absolutely amazing,” says Fabien, a rider who speaks with the same energy, zeal and passion he was renowned for riding with on the bike. “Having my friends, my family, everyone around me – it was a unique life moment. Unexplainable in a way.

“If there is one race to win in the year it’s that one. All of the riders are coming for it like animals”

“In terms of the sport and my performance, 2005 was the perfect run. Everything was perfectly dialled for me. It brings me a certain emotion watching the approach I had that day.”

Previous to those two wins, of course, it had been Nico Vouilloz flying the French flag, and flying it somewhat prominently. Nico won the elite World Championships seven times in eight years between 1995 and 2002, as well as three times as a junior before that. There were three generations of French downhill champions in that hug at the finish line in Lenzerheide.

“My clothes? Ce n’est pas un problème. Welcome to the gun show” || Credit: Canyon

“I don’t think the World Championships have changed that much since we were racing,” Fabien says. “They’ve always been such a high level of racing and there’s always such strong commitment from everyone. If there is one race to win in the year it’s that one. All of the riders are coming for it like animals.”

Between Amaury Pierron taking a World Cup win nobody would have predicted at the start of the season, the first French overall downhill winner since Nico in 2000 and Myriam Nicole fulfilling her potential with the World Cup overall win last year and a medal, though perhaps not the one she would have wanted, at each of the last three World Championships, it’s safe to say there’s been somewhat of a French resurgence in downhill of late.

“We were friends even before we started mountain biking”

For Fabien and Nico, the French connection runs particularly deep. The two grew up together on the same street in the tiny French village of Peille.

“We were neighbours,” Barel says. “We were friends even before we started mountain biking. Nico was best friends with my brother, so we’ve been living next to each other and riding bikes together from a young age.

“I actually got into riding because my brother and Nico were riding moto but I was too young so I got into trail biking then mountain biking. I quickly realised I didn’t like climbing so I ended up racing downhill! Seeing Nico improving was definitely an inspiration for me not only at the start but throughout my career. Nico has been an inspiration to every rider.

“Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Oh…no… he’s not seen me. DAN!” Credit: Canyon

“I never really imagined [that I would be doing it full-time at that point] because obviously the money-side of things wasn’t really the motivation, but seeing Nico being able to succeed and ride so well just from training at home on the terrain we had – I thought ‘if he is doing it then I can go and do it too’. That was definitely part of what brought me here for sure.”

I ask Fabien, a rider famous for his commitment and all-or-nothing mentality on the bike, if watching the World Championships from the pit makes him wish he was still competing.

“Back in the day our hands were on fire, even if we were slower, our hands were on fire”

“Oh for sure,” he admits. “You always get that motivation but I’m a rational person so I know that there is a time for everything and I’m not living in the past. I really enjoyed the position I had as a racer and I really enjoy my position today as a team director as well.

“My role now at Canyon is basically to direct the global sports marketing of the brand on the gravity side of things, so I direct the enduro and the downhill team by selecting the partners we’ll work with, selecting the riders, the staff, controlling the overall budget that we have for the season and basically being able to provide Canyon with the best results.”

Vrrrrrooooooooommm. Credit: Canyon

Of course, this means Barel has been working extensively with Canyon rider and Australian star Troy Brosnan, the most consistent rider on the World Cup circuit in the past few years and a man who constantly seems on the verge of winning the whole thing. Troy has finished third in the World Cup overall in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018, finishing second place in 2017.

“For sure it is a frustration for Troy because he’s a winner and he wants to win races and win the overall but it’s not a frustration that he’s been in the top three of the World Cup for five years in a row,” says Fabien. “Or that he’s one of the best riders in the world and that he’s doing consistently great work at every level. I have no doubt that at some point we will find the keys to get him standing on top of the podium. I really have no doubt.

“In the off-season we’re going to be working on getting those keys. It’s half a second we’re looking for to get from third place to first. If you look at how tight the runs are, we need to find that half a second in it, and that will come from every single detail – physical preparation needs to be better, mental preparation and obviously the bike capacity and technical aspects.”

Fabien and his goggles. Credit: Canyon

I ask Fabien if he has passed along any particular words of wisdom to Troy, as a seasoned champion himself.

“He is one of the best riders in the world so the only thing you can do is give a certain experience on little details. There is nothing we want to change in what he does because he does great already, we just want to bring a little more value to his preparation,” he says.

“The general approach he’s got is his own, it’s different to Loic [Remi] and to Amaury [Pierron] and different to [Aaron] Gwin, and I believe that getting inspiration from the others is a great way to advance your racing. I think that’s one of the things that I brought to him is just to be able to be able to analyse and inspire yourself that bit more from the others.”

Fabien continues: “Working with the team has opened my mind to different things.

“Being an individual in racing, you are going to have your own approach. You know what works for you and you know how to motivate yourself. Working with other people really opens your mind to different possibilities and to a different approach, understanding and having the tolerance to be understanding of others, and working with Troy has been a very positive experience. He’s one of the most talented riders in the World Cup.”

He was made in the heart of the sun. Only there, can he be unmade. Credit: Canyon

For both Fabien and Troy, that off-season is up next. They’ll be working hard as ever to try and find the keys to a lock which this season, as much as any, has proven is changing every year. It’s a new challenge for Fabien, but one that it’s safe to say he is relishing.

“I’m still enjoying it as much as I was [when I was competing],” he says. “And riding the bike is as fantastic now as it was 15 to 20 years ago.

“Riding the bike is as fantastic now as it was 15 to 20 years ago”

“In technical terms you can do a lot more with the bikes now than you could back in the day but looking at the adrenaline of the sport, the adrenaline we had at the time and the adrenaline today are just as enjoyable. Back in the day our hands were on fire, even if we were slower, our hands were on fire because of the bikes and everything we were doing.

“I loved my time racing and I’m still very happy today to be part of the industry and to still be able to share those moments.”

Whether those next moments will be witnessing the French grip tighten further on the world of mountain biking, or playing a part in guiding a 25-year-old Aussie star to the top of the podium remains to be seen. The beauty of the sport is that when the wheels hit the dirt and the stopwatch starts, anything can happen – something Fabien Barel knows as well as anyone in the sporting world.

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