It took a couple of weeks to organise but eventually we got a day that suited both Manon and I, to meet up and shoot in Queenstown. It was a beautiful clear day, and the lift lines weren’t too long. As soon as I met Manon, I realised this wasn’t going to be the kind of laid back, ‘riding with your mates’ type session that I was used to with a lot of the guys I shoot. Straight away I realised, this girl meant business. She was no nonsense, straight to the point, focussed, and showed a massive amount of discipline. From meal times, to training plans, to downtime, Manon has a goal. Winning the 2014 Women’s World Championship, and World Cup overall title proved to her and the world, that she can be the very best. Now she works hard to stay at that level. As we warmed into our session I realised Manon was not just a lady who likes to ride a bike, she is 100% world class athlete. Over lunch we chatted bikes, and her trip to New Zealand.
So, When did you arrive here in New Zealand?
I arrived on New Years Eve, then did the long road trip down from Auckland to Queenstown, arriving here in the middle of January.
Have you been sunburnt yet?
Nope, I’ve been good with my sunscreen, I’ve heard about your Ozone layer!
Have you taken to wearing Jandals?
Flip Flops… Ok, yeah, Jandals. Yeah, and trainers. I even went to one place barefoot, a burger place up North.
Nice, really getting into to the Kiwi way...
Yeah, it was in Rotorua and there were a few others in there with bare feet. We’d had a muddy ride and I think my shoes were wet, but everyone was like “don’t worry, it’s the done thing”
What’s the best thing about NZ that you’ve found since being here?
Everything is so outdoorsy, just being outside pretty much the whole time. There are mountains and lakes, and when we drove down, you can stop off anywhere and there is always awesome scenery.
And where is the worst place that you went?
Somewhere with sandflies. I think it was somewhere near Taupo. We drove from Rotorua to Taupo and pulled into some campsite that I had kinda lined up, and parked up in the dark. It was a bit sketchy because we couldn’t see what was around. In the morning it turns out we were right next to a pretty rough toilet, and some bins overflowing with rubbish. So probably that place.
You’re in Queenstown. So is it Devil Burger or Fergburger?
I’ve had both, and I don’t really think there is much in it. Mountain bikers say Devil Burger, tourists say Ferg! We went to Ferg with a couple of locals, who called up and ordered so we didn’t have to wait. We just walked past the line and grabbed our food.
Genius. Bit of a pro-tip there.
Yeah, we were quite smug.
Have you tried the New Zealand beers?
Ummm… Ginger beer….or Spirits.
Spirits? So where’s the worst place you’ve ended up after a night out?
I generally make it back to my bed… I do like a big night every once in a while but I feel like I probably shouldn’t go into details! Sorry to disappoint...
OK, so let’s talk about what got you into riding then? Was it a certain person, or something you wanted to just really wanted to do?
Not really, I literally just got taken along riding with my dad. We didn’t have social media back then, so you couldn’t 'follow' riders. We did have magazines lying around the house and my dad had lots of MTB videos but there were rarely any girls mentioned so I don’t think I could relate as much. We went to Crankworx the year before I moved into Juniors and had some decent results, so the next year he came out with “lets go try a world cup”, I got there and I didn’t know who anyone was really. I spent most of that (and the next) year putting faces to names I’d heard in conversations my dad would have!
So you just rocked up all like “whaaaats uuuup”…
Yeah basically, we just did it for fun as it was what we used to do on family holidays and most weekends. I progressed through the South Wales series, did a few National races while I was in Youth and a couple overseas, then went to Whistler with my dad. Then onto World Cup’s. I’d seen videos and it all looked super gnarly. I didn’t think I’d be able to make it into the finals but ended up qualifying in 11th, which was a bit of a surprise!
What do you think the biggest barrier is for girls getting into Mountain Biking?
I guess just not knowing that you can do it. I tried some jumps this week, and no other girls were doing them, so I thought “oh, must just be for the boys.” And that’s the mindset that myself and most other girls get hung up on, and we won’t consider trying it. But after some encouragement I decided I wanted a go. Bob, a girl I know from racing back in the UK was with us, and once she saw me do it she tried it too. I think seeing other girls do something, rather than just watching guys all the time, makes you more likely to have a go. It’s like, well she can do it so maybe I can too. Riding with a group will usually help push you to progress. So finding other girls to ride with is really important.
Is that easy?
Well, no. Most the time you end up riding with boys.
I guess that it's a predominantly male dominated sport, do you see that changing?
Yeah, that is definitely changing. I ride with girls a lot more often now. I think its about changing the perception that girls don’t do that kinda stuff. Especially out here, like at Gorge Road I wanted to try a new line, so I asked “have any girls done it?” and they said there had been one, so I was like “OK, I’ll have a go”.
But you’ve been Women’s World DH Champion, does that not mean that you're got way more skills than most of the male riding population.
Ha, you get that a lot, guys are definitely fast but I’ll watch at World Cups and there will be guys making stuff look really hard. You’ll watch a jump and they’ll make it look super sketchy, and you think “oh god, that must be really hard” but then you’ll do it, and it’s really not that bad. I think it’s changing, but I still get that feeling sometimes, you’ll think that you’re not as good, but you may actually be a lot more skilled. And I’ve just thought of an Inspiration. Anne-Caroline Chausson. My Dad would talk about this racer who could do everything; she dominated Downhill for years, along with 4X and Dual Slalom. Then went on to win gold in the Beijing BMX Olympics which is amazing really. So yeah, Anne-Caroline. My dad always had me riding dirt jumps, and BMX tracks as well, and I could see that she was a very well-rounded rider. She was the one name that I knew well.
So riding here in NZ. What has been your favourite place to ride, or your favourite trail since you’ve been here?
Oooh. Ummm. That’s quite tough. We’ve ridden a lot of places, we rode Rainbow Mountain in Rotorua. And the bike park. We did a cool hike-a-bike ride up by Whites Bay, at a place called Mt Robertson. We rode Nelson. Nelson was super cool. I can’t choose a favourite! Everywhere has been great.
Cool! So, downhill or trail then?
Both. [laughs] I’m being really indecisive. The trail riding has been awesome…. But so has the downhill.
How does riding at home [Caerphilly] compare to riding here?
Ah, it’s a lot dustier. And there are a lot more jumps. All the steep stuff is pretty similar I reckon! It’s what I like to ride at home, and I really like the steep stuff here.
What do you do to relax?
In the winter, at home, I’ll chill out with the dogs on the sofa. Here I go to the lake (obviously) in the sun.
World Cup Question. Which round are you most looking forward to, and why?
Maybe Lenzerheide? [Switzerland] It’s a pretty cool track, and a really nice place to be. And there’s a lake, and I really like a lake.
Lastly, If you didn’t ride bikes, what would you do?
If I hadn’t picked up bikes, and had stayed at school, I would probably be a Marine Biologist. Somewhere, by the sea, swimming with Manta-Rays or something. That’s what I’d planned originally!
Have you thought about what you might do after cycling? Could this be it?
I’m having a pretty good time riding bikes at the moment, so it’s hard to imagine myself in an actual job.
Throughout the interview I had to try and stay as ‘un-fan-like’ as possible. But at the end of the day, I’m a massive Manon Carpenter fan, and getting to chat with her, and learn more about her has really just supported that. I’m looking forward to seeing Manon get stronger, and faster, and win many more titles in the future. Could 2016 bring another World Champions title? We’ll have to wait and see.