When he was 15 he decided to hop on the seat of his bike and challenge the Downhill discipline, where athletes race down the mountains at high speeds between the rocks, trees and cliffs. And he did it like a pro, because at 18 he already stepped onto the world stage as the junior world champion. Two more times he took the title of champion, but as a professional. Fabien Barel is convinced that heading downhill on a bike, surrounded by nature, is a sensation shared by surfers riding the waves of the sea. Today he has combined his experiences with Pirelli in a partnership to develop the Gravity Racing tyres.
How did your passion for two wheels start out?
I actually started following my brother who was on the national team in trail motorbike and I was basically with my bike following him on the races. That's how I quickly realized that I really like being on two wheels and discovered that it was pretty fun.
What bike did you have as a kid?
My first bike was actually a trail bike. It was a small Monti that was pretty advanced at the time, a full rigid like BMX style, but just for trailed zones, and required a different style of riding for freestyle and enduro trail biking as I following my brother on the trail motorbikes. So this was pretty unique.
When did you know that bike racing was for you?
I quickly became engaged. Next to my house there was a racetrack that was called Peille. This track was actually pretty gnarly and still known as the gnarliest track in the world and it was where I started racing and quickly realized that obviously, more than riding my bike, I was in love with racing my bike. This was when I realized that it was all made for me.
What does it feel racing down the mountain at those speeds on the bike?
Downhill mountain biking is a pretty risky sport, we're going at pretty high speeds with trees, rocks, and very loose terrain. In this it is very similar to other sports.. The advantage of the sport is that you have a really good link between the adrenaline and the fun on the bike and with nature, so you have a really good time out there. You can feel the flow as a surfer would riding his wave. Racing down the mountain, picking up the pace, connecting with nature and finding the right flow of the track is what makes the sport so interesting and enjoyable for me.
Better enduro or downhill?
I would say that there isn't a massive difference because obviously we’re riding our bikes and still having fun out there. Enduro has the positive of discovering a lot of new places and trails and being very core to global mountain biking while downhill is more about adrenaline, feeling commitment and being on the edge pushing the bike and the product to the limit. I would say that I would choose both. Enduro and Downhill sounds like a perfect fit to me.
What was it like back in '98 to win the first world downhill title at 18 in the junior category?
This was pretty much a very first consecration and achievement of my career. I started at a very young age at 15 and got a chance to grow through a professional team that was called Sunn at the time, one of the best team in the world. It was French and took me to the world’s in Mont-Sainte-Anne in 1998. I was really committed to winning I knew it was my last year as a junior and it was really important as an elite and winning this race was absolutely fantastic. I actually won by 12 second which was massive at the time and at the best time over the elites as well. It was the global best time of the weekend. And yes, it was a huge satisfaction and a massive achievement for me.
When you first started out you had a rough accident?
Well, injuries are definitely part of the game. I always thought that you know if you want to play a game you have to accept the rules and that rules of our sport was injury. You know that in any moment you can crash and injure yourself, it is just part of the game. So I did accept to play and had a few injuries in my career. I would say that it’s true that from those failures and injuries that you learn the most, and that you grow back even stronger.. So this was a very tough time, but also feeling very successful to find the strength to get back on the bike and race again. And as I always say, don't ever give up. I definitely applied it to myself during my racing career without a doubt.
What does it takes to get up and go again?
Being able to go back and grow back through this injury to rebuild your body, rebuild your mental strength, rebuild your confidence on the bike was tough, but the afterwards success felt even better. Because like, even if we all want to win and win and be number one, we all have our own challenges. And this was part of my challenge of life and challenges in my career, and then being able to push and go back and fight again with the best and win races again was a massive satisfaction to me.
You won the world championship 2004 and 2005, what do you recall from these seasons?
I think they were quite different. Those two seasons, I heavily focused on the World Championships, because I knew the tracks were actually potentially really good for me. And 2004 was even in France, which was as you can imagine emotionally very priceless to me. I actually committed a lot of months on my runs on those tracks and prepared myself specifically for those, as much as I prepare my bike. I would say that if I have to remember something or to take something out of it would definitely be the commitment and the engagement that I added into the fact of winning and how much my mental dedication was at the highest level.
And what does it take to become world champion?
I would say that globally, it is about commitment and believing. Becoming world champion is obviously a lot of hard work and being able to put everything you can on your side to win within your discipline, but it also demands a very strong mental strength and strong belief in your goals. And I would say that at the end of the day, being a top athlete in the sport is one thing being number one is another and the main difference between the two is actually the mental approach of it and how much you believe and you can commit towards it.
What advice would you give someone that would like to start a career in downhill enduro?
Well, number one before starting a career or being able to perform you need to understand properly the sports. If you do downhill or if you do enduro, it is not demanding the same capacities and you need to analyze them properly to be able to approach the sport in the best way, which means physical preparation needs to be adapted and bike preparation needs to be adapted. Your technical skills are often not the same. So you need I would say globally to try both disciplines and test and feel your way to what is the closest of your competencies and then push again. Clearly if you want to start a career properly just be ready to try and commit and give the best of yourself.
And how do you train in this discipline?
To train enduro and downhill is pretty different. You need to be physically in shape for both of them, but one is more on lactic capacities and being capable to push for two, three, four minutes a run at full gas where I would say it is very close to downhill skiing, for example. In enduro there is a lot more cardio, you need to be able to hold for one or two days of full racing, you're racing over 50 to 70k per day, plus all the special stages. So you need to have a lot more cardio and capacity to recover, which is applying quite different trainings both in terms of fitness as how you approach the bike. You will find leaner riders within enduro because the power versus the weight versus power ratio is really important and in downhill you will find athletes with a lot more strength and explosivity to be able to perform at the highest levels.
What is your passion beyond the bicycle?
Well, I am passionate about everything that goes fast and slides. I'm also very much passionate about nature. So that's why I found pleasure in mountain biking ,but I do love skiing, I do love motorbiking as much as on tracks as on off road obviously, and I love to drive cars and I have to say that those are other sport passions that I have. Other than sports I obviously like and love to spend a lot of time with families and friends which is part of global life.
Would you recommend the bicycle as a means of travel for a more sustainable future?
One thing that is pretty clear is that cycling is bringing soft mobility into the world we are living in. We can feel that we are abusing our planet by a lot of consumption in many aspects I mean plastic, petrol and everything that goes with it. The CO2 that we are throwing away everywhere is definitely something that we could bring down by a large amount. Cycling, especially when in crowded areas and cities and urban environment, is providing the possibility to transfer oneself from one place to another without having to use the engine and petrol and gives a better quality of air, a global better health to everyone riding. It brings us a bit of cardio and the value behind soft mobility and behind cycling is actually giving us a brighter vision of life for the future. I definitely wish that a lot more people would realize that so that cycling could provide for future generations a better quality of life.
What would be your role with Pirelli?
My main role with Pirelli is actually developing the new mountain bike range coming up. Pirelli has been installed as a leader within tyre manufacturing and also in racing. Lead by a passion for racing, I always look for the best to provide and develop very high end products for mountain biking as much for my race teams as for my personal performance, but also to help general and global consumers to be able to ride better, ride safer and eventually ride faster. I do strongly believe in the competencies of Pirelli and their capacity to understand what a mountain bike really is. There is already a valuable range that is on the market right now and my main role will be to support them and to bring the brand to levels that is deserved be at. When you see the capacities that they’ve got within car industry, Formula 1, Moto GP etc. bringing Pirelli to downhill will be amazing goal.