A conversation I had with a mate recently summed it up. The guy was in his late forties, and he was telling me about the bikes in his collection – he had Cannondales, Commencals and a Santa Cruz. The common theme? They’re all bikes that have or are being ridden by Cedric Gracia, one of the greatest riders and undoubtedly the greatest showman in mountain biking. I asked if that was a coincidence. ‘Not at all. Cedric Gracia is an idol of mine. The guy just has so much fun riding his bike,’ he said. ‘And he always makes me think, if he’s still out there having fun, why can’t I be too?’
Still racing, 19 years after winning his Junior World Championship, Cedric Gracia continues to be one the most distinctive, hilarious and talented riders on the planet. Flow caught up with Cedric at a critical point in his career – as he prepares to come back from an injury that almost killed him – to talk about the past, the future and why he continues to race.
This interview originally appeared in Flow Mountain Bike magazine (remember that thing?) in 2013.
So Cedric, where are you now?
Ah, man, I’m here in Andorra (in the eastern Pyrenees, between Spain and France), and it’s snowing again. I want it to stop! I want to ride so bad it’s ridiculous. And it’s too dangerous for avalanches to ski right now, too many of my friends have died in avalanches, so I’m inside.
I’m getting older, I’m 35 now. In the past I wouldn’t have cared, I’d just ski all day, but now I try to give myself a bit more structure and I have more respect for the mountain. I do my fitness in the morning, then my emails, my Facebook stuff. Then in the afternoon, when the weather’s good, I like to do ski-touring stuff – you know, pick a mountain top and climb up with the dog, ski back down. I always go with the dog. He’s my training partner.
I’ve been living here since I moved out from the US eleven years ago. I loved the US but it was always kind of difficult for papers and shit. And I didn’t want to move to France. France is good if you’re a foreigner; you can do what you want. But if you’re French living in France, you can’t do shit.
But Andorra, it’s good living here: cheap alcohol, cheap food, lots of girls, good party nightlife, close to Barcelona. It’s a tax haven too, which a plus.
But Andorra, it’s good living here: cheap alcohol, cheap food, lots of girls, good party nightlife, close to Barcelona. It’s a tax haven too, which a plus. I’ve got a good life here. I can ski or ride everyday, and I’ve been really involved in the bike park here. It took me four years to get those guys trusting mountain biking but now, from my house I can see the lift, which will take me to the top of the bike park.
You were a skier early in your career, too, right?
Yes, but before that it was BMX. When I was young, I was BMX World Champ, but I was getting tired. It was just always about racing and shit. So one day I just told my dad, ‘Fuck, I’m done with BMX.’ And he was like, ‘What do you mean? You’re World Champion.’ But I was just tired. I wanted to quit. I was 11-years-old. Every weekend I was skiing too, and it was getting hard to make the choice between skiing or racing BMX. But in BMX I was winning everything, and so my dad said he would support me with skiing if I wanted to go down that path.
I was14-years-old when I moved to a special ski school, about nine hours from home. So I gave it a go and started winning lots of races. I entered the French ski team. But it’s so hard and so expensive, and one day I asked my coach, ‘Is there any way I can make it to the World Cup?’ He said, ‘Yeah, if you work harder you probably could.’ But I was a teenager and all I wanted to do was party and smoke cigarettes with my friends. I felt like I was missing out.
So I took one year off and started to skateboard, you know, underground, in the garage, smoking with my friends. Then I started to realise perhaps this was the wrong trail too, so I went back to skiing.
Still, I thought ‘Ok, I’ll give it a go, I’ll go look stupid with my friend in spandex and stuff.’
How did mountain biking come into the picture?
One day some friends of mine asked me to try mountain biking, but back then all I said to them was, ‘This mountain biking is gay.’ I was coming from BMX, so I saw these bikes with front brakes and gears, and I thought it was for people who didn’t know how to ride. Still, I thought ‘Ok, I’ll give it a go, I’ll go look stupid with my friend in spandex and stuff.’
So I went to one race and won it. And my friend asked me, ‘Did you have fun?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I had fun… but does that make me gay?’
But I didn’t want to really race then, I just wanted to hang out with my friends, sleep in the tent, drink some beers and make some trouble. But I did a few races, I got sponsored by Sunn Bicycles and they started paying me some money, so then I could start paying for my friends to come along too. I’d bring along six of my friends, and I wouldn’t sleep in the hotel because I wanted to use the money to be able to have my friends with me.
You’ve been on a long path of recovery since you crashed at Val di Sol in Italy last year and had to have a complete hip reconstruction. Can you tell us a bit more about it all?
Ah man! That hip has cost me so much money! I already had to buy two Louis Vuitton handbags because of it! And now my wife wants a new car too! But I’ve got to keep her happy – she had to look after me for a month when I was in the bed, shitting on a plate, not able to clean myself. It was the worst thing ever. That’s why we went to Monaco and I gave her the credit card.
But really, I am very lucky. We had a party recently with the doctors and all the people who helped me. And the doctor was like, ‘Dude, I can’t believe you’re walking and drinking like totally normal, when seven months ago you almost died.’ Actually, I almost died twice. But I didn’t want people to know. Nobody knew how bad it was. Some of my friends on the World Cup were already worried, so I told my wife and the people who came to see me in Italy not to tell anyone. But it was bad. I was bleeding on the inside, from a big artery; I had only three litres of blood left in me. I was unconscious.
I was bleeding on the inside, from a big artery; I had only three litres of blood left in me. I was unconscious.
My wife was the one who saved me. She came from Andorra and she told the doctors, ‘It’s easy – either you save him or I fucking sue your arses.’ They lost a kid a couple of months before with a similar problem and my wife knew that, and so even though there was a language problem between my wife and the doctor, she could say enough to get the word ‘suing’ across. And get across the idea that if they didn’t fix me, their life would be shit.
So I went back to the block, and they finally found where the blood was leaking. I was so low on blood by then I was unconscious. And after that first operation, I woke up and saw my wife and my dad and asked them what happened. And they were like ‘Well, you died for a couple of minutes – we had to jumpstart you again with electricity.’ Man, I was fucking lucky.
But they still had to do the surgery to actually fix my hip and they weren’t going to do that in Italy. I couldn’t fly anywhere because I was still too unstable and my blood was still too low. So they injected me with EPO and iron to get my haemoglobin back up and then I in a couple of days flew me home. I was still very low though and nobody had the blood I needed – I’m an AB positive, and that’s quite rare. Eventually they got the blood and they could begin to do the surgery to reconstruct my hip.
‘Well, you died for a couple of minutes – we had to jumpstart you again with electricity.’ Man, I was fucking lucky.
It was pretty intense, there were six or seven people involved in the surgery. When you’re bleeding inside, it’s always very risky – because when you get opened up, you can very quickly lose whatever blood is left. With me, they only had the two litres spare, so they were scared that if they opened me I would die in two minutes. In the end it was a nine-hour surgery. It was rough.
My pelvis broke in 40 pieces. It was shattered. When they told me that, I didn’t believe them. I thought it was bullshit that a bone could do that. The doctors told me there’s only one guy in the world who can fix that – a French surgeon. And they told me I was only going to be the second person to have that surgery, but they didn’t want to tell me what happened to the first guy. Turns out he died because he didn’t have enough blood.
I have two huge scars – one on the front, one on the back – because they put me sideways into this special seat, with two teams of six people, one team on each side of my leg. They took only the bigger piece because the little parts will reform with time, and basically they have two plates, front and back, and they screwed all the parts back in between the plates.
I lost 17 kilos while I was in the bed. Man, when you’re that long in the bed, you don’t even know if you’re going to make it. Your doctors tell you that you might not even be able to walk. It’s rough. But now, I feel like nothing happened to me. I’m skiing, I can do squats, I’m riding. I’m fucking lucky.
The Sunn team you raced with early in your career was possibly the best mountain bike race team then or since. The talent was amazing. What was it like?
When I started with Sunn, I was thinking that other teams operated like that. But when I moved to other teams later on, I realised, ‘Wow, now I know why we blew all the company’s money!’ We were flying everywhere in the world. Sure, my salary was shit, but I was a junior. I wasn’t deserving to make much money. I was having a good time; I was with my mates, and we were travelling everywhere in the world first-class, and I had a bike that was probably ten times better than any other bike out there.
I was the worst guy ever to have on a team – I didn’t even train! But our bikes were so good I felt like I didn’t even need to train! Everybody thought we training so hard, but all I was doing was playing PlayStation and waiting for the weekend to get knackered with my friends. I had this idea that this was the life of an athlete, and I kept going like that until I realised I couldn’t keep it up forever.
You feel like the equipment made the difference?
Yeah, man. The bikes were built right there in the office; we could make as many changes as we wanted. My mechanic was also the welder, so we could make new frames without it costing more than the tubing and a little bit of time. I was trying different linkages, different geometry all the time. But the suspension, man, we were using telemetry back then. We were so advanced – we could tell everything about how the suspension was performing when the other teams had nothing. They were just bolting suspension onto downhill bikes.
We had all the best riders in the world. We were flying all over the world. We were winning everything, but more was coming out from the company than going back in. We were too ambitious.
We had computers, we had Olivier Bossard, the man behind BOS suspension. Looking back now, I was stupid. Because if I had taken it seriously, with the bikes we had, man, I could have smoked it. But I wasn’t ready; I was just ready to hang out with my friends and party.
Everything we had was so much better than everybody else. It blew the company. We had all the best riders in the world. We were flying all over the world. We were winning everything, but more was coming out from the company than going back in. We were too ambitious. We wanted more and more, it was everyone’s dream to be part of that team.
Do you have your old Sunn bikes?
I’ve still got all my old bikes, except one. It was the one I won my first World Cup on. Bossard didn’t want to give it to me because it was a prototype. And you know what they did? They fucking cut it in half and threw it in the garbage! I was so sad!
You went from one incredible team to another, the Volvo-Cannondale team. It’s amazing to think that Volvo was so invested in mountain biking.
It was good on Volvo. It was the second team that was looking really decent after Sunn. But we knew the bike wasn’t so good. I mean they always had these kind of freaky designs. But the riders they had – like Missy Giove and Myles Rockwell –they were cool. And I thought if there was another team I’d ever like to be on, it was Cannondale. They had this cool American pride kind of thing going on.
Then at the World Championships Cannondale came to me before the race, when I’d qualified I think fifth or seventh. They knew I could win, but again I wasn’t ready – for me the World Championships were another opportunity to get wasted on Saturday night in Mont-Sainte-Anne. Obviously I didn’t go too good.
Anyhow, they were scared that if I won they’d have to pay me a lot of money to join the team, so they came to me before the race to make me an offer. We’d been talking before, too. About two years earlier Cannondale had offered me triple the money I was getting on Sunn, but I’d wanted to stay with my friends so I declined the money.
After Mont-Sainte-Anne Cannondale really wanted me on board. They had just signed Anne-Caroline Chausson, but Anne-Caroline had said she’d only come on board if I came too. So they made me an offer I couldn’t decline. They were going to pay me in American dollars, and at that stage I was still on francs. So before the race I was making the calculation and I couldn’t believe what I was going to be getting paid. I told my mum and she said ‘This is bullshit. There’s no way they’ll pay you that much money – do you even know how much this is? Your dad and me never made that money.’ That was of course in the time when mountain biking was at its peak in terms of sponsorship. It was great.
Why make things so complicated when we can make it as beautiful and as fast with just a single-pivot bike? The suspension technology was getting better, so the bike could work as well with just a single pivot
The complexity of the Cannondale bikes then was pretty out there.
In terms of engineering they were making some pretty cool stuff, but I definitely had a hard time going fast on their bikes. They always had these crazy designs, like the Gemini with two shocks, and the Fulcrum with the extra chain drives, but in the end they realised it wasn’t needed. Why make things so complicated when we can make it as beautiful and as fast with just a single-pivot bike? The suspension technology was getting better, so the bike could work as well with just a single pivot, and that is what the Gemini ended up being. At the same time, it’s easier to sell a single-pivot bike too, because it can be made less expensive and people will have fewer problems with it.
In the beginning I think it was very hard for the Americans at Cannondale to listen to me; I was a little Frenchy, with red hair and piercings in my face, who loved to get smashed at the bar. But after a few good results they started to consider my opinion.
In the end we made the bike very simple – on my bike I even got rid of the floating brake arm. I was riding with Steve Peat a lot, and his Orange had the same single pivot but without a floating brake mount, and I asked him if he thought it made a difference. Peaty said he thought it was bullshit, so I got my mechanic to take the floating brake arm off.
But it was a good life with Cannondale. I was young, and you love to go to America when you’re young – the girls are hot, they have fake boobs. I was going to the beach lots, I was going to Sheep Hills in California and jumping around with my 4X bike. My life was good!
Your career took a pretty different turn after that, when you moved back a much smaller setup with Commencal.
It was cool to go back and ride with Commencal. After Max Commencal basically burned up Sunn, I always said to him if you build a new brand, I will come and help. And when I moved back to Andorra, it was time to do it now. He was like ‘Fuck, you’re going to cost me a lot of money!’ He matched my Cannondale team offer and helped out with some cars and stuff like that. The other part of the deal was that we were going to do it my way; I didn’t want any pressure on the result, I just wanted to ride my bike flat out and have fun. And that’s what I did.
But it started to get a little difficult. I was getting injured quite a lot, and my relationship with Max got a little bit harder, too. He had always been a little bit like my dad, and we had a few conflicts. Max didn’t want to always listen to my opinions. I knew, too, that Commencal had a view to taking on the Athertons, so I could see the time was coming to do something else. I mean, the Athertons were good for Commencal because Gee and Rachel could deliver the top results, but at the same time the image was very different to what we’d been building with Commencal for the last few years. But I think the break hurt Max, especially when I signed with Santa Cruz.
And now I have the CG Racing Brigade. There was no scope for me to join the Santa Cruz Syndicate, but Santa Cruz wanted to have someone who could make more of an image. So we started the Brigade, with a less serious image, more European.
I also saw the Brigade as a chance to put something back into the sport by supporting more juniors, riders who don’t have the support they might deserve. People supported and invested in me when I was young and it’s only really in the last few years I’ve really understood how much that support meant. So I thought maybe I should give back a little of what I got. It is hard though when you’re a private team! When it’s your own money you’re putting in, and sometimes perhaps people aren’t appreciating it.
Looking through photos for this feature, in just about every shot you’re whipping out or your hands are off the bars, or you’re throwing a big table-top. Is that just about fun or is it part of building that image?
Ha-ha! When I jump, it’s really hard for me to jump straight. But secondly, I’ve never been driven purely by winning. I love winning, sure. It’s a good feeling, but it only makes you happy for a second when you beat everyone else. It’s a funny thing. People think it’s a very hard thing to win a World Cup. But when it happens, you haven’t done anything different to the other days, it’s just all worked out this time. It’s funny how people put you to the top, they look at you different, like you’re so strong or some shit, but for you it doesn’t change anything!
It’s a funny thing. People think it’s a very hard thing to win a World Cup. But when it happens, you haven’t done anything different to the other days, it’s just all worked out this time.
For me the kids coming up and saying things like ‘Man, your suicide at the arch at Fort William was the best thing I’ve ever seen,’ I consider that much more important than winning. I love it when kids come to me and ask for an autograph, and it makes them and me happy. It’s my job to never say no to them. I hate to see people ignoring those kids because they’re thinking only about the race. I know the race is important, but it’s those kids who let us eat, who are buying the bikes and the gear. You need to be appreciative of that.
Sometimes I think about why I’m not more like someone like Gwin, someone who feels winning is everything. I think perhaps that’s how I was when I was young in BMX. Back then I wanted to win everything. But I think that’s why I left BMX after a few years, because I was winning everything and I got fed up. I’ve won some things in mountain biking, but never enough to make me think ‘That’s enough. I’ve got nothing more to prove. Fuck it, I’m going skateboarding now!’ I think I approached mountain biking more like a normal person. I wanted to mountain bike to be with my mates, to ride the bike parks with my friends. I like to go to the bar and talk about what we did that day on the trails.
A result might make you happy when you get it, but if I don’t get it, that’s ok. I’ll try again next week. At the end of the day, I’m happy about the weekend, because I ride my bike, I have fun, I see my mates. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I should be more focused on results, but this is how how I stay happy.
The whole nature of downhill racing has shifted over the past six years – we don’t see too many people partying like you’ve always had the reputation for doing.
For sure, mountain biking has got a lot more serious. People now realise you can’t get drunk every weekend and expect to win races. This used to happen before when the level was ok. But now it’s so tight, with everyone on the same second, everything counts.
It’s a new generation of kids who want to make a living out of biking. For them it’s their job. For me it was never a job, it was a lifestyle.
But I kind of miss those days. Those days for me were mountain biking! Now it’s too much like Formula One. It’s a new generation of kids who want to make a living out of biking. For them it’s their job. For me it was never a job, it was a lifestyle. I’m not judging the kids at the top now – it is the way it is. But only a few guys are at the bar now: Steve Peat, me, sometimes Minnaar… just the old dogs. There are a few kids still today – kids like Brook MacDonald or Josh Bryceland – when I look at their eyes I see the devil! I love those kids because they remind me of me. They want to do good, but they want to have fun. There are only a few, but in the past everyone was like that – there’d be 30 of us at the bar, the race was done and everyone was crazy. I remember winning Fort William with Kovarik; we took our prize money, five thousand pounds each, and put it on the table. We drank it all. I went home with ten pounds in my pocket. It wasn’t an issue, we were having fun, we didn’t care.
That image seems the complete opposite of so many of your fellow French riders. What was your relationship like with people like Nico Vouilloz and Fabien Barel?
Nico was jealous because I wasn’t training and I was starting to kick his arse. He had everything – everyone was basically sucking his cock. I had respect for him, but I didn’t want to be him at all. He always had his dad with him – I couldn’t deal with that. But we got drunk together a couple of times now he’s done racing, and I told him, ‘Man you know you were a dick – I loved to kick your arse because you were so proper with your mum and dad.’ And Nico said ‘Cedric you’re a dick,’ and he told me that being like that was the only way for him to win. It was funny we talked about it. He just needed everything to be totally perfect so he felt he could win. Now I’m older I understand, but back then when I was young and arrogant with piercings in my face, I thought he was a dick.
You don’t want to know what I did to Barel… When he came to the Sunn team me and my mates gave him an initiation. I would shit in plastic bags and chase after him with it, throwing it at him, I was pissing in buckets and tipping it on his head from above the doors. I did the worst things to him! I think I made him a little bit stronger to be a World Champ, I made him tougher. I definitely abused him.
As one of the riders who always rode 4X and downhill, how do you feel about the demise of 4X?
I always told them that if they don’t make bigger jumps, bigger rockgardens, this is going to die, because it’s getting closer and closer to BMX. Why would you race 4X when you can race BMX? I was still racing it though because it was a good chance to hang out with the boys and to relax and not always focus on downhill. Plus it meant I could ride my bike more, and on Cannondale, I could help Brian Lopes win races too.
I think it’s too bad that they never introduced an Omnium Championship, like at Sea Otter, with a winner across both downhill and 4X. It could have been better for everyone. Sure it’s hard to do both, but we’re professionals!
But they went the other way and made it more and more BMX, and it’s hard to compete with BMX guys who practice 30 gate starts a day when you don’t even have a gate!
You were the first of the serious downhill racers to get involved in the Red Bull Rampage – you even won it in 2003. Was that part of the plan?
Not at all! I was in Vegas and I heard they had a freeride event. I didn’t even know what freeride was about! I went along, I didn’t want to dig or anything like that, so I just started to shred all the way down without looking where I was going. Somehow I made it and got third or second. After that I started to build some big jumps and drops, and the bigger they got, the more fun I had. It was a good side job from the life of downhill, hanging out in the desert, drinking some beers, and afterwards we could go to Vegas!
Perhaps me getting involved in Rampage started to change the way downhillers felt about freeride. Downhillers have a lot more respect for freeriders now too. To jump some of those things takes serious balls!
I never, ever expected to win it. I was just going there to have fun, take some photos. I just wanted to shred down and be stupid. On downhill you can have fun, but you still have to go down the hill as fast as possible, but not here. It suits me really well!
Perhaps me getting involved in Rampage started to change the way downhillers felt about freeride. Downhillers have a lot more respect for freeriders now too. To jump some of those things takes serious balls! I think it was good for the freeriders to see other high-level racers like Gee Atherton, too.
But now I look at Rampage and I don’t want to go back. All these wooden ramps and shit! That’s not what Rampage is, that’s shit. Now it’s just turning into another slopestyle. It was big mountain riding – just a shovel and a pick to make your line then go. I don’t want to see wood in the fucking desert. And at the same time, I don’t want to deal with judges who give out points according to which drink sponsor you have on your helmet. This year it was lame; the judging was biased. Too much money involved now. When things get too serious, it kills it. More roots shows the brilliance.
Enduro racing seems to be gaining huge amounts of momentum, and I know you’re a believer in it too. Why?
For sure. Right now we’ve got the Enduro World Series, and it’s going to be huge all over the whole world. My sponsors don’t even want to hear about downhill anymore. It’s just such a small market for them. Enduro is a market that can actually support the industry.
Things are coming back now in terms of sponsorship because of enduro. Mountain biking is changing. Downhilling is great – you know, for the young kids it’s got a cool image – but you don’t sell many of those bikes at all. Enduro is all about guys my age, from 25 to 45. People who have jobs and a family, they make money and they just want a fucking cool bike to go hang out with their friends on the weekend. And you don’t need a lift. You don’t need anything. I understand that. That’s where mountain biking is going. And the sponsors understand that too.
The full Santa Cruz Syndicate and the Brigade are going to race enduro this year. And for guys like me, slightly older, we have a bit of an advantage too, because you need the endurance. It’s just a good kind of second career for guys like me.
Sam Hill… he loved to win, but not just win, to completely smoke everyone. He doesn’t want to win by one second, he wants to win by ten.
You’ve raced against some of the greats of the sport. Who do you think is the best racer you’ve competed against?
Sam Hill was amazing. I mean, Gwin is good, but he never won like Sam Hill. Hill was just smashing people. Everyone was always saying that Sam is cocky or he’s arrogant, but I think he is just shy and he loved to win, but not just win, to completely smoke everyone. He doesn’t want to win by one second, he wants to win by ten. Obviously, having a family now, things are not the same, but I think he’ll be back on top next year. He wants prove that he’s still the fastest.
You’re 35 this year. You’ve achieved more in your racing career than most riders could ever dream of, and you’ve just suffered an injury that would kill many people. So why are you still racing?
That’s something I asked myself when I was lying in the hospital, for sure. But I think bikes are why I’m alive. It’s not about competing; it’s about riding my bike. My life is riding bikes. When I can’t do that, maybe I’ll leave the bike industry entirely. But it’s also for those 160,000 people who follow me on Facebook and the other fans all over the world – I feel like I’m an example for them. I want to keep riding to thank them. When you’re lying down in hospital for so long, reading the messages that people send, the goodwill, man it’s a big help. Maybe that’s why I still do it.