Hailing from Reading, Pennsylvania USA, Neko is almost 20 years old but already he has accomplished so much as a professional downhill racer.
Neko was in Australia for a very, very brief stop-over on his way home from riding in New Zealand. Flow caught up with him for quick pint to talk everything from his impending marriage to Taylor Swift, to his thoughts on Aaron Gwin leaving the team.
Have you ever had a pretzel with Taylor Swift?
No, but Taylor Swift and I are getting married some day so I’ll find that out later.
What’s the culture of mountain biking like over your way?
It’s growing so much, a new mountain bike club has formed and more trails are now legal to ride and clearly marked. Everything is getting bigger and it’s really taking off. Downhill racing isn’t that well known, many of my friends would not know what downhill racing is, in America the sport is not mainstream. But I feel like since Aaron Gwin has been doing well downhill has received more publicity in the States.
What was it that introduced you to the sport?
My dad, he raced downhill and owned a bike shop. He thought the best way to get my brother and I into it was to start us racing BMX on the tracks we had nearby. We raced BMX for six or seven years, the skills transferred over to mountain biking so easily. When I turned 13 my dad introduced my brother and I into downhill racing. Cycling is definitely in the family!
What do you like about where you live?
I like that it is my home, I guess everybody loves where they are from but for me it’s more about the people than the place. If I could take all my friends and family and put them anywhere else I’m sure it’d be just as good, there isn’t really a lot going on where I live but the trails and friends are what I like. I don’t like the winters too much, it makes for hard training in such harsh weather forcing my training indoors for a while. Then there is a solid month of summer that makes for hard training too, but the dirt is always good! I really like the fact you get all four seasons.
When did you first catch wind that you’d be riding for Trek World Racing?
In 2009 I was racing for a national team; Specialized Team America. I was trying to get to as many races as I could, as it is tricky to get noticed so I focused on events where I could be seen and had a better chance of making an impression, to hopefully be seen by potential sponsors. I went to Whistler and the Canada cups on the World Cup circuit and I finished right behind the Monster Energy guys in Bromont and that really inspired me, it lifted my confidence so much. I then went to Whistler really focused, when everyone else seemed to be going for the good times, I wanted good results. That was an opportunity for me to have a bit of an edge over those guys not taking it too seriously; I finished fifth in the Canadian Open and fourth in the slalom. That is when I met Martin Whitely for the first time, and shortly after Crankworx he contacted me, and it all began from there.
How was being a teammate with Justin Leov?
Justin has been the best influence on me my whole life, by spending the most time with him and him being such a great guy. I learnt from him a lot about how to carry myself and relate to people, also the best way to deal with the industry and be a better person in general. He really is the best person to learn from. I don’t really know why he’s that way, maybe because he has had to work so hard to make a career out of his racing, and coming from New Zealand so far away makes it especially tough to earn a place in the World Cup. He has always passed on his experiences to others and I was lucky to have this priceless opportunity to be on his team. We would have such deep conversation about everything, and get so much out of it, if I ever questioned something I could bounce it off him and his responses were always so honest and reasonable.
And Mr Aaron Gwin?
I have had a really great relationship with Aaron over the last few years, although I didn’t know him too well before he joined Trek. But as soon as he joined us he took me under his wing and I was his junior, and passed down everything he could. Whenever you needed to know something, I could simply ask the guy that everyone knew was the fastest and get an answer, whether it is about line choice, the track conditions, racing preparation, training, he knew that what he was doing worked. It’s crazy; he never seems to get stressed about anything, always keeping his cool. He would always help me realise that what I was stressing about wasn’t ever that bad. The want to win so bad would make me stressed, and that affects your riding too much, Aaron helped me keep it cool.
On that topic of Aaron Gwin, what do you see as his key to success?
A lot of Aaron’s strength is in his mind. I’ve trained with him a lot, he trains hard and he is so strong. I feel at times I can keep up with him during these times but when it comes down the mental toughness he keeps his cool and believes that he can do it, that’s what it comes down to. For him, it’s his faith that carries him through that, I think you can find that same comfort and same way to chill yourself out with whatever way works for you.
If you were to take a property that you admire from each Aaron and Justin, what would it be?
From Justin I’d take the way he treats people and his ability to show such respect to others. He is the best friend anyone could have. Staying at my house anytime, my family and friends all love the guy. That’s the quality I admire.
From Aaron, it’d be that mental state of being able to stay calm at the races and believe in your stuff, knowing that you have what it takes to win.
Did having two Americans on the team bring out any patriotic emotions?
You know, I have never really thought that too much. Trek World Racing is such an international team and it certainly feels that way. You are all travelling together with a job to do and what country you come from just doesn’t seem to matter, and not much was made of it. It was exciting being on the team with Aaron, the up and coming rider, the one that would bring it back to the States and end the drought of talent.
Where are some of your favourite places to ride and train?
Well after the past month, I’d have to say New Zealand! I’ve had the most amazing time there recently. There are so many good people, fast riders and amazing tracks in such a small space. Plus the weather is so nice, and the racing scene is unreal. In the past I have been travelling to the west coast for a block of winter training, but the tracks are just not proper downhill tracks. But in New Zealand all the tracks are so awesome, I was able to get so much time on the bike! I have also had great times in Spain, staying with Martin Whitely at his place, the riding area behind his house has some of the best trail riding I’ve ever done and the weather is amazing. Bromont is also another great place to ride; it’s close to where I live and an easy drive to great terrain and hard racetracks. It reflects the green and European terrain that is conducive to the type of training I need to do for the European races. But, New Zealand is just amazing!
What was your favourite track over there?
I loved Mount Hutt, and the trails for the Dodzy Memorial Enduro. Most epic trails!
How about cross training, what do you enjoy that is also of benefit for you?
Moto is definitely my favourite that is because it is a lot of fun, I’m a pretty big goon on the things, not that stylish at all but I enjoy every minute of it. Plus of course it is a great workout. Heading out to a moto track and doing sprint laps really uses all your functional muscles and gets your heart rate up, whether you could ride well or not. In high school I was a swimmer, but that was not fun at all! Water polo was a little more engaging, but it’s so hard. Other than that, cross country riding is something I’ve always done, hardly cross training but I find a lot of pleasure and spend more time on the cross country bike more than the downhill bike. It’s both a fitness exercise but you are still on the dirt negotiating technical terrain.
Have you experimented with wheel sizes?
I’ve ridden the Trek Rumblefish (29er trail bike) a lot this off season and going back and forth with my 26” bike, there are certainly places where the 29er is an advantage but at this point, I’m still more of a 26” fan, probably because I’ve always ridden them. I don’t make too much of a big deal about the wheel size thing.
We will see some companies trying bigger wheel sizes on the World Cup circuit this season though; but it sure is a big task to be testing wheel sizes on downhill bikes as all the components and well-tuned suspension parts have been developed so far with the 26” wheel bikes, not every brand will be able to try it at this early stage. All it will take though is for one rider to win a World Cup on a big wheel size like Nino Shurter, and it will take off.
Look out for part 2 of the interview where Neko talks about World Cup racing, big crashes, bike set-up, and who he thinks we should be watching this season.