Josh Carlson is riding the roller coaster of emotions and results right now. On the upside, his wife Lisa is due to give birth to their first child any day, and he's just come off the back of Crankworx EWS where he showed the world what he's capable of, leading the race up until the very last stage.
But on downside, he's just had the realities of mountain bike racing rubbed in his face too, with the death of a fellow competitor at Crested Butte and battling against the demons of his own psyche in France where he didn't get the results he's capable of.
We caught up with Josh in his adopted hometown of Vancouver, where he’d just come back in from a training ride on his cyclocross bike, after an enforced week off the bike thanks to some dodgy jambalaya!
Good ride, Josh?
Yep, nice to be feeling better! It’s not a bad thing having a week off, though it’s not ideal to be turning yourself inside out every two minutes! I do feel super skinny and lean though – all my clothes fit real well!
Last time we chatted was before you went to France. Fill us in!
It’s been a pretty wild month and a half actually, lots of up and downs. And man, racing in France and Colorado was pretty tough actually.
Just the steepness of the French tracks – it’s just a skill that I haven’t really developed. Since I got hurt in 2013, I didn’t get to race again in France until 2014, and that year I got really sick during the race, so I’ve never got into it. Plus the format, where you get one practice run then you race it, it’s a weakness of mine, because it’s so foreign.
This year I got caught out by the rain and had a crash in the first stage and hurt my hip. In my first run, in practice, it was dry. So I came down the hill changed a few things because it was quite pedally – put a Rock Razor on the rear and changed to cross country shoes. But in between a huge thunder storm rolled in and just turned the track to ice. So it was a mad rush to change things back to the original settings.
Then I rode really hesitant and had a crash, on a bridge that had been covered in plywood. But the time I saw the plywood, I was doing 1000 down this fireroad, and when I hit the wood I was just like an elephant on ice and tomahawked into the ground.
The second day was pretty sick, but I had a mental lockup. I don’t know why, just freaking out, grabbing the bars too tight and getting heaps of arm pump. And then the guy 30 seconds behind caught me and I was just going backwards. It was a pretty disappointing round all up.
What do you do when you start getting in a negative space like that?
I’m still trying to figure that out! You’ve got to relax and just go with it, but man I just got overwhelmed with memories of past experiences… It was bizarre just how much the feeling on the bike was the same as in 2013.
I took off feeling good, then I made a couple of mistakes and just panicked. It’s the power of the mind I guess.
I just tried to put that result out of my mind immediately. But regardless, it’s something I’m going to have to work on – that style of racing will always be part of the EWS, so if I’m ever going to be World Champion, I’ll need to learn how to ride it.
And then it was onto Colorado?
Yep, I opted to go straight to Colorado to try and adjust to the altitude a little bit. Crested Butte is at 95000 feet, and a lot of the riding is so physical too – every liason stage is like an hour or a two hour ride, pedaling and pushing your bike. And then each stage is really physical too.
Unfortunately there were a few issues there with people pre-riding at lot of the stages… Unfortunately people found out what the race stages would be way ahead of time. So I kind of made a point of avoiding where I thought the tracks would be ahead of official practice and just rode the bike park, did all my training there. One of the trails in the bike park did end up being one of the stages in the race, but I just had to cop that on the chin. Just about everyone had ridden the bike park stage, so it was more of a level playing field. But the other stages, out in the back country, most of us were racing it blind, but then some people had already pre-ridden it five or six times and that’s a huge advantage.
Maybe I hurt my chances but not riding in the backcountry of Crested Butte, but I don’t want to get involved with that stuff.
Not asking you to name names, but what kind of riders do pre-ride stages? Are they further down the ranks?
Nah, it’s across the board unfortunately. Technically, they’re not doing anything wrong. I mean, before the tracks are officially announced, they can definitely make the case that they’re just riding, not breaking any rules. There’s no rule that says you can’t ride all the trails in the area, and there are some trails that I’d ridden in years past too, which ended up being in the race, but that was just by chance, not because we sought them out.
But it’s just an ethical thing in my mind. I mean, we heard, like most people, what trails were likely going to be raced, so we made a point of staying away. And it is racing, I guess. People will do what they can to win.
And in the end, the weekend turned out in the most disastrous way possible, with the death of a racer.
Yes, it was a tragedy. Everybody was shocked. In mountain biking it’s pretty rare to have a death. In motocross it used to happen a bit more regularly – everyone was aware of it. Whereas in mountain biking no one really contemplates it. But when shit hits the fan, it can really hit the fan, especially when you’re racing at EWS pace.
In other enduro events, backcountry things like the Trans Provence, you go there with a different attitude. You don’t go there at 100% race pace – you have to ride within your limits because you don’t get to see the track until you’re racing.
But at the EWS, you’re paid to be the fastest rider in the world. You line up on the start line, 100% prepared to go as fast as you possibly can.
Having said that, what happened to Will (Olsen, the deceased rider) has happened to everybody. Something as simple as clipping a pedal at speed. He wasn’t taking crazy risks, it was just one of those things. Everyone was pretty shaken up by it.
And then back to your hometown and on to Crankworx. It must have been nice to get back home after all of that.
It was amazing. Like a breath of fresh air, like I hit the reset button – seeing the missus, sleeping in my own bed. It just felt so good.
I mean Whistler isn’t my home, but it’s close enough, I spend a lot of time up there training and the trails are relatively similar. And then the tracks they announced for the racing were awesome too, with five fifteen-ish minute stages. It was sweet.
And then it when it rained for the couple of days prior to the race, everything just clicked, I was really enjoying riding. I was relaxed, happy, in the right frame of mind to race my bike. It sounds totally cliché, but having fun was all I was focused on, and it worked.
Everything clicked. Even the climbs! The first liaison is a forty minute climb, and normally you’d get off and have to push bits because it’s pretty steep. But I pedaled up the whole way up, barely even breaking a sweat – and I was like, ‘hmm, this could be a good day!’
And it was a good day!
Yeah, the first stage, I had some lines I’d been riding when it was dry that were pretty adventurous, and I figured now it was wet I’d ride a bit more conservatively. But I just dropped in and rode it like it was dry and it worked! I came away with the win in stage 1, but I didn’t find that out till later. I didn’t actually stop to check my times at the end of each stage – there was a live timing board so you could check your times straight away, but I didn’t do that. I kept riding, ticking boxes, stage one done, onto stage two.
People kept coming up, frothing, telling me how good I’d done, but I certainly didn’t know I was winning until Barelli pulled me aside after the second stage and said, “Josh. You are winning.” And I was like, ‘Great, but I don’t care.’ And he just said, “Good, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
I was just having loads of fun. It was just so enjoyable to be attacking the track, my bike setup was great. After Barelli told me I was winning I didn’t really talk to anyone. A couple of people came up asking if they could interview me about how the day was going and was like, “You know, I’d rather not.” I just didn’t want to think about the results. I just wanted to stay happy.
Sounds like it’s the key for you! Some people need to get angry or fired up before they race, or go through their rituals, but for you it’s being happy.
For sure! It sounds totally clichéd but that’s it. I mean on stage 4, I was just yipping and yahooing the whole way down. I didn’t even know how I rode, but I knew I felt good, and I was just stoked!
After stage four, I still didn’t know any results, I knew I’d been leading after stage two, but that was it. Then in gondola on the way up to stage 5, I was with Jared Graves and Richie Rude. Jared asked me, “do you want to know the results?” And I told him, no, that I didn’t really care.
It was perfect, the whole way up in the gondola we didn’t even talk about results, just a whole lot of other shit. After the fact I found out that at that stage the battle for the win was between me and Richie!
Unfortunately in stage five, well it all came crumbling down.
A piece of shale, or something, cut my tyre in this really raw line. And it didn’t go down straight away – I heard the pss, pss, pss of the tyre. I couldn’t believe it. You can hear me in my helmet cam, going “no way, no way.” I didn’t want to believe it. I was hoping it was just a caught stick, or a rock, or that it would seal, but then I hit the woods and it went dead flat.
What did you do?
Ran it. Just pedaled my arse off. It was a pretty wild ride. I didn’t slow down that much, if the trail was pointing down I pinned it as fast as a I possibly could. I definitely got pretty wild! It was only the pedaling that really hurt me, but I lost three and a half minutes overall. I couldn’t believe it.
In spite of that, were you able to walk away from the race feeling positive? Knowing that for 80% of that race, you were winning maybe the biggest EWS round of the season?
Racing the Garbonzo DH the next day and having to focus on that, it helped me get over it. But for a couple of days, it definitely hurt. It took a while before I was able to look at the internet again! I mean, it was an eye opener too, to find out how many people had been watching and rooting for me. Walking around Whistler people would keep coming up, congratulating me, or telling me how gutted they were for me.
And it’s a cool feeling to know now that I am capable of winning, too. I mean, my goal this year was to consistently get top 15, maybe to win a stage, so come so close to winning a round was incredible.
And you got on the DH bike and raced the Canadian Open too?
Yeah, I felt like an absolute fish out of water! I was running around asking all the lads, Fearon and Bernard Kerr and stuff, things like “what pressure are you running? How do you do this?” I was an absolute squid, so far out of my comfort zone!
Haha! See that’s a surprise, I thought that a lot of that experience would translate from Enduro.
Nah, it’s so different. You’ve got three minutes, and there are no mistakes allowed. You need to push to the limit and keep it perfect. In Enduro, you’ve got five or so stages, you can regain time. In downhill you have to know the track, perfectly.
In practice it was wet and I cased one of the big step downs and just blew apart my drivetrain! Bent my cranks, my chain ring, destroyed the chain guide! There were all these jumps and I hadn’t even jumped them yet, and I was meant to do my qualifying run in an hour! So I rushed back up the hill after the guys rebuilt my bike, and just hucked into all these jumps! Somehow made it through it all, hammered it to get back up the hill, got up the top at 10:15 and my qualifying run was at 10:18… It was chaos!
Come race day I felt a lot better. The lines you take on a trail bike and a downhill bike are so different, you carry speed so differently. On a trail bike, you can take a tighter line into a corner and pedal out to get up to speed, but on a downhill bike you’re thinking about the next two corners, you need to be thinking further ahead.
Do you get to spend much time on the downhill bike?
I do, maybe once a week, but for me it’s all about finding the longest run possible and hammering it. I don’t work on the finesse and the speed you need for racing downhill. I use my downhill bike for Enduro training.
It’s funny though, I had like five practice runs on the course and for me that is heaps coming from Enduro, but for the downhill boys that’s nothing. So maybe it worked in my favour, because I did pretty well. For ages I was sitting in third, and I ended up with 18th overall against a pretty stacked field! I was super stoked. It made the whole week feel a lot better.
Most riders go from downhill to Enduro, you might find yourself going the other way!
For sure, it definitely sparks an interest! I was pretty shocked to be honest.
So you ride the downhill bike once a week, but what else do you do for skills training?
I’ll set aside certain days of the week where I have one area I focus on. I might go down the park and set out a course, just a figure of eight and practice cornering for hours. Or doing endos, or wheelies, skids – the raw, raw skills, the absolute basics.
Or I’ll do certain set things on the trail bike, that are fitness based as well as skills based. I mean, my skills base is definitely undeveloped compared to a lot of the other racers, just because I haven’t been doing it as long.
You’ve said before the guys who do well at these races are the ones with the full toolkit of basic skills.
Absolutely – you don’t know the tracks, so all you’ve got is your skills, your strength and your fitness.
And fitness wise, what do you do?
I ride the cross bike, and the road bike. But I spend 80% of the time on my Enduro bike, as much time as I can. But I’m lucky, I have the Mecca of the mountain bike world on my doorstep, and that’s why Lisa and I packed up our lives and moved here. You’ll never get bored, and you can work on every type of skill; there are basic trails, super steep trails, the gnarliest stuff, long trails, bike park trails… it’s endless really.
Will you go out and focus on a particular style of trail on a given training day?
For sure. I might go and ride one trail, eight times, with a different focus each time. I might ride it chainless, then only with my front brake, then only with the back brake, or concentrating on switching my feet in the corners. Or I might time myself over eight runs, and go faster each run, so my final run has to be my quickest.
Other days I’ll go and find steep trails or new trails and ride them blind, as fast as I can. So you definitely mix it up, but with plenty of focus too. That’s the advantage of living here I guess, I can pick a different zone or a different skill easily.
It also gives me lots of chances to test stuff out. Speaking of which, I’ve been trying out a bigger frame size, I’m now riding on an XL frame.
That’s a big bike!
Yeah it is a big, big bike. But I have an off-the-back riding style, and we’re hoping that it’ll spread my body weight around more evenly, give a bit better suspension performance, more grip on the front wheel, and take some pressure off the rear wheel. It definitely feels like I’ve got the capability of going faster, I felt that straight away. It’s kind of scary really!
It definitely seems like Enduro bike setup overall is going a little more downhill. More coil shocks, bigger forks. Do you think that’s the case?
Yeah, the coil shock thing in particular. Last year I was one of the only riders using a coil, but now I’d say the majority of the field is on a coil at some events. The biggest thing about a coil shock is the predictability over a very long run, and there’s so much stability and traction, it’s an easy trade off even if you lose a tiny bit of pedaling performance.
Well, we’ll let you go mate! Your baby could be here any minute!
Hahaha, yeah that’s right. I’m not going anywhere now till the baby is here – the next four weeks of training will all be within an hour of home and my phone’s staying in the pocket on maximum volume!