BBC News

Downhill bike world champion Manon Carpenter's dilemma

By Gavin Thomas
BBC Wales News


An 18-year-old downhill mountain biking champion admits she faces a tough choice as she decides whether to turn professional or continue her education.

Manon Carpenter, from Caerphilly, was crowned UCI Junior World Champion in Champery, Switzerland, last month and is already ranked in the top 10 elite.

She has delayed starting a degree for a year to concentrate on training and next year's downhill World Cup series.

The teenager, who loves the "adrenaline rush," said: "It's a hard decision".

She rides for the Madison Saracen Downhill Team, and can hit over 60 km/h (37 mph) in downhill events, negotiating rocks, roots and mud on precipitous courses.

Her bid to claim the title in 2010 was derailed the weekend before the World Championship when she broke her arm in the USA and surgeons fitted a metal plate.

"That was pretty devastating," she said.

"To be honest, with injuries, pain comes with the sport, with training and crashing. But the most annoying thing is when you can't compete and when it makes you miss part of your season, part of your training, especially when it's a big race like the world champs," she added.

Her bike, worth more than many cars, is equipped with front suspension that can travel 20cm (8 inches) to soak up the shock from the rockiest tracks.

image copyrightOther
image captionManon Carpenter became UCI World Junior Champion in September 2011.

Before starting a ride, she has to fit the body armour, neck brace and full-face helmet designed to prevent serious injury in the event of a crash.

"It's definitely an extreme sport. The adrenaline rush is a big thing. It's just great to ride your bike in so many different places. It's taken me everywhere. It's so much fun just to ride down a hill, hitting corners flat out, just flowing down the hill," said Manon.

"When you do have a bit of a sketchy moment when you're racing, it's the best feeling ever, especially when you do stay on end up doing well. The feeling of being on the edge really".

Next season begins with a World Cup event in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in mid-March. Manon's schedule will then take her around the World to races in Canada, the USA and Norway, amongst others.

Gap year

Manon managed to train and compete while studying for her A-levels at St Martin's in Caerphilly and was accepted on a science and Spanish degree course in Manchester.

By taking a gap year, the 18 year-old can now concentrate on training and racing but she still has to decide whether to pick up her studies again next autumn.

"I want to concentrate on downhill racing for at least one year - maybe more depending on how it goes, perhaps delay university even further."

"Having more time off university will give me a chance to become more independent and a bit more mature," she said.

"But I guess, as an athlete you peak in your early 20s, so maybe I should work at that for a few years and see how it goes," she added.

Family pride

Cycling is very much in her family background. Her father Jason, 43, builds BMX tracks for a living and has coached her for years.

"Manon's background is in a whole range of cycling disciplines," said Mr Carpenter, who previously organised downhill races across south Wales.

"She goes out on the motorbike, out on the BMX and out on the mountain bike. All those add together to make a great rider".

Manon's parents were in Champery when she won the world junior title in September.

"We were very relieved to get through that weekend. I approached it with trepidation really," said Mr Carpenter.

"I was prepared for a big crash at any time that weekend. We were so pleased to see her coming down the hill, covered in mud and still in the lead," he added.

"You have to find the right balance between speed and danger. We knew she could do it - but it's such a difficult sport. Something as simple as a puncture can end it".

Growing sport

Wales is no stranger to cycling success in recent years, with Nicole Cooke, the Olympic road race gold medal holder and Geraint Thomas, who collected gold as a member of the men's pursuit in Beijing.

image copyrightOther
image captionManon Carpenter on top of the championship podium at Champery, Switzerland

Although BMX and cross country mountain biking are currently Olympic events, there's no place for downhill time trials at the moment.

"It's a shame it's not in the Olympics and hopefully in my time racing, maybe it will be," said Manon Carpenter.

"I've always thought, possibly once I've had a few years racing with this, maybe you could try a different sport, cross country or BMX.

Downhill mountain biking is a fast growing sport and competition is fierce. Fellow British rider Tracy Moseley, 32, from Worcester, is currently ranked by the UCI number one worldwide. Carpenter is rising fast, currently placed 9th in the international elite.

In Wales, the Welsh Downhill Mountain Biking Association (WDMBA) is organising races and also working with the Forestry Commission to develop new tracks.

"We've got the perfect landscape for it," she said.

"We've got the mountains, all sorts of terrain and forests. There are plans for bike parks to be developed not far from here in 2013 and that would be great for the sport just to have more venues".

More on this story

  • UCI Mountain Bike World Cup being held in Fort William