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The big interview: Kenta Gallagher

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Kenta

Words: Tommy Wilkinson Photos: Ian Linton, Tommy Wilkinson, Zach Faulker

Kenta Gallagher hails from Sheffield, moved to Inverness at an early age and is half Japanese. His riding CV is as diverse as his heritage – A former XC Eliminator World Cup Winner, top twenty DH World Cup rider and a name on many teams tounges.

Kenta Gallagher is a man on the up.

Descent-World editor and photographer Tommy Wilkinson sat down with Kenta just north of Newcastle to get a real insight into a young man who is breaking stereotypes


TW: Right Kenta, let’s get this started – bear in mind i’m recording this, so whatever you say may be used in evidence – Sorry I mean go on the Descent-World interview……

KG: {leans back, takes a sip from his coffee} Can I say Tommy Wilkinson is a tosser?

TW: {smiles} If you like…..you wouldn’t be the first. Anyway I think you might be the unofficial privateer of the year and you’ve just came of the back of a pretty successful world cup season…..

KG: Depends what you mean by successful…

TW: Well ok, lets focus on results then – where did you come in the overall……

KG: 39th

TW: And how long have you been racing DH?

KG: 21 years

TW: Naaa naaa, I mean proper DH. BDS, World Cup DH, SDA

KG: It’s my 2nd season

TW: So that’s pretty good really, you had a top twenty as well. But there’s more to the story than that- For those that maybe don’t know, tell us where you were prior to 2015?

KG: Hiding away wearing lycra on the British cycling program!

TW: So XC yeah?

KG. Yeah. I did my first XC race in 2002, and I hated it. I only really went as it was a family weekend and my sister was racing – she’s actually been racing longer than me and she’s three years younger!

TW: Yet you went on to race XC at a high level….

KG. I’d say in 2006 I got really into it, both DH and XC. I did a DH race in 2006 as a juvenile. I liked that. But XC presented more opportunities. Scottish cycling had a program where by they would take me to British races and I went along with that opportunity. DH didn’t have that until Chris Ball started the program a few years later. You know DH is expensive and Mum and Dad couldn’t afford to get me to the races, so the XC was really the best option for me to be able to race.

I went through the ranks in XC, ended up on a World Cup team and went to races where I would end up more interested in watching the DH than the XC.


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Kenta started in DH (2006), before moving onto XC – and into the Olympic program. Here he is at Dunkeld SDA, 2006. Photos: Ian Linton.


TW: Ok, so how well did you do at XC? You were on the Olympic program right?

KG: So basically there are 4-5 ranks within the program. I was at rank 3, which means I was in with a shout of London 2012 but not a guarantee by any means. I raced U23 World Cup where my best result was 8th.

TW: 8th in the world is pretty good mate…..

KG: Yeah . Then we entered the build to the Olympics. That was an eye opener. I was shocked how hard you have to work to be an Olympic athlete. Getting the motivation was very difficult when my heart was in DH.

TW: So that was an eye opener? DH is getting more pro but is still evolving compared to sports in the Olympics…

KG: Its the money and time invested into XC. On the GB team we were lucky as we have hugely successful track riders, that allows the money to filter down. UK BMX has the best facilities in the world now . And you know, we had doctors, physio but never anything like the terrain we needed for XC. The Swiss are brought up with it at altitude, they just know how to go very very fast in XC.

TW: And you haven’t mentioned that you did actually win a XCE World Cup – you are a World Cup winner

KG: Yeah, an eliminator event in 2013.


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TW: Ok lets just stop there. So only 3 years ago you were winning World Cup XCE events and you’ve now had a DH World Cup top twenty. That’s pretty decent progress for anyones standards.

Having raced in a pressure environment already though, that surely must have helped the transition. You know, you’ve got racing experience?

KG: I think doing well in DH World Cups is due to having raced the best in the world, albeit at a different discipline, I have seen what it takes and i’m not intimated by the environment. The other reason is that I enjoy it more. In XC i’d wake up not bothered to train, now I wake up and want to ride my bike.

TW: Obviously there’s a big push at the moment amongst some quarters to show DH as the F1 of mountain biking , is that fair given what you’re seen in XC?

KG: I wouldn’t say DH is the F1 of mtb. F1 is so much based around technology and training, and is more like XC in that respect. DH has a bigger following I’d say though. If DH ever went into the Olympics it would definitely change the sport, more money, more science and there could actually be an argument that it would ruin the sport of DH. Right now it has such a good balance.

TW: You know my thoughts on this but I’m keen to hear yours. There’s a lot of chat about shrinking the World Cup field , making it more marketable, building superstars that brands can leverage. etc….My view is that sport often loses its soul when this happens….which is what makes sport what it is… However I do know we need to earn a living at the same time. It’s tricky…

KG: I can see both sides. I don’t maybe think it’s right – but I can see the point. You know to get into F1 now, you need to be a millionaire. Same with MX or SX. The sport can become shut off to people who can’t afford it and having regular guys from normal backgrounds is important – It inspires kids seeing normal guys from their villages or wherever doing so well. What I would hate to see is where by you’d need to be able to invest or afford to have to do millions of races a year just to break into a “ A” race and keep up with development of those guys who’d be taking a huge share of any money in the sport and training more, getting better facilities etc… It would widen the gap, making bridging the gap incredibly financially difficult. Right now as a privateer it’s nearly possible to hang in there with the best in the world and make a mark without needing to be rich or have a backer. But I can see the other side too!

TW: Yeah, and as a privateer you’re making huge sacrifices. You either need to work you’re ass of all winter and not train, or train, not work, but have no money to race, which is a catch 22, find a backer or have family wealth to fund it for you….

KG: Yeah. I’d love more World Cup races too, but again this would kill the privateer scene. So it’s finding a solution where by we keep the sport progressing but keep it open to guys who have talent but maybe not huge budgets. Right now it’s pretty good, anyone can do it.


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KG making his presence felt at his third World Cup DH race, in more ways than one. 17th in qualifying, backed up with a top 40 result


TW: There is an argument that if you’re good enough you’ll stand out and get picked up. Ok, You’ve gone from an expert racer in the UK to qualifying 17th in Lenzerheide in year one. You might not have had that opportunity to be on the Live feed if things change. It got you known. But, right now, DH is pretty wicked.

KG: Yeah, and I’ve been learning every race on the WC circuit too. It’s been pretty rushed but I’ve learnt a lot.

TW: You’ve not really crashed a lot, which is quite unusual for someone trying to push into the sharp end!

KG: Yeah, touch wood! I guess that’s just as I haven’t pushed my full limits. I need to be on a full ride next year and needed a good overall. So again it’s catch 22 – but I chose to ride slightly within myself a bit to try and avoid injury , which would ruin any chances of a deal. I know you shouldn’t but I see riders who are fast as, they get injured and that’s it, they’re gone from the sport

TW: Yeah, we do see a quick turnover of riders who place between 15-40. Is that partly to do with social media having a bigger influence on sponsorship deals? You can be a world cup winner a few years ago and now…kind of of the radar if you aren’t keeping up the output on Facebook / Instagram. But there are guys who do pretty well out of top twenty but wicked video edits and being very marketable – it’s a pretty good way to make a living…

KG: Yeah, you’ve got the top 5-6 guys who are absolute racers and amazing racers and have social media. Gwin, Danny – they are incredibly fast week in week out and have a following due to that.

TW: And everyone on the DH is scene is pretty welcoming too.

KG: Yeah, I don’t know that many people still, as I am quite new to the scene , but you get to know people along the way. It’s super friendly, it’s a tight community and it feels like everyone enjoys it. In XC i felt a bit like, you have your group of friends but you don’t mix like we do in DH.


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All smiles from “KG” – his career in cycling is getting a second wind since coming back to DH.


TW: So moving back from World cup stuff, you’ve done a lot of regional racing this year too? That’s not that common for a top 20 WC rider.

KG: I guess the main thing is I feel like I need to do more races, the more races you do, the more you learn. Like I can put things i’ve been practising to the test….I just feel like I’m quite behind the likes of Greg and Fraser, they’ve done a lot of years, I wanna catch up with them! At the same time it’s cool to support the races that help get you started, if the big boys don’t turn up then the younger riders might lose inspiration

TW: Yeah Ratty, Peaty etc..all used to do SDA races. But what your saying about time, if you look at the top guys, bar maybe Gwin, it takes between 8-10 years to crack DH at the highest level from when you first start. I remember Danny in 2003 I think racing, he won his first world champs in 2011 which was a pretty quick turnaround from first starting. It’s an immensely technical sport.

KG: Yeah well look at Danny – he’s an unbelievable rider but it took him 5 years to win worlds again.

TW: So why is it so hard win a DH race, no matter what level of racing you’re at?

KG: It’s just so tight. One corner can change your result, it’s a matter of like being first or 5th if you mess up that trun.

TW: Ok, so lets say, what is the difference between Danny winning in 1st, and say he puts 5 seconds into you, and you come 25th. How do you you find that time? What is it – all in the brain?

KG: I think confidence . An example would be work. On my first day , I wasn’t confident what to do, you hold back in case you make a mistake. Now I’ve done it that much I do it without thinking. The more you race, the more you try things the more confidence you have, and the faster you go.


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Despite being a competitive World Cup rider, Kenta has continued to support the Scottish Downhill Association races. His battles with former top ten World Cup rider Ben Cathro have been tense, on big tracks with plenty of time to practice.

kenta_warming_up_xc


TW: I’m not convinced in saying this, but watching the races it seems the top 80, in terms of raw bike handling skills are pretty close. I say this because you see , for instance, the portugese guy, Pombo, qualifying top 5, Eddie Masters qualifying 2nd, the speed is clearly there, but they can’t link it together.

KG: Well fitness comes into it too. I always thought I was fit enough for DH but I’m not as fit as I want to be for next year. It’s a different fitness, you need to be fit everywhere. It’s like doing circuits at the gym for 5 minutes. You can’t sit down and pedal really anymore, it’s got to that stage now..

TW: Well, I might call you on that, I’ve seen Josh and Danny sit down mid run……and win and Gwin won without a chain….

KG: Well maybe they can just focus for that amount of time better , make no mistakes

TW: Well yeah, there is that mental side of things too. With fitness comes confidence in your body, and hopefully that gives you a mental strength too

KG: It’s also blocking things out. I’ve had arm pump a few times this year, but I can block it out on a good run when I’m fully in the race zone. If you get distracted though you’ll do shit!

TW: Ok, so distraction. I remember reading something from Stephane Giraud, who was Voullioz (and Minnaar too) coach way back in 2000 ish. He said it’s all about surrounding yourself with the right people. As a privateer that might be quite tricky?

KG. Yes and no. At home I have a lot of people , Kenny, Sandy, loads of folk that have always followed me from the start, and you know I always sty in touch with those guys. When I said i wanted to try DH, they all came together and said ok, “we can do this”. When you realise there’s awesome people trying to help you like that, it gives you a confidence. Whereas in British Cycling, those key people are thrust upon you, you never knew them from the start, so you have to build that relationship up. Whereas in DH, it’s people I’ve known for years, so there’s an instant trust.

TW: That trust is pretty key. So talking about mates, you and Brayton are pretty tight, it’s pretty cool to see. He’s another rider, amazing dedication. I remember some of his first World Cups in 2006. That’s a long time ago, he’s had ups and downs but he’s came through it all and is challenging for wins now.

KG: Well I didn’t really know him till we did a enduro together, an indoor thing in 2013. We got on pretty well, I always knew him as the Gas to Flat, a bit of a willd man, but he’s so down to earth. I was a bit surprised. In my head DH’s were wild! But its so cool to see him do so well, he’s enjoying it and he works so hard. At fort william he knew he was riding well and its mint to see, and he had the belief, I mean 4th, it’s pretty amazing.


kenta_race_run
KG coming in with a 17th place at Fort William World Cup. For many Scottish racers, “The Fort” can act as a spring board to a strong middle season.


TW: He’s on quite a small team personnel wise, but it seems pretty dialled. Some of the bigger teams, they have huge pits, artics etc…I guess they’re designed to lower pressure and make things easier for the rider and it does look awesome. Some riders seem to respond well to this, whereas for some it maybe adds pressure?

KG: Yeah, its horses for courses really. Some riders thrive on pressure but I’m a strong believer that you need to be happy to do well. The big teams offer amazing set ups and publicity but racing is about winning and you need to make sure that will work for you.

TW: And social media / publicity is pretty constant in DH..

KG: It was an eye opener. In XC i was there to race and do a job. In DH the social media following is huge and it makes a difference – last year some teams hadn’t heard of me, which is fair enough, but I’d be beating people week in week out and they were better known on social media and they’d get the deal. But then I guess if you race well, you’ll get that following automatically.

TW: Scotland – it’a in a pretty good place right. 10 years ago you had Chris Ball, Cathro, Stu Thomson, but there wasn’t really a good group of riders doing consistently well. Now there is. Is that down to the development platforms that have been put in place?

KG. Well, when I started i remember Stu being the boy! I never followed the results but when I started going into DH I did. Chris Ball setting up the DH program and Base College has made a huge difference. Greg, Fraser, Rhys, Joe Connell, it’s basically a chance ride full time and study.

kenta

TW: Yeah it gives you a chance to ride full time and have a fall back. For someone like Cathro, who is incredibly talented, he probably didn’t have those opportunities

KG: Yeah, if they’d had that 20 years ago it would have been the same with those guys, they’d have been up there and Scotland would be even faster right now. But in ten years time we will be really fast. Greg and I were joking about it, it’s so hard to get a GB jersey for Worlds, but even if Scotland went independent it would still be very hard to get there. The depth of talent is huge.

TW: So for yourself, you’ve gone round the whole system. A lot of the guys in Scotland, and your race peers are riding full time one way or another. You’re in the Cafe. You’ve done pretty well considering.

KG: They’re pretty felxible, they understand I need the weekends off to race and the mornings to train. Now it’s off season i’m back on full days going flat out in there!

TW: You the best Barista on the World Cup Circuit?

KG. Yes ( laughs ). I don’t know, I hope so!

TW: Well, they have the Boxxer World Champs things they do, maybe a coffee making one is next

KG: I’d hope I’d be up there.

TW: Well you’d beat the Frenchies, I’ve had their coffee and it’s dire! The yanks aren’t much better.

KG. Well all you need to know is Tiso in Inverness !


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KG coming into a hot seat position at Fort William – he would continue good form, sitting in 30th overall untill the final round, where a crash dented his hopes, and he dropped to 39th overall.


TW: Well, Inverness. Arse end of nowhere, yeah it has a pretty good riding scene.

KG. It’s huge! We did a Christmas ride at the mast, it was massive. Now there’s younger riders, old boys back into it, it’s so cool to see!

TW: And you must need to work your arse off to be fast from Inverness. It’s cold, wet, no daylight in winter…

KG. That’s where love of the sport comes in! It’s good because uplifts are like luxury and overtime you get one it’s like luxury! Same with the sun, but if it rains it’s like nothing changed, so it’s win win!

TW: You and Greg are pretty good mates, and he’s another rider really at the sharp end now. Rumour has it he’s a lady killer?

KG. Well , no comment as such!

TW: I’ll not ask anymore! Who’s the best Tinder pilot on the WC circuit?

KG: Well, the person I would have said, ditched it after Fort William. I’m saying no more than that!


Kenta and Adam Brayton have become firm friends.

TW: So ok, here’s a question. In downhill you’re competing against the clock. No one else. Yet obviously there are rivalries and friendships – how do you balance those two things out?

KG: Well I dunno. Obviously you wouldn’t say Gwin could be Danny’s best friend, as it’s so intense racing I’m not sure how you could be. It’s a racing rivalry though, I’ve not seen many personality rival’s as every one is pretty cool. Generally we give each other high 5’s, and try to get each other next time!

TW: Are you American or Scottish mate? High 5’s? Anyway It’s pretty awesome. I love the sportsmanship. But then again I also loved Palmer eyeballing Vouilloz!

Now, you’ve told me a few times by about a photographer heckling you trackside, telling you to go to Enduro for the money. ….It kind of makes sense. Brands can use you across the board, you’re an XC race winner, you’re half Japanese, you’re fast…..You tick all the boxes

KG: Well I always said I could afford 3 years of racing and if I didn’t make I’d have to quit. But the thing is I love riding my bike so much! So maybe I’d try Enduro. I don’t see me going there anytime soon. Plus I have a £1.50 bet with Fergus Lamb that he’s do more EWS than me in the next two years…

TW: I read an interview with you where you said “ Enduro is what you do when you get slow” . Now, there’s probably quite a few guys who would argue that point.

KG. Ok (laughs) . I wouldn’t say that now but I guess when you stop enjoying XC or DH you venture that way. Sam Hill said his spark for DH is gone and it’s with Enduro now. If that happens, then you’re gonna do well in Enduro

TW: Speaking of Sam, rumour has it he’s fed up of going to the same track, year after year. I can see why. Now this is where it get’s complicated. I saw `Greg Minnaarr had put up a post about EWS, saying he wasn’t going to pre practice the stages, thus keeping it fair between pro’s and privateers. I liked that. There could be an argument that because we keep going back to the same venue’s, year after year in DH that it’s giving the guys who’ve been on the circuit for a few years an advantage. I think we saw in Lourdes 2015, the results were mixed up a bit – It was a new venue. The top 5 guys are always fast everywhere, but the top ten names change when we hit new venues. Should we have new venues?

KG:Yeah. We should. My example would be last year, my first world cup was Fort William. I didn’t qualify. From then on, each track was new to me. I hadn’t been to any of them. I felt like I was always on the back foot. I’d be walking the track and people would be saying “ That’s the line we always take” . I had all of that to figure out. At Lenzerheide, an entirely new track, I qualified 17th, so maybe there is something in what you’re saying. This year, I’d ridden nearly all of the tracks and it was pretty easy. There was not so many challenges as I knew the track. But I know that logistically it’s hard, and we’ll always need repeat venues, but new venues would really help.

TW: Somewhere like Leogang looks awesome on TV. But I’m riding with on arm, and I can ride that track bar about two sections. That just shouldn’t happen….This is DH mountain biking. 10 years ago we had Schladming, Champery, Pila was a great track…

KG: Well I’m not into the gnarly stuff really. But I would choose Champery over Leogang any time.

TW: Yeah, the argument is that Champery looks rubbish on Telly. Yet Danny’s 2011 run is one of the best things i’ve ever seen along with Sam Hill in VDS 2008….. I can see both sides of the coin but TV influence on sport needs to be balanced. I think the EWS have the balance spot on.

KG: Yeah TV is great. In theory it means more people can make this there job if it brings in more money. Bikes are getting more expensive. I heard that a top DH bike is 9k, I think that’s wrong but people must be paying it…


Kenta_Privateeer
Windham, 2015. Kenta rebuilds his own wheels the night before qualifying.


TW: And local races have been declining, or regional DH races at least (In terms of entries). Enduro has taken a lot of riders. DH has maybe become more specialised. Do you think DH numbers will continue to decline at lower levels but that the standard will improve at the top?

KG: It’s tricky. Its still affordable, but if you’re a hobby rider and you only have the money for one bike it’ll be an Enduro bike. Saying that, you could race an Enduro bike down any track in Great Britain bar Fort William.

TW: There’s an argument that some Enduro tracks are gnarlier than DH tracks.

KG: Yeah but there’s no way you ride an Enduro bike down Fort William as fast as a DH bike. It would not be fun. Riding it on those smaller bikes at the speed that say Richie Rude does , any track will be gnarly.

TW: Yeah. I think it’s pretty awesome seeing a DH bike at full chat. Like that jump section in Cairns. It’s amazing and you couldn’t do that as fast on an Enduro bike, but they are different things and gnarly in their own right . It’s good to have both, and for someone like you, you could race both, get two bites of the cherry. But maybe you’re going to need to become more specialised to each discipline?

KG. Yeah, I think so. You see DH riders do Enduro and it doesn’t go well haha! The training is different, the race craft is different. To be the best in the world at anything, you need to focus on it. Even flipping pancakes or something like that.


kenta_enduro_inners_2014
Kenta has done pretty well at the Enduro races he has competed at. His backgrounds makes his appeal to sponsors huge, with his relevance in every discipline coming to the fore.


TW: That’s why you never beat me at Tiddlywinks. Ok, what are your aims in racing? To win? Be a pro? Often you hear young guys say now “ I wanna be a pro” – yet guys like Danny say “I wanna win” . It’s a sport, surely winning comes first and becoming a pro then follows?

KG: When I was younger I wanted to win. I didn’t know you could be a pro. But any opportunity to ride a bike full time is a lucky thing. But i did that and didn’t like XC. I’d be sitting there, thinking I’m gonna become a joiner and ride my bike for fun. Now, I never think that. I’d like to go full time to help me win.

TW: Pure racer head! What’s your advice to younger riders?

KG: Focus on winning and the rest should follow. If it doesn’t then you can always adjust as you get older. Guys have done it. Look at Gwin. He’s a pure racer, the rest has followed.

TW: I admire Gwin’s racing record. It’s incredible really. I also admire that he is himself really. He just race’s and is who is he is. So, top ten next year? You’ve been close…

KG: Yeah I have. I’m starting to figure it out – a bit like you and wiping your arse, by the end of next year you’ll have it sorted!

TW: (Laughs) Aye, good one. So you’ve got offers on the table for next year right?

KG: I knew you’d ask! (laughs) You don’t bloody care what you ask do you (laughs) Well you know I can’t say. I’m keeping my options open, I’m hopeful . It’s been hard to get noticed, to break in. The teams are small. Once you’re in a team I guess you’re in with all that media behind you. And of course pay isn’t great, but I want to win.

TW: Ahh wonga! There’s a lot of chat in the pits about that.Everyone has a right to earn a decent living. Sure, if you’re just starting out a team or business then you need to keep costs down but you have to pay what you can, and fairly pay riders. From a riders point of view, I think if you’re on a team that is “PRO” and a senior age rider , you need to be paid. It might not be a huge amount, but you’re a marketing asset for sponsors.

KG: Its tough. If someone says to me, here’s 500k, ride a shit bike or here’s 200k, ride the best bike, what you gonna do? There’s life after racing but also if you win more, that can cement your brand and give you a career after racing . If you wanted to retire from the sport and not work afterwards, you need to think carefully.

TW: Well you see Saracens Rugby club. Each player gets the chance to do a degree while at that club. I love what Bruni is doing with those internships. It’s smart. Someone like Peaty, his win’s and character have made him a legend. He can be in mtb forever and has an income secured

KG: In XC I went with the money. That because I wasn’t interested in the sport. In DH I’ve just started, I need a platform that will make me faster, not necessarily by a new a van haha.


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Kenta learning lines in Mont St Anne, 2015.


TW. You’ve driven to a lot of races yourself. I’ve seen how tired you can be when we miss flights etc.. That’s tough to do well with organising your own logistics etc…

KG: Yeah it definitely affects it. I drove to Lenzerheide. I wanted to go to Morzine. I was by myself, I had a week in Morzine to try and recover from the drive. Did Lezerheide, then drove myself back to National Champs. I was goosed, did terribly.

TW: The mental stress too. That’s energy sapping. Like the spoons theory I was telling you about. Only so much energy to go round and you have to manage it. So when you’re at home, what do you get up too?

KG: If i’m not making coffee I’m riding.

TW: Oh come on, that’s like some regurgitated spiel!

KG: I’m serious. I love it now, it’s still new. I want to train pretty much all the time. I’m having to force myself not to ride at the moment in case I do burnout. When I was in XC, I couldn’t wait for the off season, now I never want the season to end!

TW: Well that’ll do for me mate. Pretty good note to end it on I reckon!

KG: Yeah, I’ve had enough of your chat for a day now!

TW: I’ll have a cappuccino please. Make it snappy……

KG and TW: Laughs……..

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Kenta

10 comments on “The big interview: Kenta Gallagher

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