Featured Image: Keith Phunkt Valentine
keep your eyes on this young lad
If your a young and upcoming racer then having a seat on the Propain Factory Team is no bad place to start your career. SFC Media had a chat with Luke who is waiting to start his second season on the team and has his eyes firmly set on an assault on the junior World Cup rankings. We caught up with the 17 year old to see what makes him tick.
Q: Let us start with who is Luke Williamson?
Luke: Just a 17 year old downhill racer from the South of England tryna make it to the top of the sport.
Q: So, easy start, how did you get into riding? // What was your first bike?
Luke: The first time I ever rode a downhill bike was actually on holiday in Les Gets. I used to race motocross and ride a bit of park bmx so it right up my street and we ended up going again the following year. When we went back the next year the Intersport shop opposite the lift station happened to be selling some of their old rental bikes, some of which were the same as I’d been renting from them that week. We didn’t know much about downhill bikes at the time but it seemed like a decent price and it meant we wouldn’t have to pay for any more bike rental that week. With Rogate Downhill just down the road from me we knew I’d be able to make use of it, so my parents bought it for me.
Left Ph: Family Photo in Les Gets / Right Ph: Simon Piley – @cyotepicters on the Mondraker Kaiser
The bike was a Mondraker Kaiser, if you have never seen one before they’re a pretty hefty piece of kit – not sure what it weighed but I imagine it was quite a lot. Anyway, after we bought that bike, I started spending a fair bit of time riding downhill, mostly just down at Rogate for a bit of fun. At this point I was racing motocross at a pretty high level, so mountain biking was just a bit of an extra hobby that I was doing for a bit of fun. Eventually I entered my first race and from that point started doing the odd grassroots downhill race alongside racing motocross. After about a year of doing both sports I’d picked up some podiums and first place finishes at some of the grassroots races I was doing and began to just prefer the mountain biking scene in general and I’d soon made my mind up that racing downhill was what I wanted to do. It all went from there really and the following season I was racing my first British Downhill series and Pearce season.
Q: Are you a biker or an athlete? For example, have you ever worked on the bikes you have ridden, does someone else do it, do you find the mechanical side interesting or is it more about the riding for you?
Luke: The short answer is that I’m an athlete. I’ve got a passion for riding bikes, but fixing/ maintaining them… not so much, I prefer to leave those jobs for my dad or mechanic haha. Sometimes it’s just my lack of understanding or self-trust, sometimes it’s just that I’m not that interested. I’d would say however recently I have started working on my bikes myself a bit more, and there’s some bits I do enjoy doing. I guess the older I get, the more responsible I feel towards looking after my bikes. Although I’m mad interested in general bike maintenance, bike and suspension setup is something that really does interest me. The gnarlier the tracks that you ride, the more important it is. Having a bike that’s setup well is going to make you a lot faster and smoother without having to adjust your riding significantly (“free speed”).
Q: We know from looking at your Roots & Rain stats that you have racked up a lot of 1st place finishes. But what has been your favourite result so far?
Luke: I think I’d have to go with Glencoe National Champs in 2018 as a youth. That was my first National Champs win and I think manged a top 10 overall, sandwiching myself between some big elite names which was pretty cool for me at the time.
Q: What was your journey through supported/sponsored rides to the Propain Team you are in now?.
Luke: Firstly, I have to say I’ve been very lucky over the past few years with great support from a number of people. My first MTB sponsor was Solid bikes which came about after bumping into Harry Molloy in the Surrey Hills one day – he was managing and riding for the Solid Factory Racing team at the time. He managed to get me some discount on a bike and components. At the time I was a second year juvenile and it was my first year racing nationals so I thought it was pretty cool at the time. I also did some coaching sessions with Harry that year which really benefited my riding, in fact I’m not sure I could be riding at the level I am now without his help making sure I get the fundamental skills right.
After Solid my next sponsor was the Atherton Academy. My uncle has been friends with Dan Brown, the Atherton racing team manager, for a pretty long time. After some good results in my first year of racing nationals my uncle put us in contact with Dan and I managed to get on the Atherton academy for the next two years which I was so stoked on. The level of support I got on the team that year was a huge step up from what I’d had previously, it was a bit of a dream come true really and it gave me a taste for what factory sponsorship is like. I picked up some pretty good results on the Academy which must’ve caught the attention of a couple of team managers. One of which was Ben Reid, who now manages the Propain Factory Racing team. He got in contact with me towards the end of the 2018 season asking about my plans for 2019. We chatted back and forth for a bit, things started to come together, and I signed a two year contract to ride for the team. Here I am today.
Q: How did you find the change to the new bike?
Luke: It was actually much easier to get used to the new bike than I expected, especially considering nearly all of the parts where parts I’d never ran previously. At first Ben sent me through one of their 650b bikes from the previous season and I felt right at home on it pretty much straight away which was sick. Closer to the start of the season he sent over a new Rage which was actually my first 29er. Being my first 29er it felt pretty weird at first especially around corners but I eventually got used to it and by the start of the season I felt really good on it. For this season I’ve actually changed to a mullet wheel setup for this season though as it just feels a bit more comfortable for me. Seems to corner a little better and feels like I can attack a bit more on it which is good.
Q: Who else is supporting you this year?
Luke: I don’t really have any private sponsors as such but my parents are my other main supporters. They’ve put a whole lot of time, money and effort into my training and getting me to the races and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.
Q: I hope your keeping busy and safe in this period (COVID-19), how are you feeling this season? // How is the collarbone?
Luke: Yeah, it’s a weird situation to be in and caused all sorts of havoc. I think we can all agree that we’d prefer if the virus had never come about but in terms of the season being postponed, I guess it’s worked out well for me. Broken collarbone or not I really don’t think I was mentally prepared to go racing at the start of this season. I was rushing into things and couldn’t stay on my bike so in a weird sort of way it was only a matter of time until I was going to end up getting injured. Obviously, I was absolutely gutted when I realised I’d broken it. It’s pretty tough when you’ve put so much hard work into the upcoming season just to get injured right before the first race. Anyway, collarbone has healed well now and I’m back riding my bike again, feeling refreshed and trying to take a slightly more sensible mental approach this time round. I have to say it will be bit weird doing a full race season at the end of the year, especially all in the space of a few months but at least it looks like we get to go racing. Hopefully the climate might suit us Brits a bit better too.
Q: What is happening in the team at the moment regarding the current situation?
Luke: We’re all just ticking along doing whatever training we can. Whether it be riding or home gym sessions we’re just tryna be in the best possible position we can for when racing starts up again. Alongside that we’re all trying to produce whatever social media content we can whilst there’s no racing going on. Our sponsors put a lot into the team and with no racing they’re not getting the publicity they would usually so we’re trying to do our bit to keep them happy and their businesses healthy. I’m also making the most of getting to ride my local trails whilst I can. I might not have huge hills here in the South but there’s still some great riding and it’s nice to be riding for the meantime.
Q: Talking about your team, you have got some strong teammates; how do you think that will help you?
Luke: Yeah for sure and they’ve all got something different to offer in terms of how they can help as teammates. George has got a lot of experience and been through it all before. He seems really grounded and focused on the things that matter, so I think there’s a lot that I can learn from him. Over the year or so as teammates I’ve become pretty good mates with Henry and it’s nice to have someone on the team that I can have a bit of a joke with. We probably need to learn to hold back on the banter sometimes though haha. Also, good to have Luke on the team this season. It’s great to have a fellow junior on the team to bounce off of. I think the pair of us working together has the potential to produce better results than we would separately.
Q: I have read an online article, and I quote “the results didn’t reflect what he is capable of”, So after last year do you feel you have a point to prove?
Luke: Yeah, I think last year I really struggled with the transition from racing nationals to World Cups. I think I was just a bit overwhelmed and distracted from just getting on and riding my bike. I think if I can chill out a bit and ride like I used to at the national races then I’ll be in a much better position to get some good results.
Q: What was your best round last year? // What do you think made it your best?
Luke: My best World Cup result last year was Vallnord. I kinda just loved everything about the place really. It’s a real nice place and the tracks got a bit of everything. I was enjoying the track and didn’t put too much pressure on myself which I think really helped. From what I remember quite a few people crashed in race runs because of the dust so I guess I kinda did better by default. You gotta be in it to win it though, there’s no use being crazy fast if you can’t stay on the bike. Anyway, I must’ve judged the conditions well and I was pretty stoked to come away with a 7th there after a few tough races.
Q: You grew up racing the south coast British rounds; What are your thoughts on British racing, and riding as a whole in the UK and especially in the south?
Luke: In terms of building new talent I think it’s really important that the UK has a good national series and grassroots races, they’ve definitely helped me and they’re a must have building block for developing as a racer. Back when I first started racing the Gravity Project Honey Series was the local grassroots series. Unfortunately, those guys had to pack up the series, which is a shame, it was always a good vibe at those races. Thankfully the grassroots scene is still going strong round here with B1ke running their race series and doing a few annual races which are always a good crack so big up to them for keeping the scene alive. Another series which I think has been pretty important is the FOD Mini Downhill Series. That was where I did my first few downhill races and I reckon that series has produced some of the UKs top riders. I can name at least 5 riders just off the top of my head that have come through that series which are now being supported by factory race teams. It just goes to show how important grassroots races can be.
In terms of the UK national scene right now I hate to say it but it’s definitely not at its prime at the moment. If you look to before I was racing all the top UK elites and even a few foreign racers would be at the nationals but right now unfortunately it’s far from it. Maybe it’s the tracks, or maybe it’s just that there’s increased professionalism in the sport and the top riders need to focus on world cups nowadays. I’m not criticising any of the of the top riders for not attending the nationals anymore because I can empathise with them and personally I don’t have much of an interest in racing nationals at the moment and I don’t want to put the blame on the organisers either because we are lucky to have a national series, it just seems like the atmosphere and attraction to race nationals isn’t there anymore. I think to get the national scene back to where it was we’d need to be seeing more of the UK world cup racers tipping up and the some gnarlier tracks being used – there’s plenty of them in the UK it’s just being able to sort the logistics to use them. I’d be pretty damn stoked to see the UK nationals back to their former glory one day though. We’ve got plenty of good riders and plenty of good tracks.
Q: Do you do any coaching to youngsters? // Would you consider this?
Luke: I don’t currently do any coaching but it’s definitely something I’d be interested in doing at some point. As a racer it’s in my nature to analyse riding so I can improve myself, so theoretically I should be pretty good at coaching. I imagine it’s a pretty rewarding feeling helping people improve too, so definitely something I’d consider at some point. My main focus is racing right now so I’m doing a lot of training and I’m also still in college, so I’ve not really got much time to do it right now but maybe in the future.
Q: Where is your favourite place to ride?
Luke: Probably Morzine, in particular the Pleney side. The main tracks are flat out and you can link them up with some pretty wild off-piste tracks which makes for such a good run. The gondola is also really quick there so you don’t spend much more time going up than you do going down. All the resorts in the area are linked up with lifts so you ride a load of different spots all in one day, it’s hard to get bored really.
Q: Ok so talking favourites, what has been your favourite race venue/event so far?
Luke: Hard to say, I got to visit a lot of cool new places last year, but I think Vallnord and Mont Sainte Anne stood out for me, sick places and sick tracks. Vallnord has everything really you could ask for in a racetrack really. It gets pretty rough and it’s got a good mix of steep tech, flat out sections and a few flowy corners. Mont Sainte Anne on the other hand is just crazy rough and mad fast.
Q: Which World Cup Race are you looking forward to the most this year?
Luke: I’d say probably Val di Sole or Les Gets. The speeds you hit down Les Gets are crazy and it’s a proper fun track. Val di Sole is just insane, sooo gnarly. The thing I love about gnarly tracks is there’s always a lot of room for improvement so I’m kinda excited to go back there this season and try to ride that track a bit faster.
Q: Brilliant, now who or what inspires and motivates you?
Luke: I think generally I’m just someone who’s naturally really driven. I’ve always been so driven that I’ve never really needed anyone else to stand there and help get me motivated. I’ve always had a vision of getting to whatever sport it is that I’m doing and I think that that’s what keeps me motivated. Over the past year I’ve started working with Alan Milway, one of the top coaches in the country which has also helped with motivation and trusting the process. I know that as long as I’m following the training plans I’m given I’ll be headed in the right direction to achieving my goals. He’s produced some amazing talent and if anyone inspires me it’s probably some of the elites that he coaches, particularly Charlie Hatton and Joe Breeden. Those guys were in a similar position to me a few years back and it inspires me to see where they’ve got to and what is achievable from the position I’m in.
Q: What would you say is one of your main strengths and one of your main weaknesses?
Luke: In my opinion one of my main strengths is raw speed. By raw speed I mean that when I’m comfortable, when I’m on a track I know, I can be very fast. I think that’s why I struggled with racing world cups much more than nationals. With limited practice, all the tracks being new to me and loads of line choice last year it was much harder to get on and ride fast in comparison to the one line national tracks which I’ve ridden over and over again. On the other hand I think my main weakness is keeping a level head especially at world cups. I’d say the stresses and pressures of racing get me a little too anxious sometimes and I begin to lose focus on just riding properly.
Q: What does a day in the life look like for you on a race day?
Luke: At the World Cups it’s all over pretty quickly really. Of the top of my head, I’ll be pretty early, probably like 6 – 6:30 and stuff some breakfast down (with all the nerves of race day that tends to be a bit of a struggle). I tend to get so nervous even just brushing my teeth nearly has me spewing. I’ll get on the bog and get down to race weight, chuck my kit on and either ride or drive to the pits depending on how close the accommodation is. Once I’m at the pits I’ll usually try and have a quick spin on the turbo trainer and get to the gondola station for around about 15-30 minutes before practice starts which I think is like 8:30 (I should probably know this stuff). I’ll then aim to get around 2 practice runs in depending on how I feel. The Junior Men start at around 10:30 I think (someone will probably tell me I’ve got all the times wrong haha), and I’ll start my warm up about 1hr before my run. Once I’ve done my warm all there is to do is get your race runs done and that’s you done for the weekend. Pretty weird being wrapped up racing before lunch.
Q: What does the future hold for you?
Luke: All I can say right now is that I hope it’s bright. Who knows what it’ll bring but you sure can trust I’ll be doing all I can make the best of it.
Q: Do you have a life moto?
Luke: I don’t have a motto but recently I’ve been trying to just focus on the present, do what I can with the cards I’m dealt and just trying to appreciate life. However hard things get in life we’re blessed to just be experiencing it.
Q: We always like our guests to do the sign off, so any last words?
Luke: I wish I had a cool way of signing off but I can’t think of anything right now haha. Hope you found this little insight into my life vaguely interesting and cheers for reading.
A big thank you to Luke for his insight in to his world and his road so far, we look forward to following him and seeing how he gets on this year.