THE ENIGMA

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Sam Hill may be a house­hold rider name but what’s far from or­di­nary is his am­bidex­trous dom­i­nance of down­hill and en­duro dis­ci­plines, un­wa­ver­ing devo­tion to speed and stead­fast ded­i­ca­tion to hu­man loy­alty. Editor-at-Large Brice Min­nigh re­veals the man be­hind the shad­ows: How Hill can’t help but win.

wants it. And he makes it look easy.”

LE­GENDS OF THE FALL

Some of Hill’s per­for­mances over the years have be­come the stuff of leg­end. Take, for ex­am­ple, his 2007 show­ing in Cham­péry, Switzer­land, on one of the steep­est, most dan­ger­ous cour­ses in World Cup his­tory.

Mid­way through the fi­nals, a tor­ren­tial rain and hail­storm turned the track into a muddy Slip ’N Slide, with 30 or so rac­ers left to make their runs. Most of them, by their own ad­mis­sion, were hang­ing on for dear life the whole way down. But not Hill, who had qual­i­fied in first and was there­fore the last racer of the day. In spite of the hor­ri­ble con­di­tions—or per­haps be­cause of them—he was hell­bent on go­ing for the win. To the amaze­ment of ev­ery­one, he charged through the churned-up sludge with com­par­a­tive ease to chalk up an un­be­liev­able third­place fin­ish.

“Per­haps more than any other racer, Sam has the to­tal re­spect of his peers,” says Scott Sharples, the long­time Aus­tralia Na­tional Team man­ager who helped guide Hill through the ju­nior-rac­ing ranks in the early 2000s. “He not only in­flu­ences the fans; he in­flu­ences the other rac­ers, even at the most elite level.

“Sam’s style is some­thing that peo­ple want to mimic and repli­cate,” Sharples adds. “Ev­ery­one wants to ride like him.”

Ever since Sharples first spot­ted Hill from a chair­lift in Thredbo, Aus­tralia, as the-then 15-year-old was rail­ing ef­fort­lessly past other riders, he knew his tal­ent was unique.

“I could see this guy just ca­su­ally carv­ing up the moun­tain, but he was go­ing so much faster than ev­ery­body else,” Sharples re­calls. “I asked the guys on the chair­lift who it was, and one of them told me he was one of the young guys from Perth.”

Fig­ur­ing he might know who it was, Sharples—who was tran­si­tion­ing from rac­ing into coach­ing at the time—went to find the young Hill, even­tu­ally meet­ing him with his fa­ther.

“I ap­proached his dad and asked him if Sam wanted to race,” Sharples says. “His dad told me he’d said he wanted to be the world cham­pion. From the very mo­ment I met him, it was clear what he wanted to do.”

DOWN­WARD TO GLORY

The am­bi­tious Hill wasted no time chas­ing that goal, lay­ing down dizzy­ing runs as a ju­nior that were start­ing to make the elite men squirm. At the 2003 World Cham­pi­onship race in Lugano, Switzer­land, the 18-year-old phe­nom staged an all-out as­sault on the muddy, rock-filled course, eas­ily win­ning the ju­nior divi­sion, de­spite a crash. What made peo­ple take

note, how­ever, was his time: If he’d been com­pet­ing against the elite men, he would have placed third that day.

When Hill be­gan com­pet­ing in the elite men’s cat­e­gory in 2004, he im­me­di­ately put the heat to the world’s fastest down­hillers. For three straight years, from 2004 to 2006, he cap­tured sec­ond in the UCI World Cup Down­hill se­ries, with only the likes of vet­er­ans Steve Peat and Greg Min­naar tak­ing the over­all ahead of him.

And finally, just six years af­ter meet­ing Sharples and start­ing his rac­ing ca­reer, Hill be­came the World Cham­pion, smash­ing his com­pe­ti­tion in the 2006 UCI World Cup Down­hill Cham­pi­onship race in Ro­torua, New Zealand. The fol­low­ing year, he con­sol­i­dated his supremacy, win­ning the World Cham­pi­onship race in Fort Wil­liam, Scot­land, while also tak­ing the over­all World Cup se­ries ti­tle. With­out ques­tion, he had be­come the fastest down­hiller on the planet.

Though he cap­tured the World Cup se­ries ti­tle again in 2009 and won the World Cham­pi­onship race in Mon­tSainte-Anne, Que­bec, in 2010, it was no longer the podium-top­ping fin­ishes that de­fined him among the rid­ing pub­lic. It was the way he raced—flat-out, foot-out, all the time—that gar­nered the rev­er­ence of rac­ing fans and ev­ery­day riders alike.

Hill con­sis­tently es­chewed tac­tics and strate­gic po­si­tion­ing, pre­fer­ring to put ev­ery­thing on the line with each and ev­ery race. If he didn’t win a race on his own terms, it seemed it wasn’t worth win­ning.

“I’ve never known Sam to cheat, or even do any­thing to give him­self a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage,” Page says. “A lot of ath­letes will go to venues weeks, or even months, be­fore a race, rid­ing the tracks and get­ting a good feel for the ter­rain. But Sam doesn’t do that. He just rocks up, pre-rides the course once and then goes all-out in his race run.”

MYS­TERY MAN

This un­com­pro­mis­ing ap­proach to rac­ing, set against Hill’s re­served, unas­sum­ing de­meanor, has made him one of moun­tain bik­ing’s big­gest enig­mas. A man of few words, he truly lets his rid­ing do the talk­ing, shy­ing from the post-race lime­light and rarely re­veal­ing his hand. And his muted, mat­ter-of-fact pub­lic man­ner has left most peo­ple won­der­ing what it is that ac­tu­ally makes him tick.

“Sam’s a very different in­di­vid­ual to most peo­ple you come across in life,” Page says. “He doesn’t re­ally say much to peo­ple, un­less they work with him or

they’re a close friend. But when you get to know him, he’s re­ally funny and down­right mis­chievous. He’s al­ways play­ing prac­ti­cal jokes, and within a cou­ple of days of get­ting to know some­one, he’ll have a special nick­name for that per­son.

“Most peo­ple will never see that side of him, though,” Page adds. “As soon as the cam­eras come out, he’s a to­tally different per­son. Once the teach­ers are around, he’s sud­denly on his best be­hav­ior.”

By all ac­counts, how­ever, one of Hill’s most defin­ing traits is his loy­alty—both to friends and to the things he knows best. In an era when rid­ing clipped-in is con­sid­ered de rigueur among elite rac­ers, Hill con­tin­ues to stick with what he knows, from his pre­ferred han­dle­bar width to his tried-and-true flat ped­als.

Rather than fol­low­ing in­dus­try-driven trends and seek­ing out tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tages, he con­tin­ues to rely on what has al­ways worked for him. If his ballsy line choices, Hou­dini-like cor­ner­ing skills and pen­chant for speed in highly tech­ni­cal ter­rain can’t pro­pel him to vic­tory, he loses in­ter­est.

And dur­ing his last few years of World Cup DH rac­ing, when the UCI be­gan to for­sake the steep, gnarly tracks of yore for high-speed, com­par­a­tively groomed run­ways, Hill al­most seemed bored.

“Once most of the tracks be­came tech­ni­cally eas­ier, with more flat-out speed sec­tions that fa­vored strong ped­alers and guys on 29ers, you could see that he was start­ing to check out of down­hill,” Martin says. “He’d been 12 years deep into this, but when the tracks be­came eas­ier, the speeds were much greater, mak­ing them more dan­ger­ous. He’d had some bad crashes and strug­gled with in­juries, but ba­si­cally he was no longer feel­ing chal­lenged by the tracks.”

EN­TER THE EN­DURO

Af­ter hear­ing fel­low riders talk about how tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing en­duro race­courses were be­com­ing, Hill de­cided to try his hand at the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar dis­ci­pline. At the 2015 Crankworx in Ro­torua, af­ter a sev­enth-place fin­ish on the venue’s DH track, he en­tered the en­duro race the fol­low­ing day on a lark.

At the start gate, when Ital­ian com­men­ta­tor En­rico Guala asked him why he’d de­cided to race the en­duro, Hill replied, with a non­cha­lance that be­lied his bike-han­dling bril­liance: “Ah well, I heard my mates talk­ing about how fun the trails were, so I de­cided to give it a go and see what it’s all about.”

To the sur­prise of many, Hill fin­ished 10th over­all, smok­ing ev­ery­one on the sev­enth and fi­nal stage down part of the DH track. As he burst from the for­est and scrubbed the last few jumps be­fore the fin­ish line, the crowd went berserk. Sam Hill, the everyman hero, was back. And snip­ing tight cor­ners with one’s in­side foot out would once again be syn­ony­mous with shred­ding.

See­ing how Hill had come to life in the en­duro, Page struck a deal with Mavic that would al­low him to race four en­duro events the fol­low­ing year. His first race, on the steep, tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing trails of La Thuile, Italy, was per­fectly suited to Hill’s strengths.

“Be­fore that race, I jok­ingly asked Sam if he was ready for this en­duro,” Page re­mem­bers. “And he said to me, ‘I think this en­duro needs to get ready for me.’ Then he went and smashed out a sec­ond-place fin­ish.”

THE KING’S NEW CROWN

Since that mo­ment, Hill hasn’t looked back. In 2017, he won the over­all En­duro World Se­ries cham­pi­onship, thanks to con­sis­tently high fin­ishes in al­most ev­ery race. Seven years af­ter his last World DH Cham­pi­onship ti­tle, he was once again a World Cham­pion—of an en­tirely different dis­ci­pline.

This year, he’s only ex­panded his dom­i­nance of the EWS, win­ning four of the first six races out­right—and mak­ing it look easy. In round six, on the no­to­ri­ously bru­tal trails of Whistler, Bri­tish Co­lum­bia, Hill fin­ished sec­ond af­ter an ex­haust­ingly long day of dust-filled one-up­man­ship. Two days later, he en­tered Crankworx Whistler’s de­mand­ing Gar­banzo DH race, wow­ing fans with an im­pres­sive vic­tory over Colom­bian stand­out Marcelo Gu­tier­rez, who is still rac­ing on the World Cup DH cir­cuit. With only two races left in this year’s EWS, Hill is still lead­ing the over­all se­ries and is in strong con­tention for his sec­ond world ti­tle.

“He was al­ways such a down­hiller’s down­hiller, you could never imag­ine him mak­ing it in en­duro against all the ‘en­duro spe­cial­ists,’” Martin says. “But now that he is, it’s just a no-brainer be­cause en­duro is a mea­sure of han­dling skills on dif­fi­cult ter­rain. So, of course Sam Hill should be win­ning the EWS.

“All his best re­sults in down­hill—the ones that made him the leg­end he is— were based on the gnarli­est ter­rain,” Martin adds. “As soon as you have that in en­duro, he’s putting loads of time on peo­ple. The way en­duro rac­ing is now, it’s just per­fectly up his street.”

Page agrees, point­ing to Hill’s most re­cent EWS win in La Thuile.

“The en­duro tracks these days are so dif­fi­cult to ride,” says Page, him­self a for­mer DH stand­out and top per­former in the EWS’s masters divi­sion. “La Thuile had some of the steep­est tracks I’ve ever rid­den in my life. They were so chal­leng­ing, and even the top riders were strug­gling. But Sam was just to­tally in his el­e­ment.”

If Hill’s record is any in­di­ca­tion, he’s most in his el­e­ment when the ter­rain is burly and un­pre­dictable.

“A lot of the EWS cour­ses are ei­ther fresh-cut or not heav­ily used tracks: they’re raw and nat­u­ral,” Hill says. “We’ve had ev­ery­thing from steep, rocky, rooty stages to flat-out, high-speed, open stuff. The EWS tracks vary so much from venue to venue, but also within each round. That’s what I’m en­joy­ing about it.

“I per­son­ally think the EWS tracks we’re rac­ing are gnarlier than the cur­rent World Cup DH tracks,” Hill adds. “The DH [course crew] has been mak­ing the tracks faster, with a lot less line choices for riders. I’m not bag­ging on DH, be­cause I still love the sport, but the tracks have just be­come tamed down in terms of tech­ni­cal­ity and raw­ness and are more for TV now.”

MOV­ING THE ME­TER

Hill’s surge to EWS promi­nence has done as much for the cred­i­bil­ity of en­duro rac­ing as it has to val­i­date his sta­tus as one of the great­est moun­tain bik­ers of all time, ac­cord­ing to Martin.

“He 100-per­cent moves the me­ter,” the South African-raised pho­tog­ra­pher says. “Any­thing Sam Hill does, he le­git­imizes it—whether it’s a track, a race, or just a pic­ture of a flat pedal. Once the EWS put him in their news, so many more peo­ple started pay­ing at­ten­tion.

“He’s got the at­ten­tion of peo­ple in their 40s, as well as peo­ple in their teens. There’s al­ways some­thing to learn from him.”

Hill’s undis­puted ex­cel­lence in ar­du­ous con­di­tions is not the only se­cret to his suc­cess, how­ever. Much of his con­tin­ued achieve­ment is tied to his loy­alty and abil­ity to re­main true to a win­ning for­mula. Whether it’s his equip­ment, his bike, his sus­pen­sion setup, his me­chanic, or the peo­ple he chooses to sur­round him­self with, Hill prefers to keep things con­sis­tent.

“Sam has a sin­gle-mind­ed­ness, an in­tense fo­cus, and a will­ing­ness to work hard and pri­or­i­tize what works for him,” Sharples says. “Through­out his ca­reer, he’s kept some key con­sis­ten­cies: Flat ped­als, Five Ten shoes, SRAM and per­haps most im­por­tantly, his me­chanic,

Jacy [Shu­mi­lak].”

When it comes to Shu­mi­lak, Hill says his 15-year friend­ship with the me­chanic has been a ground­ing force in his ca­reer.

“Jacy started work­ing as my me­chanic in 2003, my first year on a pro race team, and I’m just su­per lucky to have had him by my side ever since,” Hill says. “He knows what I need from my bike and ex­actly how I like it set up, and he’s su­per good at work­ing out what changes I need when I give him feed­back.

“Jacy’s been a huge part of my suc­cess. He’s a great friend, and we have a lot of re­spect for each other. I’ve been lucky with the peo­ple and com­pa­nies I’ve been able to work with. I ba­si­cally spend five to six months a year around my team, and it makes ev­ery­thing a lot nicer when you have good peo­ple around you.”

For Hill, friend­ship and fa­mil­iar­ity are far more im­por­tant than chas­ing more lu­cra­tive spon­sor­ship deals.

“Sam could be on a more high-pro­file team, but he prefers to be on a team with peo­ple he knows and trusts,” Sharples says. “When he was with Spe­cial­ized, I could tell the cor­po­rate side of it was eat­ing him away. They put the com­pany on the pedestal, and not the rider. And Sam’s not a fan of that. He doesn’t func­tion

well around that type of thing.”

FAM­ILY FIRST

But Hill’s sense of loy­alty is not just about stick­ing with things that work for him: It’s about him be­ing there for the peo­ple he cares about, Sharples notes.

“Sam has these great qual­i­ties as a hu­man be­ing, and he doesn’t get wound up in the muck that dis­tracts peo­ple,” Sharples ex­plains. “He has great par­ents who taught him to be a good per­son, a per­son of de­cency. And that shows in the way he treats those around him.”

Page agrees, point­ing to Hill’s ten­dency to put the in­ter­ests of his friends and fam­ily ahead of nar­row rac­ing con­cerns.

“Sam will put all the peo­ple around him be­fore him­self, which is re­ally strange for a top ath­lete, as most top ath­letes are by na­ture very self-cen­tered,” Page says. “He puts his fam­ily be­fore ev­ery­thing, even his train­ing. And it works for him, be­cause if he’s happy with his home life, he usu­ally gets re­sults. When he’s wor­ried about things, he doesn’t per­form well.”

Hill ex­tends his gen­eros­ity of spirit far be­yond his fam­ily and close friends, how­ever. Dur­ing his short time com­pet­ing in the EWS, he’s be­come known as one of the most help­ful com­peti­tors on the cir­cuit, rou­tinely stop­ping on the climbs be­tween timed de­scents to help other rac­ers with their me­chan­i­cal prob­lems.

“When Sam first started do­ing en­duro races, he was car­ry­ing a hy­dra­tion pack with so much shit in it,” Martin says. “He had spare tubes and a tool for ev­ery me­chan­i­cal, and he was the guy giv­ing peo­ple tubes and help­ing the other rac­ers out.”

He also helps other riders, par­tic­u­larly his team­mates, just by be­ing him­self—and lead­ing by ex­am­ple.

“Any rider who gets the chance to be on a team with Sam when they’re young just gets so much bet­ter and pro­gresses so quickly with each race,” Page says. “Just look at guys like [Bren­dan] Fair­clough and [Troy] Bros­nan. They look at how chilled he is, and how he never makes any drama, and they learn to be calmer and more con­fi­dent.”

If there’s a sin­gle se­cret to Sam’s rac­ing suc­cess, it could just be that he en­joys rid­ing his bike on chal­leng­ing trails more than any­one else.

“He’s the ul­ti­mate moun­tain biker, be­cause he’s all about hav­ing a good time with his buddies, rid­ing his bike, and rid­ing it fast,” Sharples says. “And isn’t that what we all want to do?”

2017 EWS Emer­ald En­duro, Wick­low County, Ire­land.

2009 World Cup Fi­nals, Sch­lad­ming, Aus­tria. Sam Hill’s soiled World Cham­pion jer­sey af­ter his 2007 Cham­péry, Switzer­land, run. PHOTO: VIC­TOR LU­CAS2008 World Cham­pi­onships, Val di Sole, Italy. PHOTO: GARY PERKIN Hill crowned World Cham­pion, Mont-Saint-Anne, Que­bec, 2010. PHOTO: GARY PERKINSch­lad­ming, Aus­tria, 2008. PHOTO: GARY PERKIN

2018 EWS Round Three, Olargues, Mont Caroux, France.

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