Few downhill athletes garner as much interest from fans as Aaron Gwin. Maybe it’s because he figuratively opened the door for Americans on the World Cup circuit at a time when the global series winners were comprised of mostly Europeans and folks from the Eastern hemisphere (and still is). Or maybe it’s because of his aggressive downhill speed balanced with his composed and easy-going attitude off the track. Or it could be Gwin’s highlight reel: buckets of wins and five overall World Cup titles, finishing runs on rubber-less rims, and winning a World Cup without a chain. Few things are as satisfying, especially to American downhill fans, as watching Gwin take gold.
But, he has also had his fair share of setbacks and injuries over the past few years, with thumb, shoulder, back and arm injuries. Last year, he scored a consistent season and took 8th overall. In the 2022-2023 offseason, Gwin trained hard, building momentum to come out swinging this season. Unfortunately he crashed during practice a few days before the race two weekends ago in Lenzerheide.
“Had a big crash and unfortunately broke my arm/elbow in a few spots,” he said on Instagram. “Surgery next week to get everything fixed up. Bummed would be an understatement but that’s how our sport goes sometimes.”
We spoke with Gwin just ahead of this round to hear about his move to Tennessee, the trails he’s enjoying down south, how he’s been training for 2023, and also about the state of concussions at the World Cup for a separate story. Here’s our conversation below.
You’ve been down there for a little while now, but what spurred the move from California to Tennessee?
It happened over a year or two, but we had moved to Montana a couple years ago and we had to switch residency to Montana so we were spending the majority of the year there. It was summers and the fall and a little bit of the winter in Montana and a lot of winter in California for training, so we were already splitting time between the two.
And then just through Covid and everything that happened with California, and the lockdowns and the politics and all the madness that happened in California, the more we were there, the more we just didn’t align belief-wise with the way California was handling things.
I grew up in a small town and my wife grew up in Montana. We just liked being in the country and having space. But obviously the weather’s really rough there in the wintertime to do any kind of riding. So we had bought a small house near Windrock in Tennessee near the bike park and I was planning on coming in the winter to train because it was better training than in California for the World Cup.
The more time we spent here and the worse California was getting, we had a lot of friends in California with large families and kids and everybody collectively was done with California. For me Tennessee was the best place as far as being able to race mountain bikes and have a good place to train all year round.
We’re here primarily but spend summers and shoulder seasons in Montana. But we love it here. A lot of the general beliefs and stuff here line up better with where we’re at and the things we value. It was hard because we have so many good friends in California and I was born and raised there. I love California, but I think now that I’m married and the values we have in life and the direction we’re going in the future, we’re really happy out here.
How different is the riding in Tennessee compared to California? I imagine it’s rockier and rootier.
Pretty much exactly that. It depends where you’re at in Tennessee. Where we live, outside of Nashville, it’s a little flatter out here. We have hills and stuff but there’s no mountains. So it’s great for keeping your fitness base and training that I need to do as far as fitness training, so we have four or five different places to ride. Nothing’s real crazy, but there’s some techie trails that are more flat, like cross-country trails and then we have some small hills where they try to make the most out of not a lot, so there’s berms and jump trails and flow trails. Stuff that’s fun to ride but nothing that’s big or gnarly or anything.
But then you drive two hours east near Knoxville where Windrock is and you have pretty much full-on World Cup terrain out there, like really good trails and long descents. Super gnarly stuff. I just commute back and forth instead of in California, I’d ride downhill once or twice a week when we were in pre-season outside of pre-season races and all that. I’d only live 45 minutes from a couple different places to ride downhill but with traffic it might take you a couple hours to get there in the morning and you do your runs and then a couple hours home.
Here, I’ll just drive to Windrock, load up all my stuff, stay at our house for two or three days in a row and just get a lot of good riding every single day and then come back here to Nashville and keep up with my normal gym and endurance training and sprints and then next week I’ll go back to Windrock, stay a couple days and do all my downhill stuff. For me it’s been a better program, I’m more efficient, I’m riding a better quality of trails for the World Cup.
I love the trails in California, they’re really fun to ride and the enduro type trails near Temecula where I lived were definitely better than stuff around Nashville, but when it comes to riding actual downhill, gnarlier trails out near Knoxville, they have really good stuff out there and if you just go east a few hours you get to North Carolina, the Pisgah area and we bought a house there we’re renting as an AirBnb and we’ve been staying there and riding stuff too.
Is there more rain there? Has it helped your riding?
Definitely, one hundred percent. I’d say riding in Tennessee helps, like all around. It’s just way more familiar and realistic to what we do at the World Cups. I feel like I’m definitely getting more comfortable in the mud at World cups and now living out here, I’ll actually ride it outside of the World Cups.
I’ve been hit or miss on muddy races in the past. I’ve had some really muddy races that I’ve done really good in, but it is a lot easier to adapt to the World Cups now because we ride more of it out here.
And you started digging some trail out there. Are you digging trails to train on or is mostly for fun?
The stuff in my backyard is to have something I can pedal out my back door and ride around on your own property and enjoy that. Unfortunately I did a ton of work on it and we had a huge windstorm come through here a month or two ago and a tree blew down the hill and basically covered four or five of my tracks out there.
We’ve been so busy now getting ready for the season, I haven’t had a few days to go up there with a chainsaw to cut the whole tree up so I didn’t end up riding it a whole lot. But I just love trail building, it’s been one of my favorite things to do since I was a little kid. I could spend all day on the hill with a shovel just digging. I like doing it and having trails in your own yard to ride is like a dream situation.
What’s your favorite type of trail or feature to build?
I like stuff that’s really natural, so the stuff you don’t really build. It’s cool when you’re going through the bushes and trying to lay out a new track. I love being able to be creative and working with what’s already there, like when you start chopping through the bushes and find a bunch of rocks that are under the ground and you dig them up a little bit and dig around the edges so you expose them more and you get a really natural cool section that’s already there. You don’t have to build a berm or whatever, it’s just something cool that’s natural. To me that’s the stuff that I’m always the most stoked when I find something like that.
Do you have a favorite World Cup track? Is it similar at all to what you ride at home?
That’s a tough one. I like all kinds of tracks. Some are more man made and with my BMX background and in motocross, I feel like I ride that stuff really well and it’s really fun to ride. I also love tracks like Val di Sole, when they’re just really wide, really rough and there’s just lots of lines and everything on it is mostly natural.
It just depends on the year a lot of times, it depends on how they tape the track too, because if there’s a lot of lines and there’s options, that’s usually what I like the most. There’s tracks like Fort William or something, which is probably my least favorite track on the circuit. I mean it’s a legendary, epic track and they spend a lot of time working on it, but they’re so limited with what they can do there because of the marshland so the track is just sort of a gravel hiking path with rocks in it. For a year or two, it’s like, this is awesome, but after racing it for fifteen years it doesn’t change a whole lot.
They’ve done a couple of good ones over the years, especially recently. The bottom half of the track is pretty cool because it’s usually changing up and it’s a little wider but that top half of the track is just fast, it’s a little sketchy, it’s cool to ride, but to race, it’s really hard to separate yourself from other people. You really hang it out and everybody goes the exact same speed. That’s probably what I don’t like a whole lot, but that’s just because we’ve raced the same thing for so long.
How are you feeling physically heading into this season?
We started the offseason strong, we got our new bike and new prototype that came in a few weeks after that last race so we were able to get on that real quick and we felt like we were way further ahead of the game than we were coming into last year. So we have race bikes now and have done all the final testing about a week ago.
So I feel like we could go to the World Cups and race right now and I’d be ready so we’re just kind of waiting, trying to stay healthy and stay fresh and continue to put in the training. It’s been a good offseason. It’s been really long, it was like nine months.
It’s given us time to to spend at home and train hard, more than other years, so in that sense it’s been nice to have a little bit of a break and get things in order before this season starts.
A lot of times like last year, we had the first race in March and I don’t know if we raced again ’til June, so there’ll be some big gaps in the season and that to me is really annoying, so I like the more condensed season, like once you start racing you’re just racing.
As far as pre-season, are you just trying to get laps in or are you being conservative and trying to keep your health up? How do pre-season races fit into training?
I’d say all that is definitely the priority. The Tennessee National was here a few months back, I’d been riding downhill a little bit and staying on the bike, waiting for the final race bikes to come in, so I had been trying to keep my base level up but because it’s such a long off-season, I’ve been trying to be smart as far as when I start to ramp up things for the season.
I can usually ramp up speed as long as the bike’s good and our equipment and the testing and everything is done.
That was my strategy this year was just to be smart and not go too hard too early, because we do have a long season and I want to be even stronger in September than I am in June. I want to be able to build through the season.
I’ve been pretty conservative in the off-season, I did the Tennessee National and then I did a couple Downhill Southeast races last month and they’re really just to get laps on the track and be able to walk the track and go through a race weekend on the clock, ride some different terrain.
There’s always some fast guys at these local races so I feel like the times are very comparable to where you’d be if it was a World Cup or like Dakotah (Norton) and Luca (Shaw) and dudes that are top World Cup riders and these are all their local tracks, so they’re the fastest guys that ride there. So it’s a good little gauge and I really enjoy the races too. The pre-season races are some of the funnest races of the year too and you get to hang out with people a bit more and just get back into the swing of things and do laps.
But we did a ton of testing last week through that last Downhill Southeast race so we were riding, and then after qualifying I’d just ride the rest of the day and after the race we rode ’til dark pretty much and we rode another three days after the race doing a bunch of testing with Intense and Fox. So we did like 60 or 70 runs last week testing. I felt like that got the base setting on the bike really sorted out.
Awesome, I imagine it’s really fun living close to a huge racing scene down there too.
Totally. Our place near Windrock is awesome. I call it my Rocky training house, because it’s just bare minimum. There’s a couch and a TV on the floor and we got a bed. It’s an older house, you sleep, wake up in the morning, it’s a five minute drive to Windrock and you just ride all day, go to the gym, train, come home, eat and go to bed, wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
What are your goals for this year? You were consistently in the top ten or 11 last year, which is awesome. Is there anything you want to do differently this year?
I think last year, it was such a rough couple of years coming into that with injuries and all kinds of crazy stuff that happened and so last year was a build year. I wanted to be consistently in the top ten and at the end of the year I wanted to be a podium guy and fight for wins. And that’s pretty much exactly what happened.
I felt very comfortable racing at that pace and doing that I was just trying to be smart and build slow and then I podiumed at the last three of four races of the season, and at Val di Sole and those last couple races I had race-winning speed, and I wasn’t able to quite put it together, but felt like the speed was definitely getting back to that level.
The goal last year was to be a building year and the goal this year is to continue that. I’d love to be in the top ten every race and I want to be on the podium and I want to be in a position to actually start winning races and hopefully fight for another World Cup title.
That’s been the goal this year. The competition’s gonna be crazy. We have so many fast guys and young dudes coming up that should be podium guys straight away and we have a bunch of format changes to the sport with the semi-final getting added in there, so we’ll see how it goes. My hope is to be a consistent podium guy fighting for wins every weekend. That’s where I want to be, so we’ll see what happens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.