“No no, Alex wait! I'll go back up and redo it.”
Another go, another burst of snaps. Fabien Barel is a perfectionist. He demands the best from everything and everyone, especially from himself. If the bike doesn't lean enough, if the body is not in the right position, it has to be redone.
Three times downhill world champion, the first time as a junior in 1998 then as an elite rider in 2004 and 2005. Friends call him Fab, and he considers himself lucky.
“I'm basically passionate. I love everything about mountain biking and I'm the kind of person who gives everything to their passion. It's the perfect sport for me, a great mix of speed, nature, adrenaline and effort.”
The Ligurian woods overlooking the sea on a mild January day are the best setting to learn more about one of the mountain biking athletes and most influential personalities of the 1990s and 2000s.
“It's all really wonderful, just as I dreamed as a child. I live out my passion, travel the world, get to know new people and fantastic cultures. I couldn't ask for more. Mountain biking is a sport that teaches you a lot, first of all humility. As a professional, you more often have to deal with failures than successes, and this is what people usually don't see. It's the failures that let you grow. That's why humility is essential. Success, too, is different from what you might imagine. Of course, there's a lot of emotion, but the most prevalent one is relief. Getting on the top step of the podium and wearing the rainbow jersey rewards all your efforts and it makes you feel unique because of all the emotions you give to those around you.”
Fabien gets emotional as he speaks. It's clear to see that he really loves this world. But also, that he's not like most people. He gets on the bike, straps his feet on the pedals and, from behind the mirrored lens of his sunglasses, a fire can be glimpsed that's usually unseen in ordinary people. His expression changes and becomes serious, showing a level of concentration that's rarely found.
“Mental strength is what really makes the difference. Talent helps, but it's only the cherry on the cake. You need a mindset that can help you identify and go over that subtle line, beyond which you set your head on fire and concentration really reaches a higher level. It's only then that you are able to give it your all, take the necessary risks and express your full potential. Don't think that I'm not afraid! I'm always scared when I'm riding. The key is how you confront fear. I adore riding to the limits. That's what gives me an adrenaline rush and brings me satisfaction.”
More than twenty years at sky-high levels and no intention of giving up. Any excuse is good to get back on the track. You'd think he wouldn't have much more to learn by now.
“Are you serious? Every time I get on the bike I try to learn something new. There are tons of things I don't know how to do on a bike yet. Growing is living, and it's the reason why opponents respect each other so much, at our level of racing. I competed against Nico Vouilloz, Steve Peat and Sam Hill. Together we experienced some incredible moments. I did all I could to defeat them and they did the same. There's nothing better. But the point is that we have grown together.”
In the meantime, Fab plays with the bike, jumps, looks for the best stance. He's a genuine boy who grew up in the woods with scraped knees and dirt on his hands. He's here to work and is serious about it, but you soon understand that pushing the bike uphill for another go isn't a big deal for him. He's the Dainese face of mountain biking.
“To be honest, this story has even deeper roots. I've been wearing Dainese protectors since the 1990s. Their technology was state-of-the-art even then. Our collaboration resumed a few years ago, but from now on I'll be even more involved. Developing new protectors will be a priority in my work. The new products really are of the highest level, and we want to keep on pushing more and more to improve athletes' protection. Dainese's mission is to increase safety, so that sports' limits can be pushed a little bit further. It's an essential element and I'm proud to be part of it.”
Will you ever stop biking?