HELLO MELANIE! You have had a massive crash today, how do you feel? What happened?
“Alo, yes, ahh it was just crazy! I was at Champery. it's really steep and technical and I tried a new bike for next season and I was in a fast section, in fact in a berm and when I touched the berm the axle of my rear wheel fell out and I stopped directly! I finished next to the track and it was so steep I didn't manage to get back on track and it was crazy!”
And you broke the frame?
“Yeah, I broke the frame yeah”
But your body is okay?
“Yeah, yeah, I have an appointment with the doctor but I think everything is ok, it's not really important.”
You ́re lucky...
“Yeah! Hahaha it was just insane! It was my biggest crash i think!”
This is 20 year old Melanie Chappaz, first year elite downhill World Cup racer and 2017 Junior World Champion. I caught up with her over the phone, she at home in France resting after a nasty fall and me on top of a mountain in Spain, marvelling the wonders of modern technology. I know she is a little nervous for the interview as French is her first language but in the world of biking and finishing her second season on the british based Hope Tech Team, getting to grips with talking English is just another tiny piece of the jigsaw that makes a successful athlete...so we get stuck in!
Asking about Melanie´s upbringing I learn that cycling is in the blood. Her parents introduced her to a mixed type of bike racing from just 6 years old until she decided to specialise specifically in downhill.
MC. “I really like the way to escape from reality, you know. Because when you are angry or even when you are happy you really like cycling. And I like the adrenaline and the speed and it is something I have liked since I was very young, so yeah, I really wanted to do a sport with this sensation and downhill was perfect for that.”
So back in 2015 she decided to start entering a few downhill races to work out if it was really something she wanted to do and safe to say, she was hooked!
“When I was back in the competitions I was sure that it was my sport. I was sure that I wanted to do something with these sensations and I wanted to go up and see what I could do with it. And now I am at the World Cups and I really like that. I always wanted to be more motivated and to see if I could do something bigger, to see if i have the level for that or not and yeah, it's just amazing.”
AG. What was your first ever World Cup race and what was the experience like?
MC. “It was in Lourdes...i had never ridden there before...it was just insane. It was impressive because I saw loads of people I had seen on the internet, you know in videos and photos, so I was really impressed just about that, to see people who are really famous on the internet and I was in front of them. It was incredible.
And after, when i was on the track it was super hard but it was amazing, it was just unreal.
I don´t know, it's the same now at every world cup, the same sensations, I feel like I am re-starting downhill every time you know!”
“I really like that. It´s amazing to just have these sensations to discover the lines, discover the ground, to do your best and be in the qualification. Yeah, it's just insane.”
AG. did your family support you to get to that level?
MC. “yeah my family support me 100% they are just amazing. I am so grateful for them because they help me with the money, the money for the travel and for everything, everything, everything. I am super lucky about that because I have lots of friends who are doing it alone and they don't know how to do, how to say, and me I have a really good support and I am so lucky.”
AG. yeah, but your parents must be so proud…
MC. “yeah exactly. And my mum said every time to my friend when I was younger that Melanie is really good at downhill but she ́ll never be World Champion because she is just doing it for fun, you know. And when I was World Champion it was incredible and yeah, she was so proud of that. It was impressive.”
So, here she is, nobody can take that junior World Title away from her but the question now is whether she can bring the success with her into the senior elite category. We know that the step-up in level is huge and it can take a few years and a knock of confidence for a young rider to go from having the taste of success so quickly replaced by a feeling of being out of their depth. Many junior champions have gone on to eventually become senior stars but it usually takes some dog-eared perseverance to deal with the experience of the girls in the “big league”.
MC. “When I was a junior sometimes I would crash or make a few mistakes but it was okay, I knew I could gain the speed at the end of the track, but now it´s super hard. With the pressure, for me that is my negative point, to enter the pressure at the start of the race and try to maintain a good run. It's not easy, but I am super motivated for next season.”
It sounds like Melanie is getting a healthy grip on it all though, watching and riding with some of the faster women and trying to learn from them. It´s made easier by the fact that although the competition is high, the support and camaraderie between the female racers is extremely inclusive and motivating. Taking confidence knocks at the start of the season was hard for Melanie, who was often unsure whether she would even qualify, striking the balance between knowing she has the level but unable to cope with the pressure would sometimes put her into a negative space of not being able to achieve what she believes she is capable of. But already she is showing signs of having the perseverance needed, adapting her riding style to “just have fun like you are with friends in a bike park” meaning she enjoyed the ride more and her results steadily improved until finishing in 7th place at the World Cup!
“I qualified in 14th with just one place behind me to not even qualify and in the end I just rode for pleasure, no fucks given, you know, haha, I just ride. And at the end of the run I looked and saw, oh yeah, it´s a good time!”
The psychological game of downhill is no secret but everyone is different and copes or focuses in different ways. Hearing Melanie speak so openly about her challenges, I was intrigued to hear about her journey to “inner zen” during such a high pressure, high adrenaline and a dangerous race environment.
“I am going to take a mental coach for this winter to help me with next season and, even not just in my runs but in my life to change the pressure in my life in general. And to help me to manage all my life in general. After, I have my parents for sure but it´s different because my parents are not really objective, you know. But for sure my friends, parents and everybody who sends me messages it's incredible. After you start and it's really good to know you have all these messages and support from everybody.”
On that note, I say lets all get on instagram and join the legions of Melanie Supporters HERE...We´ve got your back and will be sending those much-needed supportive messages as you get going next season.
Unable to give a clear answer when asked “What was your lowest point this season?” just goes to show what a great job Melanie has done of processing her struggles and chellenges, not recognising any low moments, only seeing learning or enjoyment.
Now, onto the usual stuff
AG. “what was your favourite World Cup track?”
MC. “Mont Sainte Anne. because it's really technical and natural. You don't have lots of jumps you know, you just have to ride your bike and know riding your bike. You have to put on your head at the beginning of the track and take it all the way to the end.”
AG. “who do you hang out with at race weekend?”
MC. “in general I ride with my friends, those who live near my house and I am used to riding with them so I know their technical skills and how they ride. So sometimes I ride with my friends and sometimes I try to ride with somebody else to see if my speed is good or not. It's different every time.
AG. “what are your goals for next season? How do you feel going into 2020?”
MC. “in 2020 I would like to pass qualification every time and in the best moments be in the top 10 but I don't really have big goals about that. I just want to pass every qualification, do my best and after I will just see because whenever I have pleasure on my bike it goes good. But I have another challenge; next season I will be with Team Hope during all the races and it will be a new challenge for me speaking english every time and talking about my suspension and things like this in English, it will be a new, little challenge for me. But I think it will be a good season because we will be in a good atmosphere and in a racing mood, you know.”
AG. “do you feel pressure on race day from your sponsors?”
MC. “No, I don't feel pressure from my sponsors. I just think about track pleasure and being on my bike because i think the pressure comes from myself, not my sponsors. It's really good because, for example, Hope never give me any pressure and I am really happy for that because when there is pressure it is difficult to ride good and I don't know if I could have done something better….it's only me for the pressure. It ́s good and naturally good sometimes but really frustrating during a race.”
After spending some time getting to know Melanie the bike racer, a conversation about instagram was unavoidable. It's a huge part of what she does and her following has exploded during the last year, I wanted to know how important it is for her, again both from a sponsors and her own personal point of view.
MC. “it depends really, I really like to try to post lots of different stuff. Sometimes I have a really good idea for what I want to put on my next post and sometimes it´s something commercial for the sponsors. I really like to put a bit of my own life outside of the bike too, it's really interesting...I really like to be on instagram and see how everybody in mountain biking world, or other sports or sometimes people not even in sport, I really like to look at other people on instagram and get ideas to post. All my ideas come from seeing other people´s posts.”
But she agrees that having a good social media account takes a lot of work and these days it is often as important as being on the bike. But for Melanie, whether it's taking a friend on a ride specifically to take photos or leaving the phone at home to focus on training “In the end, I just have to ride my bike.”