Interview | Hope’s Rachael Walker – Telling it like it is
As the first of a series, I’ve taken it in hand to interview and get to know better some of the prominent female enduro racers who also make a living in the bike industry. I wanted to know more about these women who are actively shaping the mountain bike industry, how they view themselves, their jobs and also how racing fits into the picture. I aim to interview some strong female characters who are admirable role models and see how they progressed into the position they are in today.
First up is Hope Technologies’ Rachael Walker. Officially Rachael is Brand Manager at Hope although later on you’ll find out why that’s not so straightforward! Rachael is a regular face in the elite category at both UK and Scottish enduro and downhill races. She is taking on many of the Enduro World Series races this year under the Hope Tech team banner. In amongst practice and racing the Enduro World Series over in Ireland I caught up with her, I wanted to find out more about Rachael the racer, the brand manager and female in the male dominated biking world.
So, it’s pretty rad that we are here at the EWS in Ireland! – Where does the passion for biking and racing come from?
Yeah! Well, I was a really keen snow boarder back when I was 13 or 14 years old and it was all I used to spend my weekends doing, going up to the dry ski slope with the crew I used to hang out with, we just used to go there every single day! One day, it just seemed like a natural thing to do, one of the boys said “shall we go mountain biking?” and we were all like, “yeah, let’s go biking!” If you are into snowboarding you might quite naturally be into biking, it’s got the same sort of mind-set, it’s that fast moving sport where you just have to have a go and be gutsy about it. I tried it and soon got my first bike – a Yeti DJ hardtail with huge downhill tyres on! It was the most horrendous thing to ride but still so much fun, from cross country to then trying home built jumps with a slammed seat!
When did biking get more serious?
I continued snowboarding for a lot of my teens, I probably didn’t start biking seriously until I was about 18, a bit later than most, racing properly from about 2008. I got my first downhill bike when I was about 19, a Giant Glory – it was probably one of boy’s second hand bikes! We used to just ride a lot, going to Hamsterly Forest quite a lot at weekends its great there, so much you can ride. I rode mainly downhill and rode Hamsterly as I was nearby at Durham University so it was close.
Ha ha, Uni work interrupting the biking – what was your degree in?
My first degree was in economics, after that I converted it to a law degree and trained as a lawyer and then I went to London for a bit and was working for a firm down there. This was all whilst I was riding my bike a lot and I was so into it then as well, it was really hard juggling life between riding and being a corporate lawyer. I was working for a Russian oligarch suing a famous football team manager, a bit of a contrast from mountain bikes! I would be working a case in legal history in the week and then at weekends I would be disappearing into the woods to ride my bike! I think my work colleagues just thought I was such a weirdo. It was living a dual life, corporate lawyer in the day then cycling home at sometimes 3am on my road bike at night.
That all sounds pretty nuts, how did biking evolve?
I worked like that for a while but then I decided that I wanted to do some World Cup DH races. My career had come to a natural point where I could have a break and either move back up north or stay in London. It had come to the end of the Russian case so I asked for a 6 month break and wanted to try and do some world cups. Work gave me a six month sabbatical and six weeks into this I went to Glencoe to do a Sottish downhill race, I went over the bars and broke both my wrists! I got to the bottom and was gutted, it was my sabbatical and I knew after it was over I’d have to knuckle down and that would be it be back to normal, no other chances to have the six months again – it would be 18 hour days in the office. When I was at work in London I did some weeks where I wouldn’t go home for three days, I’d sleep in the office, it was crap. I realised I hadn’t achieved or experienced anything I wanted to.
So with an injury to fix, what happened?
Well, I knew the guys at Hope through a friend who I did quite a bit of riding with so had a few chats with them and they said why don’t I come and work for them? I thought “well, sod it!” It took me so long to pluck up the courage to tell my family I was quitting my job as a lawyer, on nice money to go and work at Hope in the only job they had going at the time which was packing boxes, down in dispatch. I just thought what’s the worst that could happen? If it all goes tits up, I’ll just go back to being a lawyer. At least I would know I’ve tried it and if you don’t like it and it didn’t work out, well you know….
That’s a pretty ballsy move….
Well, yeah it was! It was pretty fun working at Hope down in dispatch, learning all the products and it was so good to go to work, well ride to work, ride home and not have to think about anything else – I could just go ride my bike! After a couple of months I started getting more involved with races and riding and it all sort of stemmed from there really. The job has sort of become what I wanted and what I made of it.
How did you progress at Hope then?
Well, the guys knew I would never really stay down in the dispatch area. It was just a good way to learn the products, there is so much to learn and there is no better way than handling them day in day out to learn. It was then a case of going to races, knowing people on the scene and having ideas about what we should be doing. I think work got sick of me going up to the offices from dispatch with ideas saying, “we should do this” and “we should do that” that they said I should stay up there and work in the office, it’s a PR role really.
Can you define your role at Hope?
No, it’s really hard to say what I do! I do the legal work, manage the race team, deal with sponsorship, deal with the events, what we are going to attend and the organisation of that. Anything to do with magazines, the writing, the testing, photoshoots. I deal with all the video’s, photos, just a bit of everything really.
So, your time in London in the corporate world will have set you up well for working at Hope?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes as much as you want to be everyone’s friend you have to actually be a little bit hard with some people and you can’t just do what everyone wants. The training as a lawyer lets you be a bit harsh sometimes!
Just from my experience in the bike industry I expect the women at Hope are a bit outnumbered aren’t they?
Yeah, I’ve been at Hope three years now and there are four women in the 130 members of staff! I think 80% of the men are scared of me and they’ll never want to go riding with me as they think they’ll get ‘chicked’! And the other 20% just give me loads of abuse day in and day out!
But its banter, right?
Yeah, it’s great! I’ll go into the kitchen at brew time and there are the two Hope owners are there who are previous world trials riders and my best friend and mentor, Woody, is a world trials rider too. You’ll go out riding with any of them and these are guys who won’t touch a bike for weeks and won’t train or anything, then you go out on a trail with them and they will still kick your arse! I don’t know how they do it! Ian one of the co-owners has such phenomenal race head, they can just rock up at a trail and be like – this is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to do it, I wish I could do that!
From what you have said, you seem pretty happy in ‘the guys’ company so working with them probably doesn’t prove much of an issue does it?
No, I think it you worry about things then it could be quite hard, as I said you can’t always be everyone’s friend…….. I like to do things my own way and am a bit of a control freak, I like to do a bit of everything, I can’t delegate, I like to do it myself. The guys are all good and understand they are just like – let her get on with it! It’s a case of trust, you build up trust, do a good job and you get more. That’s where we are with Hope, if you do a good job you get more leeway to do things, go to more events for example.
So, it’s you as person rather than you as a woman that makes you good at your job isn’t it?
Yeah, I think so, they didn’t hire me because I’m a woman. There’s no sexism involved but similarly they would never hire a woman to say “let’s do our bit for women’s cycling”. I think I’m respected at work for being me. I’m not one to harp on about women cycling at work either, I’m not like, “hey, look at me everyone, I’m a girl”. You don’t get respect that way, these guys are engineers, the company works with components, it is a man’s world and being really girly wouldn’t go down too well! We were in the van earlier today and talking about a possible project we are working on at the moment to do with a bike and I said “what do you think if in the video, I build the bike up?” They all exploded laughing, I was like, “c’mon I can do this!” They reckoned they would give me a £200 bonus if I can build a bike!
What, they think you’d put it together wrong?!
Yeah, they just think I won’t be able to do it! I’m not that bad at mechanic-ing you know! They think a girl can’t do that! I’ve got a challenge now! Maybe it’s sexist but I think its just reality, it’s all just banter.
How cool are Hope about training and working?
They are pretty good, out the back we have two pump tracks, a line of dirt jumps and a gym on the end of the building! We have a staff ride once every four weeks – all of the work force goes on the ride and then we go for fish and chips afterwards. I also go out weekly with some of the bosses, they are pretty good really. A lot of them race themselves, so here at the EWS this weekend we have one of the Hope owners and one of the other bosses, both in their 50’s coming to race world enduro! Because they race themselves they know the script and know you can’t just rock up to these things if you don’t prepare and ride your bike.
What’s an average day at Hope?
(Sigh…..) I’m not exaggerating or anything but every day is completely different! I’ll get back on Monday after this race and I’ll be cleaning the vans, Tuesday will be sorting out riders for the weekends racing, dealing with their needs. I might go down to Sheffield and do some filming, lots of emails, the usual. Last week we had lots of magazine visits and as soon as they left I was trying to design a new bike, it’s so cool, the variety keeps me going.
I can see why you say it’s hard to define your role!
It is really hard, the next minute I’ll be filing European Trademarks and dealing with paperwork – so different.
Right then, what are your plans for this year’s racing?
The main goal is really just to have a crap load of fun! Last year we had a big year planned for going to all the world cups and I was travelling with rider Adam Brayton. I separated my shoulder at the beginning of the year, which was a bit crap. It was so flat out going to South Africa at the start of the year, it sounds fantastic and people are always like “oh, how amazing you get to go everywhere with your job” but it’s actually not as glamorous as it sounds! You are always travelling, always in airports, I was on the go all the time. You go to all these amazing places but racing overtakes all these things and you don’t get to go riding and don’t see so much as you have to be here or there all to do with the race. I got to the end of the year and I thought “I’ve had an awesome year but I don’t feel like I enjoyed it as much as I should have done”.
So this year I’ve thought, right we aren’t going to win a race or win a world enduro but I could go, have a potter round, love the trails and enjoy it, spend a bit of time riding my bike and get to still go to some amazing places and have a bit of fun.
We (at Hope) went to Sea Otter this year and we went a day early so we could have a day’s riding and we could all just appreciate it. We have a lot of big shows on this year, got all the world enduros’ to do and we are going to Crankworx, Whistler. I’ll be racing all the EWS apart from Colorado. Hope want to get more in touch with American followers this year so we are going to a race called Downieville in Californa and I’ll get to go to that! It will be cool for the company to branch out there.
Are there any other races in mind? I though I saw your name on the Enduro2 entry list?
Oh god yeah! We got a bit carried away with that one and I don’t think we have really thought about the consequences, there’s loads of us going! So Sam Flanagan, another Sam and me are doing the Trans Provence the week before. We finish the Trans Provence on the Fridau and drive straight up to Les Arcs to start the Enduro2 the next day on Saturday! It will 11 days straight of racing!
Ha ha mental! Who’s going to be your team mate for the pairs race?
Well, the two Hope owner’s and their two sons are going, a Hope manager and his son and Sam Flanagan and me. We have said the lads and dads can’t race together as it would be way too competitive or they might just rip each other’s heads off! I’ve got a bit of a plan, I’ve asked to go with one of the young lads as I think I’ll be absolutely hanging after the Trans Provence and actually just want to enjoy these trails.
Hmmmm, this is Trans Savoie territory though so knowing Ali the trails will be gnarly!
Oh god, but you’re riding it blind! Ah, well we are just doing it for a complete and utter laugh! It’s going to be a good format.
This year definitely sounds more chilled out and fun for you.
Yeah it definitely is, I had a bit of a moment last year, I was at the BDS (British Downhill Series) at Ae Forest which was the same weekend as Tweedlove and I was getting a bit miffed , there was a problem with the uplifts and it got to 4pm and we had only done three practice runs. I like the physical side of enduro and I just wanted to ride my bike. I was like “this is horrendous”, I got like 4 minute at a time on my bike so 12 minutes of riding all day. I then got a call from the guys over a Tweedlove and found out they had been on their bikes all day, for 7 hours straight! So, it might not to do with chilling out, more to do with the fact that I like riding my bike, I like pedalling to the top of the hill and go wherever you want on a trail bike. Downhill bikes are so much fun and are awesome, I will always love downhill but the bikes are really restrictive. Trial bikes these days are so good, you can ride anything on them. The stuff I rode on my Nomad in Chile at the Andes Pacifico was the most gnarly stuff I had ever ridden in my life and I did on my trail bike!
Having experienced both DH and Enduro, is one more accessible than the other?
I think enduro is, to women and to grassroots. Enduro is so broad and there are so many levels it can encompass a bit of a cross country trail or can be gnarlier than some DH tracks! Stuff you might think twice about on your downhill bike especially after your 6th hour of riding that day when you are hanging anyway!
Is enduro going the right way in being inclusive of women?
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s the fact that it is such a sociable strand of biking that you can go out with your friends and all pedal around together and that is such a big draw. Here it is so brilliant being out for the day with the world’s fastest racers! It’s such a good concept.
Are there any girls you have drawn into the sport?
It’s hard, I ride with mostly guys. It’s difficult to bring girls who are just starting out on the rides we go on…… the guys aren’t that good at nurturing girls on the bike, ha ha! I have been out with girlfriends of the guys I ride with and they have progressed on from trail centres to forest riding to ‘Lakes’ trips (Lake District, UK) where we throw the bikes on our backs, hike up and ride down. They loved it, so that was cool to see the transition. When I was out in California at Sea Otter and there was so many women riding out there, they seem to build the trails so smooth and so flowy that it’s really inviting and fun for anyone. That’s also why UK trail centres are good, it’s accessible for everyone.
There are a lot of women only groups and rides popping up in the UK at the moment, can you see the benefit to this?
It’s hard because I am so used to riding with the guys. It’s good if I’m out on my bike, with friends and having a laugh. I can see though, If I went back to being a beginner rider now, would I want to go out with a load of guys? No, I wouldn’t as I’d be petrified of making a fool of myself. I do still get that now actually, sometimes there will be say a really steep chute or something and I won’t want to ride it in front of the guys even though I’ve fallen off in front of them loads. It would be good to be with a similar ability group in that case, you’ve all got the same fears together then! I do love it when it it’s just the girls and there are a couple who I go out with but finding girls near to me who want to go up into the Lakes and get lost is quite hard! They just aren’t based near me.
To lead on from being inclusive I saw a while ago women’s prize money equalling the men’s, that’s a good move isn’t it?
It definitely is in downhill, if it isn’t, it must be down to the prize money coming from entries and there just isn’t the number of female entrants – proportional. It’s a great thing and a good way of showing a bit more respect to the women. They may not be going as fast but you are still riding the same tracks.
So, you know your stuff about marketing – there seems to be an influx of women’s MTB’s with the same geometry as the unisex bike with just changed contact points. Is this just a marketing ploy?
Ah, well, I’m a huge sucker for Juliana. I love what they are doing with the brand, its bang on and the way I think it should be done. I like it, they are not trying to make it just about the girls and being too feminine as I don’t think that helps women. The Juliana riders are here racing hard this weekend and they are great, I really like them. I like what Anka Martin does, it’s not all about racing, and sometimes you go out and get a bit lost and have an adventure. A couple of years ago women’s bike and kit weren’t bang on the money but it definitely getting better. Maybe with Juliana it is just a Bronson with a different saddle on it but I like it! I think it appeals, just a bit of fashion for women without going too far.
In terms of getting women noticed in the sport there are plenty of different approaches – racers like T-Mo, adventurers like Anka and also angles such as the recent Cycle Passion calendar – what are your views on what’s a good approach?!
Erm…. Well each to their own! My job as Brand Manager sees me decide who we sponsor and who we don’t – I know what I like to see. At Hope we don’t really mind about race results, at the end of the day people are only ever interested in themselves. If a mate is telling you about their race run, you are only half listening, that’s what people are like, you are more concerned with your own race run! The audience and the company audience are also concerned with their own personal experiences and not many of them actually race. We want riders who can show they are pretty normal and that people can relate to and what can people relate to? It’s seeing riders go out and have fun on their bikes, just regular people out with their bike and I think that goes down a lot better than some DH racer in a posed photo.
What women inspire you?
Anne-Caro (Chausson) is a big hero of mine. I remember being in a bar in Les Gets, France one year and she was there. I nearly froze at the bar and I don’t really get star struck! I didn’t talk to her – she’s awesome. She’s incredible, she’s so small and looks like a normal woman then you get her on a bike and she can apply herself to so many different discipline, she’s brilliant!
To wrap it up, up on the hill with Anne-Caro and all the girls – What do you expect from this EWS?
I just want to go out there and have loads of fun, have a big day on the bike and chat away. I want to finish the race with a big smile on my face rather than thinking I messed this up or messed that up! I just want a brilliant day! Come rain or shine it’s definitely going to be an awesome day!
After wishing Rachael good luck for the EWS Emerald Enduro, I rode a couple of places back from her on the day. She showed what a pinner she is by bagging herself 18th spot in an absolutely stacked women’s field! Nice work Rachael!
Words: Rachael Gurney Photos: Trev Worsey