The Interview | When Jim met Shaun Palmer
It was the usual ping of the I-phone email alert, I glanced down and read it whilst doing some mundane household task, expecting the usual junk. ‘Palmer is coming to the UK and you are invited’ it said. Holy shit, now that woke me up, grabbing my attention like a Gypsy grabs his first wife.
Everything was dropped as I read the email with excitement, he was to come over on a short tour of some of the UK Intense dealers, doing ‘meet n greets’ and ride outs at various parts of the UK, I was invited up to Cumbria to the one at Wheelbase bike shop. Obviously I had to think about whether I was going to go for a long time, half a second later I was emailing Simon from Extra back with a massive ‘fuck yeah!’.
Most people will know about the legend that is Shaun Palmer, but for those who don’t or those who may not realize exactly what he achieved, let me enlighten you. Shaun holds gold medals from the Winter X Games, including 97 Snow Mountain Bike Racing, 97 Boardercross, 98 Boardercross, 99 Boardercross, 2000 Skiercross, 2001 Ultracross, 2002 Skicross. Gravity Games- Silver medals 2006 + 2008 Boardercross and Swatch World Halfpipe champs gold at Halfpipe. Then in Mountain Biking he had silver at the World Champs DH in 96, literally a dick-hair off Nico Vouilloz (he would have smoked it if he had worn lycra and not his signature MX clothing).
Also in 99 he managed a gold medal in the US National Champs Duel Slalom, plus he managed an astonishing world DH qualification as recent as 2010 when he made a brief comeback at the age of 41! He also managed to drive to victory up the notorious Pike’s Peak Hill Climb and his biggest achievement to date (in his eyes) was once qualifying for the main event in an American Supercross final.
This guy had it all, he couldput his hand to anything, with a ‘I’m gunna win or nothing’ kind of punk attitude. He set the world of DH MTB on fire as he single-handedly changed the face of the sport, refusing to wear the euro-style lycra and really bringing some great American bling to the sport. He was known for his loud MX style kit and designing the bike’s blinged up graphics. He was no stranger to trouble, never bowing to the sponsor’s demands and rarely able to hold his tongue.
Although seen as a bit arrogant at the time, every red-blooded bloke out there saw a part of Palmer they wished they were, he really was and is the true meaning of a legend! I had met him very briefly back at his last visit to the Plymouth Biker X back in 2000, but I just said hello and that was it. They say you should never meet your heroes, so I was worried he would be a bit of a dick and maybe ignorant and demanding, ruining his legendary status in my mind.
A phone call was made to my mate Sandy Plenty, he is the biggest Palmer fan I know, I had to offer him a place with me; talk about instant excitement, the chap nearly shot his bolt as the offer sunk in! Sandy has the most pristine Specialized bike mounted on his wall, which is virtually the bike Palmer raced back in the day, all original parts sourced from Palmers old race mechanic, yes, he’s that much of a fan!
There was also a bike being brought along and featured as a new model to the UK, the Intense Spyder 275, but I have to admit that wasn’t high on the agenda as Sandy and I headed up to Staverley (The Lakes) hoping to grab a beer with Palms the night before the ride-out day. We arrived at a typical ‘Olde Worlde’ UK pub and met up with the Extra crew, I said hello and grabbed a beer just as Palmer and his very nice looking girlfriend were going off to their hotel. As Palmer had been trail riding every day with various applicants and media types for five days he was very tired, after a couple beers we hit the sack. Simon told us of their week on the road and how we were to have breakfast with the Palm in the morning, and had his company to ourselves for three hours, brilliant.
In the morning we headed over to the local café and hooked up with the man himself, and we all got to know each other. All my thoughts of him being a diva, arrogant and demanding were literally dispelled within a minute or so, as we chatted over coffee and a good old English fried breakfast, Palms choosing just the coffee option. Straight from the get-go I realized he is a total modest, humble and friendly honest guy. The ice was quickly broken and I like to think we saw kindred spirits in each other, both having that dreaded addictive personality, both swapping stories of old about crazy shit we’d done back in the day, obviously all un-repeatable. Sandy and I were buzzing from just how friendly he was and how well we all got on, both so chuffed we had met a hero and he wasn’t a cock! After a bit of banter we got the interview under-way.
Who were your biggest influences towards your racing as you grew up?
My heroes when I was a child were Christian Hosoi the skateboarder and Ricky Johnson the Motocrosser. Mert Lawwill (motorcycle racer of the 70’s) was a huge hero as a kid, I even got to hang out with him because he later worked for Yeti.
(At this point I showed Shaun my ‘On Any Sunday Tattoo’ on my back, this iconic 70’s motorcycle film featuring Mert Lawwill)
How does it feel to be back on the circuit again, but this time not racing?
Ah it feels good, there’s no pressure like when I came back in last time, then I was kind of struggling with the little support and not much money to fly around and stuff. This time though, I’m coming back in the industry and just enjoying riding my bike and I don’t have to drop right back into a World Cup or anything like that. It’s gunna be great working at Intense, getting in shape and doing all the R&D. I’m testing and stuff with Jeff (Intense owner) I can get in there and design and make anything I want. Also I think its gunna be a good time working with these kids. The kids will make me ride a lot and I really want to help them mentally to prepare themselves and build them in, if they can then win and get into and podium World Cups some day through me that would be a great feeling. It’s kinda like being a father in a sense.
Would that give you the same feeling as when you were on the podium at the World Cups?
Yeah for sure, that’s the whole plan, I wanna help these kids, I think they need a lot more help upstairs mentally than they do with their riding skill. I mean it’s training and mental I think for everybody, because there’s thousands of kids talented and fast, you can see them all day. But to get them to that box, it’s gunna be a lot of work with the level of Downhill these days, so let me see what I can do to help them get there.
Will we see you in the start gate again?
We’ll see……no comment! (laughter)
Can you tell us a little about the new position you have at Intense?
Yeh pretty much Brand Ambassador, like I say working on design, I have the new Downhill bike coming out, 100 limited editions of the old flag design on the bike. It’s pretty much the history of Intense, because Jeff and me pretty much lit that on fire a long time ago. I wanted to get back into the mountain bike scene, I talked with him and we worked out what I want to do, so it’s Brand Ambassador, testing and development and doing this junior American team.
Are you downhill focused or will you have an Enduro Team?
Erm Downhill focused with the kids, I mean they can race Enduros to get fit though.
Are you keeping an eye on the world of Enduro?
I haven’t just yet, I’ve just got back in, only just got hired to start, I hear all the Enduro hype, I mean everybody is into the Enduro thing, but I haven’t been to one. I’m gunna do the Hood River, which is a big series in America; it’s an Oregon series. All the World Cup snowboard team does that one, so I’m gunna go up and do it with them. Their coach actually just won his age group, he’s just bike geekin’ out right now. Everyone that gets into bikes is just addicted like heroin addicts you know what I mean! It’s the way bike people are.
Yeh, I came away from it for ten years, went on the motorbikes, I absolutely love it again now. (Sandy)”It’s not just the riding, it’s the camaraderie, getting the box home all excited ready to open it, I work in a bike shop and still get excited about new things!”
It’s crazy how it works, people just get so into it.
Do you still get that feeling when you get new stuff?
Yeah, I just got all my new sponsor’s settled, I haven’t done too much in the bike industry in like ten years, but like when a new DT Swiss box turns up I just wanna build my kit!
For me you’re a stand out bloke for many reasons, your punk attitude combined with sheer determination and your skills have gained you a stacked trophy cabinet. Are these the qualities you’re after in a rider?
Well no-one’s going to be like I was back in the day, I mean no-one’s that fucked-up really! (laughter) But you can see in someone’s eyes when you meet them, you can see if they wanna win or not. When I have meetings with these kids, I’m there with their mom or their dad, if it’s just like a jolly ‘oh we just wanna race and be pro’ I can see right through that. I’ll look into their eyes and ask them ‘do you want to win?’ You can see it, and they have to have that switch in their mind if they’re gunna be a champion, they need that drive, especially at the level now, so I’m just looking for kids who want it really bad. There’s a few cocky ones out there, but it’s just not the same.
So if Enduro racing was in full swing in the 90’s would we have seen the old ‘Palm’ shredding the stage races?
I don’t think so, nah I don’t know, we did a lot of boozing back in the day! (laughter) I think me and Peaty and all the boys, we had enough just to get four minutes done. I mean who knows, maybe, we did do everything back then, we did the duel slaloms and stuff so maybe?
On the boozing front, are you still much of a party animal or have you chilled it out nowadays?
Nah, I just kinda laid off it now, I’ve been partying till I got this roll at Intense. I’m not going to be boring, but I’m just not drinking now. It kinda sucks because these guys (the Extra crew) promoted me to have fuckin’ beers with the world (laughter) But I gotta loose some weight and get fit and I gotta stay focused on what I have to do here, I have a lot of things going on with Intense, so I’ve gotta get the hammer down. There’ll be times and places for it I’m sure.
(Sandy) Back in the day you and Peaty were winning races, top five, but it so wasn’t cool back then to admit you trained, how much did you do?
Even when we partied through both the times Peaty stayed with me at Tahoe we did some road rides to Emerald Bay and back, you still had to stay on the bike. It wasn’t like we were just in the pub, then we’d just go and race and get on the podium, I mean you had to ride your bike still. It was probably 50/50 training and partying back in the day. But you could get away with that back then you know, we just had to keep it fun and it was fun back then, now it’s a bit stock, but that goes with the level of everything, plus now there’s social media!
Talking of the modern age, everything seems to be led by social media these days, what are your feelings on that?
Peaty just set me up with my Instagram, I think it’s great to be able to connect with your friend all over the world just by the push of a button. But I dunno, a lot of it’s stupid, Like people in America on Facebook and stuff like that ‘oh I’m having a cup of coffee, it’s gunna be very good’ like who gives a shit you know! For sure you have the ability to plug your sponsors, but there is something I don’t like about it, but that’s just because we’re old you know. It’s the way things were you know, you got a new magazine and it’s like that box coming and you were excited, but everything’s gunna be on here now (pointing at the phone) There’s advantages and disadvantages, I’m not fully 100% behind social media but I’m gunna be on there.
As you’ve got a tad older like me, do you suffer with aches and pains from all the crashes you’ve had during your life, or is the warmer climate of California kinder to the older bones than the chilly UK?
It’s definitely nicer to be in the warm weather, but I don’t have too many aches and pains, even at the age of 46, I haven’t been injured that much, I’ve done a few collar bones, all my fingers and toes because of a set of Vans back in the day and my Achilles from snowboarding and that’s it. I haven’t had too many injuries really, with all the things that I’ve done (Shaun superstitiously touches the wooden table for luck)
I’ve never broken a bone riding, but plenty of fractures. (Shaun pushes my hand down onto the table to give me luck, as we laugh and I then show him my flat knuckle) I broke that, but that wasn’t riding! (more laughter). How many Cadillacs do you own these days, any favorites?
Yeah I’ve got two 61 Limosines, I’m gunna rebuild one, as they’re both old. I went financially down from when you saw the rock star tour buses and shit you know. I got a lot of Caddies that need restoring, I have a nice 68 Coupe De Ville that I’m gunna be doing shop appearances in, the one in the current video of me. Yeah I have lots and a lot of plans, they’re just sitting in my warehouse and I gotta build them all once I’ve got some more money! But I think’ I’ll be so busy that that won’t happen for a while anyhow.
What would you like to see more of in the world of mountain biking?
I’d like to see the crowds get bigger in Downhill, back in the day it seemed like every stop in Europe was as big as Fort William, now we just have Fort William. They just have to be promoted, done by the UCI, they have to build venues where people want to come and watch a mountain bike race. You need Warner on the speakers in three different sections up the hill with beer tents and bleachers, so it’s fun for the spectators. I mean someone who’s not a hardcore mountain bike fan is not gunna walk up in the rain and stand at a muddy turn to watch a guy on a mountain bike come down a hill!
Being a tattoo man, every bloke who’s into tats has one they’re a bit embarrassed about, do you?
Not really, I mean my back one I don’t really like, but it’s not that bad.
And what’s your favorite?
All of them really, standard of the world since 1902, Cadillac, I’m never gunna fall outta love with Cadillacs so I don’t have to cross them out with snakes (laughter)
Last question: What was the last music you listened to?
I listen to all kinds of things, I’ve been listening to the Stones a lot lately, I like stoner rock bands like Queens of the Stoneage and Low Rider from Sweden.
(Sandy) You still got your band, when did you last sing?
Nah, our band finished in 2001, I’ve jumped in with my buddies a couple of times doing some Alice In Chains and shit. Me and Steber (owner of Intense) have done a few things together, you know on that latest Intense video he was the one playing the guitar on it, he’s good!
<p>(Sandy) I thought you just said Steve, as in Peaty! (laughter)
Nah, Steve a musician, no fuckin’ way, he’s like a fucking overgrown monkey, he couldn’t do music, he’d be on the tambourine like Bez from the Happy Mondays!
We had a coupe of hours to kill, so we kitted up and went and chilled in the bike shop, whilst the still tired Shaun went and got a couple more extra hours sleep in before the shop ride. It was his last ride and the 46 year old Californian was to prep himself for a freezing snowy/sleety/rainy ride up in the lakes, I could only imagine how different it was from his dusty trails back home. The shop had showers, changing rooms and bike washes for the start and end of any local rides, and the guys were mega-welcoming and friendly. They had put the offer out for local riders to apply on-line to be part of the Palmer ride and autograph signing and on a shitty wet Friday over 90 had turned out, all brimming with excitement.
We all gathered then headed out for a 1 ½ hour ride up and over the local trail. The weather was bleak and as we finally got off the tarmac roads and lanes we hit the big climb, Sandy, Gary and I riding quite a lot with Palmer, banter being given the whole time. Shaun’s girlfriend Heather was equipped with a jacket, lycra bottoms and some tiny xc shoes, Shaun was admitting he has not got any sort of fitness yet, and held a steady pace up the hills, stopping and looking after Heather, you could really see how much she meant to him, it was heart warming, although nothing else felt fucking warm as we neared the top. No sooner did we pass he summit, we hauled ass down over the awesome wide-open baby-head sized rocks of the fast and rough trail. There was what seemed like a long and very wet/cold road ride back to the shop, where I took full advantage of the changing facilities, before putting the bikes away.
We were soon on our way home, absolutely buzzing from the day, really feeling like we had gained a new friend in Shaun, he really is a true living legend of extreme sport, I truly cannot see there ever being another person like him in the world of MTB. Massive thanks to the guys at Wheelbase and Extra for hosting it and all the riders who braved the cold to see their hero, It’s a day I shall never forget, even with my shit old-skool party memory!
Words Jim Buchanan
Pics Trev Worsey and Shaun Palmer