Claudio Caluori on his racing past, commentating and extreme tarmac laying
We caught up with one of the downhill scene's biggest personalities during a visit to Scotland
With his hands wedged deep into the pockets of his fashionable, lightweight pea coat, Claudio Caluori proclaims, in a voice familiar to race fans all over the world: “It’s a cool track, but I think I should get a bigger jacket!”
The cuttingly cold Highland wind is knocking him about, but the Swiss national has a good excuse for underdoing things in the outer layers department – he’s just spent several weeks building a pump track in Pretoria, South Africa, where temperatures were hovering around 35°C. This, though, is Inverness. In December.
Admitting defeat, he heads to his hire car to puffa up and returns with an even wider, warmer smile.
Life as a lifer
The race scene is full of people who’ve been kicking around the sport, in one form or another, for most of their lives, but few can boast the smorgasbord of hats worn by Claudio.
More recently, he’s become famed for his GoPro-shot course previews, which form part of Red Bull TV’s coverage of the Downhill World Cup and other major events. He whoops, laughs, screams and occasionally even sings his way down the fastest tracks in the world, before taking his place beside Rob Warner in the commentary booth.
In between rounds, he pilots the leviathan that is ‘The Black Pearl’ – the bus and HQ of the Scott factory DH team, which he runs. On top of this, he operates Velosolutions, a company specialising in designing and building pump tracks all over the world. It’s this latter hat that brings him to Inverness.
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The new track in Bught Park was built by the UK arm of Velosolutions, which includes long-time pro rider Duncan Ferris and has more flow than the very narrowest parts of the mighty Zambezi. There are multiple lines, some knuckle-sharpening transfers and the back section features a succession of over-head-height, tighter-than-they-look berms. Claudio confesses that the Highland cold pales in severity to the extreme heat he’s experienced on some builds.
“The toughest ones were probably New York and Oklahoma City,” he says. “It was 41°C, so when you’re spreading the tar, you have 180° radiating up towards you and 41° coming down on to you. It’s like doing the toughest workout you know, but in a sauna. I got close to passing out a couple of times and a lot of the guys had to go and puke somewhere. We had funny reactions in Oklahoma. We were laying the asphalt into the turns so the heat surrounded us. It genuinely felt like we were burning.”
In 2016 alone, Claudio had a hand in the construction of 25 pump tracks, but it’s the one he built on Long Island, back in 2015, which really stands out. “When we built the Brooklyn track, sometimes I had to turn off the machines and check that I wasn’t dreaming,” he smiles. “You can actually see the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty from our pump track, which is absolutely crazy!”
Velosolutions burst onto the track building scene with the now infamous Champéry World Cup track back in 2004. “To be honest, I didn’t even choose that mountain,” Claudio says. “I told the organiser that we should find another one as it seemed a bit over the top! My dog wouldn’t even walk down that track when we were building it, it was that steep.”
Before he picked up a shovel and stamped in his first roller, Claudio was a racer, and a pretty good one at that. “I started mountain biking right when mountain biking started! It was somewhere around 1992 or ’91,” he says. The young Caluori’s focus up until then had been on playing ice hockey, at a pretty serious level. Fed up with driving him to training every day, his parents suggested he should get a mountain bike. “I started liking the ride to hockey training more than the training itself,” he laughs. Naturally competitive, racing soon followed, in the form of cross-country.
“When I was 19 I rode past a BMX track and thought, “Woah! What the f**k is this?!”, and so I did a couple of laps and ended up buying a BMX,” he says. Although he’d never race his 20in-wheeled bike, Claudio ended up spending his winters training on it at the track. Come XC race season, what he lost in fitness compared to his road-riding rivals, he quickly recouped on the downhill sections.
The late 1990s were the wonder years of DH racing when, amid the extreme sports boom, it began to forge its own personality, helped in no small measure by riders such as Shaun Palmer. “It was full-on punk,” Claudio recalls. “I only ever wore clothes that my father and maybe even my grandfather had worn before me! We always had at least four riders in my Fiat Uno, we were always sleeping in tents... It was just really, really cool.”
The doors started opening for Claudio at a World Cup round in Snoqualmie Pass, near Seattle, in 1998. It’s a race widely remembered for being Steve Peat’s first top-flight win, and for Claudio it was also a career-defining moment, with a 23rd place finish. “Coming home from there, I was immediately taken onto the national team for the World Champs, and from there on my career really started.”A national title (the first of seven) followed in ’99, and Claudio started making the now achingly cool pilgrimage made by many European pros of the time to sunny California for ‘winter training’.
“That was awesome. All those guys who were out there (Eric Carter, Brian Lopes, Steve Peat) were fully sponsored and quite corporate, and I was just a punk!” he laughs. “The guys didn’t even like to sit in the same car as me, as I stank pretty bad!”
The end of a dream
By 2007, and now into his third year aboard the Intense factory outfit, Claudio had reached a point where he was, by his own admission, “maxed out”. “I had the same trainer as Greg Minnaar and was following the programme 364 days a year,” he frowns. “I had the same nutritionist as Roger Federer. I had a mental coach who... didn’t really help at all! I was being a perfectionist and doing everything so seriously, yet still my results went down. I had a kid by then too, and couldn’t justify the effort and focus I was putting into racing when I wasn’t bringing home any money or wins.”
Opportunity arrived, in the form of a chance to start up a new Swiss-based, Tomac-branded team equipped with the American brand’s iconic-looking 204 Magnum DH bike (and including UK pinner Joe Smith, now with Norco). “The angles were so different from today’s bikes,” Claudio says. “When you look at them [’00s downhill bikes] now, they look all weird.”
Rock the mic
A very different door opened for Claudio when he was offered the chance to co-commentate on a World Cup round in 2013. “They did a test with me in Windham,” he recalls. “I’d done some Red Bull Crashed Ice commentary before that but I thought I sucked at that, and to be honest, I still think that I suck at it. But people for some reason seem to like me! The biggest challenge with it is to be focused for those two or three hours. The first season I didn’t enjoy it but I’m starting to enjoy it now.”
As we say our goodbyes, Claudio is frantically tapping away at his iPhone to find out when tomorrow’s flight is scheduled for and just how big a party can be had with the crew as a result. His is a lesson about how a life can be built on and made to grow around bikes. As he wolfs down the last remnants of his first ever macaroni pie, a sly smile spreads across his face and his dark brown eyes light up – there’ll be time for that party after all. Time for a jacket change…
This article originally appeared in issue 341. You can find back issues of MBUK here.