UK downhill star Tahnee Seagrave is serious on the race track, less so off it

Tahnee Seagrave – on riding, racing and Rachel Atherton

We quiz the hottest property in women’s downhill about motivation, goals, heroes and why she doesn’t see Rach as the one to beat

Tahnée Seagrave is flying high after winning three Downhill World Cup rounds last year and narrowly missing out on the series title. We caught up with the young Brit at home in Mid Wales for a cover feature in the current issue of the mag (MBUK 354), focusing on her rise to success and the trails she loves riding. But there was loads we couldn’t fit in, so here’s what she had to say about the current race scene, the riders who’ve inspired her and why all eyes shouldn’t be on Rachel Atherton this year.

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MBUK: When you first started racing, aged 14, you got beaten a lot. Did that flick a competitive switch?

TS: “I think so, yeah. I just wanted to close the gap on my main rival, Sandra Reynier, at every race. And I did. It was never an ‘I want to become champion’ thing. There was the end goal of beating her, but it took me years. Like, actually years! I was slowly chipping away and it was nice to see that I was improving. There’s no better feeling than improvement. Improving beats winning, 100 per cent.”

Is that how you gauge your success? Don’t you compare yourself to other people?

“No. I don’t think I can. If you start comparing yourself to other people, that’s when you know you’re not mentally strong. It’s not a race against others, it’s a race against yourself. I will think of other people if, for instance, I’m feeling really rough in the gym and I’m not motivated. I’ve got to the door once and had a mental image of one of the girls still in the gym working and had to turn around and go back in. I’ll tell myself it’s not that hard. It’s, what, another 20 minutes of my life? It’ll be well worth it when I’m stood on top.”

Tahnee Seagrave on home soil in Mid Wales
Tahnée Seagrave on home soil in Mid Wales. Credit: Andy Lloyd

Do you have any heroes or people who’ve inspired you?

“Vanessa Quin. I watched her race the Les Gets World’s in 2004 [where she came first] – the year Peaty crashed and Fabien [Barel] won. I wasn’t really doing the sport at the time but I remember getting her autograph, not because I knew who she was, but because dad pointed her out. The year after that, she came to stay at our chalet with Nigel Page [then a DH racer, now manager of the CRC-Mavic enduro team], whom she was dating at the time. She had a baby-blue bike. I got to know her and she was such a lovely person.

“I’ve not seen her in years, but she kind of introduced me to riding and taught me what she and Nigel did – the World Cup racing and all of that. They helped Mum and Dad get me my first bike and made it a mini version of Vanessa’s, which was cool. I wanted to be just like her. She was just a normal woman who I’d see at the chalet drinking a cup of tea. And then she’d go and win a race or push herself to the limits with her training. People like that are so adrenaline-driven and it’s mad when they’re then just normal. People must think that about me! I’m pretty chilled!”

Any others?

“I looked up to Peaty [Steve Peat] and Cédric Gracia and the Athertons. When I was old enough to understand what was happening, I’d get up and watch the World Cups, and all I can remember is Rachel [Atherton] winning. That’s all I’ve ever known. I looked up to her and thought that was what I wanted to do. But I never knew I’d be racing against her. It’s strange watching your hero for so long and then getting to race them. It’s taken me five years to finally beat her. There were times when I was 40 seconds back on her time, and I just didn’t think it’d ever happen. Not in a million years. I thought she’d have to retire or [Emmeline] Ragot would have to retire for me to come in as a new generation and start winning. Obviously I wanted to, and I’m glad I did. Rachel is considered as the best mountain biker of all time. It’s an achievement to have beaten her. It’s something that I always looked to do but never expected to happen.”

Tahnee Seagrave rides a gully at Revolution Bike Park
Gunning it down a gully a Revolution Bike Park. Credit: Andy Lloyd

What do you think of the women’s race scene at the moment?

“The competition is getting better, as far as World Cups go. It’s hard when you’ve got someone at the top who’s been there for such a long time. I feel that other people’s talent goes unnoticed or they don’t get as much praise as they should. Look at PomPon [Myriam Nicole] – she’s had races where she’s come back from injury and been just off the win. No one remembers that, though. No one remembers when you come second. It’s a shame. Because Rach has been dominating for so long, she’s the one people are looking at. In the men’s there’s none of that. Credit is given where its due. Maybe it’s because there are fewer of us girls, or because the industry isn’t as interested in us, or because the articles aren’t written as well, or whatever. It’s really frustrating.”

What needs to change?

“Some girls should be given more credit, that’s all. Stop comparing us to other people. We’re pushing each other more and more. I was worried about PomPon getting more World Cup wins than me last season, but when it happened, I was so happy for her to win the overall after five years of not winning anything. That was amazing.”

What are your goals?

“Obviously, I’d love to win the World Cup series. I’d like to win the World Champs too. But at the end of the day, they’re just titles and proof that you were fastest on the day. For me, what’s important is improvement at every race. Whether that’s in the way I am in practice or my time compared to the men or the way I execute something, there’s always something I can improve on.

“I never want to disappoint myself by setting my goals too high. They’re there, but they’re bonuses more than goals. Because I won a lot as a Junior, I thought I was going to win the World Champs in 2012. That was my goal. I was a bit full of myself and just expected to win, which I’d never do now. When I got absolutely smoked by Holly Feniak, by 13 seconds, I was distraught. It traumatised me. I’m never expecting anything ever again. I’m just going to try my best, and as long as I’ve done that, it’s fine.”

Tahnee Seagrave pushes up for another run at Revolution Bike Park
Tahnée pushes up for another run at Revs. Credit: Andy Lloyd

So, what’s the plan for beating Rach?

“No disrespect to her at all, but although she’s always there and always a contender, she hasn’t already beaten everyone else. I feel sorry for her because of the amount of pressure she’s under, with everyone expecting her to win, bless her. But I’ve had this question so many times that I get frustrated. I’m like, ‘Why Rach?’. Obviously she’s won loads, but all the other girls are there now. Why not Tracey [Hannah] or PomPon? It just gets tiring being asked the same question. I guess it’s the same in the men’s with [Aaron] Gwin or [Greg] Minnaar, though. When you win that many races, by that much, for so long, everyone expects you to keep going. I don’t know how she does it, with that much pressure. It would break me, I think. To me, the person to beat next year is PomPon, considering she won the series last year and had consistent results. The person I want to beat is myself, without wanting to sound like a dick! I’m not really racing against the other girls – I’m racing the clock.”

What’s it like being a professional racer?

“People don’t see it as work but it is work. Every second of the day you’re having to work really hard towards a three-minute run where every single moment counts, so it gets tiring. You’ve always got to have a smile on your face and that can get quite hard sometimes. At races where things aren’t going your way it’s really difficult. I think that’s why when I get home I just zonk out.”

How does it feel being last out of the start hut after qualifying first?

“I can never go into a race as the favourite. If I qualify first, Chris [Kilmurray, Tahnée’s coach] and I look at each other and are like, ‘Uh oh, we’re doomed!’. People expect me to then win or I expect myself to win because I’ve gone fastest. But if I qualify lower down or have problems and I’ve got something to work on, then that’s sweet. Because I can then prove everybody wrong and nobody expects it. I just thrive off negative comments and people. Weird. Whereas my brother, Kaos, loves people giving him compliments. He needs people to tell him that he’s doing good. If he qualifies well, then he’ll do well in the race.”

Tahnee Seagrave chases her brother Kaos at Revolution Bike Park
Talent runs in this family – Tahnée’s brother Kaos (right) is steadily climbing through the ranks. Credit: Andy Lloyd

You and Kaos ride together a lot, right?

“We’ve never been as close as we are now. We’ve got all the same friends, we all ride together. I used to enjoy racing more than riding. I know that sounds stupid, but it got to the point where I raced so much that I was just over bikes. Whereas this past year, the more time I’ve spent with Kaos, the more he’s made me realise that I want to have fun riding my bike. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get a turn perfect – as long as I’m enjoying myself, I’m going to improve anyway. He’s always telling me to calm down and stop worrying. Us girls get too serious. People tell me I should be doing this or training harder but that would take the fun out of it, so what’s the point? I might as well go and sit in an office!”

Who else do you enjoy riding with?

“Kaos and Kade Edwards are just the best people to ride with. They’re smiling all the time, but it’s funny because they’re so competitive. Seeing them bickering and pushing each other on is so cool. When one of them does something for the first time, they’re so happy for each other. They’d be the first people I’d call to go riding with, and I’ve only got to walk out the door! There’s a good group of us at the moment – Bear Belk and Louis Meade and Dan Griffiths too. It’s so nice, because they’re all so encouraging.”

What else do you like doing besides DH?

“Recently I’ve done loads of riding – skate park, dirt jumping, etc. I’m just a girl, at the end of the day, so I love phoning up Meg [Whyte, a fellow downhiller] and going shopping or drinking hot chocolates. Just because I’m an athlete, it doesn’t mean I don’t eat chocolate. I probably eat more than your average person! I go out and get drunk and get hungover and regret everything I’ve done – it’s completely normal. I don’t do it every weekend, though!

“There was a point in my career when I didn’t touch any alcohol for three years and did the whole off season with no chocolate, and I became miserable. It’s just not for me. So I love going to get my nails, my lashes (haha, not really!), my hair done – all those types of thing that girls like doing. But then I love going to trampoline parks and doing other fun things too. I love driving as well, so much. Not many people like to get in the car with me, though! My driving is good… just a little fast. I did a day at a rally school and they said I should get into rally driving. But I can’t be told what to do, so the co-driver would get a slap in the face!”

What’s your biggest character flaw?

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“I like doing my own thing. I probably wouldn’t be able to do a team sport, because you’ve got to trust other people to have done the work and I just wouldn’t be able to do it – I’d be too pushy! I’ve got way more of Dad in me than I’d like to think. I love him, though, and I’d be happy with his traits. Just not his looks! Only joking!”

Old helmets of Tahnee Seagrave
Tahnée’s been doing the racing thing for a long time now. Credit: Andy Lloyd