The Enigma | The Man Behind the Mystery
In the star-studded universe of gravity racing, few, if any, have shined as brightly as Sam Hill.
While the downhill racing world has seen no shortage of superstars--giants like Nicolas Vouilloz, Greg Minnaar and perennial crowd-pleaser, Steve Peat--arguably no racer since John Tomac has instilled a more lasting reverence among gravity fanatics than Hill.
Though Minnaar boasts more World Cup victories than anyone, and Peaty's larger-than-life persona has forever captured our hearts, Hill's unrivaled mastery of technical terrain and unforgettably explosive performances have seared themselves into our collective psyche, at times eclipsing the otherwise phenomenal feats of his peers. In his most brilliant moments, Hill is a supernova whose blinding rays extend far beyond his own galaxy.
"There's no other racer in the world like Sam Hill," says photographer Sven Martin, who has documented Hill's meteoric trajectory from his days as a junior in the early 2000s to his complete dominance of the Enduro World Series over the last two years. "When you're actually there in person and seeing what he's actually doing, where he's actually doing it--and the speed at which he's doing it--it's hard to believe."
Over the course of his career, the quiet Australian has become known as the man to beat on the world's most precipitous, most technically demanding courses--and in the most unforgiving weather conditions. The steepest chutes, the chunkiest rock gardens, the most menacing root sections: All are his to conquer, especially in the rain, mud and greasiness that have many other racers grappling to keep their bikes upright.
These are the times when Hill shows his true artistry, turning the most treacherous tracks into his personal canvasses, drawing daring lines down them that others could scarcely imagine.
"When the terrain is super difficult, he's better than anybody else in the world," says Nigel Page, team manager for Chain Reaction Cycles/Mavic, who has worked closely with Hill since he signed with Nukeproof in December 2012. "On tracks that are so steep, so technically challenging that even the top riders are struggling, Sam just comes into his own. The harder a track is, the more confident and pumped he is to ride.
"He just has this belief in himself and his ability to turn the bike wherever he wants it. And he makes it look easy."
2017 EWS Emerald Enduro, Wicklow County, Ireland.
Legends of the Fall
Some of Hill's performances over the years have become the stuff of legend. Take, for example, his 2007 showing in Champéry, Switzerland, on one of the steepest, most dangerous courses in World Cup history.
Midway through the finals, a torrential rain and hailstorm turned the track into a muddy Slip 'N Slide, with 30 or so racers left to make their runs. Most of them, by their own admission, were hanging on for dear life the whole way down. But not Hill, who had qualified in first and was therefore the last racer of the day. In spite of the horrible conditions--or perhaps because of them--he was hellbent on going for the win. To the amazement of everyone, he charged through the churned-up sludge with comparative ease to chalk up an unbelievable third-place finish.
"Perhaps more than any other racer, Sam has the total respect of his peers," says Scott Sharples, the longtime Australia National Team manager who helped guide Hill through the junior-racing ranks in the early 2000s. "He not only influences the fans; he influences the other racers, even at the most elite level.
"Sam's style is something that people want to mimic and replicate," Sharples adds. "Everyone wants to ride like him."
Ever since Sharples first spotted Hill from a chairlift in Thredbo, Australia, as the-then 15-year-old was railing effortlessly past other riders, he knew his talent was unique.
"I could see this guy just casually carving up the mountain, but he was going so much faster than everybody else," Sharples recalls. "I asked the guys on the chairlift who it was, and one of them told me he was one of the young guys from Perth."
Figuring he might know who it was, Sharples--who was transitioning from racing into coaching at the time--went to find the young Hill, eventually meeting him with his father.
"I approached his dad and asked him if Sam wanted to race," Sharples says. "His dad told me he'd said he wanted to be the world champion. From the very moment I met him, it was clear what he wanted to do."
Left: 2009 World Cup Finals, Schladming, Austria. Right: Sam Hill’s soiled World Championship jersey after his 2007 Champéry, Switzerland, run. Photo: Victor Lucas
Downward to Glory
The ambitious Hill wasted no time chasing that goal, laying down dizzying runs as a junior that were starting to make the elite men squirm. At the 2003 World Championship race in Lugano, Switzerland, the 18-year-old phenom staged an all-out assault on the muddy, rock-filled course, easily winning the junior division, despite a crash. What made people take note, however, was his time: If he'd been competing against the elite men, he would have placed third that day.
When Hill began competing in the elite men's category in 2004, he immediately put the heat to the world's fastest downhillers. For three straight years, from 2004 to 2006, he captured second in the UCI World Cup Downhill series, with only the likes of veterans Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar taking the overall ahead of him.
And finally, just six years after meeting Sharples and starting his racing career, Hill became the World Champion, smashing his competition in the 2006 UCI World Cup Downhill Championship race in Rotorua, New Zealand. The following year, he consolidated his supremacy, winning the World Championship race in Fort William, Scotland, while also taking the overall World Cup series title. Without question, he had become the fastest downhiller on the planet.
Though he captured the World Cup series title again in 2009 and won the World Championship race in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, in 2010, it was no longer the podium-topping finishes that defined him among the riding public. It was the way he raced--flat-out, foot-out, all the time--that garnered the reverence of racing fans and everyday riders alike.
Hill consistently eschewed tactics and strategic positioning, preferring to put everything on the line with each and every race. If he didn't win a race on his own terms, it seemed it wasn't worth winning.
"I've never known Sam to cheat, or even do anything to give himself a competitive advantage," Page says. "A lot of athletes will go to venues weeks, or even months, before a race, riding the tracks and getting a good feel for the terrain. But Sam doesn't do that. He just rocks up, pre-rides the course once and then goes all-out in his race run."
Left: 2008 World Championships, Val di Sole, Italy. Photo: Gary Perkin. Upper right: Hill crowned World Champion, Mont-Saint-Anne, Quebec, 2010. Photo: Gary Perkin. Bottom right: Schladming, Austria, 2008. Photo: Gary Perkin.
This uncompromising approach to racing, set against Hill's reserved, unassuming demeanor, has made him one of mountain biking's biggest enigmas. A man of few words, he truly lets his riding do the talking, shying from the post-race limelight and rarely revealing his hand. And his muted, matter-of-fact public manner has left most people wondering what it is that actually makes him tick.
"Sam's a very different individual to most people you come across in life," Page says. "He doesn't really say much to people, unless they work with him or they're a close friend. But when you get to know him, he's really funny and downright mischievous. He's always playing practical jokes, and within a couple of days of getting to know someone, he'll have a special nickname for that person.
"Most people will never see that side of him, though," Page adds. "As soon as the cameras come out, he's a totally different person. Once the teachers are around, he's suddenly on his best behavior."
By all accounts, however, one of Hill's most defining traits is his loyalty--both to friends and to the things he knows best. In an era when riding clipped-in is considered de rigueur among elite racers, Hill continues to stick with what he knows, from his preferred handlebar width to his tried-and-true flat pedals.
Rather than following industry-driven trends and seeking out technological advantages, he continues to rely on what has always worked for him. If his ballsy line choices, Houdini-like cornering skills and penchant for speed in highly technical terrain can't propel him to victory, he loses interest.
And during his last few years of World Cup DH racing, when the UCI began to forsake the steep, gnarly tracks of yore for high-speed, comparatively groomed runways, Hill almost seemed bored.
"Once most of the tracks became technically easier, with more flat-out speed sections that favored strong pedalers and guys on 29ers, you could see that he was starting to check out of downhill," Martin says. "He'd been 12 years deep into this, but when the tracks became easier, the speeds were much greater, making them more dangerous. He'd had some bad crashes and struggled with injuries, but basically he was no longer feeling challenged by the tracks."
2017 Trans-Provence, outside of Sospel, France.
Enter the Enduro
After hearing fellow riders talk about how technically demanding enduro racecourses were becoming, Hill decided to try his hand at the increasingly popular discipline. At the 2015 Crankworx in Rotorua, after a seventh-place finish on the venue's DH track, he entered the enduro race the following day on a lark.
At the start gate, when Italian commentator Enrico Guala asked him why he'd decided to race the enduro, Hill replied, with a nonchalance that belied his bike-handling brilliance: "Ah well, I heard my mates talking about how fun the trails were, so I decided to give it a go and see what it's all about."
To the surprise of many, Hill finished 10th overall, smoking everyone on the seventh and final stage down part of the DH track. As he burst from the forest and scrubbed the last few jumps before the finish line, the crowd went berserk. Sam Hill, the everyman hero, was back. And sniping tight corners with one's inside foot out would once again be synonymous with shredding.
Seeing how Hill had come to life in the enduro, Page struck a deal with Mavic that would allow him to race four enduro events the following year. His first race, on the steep, technically challenging trails of La Thuile, Italy, was perfectly suited to Hill's strengths.
"Before that race, I jokingly asked Sam if he was ready for this enduro," Page remembers. "And he said to me, 'I think this enduro needs to get ready for me.' Then he went and smashed out a second-place finish."
The King's New Crown
Since that moment, Hill hasn't looked back. In 2017, he won the overall Enduro World Series championship, thanks to consistently high finishes in almost every race. Seven years after his last World DH Championship title, he was once again a World Champion--of an entirely different discipline.
This year, he's only expanded his dominance of the EWS, winning four of the first six races outright--and making it look easy. In round six, on the notoriously brutal trails of Whistler, British Columbia, Hill finished second after an exhaustingly long day of dust-filled one-upmanship. Two days later, he entered Crankworx Whistler's demanding Garbanzo DH race, wowing fans with an impressive victory over Colombian standout Marcelo Gutierrez, who is still racing on the World Cup DH circuit. With only one race left in this year's EWS--the series culminates this weekend in Finale Ligure, Italy--Hill is still leading the overall series and is in strong contention for his second world title.
"He was always such a downhiller's downhiller, you could never imagine him making it in enduro against all the 'enduro specialists,'" Martin says. "But now that he is, it's just a no-brainer because enduro is a measure of handling skills on difficult terrain. So, of course Sam Hill should be winning the EWS.
"All his best results in downhill--the ones that made him the legend he is--were based on the gnarliest terrain," Martin adds. "As soon as you have that in enduro, he's putting loads of time on people. The way enduro racing is now, it's just perfectly up his street."
Page agrees, pointing to Hill's most recent EWS win in La Thuile.
"The enduro tracks these days are so difficult to ride," says Page, himself a former DH standout and top performer in the EWS's masters division. "La Thuile had some of the steepest tracks I've ever ridden in my life. They were so challenging, and even the top riders were struggling. But Sam was just totally in his element."
If Hill's record is any indication, he's most in his element when the terrain is burly and unpredictable.
"A lot of the EWS courses are either fresh-cut or not heavily used tracks: they're raw and natural," Hill says. "We've had everything from steep, rocky, rooty stages to flat-out, high-speed, open stuff. The EWS tracks vary so much from venue to venue, but also within each round. That's what I'm enjoying about it.
"I personally think the EWS tracks we're racing are gnarlier than the current World Cup DH tracks," Hill adds. "The DH has been making the tracks faster, with a lot less line choices for riders. I'm not bagging on DH, because I still love the sport, but the tracks have just become tamed down in terms of technicality and rawness and are more for TV now."
2018 EWS Round Three, Olargues, Mont Caroux, France.
Moving the Meter
Hill's surge to EWS prominence has done as much for the credibility of enduro racing as it has to validate his status as one of the greatest mountain bikers of all time, according to Martin.
"He 100-percent moves the meter," the South African-raised photographer says. "Anything Sam Hill does, he legitimizes it--whether it's a track, a race, or just a picture of a flat pedal. Once the EWS put him in their news, so many more people started paying attention.
"He's got the attention of people in their 40s, as well as people in their teens. There's always something to learn from him."
Hill's undisputed excellence in arduous conditions is not the only secret to his success, however. Much of his continued achievement is tied to his loyalty and ability to remain true to a winning formula. Whether it's his equipment, his bike, his suspension setup, his mechanic, or the people he chooses to surround himself with, Hill prefers to keep things consistent.
"Sam has a single-mindedness, an intense focus, and a willingness to work hard and prioritize what works for him," Sharples says. "Throughout his career, he's kept some key consistencies: Flat pedals, Five Ten shoes, SRAM and perhaps most importantly, his mechanic, Jacy [Shumilak]."
When it comes to Shumilak, Hill says his 15-year friendship with the mechanic has been a grounding force in his career.
"Jacy started working as my mechanic in 2003, my first year on a pro race team, and I'm just super lucky to have had him by my side ever since," Hill says. "He knows what I need from my bike and exactly how I like it set up, and he's super good at working out what changes I need when I give him feedback.
"Jacy's been a huge part of my success. He's a great friend, and we have a lot of respect for each other. I've been lucky with the people and companies I've been able to work with. I basically spend five to six months a year around my team, and it makes everything a lot nicer when you have good people around you."
For Hill, friendship and familiarity are far more important than chasing more lucrative sponsorship deals.
"Sam could be on a more high-profile team, but he prefers to be on a team with people he knows and trusts," Sharples says. "When he was with Specialized, I could tell the corporate side of it was eating him away. They put the company on the pedestal, and not the rider. And Sam's not a fan of that. He doesn't function well around that type of thing."
But Hill's sense of loyalty is not just about sticking with things that work for him: It's about him being there for the people he cares about, Sharples notes.
"Sam has these great qualities as a human being, and he doesn't get wound up in the muck that distracts people," Sharples explains. "He has great parents who taught him to be a good person, a person of decency. And that shows in the way he treats those around him."
Page agrees, pointing to Hill's tendency to put the interests of his friends and family ahead of narrow racing concerns.
"Sam will put all the people around him before himself, which is really strange for a top athlete, as most top athletes are by nature very self-centered," Page says. "He puts his family before everything, even his training. And it works for him, because if he's happy with his home life, he usually gets results. When he's worried about things, he doesn't perform well."
Hill extends his generosity of spirit far beyond his family and close friends, however. During his short time competing in the EWS, he's become known as one of the most helpful competitors on the circuit, routinely stopping on the climbs between timed descents to help other racers with their mechanical problems.
"When Sam first started doing enduro races, he was carrying a hydration pack with so much shit in it," Martin says. "He had spare tubes and a tool for every mechanical, and he was the guy giving people tubes and helping the other racers out."
He also helps other riders, particularly his teammates, just by being himself--and leading by example.
"Any rider who gets the chance to be on a team with Sam when they're young just gets so much better and progresses so quickly with each race," Page says. "Just look at guys like [Brendan] Fairclough and [Troy] Brosnan. They look at how chilled he is, and how he never makes any drama, and they learn to be calmer and more confident."
If there's a single secret to Sam's racing success, it could just be that he enjoys riding his bike on challenging trails more than anyone else.
"He's the ultimate mountain biker, because he's all about having a good time with his buddies, riding his bike, and riding it fast," Sharples says. "And isn't that what we all want to do?"