Catching up with the Santa Cruz
Iago Garay exploded into our collective consciousness in 2015, along with the Chilean dust he was effortlessly drifting through at the time. Drafted in to join Dylan Wolsky - whose ‘Nomad’ teammate, Chris Johnston, was sidelined with an injury - on a promotional shoot for Santa Cruz. The ensuing imagery of Iago on that iconic blue and magenta Nomad, one foot dropped, one still clipped in, and throwing the horns with dust flying everywhere, left its mark.
One-half of the Santa Cruz SRAM Enduro Team, Iago is the brands longest standing EWS racer. The team, now entering its third year has had a few changes during this past off-season with Josh ‘Loosedog’ Lewis moving on to focus his energy towards more shenanigans with the 50to01 crew and welcomes Alex ‘Krunk Shox’ McGuinnis, the team’s new road manager. We caught up with the team prior to round one of the EWS in Rotorua, New Zealand, for some one-on-one chats to see what makes them tick, kicking things off with Iago.
Interview by Olly Forster, photos by Sven Martin
Let’s get into this - how did you get into bikes?
IAGO: I don't even remember this, but my parents always tell me the story...we went to this town in the mountains where my mom used to go in the summer for holidays, which is where the La Pinilla bike park is now. The local hardware store there had this pink bike - it was pretty rad-looking from what I remember. Anyway, we went there to get something sorted for a lawnmower or something like that, but I locked onto this pink bike and just jumped on it and started doing laps around the store. When the time came to leave [the store], I wouldn't go without the bike and my parents had to buy it for me. That was my first bike...
And mountain biking?
As far as proper mountain biking goes, my dad's always been very active and we used to go on XC rides all the time, but back then, I wasn't really into it. I'd go mostly because my parents made me, until one day somebody told me about this sport which consisted of only going downhill. I was like, “that sounds really good, we should try it!”
We ended up going to an international Maxxis Cup where we’d heard they had races for little kids. I was 11 or 10 years old at the time and the event was at Pajares, which is a ski resort up north. I remember jumping off the chair lift with my little Trek 24-inch hardtail and sending it down this gnarly track in the rain. I must’ve crashed like five times, but I was still smiling at the bottom. I thought, “well that was impressive!” and then somebody told us, “oh you guys want down the 'real' track?”
The kids' track was on this grassy field with about six corners. My dad could see that I was really into it and he was like, “okay we're really doing this”. I remember him getting all the gear and taking me to the races and that's how it started. From there, we were on the road every weekend going somewhere to ride our bikes.
Wasn't your father responsible for the La Pinilla Bike Park?
Yeah, that’s a crazy story. He used to be a TV producer but was offered a job as an event organizer for the La Pinilla ski resort, which conveniently was somewhere he’d always wanted to build a bike park. He was the one who opened up the resort to bikes and started building more trails and stuff for bikes. He doesn't do that anymore, but today, the La Pinilla Bike Park is one of the most well-known and established bike parks in Spain.
What's the scene like in Madrid?
It's massive! There are so many people that ride bikes, yet most people think Madrid is this flat desert place, but we have so many mountains and so many trails. Obviously, it's a big city and there's always been a lot of people out on the trails: hiking, motorbiking and now, mountain biking. You can go out on any day of the week and you're going to bump into people out riding their bikes. There aren't any trail centers or anything like, but the trails have been there for generations. They were built for something else and now bikers use them, which is pretty cool.
How did you get into Enduro?
I was probably 14 or 15 when I first started going to the Megavalanche races. Obviously back then, we didn't have 'enduro bikes' as we do now; they were more like long travel XC bikes. But I raced the Megavalanche every year and then slowly but surely, enduro became a thing. It made sense to me because I was already enjoying racing on short travel bikes, so I gave it a go and even though I wasn't very fit - as I was just training for downhill - I really enjoyed it. And as enduro started to get bigger and bigger - around 2013 - I decided that I was going to race a couple of World Cups and a couple of EWS races and wherever I did best, that's where I would focus my energy the following year.
It turned out that I got similar results in both, so I really didn’t know what to do. At the time, I was riding for Santa Cruz Spain and I asked Mariano - the main guy there - what would you rather I do, downhill or enduro? I really didn't know which direction to take and he told me “well, I think enduro is a better market for us - we want to go bigger there, so you should do that.” And that was that. I started racing more enduro and I love it. It's been the best decision I've ever made.
So what is it about enduro that really put the hook in you?
I really like the fact that you get to see more of where you go unlike at a downhill race, where you see one track and the road from the hotel back to the track, and that's it. But with enduro, we get to explore and ride local trails for the first couple days and we get to see the whole area. All the time you’re out on your bike and sharing it with a lot of people because you're not just hanging around in the pits waiting for your run. You're riding with everyone, you're talking and getting to know them...I think overall, it's a better experience. Don't get me wrong, I love downhill and there's nothing like the feeling of putting down a solid race run, but with enduro, I think you get far more out of it.
How's the off-season been leading into the 2019 season?
It's been good! I've been putting a lot of hours in at the gym and in Spain, it's been especially dry all winter, which has made it really easy to get out and train. I've been riding loads with friends and I've been on some fun trips too. I went to Finale [Ligure] to do some testing with Mark and Krunk on the new Megatower, which was such a good week - I don't think I've ever done so many days shuttle runs in one week!
Have you changed much over the years in the way you prepare [during the off-season]?
Yeah, I would say it's constantly changing. I'm always trying to improve things every year and working on my weaknesses. I've been putting way more time in at the gym - as I really didn't go [to the gym] that much before. I found a really good coach and a really good gym that’s not too far from my house. We're doing a lot of functional training and weight training. I like to keep it fun and try and make sense of the stuff we're doing. We do some exercises that are very similar to what I'm going to be doing on a bike and I could really see the effects of my increased upper body strength while racing at the Andes Pacifico - it really helps ride how you want after you've been already been riding for 10-minutes and the fatigue has kicked in.
Was it difficult jumping back on your Hightower for Andes Pacifico after testing on the Megatower?
It was yeah, it was kind of frustrating too because before I went to test the new bike, I was telling myself, it's not going to be that much better, because your old bike is f**king awesome, you love it - it's definitely the best bike I've ever had! I remember thinking, it can't be that much better, it's not gonna make that big of a difference...
And then after that week of testing [on the new bike] in Finale with Mark and Krunk, I went home and started preparing for Andes Pacifico on my old bike (the Megatower wouldn’t be unveiled until round one of the EWS). Dropping into the first downhill I was like, “Oh my God, what's wrong with my bike? Somebody must've messed up my suspension settings while I've been away.” So I'm there, twisting knobs and trying to readjust the rebound and compression thinking, “what's happening? This bike was the best bike I ever had and now I can't ride it!”
But after two days, I was back on it and the Hightower was feeling sweet again. But yeah, the Megatower is a game changer for sure - it's what we've always wanted. The engineers at Santa Cruz listened to all our feedback, ever since the very first Hightower, but now they've put all that feedback together and they've created this bike from scratch and it's just perfect. I'm so stoked.
How tall are you and what size Megatower are you on?
I'm about 1.7m (5.5’) and I'm running the size medium this year. On the first day of the press camp, my team bike hadn't shown up, so I ended up running one of the journalist’s size large Megatowers. When I was trying to do some stuff during a photoshoot with Gary [Perkin] I couldn't really move the bike around how I wanted on jumps and on technical trails...
So you can ride both sizes, but the medium just feels better?
Yeah, I think it depends what you want out of your bike. If you like to play around with the trail, hopping from place to place, hitting the jumps, etc, you'd probably want the smaller option if you’re between sizes. But if you just want to go flat out, the larger option is probably the right bike for you.
What's your approach to risk versus reward?
I'm currently really bad at that...I don't like taking risks and I think I'm more of a smooth and precise rider. I'm only going fast if I know I can control the situation, which I know is pretty different from most of the other top riders in the EWS. It's one of the things that I'm trying to work on...to put a little more on the line and to get that extra speed. You need that now that things are getting faster, that extra push to make that small time difference and climb up the rankings.
How would you say your approach is different from Mark’s?
I feel like Mark and I are pretty similar in that we're not big risk takers. When I ride with him, he's very precise and likes to have his wheels where he wants them to be. He's very calculated although I don't follow him when we're racing - we both like to have everything under control and not let things get too sketchy.
Which EWS rounds are you most looking forward to this year?
Well, obviously Whistler is one of my favorite races each year. I just really like the type of riding there, the terrain...I'm pretty stoked to go back to New Zealand, Tasmania and fingers crossed for dry races over there this year too. The tracks there are rad and some of the most fun places to ride bikes. The last time we were there, it was a bit of a shit show with all the rain - it just made the race really, really hard. But I'm really looking forward to it and I can't wait to go back to Rotorua. They've got a really good trail Network there and it’s super fun. I grew up riding in pine forests so anything that's in the woods that's fast and flowy - that's my kind of style.
So which events are you least looking forward to?
I'm kind of worried about Northstar (near Lake Tahoe in California) as I went there last year for their 'test event' and it was probably the hardest race I did all year. There was shockingly a lot of pedaling and I guess, if it had been at sea level, it would have been fine, but when you're at 3,000 meters [above sea level], everything is three times as hard as anywhere else and you basically just feel sick and completely drained of energy. So yeah, I don't know...we'll see. I know Marco Osborne lives there and he’s trying to put some good tracks together ready for the race in August and I also know they're working on new stuff, so hopefully, it's going to be a sick race. But yeah, if it was the same as last year, I'm not looking forward to it.
What would you say your asked strengths and weaknesses?
I think my strengths have to be consistency. I don't tend to have many mechanicals or many crashes, but at the same time, that's also my weakness. I'm not risking as much as maybe I should be for trying to get the top spot.
What about Mark's strengths and weaknesses?
His strength is his willingness to put as much work in as he needs to achieve his goals. But at the same time, I think that's his weakness too as you can train too much and be burdened by the extra pressure to perform when it matters. I think you can overtrain and I think it's affected his performance in the past. But you know what, he has too much fun training, haha!
Are you on the vegan train with Mark?
I get on and off. I really don't mind it...last year at the races, we ate vegan all the time as the rest of the boys are all strict vegans. Allan [Cooke], who’s vegan, was cooking us the most delicious meals, but whenever I go back home to Spain, it's kind of hard to be vegan. I still eat meat every now and then, and I definitely eat a lot of cheese, so not being very vegan haha!
I've never been a fan of radical dietary theories or anything like that, I think it's more about balance than going too close to one side. I've definitely cut my meat intake a lot, but I think that's something everybody needs to do because we eat way too much [meat]. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be eating meat, you should just be more conscious about the meat you're eating and knowing where it comes from and how healthy it is for you.
So the Enduro World Series, is there anything about it that you don't like?
Ha, tough question...I like the EWS, a lot, I just feel like some people have been taking advantage of the great atmosphere we've had at the races. Everybody is really friendly and welcoming, but at the same time, the organizers have been too trustworthy with some of the individuals...there's a rule book, but sometimes it isn’t really enforced as it should. That's why I think the UCI might be a great addition. It's their job to enforce the rules we all abide by. That's the only thing really. Oh, and people walking the tracks before racing. That should be banned...it's too much stress for riders and organizers. I've walked tracks and I don't think there's any advantage to be had...just too many negatives.
Okay, so big changes with the team this year...
For sure, anybody who knows Krunk Shox, they know he runs a tight program and I think he's a great addition. We know him very well and he's been traveling with us before. He's going to help us focus on what we want and get rid of the stuff we don't. But he’ll keep things fun too because he's a really funny guy. I'm definitely going to miss Loose [dog] and all the other guys a lot because the after race banter was always a highlight of the trip.
Mark and I, together, even things out pretty well too. He's a very serious guy and I still want to enjoy what I'm doing, but I know Mark will push me to train and race harder, while I'll push him to relax a little bit and have some fun...with Krunk in the mix, it makes for a perfect EWS team.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
I've had some solid top fifteens throughout the years, but I really want to be consistently in the top-15. I know that will be tough given the nature of racing now and it's going to take some hard work, but I've been putting the work in...it's time to climb the ranks!
How do you set your bike up and how does it differ to Mark's?
Well, it's changing now with a new bike, but Mark runs his suspension a bit stiffer than me - his focus is on speed first and foremost, but otherwise, our setups are really similar. I think he might run his tire pressure a little bit lower than what I'm used to. I'm working on that with all these new tire inserts so I can confidently run lower pressures. Maybe the only big difference is how Mark runs his brake levers as they're pretty flat.
What does the future hold for Iago Garay?
More racing and more EWS. Every year that goes by I feel like I'm having more and more fun on my bike and enjoy what I'm doing so I'm not looking to stop anytime soon. I want to keep riding and racing and see how this sport continues to develop as it's been pretty exciting so far. I think it's going in a good direction and I want to keep doing it for as long as I can.