Ric joined me from the EWS Innerleithen offices having just returned from another mega journey, which seems to be a recurring theme in his hectic schedule. Telling me how he had arrived home around 1am and was up and back in the office at 9am that same morning. He had spent the weekend at the Lourdes downhill mountain bike track in the South of France, where pre-season testing was taking place, it was a chance for Ric and the team at Warner Bros. Discovery+ to have a walk through the new changes to the 2023 UCI Mountain Bike season before the first race weekend coming up at Nové Město.
I started by asking Ric how the weekend went.
It was good, we've had good feedback with the changes to the downhill mountain biking this season, mainly with the addition of the new semi-final format. We didn't have a test broadcast in Lourdes, just looking at different camera angles, and various social changes we're trying to bring in, plenty chat with riders and teams. So, yeah, it worked well. We also worked on the new course markings coming in this season, we're working with an Italian company now to avoid the use of as much course tape as possible, and we are using the same mesh you see at cyclocross racing, which is reusable, unlike the tape.
And how is the Warner Bros. Discovery+ promised revolution in mountain bike coverage was taking shape...
To paraphrase Alan Partridge, I think it'll be more of an evolution than a revolution. I think a lot of people are assuming that we're gonna tear it up and it's gonna be completely different, I think it'll be a lot closer to what people are used to than maybe some people expect. We're trying to do across-the-board incremental changes for the first year. Just make it that bit better. There's been pretty much a one-way chain of communication for a long time and now it's open for riders and teams to talk and make it better for everyone.
One of the things we're working on this season is to try and create as much off-season content as we can as well because mountain bike off-season can be quite long. We want to create stuff that will keep the fans engaged over the winter as well. So we've got eyes on a couple of documentaries that we're working on, and we started gathering content for those. We did a bike check piece from the enduro side of stuff in Tasmania, and that was entirely riders just talking about their bikes, and people reacted well to it because again if you're a fan, you want to hear what the riders have to say, I think that's important.
Ric explained more on the planned evolution of the TV coverage...
We're working now with Eurosport producers who have got backgrounds in covering the Grand Tours, and my opposite number on production weekends, his background is world superbikes, he's got a lot of experience of making bikes look fast on television. I think that's already been a massive thing for us, we're drawing from a stable of the world's biggest sports broadcasters.
We had a cross-country mountain bike test event at Les Gets, which was based around an existing preseason race, and we did a full broadcast test and we started at a really good baseline. Our baseline is set high for us, so hopefully we can keep pushing it forward as the season progresses.
Leading on from the TV coverage planned, would he be on location for race commentary at every UCI Mountain Bike World Series weekend?
I'll be at most but we are also about doing remotes, a lot of modern sport is covered remotely. I covered the Les Gets Worlds last year remotely and I'll be covering Fort William and Glentress this year for the World Championships remotely, not by choice though, the Worlds has different broadcast rights to the World Series, which means two separate commentary teams in separate booths too. My background before this was a field reporter for Red Bull TV, so I'm used to being on the ground getting into the pits and just drawing on that information and building on relationships that you have there. You only get that from being, from being there, and my take on it was that I'd always be able to do more from the venue.
Now I don't feel I have to be there as much, but I think when you're on the road, whether it's as a broadcaster, rider, mechanic or team manager, it's a big village. It's a similar group of people, we all travel everywhere, and you do get to build those relationships and friendships, that I think can be a great benefit."
Ric starts the UCI Mountain Bike World Series coverage with a brand new team anchored by Kate Mason, she will be joined by Cedric Gracia for downhill mountain bike racing, with Bart Brentjnes doing the same role for cross-country. They’ll also be joined by reporters Josh Carlson and Hayley Edmonds, and Ric spoke about his new colleagues.
I've worked with Cedric and known him for years as a racer, and I think I first met him when I worked for MBUK and he guest-edited our 20th-anniversary issue, we also worked together at Red Bull TV. When I started that gig, I was only really interested in downhill mountain biking and I didn't have a lot of knowledge of cross-country. Bart was somebody who taught me a lot about it.
Haley Edmonds and I have worked together before, she was also a field reporter at Red Bull TV, and Josh, I got to know him from covering the Enduro World Series, and he is just an absolute force of nature. Big, big ginger energy! We get on well and he's somebody who's naturally, in fact, I'll go further, irritatingly good at being on camera. For the course preview videos that we did in Tasmania, he did both of those 20 minutes videos in one take, he's brilliant.
Kate Mason, I've just met for the first time, this year. I was involved in the tests we did for different hosts and presenters, she stood out right from the start and I think we get on very well. She's got a very similar, sort of dark sense of humour like myself and she also. She's approaching this year with a journalistic view, she's learning the sport and I think that's going to be insightful for fans watching for the first time, they'll see her as someone who's in their shoes as well. Mountain biking has always been a sport that's looked inside and it's talked to the fans because they're so knowledgeable, and such hardcore fans. Whereas I think where it's struggled is being able to look outside and to look at people who are seeing it for the first time, people who don't know what a 1x12 groupset is, who don't know that minute details, not everyone is an expert and we want these guys to watch.
The big question I had was how he felt filling the shoes of Rob Warner...
It's one of those things like any new job you start, it's a mistake to try and measure yourself against the person who was there previously. Rob and I worked and travelled together for five years, had a great laugh when we were doing it and are good friends. It's a tough one because, he did it for so long, similar to other great commentators, I'm a big motorsports fan, and remember when Murray Walker left F1, everybody said it won't be the same. And it's not, it moves on and changes. That's the nature of the beast, I think I am under pressure, but I think it's pressure coming from myself in that I'm such a huge fan of mountain biking. It's given me so much in terms of my career and my personal life, and I want to get it right first and foremost for all the other fans like me. People associate things like sport with times in their life it's more pressure for me because I want to do a good job, I know how important it's to do a good job. Pressure is good as well, if you were going into thinking it's a piece of piss, all I have to do is talk about bike racing, it would show. The whole way through my time with Red Bull, covering World Cups, I never saw myself going to commentary, it was never something that I aspired to do or felt any competition to try and do it. It's something that we tried for worlds, and then I got asked if I want to do it, and I said, yes. I'm petrified, but looking forward to it.
Ric was wearing a Santa Cruz Syndicate beanie while we chatted and I asked if he was showing his mountain bike fan team colors?
Oh, I know Greg Minnar gave me that, not dropping any names, but, yeah with Minnaar I still get a bit starstruck. He's just a great guy, I think he's also really unique as an athlete, not unique, but certainly remarkable. He's also a massive fan, to the point that he can recall almost any downhill race, name the rider, track and year. He's got this strong recall sort of memory for results. What also is fascinating about him is that he's kind of at that Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Betel stage, he's served his time on the sport and he feels like he can speak his mind, maybe be a bit more than previously he would've done.
When I started working at MBUK, I was going on shoots with Steve Pete and riders that I grew up with and had posters on my wall, and there's still that big fan in me. I went up to Fort William for the first time with MBUK, and the Sunday night was always a massive party, as Fort William was always the end of season race. I remember leaving one of the pubs and Steve Peat was outside and he was like "Where are we going to now Ric?" and I just had that massive fan moment, "Oh my God, Peaty is asking me, where we're going drinking". As a fan, that was a very cool memory. I think one of the big things that I've always championed about mountain biking is the access is unbelievable, you would rarely get say, a Premier League footballer interacting like that.
With travelling and such a busy schedule does he ever get time to actually ride?
I ride when I can, I've missed out on gravel. Gravel bikes haven't really landed with me. I think I did a day and a half on a gravel bike, and that was enough. I just love riding mountain bikes, and I like riding my road bike, a gravel bike to me feels like the kind of worst bits of both of them. I can't get excited about it as a result, but I get why people like it.
I'm doing something immensely stupid, and getting a new downhill bike. I sold my previous downhill bike when I got my first enduro bike, I was going faster on that, but it's not a downhill bike, I've just got a bug, and I've been getting pangs for a downhill bike. I miss uplift days trying to work out a track that you've just got nine or ten runs on to try and get as good as you can. So I've decided, I'm 39 at the end of August and the years when I'll have a good excuse to buy one are receding greatly.
We've got Sam Hill coming back in downhill this year, which is just huge, he is so synonymous with my time, and really being in love with downhill. I still get goosebumps whenever I watch Sam ride a bike, I watch that 2008 Worlds run three or four times a year and each time it's special. There's a real purity of purpose to a downhill bike, it does one thing unbelievably well, it doesn't try and do anything else, just focus on speed. I've just never gotten past bikes, I got into them when I was a kid and it's still as fascinating for me now as it was then.
My final question before I headed out to buy a downhill mountain bike was Ric's thoughts for the World Championships in Scotland...
It's going to be huge, it's a mad one. I mean, selfishly from my point of view, it's a massive one because the first World Cup or big international event I went to was Fort William. If you could have tapped me on the shoulder then and told me that I'd be commentating on it this year, I'd be more than happy. There's been a full-time team in our offices here and we are helping to deliver it. We've just seen it in Tasmania, I do believe that there's a pilgrimage element to Fort William, just to get there is a commitment that brings a crowd of really informed, really passionate people.
I'm kind of upset that I'm gonna be doing it remotely, last year was the first one I've missed in 11 or 12 years, but at the same time, I will kind of have a ringside seat for it. The whole event is so big for Scotland.
As our half-hour scheduled chat was now well over an hour, I wished Ric the very best of luck for the weekend in Nové Město, and the rest of the season. We also arranged to catch up on our new downhill mountain bikes that he had now persuaded me to buy, and continue our conversation on an uplift, just two fans chatting about mountain bikes.