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Interview: Rob Britton’s transition from pro road to mountain bike and gravel racing

Tour of Utah winner finding gravel 'fun, and jokey, but super serious'

This time last year, Rob Britton would have been battling for position in a pro road peloton, powering down European roads with his Rally Cycling team. This weekend, he’s taking on a select field of 30 in what will be, after testing his skills at an Island Cup, his first big mountain bike race in a decade at the Sea Otter Fuego XC 80Km.

The former road pro is on of 30 riders, and just a handful of Canadians, selected for the first-ever Life Time Grand Prix presented by Mazda. It’s part of his retirement plan from the cutthroat, high pressure world of pro road racing. And, if he hadn’t picked up the phone, it might not have happened.

I caught up with Britton at Sea Otter as his new Easton Overland team was preparing to head out for a training ride. Despite the crushing 35-degree Celsius heat at Laguna Seca speedway, he joked about the sort-of-chill world of gravel racing, the benefits of watching road racing instead of racing it, and adjusting to mountain bike racing after years on skinny tires.

Canadian Cycling Magazine: You’ve retired from World Tour racing but now you’re rolling right into the Life Time series. How did that transition happen?

Rob Britton: Yeah, I mean I planned for the gravel thing before I knew about the Life Time series. I’d heard this rumour that there might be this six-race series and, sure enough, it popped up. I don’t know how many applicants they had, but I wasn’t super confident applying for it, I was just hopeful.

I was actually in the office with Matt Hornland, the Easton Overland manager when I got the phone call. I almost muted the call because I’ve been getting a lot of junk calls, but I though “ahh, this seems like a kinda legit New York number.” I answered, and it was Becca from Life Time giving me the good news.

It was actually…  not emotional, but it was a really big deal. A lot of these races are lottery entry. It’s hard getting into any one of them, let alone six really big races, so I’d been plotting away at other events to do. So I went from not having much of a season to having a very big season with some of the biggest races. It was really exciting.

You’ve done a lot of gravel riding, adventures and training in the past. How will gravel racing this year be different? Have you done any of these events before?

No. Of everyone on the start line, I will have the least gravel and mountain bike experience of anyone there, which is kind of funny, but, yeah. I’ve spent my fair share of time on gravel up in B.C. And yeah, I raced mountain bikes 10 or 15 years ago, it can’t be that much different, right?

Rob Britton at the 2018 UCI road world championships in Innsbruck, Austria, where his breakaway effort helped propel Michael Woods to third overall. Photo: Sirotti
Speaking of mountain biking, several of these are big, or iconic mountain bike events. How has it been getting back into that side of the sport?

Oh, it’s super exciting. The biggest thing for this year that I wanted to have was getting back to loving riding my bike and to be excited to go to races and having fun again. Racing in Europe and the World Tour, unless you’re Tadej Pogačar, I don’t think it’s that fun anymore. It’s so elite now that it’s hard to have fun. You just have to be on all of the time. I’d committed about as much as I wanted to to that,  I was missing that fun desperately.

It’s still a lot of work this year, but it’s so much fun being down here at Sea Otter seeing all these familiar faces. Mountain biking is something I really like to do. I don’t know if I’m any good at racing it, but I just really enjoy riding.

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Have you been watching this spring’s road racing?

Yeah, that’s the thing. When I quit road racing I wasn’t bitter at the sport, I’m still a huge fan of cycling. So I’ve been watching and … I don’t miss it at all. I was never good enough to really be affecting the front of these big races with Alaphilippe or Evenepoel. When those guys are going, there’s only like six guys in the world that can go with them. So watching on TV or watching the highlights after, it’s like “Oh, that’s what happened?” This just saves the middle man of suffering in the rain for five hours before I see the result. It’s a good fan to be a fan of the sport, because I don’t think there’s much joy in racing it. It’s so bloody hard all of the time right now, it’s crazy.

Not taking things too seriously at Sea Otter as the Overland crew gets ready for a team ride
So how are you looking forward from the switch from that to the more casual – or at least pretending to be casual – world of gravel?

Yeah, I think that hits the nail on the head. There’s a lot of pretending that this is chill and fun, but it’s definitely serious. You pick up on that vibe. I think there’s some animosity between, obviously, the people that got into the Life Time Grand Prix and those that didn’t. It’s the elephant in the room, so to speak.

It’s definitely more serious than people put on. It’s fun, and jokey, but it’s super friggin’ serious. It’s still a bike race. And a lot of guys take it so seriously because it’s their livelihood, so how could you not? But it is fun. I just left the most serious of serious so it’s been good to just tone it down a little bit.

For me, a lot of it is just getting the wheels up off the ground and get to these events. Getting a bike with parts on it, this is possibly the hardest year to be a “privateer.” There’s so much more that goes into getting the start line now. It’s more work for me, but I enjoy that part. You’re your own boss.