Despite not leaving North America, Kasper Woolley had a break out year in 2020. The Squamish, B.C. racer attracted plenty of attention by going head-to-head with the likes of Finn Iles and Jesse Melamed at the Crankwrox Summer Series. Then he landed his first Pro win, beating Richie Rude at the Big Mountain Enduro in Colorado.
While it wasn’t the 2020 anyone was expecting, Woolley made it work for him. His North American results were enough to land a contract with the Yeti / OneUp Pro Team, where he’ll race alongside Jared Graves.
Looking at Woolley’s results, including an under-23 Enduro World Series win in Zermatt, Switzerland, you’d expect he’d been racing mountain bikes his whole life. But, until 2018, he was fully committed to a ski-racing career. The year’s racing on snow, mixed with limited enduro racing in the summer, translated to quick success on two wheels.
I caught up with Woolley at home in Squamish over the phone to talk about 2020, what’s changed with the team, and what’s on the schedule for 2021.
Canadian MTB: So what is your team set up for this year?
Kasper Woolley: I’ll be riding for Yeti / OneUp Pro Team. I don’t think I’ll be much of a surprise, since I rode for Yeti this year. Everything will look the same, I’m just getting a lot more support from them.
So how did the deal with Yeti for this year come about? It is a separate program than Yeti Factory Racing?
Jared [Graves] and I will be on the same program. That’s not going to be the same things as Richie [Rude]. But I did sign an actual contract with the team this year, which I did not have before.
Basically, last year OneUp Components was taking care of me. I approached Yeti about the possibility of riding for them in 2020. Damien Smith, the team manager at Yeti, took some interest. Then he kinda just slowly took me on more and more throughout the season and made sure I had everything I needed. After Crankworx I was looking for more of a factory ride for 2021. Going down for those two Big Mountain races, I was able to prove myself and show I had the speed for that level of riding. After the second race – in Winter Park, which is the closest bike park to Yeti – we made it happen.
You started out ski racing before you made the switch to focus on Enduro in 2018. Before then, you did some mountain bike racing. What led to committing to the switch?
I did do some racing before that, but I was still fully focused on ski racing until I made the switch for the mountain bike season of 2018.
There were a couple big things. I developed a hamstring injury – a tendonitis thing – that was making it painful to ski. So I was struggling with that that entire winter. That’s still ongoing, I’m still kind of dealing with that, but it doesn’t affect me too much on the bike. And then I developed a brain tumor – a non-cancerous prolactinoma that slowed my growth down. So I was really small, which was making it difficult in ski racing, whereas mountain biking size is a lot less of an issue.
Is that ongoing as well?
Yeah, I’m not past it, I guess, but its not affecting me. Basically I’m just sort of behind, like I’m still growing.
And to add to that. I was doing a bit of bike racing before that. Each year I would do a bit more bike racing in the summer. I was doing a lot of BMX while growing up while still more focused on skiing. But, just growing up in Squamish, I’ve always been doing a bit of mountain biking. Then I raced a couple of enduros and they were really fun. In 2017 I raced a few more and tried an EWS, and I could see I was able to be really competitive. Skiing was kind of going backwards, even though I was putting all my energy into it. So that’s where it was like ‘OK, if I actually put all my effort into riding, I can actually be where I want to be competitively.’
That turned into results pretty quickly. You were on the EWS podium in Zermatt in 2019 and again at the Trophy of Nations. How was it adapting from North American racing to racing over in Europe?
It was definitely different. What I tell other people is you can’t really know until you go and actually experience it for yourself. I went over and raced a couple EWS in 2018, the last two. I learned a lot at those two races. I was 6th (u23) that year at the Whistler EWS, after being second or third most of the day before a really bad stage put me back. Then going over to Europe I was thinking “OK, that’s where I’m at,” but that’s not where I was at over there, ha ha. I was a few steps back from those guys, and not really used to that. So basically, I think getting some experience over there was the main thing.
It took me a few tries. In 2019 went to Madeira and crashed, and didn’t really have any success. Then for Val di Fassa, I went a couple weeks before and was kind of getting used to the terrain. Then I broke my hand in practice, so I wasn’t able to race there.
By the time Zermatt came, I kind of had a few goes at it and felt like I was more comfortable, and knew what to expect. I think that was the biggest thing, knowing that it’s not going to feel great and that it takes a bit to find your flow over there. At Zermatt, there wasn’t anything that sort of “clicked.” But by then, I was ready to go, and it felt more like any other race.
So then you’re ready to go back into the 2020 season, and everything was postponed. How did you deal with that? What did you do with that time?
Well, I started off by crashing at the pumptrack, really hard, and hurting my shoulder a bit. That forced a couple weeks of chilling super hard. Then I did a big training phase of trying to improve my strength, that upper intensity power stuff. There wasn’t much going on, and at that time people were really being careful not to do anything dumb if they were going riding. I was lucky that the gym I went to, I could borrow a bunch of equipment and settled into a pretty heavy gym program for two or three months.
Obviously, our restrictions let off pretty quickly and I was riding a bunch as well. But I kept training like … I felt like I’m still not as strong I want to be. I’m still working towards where I want to be, I just used that time to speed up the process a bit. Obviously normally we would have been racing. So when we had an extended off season I tried to take advantage of that the best I could.
From there – you went into Crankworx Summer Series. Along with the enduro guys, there were a riders from other disciplines you wouldn’t normally race, like Finn Iles and Mark Wallace and Bas van Steenbergen. Was it different racing guys you wouldn’t usually have the chance to go up against?
It was a bit new, but everyone was a bit new. I’d been racing the enduro guys a bit, but that would have been my first year of racing in the pro category so technically everyone was new. But for me, every race is my own race. I just want to do the best I can and see where I stack up against the other people. So it doesn’t really matter who it is, I just focus on doing what I need to do to do the best I can do.
It went pretty well, and you had a bunch of podiums. You were one of the only guys only running one bike the entire time. Were there any advantages to that?
That’s the bike I’m most used to. I knew that was the only bike I had, so it didn’t really bother me too much, I just tried to do the best I could in the disciplines outside of enduro. Downhill – as much as people try to make it sound like its totally different, at those events at least it wasn’t a huge change. At Sun Peaks we raced almost the entire DH course in one of the enduro stages. Plus, I feel pretty strong in the more DH type, techy and fast stages, generally, so I just tried to see what I could do. I feel like there wasn’t any pressure to do well in the downhills, because I was on my enduro bike and wasn’t really supposed to do well. That made it easier, in a sense.
But I feel like, with really limited time to practice and switch disciplines, it did make it less stressful just knowing I was going to ride the same bike instead of switching bikes. I was just really comfortable on the SB 150 I was on. But it did make it really stressful as far as breaking things – I only had one bike and limited time to fix. Luckily my bike held together for the whole three weeks, it was super sweet.
That’s three weeks of racing almost everyday.
I did have a break in the second week, which is why I didn’t do so well in the overall. Because I hurt my leg in the practice for Psychosis, so I missed the downhill, dual slalom and Psychosis in the Kicking Horse week. So that gave me a break, but then I also still had that injury in the third week so… I don’t know if that made it any easier.
So you and Finn Iles go back to ski racing days against each other? How was picking up that rivalry at the Summer Series?
Yeah, we’ve raced all kinds of things. A bit of BMX, but mostly ski racing.
It was nice, we hadn’t race each other in a while. I’ve ridden with Finn, and he’s kind of on another level. I’m striving to get to that speed, so I just tried to see if I could get close to him – or get him a couple times if I had a really good run. But yeah, he’s definitely faster. I just tried to see if I could get close.
Who had the upper hand when you were skiing?
It was pretty even, I’d say. We’d go in waves where he’d win most of the time, then a wave where I’d win more races. You go to events where you race for three or four days straight, so that tends to happen. But I’d say we were pretty even.
Another part of the Summer Series was that everyone was expected to race all the events. What was it like racing a different style of event every day for three weeks?
It was a really cool opportunity to do some different racing, and then get another shot at it, too. Like, it wasn’t just a one and done, “oh that didn’t work” then go back to when you’d normally do, which is how Crankworx is usually. This time if something didn’t work well you’d get another shot at the same discipline the next week.
For me it wasn’t too big of a change. In skiing you’re racing different disciplines all the time, so it wasn’t mentally that hard to be like “oh, you’re just racing something else today” – I’m able to switch my focus.
Do you have plans to do more of that in the future? Or is your calendar full enduro?
Yeah, we’ll see how it goes. My main focus will be on the EWS series. But I’d like to do more Crankworx as well. We’ll just have to see how they’ll line up. We’ll see how Whistler plays out. I was planning on doing some of those events, so hopefully that will work out this year.
From Crankworx Summer Series, you went to a couple Big Mountain Enduro events. In Colorado, you landed your first Pro win. Over Richie Rude, which is pretty impressive. How did that play out?
I went down to be with the Yeti guys since I hadn’t done any races with them and they weren’t going to the EWS. I went to two races. The one in Big Sky Montana first. I was pretty tired. It was literally the week after Crankworx, so I kinda had four weeks racing and just tagged on another week right after. I was third in Montana, but I had some crashes and issues on the first day then won the second day. That’s sort of how the last three enduros I’ve done had gone: I’d have really good stages then a crash or a little mechanical, or something take me out of contention for the win.
Going into the last one, in Winter Park, I really wanted to have a full, clean day with every stage being good. I was super happy to get the win there. It didn’t really feel like I was the fastest person on that day, because I got a bit lucky. Richie ended up having a crash and a mechanical. But instead of it all not going my way, that time it all went my way so … you kinda have to take those sometimes.
From 2018 to 2019, it sounds like you learned a lot about how racing feels at the EWS. Then going over to this year, it sounds like there’s a lot more consistency, which is a huge part of enduro. Is there any way you can practice consistency or is it just time on the bike?
I hadn’t really done a lot of races, so every race I’d learn something. Now, this year, I really sort of found my stride and knew how to have an overall game plan for a race. I knew how to find that speed being consistent, without overdoing it but still being fast.
That must be a fine line between aggressive enough to win, but cautious enough to not crash out.
Yeah, definitely. Getting stronger has helped me a lot. Just being able to hang on better. In the past, I wanted to go faster, but I couldn’t hold on so I’d crash, ha ha.
It’s hard to make concrete plans right now, but what’s on the schedule for 2021?
The full EWS calendar is where my focus is. I’m pretty excited to be able to get my first real pro year underway. Outside of that, it’s going to be very up in the air. Being on the Yeti program I’ll try do some of the Big Mountain Enduros. Hopefully some other events outside of that, Crankworx and Canadian events. I’m hoping the Squamish Gryphon enduro – our local event here – can happen, but we’ll have to wait and see.
I’m pretty hopeful that the EWS will happen, after them figuring out how to make it work in the fall. So that’s where the main focus will be.