Gabe Neron was the last man on the mountain at Sunday’s Canadian downhill national championships. As the fastest qualifier, he had the pressure of dropping in on the Kicking Horse course last. Three and a half minutes after rolling out of the start gates, Neron crossed the line with the day’s fastest time. As the dust settled, Neron was swarmed by a group of friends and teammates. The Dunbar Cycles racer had beaten all the factory team riders, earning his first elite title as Canada’s new men’s downhill national champion.
For those outside the scene, Neron might be a bit of an unknown. But anyone following downhill in Canada closely will have noticed the 22-year-old, who works as a mechanic at Squamish’s Corsa Cycles between races, moving up the ranks for a few years now. Sunday’s coronation is a confirmation of his place among Canada’s powerhouse downhill ranks.
I caught up with Neron over the phone to talk about his first elite title, competition and cooperation at the highest levels, winning nationals out of the back of a van, and where to find the best poutine in B.C. (hint: it’s not easy).
Canadian MTB: Can you please introduce yourself?
Gabe Neron: I am currently 22 years old. I’m from Lac Saint-Jean, Que. originally, but I’ve been living in Squamish going on three years now.
What caused that move?
Biking. Strictly biking.
I guess the move from Quebec to Squamish, there was skiing involved as well. Before moving to Squamish I was in Sun Peaks for five years. That’s where the love for mountain biking came to me. I thought, alright, the next step is Squamish.
How was your race at nationals? How was the course this year?
The course is probably the longest course we have here at the Canadian series. It was tiring, it was physical. There’s a lot of pumping, a lot of sprinting. With the dryness of the trail, there were some big holes and compressions. So overall, it was a very tiring run.
As far as my winning run… it was loose! I was on the edge the whole way.
What was it like to cross the finish line to a big cheer from your friends and fans?
Honestly, I didn’t know what hit me. I didn’t hear the hot-seat horn, so I thought “Oh, it didn’t work,” and people were just coming to cheer me on. But then my friend Garrett said in my ear, “You did it!” After that it kind of settled in, there were more and more people hugging me, it was overwhelming. It took a little bit of time – almost a full day – for it to settle in for real.
How’s it feeling two days later?
It feels good! It’s still hard to believe. It was my goal for the season and I’m glad I achieved it.
You had quite a battle with Jackson Frew all week, finishing second behind him twice. How did you turn that around for Kicking Horse?
I didn’t really know Jackson prior to this week, but over the week we rode together and talked about lines together and became friends. So we helped each other out all week, it’s been good.
He actually sent me a message before nationals saying “let’s ride together and I’ll help you for the weekend. Let’s get you that sleeve.”
What are your plans for the rest of the season?
Right now I’m taking a week off. I’m flying to Mont-Sainte-Anne next week for the World Cup. And now, since I won nationals, I’ll most likely be part of the Canadian team that flies to world champs. So I’m going to have to find some money somehow and go to world champs![Ed: If you want to help Neron get to worlds, a campaign is already going!]
You did a couple of World Cups at the start of this year and a few at the end of last year, too. How hard is it to go over there and do those races as a privateer?
It’s hard. Last year, thankfully, I had some friends come with me and a physio there with me. That helped a lot.
This year in the spring I was there by myself and it was … a big kick in the face. I really got to know what it was like to be a full-on privateer. It’s not easy, but I guess we all have to go through it. Hopefully, something will come out of the effort at some point.
Last year you were travelling with Garrett MacIntosh. You two ended up with the nickname, “Shake’n’Bake” (Corsa even made ltd run bottles) How’d that come about?
I’m actually not sure how that came around. I think it was Ripper’s Lounge, Bret Carels just started calling us Shake’n’Bake because we’ve got a good relationship. I mean, I wouldn’t be here if Garrett wasn’t here for me. He kinda pulled me onto the Dunbar team and we’ve been riding together ever since. We ride together, we party together, we hang out all the time.
You won nationals in an amazing poutine-themed helmet. Where’d the idea for that come from and how’d you make it happen?
Well, I’m French Canadian and I wanted to represent that in a way. Obviously, poutine is very Frech Canadain. Also, my friends make fun of me because I always say the poutine in B.C. sucks. So I thought, “You know what, I’m going to put a poutine on my helmet!”
I saw this guy named Chris King in Squamish was starting a business painting frames and helmets and messaged him, saying I had a crazy idea, what did he think. He was into it so I sent him the helmet. I got it back from him just before I went to Europe and it looks sick, I love it.
So, where is the best poutine in B.C.?
Oh, the best poutine I’ve had in B.C. was in Valemount, I want to say five years ago. I went to Valemount for a bike trip and there was this little food truck owned by a French Canadian and, yeah, that’s where it was. [Ed. Neron didn’t have the name, but there are not a lot of food trucks in Valemount. The Funky Goat is a good place to start your own search]
That’s not where I was expecting! Alright, last question. What – or who – are Van Pits and how did you become a member of that?
I guess I became a member of Van Pits through Garrett, he was originally one of the Van Pitters. It was just a bunch of dudes that had vans and went to all the races and would always camp together in their vans. I eventually bought a van myself. I’m travelling in it right now with this group of friends. We’re super-tight. we travel together, we hang out – not just at the races. We usually do a “Shredsgiving” get-together, where 20 of us get together at Brandon Douglas’ house in Williams Lake. It’s just a good group of friends, really.
Were you in the van when you won this weekend?
Oh yeah, I was travelling in the van all week!
World Cup racing returns to Mont-Sainte-Anne on Aug 5-7, 2022. That weekend ends a two-year hiatus that saw MSA, which first appeared on the world Cup calendar way back in 1991, left off of the international race calendar since 2019 UCI mountain bike world championships. So, if you can, find your way there and cheer on Neron for his first appearance in the Maple sleeve of Canadian national champion!