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Seth Sherlock: From privateer to podiums

Squamish junior rewarded for standout downhill season with spot on Intense Factory Racing

Seth Sherlock Intense Factory Racing

To say Seth Sherlock’s debut international racing season went well would be an understatement. The Squamish, B.C.-based junior finished the year fourth overall in the junior men’s World Cup standings. In a standout season for young Canucks, he was one of three in the top five.

The results have catapulted him into a spot on the high-profile Intense Factory Racing team for 2020. Talking to Sherlock, he seems more surprised than anybody. “To be honest, I didn’t really expect much coming into last season,” the Canadian downhiller says over the phone. “My goal originally was a top 15 the whole year.”

That changed quickly, after a 10th place at the notoriously punishing Fort William World Cup in Scotland. “I was so stoked,” he says of the result,” but that ended up being my worst result of the year, other than the ones I didn’t qualify for. It was pretty unexpected, but I was very happy about it.”

Seth Sherlock Intense Factory Racing
Seth Sherlock (right), with 2020 Intense Factory Racing teammates Aaron Gwin (center) and Neko Mulally (left). Photo: Intense Factory Racing.

From contending straight to winning

Sherlock went on to podium in the junior men’s downhill race at Les Gets, France. He added more top 10’s at Vallnord, Andorra and Val di Sole, France rounds. Back in Canada, he won the junior men’s national championship title at Panorama, B.C. All of this while racing as a privateer, meaning he spent his time between practice runs wrenching on his own bikes practices and races.

Then, at Lenzerheide, Sherlock walked away with a first World Cup win. It was the top result in an exceptional season for the Canadian junior team. Along with the overall standings, where Lucas Cruz and Patrick Laffey were also in the top-5,  four different Canadian juniors were on the World Cup podium in 2019.

“It was cool to see that the Canadians actually did stack up against the rest of the world,” Sherlock says of his national teammates. “There were a lot of people that doubted that the Canadian pace was up with the international guys. But we proved to be right there. It was great.”

Seth Sherlock Intense Factory Racing
Maple leaf and a custom jersey for Seth Sherlock at Intense Factory Racing team camp. Photo: Intense Factory Racing

Sherlock’s stellar season led to a call from Aaron Gwin. The U.S. racer, a 5-time world cup overall champion and part-owner of Intense Factory Racing, offering the Canadian one of three spots on the teams 2020 roster.

With a spot on one of the circuit’s highest-profile squads and serious results under his belt, Sherlock has big goals for what remains of the 2020 season. But the young rider is relaxed about the season, coming across as wiser than his years. This could be because, while still in the junior category, Sherlock’s been racing since he was 13. Three years before that he caught the internet’s attention with his first freeride edit. So, when it comes to high-pressure situations, the young rider is already well versed.

I caught up with Sherlock over the phone after a shift at his local bike shop in Squamish, where he’s working until race season starts up. We talked about showing up at team camp with someone you grew up idolizing, the revised 2020 World Cup calendar and hammering a wheel back into shape so he could race.

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Canadian Cycling Magazine: Last year was your first year racing World Cups, and it went really well. Actually, the whole Canadian junior team had an exceptionally strong year. What do you think made your generation of racers so strong?

Seth Sherlock: Well, I think a lot of it can be attributed to the inspiration of Stevie [Smith], honestly. And also Finn Iles. Seeing him do so well was really cool, growing up. I think those two people inspired us to take on World Cups. It showed us that we could be on pace with the Europeans

Were you were already racing when Stevie was having his success?

I started racing when I was 13. So he was at a few BC Cups, national champs and all that. And I got to meet him there. Just for a couple years though.

Going back to the 2019 season. What were the biggest lessons you learned in your first year racing internationally?

Well, I definitely learned how hard it is to be a privateer. It’s way more expensive than being on a factory team and it’s real hard to work on bikes, to be your own mechanic, basically. That’s one of the challenges.

I learned that World Cups are actually pretty chill. I was super intimidated coming into the first one, but really it’s just another race. It just happens to be in Europe. You become friends with all the other people, and it’s a cool vibe. Just like the BC Cups, really.

So what changes were there going from racing in North America to the International scene?

Obviously, it’s a lot more travel. I had to get used to jet lag. Like, you’d be landing a day before track walk, and on the track walk day, you’d be basically a day behind and super tired. So that was a lot to get used to. Plus there are big distances between races. A lot of that was tough, and took getting used to.

Also, at first you can be kinda star-struck. Like, all the guys you see on TV are at the races with you. So it’s definitely more intimidating at first, but everyone’s really cool so you get used to it pretty fast.

Crankworx Canadian Open Downhill
Seth Sherlock tacing 2019 Canadian Open Downhill at Crankworx Whistler. Photo: Kevin Gelinas
Your first World Cup season was great, but were there any lessons or takeaways?

Well, I’ve kind of found where I’m strong and where I’m weak. I can definitely work on physical strength from last year. And I definitely struggle on harder packed tracks, like Leogang for example. That’s worlds this year, and I kinda struggle on tracks like that. So I think I’ve got that figured out.

I also found out where I’m strong. I’m pretty good on tracks like Val di Sole, where it’s real rough. It’s kind of similar to what we ride in Squamish, so I’m pretty used to that.

You had good results there and at Vallnord, which are supposed to be two of the hardest tracks.

Yeah, they’re a lot rougher and longer, and pretty steep. That’s pretty similar to a lot of the stuff I ride around here. And also, just managing yourself throughout the weekend. Just trying to maximize your potential of what you can do throughout a weekend. When you’re your own mechanic, there’s a lot to do.

So you were working on your own bikes at races all last year? Where did you pick up that skill?

Yeah, 100%! Most privateers do. Some will bring in a mechanic, but a lot have their own tools that they’ll bring to the races, and work for themselves. It’s just … it’s a lot to juggle. Because World Cups clap out bikes really fast.

I’m working at a shop now, but I learned from working on my bikes throughout the years, really. I’ve never really had a mechanic to myself before this year. I’ve just had to work on my own bikes and figure stuff out.

Yeah, so now you’re on Intense Factory Racing. How has it been going from your own private program to one of the biggest programs on the World Cup circuit? And getting to race with someone you watched on TV growing up as a kid.

Yeah, it’s crazy for sure. It’s pretty surreal.

Like I was saying, not having to worry about quite as much is really nice. Not having to worry about your own bikes, having someone cook for you that’s really useful.

One of the main things is like, if your bike breaks, actually having a replacement. For example, last year I dented a rim real good, and I was sitting there hammering the rim back into place so I could race. Like, I had a hammer on a ledge and I’m just smacking my rim trying to get it to hold air. So, not having to worry about something like that is definitely going to be really helpful. It’s going to be really cool.

Before everything changed, and all the races got postponed, what was it like going from being on your own to working with Aaron Gwin and Neko Mullally? Jeff Stebner (Intense founder and CEO) is also a huge name in downhill racing. Does that come with more pressure?

Not really pressure, once you get used to it. Maybe at first a bit, but after team camp I wasn’t too concerned, to be honest. It’s a pretty chill vibe at the team. Of course, doing well would be good, but they just want the best for me. It’s not like there are any real consequences if I don’t pull up for it, I just won’t get re-signed, right? Ha. So it’s all on me really, and you just get used to it.

And my manager, Todd Schumlick is actually my trainer as well. So he’s really working to help get me to my full potential It’s kind of cool to have your team manager also be your head coach.

Seth Sherlock Canadian Downhill national championships
Seth Sherlock racing 2019 Canadian downhill national championships at Panorama Mountain Resort in Invermere, B.C.
You’ve been working with Intense for a long time now. Since age .. 10?

Yeah, so you’ve seen that video of What Were You Doing When You Were 10? So I signed a contract with them after that for three years. And then I was on Kovarik Racing, which is another Intense program run by Chris Kovarik. So I was on a rider development team there, and we’d just race BC Cups with him. So I’ve been on Intense basically since age 10, through different programs up until now.

Last year, I was full privateer though, not on Kovarik Racing. They did help me out to get a bike from Intense and support from Fox, but it was pretty much full privateer.

Do you remember how that connection with Intense came about? I’ve heard they ended up making you custom bikes, because you were too small for the stock frames?

Ha, not really – I mean, that would have been cool. There was talk about it, but originally I ran Robbie Bourdon’s old bike. He was like the same height as me or something. It was an extra-small Tracer VP I think. So that’s what I ran in the 10 year old edit.

Then through Chris Kovarik as well, I made the actual connection with Intense. I was too small still to run actual Intense bikes, but I’d keep buying bikes off the buy’n’sell or whatever, and it worked out pretty well. They actually sent me that red one though, I think. I … don’t actually remember, to be honest. It was a long time ago. But I was definitely running really small bikes. Like, I was running a trail bike as a downhill bike.

So in that video, you’re 10. How old were you when you started riding?

Ooh, I think I was six? I think I first physically rode a bike when I was six, and I started riding the bike park when I was seven. But the first time I actually stood up on a bike and rode it I was six years old.

So when does downhill come into the picture? Did you always want to be a racer?

Not really, no. To be honest, I was kind of a freeride kid. I think a lot of people were surprised I turned out to be a racer. I had that freeride background, and I made another video when I was 12 in Utah. But I kinda got scared away from free ride for some reason, and this was all a long time ago so I don’t really remember why. But I ended up really enjoying racing.

It’s actually funny, because I had a hard time switching away from flat pedals. So that turned me off racing for a couple of years. I wasn’t doing too well and I didn’t want switch to clips. When I finally committed to switch to clips, I was like 10 seconds faster, easily. So that really turned me back onto actually racing seriously.

When did you finally make the switch away from flats?

I think I switched when I was 16. The hear before I raced World Cups. [2018]

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Before Intense, you were with Kovarik Racing. How much did it help to have that program, and what did you take away from that?

That was a great program for sure. They [Chris Kovarik and Claire Bouchar] just taught us how to race, really. I’m pretty sure the first year I could race, I was with them. So they guided me through the whole race craft and mental game, all that. They hooked me up with books to read about mental preparation for racing. I think that gave me a good foundation of race craft, you know? I raced with them through U15 and U17 years, before junior, they definitely helped out a lot.

Living in Squamish, there’s a ton of pros around. What’s it like going up in that environment.

Growing up near Whistler and riding the bike park with some of the faster guys was definitely good. We used to have this DFX program and I can’t remember the name of it, but another Whistler bike camp, and there were a bunch of fast guys around in that. Ben Wallace – who is another Canadian World Cup racer – and Lucas Cruz, and we all kinda pushed each other forward. It’s a big group of fast guys all trying to beach each other, right? So I think that’s part of why we’ve all ended up being pretty successful here, we all grew up together in the Whistler Bike Park and pushed each other.

Watching the team around MSA last year, the Canadians were all hanging out together as a team. So what was it like getting to travel around the world together, and how competitive are you between each other? Is there a race to be the fastest Canadian?

Ha, yeah, kind of. Kind of unspoken. But yeah, it was really cool to have a bunch of Canadians at all the World Cups. We definitely stuck together, because it’s people you knew going in. We made some European friends along the way, and they joined our group. But yeah, we just hung out and everyone was stoked on Canada, it was a really cool little group.

We’re definitely a little competitive, but kind of unspoken, you know. We all want the best for each other, and we’d be stoked if anyone made the podium because it meant there was a Canadian up there, you know!

Mont-Sainte-Anne Seth Sherlock
Seth Sherlock racing at 2019 world championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne. He would finish 9th, despite crashing hard during a practice run the morning of the race. Photo: Peter Kraiker
So with one season behind you, and a season that went much better than expected, what are your goals for this year?

At the last race last year, I was third overall. But I crashed in the last race and ended up fourth overall. So I’d definitely like to beat myself on that, and make top-3 overall. That’s one of the big goals. And I’d definitely like to podium world champs – that would be really cool. Winning world champs would be the dream. Unless I have a really successful elite career, I probably don’t have a better chance at world champs, so that would be the dream right there.

After having no expectations last year, are you putting a lot of pressure on yourself this year? Or is it still relaxed?

Not really. It’s just racing a bike. I’m so used to it at this point. I really enjoy it, and I’m pretty confident in being able to do it. I’m confident in my abilities to race – it’s been my life for so long, since I was thirteen. I definitely have an advantage over some of those kids, since I’ve been doing it so long, my mental game’s definitely above some of the other people.

The UCI just released its condensed 2020 World Cup calendar. With double weekends and ton of racing in a short period, it’s going to be quite different. What do you think of the calendar?

It’s going to be crazy. I’m going to be so tired by the end of it. You’ll have to be really consistent. Because if you, say, sprain your hand or something, it’s now season-ending. That’s weird to say, but you basically throw away your whole season if you get any minor injury. Everyone will have to be super consistent and not take any big risks, but still go fast enough to well.

I’m just hoping we’re able to go to World Cups at this point. As long as we’re able to travel to Europ, it looks like it’s going to happen.