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Interview: Why Yoann Barelli Is Stepping Away From Racing

Happy Riding

Yoann Barelli has been a mainstay on the Enduro World Series since 2013. After recovering from a knee injury a year ago, he announced his plans to race the first round in Chile this year.

Then, this week, after sharing the news that he has started a coaching and guiding business, ‘Into the Gnar Experience,’ he shared the news with us that he is stepping away from racing. We caught up with the French rider to find out why he’s decided to step away from racing, learn more about his new business, and find out how he plans to relate to beginner riders.

What have you been up to the past couple of months while racing was on hold?

A lot of things! Of course, there has been the big question mark for a lot of people in the mountain bike world during the pandemic – are we going to race? Are we going to travel? For me, with my knee injury that happened last year, it was a good moment to chill out a bit and take care of it deeper because it wasn’t ready at all for the beginning of the season.

I had an appointment with my surgeon at the end of April and basically she told me that the meniscus on the right inside of my knee is really damaged from the crash that I had last year – almost exactly a year ago actually. But also because of overuse and all the hard training and racing since I was a kid. She said that since I have a lot of pain on the inside of the knee if I want to perform and ride back at 100% then I’ll need another surgery. Racing is no joke and when you are in the start gate, you give it all, there is no holding back.

It made me rethink everything. I’m turning 35 this summer, if I have another surgery I have to take another year off for rehab, so I’d start biking again when I’m 36. So that would be 3 years off without racing really. I was like ‘do I really need to do this?’ Today, I can do everything that I want. I can run with my daughter, I can do all the gnarly stuff that I want, I can take big impacts on my knees. I just need to rest it properly – the day after a big ride I need to chill out for a day or two. Which isn’t the case when I’m racing. There are days without much pain, and some days I can’t even really sprint.

So I’ve decided to not do this surgery right now but I’m going to step away from racing. I’m not going to travel to the EWS if they happen at the end of the year. I need to give the time to my body that it needs to recover. Next year I’ll do a few races but I will have a different program. I will probably do more adventure racing that is a bit more chill in terms of engagement and commitment since you pace yourself a bit more and ride a little bit below 100%. Maybe one or two EWS but I will see.

Take me back to February, you were still planning on racing the entire EWS this year right?

In February, I was totally committed but at the same time, I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to work out or not. Then Covid happened…

For you, it’s never been enough to participate in racing right, you’ve been looking for that EWS win?

Exactly. Even though I’ve never been able to take a win, I did finish second twice. Fighting for a top five or top ten is something that I could do consistently. But today, I have to be realistic and honest with myself. There’s no way I could do that. I don’t even know if I could get into a Top 40 with the way my knee is right now!

Traveling the world and being 100% committed to racing is amazing, I’ve done that for so many years and I truly loved it, I loved every aspect of racing. With what is happening right now in the world and my physical health there is something deep down that’s telling me to simply slow down and I’m super pumped about it. It’s a new challenge, a new career and I want to give 100% commitment and passion to it.

At what point did you start thinking about your new business?

Last year I created the Into the Gnar YouTube series where I take people through videos into the gnarliest trails that you can ride. This is the stuff that I love – riding really gnarly stuff. I’ve done a few coaching things in my career in the past few years and I really love giving people my vision of the terrain and the way to ride this kind of trails.

Amanda Steel, who owns with Jordan (my trainer and his wife) Crossfit Whistler, and I have been talking a lot about ideas that I have and one of them is a coaching / guiding business. We’ve created Barelli Concepts and launched Into the Gnar Experience . Starting in July, I’ll be coaching and guiding everyone, ladies and gentlemen, from beginners to advanced riders in Squamish, Whistler, and Pemberton.

How are you going to relate to these beginner riders?

That was actually something super hard for me. I’ve been biking since I was seven years old and there are a bunch of things that I do on my bike that I don’t even know how to do it. They’re just natural to me. I just jump on my bike and I can drop down a rock face or ride a gnarly trail the same way someone would go and buy a baguette for breakfast, that’s just what I do, and that’s what I’ve been doing for almost 30 years!

So I actually took my PMBI Level 1 course which is the perfect way to coach beginners. When you take the Level 1 course, they actually teach you how to segment and teach pure beginners to intermediate riders. It was amazing for me to break down all the things I do naturally on my bike and put words to them instead of just ‘Tak-Tak’ and ‘Push-Push’! I have a proper toolkit now so I’m equipped to teach beginners and intermediate people to ride bikes. It’s so rad!! And guess what? I passed!

What has the behind the scenes process been like to start the coaching business? What else did you need besides the PMBI certificate?

We actually needed to do a lot! That’s something that I never would have done on my own. That’s how Amanda played a really big role in this. We had to apply for permits, we have to get a business license, we have to get in touch with all the trail associations – WORCA, SORCA and PORCA. We created a website, we had the proper insurance, we had to take our first aid course, PMBI course, we did some coaching and guiding days to test, we did a promotional video, photoshoots and more…

There are a lot of things that need to happen and then the permitting process is really complicated since all the trails in the Sea to Sky have different landowners. Everything is segmented out and when you apply for permits you have to do a lot of research.

Then there’s the video and the website. We took almost five months to get to where we are today and have the booking system and everything ready! Plus we really want to make this day something that people will never forget, so we’ve included lots of little details that are pretty rad. We are working with a bunch of local businesses as well. If you book a full day we want people to not think about anything else but riding. Our clients will have breakfast, lunch and apres included.

Coffee is from Forecast Coffee in Function. Bagels and riding snacks are from Alkeme, some muffins and other types of cakes will be homemade, lunch from Green Moustache… Everything is vegan and has gluten-free options. We are trying to show a way to limit our impact on the planet. Everything is locally sourced and we are really committed to that.

I’ve also got my sponsors involved so at the end of the day we will be offering people discount codes for these brands. We didn’t want to give away goody bags as they created a huge amount of waste. Every month I’ll also write a newsletter on the website and give some riding tips, it’s free, you just need to subscribe. There has been some really thoughtful decisions behind the scenes and today we’re rolling and pumped!

People can’t travel very much right now due to COVID-19. Are you primarily coaching people who live in the Sea to Sky Corridor right now? What are your goals for your business eventually?

Because people can’t really travel, we are limited to BC and Canadian residents right now but as soon as the borders open, we will follow the guidelines of course, we will be very mindful but we will be welcoming everyone. I’m going to be coaching four days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday.

We are creating a half-day program (4 hours) that will suit Sea to Sky residents better. Stay tuned for that as it will be rolling by next week.

We don’t have a specific goal really, we are going with the flow of things due to COVID-19, we are learning a lot and adapting ourselves right now. Let’s see where it takes us, but we have a vision in mind.

What was the conversation like with your sponsors? Were they all supportive?

My sponsors knew that I was creating a coaching business but they didn’t know my intention to step away from racing because it has been a long process in my end to get to this space in my head and my heart. So I wasn’t sure what they would say. Today I’ve received answers from everybody and they all are super supportive.

We went through a pandemic and it’s been pretty tough for everyone and I think everybody is open to new ideas. Right now, we don’t even know if the season is going to happen. The borders are still closed. Everyone is super open to everything and they all understand that if I can’t race at 100%, what’s the point really? There is more for me to be pumped and share my passion for the sport in direct contact with people than there is with travelling the world to go race and ending up 50th and being not satisfied and grumpy about it. I prefer to stay here, be pumped, and start to give back to the community.

What are your thoughts on Racer vs. Influencer vs. Coach and the different facets that you can be sponsored for? What do you think the value for each versus the other is for a brand?

It really depends. I don’t like the term influencer, I don’t even know what it means to be an influencer, do you only do social media? What is it?

More seriously, I think the whole sport and the way sponsorship goes needs to change. Today we have racers, YouTubers, influencers, coaches…. Every one of them has value but they are all different and need to be evaluated in different ways, which isn’t the case today. The sponsorship world in mountain biking is still very amateur and needs to be redesigned according to the time we live in. It still bothers me to see someone like Thomas Lapeyrie who is a top ten regular in the EWS ending up without sponsors this season just because he doesn’t have a huge social media platform… and he still does a lot in my opinion.

Racers test and help develop new products, they can have a huge fan base and make people dream. Influencers influence, haha. YouTubers can have a huge audience and can create direct sales. Coaches are in direct contact with people, showing directly the products on the terrain, establishing a trust with people, and can create direct sales. If you play in all of them good for you but it’s rare!

What are your plans for your YouTube channel?

My goal with my YouTube channel was never for it to become my job and make money off of it and get sponsors from it. YouTube is just another platform and a way for me to show what I can do on a bike and a way for me to express myself. In the Enduro World Series today, we never ride the stuff that I show in these videos. This is the thing that I love. This is where riding makes sense for me. That YouTube channel is still going to exist and I’m still going to still post Into The Gnar videos, but it’s just another platform, there’s no commitment to it. Sometimes I’m going to post five videos in one week and sometimes I’m not going to post anything at all for a month.

What do you think is the hardest technique or skill to learn on a bike?

I think the point of mountain biking is to find flow. If you get there and you can find flow in anything you ride, the feeling you get out of it is pretty amazing. To reach this point you need to ride a lot, you need to enjoy yourself, you need to put Strava on the side and you need to practice your skills!

So I’d say as far as riding trails, reading the terrain and anticipating everything that comes at you is the hardest skill. But then if you talk dirt jumps, we are touching another world of coaching, and I’m simply not there yet!

What about a mistake that you see riders making really often?

There are a lot but one is now pretty obvious for me. When we started to be able to ride again, I would stop on the trail to session things and watch people. The traffic on Rupert in Squamish is amazing and I would stop in one of the last corners, for example. One of the mistakes that people make a lot is that they ride with their knees forward. It’s kind of a weird thing, but I think beginner and intermediate riders aren’t being told that you have a neutral position and an engaged position. When you’re engaged, it’s as if you would do a squat. You basically put your butt back, then you bend your knees and you hinge at the waist. Some people don’t do that, they just kind of bend their knees and push their bodies forward. I can totally see that now, it’s something I never realized before. If you ride this way, you’ll never be able to take big impacts or stuff like that.

Last Friday I did an Into the Gnar Experience test for intermediate people in Whistler and I took four ladies for a ride. Two of them were doing that and I could see something was wrong with the position. When we corrected that, it was like day and night and they were able to take big impacts. Just a slight correction in your body position can change your life.

Photos of Yoann Barelli and Sam English by Shane Roy

Have you ever been coached before? How did you learn to ride a mountain bike?

I’ve never been coached and I never actually took a lesson. The first lesson I took was when I passed my PMBI a month ago and it was a beginner course! They teach you how to teach but they can also correct your position. For me, it was like ‘Wow, I’m actually doing that on my bike. I need to place my body like that through a corner, I need to do that with my head and that with my knees.’ It was a good way for me to see myself riding and correct a few things.

I’ve learned on my own and with my friends when I was a kid, by testing things, practicing, and riding all the time after school, during the weekend, and holidays. I’m super pumped today to be able to give all my knowledge to everyone!

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