A year before he first stood on the podium, the Enduro star was living in a van and racing on the margins. Then inspiration struck…
“expectation is no pressure for me”
Being a world-class athlete is one thing, but it’s quite another to be the only world-class athlete in a sport in which your country has no tradition. Ireland has produced a stream of great road cyclists, but there’s no history of the green, white and orange flag being waved when the bikes are off the tarmac. Greg Callaghan changed all that.
The 24-year-old Dubliner competes in the Enduro World Series, perhaps the most demanding MTB discipline. Competitors can be in the saddle for up to eight hours, on a looped course with downhill and uphill sections.
Some downhills are assigned as timed stages, to be raced through five or six times, with these added to an overall time. Some uphills have time limits, too: there’s no respite, and a loss of focus is simply not an option. This year, Callaghan won the Ireland round of the EWS for the second season in a row and is breaking into the top 10 overall.
THE RED BULLETIN: How does it feel to be Ireland’s only world-class mountain-biker of any kind?
GREG CALLAGHAN: It’s very special. There has always been the idea in Ireland that we’re at a disadvantage because of small mountains. The real issue is that there are no teams and hardly any races; if you want to race against the fast riders, you have to cross the sea. But there’s no reason why we can’t do it. It didn’t stop me.
Do you feel pressure?
You can look at it both ways. This year, at the Ireland stage, I really wanted to win it again, and I was favourite. That could have felt like huge pressure that I might crack under, but I don’t see that expectation as pressure; it’s people feeling positive energy and wanting the best for you. I was proud to have so much support. All you can do is do your best – if that’s enough to win, brilliant; if not, you’ve done your best.
You’ve suffered lows with the highs, including a big injury last year. How did you cope?
I was on a massive high at the time – I’d just got a first and a third in the World Series – but then I crashed during training in the Alps. I broke two metacarpals in my hand and put a big hole in my knee. I missed one round and rode half-injured for another. In hindsight, it gave me a chance to stop and reflect. Sitting at home watching a race and thinking, ‘I’m up there with those guys,’ makes you realise how far you’ve come. It was only a year from living in my van, working winters and funding everything myself to riding for a professional team and being on top of a podium.
When did you realise you could be an EWS winner?
At the end of 2013, when I was getting a few top 20s and we were breaking down how far I was from winning. My coach, Chris Kilmurray, said that we all have two arms and two legs and there was no reason why I couldn’t make up that five per cent to catch those leaders and beat them. That convinced me it wasn’t such a big task.
But anyone can think about making a change. What actually changed in you?
The willingness to sacrifice a lot. It’s not easy, and there are times when your goals seem so far away. Once you’re willing to do whatever it takes, you get into a certain mindset, and if you keep going, you can do it. There are guys out there who have the skills and physical strength to be great, but they’re not mentally strong. But that side of things can be developed, too.
Can you still feel yourself improving as a rider?
All the time. The bikes, the set-up, my fitness, nutrition: everything is constantly improving. I can see it in my numbers – reps in the gym, power metres on the bike – but I’m in this because I love bikes, so I mix it up in training. I’ll ride three or four different bikes a week, to keep it fun.
How does your bike-riding dad feel about you following in his footsteps?
At his motorbike events, he was the guy to beat. To see that from a young age was hugely inspirational. I always wanted to be a top guy riding for a big team. Everywhere I went, I was ‘Stanley’s son’; now it’s switched and he’s ‘Greg’s dad’. He’s getting used to it.