Oisin O'Callaghan: Winning the World Champs

By Stan Portus –  27 October 2020 | Photos: Sven Martin

Oisin O'Callaghan is only 17, but is already making waves in the world of Downhill mountain biking with the 2020 Junior World Championship title under his belt and plenty more to come. We spoke to Saddleback Ambassador about winning the rainbow bands, growing up in Ireland, and what he thinks the future might hold.

There were points this year where it felt we weren’t going to see any professional racing thanks to, well, you know what. So there was relief when it became clear that the 2020 Mountain Bike World Championships in Leogang, Austria, were to go ahead – and on the same October weekend as originally scheduled. Some racing, at last. And what racing it was.

The whole Championships was subject to terrible weather, but the Downhill competition received the worst. Torrential rain through practice turned the course into more of a mud bath than a track and come race day riders were taking off into falling snow.

Such conditions and high speeds of up to 65kmph turned many riders’ hopes from podium finishes to just staying upright – many didn’t – and phased even some of the biggest, most experienced Downhill riders. But for one young rider, it seemed to have the opposite effect. 

Oisin O'Callaghan at Maribor World Cup

Oisin O’Callaghan, the 17-year-old from Ireland, YT Mob rider, Saddleback Ambassador and Troy Lee Designs D4 Helmet champion, took to the conditions like nobody else, storming course to secure the Junior World Championship title.

This is the first time any Irish rider has taken the rainbow bands in any mountain bike Downhill event and the first Junior Champion for Ireland since Mark Scanlon took 1st on the road in 1998 – five years before Oisin was even born.

“To be honest,” Oisin says when talking to him a week after the victory, “it still hasn’t sunk in.” A busy race schedule and just the sheer monumentality of wearing the rainbow bands – practically any young racer’s dream – might not have afforded Oisin the head space to process what has happened, but on the start ramp at Leogang he was aware of what was possible.

Oisin knew from the team news that he had a podium spot, but he just didn’t know what colour. “In those last few moments I believed it could just be one of those moments where dreams come true.”

But even if thoughts of gold crossed his mind, he says he refused to dwell on it, focussing on the horribly technical and boggy 2.3km course ahead which he ate up in a time of 4.02.142. 

Oisin O'Callaghan in the World Campion jersey riding over a jump on his down hill bike

Part of the reason Oisin took to the course and the conditions was thanks to the riding he did growing up in Ireland where, as well known, rain is never far away. Speaking to the Vital MTB podcast when he was 15, Oisin summed up what conditions he favours in characteristic directness: “the wet.”

This is something he still feels, reflecting on the World Championship course and what gave him an edge. “I just love sliding around… I was used to it from home and I learned how to ride a bike in natural forestry [like at the Leogang course] as well.”

Oisin grew up riding the Ballyhoura Trail Park that sits just behind his parents’ house in Limerick. With 98km of trails Oisin believes the park helped his riding massively, letting him experience different terrain and helping him build impressive stamina over long rides – a huge asset when entering into the exhausting, and non-stop race season.

The Ballyhoura park put the idea of riding in Oisin’s head as a kid. Seeing the trails being built when he was only 4 or 5, Oisin began to get that feeling that comes to all born naturals. That itch to ride, go fast, go faster, jump high, then jump higher.

But it wasn’t just the trail park that sewed the riding seed. His dad, Chris O'Callaghan, was also key in Oisin developing his love of riding. Seeing his dad go off to ride with his mates in the alps inspired Oisin from when he was a kid, and the image of taking your bike up chair lifts before taking to the slopes stuck in his head as something he wanted to do. His dad was also the first to put Oisin on a bike, pushing him down the garden lawn at the age of two.  

Oisin O'Callaghan riding through the woods at the Maribor World CupShot of Oisin O'Callaghan from behind coming off a jump in the World Champ kit

Aside from helping kickstart Oisin’s love of riding, his dad was also instrumental in getting him where he is today when it comes to competing. Chris would organise Oisin's race schedule and kit, and help him with his training. A room in the family’s house doubles as a gym with everything Oisin needs to train effectively and get race ready.

Oisin's dad’s influence is still there, and was felt at Leogang. His words helped Oisin collect his thoughts after a crash in qualifying that looked like it could rattle his form.

“My dad has discussed with me for years the importance of discipline in sport and he brought it up again after my quali on the Friday. My crash was due to panic after catching someone on the motorway and losing time. We also knew I might catch someone in the woods, so I had to be prepared and not shocked when it happened.”

Oisin resolved to visualise the key areas and by taking on his dad’s words he settled on what proved to be a simple but effective approach. Stay focussed and, “stay on my bike no matter what.”

It might not be a surprise how grateful Oisin is for what his dad and his mum have helped him achieve, but such is the gratitude that when asked about them he struggles to even put it into words.

“Without my parents I would have nothing, it’s hard to ever say how much I appreciate what they do.”

2020 is Oisin’s first year as a pro with the YT Mob team, who also had success at the World’s with David Trummer taking silver in the Elite Men’s Downhill.

It might be a strange year to make the jump to the pro ranks, but it’s been amazing season for Oisin nonetheless.

Oisin followed taking gold at the World Championships with two 1st places at the World Cup in Maribor, Slovenia. He was the fastest of the 29-strong junior field in qualifiers, even after a crash that saw him rip the shoulder of his new World Champ kit, and six seconds faster than his closest rival in the 2nd round, showing formidable form.  

Oisin O'Callaghan riding at Maribor

You might be tempted to think that the media furore surrounding a World Championship win and World Cup success would get to a young rider, but when asked about media reception he says, “Oh, I have no idea, have not even thought about it.”

If he had he might have seen the Mayor of Limerick coming out to congratulate him, or legends such as Steve Peat hyping the young rider. Whether displaying a precociousness and rising above the hype or simply playing it cool, either way it feels like Oisin has an attitude that will serve him well in the coming years when all eyes will be on the young star.

It’s not just ex-rider’s and superstars like Steve Peat backing the young Irish champ. Oisin races wearing Troy Lee Design’s D4 helmet supplied by Saddleback. Oisin has worn TLD lids for a fair chunk of his riding life. His first TLD D3 helmet 8 years ago, dressed up in red and white. 

Shot of podium at Maribor World Cup with D4 helme

Talking about the D4 Oisin is full of praise: “They are the most comfortable and just seem to be a perfect fit. Also, the breathability with extra vents have kept me comfortable when heat’s been a problem.” He notes as well as that one of the big reasons for using the D4 is safety – a concern his dad who has to watch his son travel at ridiculous speeds, understandably, pays particular attention.

The Troy Lee Designs whole Daytona series from its inception in 1996 has claimed hundreds –if not thousands – of victories. This also makes it a great fit for Oisin as he is destined to claim many more for himself. Starting the season with what now looks like quite a conservative objective of finishing in the Junior World Champ top 5 when compared to his crazy success, Oisin’s ambitions have stepped up a gear.

Asked what he wants to achieve in his mountain biking career he says decisively that he wants to make elite and, “Win the World Championships and the the overall in the same year.”

And really with his conviction, dedication, form, and the support from his team and his dad, it’s almost dead certain he’ll do it.  

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