“You can’t live like Peter Pan forever”:
An Interview with Dan Wolfe
By Stan Portus – 22 April 2021
From being the Irish national champion to an injury that set him on a new path, Dan Wolfe has had a sporting career unlike anyone else. We spoke to the Big Bad Wolfe about switching from downhill to Enduro and breaking into the world of YouTube.
In 2018 Dan Wolfe had an accident that would change everything. Mountain biking close to his home in Dublin, a brutal crash led to 3 and a half hours in the hospital with a doctor and nurse cleaning and stitching him up.
At first it looked like a fracture in his elbow, but after seeing a specialist sometime later it turned out things were much worse: a piece of his bone had broken off exactly where his triceps attached to the elbow, cut through the tendon and sent the muscle up his arm.
Wolfe had to have surgery and was forced into a long period of recovery. Naturally, this meant taking a break from competitive racing where after a hiatus from riding downhill and returning to professional Enduro racing a few years before, he was just beginning to find his feet again. But the crash presented an opportunity to reflect on what he was doing.
“That was a really traumatic injury.” He says whilst speaking over Zoom. “I really knocked me far back mentally. My confidence was so damaged. So, it was during that time I had to take a hard look: do I want to keep breaking myself up and trying to live this dream of being a professional mountain biker or is there a way of me taking control and actually preserving my body, and my sanity?”
Fast forward to 2021 and Wolfe has taken a step back from racing and made the move towards working in content, covering the World Enduros for Pink Bike and most recently launching his own YouTube channel. Saddleback spoke to Wolfe about the change, how he got into cycling, how Covid-19 has affected his riding, and what it’s like to wear Troy Lee Designs.
So how did it all begin?
My parents bought my brother and I bikes when we were very young. I think I had a real bike before I was 3. My brother was a few years older so once he had a bike, I obviously had to have one. He was at an appropriate age, I was not.
But properly we started when I was 12 and my brother was 14. We bought MBUK and it came with a free video. We watched that thing so many times. My cousin Niall as well as started at the same time, the three of us together. And we just realised there was a whole world of mountain bikes out there.
Santa came the following year, got us a mountain bike, and that was it. There was no going back. We were hooked. I actually snapped my bike in half before the first race, so brother and my cousin Niall got to race, and I had to sit that one out. Then I actually got a Saracen Frenzy a few months after, and I finally got to start racing.
How old were you then?
My first race would’ve been just before I turned 13 or just as I turned 13. That was me hooked. I never went to British races until I was a Junior, or World Cups, so it was all in Ireland and all pretty low key. I was also quite small and pretty light, so they nicknamed me Ping Pong. I didn’t really have the mass to keep the bike very grounded so I would kind of be bouncing around everywhere. I had absolutely no fear back then. Full on, just go for anything and hope for the best.
By the time I hit 16 I had a bit more sense. I’d grown by that point and got a full downhill bike. That was when we called it the heyday. Maybe that’s because when somebody is truly involved in something they see it as the pinnacle, but that’s really when Irish downhill was booming, and it was amazing to be part of it. I was competing for fastest time of the day by the time I was 16 and I got a few actually. It was cool actually racing against Ben Reid, Glyn O’Brien, John Lawlor who videos for Vital MTB now, and Colin Ross who was a masters champion.
“You can’t live like Peter Pan forever and think everything’s just going to work out.”
You were racing downhill and then you took a break from it for a few years, right?
I raced all the way up until I was an elite. I was very proud to be Irish national champion in all the categories going through. Then I raced downhill as an elite at World Cup level, and you know, my track record was qualified then miss the next one. Sort of half and half. I never really fully applied myself and trained for it.
I loved riding my bike but didn’t necessarily want to apply myself as an athlete and obviously that was a part of it, but honestly, I think the reason why I didn’t achieve more as a downhiller was the psychology of it. You need to believe in yourself and look at other riders and think, I’m going to destroy them, I’m so much better than them.I think that there was almost an Irish psychology back then. There was a lot of good Irish riders, but they never truly succeeded on a world level, bar a few. It’s great to see the younger generation in Ireland, like Jacob Dickson paving the way and Oisin O’Callaghan as Junior World Champion — which is insane.
For me, my headspace wasn’t quite there. You’d be rubbing shoulders with all the younger elite riders over in the UK and at world cups and they’re doing top 20s or better and you’re struggling to qualify. I wasn’t fully there.I decided to take a break and I was off the downhill bike for two years which is when Enduro really started to happen.
What appealed to you about Enduro over downhill?
Funnily enough, it was the bike time. It was a guaranteed way of spending genuine time on your bike, and for that I have no regrets. I love bikes now so much more than I ever did. I appreciate them more and I actually cycle my bike.
As a downhiller in Ireland, we never had the facilities. There are a few spots now we can do uplifts, but we’ve never had facilities like the UK. So really pursuing the downhill career as an Irish rider, unless you have a nice little team around you and at least one track you can uplift, is kind of wasting your time. That’s not to be defeatist, but if you want to be a top World Cup level rider you do need at least one World Cup level track. You need to be riding your downhill bike, and I wasn’t really.
The move to Enduro was great for me. I actually thought it was going to be this thing where if you’re a fast downhiller and you train and you’re fit, you’ll be great at Enduro. But I didn’t realise that it was actually the ability to ride tracks blind and make decisions as you go. That was a huge factor that I never understood until I started racing World Enduros and saw how French riders approached things. That’s when I realised, wait a second this really is a different sport.
“I’ve seen it time and time again. People lose a love of the sport because they can’t make it work financially... they end up detesting something they love.”
When you started back in Enduro you didn’t have any sponsorship.
I came in fresh, no sponsorship, and thought, if I do well in 2 or 3 years I’ll be on a team. I was still very much thinking it was all about teams and that’s what being a professional is all about.
Few years past that I began to get my foot in the door with Transition and FSA from getting a good result at the World Enduro where I came 8th. The stage where I stayed on my bike I came top five or top three so it was really good, and that’s where I got my foot in the door professionally with transition. It was the first time I got product and money, and it paid for the race season.
Time went on and to be honest there was a moment where I thought, this is just too gruelling. You can’t live like Peter Pan forever and think everything’s just going to work out. I got to the point where I had enough money to race but it wasn’t sustainable. I realised I wouldn’t have a future if I’m chasing this and nothing’s happening.
Luckily Polygon came along and that’s when I had my first professional contract that was a wage. I could race and it wasn’t eating into living money. I made my own package because I had FSA and WTB coming in and a few other brands helping me out.
It was actually just before the deal with polygon that I had my worst year ever as a racer because I had a massive injury. I broke my elbow and my triceps detached because the bone cut the tendon straight through when it broke. The triceps pulled up ahead of my elbow up my arm.
That was a really traumatic injury. I had to get surgery and had a really long recovery. It really knocked me far back mentally. My confidence was so damaged. So, it was during that time I had to take a hard look: do I want to keep breaking myself up and trying to live this dream of being a professional mountain biker or is there a way of me taking control and actually preserving my body, and my sanity?
I’ve seen it time and time again. People lose a love of the sport because they can’t make it work financially. All they want to do is make it a job, and they can’t. And they end up detesting something they love. I had a chip on my shoulder. Can I not get sponsored because I’m from Ireland and the markets too small? I could see a bit of resentment coming and I thought, wait a second, what do I have that I could use to my advantage? And that’s when I thought I should run a World Enduro Instagram for the races.
I went to Pink Bike and said, hey can I run your Instagram account and bring people behind the scenes? They said, yeah definitely.
I did that whilst I was injured so I still travelled to the American and Canadian World Enduros in my sling and brought people around practice, just videoing the dramas and fun, and the race days where people are absolutely burying themselves.
“I don't feel like I'm ever working... I would have never said this when I broke my elbow, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
What year did you start doing that?
I’ve done it the last two years. 2019 and 2020 I brought people behind the scenes.
Last year I felt a lot more comfortable talking to people and even more comfortable with the pressure knowing 100,000 people are looking at your story in that 24-hour block.
From that I got the confidence to just be myself, laughing more and being a bit more natural. At the Zermatt World Enduro last year I decided to do GoPro runs following top riders and doing small interviews. I’d be talking a bit and they’d pull away and I’d just go blank as I was just trying to catch them, which is just gold.
What inspired you to start your own YouTube channel?
Honestly, I’ve had quite a few people saying I need to start a YouTube channel. I don’t know if you can tell but I do love chatting. I will talk to anyone. For me it’s always been really natural, and you need that element if you’re going to be good at YouTube.
My Instagram had gotten to a good size and I thought, right that’s doing well. Then you start to think, that’s doing well I need a new project and I know I might be scared of starting this, but I just need to because it just makes sense. It’s the evolution of me as an online content creator. I need to be involved in YouTube. I am really glad I finally pulled the finger out and started because I actually really enjoy it.
As I start to be able to get to the events this year I’ll be racing with a lot of different riders. I think on the gravel side of things, I’ll do a trip over to the USA when things cool down. The goal is to message Dustin Klein and try and get out on a spin with him and see how fit he is.
I want to do a bit of everything, and I’m properly motivated. Creating content is my new drive. I’m not actually changing anything other than pointing at camera at myself and the editing side of things.
I don’t feel like I’m ever working. It’s so fun for me. My girlfriend always says, it’s your job but it’s also your hobby. I love what I do, so I’m very happy with my role change. I would have never said this when I broke my elbow, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Do you think there’s a pressure on professional athletes to do this kind of stuff?
I think there’s more of a pressure going forward. Oddly enough I think that pressure comes from seeing, say, the likes of Jesse Melamed putting work into a YouTube channel. It just shows you that even the world’s best have to put effort into their social media presents. If you’re being complacent, or think you’ve done enough, you probably want to look again.
With these various lockdowns, if you aren’t at a race, how are you relevant? It’s about connecting through the world online and the rest of the mountain bike community. These lockdowns have shown that it’s very, very much necessary. If you haven’t figured that out, or the penny hasn’t dropped, then you want to start now.
Obviously, you need to do these things for the right reasons, and if you don’t, they won’t be sustainable. You need to love what you do.
“There’s a lot of iconic moments in mountain biking history in Troy Lee kit and certainly in Troy Lee Helmets. So, for me it’s always been the benchmark.”
How’s your riding changed over the last year?
My riding has actually become more diverse. I’ve done a lot more road cycling because of the various lockdowns. Obviously now we’re coming out of another lockdown, but because I’m a professional athlete I am allowed to travel. But the first lockdown or two, we had a very small radius — like a 2km radius in which we could cycle – and I wanted to respect that. I was knocking out one 200k cycle in a 2k radius per week during that lockdown, and that was a minimum.
I did a lot of road and I even did my first Everest. I had that in the back of my mind for a few years. I never really thought I would do it, or have the fitness to do it, because I’m a pretty big guy. I was riding my road bike so much that I started to enjoy time in the saddle. So, I thought now is the time. I started plugging away on some lower pace tempo riding and higher pace short stuff. Lot of hill repeats. And then once we got passed the 10k lockdown I picked a hill and made it happen. So that was really exciting and a totally different type of riding.
Since then, I’ve got a gravel bike and really enjoy doing bits on that. Between a road bike and a mountain bike it meets in the middle so you can have some missions, like going through all the places I love but seeing it now with fresh eyes.
I’ve spent very little time on the downhill bike in the last year of even 7 or 8 years, but this summer I am going to try and get out on it more. In the back of my head, I think I would like at some point to get the Irish wild card jersey and head over and do another World Cup, for the laugh.
What do you think of Troy Lee Designs kit?
It’s top end. It’s actually the kit me and my brother used to buy when we were racing downhill. I have a lot of memories racing in TLD. We used to race a lot of world cups in the D2. It’s just always been the pinnacle of mountain biking kit for me, and for a lot of people.
There’s a lot of iconic moments in mountain biking history in Troy Lee kit and certainly in Troy Lee Helmets. So, for me it’s always been the benchmark. I am very, very grateful and stoked to now be riding it, and see how far it’s come.
I haven’t been in Troy Lee kit in a few years, so just to put on their new A3 helmet, you know — you do feel a lot more confident. It’s not just because of the blurb you’ve read on the box or the testing. You can actually feel how comfortable and safe it is. It’s really cool to be part of that.
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