The cream of the gravity-racing crop was all geared up and on the start list for the 2023 UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Championship, held on the legendary Fort William track in Scotland. Continental-Atherton Racing’s 25-year-old Brit, Charlie Hatton had been knocking at the door of a World Cup podium for a few seasons but nobody was answering. Somehow, he short-circuited the system and pecking order and went straight in for a world title.
Pre-race, did Charlie think he was in with a shout at the top?
“There were a lot of people asking me if I was going to go for a win or a medal but I don’t want to put that added pressure on myself.”
“Obviously, I was going do my best, 100%, and I knew I could do well there, (so it was a case of) let’s see what happens. I qualified second in the World Cup there two years before, and in the national round there earlier in the year (with mostly top World Cup riders) I finished third, so I knew I was riding well, and after qualifying I was about a second off third, and I knew it was achievable. When the rain started falling I definitely thought that I could potentially get a medal, though people do step up their game at the World’s, but to win it, that exceeded my expectations a little bit.”
Charlie Hatton performs at UCI DH World Championships in Fort William, Scotland on August 05, 2023, by Red Bull Content Pool
The final countdown
As the race final rolled out, the weather took a torrentially rainy turn for the worse, which was a huge blow to the seeded favourites who would get the worst of the conditions – including Charlie. Had he bargained in that fowl last-minute wet twist?
“I didn’t factor in that it was going to rain, but we were in Fort William, so obviously I knew that anything was possible. Being from the UK we ride in those conditions all of the time, so we know exactly what to do when it rains, which is where I think we had a big advantage over a lot of people.”
A quick turnaround for the Brits was an easy task. “We almost have a wet and dry mode. For the wet we use rip and rolls, a long peak extension – so the rain doesn’t get on your goggles, we put tape over the brake callipers to stop the water getting in and to keep the breaks hot, fit extra-long mudguards – really simple things, but when it rains that hard it makes a big difference.”
“I saw people going up, they had short mudguards, no tear-offs, no rip and roll system, and well – when conditions are like that, it’s hard to even see and little things like I did make it easier, and meant I had good vision and the ability to go fast.”
Race prep and analysis were all part of Charlie’s winning run and the man who ran him second on the day was his own pro teammate, Andreas Kolb. How does it work when switching from pro-national team elegancies for one day a year?
“The World’s is quite a weird one because, obviously, we’re racing for Great Britain and the GB squad, but because we race so much outside of that as a team, I sort of approached it as riding for GB but almost as Team Continental-Atherton. I get on really well with everyone on the team, and my (pro) teammate Andy was second. We have a great working relationship; if he beats me, I’m stoked for him, and it’s the same the other way around. Over the weekend we were trying different lines and comparing our GoPros and timing sections on them, even putting them side by side so we know where we can both improve – and that made a huge difference. British Cycling did also have three people up on the track spotting lines and stuff, and they were really helpful.”
Charlie Hatton performs at UCI DH World Championships in Fort William, Scotland, by Red Bull Content Pool
Did his race plan change when the weather turned?
“I think I did alter plans when I saw it was wet. With Fort William and the kind of surface, I knew the top section to the woods would be even faster (in the wet) and so I knew I had to have that grip there because, when it’s loose it’s like trying to ride on a fire road – it’s really slippery. When the rain comes down it compacts things together, it’s not ‘hero dirt’ but it’s really good and difficult. My approach was to hammer the top section, to ride as fast as I could and to try and get through the woods with a little bit held back, as I didn’t want to fall off. I rode through there really cleanly, with no mistakes, and then I gave everything on the pedals at the bottom.”
The run was as physical as technical for Charlie.
“I knew that the top section would be where time was made and hammered that and at the bottom, I was absolutely gassed and just had to get to the finish.”
Charlie Hatton 2023, by Redbull
Had he been able to make changes his rivals failed to match?
“I think I had a really good game plan and obviously the weather was quite dry all week, so it was hard for many others to go straight into a wet run – the mental battle was trying to go faster here than in the dry – which sound’s absolutely bonkers but I somehow managed to go faster than in qualifying, where I think I was sixth. I think I was about half a second off Bruni’s dry qualifying run. Where a lot of other tracks get a lot slower in the wet, that doesn’t have the same effect at Fort William.”
‘I don’t know if they were less prepared but my mindset going into that run was ‘I can ride as fast as I can in the dry’ and I guess it paid off.”
Watching the clock
With the fasted seeded riders in the world chasing after you, it must be hard to think that you may have actually done it – become World Champion?
“Coming down, I always do this weird thing. I looked up at the timing board and I could see it was green and I was three seconds up, and knew it had been a good run. Sitting in the hot seat, I didn’t know if it would win – I didn’t think it was a winning run but when I saw the others coming down, I think I laid down that perfect balance between pushing and not crashing.”
Charlie Hatton 2023, by Redbull
Back with a bang
As the reality of what he’d achieved began to sink in, Charlie was already pulling on his rainbow stripes for the first time in a World Cup, in Loudenvielle, France, where his rainbow was promptly broken.
“At the fifth round of the World Cup, I had a fairly good qualifying run (around 10th place), and had a similar position in the first round, and was really excited to give it some hammer in the finals. But I just got it a bit offline, and the back wheel tried to overtake my front wheel. There were quite a few people who crashed in the same spot, so it was a tricky section and I landed really awkwardly on my wrist. Unfortunately, it pushed all of my wrist bones into my radius.”
Sadly, it was not a clean and easy break.
“It’s quite a complicated fracture, right on the end. It’s an awkward break and not a straightforward one, so I’m still in the process of seeing surgeons and having various CT scans. I’ve had two X-rays and two CT scans now, just to try and figure out the best way to deal with it. There’s no way they can plate or screw it because it’s a very small bone – multiple bones that have broken off, so I’m just waiting to see what they think is best.”
Even so, the crash has not taken the shine of the most amazing result of his career.
“I’m feeling very positive, to be honest. After having such a big result, such a career highlight, it’s almost subsided the negative thoughts. I’ve literally gone from having the best result ever, a moment that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life, to breaking my arm. Unfortunately, it’s part of the sport and there’s not really much you can do about it, apart from not crash but when you push it and try to win races these things happen.”
Being at the end of the season limited potential result losses.
“I’m going to miss two World Cups and, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not much. Hopefully, I have 10 good years of racing left, so to miss two rounds does suck. But at the end of the day I’m feeling pretty positive and keen to get it rehabbed and get for next year.”
Looking to a positive future
Winning your first world title must bode well in many ways for the future?
“Once you win a race you’ve always got that in the back of your mind and think ‘hang on, I can actually beat everyone here.’ I struggled with that (before). My riding ability is really good but the mental approach to winning definitely gives you that mental edge but it also adds pressure, and maybe some expectations, too. Obviously, I’d like to just keep at it and try to achieve results – there are a lot of things I want to do, and I haven’t actually been on a World Cup podium yet, and being World Champ before that is pretty crazy. I’d like to start getting on the podium regularly, and maybe win some world-level races.”
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