Canadian downhill racer Rachel Pageau just joined Jukebox Cycling as the first MTB-focused athlete on the wide-ranging multi-disciplinary roster. The former XC rider has been racing both enduro and downhill since 2016, and most recently represented Canada at the World Championships in Val de Sole over the summer. Now, she’s chasing North American races around the country in her van, joined by Ranger, her faithful pup before heading over to Europe for the World Cup season of downhill racing. Here, we’re getting to know the 23-year-old downhiller:
I started when I was 12, which I consider that pretty late. But I guess it's earlier than some, later than some. When I started, though, I thought I was really old to get started in a new sport, because I had been racing alpine skiing since I was six. I started skiing when I was 18 months old! So in my head, if you're going to go to the Olympics, or race on the world stage, you have to have started when you were five or six, there's no other way.
When I was young, I said I was going to go to the Olympics for alpine skiing. But then I started biking as a way to train for skiing, but also because I had a crush—I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that! It's a funny story, though. I had a crush on this boy in skiing. He would ski in the winter and race bikes in the summer, and I figured if I did both, I would double my chances of seeing him around. But it's funny because when I started biking, that same season, he stopped biking in order to race ski full time. And later that year, I stopped skiing to race bikes full time. So we just fully switched worlds, which was pretty funny... And I actually never even really talked to that guy. He would have no idea he’s the reason I started riding.
I started in XC because that was the only thing that really existed around me in Quebec. It took me two or three years but I was racing World Cups and World Champs and all that as a junior. I thought, 'I actually have a lot more potential in biking. Skiing, I didn’t have the mountains around me I needed to get the training to make it to the Olympics, but maybe I can go to the Olympics for biking. So my dream didn't really change. It just changed sports and season.’
I would go to World Cups and look at the downhill guys and think, 'Damn, that looks so much fun.' In my mind, though, again it was too late. I was an XC racer, I couldn’t just go into downhill racing. But I was the best at technical riding. That’s what I was good at. I moved to Victoria in BC to train with Cycling Canada full time for a year, and the training experience was great, but when the season came, I was just fully cooked. Physically, I was fine. But I couldn't not get on my bike without crying. I had no idea what was happening: I had just spent 20 hours every week training on my bike, and now it’s time to race, and I have no desire to get on my bike. I would get on my bike, and cry for 15 minutes non-stop. Sometimes I would just cry for 45 minutes on the side of the road, and then call it a day. It was pretty bad.
A couple of weeks before going to Europe for the World Cups, I had no idea what I was going to do. And then my coach said something. He told me that I didn’t have to race XC. At first I was offended. I thought he was telling me I wasn't good enough. But then I realized, 'Oh, wait, he's giving me permission to explore something else.' And then that's kind of where the idea stemmed from. That permission changed things, and by the end of that season, I started racing enduro for fun. I loved it. I was actually having fun, when XC racing was not fun for me at that point.
I started doing small downhill races on my enduro bike as well, because there was this small series that had both. And then I won some of these smaller races on my enduro bike. So, I got a downhill bike. And that's when I thought, 'Oh, my God, there's no going back, I race downhill now.' So I did enduro and downhill for a few years, mixing the season with the two. And last year was the first year that my primary focus was on downhill. This year, I just made the decision that I'm probably not going to race any Enduro. When I do both, I'm going to races half prepared, because there are so many you need to be at. Last season, I was in Europe for five weeks, and I was racing to the EWS series and then three World Cups. And the first two races kind of went well. But I got to the third week and fourth week and I was just so tired. And I was sleeping inside a little van because I was trying to make everything happen. In the end, I was half-assing everything, and doing just average in results.
It's huge. You finish a World Cup and even though if you count the amount of laps you've done over the week you think you shouldn't be that tired, you are drained. Your brain is fried. And also, while enduro and downhill are similar, they're also so different. The way to train for them is different. The way you have to approach features is different. The people there are different. Jumping from one world into the other is really hard.
I've been looking at my schedule and usually at least when I see all these races, I'm excited because I love racing. But I look at that calendar and think, 'Rachel, you need to choose your battles, you need to have less projects.' Working with new sponsors like Jukebox has given me so many new ideas, and my notebook is filling with more pages every day. Everything is so exciting. But I know I need to calm down, because I want to make all these things happen and that takes time and focus. So I need to pick and choose my races more carefully. I want to be prepared for the World Cups, so that’s the primary goal, but I’ll do some smaller events as well.
It’s always tough with downhill because often there are these weird rules and their criteria is always a bit fuzzy, especially if you’re trying to pick your schedule so you’re ready for selection well ahead of the season. And with COVID and races being cancelled, it was even harder than usual. In 2020, for instance, unless you were on a pro team that would fully support you, you couldn’t go to Worlds, which was really hard for women downhillers. Then this year, I didn't do really good at Nationals: I crashed twice, because again, I was racing, racing, racing racing, and I was exhausted. Usually Nationals isn’t the only criteria for Worlds, so I wasn’t worried. I was the only Canadian woman who's been going to World Cups consistently, and had the best World Cup standing. I won the first Canada Cup. So, I figured it was fine. But then I wasn’t invited, and they originally didn’t even fill the seven spots we we had. It was really difficult—I was over in Europe already trying to figure out if I could race or not. I hate drama and it was a really tough situation: I’m close with a lot of people at Cycling Canada. And people around me who knew the situation were upset for me and started posting about it on social media. Luckily, Cycling Canada listened to them and added more women to the roster, including me and Gracie Helmstreet, who ended up medaling in the junior women’s field.
It could have been really difficult, but honestly, it turned out great. Everyone was super supportive once I got there, the coach and the mechanics were super duper nice. But it was still really hard. It got figured out in the end so hopefully this year, they do a little bit better.
I'm going to Costa Rica next week to get the season started and I'm so excited! Then it’s Pan Am Championships, but since it’s early, it’s more of a training race to get some UCI points. Then there are races in the US and in Canada, then all the World Cups and hopefully Worlds, then Nationals in BC. That is fills the calendar pretty well. There's a couple extra races I’ll probably add, like Sea Otter.
I honestly think I should have had more moments where I wanted to give up. It's funny, because so many people tell me that it's not easy for anyone to go to the World Cups. And I was always like, ‘Why are you telling me that? I know!’ It’s never been easy for me. Maybe I make it look so fun that it seems easy. But I worked 45 hour weeks to be there. I slept in my car. It was never easy, but I wanted to do it and so I did. I made it happen.
And yes, it is fun. I get to go to Europe and I get to make so many friends and I get to see all these amazing places, even though I'm sleeping in a van and some nights, it's not ideal. But even then, I'm still in Switzerland or in France, and even if it's not perfect, it's still pretty damn cool. And every year it gets a bit better.
I guess I just love bike racing more than anything. I love being at the races. I still have so much room to grow, there are still so many things I can achieve. And I'm still achieving things every year. Maybe if I felt like I was plateauing, I might stall in my motivation. But every day, every week, every month, there's still a little bit of improvement that I find. I finally have great partners to work with, and that’s even more motivation to keep going to see where that gets me. As long as there's progression and there's room to grow, I don't see why I would stop.
I'm extremely excited because I'm super, super creative. I have so many different ideas for cool stuff that I can do with Jukebox Print, notebooks and booklets and stickers and so much other cool creative things. I’m a little journaling-obsessed. I have so many notebooks on the go, for monthly, weekly and daily organization and journaling stuff. I’ve tried to go digital, but I just love the tangible paper notebooks. I'm super excited to have a partner that is just as excited to create projects with me as I am to start projects with them.
I’ve been working on a book about training that I started as part of my internship when I was in school. I had an Exercise Science major with a business minor. The premise of the book was how to train yourself if you can't afford a private coach. It’s more of a manual, with a lot of worksheets and ways to schedule your training year with your races and working around your work schedule, how to schedule your month based off of your overall goals for the year, and then how to schedule your week based off of your month, and then how to schedule your daily training from that. I also wanted to make sure it had a lot about mental preparation, because I think mental prep is 80% of the battle. Just feeling you've done the work—whether it really was the right work—is so important on race day.