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February 2011 Issue
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Need for speed

Josh Gale talks biting the dust, broken bones and the thrill of speed with up and coming downhill racer Oscar Tatom

Sitting on a mountain bike at the top of a hill, listening to the countdown and waiting to burst out of the gate. That’s the worst part of downhill mountain biking, reckons 18 year-old Oscar Tatom.  

“You’re sitting there shitting yourself basically,” he says.

When you know falling off at high speeds means broken bones, a bit of fear must come in handy.

And Oscar knows: “A couple of years ago racing in Clyde I snapped my femur and broke my arm. I got knocked out and when I came around I was on the gas,” he says. “Anytime you hit the earth it’s not too good, especially down here where it’s all rocky.”

Tatom calls Queenstown home and went to high school in “Dunners”. Next year he’s starting a law degree at Otago University. But when he’s not in class, you’re likely to find him tearing down Signal Hill, pushing the limits to achieve his goal of becoming a top downhill mountain biker. He’s well on his way, too. Last year he came 10th in the junior Oceania champs and at this summer’s national champs he’s entering the open men’s category. “I’ll be the youngest age group. I’m not too bothered though because I know I’ve got heaps of experience. I’m not facing real hard out competition, but it will be harder than the U19s just because it’s a bigger class,” he says.

He’s confident, but that’s what you need to be to compete in downhill mountain biking. “In a race you can’t have a good run without being a bit uncomfortable, a bit loose, you’ve got to let go of the brakes in some sections,” says Tatom. The still young sport is technically explained as ‘gravity-assisted time trial mountain biking’. It’s a race against the clock to ride down a dirt track to the bottom of a steep hill.

Sharp corners, jump ramps, bumpy sections and exposed roots and rocks make the descent an adrenaline rush for riders and a buzz for spectators. “In a race you should know where every rock and every root is, where you need to be pedalling and what gear you’re in out of every corner,” says Tatom who already has six sponsors. “In a good race run you’ll get into a zone where you don’t notice anyone on the side of the track and you’re not really thinking about anything other than the track. It’s the best feeling ever.”

Kiwis are blessed with some of the finest downhill mountain biking tracks on the planet and in the summer, with his mum as support, Tatom travels the country to ride them. Along the way he says he makes pals with people from all over the world who’ve come here to see what our downhill spots have to offer. “They’re just blown away by the standard of the tracks,” he says. Other than his home favourites in Dunedin and Queenstown, Tatom says the track in Wanaka’s Cardrona Valley is the best for photography and Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest is his favourite overall ride.

After he establishes himself in the open men’s category in 2011, Tatom plans to head to the France in 2012 to satisfy his hunger for new challenges on the tracks of the French Alps. By 2013 he hopes to have entered the ultimate pro-elite competition.

“I think you can really judge yourself by how you’re progressing. It’s a big motivator,” he says. “You hate to do worse. There’re some people I just hate being beaten by. I think it’s the competitiveness that really does it for me.”