Most of us like reading those stories about young, unnoticed or rejected athletes that go on to make it big. The bigger, the better. Like American footballer Tom Brady who was famously picked second to last in the NFL Draft but went on to win the Superbowl seven times and earn $270 million. There’s something brilliant and human about sticking it in the face of the naysayers... like that English teacher who said you’d never write a sentence coherent-like.
The story in reverse though is far more interesting, and far rarer. Athletes who could have competed at the highest level, but chose to step back from it. Athletes who decided for various reasons – ethically, emotionally, physically – that their chosen sport wouldn’t be their profession or how they earn their keep. Athletes like Sam Shucksmith.
Picked for the British squad to race downhill as a junior, Sam found himself aged 17 racing World Cups in Maribor and Schladming and competing with one of the strongest generations of young riders. OK, so this isn’t the NFL, Sam isn’t in the same league (or sport, for that matter) as Brady, but the competition was stiff: Sam’s cohort on the GB squad consisted of Josh Bryceland, Sam Dale, Joe Smith and Ruaridh Cunningham, two of which – Josh and Ruaridh – would later go on to become world champions. “It wasn’t easy,” Sam says.
Despite that competition, he’d done pretty well at a national level. He finished fifth overall in the NPS downhill series in 2007, winning one race at Caersws as a junior. It was a long way from racing at Penshurst Bike Park in Kent, where Sam started out as a kid racing alongside his older brother, Phil.
“He was the reason I got into it, he’s six years older than me,” Sam says. “I used to go out when I was really young on a little hardtail. The first race I did was at PORC – I got the train from Redhill – on my brother’s downhill bike. I must have been 14 or 15. I rode there at the other end from the station, it felt like a long way on a downhill bike.”
Whether he won or lost that race is long forgotten, but what began was a lifelong love of bikes, and racing them too. Sam is now a bike designer at Whyte Bikes, responsible for award-winning machines like the G170, a bike that won our Editor’s Choice award in 2018 and scored full marks in every grouptest it entered, as well as newer bikes like the S150 and the brand’s e-bikes too. That continues right up to the present day, with the bike Sam’s riding on the day we meet up with him – a G180 29.
“It’s good to be out with other riders, but I’m pretty used to riding on my own,” Sam tells us. Not many people want to ride the same track eight times in one day, testing out a myriad of components in the thirst for perfection, I add. “They don’t want to spend half an hour in between runs swapping out a shock either,” Sam agrees.
FROM DH TO DESIGN
We’ve come to the Forest of Dean to see first hand where Whyte’s award winners are crafted, although today it’s simple stuff like trying out the latest RockShox Super Deluxe to figure out how it rides on an existing bike. True to his word, it’s half an hour in an off the-beaten-track layby between runs, as Sam pulls his bike apart on what must be the most dilapidated workstand I’ve ever seen.
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