At 22 years old, Santa Barbara’s Duncan Riffle is poised to change the face of downhill mountain biking. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s one he’s on the road to accomplishing.
This year alone, Riffle will introduce Duncan Riffle Racing‘s World Cup Mountain Bike Race Team to the circuit. He will also continue to race for his sixth consecutive year as a professional, all the while tackling the responsibility of managing the careers of his team riders - namely, pro rider Brad Benedict and “junior development” rider Andy Becker, another Santa Barbara native.
Riffle started racing mountain bikes at the age of 11. He first competed in the U.S. National series at 13, turned pro in his junior year of high school, and went on to win the national title twice. Now, at 22, he feels prepared to tackle the challenge of managing a team.
“I’m at this crossroads,” he said. “I want to help, I want to make something big, I want to do something for somebody else. You know, you sit in lecture, you listen to your professor, and at some point you start thinking - I can do this. I know this, I can teach this, maybe even better.”
He hopes to accomplish some big things this year through his World Cup team, which is one of a few teams on the Gravity circuit this year. He hopes to ultimately re-create his sport’s image, but he knows that right now it’s about taking baby steps.
“This is definitely a stake into the future,” he explained. “It’s in no way going to be something massive this year. My vision for the whole program is to be one of the largest World Cup race teams on the circuit and that’s going to involve a lot. Hopefully it’s going to be a big operating machine within the next five years. That’s my overall goal: multiple riders, staff, a big overseas presence.”
Riffle hopes to promote a new image for the sport he’s so passionate about. He hopes to bring mountain biking “home,” to attract the same following for the sport in the U.S. that it’s attracted in Europe. “I really want to bring U.S. racing back to life,” he said. “I mean, downhill mountain biking is a lot like downhill skiing - there are more obstacles but it’s got the same high speed and the same drama of the clock - and downhill skiing is the second most-watched sport in the winter Olympics! All it’s going to take for mountain biking to get that big is somebody to document it properly. I’m hoping for a kick-start in the right direction, to show the world that American racing is alive and well, to show that we can really do this.”
And to do that, he’ll have to work hard, he said. He’ll have to reconcile his own training schedule and time in the office, handling logistics, working with sponsors, and booking flights and accommodations for himself and his riders. While managing the extra workload, Riffle plans to stick to his all-day riding regimen. For 11 months of the year, Riffle and his team will ride during the day and hit the gym in the evenings. It’s a much more physically demanding sport than most people realize, he said.
During the World Cup tour, which spans from April through September, he and his team will travel “literally every Monday” to a different venue, he said. They’ll hit South Africa, France, Andorra, Scotland, Quebec, and Australia, and they’ll finish the season at the World Cup Finals in Austria. It’s an incredibly busy, stressful schedule, but Riffle and his riders love what they do, and they haven’t lost sight of that.
“At times it can be difficult - we don’t have a steady income, we have bad seasons or bad races. It’s tough if you’re sitting in Brazil on a 15-hour layover and you haven’t slept in 40 hours and there’s nothing to eat - it’s difficult,” he said. “But at times like that, I really have to take a step back and look at what I do and why I do it. I don’t really have it too bad. It’s pretty cool, what I do. I’m literally riding on an evolved toy and that’s my job.”
Even when it gets tough, Riffle knows how to channel his passion into his work, how to stay committed, and how to keep striving for bigger and better things. “Whether it’s managing this team or racing, I’m passionate and I’m driven,” he explained. “Without that, I would’ve given up a long time ago. If you don’t want it bad enough and you can’t appreciate what you’re doing, you’ll crumble. And that goes for anything.”
Riffle has faith in his team riders because, like him, they’re passionate and they’re driven. He’s excited about guiding them into new terrain and about working with them to develop a new image for mountain biking.
Benedict, also 22, is currently the U.S. National Series champion. This will be his first year on the World Cup circuit. “He’s the type of rider I’m looking for - he’s got the image, the respect for the people that went before him. No matter how good he becomes, he’ll respect how he got there,” Riffle said. “He impressed me with that and with what he was doing and how quickly he was evolving and gaining knowledge of this culture.”
Becker, 16, is also quickly evolving as a rider, Riffle said. He’s been working with Riffle for four years, and he’s now of age to race in world championships.
Riffle looks forward to winning titles and to doing something big with this team, but he also looks forward to having a little fun. “I rode for a European company, which was awesome, but it was a lot of work and minimal play,” he said. “It’s important to remember that our work does have a play side to it and that we can still play. I want that for my team.”
He’s excited to revamp the sport of mountain biking, and he’s excited to brand and market a newer, edgier mountain biking culture. “Right now mountain biking is lacking that culture,” he said. “Skateboarding and surfing have developed a culture and a clothing style - it’s an image that those athletes have promoted properly and I have no doubt in my mind that this program can achieve that for mountain biking.”