Unior-Sinter and Trek are working hand-in-hand to create the ultimate DH incubator
Unior-Sinter has been developing downhill racing’s best young riders for more than 10 years. Their alumni include the likes of Trek Factory Racing’s very own World Champion, Reece Wilson. And beginning in 2023 the team will be racing under the Trek Bikes umbrella once more.
It should be an easy transition. Unior is already one of the Bicycle Company’s biggest partners, providing tools and workbenches for Trek-owned stores and the Trek Factory Racing squads. Sinter brake pads are also becoming more prevalent in Trek stores.
Unior-Sinter will serve as a potential feeder program into Trek Factory Racing, and in return they’ll receive product and athlete support at the biggest downhill races in the world. That means sick bikes, and access to expertise from legends like Andrew Shandro.
“We’ve shown in the last 12 years that we know how to handle young riders,” Tine Mahkovec, Unior-Sinter’s team director, says. “With a relatively small budget, we can make a really well organized program.”
The program is based in Slovenia, but the Unior-Sinter downhill squad is made up of riders from all over the world.
Jure Žabjek is the veteran of the group at 27 years old. Behind him are some very fresh faces. Ben Zwar, 23, is a Swedish-Australian rider who took eighth at European Championships last year and a career-best 21st in a World Cup race at Mont-Sainte-Anne. Léona Pierrini is a 20-year-old rider from Nice, France. She was the youngest elite women’s rider on the World Cup circuit last year, and a former junior World Cup overall champion. And finally there’s Stan Nisbet, who will be 15 in June, and comes to Unior-Sinter via the Tweed Valley in Scotland, also the home of Wilson. He won five British DH Series races last year, scored 2nd at the European Championships and is doing his best to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.
Like Trek Future Racing for XC, Unior-Sinter’s goal is to provide a fun, organized and nurturing environment for the most promising riders in downhill racing. Their track record can’t be beat. This squad may be small, but keep an eye on them to discover the mightiest riders of tomorrow.
Below, Mahkovec spoke with the Trek Race Shop about how the squad partnered back up with Trek, and how it’s planning big things for the future. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
In the landscape of downhill racing, how common is it to have fully dedicated development teams like this?
Mahkovec: There’s not many that define themselves as a development team in the sport.
At Unior we also sponsor many road teams. And in road, it’s pretty structured. You have the pro teams, you have the continental teams, and so on, and they race in more or less different events. So it’s quite clear who’s who. And in downhill, even if you call yourself a development team, you’ll get to the same level of racing as the top level, and you’ll go against the top guys right away. So the boundary is more invisible than it is in road or maybe other sports.
It’s not common for teams to have a clear development program. And this is what we really want to establish while we’re with Trek. We want to help the transition with the riders from a local environment, like Stan [Nisbet], who is coming from the UK and isn’t old enough to race World Cups yet. And then on the other end, we want to potentially help riders from here to the Trek Factory Racing program.
It's not common for teams to have a clear development program. And this is what we really want to establish while we're with Trek. We want to help the transition with the riders from a local environment.
What’s the focus of your squad? It seems like perhaps you’re trying to become more international, with French and Scottish riders as well as Slovenians.
Mahkovec: We have had international riders before, even pre Covid times. During the Covid years we had a smaller program, more Slovenian-oriented, but behind the two main partners in Unior and Sinter, there was always a push to go back to being international.
There’s of course a business aspect to it. For sponsors, we need international riders, and it brings variety to the team, to the whole racing program. We need faster riders to push each other forward and so on. It’s a change we’ve been wanting to make the last couple of years.
And in becoming a more development-focused squad, was that because it was a big priority of Trek’s, or is that a direction you’d been hoping to go as well?
Mahkovec: We’ve always been a team that might not have many superstars, because we have a relatively smaller budget. When riders reach a level where they’re close to becoming superstars, or they’ll start to regularly be in the top 10 or 15, we let them go on to a bigger team.
This was more or less the plan since the beginning of our team. We want to win a World Cup, but the reality is, we’ll probably never afford a contender for victory in every race — though with some luck you and a great talent you never know. But at the same time, we’ve shown in the last 12 years that we know how to handle young riders. With a relatively small budget, we can make a really well organized program, and that’s what we do well. And that’s what we continue and plan to do.
we've shown in the last 12 years that we know how to handle young riders. With a relatively small budget, we can make a really well organized program, and that's what we do well. And that's what we continue and plan to do.
So Unior-Sinter wants to help keep promising young athletes within the Trek ecosystem, essentially?
Mahkovec: That’s the whole idea. We’re a tool to help that. We want to put these young riders who are already on Trek, who are getting used to the bike, and just building up the speed. And then basically they can put a different jersey on and keep winning races.
We are happy to keep some of these riders ourselves, of course. And at some point, we even might. We know how to do that. Even with Dakotah Norton, we had two podiums with him, and then he progressed to a stronger team. We’re flexible. It’s all about open communication with the Trek Race Shop.
What are the benefits of partnering with Trek for a relatively small team?
Mahkovec: The product support is number one. We’re getting really fast bikes. We’ve seen lastyear that they can win World Cups. Secondly, the DH bikes are custom painted. It’s a Project One custom paint, which is great. Then testing and race support. Andrew Shandro is going to be on track, and he’s going to also help our riders. Any spare parts, anything we need from them, Trek will help us out. So direct support from the race department is really, really important for us. Trek really has a family atmosphere, and we draw inspiration from the riders and staff.
And then obviously, of course, there’s also a financial contribution towards the team. But for us, the main part was to get equipment in time. And considering what the industry went through, and that pretty much all the frames were being custom painted and shipped to us so soon, I’m pretty stoked.
Direct support from the race department is really, really important for us. Trek really has a family atmosphere, and we draw inspiration from the riders and staff.
What’s the overlap like in terms of manpower? Will you be sharing mechanics, for example, with TFR?
Mahkovec: We are self-sufficient at every race. We’ve been doing that for so many years that we don’t want to depend on anyone else. We want to be there with parts, with everything we need ahead of time. And if something is really, really urgent, we’ll go to the TFR tent and ask.
The biggest resource is just having Andrew and anyone else at the track, advising lines to the riders and filming. Everything else, we’ll plan before we leave for the race. But I’m pretty sure if anything happens, we’ll have full support there as well.
How did you go about putting together a roster of four downhill riders?
Mahkovec: So with Stan Nisbet, Reece [Wilson] brought him to Trek’s attention. And with Reece being part of our team in the past, we were a great destination. Then Jure [Žabjek] is staying on, even though he’s a little bit older, because he has been part of our program before.
Ben [Zwar] and Léona [Pierrini] were two riders who we considered the best fit out of many young riders we were considering. Léona was the youngest elite rider last year in the female category. We wanted a female rider, and it is going to be interesting for us to have a French rider. She lives in the south of France, which is great, because there’s a lot of downhill tracks there, especially to train in the winter, or when it’s cold in the rest of Europe. She’s also seven hours driving from our headquarters in Slovenia, which is really nice. We saw the potential in her, and she had some solid results with less support.
And then on the other hand, with Ben, he just kind of flew in. So Benjamin and Oliver Zwar, they are these two Swedish-Australian brothers that have a really, really good story behind them. They founded their own team. And then we heard they were both looking for another team. And we just said, ‘Hey, those guys have a really good story. There’s not a lot of Swedish riders. We heard they are really fun to work with. And they have amazing seasons behind them.’ We started talking to Ben and made a connection instantly.
You described looking for riders who are the right fit. What are some of the traits you were looking for?
Mahkovec: That’s a good question. You interview a few riders over Zoom or whatever, and you try to identify the rider, who they are, and if they fit into your team. But we also try and meet all these riders before races. We’re known to be a very organized team, but at the same time, most of the staff has been working here for 10 years. So we’re a group of people that know each other, and we have a lot of fun.
We make it clear with riders that we have clean pits and that we like to have things organized. We tell the riders up front what our vision is: Be organized, be responsive to communication, and all that. And then beyond that, we have a good time. We offer a fun and organized environment, and that’s what we’re looking for with riders. And sometimes you have some initial interviews with riders where you just feel the energy.
How do you support these riders, especially with them coming from so many different places?
Mahkovec: We try to see a little bit of their background. A lot of the riders we’ve talked to and worked with, they already go to World Cups as privateers. They’re very independent. They came there on their own, they’re not there with their parents, and so on.
A key part is giving them a calendar of 10-15 races where they can come and everything is sorted for them. And then the second priority is we set them up for success at their local races. We ask them, ‘OK, do you need more parts? Do you need more tires?’ We do testing and training camps, but then the local thing we leave it to them.
But when they come to a race where we’re all together, there’s honestly not a lot of difference between what we or a huge team will offer. It’s pretty much the same. We always have more staff than riders. There’s going to be five people working for three or four riders. So in the end, even though we are a smaller team and we don’t have a truck, everything we do for those riders is going to be on a very high level.
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