INTERVIEW: How Vali Höll learned to let loose

The DH World Champion opens up about becoming more emotionally available after a difficult start to her season

Vali Höll worked harder than ever heading into 2022. She struggled to start the 2021 season, but closed it with back-to-back wins to secure the World Cup overall title in dramatic fashion. She wanted to enter the new season in full swing, carrying the same form that put her atop the sport in just her first elite season. She rode more. She did more timed practice runs. She dialed in her setup. 

The first World Cup downhill final took place in Lourdes on March 27. Höll secured the fastest time in qualifying. She was poised to make an early statement. She dropped in and … finished fourth. She then took fifth in Fort William, sixth in Leogang and fifth in Lenzerheide. Those would be incredible results for most 20-year-old riders, but they frustrated Höll at the time. She had set a high standard for herself the previous season and couldn’t understand why small mistakes kept peppering her race runs.

At the fifth round of the World Cup in Andorra last July, Höll told herself, “I don’t care anymore.” She stopped worrying about where she’d finish and rode with more abandon. “I found I was so over wanting to do well, that suddenly I was riding really well.”

Even if you crash four times in a row every single race weekend, it will pay off someday.

The result: Her first World Cup win of the season, which kicked off yet another barnstorming end to her year. She won another World Cup race in Mont-Sainte-Anne, took third in Val di Sole, and most importantly, secured the rainbow stripes as World Champion on a fast track in Les Gets

“I guess what I learned is that you never give up,” Höll says. “And even if you crash four times in a row every single race weekend, it will pay off someday. Even if it takes four World Cups.”

Höll evolved significantly as a rider and a person in 2022. She had more fun and made herself more emotionally available to RockShox Trek teammates and staff. In turn, she received better, more focused support when she allowed others to peer deeper into her early season struggles.

“I think it’s my age that I care a bit too much what other people think about me,” Höll says. “For me, it was not really a problem that the bike wasn’t working, or my fitness level wasn’t there. But as soon as I opened up to people my season and my performance got way better, and I enjoyed being at the races.”

Vali showing off the rainbow stripes for the first time in Val di Sole.

Expectations can be burdensome. Höll overcame them by embracing the people closest to her, especially her teammates Tegan Cruz and Jamie Edmondson. With the downtime they had at races, they’d watch movies, go to a river or play tennis. They did much more than fixate on riding fast, which put Höll at ease in a way that improved her performance. According to Höll, “You actually wish there were more races just to hang out with your team.” 

Following her World Championship, Höll spoke in depth with the Trek Race Shop about how she opened up, becoming a godmother, the joy of watching her teammates succeed, and what’s next after achieving the highest accolades in her sport. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Want to learn even more about Vali? Listen to her interview with our “Better With Bikes” podcast friends. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts:

Vali spraying champagne in Mont-Sainte-Anne.

After your first elite year last year, you had your ups and downs but obviously ended on a high. So how did you build on that going into your second year?

Vali Höll: I kinda had the same weird season as last year. I thought I learned everything I needed to know in that one year, and then when I came into my second year of elite this year, I thought everything was going to be easy and smooth, but it wasn’t. 

I feel like I prepared way better in the offseason. I trained the whole winter. I spent way more time on the bike. I did way more timed runs in my practice than I did the previous season. I thought maybe that was the reason why I crashed in my race runs. But apparently, that’s not the case. I rode my bike way more than I did the seasons before, but I didn’t feel more prepared.

I guess what I learned is that you never give up. And even if you crash like four times in a row every single race weekend, it will pay off someday. Even if it takes four World Cups.

It was just the way I approached my racing. I was concentrating way too much on results rather than my riding performance. By the time Andorra came around, when I finally won my first World Cup this year, I found I was so over wanting to do well, that suddenly I was riding really well because I was just focusing on my riding and having fun rather than the results.

When I finally won my first World Cup this year, I found I was so over wanting to do well, that suddenly I was riding really well.

You didn’t do badly to start the season, but you weren’t up to the level you wanted. How did the team support you during that period, and were they helpful in getting your mind right?

Höll: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been working with my mechanic, Mat [Gallean], since I was like 16. And especially as a young adult, your personality changes quite a lot. 

I also opened up for the first time to Mat, because before I didn’t really want to tell him that I’m scared, or that I’m not feeling good, because I didn’t want him to see me being weak. Which is weird, because I think he’s one of the closest people in my life, so he should know how I’m feeling. That was the first step, and now he could talk to me way better than in previous years because he actually knew how I’m feeling. Before they only saw me being annoyed and pissed. 

And then obviously, we worked a lot more with the bike. Mat organized the data and we looked way more at the numbers and we tried a lot more. I could also give way more feedback than the seasons before just because I have more experience now. Every time we worked a lot on the bike, I won a World Cup or won World Champs. And then the few times I didn’t work on the bike at all, I didn’t win. So it’s good to know that if I put a lot more effort in giving feedback, we can adapt the bike to make me feel better and more comfortable. 

It’s something you learn. The other riders do it, but they’re also like 12 years older than me. And for me, sometimes, I’m a bit too overwhelmed on the racetrack, so I don’t really think about the bike setup, more about my lines and how I’m feeling. But I think for next year, I really want to focus on both sides because it’s so, so important.

Vali with her mechanic, Mat Gallean.

Tell me a bit more about working with Mat. How long have you worked with him, and what is that relationship like?

Höll: It’s super close now. I started racing the junior World Cups with him. So since I’ve had my own mechanic, it’s been Mat. It’s really special because Mat became a dad last December and he asked me to be the godmother of his son. So we’re family now.

Mat is kind of like me. We don’t really talk about feelings. But when he asked me to be the godmother of his son, that was like, ‘Oh, he really likes me.’ It’s a special connection. It’s been really great. I spend a lot more time at his place in France, so we’ve worked a lot more on the bike. And I guess that’s how it should work, because it’s a long offseason and we don’t really have many races before the World Cup season.

When he asked you to be the godmother, how did he tell you and what was your reaction?

Höll: I was actually pretty funny. It was just a Sunday riding with him in France. He actually didn’t tell me, he gave me a tiny card when we left and he said open it when you’re alone. So I opened it as soon as he was gone. And then he wrote a super nice card where he told me he was so proud of me for winning the overall, and that he wants me to be his son’s godmother.

I think it's my age that I care a bit too much what other people think about me.

You’ve only raced two elite seasons, and you’ve accomplished so much. You’ve won a World Cup overall, you’ve won several World Cup races, you’ve won a World Championship. How do you want to keep building on yourself as a rider at this point?

Höll: So right now I actually don’t know what to expect. I mean, obviously, you can say, ‘Oh, I want to be a five-time world champion.’ But achieving it for the first time and ticking that off at 20 is pretty insane. 

I still feel like I have to learn so much. The last two seasons, I started super low with lots of crashing. I just want to be a super consistent and dominant force in downhill racing. I want to be the one that’s beating the others by a few seconds. I don’t want to have close races. I want to be able to win every racetrack, doesn’t matter if it’s wet or dry, steep, long or short. I just want to be that super, all-around racer.

Going into next season, do you feel pressure to live up to expectations? And if so, what do you do to lessen that pressure?

Höll: I think it’s my age that I care a bit too much what other people think about me. I guess that was also one of the problems I had at the beginning of the season, because I was so scared of letting people down. I guess when you get older, you don’t really care about what other people think, it’s more about your performance and what you think about yourself, and maybe your closest team members and the people who help you and support you. So that’s just something I want to learn and grow as a human and as an athlete.

Vali after a disappointing race run in Leogang.

Going back to what you said about being more vulnerable and talking to people about how you’re actually feeling. What was some of the feedback you received that came from that openness?

Höll: I think the first time for them, they really appreciated that I let them in my circle. Before, they were maybe right about how I was feeling, but they weren’t sure because they couldn’t read my mind. They didn’t really know how I felt because I don’t really talk much at races anyway, because I’m so nervous. Even when I’m happy I’m not like, ‘Oh, I’m so stoked!’ But for them it was really good that I let them closer to me, and it was way easier for them to work together and try to figure out what to do and what to change. 

For me, it was not really a problem that the bike wasn’t working, or my fitness level wasn’t there. But as soon as I opened up to people, my season and my performance got way better, and I enjoyed being at the races.

You haven’t been making downhill racing a career for a very long time, but looking back on how far you’ve come so far, did you ever imagine being where you are?

Höll: Oh man, it’s so hard because obviously everybody wants to be World Champion or wants to win a World Cup, and it happened already so quickly. 

I’m a really impatient person. So for me it took way too long, which is a joke because it’s so hard to win races at the elite level. And then now that it happened, I don’t really know what to do next. It sounds kind of weird, but I actually start university in one month. It’s not that I want to focus on something else, but I feel like I have time for it. And I definitely want to keep on racing for the next few years, but who knows. 

I’m thinking a lot about trying other disciplines as well. I want to try some enduro. I’m thinking a little bit about BMX because I want to do the Olympic Games in my athletic career, and I don’t know if DH is ever going to be an Olympic sport. So who knows?

As soon as I opened up to people, my season and my performance got way better, and I enjoyed being at the races.

Where are you going to university and what are you studying?

Höll: The university is in Vienna, but most of it is online, so I can be quite flexible during my race season. And I’m studying business administration and sports. Basically what I’m doing now is a bit more structured and it can also help me a lot to build my own brand. And I enjoy managing stuff, like managing other people.

What was your favorite moment of the season?

Höll: It was Andorra, actually. Because our junior rider Tegan [Cruz] made the podium for the first time. And it was so cool because he also struggled a little bit at the beginning of the season. It was his first World Cup season. He got a 10th place and was kinda out of the top five. And then suddenly in Andorra he got third, and I was so stoked for him. 

It’s also great because I still have enough time to watch his race before my start, so I waited at the finish line for him. And seeing him so stoked motivated me so much that I was like, ‘Man, I really want to be happy again when I get to the finish.’ And then a few hours later, I won my first elite World Cup after crashing four times in a row. So it was just amazing because I never really had that team vibe. It’s so cool when someone is doing well in your team because it influences you, too. And sharing those experiences is really, really cool.

The World Championship celebration.

Being teammates with Tegan, and with him being where you were just a couple years ago, have you been able to help him adjust to racing World Cups? Have you been able to mentor him a bit?

Höll: Yeah, it was funny because it was in Andorra, and then he did really well in Snowshoe as well. But the next race was Mont-Sainte-Anne, and that was kind of his home race, and I know how hard home races are. I always do well until my race in Leogang, just because you have a bit more expectations of yourself when you race at home. And I could feel it as soon as we arrived in Mont-Sainte-Anne, he was so quiet, and Tegan is never quiet. He’s always happy and smiling all the time, talking all the time. 

He didn’t do well in the race, but it was good for him to learn it. Obviously, I also haven’t figured out yet what to do at a home race. But it’s good to tell him that it’s all right. It’s harder for you to focus because everybody knows you. You want to do well and it’s special, but you should also enjoy it. Me and Tegan, we talk a lot about the mental side of racing. So I’m happy if I can give him some tips. And he helps me to be a bit more fun and loose and enjoy the experience more outside of racing.

How much do you enjoy being in a team like that? Downhill race is an individual sport, but you have your teammates and you have a very tight knit group around you. How much does that help you perform?

Höll: Definitely a lot. Like I enjoy races so much at the moment, just because I just like to hang out with the boys. We watch movies, we go to the jacuzzi, we go to the river, we play tennis. We do so much around racing, and I think it’s so important because in the past, I only traveled to the race, did the race and went home. There was nothing in between or outside of racing. So it’s really cool when you actually enjoy going to the races, and you actually wish there were more races just to hang out with your team.