Vali Höll isn't concerned with being one of downhill's hottest names. She's just here to enjoy the ride.
Vali Höll, at 19 years old, has already won races and posted times that place her squarely among the fastest downhill riders in the world. She has won two junior world championships and two junior World Cups; her trajectory and notoriety are ascending quickly.
And yet, the newly-minted RockShox Trek Race Team rider doesn’t want anyone to make a big fuss just yet. She’s mostly just happy to be on the world stage.
“I would never say I’m a pro because it doesn’t feel like I am,” Höll said. “I still have all my heroes racing in the World Cups, and every time I see them I’m super excited and nervous to talk to them. I hope it stays like that because I think it keeps me grounded on Earth.”
The life of a burgeoning downhill star can be pretty weird. Höll has been committed full-time to her racing career since just last June, when she graduated high school. Though it may seem like she’s been around for years, Höll’s career is still in its infancy. She is only now learning what kind of impact she can create.
“I’m still looking up to bike riders at the moment, and I still would like to take a photo with them. And now kids want to do the same with me,” Höll said. “I just hope I can inspire them like my heroes inspired me.”
Below, we caught up with Vali about her love for racing, how she’s sparking the downhill’s growth in Austria and what she’s looking forward to as part of RockShox Trek. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What got you into riding for the first time? And in particular, how did you get into downhill riding?
Vali Höll: Basically my parents were always riding bikes. They did more cross country-style riding, like mostly uphill, but then three years after I was born they flew to Whistler, and then they were totally into free riding and only going down. And as a kid, I hated to pedal, so the only way was down the hill. So that’s how I got into riding, through my parents.
I was always doing ski races in the winter, and then I think my dad found the Kids Cup Series, it’s a European rookies race cup thing. And he just found it on the internet, and then we just went there and I won my very first race.
How old were you then?
Höll: I think I was 11 or 12 years old.
What was the feeling of winning your first race? After that, were you like, “That’s it, I want to stick with this”?
Höll: It’s actually pretty funny, because at that time I had to race with the boys. And I never raced before so I didn’t know if I’m fast or where I am. Then I beat all the boys and my dad was like, “Well, maybe you’re OK at riding bikes.” That was the beginning, and then I just kept going, racing the rookies cup. And then I stepped into the European cup, and then somehow I ended up in the World Cup.
I know it’s not necessarily the most popular sport in Austria. Is that part of the reason why you like it?
Höll: To be really good in skiing, that’s quite hard in Austria because there’s so many races. And the people in the biking industry, they’re just way nicer. I think in one year of racing the rookies cup, I’ve made way more friends than eight years of ski racing because in ski racing everybody’s way more focused on what they’re doing. I don’t know, they’re not as cool as the bike riders.
I never raced before so I didn't know if I'm fast or where I am. Then I beat all the boys and my dad was like, 'Well, maybe you're OK at riding bikes.'
Tell me about this opportunity with RockShox Trek. When did you find out there was going to be a team, and how did you become involved?
Höll: I was already under the SRAM umbrella, so I felt supported by SRAM pretty early — I think already in 2015 or 16, so even when I wasn’t racing big races. For me it was the only choice to move forward because I knew I needed a place where I can learn more, and where I have people like Tracy [Moseley] or Andrew [Shandro], and obviously all the other racers who ride Trek can teach me something. And when it was Trek with RockShox together, that was pretty sick because I wanted to stay in the SRAM-RockShox family. Because if you have a supporter from Day 1, it’s pretty hard to say goodbye. I didn’t want to leave them.
What are you hoping to get out of this opportunity? You’re already very accomplished at a young age. What more are you hoping to develop?
Höll: Well with the RockShox Trek Race Team, I have a lot of influence in how the team works. I could bring in my coach, my physio. I could bring in my long term mechanic Mat and some friends. I think it’s really important to have a team where you feel like a family and people know how you work already. If you’re in a race situation, you’re a bit different than normal, so even though you’re not talking, people know how to talk to you. I think that it’s really important if you want to be successful. It helps a lot and saves a lot of energy.
2020 was an odd year for a lot of reasons. I believe it was your first year out of school. Obviously, there was a pandemic, and there was the injury. So what are you hoping to accomplish in 2021 that maybe you weren’t able to accomplish in 2020?
Höll: Actually I think 2020 was really good for me. I think I progressed a lot. I actually crashed way more than I used to the years before, but I think I was forced to step up to it, and now I just have to get used to the speed. Winning CrankWorx in Innsbruck for the first time and then qualifying first just gave me a big boost, and really helped how I see myself now in the World Cup. First place is always hard to reach again, but I think I know what I can do. It’s a big help mentally in preparing for this season because I know what I have to do and where I have to be to be in the mix.
Was it hard or disappointing to not be able to race as much as you would have liked last year, especially considering how much you improved as a rider? And how did you occupy your time when you didn’t have as much racing as you wanted to do?
Höll: For me, it was actually a good thing that the races got postponed because then I could fully concentrate on my graduation, which was in June. It would have been super stressful and I would have likely missed one or two World Cups. I just concentrated 100 percent on school, finished school and then I just went riding every day. I think I’ve never been that much on my bike before. Even with the pandemic, I didn’t have to go to school, just homeschooling, so I spent way more time outside.
I think I’m one of the only people who who could take advantage of the whole situation.
A different sort of question, but how would you describe yourself as a person? How would you describe your personality?
Höll: Oh that’s tough. I don’t know, I would never see myself as a pro rider, even though I don’t go to school anymore and I can live from it. I would never say I’m a pro because it doesn’t feel like I am. I didn’t achieve something yet. And I think even if I win something in the future, I still wouldn’t feel like I’m a pro, because I still have all my heroes racing in the World Cups and every time I see them I’m like super excited and nervous to talk to them. I hope it stays like that because I think it keeps me grounded on Earth.
It sounds like it doesn’t feel like a job yet for you, which I think is a very positive thing. Is that right?
Höll: Yeah, and I hope that I will never call it a job because it should always be fun. I guess when you’re racing it should be serious and you should be concentrated, but going riding should never be tough.
Have you noticed people knowing who you are more often? Do you enjoy that feeling?
Höll: It’s super weird, like when people ask for a picture. I just think it’s because of the Red Bull helmet, because that stands out a little bit more than others. But yeah, it’s super weird because, like I said, I’m still looking up to bike riders at the moment, and I still would like to take a photo with them. And now kids want to do the same with me. It’s so super strange but I kinda enjoy it. I just hope I can inspire them like my heroes inspired me. That’s the right way to do it.
And who has inspired you the most in your career?
Höll: For sure Rachel Atherton. And Lindsey Vonn from skiing. I think she’s badass.
What about them and what about their careers do you most look up to?
Höll: I think for both of them, it’s crazy how they came back after big injuries. The first race they came back, and most of the time they just won the first race and I think that’s pretty impressive. But it seems like after every injury they got stronger and stronger and stronger and it didn’t hold them back. And if they don’t win, they’re still on the podium. So that’s super impressive.
I hope that I will never call it a job because it should always be fun. I guess when you're racing it should be serious and you should be concentrated, but going riding should never be tough.
Who has supported you the most throughout your career, and who’s been the most important person to getting you to the level of success and where you are today?
Höll: Well definitely my parents, because I think biking is a super expensive hobby. So I was really, really glad that they supported me, that they drove me like 700 kilometers to a race in Germany. I think that was super nice of them, that they gave me the opportunity, they bought me a bike, all the traveling expenses until I got the deal with SRAM. I’m super thankful for that.
And also Angie [Hohenwarter], she’s my godmother. She taught me so much about how to get sponsors and what to do so that they are happy and that everybody’s happy. So yeah, definitely close friends and family are the most important.
How are you enjoying this journey overall? Is downhill racing still really fun for you, and do you see it as your career passion?
Höll: Yeah, I mean it’s weird. It’s now been like half a year where I don’t have anything else to do than just focus on my downhill career. It feels super weird. I’m actually thinking about going to university in September already because I feel like I need something for my brain, because I really enjoy going out riding and actually going to the gym so it doesn’t feel like a hard effort.
Right now, for the next few years, I think I’m pretty fine with doing that, but I think I’ll need something else for my brain just to switch off.
What’s your favorite moment ever on a bike, either in a race or not?
Höll: I think I had this moment when I traveled to Whistler, to CrankWorx, and went to the Dirt Merchant trail. I think that’s just the best feeling because it’s only like every two years that I make it. I mean, I’m happy that I make it every two years because other people haven’t been to Whistler. But, you know, Dirt Merchant laps are the best things in the world, to be honest.
You mentioned you went there when you were really little, too. Is Whistler a special place to you?
Höll: My parents went there. And I think it’s kind of a connection because after the trip, my parents, they came home from a trip from Whistler in 2004 and my dad started to build his own trails out in a forest, and that’s basically where I grew up riding. And every time I go to Whistler, I just love riding my bike so much. Maybe there’s a bit of a connection there.
Since you’ve been racing downhill, which has been a while now, have you noticed it becoming a more popular sport in Austria? And do you feel like you’ve already inspired some people to take up the sport and take up a mountain bike?
Höll: It’s actually crazy because there are no other women’s downhill racers in Austria at the moment at the elite level. And I don’t feel like it is my job, but now there are so many 12/13 year old girls, and my dad said it’s because of me. I don’t feel like it is, but I would wish it was because of me. And, yeah, it’s definitely getting more popular, like even with David Trummer, who got second at World Champs in Leogang. And we have all the bike parks. We have everything already. We just need lots of young people coming into the sport, and I think that’s happening right now. I would be so stoked if in five years we would be a strong nation like the Frenchies are at the moment.
You’ll be only be gaining more fans. What do you want those fans to know about you? Or what do you want people who are becoming your fans to know about you?
Höll: That’s tough, I don’t know. What’s an example of what other people said?
You’re the first one so there’s no example to follow.
… but it could be about your goals, or how you like to race, or the impression you want to leave as a role model. Anything like that.
Höll: My biggest dream would be that I could inspire young kids like my heroes inspired me, because I think it’s so cool if you have someone you admire so much that you go training even though you don’t want to. And you hang out with your friends in the bike park because you know your idol is also riding with their friends, and just being a good person and enjoying what you do and not losing the fun of it. I think that’s the goal to being a good person.