Mar 15, 2024

The Mad World of Downhill Biking with Valentina Höll

This Austrian biker is doing more for her sport than her country. And she’s also why her country is also trying to catch up.
by Justin Korn Editor

The last time Valentina Höll was in Herzogenaurach, she was around ten- or 11-years old  years old. She was with her dad shopping in the outlet. Surprisingly, not for bike equipment. She thinks it was for soccer apparel. She just recalls the outlet being “massive.” 

Massive might be how I would describe her rise to downhill biking stardom since then. Vali, as she’s known in the world of downhill biking, has won double-digit UCI World Cup trophies and is a two-time world championship titlist. I forgot to mention one tiny detail: she’s only 21 years old.   

During our chat, even she’s in disbelief over how much trophy ground she’s covered in such little time. “In downhill mountain biking, a lot of girls start to peak when they’re 30,” says Vali,  “So most of my competitors are ten years older than me, which is mad. I’m happy I didn’t have to wait that long and could start winning now.”  

 It’s a mad, mad biking world 

There once was a time when the older girls on the competitive downhill mountain biking circuit would call Vali the baby rocket. When she made her world cup debut at 16, she was fast. But her biggest nemesis was wiping out on the track. Then she learned how to consistently make it down the mountain in one piece after finding the right balance between speed and control. Now, she’s lethal – winning by a handful of seconds in many of the events.  

As a fully-fledged adult rocket, her competitors are now trying to keep up with her. Vali once again brings up her tender Blackjack age, which makes it all the more mindboggling: “It’s mad to me because I’m only 21.”  

At 21, she’s made the winners’ podium feel like a second home. A home where she invites a couple of her mates to join alongside her. It just so happens she had an unexpected house guest on the podium with her after a win in Leogang at the UCI Downhill World Cup in Austria, just this past summer.  

“It’s crazy now because this season, I met my hero (Referring to Rachel Atherton) for the first time, and I was winning the race and she was on the podium with me,” Vali says. “ And Rachel is the reason why I started world cup racing.” 

When the student becomes the teacher 

Vali is no stranger to overtaking her competitors. Her first recollections of getting into the passing lane date back to when she was a kid. Except it wasn’t on the competition circuit. It was when her parents wanted to keep a close eye on her. For Vali’s own safety during her earliest riding days, on family bike rides, her dad would lead the pack and her mom would trail closely behind Vali.  

After Vali started to look more self-assured on her set of wheels, Vali asked for her dad’s permission to overtake him because he was riding a little too slow to her liking. She admits,“ I don’t think he liked that day, but it was a big step.”  

Nowadays she doesn’t ask for permission – especially if it’s a world cup race. But still, like many of us who aren’t quite ready to admit we’ve moved beyond those familiar faces who molded and inspired us during our novice days, even Vali has mixed feelings about growing past her heroes.  

When it came to sharing the podium with Rachel Atherton, she says, “It feels so weird because you’ve got that hero and suddenly, they’re not unbeatable anymore. And then you start beating your hero, and then now it’s like s***; not that I don’t’ have a hero anymore, but this is how it feels – and it can happen that you’re better than your hero.”  

She’s now become a hero to others 

The circle of life on the muddy bike path continues with Vali. In the last year, she hosted a forum for young girls to train with her in her hometown of Saalbach, Austria.   

“I did my own camp, it was called the VH Performance camp,” Vali says, before adding a few details on the mood and itinerary of this epic rite of passage for the future riders to come. “The girls were super stoked. And we did technique training. They spent like three days of riding with me and stuff.”  

She’s since relocated to Innsbruck, but Vali keeps in touch with her camp alumni. “I’m going to start training again with those same kids a few times,” says Vali, “and try to be there as often as possible and talk to them — and they can hit me up if they want to go riding with them after school.” 

Then she sums her openness and willingness to help these young girls along their biking journey, and something tells me it’s a mantra that extends beyond her biking profession: “And if I have time, I’m going to do it.”  

Vali divulges that it’s likely two of the girls from her camp will be sharing the podium with her in the not-so-distant future. She tells me that these girls are already pretty fast, but for Vali,  “it’s cool to see because before there were no Austrians that good in downhill mountain biking and now, I can see a future coming.”   

Her influence in Austria’s biking scene also gives her some relief too. “I’m just stoked that once they’re old enough to race I can retire and not have to get beaten by them,” Vali says.  

Vali isn’t just influencing her peers, but also her country 

If it wasn’t for Vali’s parents, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Vali would’ve been a winter sports gal. Her next favorite thing to do outside of biking is skiing. There are also plenty of national teams and winter sports schools set up in Austria to provide coaching and direction for a career down the slopes.  

But Vali tells me that while the Austrian alps provide the perfect stomping ground for young mountain bikers, there weren’t any clubs or national teams when she was growing up. She was also critical of Austria’s non-existent infrastructure for pursuing a two-wheeled career down the mountains.  

“The national team really didn’t like me because I was always telling them how s*** they are because obviously they’re not doing any work,” she tells me, but she is seeing improvements in the works. “Now they’ve changed – and now is the first time I’m telling them good job and they’re happy about that.”  

And in Vali’s defense, she’s a biker, she’s not a politician. To break through to her country, she had to treat the people in a position to help with the same coarseness that a downhill course treats its bikers. With grit, dirt, and toughness. “I’m just telling them how it is,” Vali says.  

She not only wins, but she gets s*** done 

Thanks in part to Vali voicing her feedback, Austria has upped their downhill mountain biking game and much has changed in the ten years since Vali visited our outlet – and made a career out of biking.  

Now, Austria has an under-18 national downhill biking team. Adding to the list of the country’s milestones, she says,

"There’s a lot more girls in biking, more events, more races – there’s even a race series in Austria."

Valentina Höll

She continues, “Now, Austria is doing really well in the world cup and stuff is happening and I’m really proud to see those changes. I’m also proud to be Austrian and to race for them.” With Vali making a strong push for her country – and doing her part as well – to focus on kids and the sport’s future, the 21-year-old is shaping the sport from the inside out.  

Standing on the podium and breaking records is just the beginning for Vali. And it’s only one part of what makes her extraordinary. The other parts that make Vali an extraordinary rider and personality can be found in what she finds “mad” and what gets her “stoked.” Go ahead and ask her when you have a chance.