John Hall Interview
Posted : 16/06/2017
Aaron Gwin is one of the most successful downhill racers of all time. Behind Gwin is a full team of staff ensuring that he can execute the ultimate race run when the clock starts. One of the key figures in Gwin’s team is his long time mechanic, John Hall. We get to know some more about the man responsible for the world’s fastest bike.
How would you describe yourself as a mechanic, in four words?
I would have to say “Detailed, focused, methodical, coffee.
And how would you describe yourself away from work, again in four words?
I’d like to think “Laid-back, quiet, fun. Also coffee.
Prior to becoming a World Cup mechanic, you served in the Marine Corps. What can you tell us about your time there and how it changed you, as a person?
Indeed I did. I’d like to say my time in the Marine Corps was the best of times and the worst of times, haha! It definitely transforms you but it transforms everyone differently. I was taught how to work hard from a young age along with many other great values my parents instilled in me, but the Marine Corps most certainly reinforced those. I would say it taught me so much more about discipline, perseverance, teamwork and the ability to make things happen no matter what the circumstances are or how bad things suck…you just have to do it and you do it with intensity (embrace the suck, haha!). It was such a short period of time in my life but there’s no doubt it had the biggest impact for sure. I could talk for days about lessons learned and what those days were like but the biggest thing I took away from the Marine Corps is that it’s just a check in the box in the grand scheme of things. Whether you do 4 years or 20 years, don't let it define or limit who you are. You may do great things in the Marine Corps but don't let it be the only great thing you do. I try to use the skills and lessons I learned there and apply them to continue to do well in whatever I do. As long as I can keep doing that, then I’m a happy man.
We did a bit of racing research and it seems there’s a pretty fast Expert called John Hall in the SoCal area! Can you tell us about your history as a rider and racer?
Oh man, must be a different John Hall if he’s fast! Haha! I grew up in a fairly small town in South Dakota where racing bikes wasn't really a thing. I ended up with a BMX anyway and just rode around by myself at first. I was fortunate enough to find like-minded friends, some of which were doing a bit of racing and were kind enough to haul me around for a little bit and teach me a thing or two. From there I was hooked and racing/riding was all I cared about. I even quit all the other sports I was doing, and in typical small town fashion most people thought that was a dumb move just to ride “kids bikes.” After outgrowing the local race scene I eventually started making it to a few ABA Nationals when we could afford it and did alright in the expert class. It was definitely challenging at the national level when you’re lining up on the gate with Bubba Harris and he just SMOKES you to the first turn, haha! I even made it to World Champs one year in Salt Lake City, UT. After that I kind of just went back to riding dirt jumps and street for fun again. One of my main riding buddies was injured in a car accident we were involved in headed to the ABA Grands one year and he couldn't ride BMX anymore due to the body position it put you in. The doc said mountain biking should be alright though! So I jumped on the mountain bike thing with him because who else was I going to ride with? Haha! Fast forward to being stationed in California when I got out of the Marine Corps and I decided I wanted to stay here and not move back to South Dakota. So I jumped right back into it. Turns out people who race in California year round are a fair bit faster than in South Dakota due to winters, so that was a reality check. But nonetheless, I’ve been having fun riding and being involved with mountain bikes ever since and it’s been the best decision yet.
What and where would be your ultimate day on the bike now?
My ultimate day and place on the bike is somewhere up in the Sierra Mountains with a handful of my best friends riding the kind of trails where everyone is hooping and hollering because you’re going so fast and having so much fun ripping through the woods without a care in the world except where the next turn you're gonna blast is at.
So, there’s pretty much two kinds of mechanic; those taught and those self-taught. Which are you and can you tell us about how you gained the skills to prep’ the world’s fastest bike?
I would say that there’s a third type of mechanic which is a mixture of both; self-taught as well as taught professionally. I believe I fall into that category. I was definitely taught the basics in the beginning by other mechanics while working in bike shops. But then there’s a certain point where you kind of have to just figure things out for yourself and make a few mistakes to really learn the best way to do things. That’s certainly what I did. But I would always watch other mechanics and how they did things, then take what they did well or what I liked and applied it to my craft. If you do that enough over the years then you eventually end up with a pretty handy set of skills. I still watch other mechanics, talk to them as much as I can and pick their brains on how or why they do things a certain way. There’s a ton of mechanics that are more knowledgeable than I am and there’s always something to learn from them, good or bad. So feel free to stop by and chat anytime! I’m always willing to share my knowledge with others!
It seems like you have been Gwin’s mechanic forever! How long has it been and how did you get hooked up with the gig in the first place?
It doesn’t feel that long for me! Every race still kinda feels like the first. This job is the farthest from boring so time really flies. My first year with Aaron was in 2014 and we kicked it off at a couple local races and then just dove straight into the World Cup season! That was a wild ride for sure but in hindsight, it was crazier than I had known at the time. I had no idea how things worked on the circuit but I learned real fast! I got into it by first meeting Rich Houseman while he was running an ODI development team with Aaron coaching the kids in conjunction with Trek and then Specialized when Aaron made the switch. I was helping with bike builds and taking care of the juniors at local races and select bigger races like National Champs and Sea Otter. It was tough taking care of 3 juniors and making parts stretch as long as possible but they were awesome to work with and really taught me about being organized and ready for anything. Then one day in 2013, Rich asked if I would be willing to help Aaron out during the offseason just to keep his bikes dialed away from the races, kind of like a practice mechanic. I was beyond excited for that kind opportunity! That led to helping him at a couple 2014 pre-season races in Fontana and then Bootleg Canyon. I could tell Rich was working on something but he kept me pretty well in the dark. Little did I know that Specialized was re-staffing the DH program and Rich was helping to fill those spots. Aaron and I had just returned from Bootleg Canyon and we were just sitting around in his kitchen when he asked if I wanted to go to World Cups with him. I had to keep myself from freaking out, haha! but I said, “Heck yeah I do!” So he called Specialized on Monday and told them he found his mechanic. With Rich Houseman, Eric Carter and Aaron all vouching for me, the Global Marketing Manager called me and hired me over the phone, I couldn't believe it. Talk about a dream come true. With that I quit school, put my two week notice in and packed my bags. It was off to the races from that point on!
You’ve been working with Renthal products for four years now, first with S-Racing and now with The YT-Mob. From a mechanic’s perspective, what’s your favorite Renthal product and why?
It may sound cliché, but you really can’t beat any of the bar and stem combos! As a mechanic you really look for quality in a product. After all, the riders safety is in your hands and no mechanic in his right mind is going to put his rider on something that has a chance to fail and potentially hurt their rider. The amount of research and development along with fatigue testing that goes into all Renthal products absolutely blows my mind. After seeing the quality control tests and what the product goes through before it’s ever given to a rider or the public is simply amazing. I can honestly say that I trust my riders safety in the hands of Renthal products.
Being Gwin’s mechanic, you’ve seen a lot of success over the years! What would be your proudest moment as a mechanic and can you tell us why this moment tops your bill?
I’d like to think the bulk of that success is largely credited to Aaron and his dedication to his racing craft. As a mechanic, it’s hard to ask for a better rider. It’s really been an honor to be a part of it and watch it firsthand. With that being said, there’s so many special moments over the last years it’s hard to pick just one. From our “First race, first place” streak to all the wins and two overall championships together. But if I have to pick just one, it would have to be Windham, NY 2015. He was in 1st place in the overall, we were the number one team so we had the yellow background on the number plate, both our families were there and it was in the good ole’ USA. I’m pretty sure he even qualified into the first spot so he was the last man to drop. Talk about pressure cooker situation! But besides all of that, the fans are what made it so special. When we got on the chairlift to go up for race run and one guy spots AG on the lift and yells his name, the entire crowd ERUPTED. To have that many thousands of people cheering for you in your home country is one of the craziest feelings. When he dropped in for his race run I don't think I have ever been so nervous. But when I got the radio call that he had won, well that was just the icing on the cake. That’s the race where the fans busted onto the track near the finish after he’d passed them, running down the track after him with chainsaws, haha! That was the first World Cup my Mom ever attended and she had to ask me if that was real because the crowd was THAT insane. Winning in your home country is a tough one to beat.
When Aaron lines up in the start hut, your job is done and there’s is nothing more you can do. What goes through your mind whilst he’s on track?
It’s just that, there’s nothing more you can do. I really used to be a nervous wreck and still am to a degree. Race runs are crazy and anything can happen. But with experience comes wisdom and I’ve really learned to trust in myself that I’ve given him the best machine possible to do what he does best and that helps keep me calm.
You and Aaron live pretty close to each other and seem as though you have a great friendship. Do you hang out away from the races and in the off-season?
Yeah I’d say we’re pretty good friends and hang out away from the races as well as in the offseason. Whether it’s just to meet up for a coffee and chat, go to the rock climbing gym or check out the latest funny movie, it’s always fun to bro down, haha! This offseason I was riding a little more than usual and got to where I could join him on his more chill training rides. That was really fun and was one of the first times I could see my endurance start to improve.
And finally, what would be your best tip to improve bike performance, that people may have not thought about?
Hmmm that’s always a tough one. Performance wise I would say having good suspension on your bike and keeping it serviced regularly is a good one. Good suspension can make an OK bike feel really good and poor suspension can make a good bike feel not so great. But in general, you would be surprised how nice your bike will ride if you just keep up on general maintenance like keeping it clean and the chain lubed. That doesn't mean you have to wash it with soap and water or a pressure washer after every ride (that will kill your linkage bearings) but just a simple wipe down with a microfiber rag and some polish will do the trick. If you don't have bike polish then any furniture dust cleaner works great and can be found nearly anywhere! Not only does that serve to keep your rig looking fresh for each ride, it allows you to inspect each part of the bike as you clean it for any safety concerns. Looking for any frame damage, broken or damaged parts in need of replacement or loose spokes. Those simple steps will keep your bike looking good and performing well for years to come!