SEARCHING FOR GOLD
Shaun Palmer’s 1996 Worlds Race Kit
Words: Mike Rose
Photos: Duncan Philpott
It’s almost 20 years ago that I found myself searching around in Steve Peat’s loft. It was 2002 and Steve had just won the World Cup overall for the first time. I was looking to do a magazine article about interesting things that people (mountain bikers) had stashed away in their spare rooms, garages, etc. I’d started taking photos of all sorts of random objects at various people’s houses, but when I got to Peaty’s I really struck gold.
In the gloom of his loft he had the usual number plates, Troy Lee Designs painted helmets, plastic (broken) ankle support boots (!), but there were also bags and boxes full of race kit. But these weren’t just any random jerseys and pants, these were from some of the biggest names in downhill and motocross.
In and amongst jerseys with names like McGrath, Emig and Carmichael emblazoned across the back of them was one that really stood out to me, a piece of mountain bike history. Tatty, hacked about, still smudged and dusted with five year old orange earth was a red, white and blue jersey that looked like it had been in a fight and then shot with a twelve-bore! On the front the famous logos of INTENSE and FOX shouted out, on the back… well the game was up… PALMER, Shaun PALMER. A name that conjures up so many images and memories.
Palmer was the crossover extreme sports specialist who thought he’d give downhill mountain bike racing a go. His life story is well documented – the highs and the lows, the good and the bad – but what he did for mountain biking (and downhill specifically) was to stir it up, to light a fire under it. He brought an image and attitude and blew the roof off it all. A fierce competitor, a raw talent that could turn his hand to almost anything and excel, he could be an intimidating and explosive presence out on the race track. The tattoos, the crazy haircuts… he gave the sport a different focus, and even though what he wore was taken directly from his beloved motocross he gave the DH world a taste of what its fledgling identity could be. It may look a little old fashioned and dated now, but back in 1996 it was almost revolutionary. During this time he rode on INTENSE bikes for three years between 1994 and 1996, it was a time when downhill racing was desperate to find itself… and then along came Palmer.
Back in the loft the jersey was bundled in with some race pants... the complete package that turned out to be part of Palmer’s 1996 World Championships race kit, a race he famously lost by just 0.15 of a second. We took it all outside, I took some photos and then said my goodbyes. Those photos never got used, the article was never written, and I forgot about them for nearly two decades. I’ve no idea what it was, but something made me think about this kit and a late summer’s day spent with Steve Peat. I needed to know more, so I asked the man himself.
So Steve, what have we got here?
This is a Shaun Palmer race kit from the 1996 World Championships in Cairns, Australia. This was the kit that he was practising in. It is still full of dust. It was also the time when he was transitioning from snowboarding so it was his ‘summer job’, that’s what he liked to call it. I’ve had this in my loft for a hell of a long time, I was always into collecting motocross jerseys and stuff like that, so when Palmer gave me that kit it was pretty special.
So 1996, what was Steve Peat up too back then?
In ‘96 I would have been 22. I’d raced a few years cross country, but 1993 was the first year that I was racing both downhill and cross country in the UK. I won the series and went to the World Champs at the end of that year. In 1994 I did a couple of World Cups riding for Kona UK, 1995 was my first year as a pro riding for the Saracen team and I did a full World Cup season. Then in 1996 that got me onto the MBUK team riding GT bikes. We finished the World Cup season in Hawaii and then went straight on to Cairns where we spent a month training and preparing... and having a bit of fun. I’d got to know Palmer at the beginning of that year, and we became pretty good friends. We hung out a lot in Australia… and yeah… it would have been good if he’d won that race!
You and Palmer have been friends for a very long time, but do you remember your first meeting?
Yeah I do. At the beginning of ‘96 we went to Panticosa in Spain, it was the first World Cup of the year. I was pretty heavily into snowboarding as I was getting better at mountain biking as well, so I was getting all the magazines, watching all the videos and stuff (VHS videos that is!). And Palmer showed up for the race, and he was actually staying in the same hotel as us, and I was pretty… kind of star struck I suppose. I knew who he was, and it was cool that he was racing mountain bikes. I saw him at breakfast a couple of times, and we’d had the first day of practice, and at the end of that first day he was in the basement of the hotel working on his bike. So I just went over to him and was like, “alright Palmer, I’m a bit of a snowboard fan as well, I hear you’ve got a fight with Boozy the Clown coming up”, because that was this big thing in snowboarding, Palmer and Boozy the Clown were going to go in this boxing ring and fight each other. He just brushed me off, he was like, “I don’t think it’s going to happen mate”. Whatever, and I thought to myself, “he’s a bit of a dick”!
So anyway, I carried on that weekend and I ended up getting second at that race and we were hanging out in the RockShox truck. It was Nevegal the week after, and I was getting a lift in the truck to Italy, and it turned out that Palmer was coming along too. So after I got second at that race he decided that he’d talk to me, ha. We had a right laugh. We drank beers in the truck, and chatted about shit all the way to Nevegal (over 1,500km/900 miles). And that was it, we became friends and hung out for years.
Do you remember what the deal was with the kit, because this isn’t the top he wore in the finals?
It was his practice kit. Obviously when you are racing for your country at the World Championships you can’t ride in your own kit, you have to ride in your country’s kit. So yeah, he put a lycra number on for his race run, a USA jersey.
‘Summer Job’ was his little dig at some of his competitors. Do you remember the reaction he got from that?
He was kind of over snowboarding at that point, still doing a little bit when he had to, but he loved mountain biking at the time, so obviously winter job, summer job. And yeah, it was just a little dig, he always did things to have a little dig at fellow competitors or just to have a bit of fun with himself actually, just looking cool and doing fun things.
And the holes cut in the back, and the cut off sleeves? What was all that about?
Well we were in Australia and it was quite warm. I think guys used to do that in motocross too, especially cutting the holes in the jersey just to get a bit of air flow through and not be as hot. The jerseys back then were like thick cotton and they were warm, so he just cut the sleeves off… and he probably just wanted to show off his tattoos knowing him!
This is very much moto inspired, big and baggy?
Yeah, that was Palmer, he brought motocross style clothing into mountain biking. A lot of the guys that we were racing at that time had come from cross country or road and we were just running cycling clothing, nobody really knew anything different. Palmer came from motocross and he started using that clothing because it was more comfortable for him and it took off. He started a trend.
The legend goes that Palmer was livid having lost that race by such a small margin, do you remember what he was like afterwards?
Oh yeah, he was absolutely pissed off, he wanted nothing more than to beat Nico Vouilloz, ‘the little Frenchman’, and yeah, he was fired up to win that race. Especially with that summer job thing, he was like, “yeah I’m gonna come in and smoke mountain biking”. I don’t remember what he said at the finish, but he was proper pissed off that he had lost by such a small amount.
I know that it was kind of traditional back then to swap jerseys, did you ever think that almost 25 years later you’d still be talking about them?
Everyone used to swap jerseys, they still do it today, people collect jerseys and all that sort of stuff. I don’t think back then that I was thinking about 25 years down the line… I was living for the day. I just liked to collect jerseys off people that influenced me or I liked their style… that sort of stuff.
Do you have any other ‘Palmer memorabilia’, I think I saw another jersey in there.
Yeah I have another INTENSE/FOX jersey, it’s yellow and purple, looks like a Cadbury’s Caramel bar type of thing… yellow purple and white. I think it’s got a SWAG logo and some other stuff. I was probably at his house when he got a massive delivery of jerseys and I asked if I could have one, so that’s part of my collection too.
All of this stuff is one-off, highly collectable, one of a kind… it’s a real piece of downhill history.
You’re right, I’m sure there are a lot of people that would give their right arm for Palmer’s ‘96 Cairns kit, but to me, I just look at it and it’s Palmer, it’s my mate. It brings back memories when I look at it, so I like to see it every so often… the good times that we had, hanging out with my mate. I still talk to him quite often, and he’s a salty old dog, but he’s a good lad and I’m stoked I’ve got a bit of that.
This is one of the very few photographs of Palmer in the actual race top that we could find. Hanging out with John Tomac, Kamikaze, 1996. Photographer unknown.Note: Just for the record. We must give a nod here to photographer Geoff Waugh who in 2016 photographed this race kit for his ‘Dirty Jerseys’ book project. If you hassle him enough he might sell you a print of this kit. Great minds think alike.