On the eve of his return to the bright lights of the world racing stage, Jared Graves sat down with [R]evolution Magazine for his first proper interview in over a year.
In classic ‘ruthlessly honest’ Jared style he doesn’t hold back when discussing everything from the highs and lows of battling brain cancer, to dealing with the adversity of doping allegations, to ultimately beating cancer and now preparing his return to racing with the team that he says has always felt like ‘home’.
VALLIORE EWS round three. Valliore France.
Let’s begin by going back to the start of the 2018 season. Even though your training and preparation had been strong heading into that year, after a few races it quickly became clear that your results just weren’t quite there. Was that a frustrating time as you searched for answers obviously unaware of what you were going to find out later in the year?
No that’s not how I saw it at all. There were a few small details early in the season that weren’t clicking. But in round 1 I was sitting comfortably inside the top 10 at the end of the first days racing, even with a couple of slow leak flats on stage 2 and 3, I knew I could have been in the top 3 at the end of the first day if I didn’t have those issues, then I exploded my rear wheel on a rock on the first stage Sunday morning and that race was over. Then in Round 2 in Colombia I was in 2nd, after stage 1 then broke my shifter when I got a bit loose on a turn on stage 2 and I snapped my shifter paddle on my knee, so I knew the speed was there but it seemed like all those little things were going against me that stopped the results from coming. People just don’t see your name in the overall results and they just think you are going crappy, but it was some really random mechanical issues that were keeping me from getting the results more than anything else. It wasn’t actually until a couple of months later for the next few rounds that I knew something weird was happening. I just couldn’t focus on what I was doing. I felt mentally fatigued all the time, unmotivated. Plus, it was wet at every race, and it’s probably no secret that the Specialized tyres that we had to run were seriously subpar in wet weather. I felt physically fine, so I was confused why I just had no motivation for anything, then the seizures started.
That happened for the first time while you were at the Whistler EWS at the midway point of the season, right? Was that the first time you noticed something might be going wrong inside your body?
Yes, over at the Whistler race was when I had my first seizure, before that race, I just thought I was a bit mentally burnt out from working my ass off at the start of the season, and all the other factors seemed to be working against me. It was a really frustrating start to the year, especially with my contract up at the end of the year. I kind of put the Whistler seizures down to stress and lack of sleep, which I was very short on, which was because of the tumour it turned out. I Just wanted to get through Whistler and then figure out what was going on when I got home, but I never thought that it was all because of a brain tumour.
How did it all play out when you got back to Australia and you had that major seizure in the middle of the night?
Well I had another seizure, but a very mild one the night I got home, just watching TV on the couch with Jess, but again (probably stupidly) I put it down to stress, Jet lag and lack of sleep. But then after a bad one another week later, I got taken off to hospital and the first thing was to get an MRI done.
So, you’re in the hospital and they’re running tests. Was it relatively easy for doctors to identify what was wrong at that point?
Yeah, they found it straight away, it was pretty obvious on the scans, even I could see straight away that there was something not normal with my scan. They told me that it looked like a tumour but they referred me to a specialist team in Brisbane for some more thorough examinations.
What was your official diagnosis?
Official diagnosis was a grade 2 Astrocytoma on the frontal lobe. Grade 1 being the best case, up to grade 4 being the worst, so grade 2 wasn’t too bad.
Can you share with us what is it like to sit there and be told that you’ve got a brain tumour!?
I think having a really good surgical team was a huge help. They kind of know how to explain it in a way that doesn’t make you completely freak out. I was surprised but also pretty calm about it all. I think it helped a lot that they could explain that it was found fairly early, and it could be removed surgically and then radiation and chemo would nuke anything that surgery didn’t get, they were able to reassure me straight away that I was in a fairly fortunate position, as far as prognosis goes.
Mentally can you recall how you were feeling through that period mate?
The worst part was the 2 weeks after diagnosis until surgery, just knowing that it was just sitting there and that you could possibly have a seizure again at any time. Then of course you think about what if things don’t go to plan, and of course the thought of having to go through brain surgery is a pretty scary thought for anyone. And knowing that your next 9 months was all mapped out with surgery, radiation and chemo, and that riding and racing wasn’t going to be happening anytime soon.
In terms of physical size how big did the doctors tell you that the tumour was at that point?
Jared: It was a bit bigger than a golf ball, so still fairly small, the tricky part was its location, it was less than 2 mm from the part of the brain that controls the entire left side of your body.
Wow that’s so crazy… was it causing you actual pain having that growing inside you head?
No, apart from the seizures and some of the mental fatigue that I thought was caused by other things, I didn’t actually feel anything, it’s common to get headaches, but I had none of that.
And so, what did the doctors tell you that your options were at that point?
They honestly didn’t really give me any options, they just said “look, you’re young and fit, so your more physically capable of dealing with this than anyone we can think of, So we want to be super aggressive and give you the most full on treatment, which won’t be fun at all, but we’re very confident you can handle it, and at the end of the day it will give you the best chance of getting rid of it and being able to get past all this.” So I just said, “yep…. sign me up!”
In terms of days how long was it before they had you on the operating table?
It was two weeks exactly from diagnosis to surgery.
,during 2009 Mountain Bike World Championships, Canberra, Australia.
Jeez that was a quick turnaround. So how did the operation go? Did they have to remove part of your skull or anything like that?
I had what is called an ‘awake craniotomy’ basically because it was so close to the part that controls my left side, I had to be awake to perform tests as they operated to make sure they weren’t damaging my control center. It was weird, when they started putting pressure on that part of my brain I would lose all movement in my left arm. This technique is only about 10 years old, and I was told if I had surgery to remove my tumour 15 years ago, then they would have had no way to know they were cutting into my control center, and I would have been a left side paraplegic. So, it’s a pretty cool time we live in when they have found techniques to avoid all that. That said, I still have some mild paralysis on the left side of my mouth, nothing that is noticeable, but its permanently a bit numb, and food tends to fall out my mouth a bit! Haha. Some words are harder to say than they used to be. I had to relearn some fine motor skills with my left hand, but being a right handed person, I don’t remember what my left hand skills were like to begin with. I definitely try to do more things with my left hand now than I used to, to try and get that back. Luckily on the bike I’ve noticed no issues. Both arms have equal strength.
Do you have any memory of when you woke up post-op, tell us a bit about how all that went?
I was super sedated still and had to spend a couple days in intensive care. Funny story though. Before surgery I was smashing back the coffee every day, just trying to get as much stuff done around the house that I could, while I could, like in overdrive, having 5-6 cups a day, When I woke up I had a big headache, but it was more at the back of my head, I soon figured out that it was from caffeine withdrawal. I quickly asked for a coffee and the headache went away instantly.
Did you need additional operations after that first big one?
No, just an MRI every 3 months to keep an eye on it.
That sounds so full on mate. So, what was the chain of events that followed, were you able to go home to recover or where you straight into chemo?
I had one full month of recovery, then 6 weeks of Radiation treatment, including low dose chemo at the same time. another month recovery, then 6 months of chemo cycles, 5 days on, then the rest of the month off to recover before the next cycle. So all up It was 9 months from Diagnosis to finishing Chemo.
Far out mate. You hear some crazy stories about chemo. How was it for you?
I think I was one of the lucky ones, my body seemed to handle it fairly well, but I just felt moody, flat, everything tasted like crap, and constant Nausea. But through all the chemo cycles, I only had a few days parked in front of the spew bucket, and I quickly learnt that if I didn’t eat much I wouldn’t feel sick, so I just kind of ate very minimally on the 5 days of chemo, then made sure I ate really well during the weeks off before the next cycle started. Overall for me it was no worse than being in bed with the flu. I found the constant bad taste in my mouth more frustrating.
Was the rest of your body holding up okay at that point with all the crazy meds and radiation and what not?
I’d say fairly well, the hardest part is that the fatigue grows with each round, so mentally that was kind of hard, knowing that the next round was going to be worse than the previous. Not dissimilar to a heavy training block though, knowing that the next block is going to be harder than the one before, so I was kind of used to the approach from a mental aspect.
“the internet is a bad, BAD, place to let uniformed people who hide behind anonymous usernames speculate and spread VERY misleading nonsense”
Okay, so you’re in the midst of your chemo sessions and all of a sudden ‘BAM’ news breaks online about the doping allegation involving yourself and Richie from earlier in the year. What was it alleged that you’d tested positive for?
Firstly, to say the timing that they chose to break that news came at a bad time for me, personally, was a major understatement! The stress of finding out about that (when I first got word of it in Whistler) was, I’m told, it was more than a little bit likely that it actually contributed quite a lot to the seizures that I had happening. So, I guess it could have actually been a blessing in disguise. And the only reason that it broke when it did was that some people that should not have known at that point somehow found out and started running their mouths, when they had no right to do so. I definitely wasn’t very happy with how Pink Bike approached us about it all and the timing of it. Seemed like they just wanted to get the news out there for the good of their website, and basically just said that they were going to run a story regardless, and we could either get our say in first with an interview or say nothing and let people speculate, so we decided to do the interview, the internet is a bad, BAD, place to let uniformed people who hide behind anonymous usernames speculate and spread VERY misleading nonsense. But I don’t think Pink Bike really considered how hard and bad the timing was for me. Then again though I guess there was no such time in the coming months that was going to be a good time…
Obviously when the news broke there hadn’t actually been any formal action taken against you or Richie at that point, no trial or bans handed down, nothing. Where is all of that stuff at now? Have you been through some sort of process?
First off, the AFLD (French Anti Doping) are absolutely terrible, it was nothing but delays and bad communication from the beginning. This is where the AFLD really sucked, I wasn’t a high priority case, so everything just kept getting pushed back, time after time, it just dragged out so long, months would go by with no information as to what was to happen. I had some bad days mentally, especially during Chemo, where I would start thinking about it, and I would go down a kind of bad mental rabbit hole. Not a fun time at all. Especially when you feel innocent, but you are getting treated like a criminal by some people. All my sponsors knew the situation and were super supportive but things got harder as 2019 went on and Sponsors wanted details about what my 2020 plans were and I couldn’t give them any information, because I had no communication from ALFD, In the end the thing that bit me in the backside was the 5 years that I was on the ASADA (Australian sports anti-doping) testing pool, which meant I was tested numerous times (some extremely random) over that 5 years (2008-2013, and that I was going to receive a more harsh ban because ‘I should have known better’. On one hand I was dealing with; I ‘should’ have known better. Whilst on the other hand, the reality was that things get added to the banned list all of the time and being out of the testing loop for the past 5 years and not having received any updates about the current list due to EWS not carrying out any testing, I was very much out of the loop with new things that had been added to the list. Especially when I knew I wasn’t seeking anything performance enhancing, or anything that I thought would give me any unfair advantage. It was stuff you can buy at any supplement store in town. I just didn’t think I had anything to worry about. It never even crossed my mind. Unfortunately, the Australian supplement industry is very poorly regulated (I have since learnt) and yes, that’s my mistake, so I have to accept that. I was a bit naive to the whole situation, and never thought I would land in a situation like this because, I was Just having the same type of pre workout drink that I had for years while under the ASADA testing pool and never had a problem.
So that’s all done now and you’re clear to race again?
Yes, as of March this year. By that point the 18 month competition ban will have been served because it began back in September 2018.
I’ve been wanting to ask you, whilst there were of course some haters online that were quick to throw you and Richie under the bus and say horrible things about you guys even though they didn’t know half of the facts (fuck those people!) what I noticed, overwhelmingly, was the support that you got from so many people right around the world that never turned their backs on you and never will – is there anything you’d like to say to all those Jared Graves fans?
Well, yeah that would be good but I’ll warn you that this answer could get long as I could honestly go on all day about it. People will always have questions and I would love to answer them all, but sadly there just isn’t enough time in the day. But I think the guys who have an idea of the situation know we never tried to gain any advantage or sought anything “performance enhancing”. The ones that had our backs were the people who could look at things rationally and understand how easily this can happen if you don’t check every ingredient of everything you put into your body. All our sponsors had our backs and while of course it isn’t a good situation for anyone, they could not only differentiate between our case, and other cases where people are found to actively seek to cheat, but also the difference between a mild stimulant, and a Lance Armstrong type case. Sadly cycling (road more specifically) has a bad stigma because of road, and more specifically Lance. And just the word doping has a bad ring to it. Someone mentioned on a forum something along the lines of “like comparing a butter knife to a bazooka” and I think that’s pretty accurate. It was just very frustrating initially to read some comments from anonymous people trolling the internet who were making some very uninformed, ignorant and straight up false comments, saying things like #steroids, or using a needle emoji… I saw that stuff and I was like C’MON really!? People online commenting that they weren’t surprised because we are two of the biggest/strongest guys in the EWS so we must have been on something. Then whenever we made a comment about something on a forum answering a question, they would twist our words and make it sound sinister.
But then I would sit back and laugh a bit, because it just showed how silly they are. Anyone who has any experience with the sport knows that your skills on the bike is far and away the #1 most important thing, along with hard training and dedication, and that there is no substitute for hard work.
“Now, I’m not saying that makes our situation okay. We were ignorant. We screwed up. But please show some common sense and be able to differentiate between our situation and someone who is seeing some shady doctor and actively seeking an advantage, and the price I’ve paid for one moment of being naive and not careful has bitten me in the ass 10 fold and then some.”
There’s a reason stuff that came up in our test is available to buy from a generic supplement store, and things like steroids, EPO, etc, are not, because it just doesn’t make any real difference. Like I said earlier, what we had provides you with a slight energy kick, but so does coffee or anything with caffeine, which is why people have it while riding, but it’s like a .01% thing, if coffee was available at the time that’s what I would have drank, but that’s not exactly going to happen out in the remote French mountainside. So if racers want some caffeine for a late in the day energy kick they have to carry their own, which in this case was a pre workout drink with a scoop in a little container. I should also clear up for the record that this was NOT a Ryno Power product which people have assumed. Yes, they are a sponsor and have a banned substance free pre workout drink. But it’s impossible to travel with all that stuff when you have to stick within airline weight limits, and it’s tough to get it shipped to you when you are in a different country every week. So, what I had was a little travel container that had been floating around in my bag for months, with a couple scoops in case I ran out of Ryno Power stuff. In hindsight, A very stupid minor mistake that I paid the worst consequence for.
“The haters out there love to try and diminish past wins, but look at Richie since coming back mid 2019, he’s been the dominant guy, and won more rounds than he’s lost, it’s funny how the haters never bring that up, eh?”
A couple more things that I’d like to take the opportunity to get off my chest… Firstly to address the whole; ‘why didn’t you check the ingredients on the label’ question? Well, I did check the label! But I then learnt the hard way that the ingredient names that are printed in the ingredients list aren’t always what they seem, which is what got us into this whole situation in the first place. For example, the ingredients that got us in trouble were listed on the label as Nandina Domestica (fruit extract) and Synephrine HCL, type those into the WADA search function and no results will come up, which Indicates there is nothing banned, which was a huge frustration. The very search function you are told to rely on to know if something is ok or not, led us to believe there was nothing in the drink that would land us in trouble. (for the record, I haven’t checked back to see if this has been rectified by WADA) but at the time, no results came up. Which in the end did get me 6 months reduced off of my sanction. But I still feel like I’m completely innocent and feel that even 18 months was EXTREMELY harsh. And the people making comments like; “Oh Lance Armstrong said for years that he was innocent”, then of course, as we all found out, he wasn’t. Therefore, we must be lying too. So just because one guy lied, EVERYONE who claims innocence must be guilty? Just ridiculous comments! Not to mention that what Lance and company were found to be taking was everything plus the kitchen sink. You can’t seriously sit back and look at our individual cases and think they even begin to compare.
La Thuile Enduro World Series
Unfortunately I’m sure some people reading this will probably still want to go and twist my words, but I’m trying my best here. Some people have no idea that in many cases substances are on a banned list more for the potential health risks if people overuse them, not because they are deemed to actually be performance enhancing. For this reason many stimulants are on the banned list, and the only reason caffeine isn’t is because it’s in too many day to day foods to be banned. What we had was listed by WADA as a “specified substance” which to directly quote WADA’s website, “Specified substances are those that, if found to be present in an athlete’s bodily sample, may be more likely to have a credible, non-doping explanation”. Which is why our cases were a lower priority and have shorter sanction times.
One thing that has been really helpful to me throughout all of this is my wife, Jess, is currently doing a psychology degree and I’ve listened to a lot of her online lectures. One of the overwhelming things that the lecturers mention is how some people are just wired to be negative people, and they will always see the bad side in anything, and they get pleasure from seeing others stumble, and make mistakes, and love to take the opportunity to drag them down to make themselves feel better. So that has been a big help, you realize the people making the dumb comments are not worth worrying about, you know what you are all about, you know what has won you races and achieved goals in the past, and the people that are important to you realize the same. I never had a single Negative message or email sent directly to me, not by any person or fellow racer, only support, and I think that speaks volumes. The only people who talked shit were the ones hiding behind internet usernames. At the end of the day my conscience is clear, and if people still want to talk shit about me, well, then I think it must suck to be them.
“To all of the people who had our backs and spoke up about it, a big thank you. I really appreciate you!”
Okay let’s move on. So, whilst all that commotion was blowing up, you were still laying there getting chemo, fighting for your life more or less, battling cancer. As 2018 came to a close do you remember mentally how you were tracking at that point?
Mentally pretty bad, I had some real dark days, but deep down, I knew it would all pass eventually, and life would return to normal. Kind of a “you can’t see the forest for the trees” type deal. It was just hard at the time because even when you know it will pass in time, it’s not like it’s just the next few days or week that will suck, but 9 months, before things will even start to turn around.
Whilst all of your treatments were going on where you ever thinking about bikes? Did you ever get to the point where you never wanted to ride or race again or were you just desperate to get back out there?
Of course, every day! I wouldn’t say I was desperate to get back out there, when you feel drained and tired, it’s hard to imagine being out on the bike, all you feel like doing is sitting on the couch sometimes. I don’t remember thinking that I never want to ride again, but I certainly wondered if I would ever race at the top level again. Each day I would get out of bed, get on my bike and do as much as I could physically manage riding wise, and once I started doing that, it helped me a lot.
What was the process from there as you started to get back on your feet through 2019?
Well I found that I couldn’t manage anything that required aerobic endurance, so I thought it might be a good time to get back on the BMX, and spend some time on that, which I really enjoyed, It turned out I was able to build strength even during chemo, so lots of time in the GYM, lots of different tracks, but I had to put any thoughts of building or even maintaining any level of aerobic fitness to bed, I tried, but I was just digging myself a hole of fatigue.
Have the doctors been able to give you the green light that you’re 100% cancer free now?
Yes, I had an MRI when my Chemo finished at the end of June, and I got the official ‘cancer free’ then, since then I’ve had an MRI ever 3 months to make sure nothing is coming back.
That’s amazing news mate! Your wife, Jess, was right by your side throughout all of that craziness. How was it on her at the time and how’s she going now?
She was amazing, as was all my family, sometimes I felt worse for them and what the whole situation was putting them through, than what it was doing to me. For the most part life seems back to normal for both of us now. It’s certainly not anything we have to worry about on a daily basis anymore.
Let’s talk about your new deal, after a 4 year stint with Specialized you’re heading back to race for Yeti this year. Does it feel like you are ‘coming home’ in some way?
Yeah for sure, it’s pretty cool. After 12 years with Yeti I just felt like I had to experience something different and get out of my comfort zone a bit. I explained it to them as ‘our boy just needs to get out there and experience what the rest of the world has to offer, and that it doesn’t mean they don’t love their parents any less!’ Haha. We always talked about coming back and resuming what we had always talked about and of course, life after full time racing. I have absolutely no regrets with my time over at Specialized. It was awesome seeing how a big company operates, but that also brings along with it some frustrations as well. It became fairly obvious straight away there was never going to be a ‘long term’ home for me there to finish out my career.
“Being back at Yeti feels very natural, and the product is second to none, so I’m really happy about it all right now.”
That’s awesome to hear. What’s your race schedule going to be?
Well I won’t be racing the full EWS series this year. I’ll do at least half of the rounds though. I’ll also be competing at some of the multi day enduros as well as some other events which are yet to be decided. I’ll also be playing a role to help out some of the young racers. I would like one more crack at a full EWS schedule, hopefully next year, but since everything this year came together kind of late, and me not being 100% sure what I wanted to do, this is what we came up with.
Sounds like you’re going to have your work cut out for you this year mate. Tell us about the bike that you’ll be racing?
I’ll be racing pretty much every bike in Yeti’s current range at different events, from the SB100 all the way up. There will be plenty of detailed bike checks coming up through the year on Instagram, plus explanations of why I think that bike is best for the given event so keep an eye out for those.
Physically right now are you back to where you used to be in your peak?
I think so. I’ve learnt a lot about my body over the past year, and been able to take the time to learn lots of new things that have been helpful, incorporating not just the ‘work smarter not harder’ approach, but more the ‘work harder and smarter’ approach. Doing the work isn’t the hard part, it’s the not overdoing it aspect that is hard for me.
What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Obviously just getting back with the Yeti fam at the races, competing again, and trying out some new events, just the whole thing really.
Final question; I couldn’t help but notice you’ve got a bit of ‘salt and pepper’ coming through in your face stubble right now. What’s going on, it looks like you’ve aged a bit in recent years mate? Haha
Haha! Well you know I’m not getting any younger… Those ‘ol greys have been coming for a while, probably around 30 I started to see them, still only a few randoms on thread though, I think it’s just more noticeable now because I’m basically never clean shaven lately, just been rocking the stubble for a while, got better things to do with my life than shave my face every day haha. The important thing is that I don’t feel a day over 25 still. If anything, I feel better because I look after myself better now.
Cheers for taking the time to chat with us today mate and to share so much insight about the crazy highs and lows of the past few years. We’re over the moon that you beat cancer and we can’t wait to see you back at the races this season! [R]