I didn’t expect to come away from watching the Cairns UCI MTB World Cup with anything other than a feeling of inadequacy. I was there with a green media pass around my neck to report for Australian Mountain Bike magazine on how XC racers are dealing with the increasing ‘gnarliness’ of World Cup tracks – with Cairns the most heinous of them all.
Bec Henderson, Australia’s top ranked elite woman, must have started riding almost at the same time as I did, just about 12 years ago. She was a lot younger than me, and although I did quite well on the little local mountain bike XCO and endurance scene for several years, I never reached the heights of international competition she’s scaling today… and couldn’t have. Even if I did have the physical capacity to do so, it’s impossible. I’ve always been too much of a wimp. Now I like to think this is because I have osteoporosis of the lumbar spine. Nobody likes to get hurt, but knowing you’ll heal must be reassuring. But really, I just don’t like falling off. So I’ve chosen marathon racing: XC racing for the fit, the determined, and the hesitant. Where the courses – which you can rarely practise before race day – are tamer, and where competitors’ time gaps are big enough that the odd dismount-and-run won’t necessarily ruin a race.
So. I was in Cairns to watch the good riders ride the gnarly bits. The bits that would scare me half to death, and I was there to wallow in my technical incompetence.
Instead, something quite different happened.
Here’s what I learnt watching those World Cup riders tackle the Cairns course:
It’s okay to be scared – everyone is. Some of the most interesting watching I did was during the practice days, where elite women and men alike congregated at the really scary bits – Croc Slide and Jacobs Ladder – and stood there and talked it over, pointed, shook their heads, watched others ride down, shook their heads again. Elsewhere, I watched bossy Russian coaches coax and cajole their terrified (but obedient) female riders down simple chutes and over smallish roots. I watched them do it again and again.
The thing about riding behind someone who’s tackling the hard lines in a race is that you never get to see their face. As a spectator, it’s different. The looks of despondency, horror, and dismay I saw on competitors’ faces as they practiced and raced was oddly reassuring. I saw their hands shaking from metres away. I saw a few tears. They clearly felt just like I do, or just like I would if I were in their carbon-soled shoes.
But being scared doesn’t mean you can’t be brave. In spite of their obvious, ahem, misgivings, a lot of athletes pushed themselves to ride the hard stuff, the A-lines. Some crashed, then got back on and had another go. After watching Poland’s Maja Włoszczowska suffer a terrible fall practising the A-line of Jacobs Ladder I was sure she’d stay away, but in the race she took it again, her wrist strapped up from the day before. Some riders who didn’t attempt the A-lines on the horribly wet and muddy days leading up to the race got out there on the race day’s perfect conditions and damn well had a go.
I’ve often looked at my skinny little arms and held that as an excuse – ‘I just don’t have the strength to ride big stuff’ – but some of the under 23 and elite women there were tiny, probably weighing less than 40 kilograms, and even I could beat them in an arm wrestle – they rode the A-line. And I’m pretty sure there’d be a bit of osteoporosis going around the women’s World Cup circuit, too. I also hesitate because I worry that I don’t have the finesse, but a lot of the racers out there didn’t finesse the A-lines – they damn well got down them any old way – and after 12 years’ riding, I know I’m capable of at least a little bit of that.
But most of them wouldn’t have been able to do it, I realised while I watched, without being able to slow down and ask for help. Marathon racers like me pride themselves on never-say-die-take-it-in-the-stride-all-or-nothing-harden-the-fuck-up-and-finish-alone-and-unassisted attitude. This attitude is rubbish. Most women practising were sticking close to a man – be it a coach or another racer – who was advising them on the best lines, supporting them, catching them, and encouraging them. I’ve spoken to Bec Henderson before about this, and she’s told me she’s always happy that her partner Dan McConnell’s there to give her some advice when it comes to the gnarly bits.
I think the best racers – no, the best riders – realise that you’re better when you’re learning and you can’t learn in isolation. And then, how much more safe and secure it must feel to have someone helping you along! So. I’ll be swallowing my pride and asking for support a bit more now rather than waiting until no-one’s looking before I whip out a guilty dab and flog myself to catch up to the boys like nothing’s happened. There’s also a big argument for letting those boys go while I practise some features again and again – because rolling over something once isn’t enough if you really want to develop your skills.
Paradoxically, the insight that gave me the most confidence to try some harder lines is that there’s simply no shame in playing it safe. I was utterly astounded that, in the World Cup race, about 50 per cent of women and maybe 30 per cent of the men actually chose to take the laborious B-line down the gnarly Jacobs Ladder. The lovely Bec Henderson did, and cracked the top 10.
Instead of obsessing and feeling inadequate and guilty, these riders just did what they could do safely, at threshold, for over an-hour-and-a-half and got on with the rest of it. There are many components to a race. Putting them all together in a well-balanced performance is what’s key. The slowest thing you can do is crash and hurt yourself, and when your body is your job, it’s also the riskiest. I’ve since discovered that once I take the pressure off myself, riding and trying new things can be fun, rather than utterly horrifying. Most of my fear is of failure, not pain.
So I was surprised that instead of walking away despairing at my gutlessness, I can honestly say that by watching those pros at work my mountain biking has improved. Sure, I picked up a few tricks, but what really changed is my attitude to my mountain biking: I’m more likely to have a go and less likely to be hard on myself if I don’t succeed.
We have more photos in a further album of the World Cup XCO in Cairns.