It’s nearly April, but for XCM racing, the year is just beginning. Overseas, a lot of the top pros (plus a couple of thousand amateurs) have started their season with the ABSA Cape Epic, the world’s biggest, toughest, most helicoptered mountain bike stage race. Here at home, our XCO national season is over, and those who aren’t targeting World Cups or the Rio Olympics are turning to the longer races as our XCM champs loom close.
Between 9 and 10 April in Derby, Tasmania, the National XCM Champs offer more than a jersey – it’s a key qualification race to the XCM World Champs, to be held in Laissac, France, in June. Late last year my husband and team manager (what a combination!) Mike suggested that instead of spending our savings on a cool international stage race (as we’ve got in the habit of doing over the last three years), we should attempt to qualify for Worlds.
While turning 35 was a pretty galvanising time for me, I was still a bit hesitant about making a play for World Champs. I’m aware that I could easily race competitively for another five or more years, but I’m also aware that selectors and coaches thinking about World Champ-level races are looking for development potential and at 35 my development potential is questionable. So why try to make World Champs?
Well, you could argue ‘for the experience’, but is that a good enough reason? Is that just an exercise in what I’ve heard called ‘tracksuit collecting’?
A bit of history…
After years and years away from mountain biking, in 2013, I set a goal of racing a single mountain bike marathon and resurrected my triple-chainringed, 26” Cannondale Taurine at a time when nobody was riding triples or 26ers anymore. I didn’t improve particularly quickly and had some dreadful results, but by sheer luck Mike Blewitt, then an old friend, now my husband, was pretty desperate for a race partner for Transalp and asked me along. God only knows what he expected. I cajoled a fantastic coach into taking me on, got a 29er, redrew from my mortgage, booked the flights, trained like Rocky Balboa, and went. That trip we came 3rd in a stacked mixed field. The week before I’d done my first UCI Marathon, straight off the plane, wide-eyed and intimidated by mountains with snow on them, and came 14th. After Transalp, Mike and I fell for one another, I joined the MarathonMTB team, but rather than an end point, it was the beginning. In 2013 I learnt what it took, both mentally and physically, to race marathons and stage races, and I had the time of my life.
2014 was much, much tougher. Mike and I headed overseas again, and we came third in a wild race through Poland’s muddy, rooty borderlands called Sudety. We also raced a couple of massive Euro marathons but I was disappointed. Although I was sitting in the top 10 of the brutal Swiss UCI race Grand Raid, I had to pull out with severe heartburn (a recurring problem for which I now take medication). I placed 12th at the biblical Swiss Nationalpark Bike Marathon, despite being unable to ride hard with the heartburn thing, and we flew home.
All year I was plagued with recurring illnesses and chronic health problems but was so bound up in media work I couldn’t take a break from racing, and I watched my results flatline. I ‘won’ the Croc Trophy later that year but then succumbed to an immense fatigue that took six months to recover from. In 2014 I learnt about recovery the hard way.
By the second half of last year I had put my health problems largely behind me (some will be there forever) and had convinced Mike to move back to Brisbane. Home in the familiar training ground I left in 2013, I got back into training over the Aussie winter. We headed to the UCI HC-ranked Swiss Epic and won the mixed category every day until I fell ill with gastro and we were forced out of the race. Before that happened, though, I learnt what it takes to win. In some ways, winning isn’t easy – it’s much nicer to race tranquil, to let things happen. Winning is all endgame. Winning is taking the bull by the horns and dragging the gouging weight of the beast all the way to the finish line.
In Switzerland, though, after I got ill, I also learnt about losing. Losing is harrowing. It’s unfinished business. Losing makes you hungry. So here I am – and a rocky, patchy, interrupted four years of racing has made me really quite hungry. I still feel like I’m just hitting my stride.
Apart from wanting to do well for myself and as an Australian in Europe, it’s as a writer that I know I’ll be able to do something if I make it to XCM Champs. I can get a story out – from the training to the journey to the racing and the comedown. I can show how to do it as a privateer (there’s no funding support for Aussies going to XCM Worlds, and certainly no tracksuit), and that it can be done cheaply and efficiently. Succeeding as a privateer in our tiny sport is something I think even athletes with enormous development potential must learn – and it is a skill. It’s a skill I wish I could have drawn on when I was 23, racing well, but with no idea what to do next. Mostly I’ll be able to get across what it feels like to really be there, and I hope that people here and in other parts of the world read my stuff and set out to execute their goals, because it can be done – on little money, on favours, on determination, and a sense of humour.
Then, as a trainee coach who’s serious about developing into a great, qualified coach, I’m also aware that every time I attempt a new competitive challenge I learn more about tactics, nutrition, training, race psychology, you name it – and I learn it more powerfully because lived experience is my teacher.
MTBA’s selection criteria stipulate that they are looking for athletes who can achieve a top 30 place in the women’s event. I think I am capable of that. I also think that in another year, barring illness, injury, poverty, or other Force Majeure Life Event, I could be capable of more. I’ve always raced much better overseas than I have at home because, having crippling performance anxiety, I thrive on anonymity. I ride better, faster, and smarter than I ever would at a club race in Brisbane. I know that when I get back to Europe again, I might even surprise some people back here… hell, maybe I do have development potential after all.
So in a way, yes, I am trying to make World Champs team for experience, but not a tracksuit-collecting experience. I’m looking for experience that I can feed back into my racing and into mountain biking, and for experience that can, yes, even at 35, take me further next time around.
What it takes to qualify for XCM World Championships
So, what do I have to do? There are a few ways to qualify, but in the end it comes down to MTBA’s discretion, which I fully respect. There’s stiff competition, too – quite a number of Aussie women are looking towards Laissac this year. Firstly, I can come within 105% of the winner’s time at National Champs in Derby in a fortnight. Secondly, I can come within 104% of the winner’s time at a National XCM Round – of which there are three before the World Champs: The Willo about a month ago was my first shot, but with a broken brake I had to pull out after just a few minutes’ racing. Right now I’m sitting on a plane on its way to Alice Springs for round two of the National XCM Series at Lasseters Easter in the Alice. After Derby there’s Round three at the Golden Triangle Epic in Bendigo, which clashes with Mike’s Best Man’s wedding – I’m afraid I’m obliged to drink champagne that weekend instead.
Which brings me back to my window seat on this bumpy flight to Alice Springs. While there are other fall-back options, realistically, this Saturday is by far my best shot at making one of the criteria. I’m a long way from booking flights to France, but I’m making some tentative plans and putting in the training. I’ll know more after Saturday’s 90km race through some of my favourite country on some of Australia’s finest singletrack.