For an Australian XCO racer, the National Championships is the biggest race of the year, I have been trying to take the green and gold for 8 years, and have had nothing else on my mind for the last 12 months.
This might seem obsessive, and it probably is, but everyone gets into sport for a different reason, and for me this sits right behind the pure joy of mountain biking. For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamt of wearing the green and gold, but not being a particularly athletic child, it had always been just a dream, until I started touching closer and closer.
I’m sure this is a familiar story for a lot of mountain bike riders, as a kid I wasn’t particularly good with ball sports (read: horrible), and pretty average with your regular endurance sports like running. So when I was introduced to mountain biking, I took to it like a fish out of water, but even still, I was the slowest of my friends, until my dad began dragging me out for rides before school at 10 years old.
Before long I raced the Blue Dragon, a 2 day, 100km mountain bike race through the region of Derby (before it was “Derby”). This was my first taste of victory against my childhood friends, even if dad did push me up half the climbs… From there I raced my first National Championship, and came away shocked with a 5th. I remember my Mum bursting into tears, having not expected me to go so well. I believe Cameron Wright won that year.
I came back the next year, and was 5th again, then 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, every year getting pipped by Matt Dinham and Cameron Wright. A disappointing 6th as first year u23, followed by 2nd in 2020, again behind Cam, and I decided to dedicate the next year to chasing that title.
Chasing the National Championship Title
For the next 12 months, every training session was driven by the memory of Cam, or Matt riding away for the last 7 years. I spent 12 months tweaking my bike set up, testing until I was happy with every component on my bike, and with the support from Mike, and the MarathonMTB sponsors, I was able to do that.
I spent 12 months obsessing over the smallest details, hoping that they would be enough to give that extra percent on race day. I have to say a big thanks, and an even bigger sorry, to the people in my life that helped throughout the year, specifically my Mum, Dad, and boss Troy, for being so flexible to accommodate my inflexibility.
Finally after a year of preparation, the National Championships at Maydena Bike Park was upon us, and I had to switch my focus from the end goal of winning, to the process goals of dialling my final preparations. For those of you who are interested in what they are, read on, otherwise skip ahead.
Final preparations for the National XCO Championships
3 days before my race diet starts (that one is a secret), I do my final gym session focusing on activation and speed, and a hit out on course with the team relay. I stretch for 30-45minutes a day, I make any last changes to my bike (in this case tilting my saddle down 2 degrees to compensate for the steep course), and I lie around… a lot.
2 days before, I do a recovery spin, and lie around… a lot. I focus a lot on my breathing, to keep the inevitable nerves under control, and generally sleep from 9pm-7.30am.
The day before my race, I do my activation session, depending on how I am feeling Jenni King will alter my intervals, and by now I should have lines dialled for race day. I like to have everything organised, my kit hung up, bottles full, gels in the pockets, number plate on my bike, spares in the car, food for the next day set up, bike clean and polished, and alarms set for when I will wake, eat, dress, leave, warm up, etc. Finally I sit down and visualise the race course for 30 minutes or so before I sleep.
National XCO Championship race day
Race day dawned grey and drizzly. However being from Tasmania, this is how some of the best days start so I was optimistic. My first coffee in 2 weeks, and I was practically vibrating out of my shoes, and checking my race weight, I had finally hit 66.8kg. About 10 minutes before leaving for the event, Mike messaged me with news of Imogen in the women’s race, apparently mud tyres were the choice of the day… I had prepared this the night before, so shortly after, my race wheels were fitted with fresh Maxxis Forekasters, and my bike had another layer of Ride Mechanic Zalish spray to keep the mud from sticking to the sidewalls and frame.
We drove to the race, and hopped straight onto the trainer inside the Orbea tent (courtesy of Chris, mechanic of the Orbea Women’s team). Out of the rain, I could warm up comfortably, focused on staying calm.
Finally it was callup time, all the riders grouped together in the pens, Cam was called up first, myself second, and Matt third. My two main competitors. Next was the wave of young riders who had stepped up from u19, all of whom were unknown quantities, and potential winners, namely the u19 podium of Domenic Paolilli, Brayden Martin, and Liam Johnston.
Off the start it was Cam shooting away, closely followed by Matt, and myself. Cam has gone ballistic off the startline for as long as I can remember, and this was no different. I knew as long as I could hold the wheel, the race would open up later, and after the first climb I was only a few metres off.
Letting Cam and Matt battle out position into the first descent let me recover before descending back onto the wheel before the big climb, and all too soon we were pointed upwards again. Matt’s road legs kicked into gear and he set a blistering pace racing up the downhill track, I snuck past Cam to follow Matt up onto the plateau part way up.
Here, Matt’s early effort to overtake Cam took its toll, and I got around Matt before going into the forested section, with the hope of setting a more sustainable tempo on the front. However before I knew it, I had a small gap, and I took the opportunity to force the gap open up the climb, before dropping into the “Tinder” descent. The adrenaline of leading the race meant I made a little mistake and had to touch a foot while slip sliding down the hill, this cemented my tactics for the rest of the race. From there on, I took the descents at a recovery pace, focusing on not losing the race to a crash, and hit the climbs with pace, to keep the gaps open. I took a bottle on the descent, and dropped it before every climb, taking a gel every 20 minutes.
When I’m having a good race, I can focus on what I’m doing, and still hear spectators on the course, so it was amazing hearing Tasmanians around the track yelling out, and seeing my Mum standing on corners. Before I knew it, I heard the bell, and looked back to see Matt charging not far behind me. I picked up the pace once again, squeezing a few last watts out of my legs, and despite a small crash on the final descent, I held on to take the gold medal I’d dreamt of for years. Seeing my parents at the finish line I couldn’t help bursting into tears.
I was whisked away for doping control, and quite gladly as it gave me some time for it to sink in, although I have definitely cried more times in the last 2 days since than the last 5 years combined.
So, from a self proclaimed “average” athlete, who honestly believes I have no more talent than any other athlete out there, if you dedicate yourself to a goal, no amount of talent will stop you if you work harder and smarter than anyone else.