For the second year running, Olympian and Australian National Champion, Bec Henderson, was entered to race at Margam Park, Wales, for the British National XC Series.
Despite a growing trend in the last couple of years, it still feels a pretty big deal for a World-class rider such as Bec to race in the UK, so I nabbed the opportunity to have a chat and ask, among other things, why?
Before said ‘nabbing’ (not at all like kid napping, I promise), I watched Bec race. The level of women’s Elite racing in Britain has really stepped up over the last year, with the Commonwealth Games catalysing an already growing strength in depth and focus at the front end of the pack. Despite this, Bec was a clear winner. She is, unsurprisingly, a tidy, classy bike rider.
Small is stature but not in strength.
Bec explained that race in Margam fitted in nicely with travelling, training and the all-important visa situation. Living and travelling within Europe, it is easy to assume that everyone has the same freedom of movement. However, the visa is, for an Australian racing in Europe, synonymous with precise planning, pernickety paperwork and potentially a lot of stress.
With all the dates sorted out, the British National round at Margam fitted well with a block of training that was due after World Cups three and four, and leading up to the Commonwealth Games. Plus, having raced here last year and enjoyed it, why not come back and have a sense of security in knowledge and a shared language?
I asked Bec how a UK National race compared to those Down Under. Whilst Oz couldn’t be much further away, it seems the UK shares similar attitudes: we both believe the grass is greener on the other side! To produce riders of Bec and Dan McConnell’s calibre, you would have thought that XC racing in Australia was big. Not so, apparently. “Marathon and endurance racing is very popular”, explained Bec, “but the XC scene is really small. There is the National Series and that’s it… It’s about the same size as this, maybe a bit smaller”.
Of course, a British National Series pales in comparison with the World Cup circuit which Bec has been travelling the past years. Last year, in her final year as an Under 23, Bec won two rounds of the World Cup and was crowned overall winner. The year before she was selected as the sole female Australian representative for the London Olypmic Games XC race, where she finished 25th (after a bit of a bad day, it should be added). Bec is therefore, no stranger to the big occasions. But can she rise to Commonwealth glory?
Stepping up into Elite ranks is not a forgiving transition. “It’s hard”, says Bec, “hard, but good”. She’s doing pretty good! With a top 10 finish at her home World Cup in Cairns earlier this year, and sitting 16th overall in the Elite World Cup standings, Bec is certainly one of the big names going into the Games. Having been selected last year, the stress of qualification has been taken away, and in its place is the time and energy to focus training around peaking once in 2014, on 29th July.
I chatted with Bec about whether that focus brought with it a lot of pressure. Of course, every elite athlete feels pressure, and as is so often the case, Bec admits that a lot of it comes from herself. But she explained that she also feels a sense of pressure from her country. “In Oz if you don’t get a medal it’s like, oh, what were you doing? It’s a medal or nothing. Being there – even a top 10 – doesn’t seem to be seen as enough. … I was 25th at the Olympics and people questioned what went wrong!”
I sense that this attitude is joked about rather than dwelled upon. Bec seems at ease with the task in hand. Professional, but not cold or hyper-focussed.
There was some trouble with the Australian National Coach in the Olympic build up, but the new coach, and her Trek Factory Racing Team, all seem to bond really well and help with the aura of calm and content that Bec gives off.
Being part of such a big team has certainly helped Bec to progress in the last two seasons. Before this she travelled to races around the World with just her boyfriend for support. A one man support crew is not so bad, but when your boyfriend is Dan McConnell, it’s not quite so straight forward. Dan, as you are proberly well aware, is one of the top Elite male XC riders in the World, a World Cup win in Albstadt last year the highlight of a strong career so far. Two riders supporting each other provides a mutual understanding but not a whole lot of rest.
“Riding with Trek means I appreciate how much we did for ourselves before, and now how much is done for us. Before last year we travelled and raced with just the two of us. Dan couldn’t do a proper warm up because he was feeding me and I never cooled down because I was looking after him. I’m glad I didn’t know how much of a disadvantage we were at then because it would have felt so unfair! Now I feel kind of bad when the mechanic or whoever tells me to sit down and rest, but you do get better at it.”
Racing at Margam had elememts of those pre-Trek days: one mechanic, a small gazebo and Bec dashing off mid-conversation (very apologetically) to hand up a bottle for Dan on his last lap.
It was all so ‘ordinary’, except Bec could well be standing on the Commonwealth Games Mountain Bike podium next month, and that’s rather extraordinary…
Thank you for taking the time to chat, Bec, and best of luck for the Commonwealth Games and beyond.