Feature: Australian Riders Find Creative Ways to Excel at the Top

Last weekend’s UCI World Championships racing confirmed that Australian’s are excelling in every discipline of mountain biking right now. Limited resources have meant some creative solutions have allowed them to get there.

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Australian’s Mick Hannah (L) and Jared Graves (R) relax after receiving their 2nd and 3rd medals at the 2013 UCI World Championships.

Like a lot of Australian mountain biking fans, we watched the World Champs this weekend from our computers and our phones. Instagram, Facebook, Redbull.tv, news sites, press releases, Twitter…

When one media source stopped short of giving us the information we were after we switched to the next. Sensations of promise and suspense amplified the excitement of some nail-biting results.

These new forms of spectating have certainly changed the ways we engage with sport. They bring us detail, in real time, at a level more personal than ever before.

The disjointed nature of these new forms of engagement means we can easily miss some big picture observations. Like the fact that last weekend has just demonstrated that Australians are currently excelling in not a few but every discipline of mountain biking. And they are doing so in some unique and exciting ways.

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Paul van der Ploeg celebrates winning the 2013 Cross Country Eliminator World Championships.

The weekend’s medal haul in South Africa saw Australians on the podium in Downhill, Trials, and the Eliminator. Meanwhile Bec Henderson and Dan McConnell have turned heads at every race this season in the cross-country World Cups. The fact that they are sitting first and third in their respective series’ highlights the relationship of steady progression to ongoing support.

Looking beyond the last few days, other recent successes are also important to note. Jared Graves is bringing home the medals in Enduro. Peta Mullens and Jarrod Moroni claimed second in the Cape Epic, a nine-day UCI stage race. Irish national and Australian resident, Jenny Fay, pulled off a fourth place finish just over a week ago at her very first Marathon World Cup.

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Pete Mullens and Jarrod Moroni at the 2013 Cape Epic

Men, women, juniors, seniors, imports, the future for Australian athletes looks bright. But despite these results, the writing between the lines of last weekend’s ecstatic press releases is how underfunded most of these athletes are.

Mountain Biking Australia awarded nine athletes $2000 to help with their World Championship campaigns. This points to what a small amount of money the organisation has to put toward any aspect of our sport in first world terms. At the same time, it highlights what a luxury it is to be able to travel the world to participate at all.

The decision to distribute these funds based on selection criteria for competition, irrespective of other (often financial) factors that impact these athletes’ ability to perform, was a controversial one. The main argument against this has been that perhaps our junior riders could do with financial assistance more than those signed to factory teams.

Arguably Jared Graves is one of the most talented mountain bike riders the world has seen.

This argument is an important one. It’s not a coincidence that every Australian rider excelling at a world level in mountain biking right now has been working toward goals such as these for a very long time.

It’s also odd that, given the basis for MTBA’s decision, current BMX World Champion, Caroline Buchanan, wasn’t on the list. These selection criteria bias single-discipline expertise. This is another interesting ‘grey area’ in relation to performance development, outputs and proficiency. Most of the Australian athletes excelling at a world level right now are doing so in multiple cycling events.

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Caroline Buchanan is another multi-sport talent.

Van der Ploeg has been racing road, cyclocross and cross-country this year. The bike Graves raced to a bronze medal in the downhill is the same bike that has just seen him win at the Enduro World Series. Mullens moves between road, cross-country and marathon.

These aren’t unusual stories. On one hand, racing in multiple disciplines helps these athletes in terms of sponsorship, expenses and prize money – a creative solution in the face of limited resources. On the other, there’s a lot to be said for cross-disciplinary fitness and expertise.

Come Monday morning, we were certainly excited by the great rides we witnessed over the weekend. What we’re seeing right now is a number of riders, who’ve worked hard to find inventive ways to race at the top. They’re getting results across the board.

The fact that most of these individuals are not just excelling in a single area? We can’t help but wonder what this might mean for research, funding and scientific models that continue to focus on narrower, discipline-specific notions of performance and expertise.

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Bec Henderson on her way to another world cup win.


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