13 Jul 2018

From windy Wellington to sunny Wollongong, Samara Sheppard has her sights firmly set on Tokyo Olympics, though with this World Cup XCO season already not going to plan and a change in the Olympic selection policy has seen her shift focus. In an in-depth interview with the smiley, well-travelled and determined athlete, we gain a fantastic insight into the challenges of racing abroad as a self-funded privateer.

  • G’day Samara, tell us a little bit about where you are from, and where you currently call home?

I was born in Clyde (Central Otago, NZ) but Windy Wellington is home for me in NZ. After I finished school in Wellington, I joined a sports academy in Rotorua while I completed a Diploma in Communications.

From Wellington to Wollongong, the journey to Tokyo is a tough one.

From there I spent two seasons racing mountain bikes based out of Switzerland, another two seasons based out of Belgium and also one season racing on the road based out of Spain. In 2016 I moved to Wollongong, NSW to live with my partner, Kyle Ward.

The definition of a fitness couple, partner Kyle Ward is key to their success abroad.

The past two years Kyle and I have also been living the MTB life in Basel, Switzerland (on the outskirts of the Black Forrest in Germany).

  • So, you’re living between New Zealand and Australia?

My Aussie half, Kyle after we met at an event in Australia in 2015 (Hellfire Cup). Australia’s cycling community is also a massive drawcard with more events and social groups.

I love the people, trails and culture in Wellington, NZ, but I also love to ride in the warm and calm climate of Wollongong and have made some great friends here.

  • Are there any more opportunities for you as an athlete in Australia versus New Zealand?

I would say so. Most of the cycling brands for Australia and New Zealand are based in Australia, so it’s easier to make a connection with them.

I’m in a unique situation by being based in Australia while also representing New Zealand; this means that I can give my sponsors exposure in both countries.

Winning the 2017 Cape to Cape MTB, the four day stage race around Margaret River, Western Australia.

As far as the racing scene goes in Australia, the added depth of competition makes for closer racing and more of an opportunity to learn how to be faster.

  • What is your plan for this racing season?

The plan initially was to race the full 2018 World Cup Season, to build on the results I had last year and to improve my UCI World Ranking from the Top 30’s to Top 20’s.  However, after a rough start to the season, I have since decided to return to Australia.

Last year and the beginning of this year I was intensely focused around qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, which I am really proud to have achieved. This meant that I raced the 2016/17 domestic season, 2017 international season and domestic 2017/18 season all back-to-back. When most racers were taking their ‘off-season’ break to reset, I was chasing selection for the Commonwealth Games which I raced in April.

After the Commonwealth Games, Kyle and I flew straight to Europe for the international season. It was during the first block of racing abroad where the strain of back-to-back racing seasons caught up with me.

Around this time I also found out about the new Olympic selection policy, and I decided to take a different pathway towards my next big goal of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics.

  • Sounds like a significant shift of focus, mid-season for you then?

The rest of the 2018 season will see some new challenges thrown into the mix. But first, I will take a small break for “pleasure” riding, before attending to the weakness which Kyle and I have identified over the past few seasons of racing high-end XCO events.

At home on the trails with Kyle and Samara’s training buddy.

I’m excited to be returning to Cape to Cape in October where I hope to win this event for the third year in a row! Heading into the summer months, my primary focus will be to return to the National XCO Series in preparation for the 2019 National and Oceania Championships.

  • What type of events motivate you the most, you mention that the stage races vs XCO have you considering a change in direction?

Event’s where I can represent New Zealand and fight for a title motivate me – National Champs, Oceania Champs, World Cups, World Champs, Commonwealth Games and Olympics. It’s a special feeling to be racing in the silver fern (and Oceania stripes)!

I love XCO racing specifically because of the way it combines strength with skill. No two race tracks are the same which makes for diverse courses and keeps the sport fun. XCO is 1.5 hours of pure excitement.

Putting in the hard yards.
Holiday destination, or home training ground? Wollongong, NSW.

I do also enjoy racing my cross-country bike in other disciplines like marathons and stage races. When I first started mountain biking at school, on the weekend, I would join Dad and some friends on massive all-day adventure rides. It was such a great way to discover some remote parts of New Zealand – just some friends our bikes and plenty of snacks. These big rides at a young age mean that naturally, my endurance is pretty good now.

Someday when I ‘retire’ from XCO, you will see me at more marathon and stage race events.

  • How have you seen the sport change from your point of view, in particular, the impact Red Bull has had on the sport?

Red Bull has had a considerable impact on XCO racing, making the sport more entertaining and accessible for fans.

XCO courses have shortened in length (4-5km laps), with a target race time of 1.5 hours. Instead of a couple of technical features on each lap, now the majority of the lap is technically challenging.

Behind the scenes of a self-funded racer on the world circuit.

This means you need a high level of skill to navigate a course at race pace. Fitness is still essential, but it is only useful if you can steer a bike at the same time.

Once upon a time, everyone raced on hardtails, now it’s all about full suspension bikes, dropper posts and 2.3” tyres.

  • Tokyo 2020 is in your sights, can you tell us more about the selection process?

To represent NZ at Tokyo is the dream, absolutely. However, the selection criteria to qualify has recently changed making this dream more dreamlike than ever.

In past Australia and/or New Zealand, have been able to qualify one male and female Olympic spot by winning the Oceania Championships, but this is no longer a possibility.

The two ways for a country to qualify an Olympic spot for Tokyo are:

  • Being one of the Top 21 ranked nations (an accumulation of UCI points from the top 3 UCI point earning riders from each nation between May 2018 – May 2020) this is separate for men and women. New Zealand is currently ranked 26th women’s nation.
  • Being one of the Top 2 performing nations (outside the Top 21 ranked nations with a qualified Olympic spot) at the 2019 World Championships (again, this is an accumulation of UCI points from the top 3 UCI point earning riders).

Given the new selection criteria, it’s not likely for NZ to qualify a women’s Olympic spot via option one because it’s just too expensive to chase the amount of UCI points needed. This means that option 2 is the only option.

I will do a specific build up for the 2019 World Championship with the ambition to help qualify New Zealand a spot there. The good news is that this race will be held in Mont Sainte Anne, Canada where I have always raced well (I even won a U23 World Cup there in 2012).

All going well and New Zealand qualifies a spot; then the goal is to show excellent form at the earlier World Cups in 2020 to earn that spot.

  • Was the 2018 Commonwealth Games a satisfying journey?

The Commonwealth Games was a fantastic experience and journey. I’m really proud to have competed for New Zealand while in front of many family and friends.

The journey for selection began two years out by gaining the race experience and world ranking points I needed. The selection criteria was a bit grey in my eyes, so I set my high standards and essentially paved my path to get there. All of which was made possible with a lot of help from Kyle and the support from our families, our friends and my sponsors.

There were tough times on our journey, it was a massive investment in our lives, including lots of sacrifices, stress, a spell of sickness and an untimely injury that needed nursing. But it was worth it.

The journey rewarded us with genuinely awesome experiences; racing my heart out around the world, making friends with new people, exploring new places, learning about different cultures, as well as the satisfaction of working towards a goal.

Would I do it all again? Absolutely.

  • What are the benefits of being a self-funded privateer?

Being a privateer gives you freedom in the choice of direction, it allows you to build a race schedule around your own specific racing targets/goals. You also get to seek support and build relationships with brands and products you believe in and trust.

*Self-funded – I guess this gives extra determination benefits 😉

  • If you could have a place on a factory team, what would it be and what are the things you’d appreciate the most?

Specialized Factory Racing Team would be an obvious choice as I love the equipment and as a female, they also offer a vast range of Women’s specific parts and accessories.

Next to the equipment, I see a lot of value in being on a team with more accomplished racers. Having the opportunity to see and learn first-hand how the best go about their business would be awesome.

And obviously, the financial and manpower assistance to do what I want to do would be tip-top.

  • Do you have a bucket list for places or events to ride, that you wish to tick off?

I guess you could say the XCO track in Tokyo is on my bucket list!

I’ve been very fortunate to travel the world racing my bike over the years which has provided me with the opportunity the experience everything from the French Alps to the Belgium cobbles. It has however meant that some great trails and locations closer to home have been neglected and are definitely on the radar.

Places to go:
– Old Ghost Road, NZ

– Derby, Tasmania

Events to embrace:

– Cape Epic, SA

– BC Bike Race, Vancouver

  • Cheers for the insights, Samara, we wish you all the very best, see you again at Cape to Cape!