A more race report style blog to come, I initially penned this after my worlds ‘campaign’ in France late last month. It helped me rationalise some things I was thinking prior to the race and get them straightened out so I could go on to race hard and, in the end, have a great result personally and for Team Australie!
The thing with writing about bike races is that the narrative is almost always the same. Sure the bits in the middle change a bit in terms of specifics, but it is pretty much “the race started, I rode really hard and then I got to the end”. There are usually some embellishments of suffering or similar, the glorification of the hurt, surpassing mountains of adversity: what there usually isn’t is room for doubt, frailty, or other more common human emotions. We hear only about the negative parts of our experience in that they are to be overcome for glory.
I don’t mean to say my World Champs experience was in any way negative. Indeed I had a great time, a smooth race and a surprising result. Despite all this, however, I did grapple with some struggles prior to the race that I think are probably very normal and real for any domestic racer (as I like to call myself, an “Aussie hack”) that suddenly finds themselves wedged between the red knicks of Spain and Jolanda Neff on the start line of a world championships race for the first time.
I went into XCM National Champs in Derby this year with a bit of an idea that I wanted to qualify for Worlds. After all, a World Championship is the pinnacle of an events racing that exists, ever! Who wouldn’t take up an opportunity to do that? There’s no “Intergalactic Mountain Bike Championships”.
My race was OK but not amazing at Nationals, I had a back injury leading into it but raced well all things considered. I didn’t qualify off the time differential from my position up to Peta’s stomping win, so after I hauled my sorry arse back home and felt like “well I gave it a crack, wasn’t to be, maybe i’ll try again next time” I picked myself up, washed myself off and headed to Bendigo for another qualification race in the National Marathon series the next week.
At the end of the race (which was a tight battle between 3rd and 4th, I ended up 4th by only a few seconds) I was too afraid to look at the results. For hours. I guessed I hadn’t qualified when National Champ Peta suddenly decided to race and smoked the field again. I was told by a friends’ husband I wasn’t far down, and when I could face checking the results I found I was well inside the XCM Worlds cutoff percentage. I had worked hard to get myself in reasonable shape for these races, but what would happen if I actually qualified for Worlds? The possibility had seemed so outrageous just six months prior I was a bit taken aback to even hit my goal. But I did, I scraped some funds together and booked my flights, managed to remain healthy and put in some good quality (rather than quantity) miles on the bike in between everything else going on.
In the weeks leading up to Worlds, I knew I had some form and had overcome my injury attained prior to Nationals (in fact with the physio and rehab I was recruiting all sorts of muscles I don’t reckon I had ever used before, my quads and glutes looked and acted differently, but I wasn’t complaining), but the question was how much form was enough? After what we will call a ‘tactical deficit’ on the road at Battle on the Border—a National Road Series race—I didn’t even manage to finish in the front bunch. I know there was a reason for this (namely my poor judgement), but at the time it felt like “well my legs won’t even get me to the finish at the front end of a domestic road race so why the hell and I going overseas?”. At one stage I did realise that no amount of form would ever be enough for me to be satisfied with my preparation. It was a sobering feeling but one that let me sit with the discomfort of the unknown a little easier.
Challenging doubts: I am quite new to nuances of team-based road racing. I took a punt in this race at a bad time due to my inexperience and my own special little bit of crazy and it would have been amazing if it worked but it cost me the front group position. I did have form to go up the road on a climb, and I’m not training for a road event anyway. I needed to think logically about this and be a bit kinder to myself. I had failed to reflect on all the other successful races I had recently had, from club criteriums, to state road and national mountain bike races, and decided to focus on the one result I felt was an underperformance. It was a good example of tunnel vision; it’s a lot easier and rational when you take the binoculars away and assess your whole performance.
After the remaining stages of Battle had been cancelled, it soon became Battle on the Bottle which was a great pressure release valve for everything that was going on in life—not just the training but the working and the family-ing (probably not enough of this was going on, all things considered. Cycling is a selfish sport, anyone who denies that is either single or rides recreationally). Without delving into too much detail the drinking was immense and the hangover was even worse.
Challenging doubts: The regret and feelings of guilt for not training like a pro athlete were strong, but I kept reminding myself I race best when relaxed and happy and not taking everything too seriously, so maybe this was just a well-timed party in the midst of it all? Besides, I am not a pro athlete, I am Anna and there are so many other facets of AB which make me a fun and interesting person. If you start to conflate your sense of self solely with bike racing you’re going to have a bad time.
Prior to my worlds selection I had worked on reducing my skinfolds…and then winter happened. I was feeling a little on the heavy side and guilty about it in the way that only an overseas trip for a major race can. I am very good at talking about how I am going to reduce/not reduce my skin folds but when it comes down to changing things in winter? Damn near impossible. I know what to do but am miserable enough in the cold weather when eating all the food I want, let alone when trying to create a calorie deficit.
People tend to pick what you’re good at on the bike from what you look like and I felt like a downhill time-trial specialist, not someone off to compete against the strongest riders in the world over a 70km course with 2500m vertical. Actually if downhill time-trialling were a thing I would be all over it like a fat kid on a doughnut, but I digress. If there’s one saving grace it’s my age of experience and knowing at what size I race well at and not getting too tied up in the pursuit of leanness at the expense of the rest of my life.
Challenging doubts: Comparison is the thief of joy. In order to look at how my form was going I looked to other data rather than my weight, which did in fact reveal that form was on the way up. I looked back at strong races I had, one of the more recent ones I had at a National series XC I was even heavier than leading into worlds, and rode well, so I needed to take the objective step back and look at where I was. The power:weight curve for me tends to drop off quite rapidly below 57kg so somewhere between 58-59kg is often a good compromise where I feel strong but can still climb.
So things were going ok. I had some form. I think. I wasn’t lean but I wasn’t too heavy.
I managed to get to France…and my bike didn’t turn up (which I talk about here) but it does eventually and we have a great ride followed by a bit of a wet-fish to the face: I come down with a cold. You can’t do too much about this when on long haul international flights but to say I was a bit bummed was an understatement. While I didn’t have to take a day off for the cold it definitely rained on my parade in terms of course recon, getting the efforts in, and taking it out of my legs on race day.
The day prior to the race, I had managed to shake all but the last remnants of the virus. We hooked around the first third of the course and while the pre-race efforts weren’t pretty, I managed. Fanging down some sweet single track we shot out onto a firewood with another entrance to single track across it…which was bunted. Hurtling through the bunting at about 30km/hr, I managed to unclip my right foot and use it as a brake. I stopped, eventually, through the bunting but there was an unmistakable unpleasant sensation in my right ankle, which was rapidly getting puffy. As I like to say sometimes, “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do it’s my ankle”. The good thing was that despite difficulty walking on it, riding was ok. Voltaren and nurofen were effective; I had come this far and was ready for Worlds.
Challenging doubts: These were some of the hardest to overcome. You think you’ll go to worlds, the training will be all done, you’ll be in the form of your life and you’ll ride your bike like a woman possessed without a chain. Unfortunately only a handful of riders will be riding ‘no chain’ and I think international travel decreases the likelihood of that being you! There was a big part of me that was thinking, when I was a couple of days out in the throes of feeling hot and snotty “well this is my campaign over” but equally I had to be positive enough to take a step back and recover and hope to come good. As for the ankle, well, being the day before and having been through all the rest it wasn’t really a concern. A bit of RICE and anti-inflammatories, I knew a sore ankle would be the least of my pain during the race.
Why am I writing all of this? It seems like a really long page of excuses, but these are not excuses and I have nothing to be excused for. I am sure that all of the women I competed against had some tales of woe in the lead up to the event, it’s just that we only ever hear about the plain-sailing stuff. If I had chosen to be beholden to the doubts which lingered above me due to these events leading up to the race, the outcome could have been quite different. The beauty is in deciding to put yourself out there, get in the zone and put aside all of this despite what concerns you may have in order to race hard.
The way in which we approach training and racing can make-or break us. It’s hard to be ‘on’ all the time, and our human nature means that we are supposed to feel doubt, fear, uncertainty. It’s just not a narrative we tend to associate with high-performance in sports or broader life. I hope that by writing about my own experience of doubt, I may be able to assist some athletes in their development path, by allowing them to recognise and rationalise their own doubts to increase their chances of good performance in sport and life. The problem is not in having these thoughts and feelings, its what we do with them and how we choose to react that will affect our performance.
Some people are naturally resilient in the face of adversity and doubt, others need a little more time and experience to develop those traits, wherever you are in your sporting path to success, a little kindness and objectivity never goes astray.