It’s now August. Past the middle of the year. Yes, time flies. Every year passes quicker, and the last seems further away the more I age, and with life being crammed in from every angle it’s easy to see how it happens.
It’s now been several months from the ‘very bad time’ earlier this year, where a shoulder injury compounded other various events and left me pretty broken in all meanings of the word. Fast forward past a long break from the bike, a whole lot of help from people who mean a lot to me, a buttload of shoulder rehab, doing bulk base miles, a trip to Canada, and we are in August.
So XCO World Championships is in the second week of September, and somehow I managed a call up on the Elite Women’s start line. With the selection criteria being so stringent and largely unattainable except for maybe only one female, Cycling Australia chose instead—on home soil—to select a large team. I cannot complain; this has been a goal for me, though I cannot understand how they came to select me either. Yes, I had some stellar performances earlier this year but pretty much failed on all the selections fronts (ie: I was broken for both Oceania’s and National’s and didn’t travel for world cups).
Alas, I did get a call up and I am happy about it, though inevitably nervous; after all, my good early year form gave way to a lot of time off, a lot of rebuilding and racing Canada on base miles only (ie: not being particularly fast in any sense of the word) and though I have since began to ramp up intensity since my return, it’s hard to believe I can reach or exceed the level I was at early this year, if purely looking at numbers
The one main thing I can think about regarding the whole thing is privilege. The whole experience of a world championship is due to privilege. And I don’t mean ‘it’s a privilege to represent my country’ though that still rates moderately despite my largely non-nationalistic ethos.
I mean what it takes to get to that sort of level—especially those who are in contention for stripes—is a lot of privilege.
We like to talk about all the hard work it takes to be a cyclist. How hard it is. It’s true. Physically. To be good at cross country, or any other cycling discipline, you have to train yourself to encounter and embrace discomfort and pain. Every day, almost…whether it be torture via foam roller or VO2 max efforts. That reality is undeniable.
But what makes the ability to get to a world championship event aside from commitment and some legs? Well, firstly, you have to have some cash.
If you are young enough; mum and dad have to have some cash. In Australia, sponsorship is scant for our ‘popular-but-still-really-a-fringe-sport’ sport. Sure you can get a bike on a long-term invoice and some kit from a shop or distributor. But the thousands of dollars you need to travel Australia, and after that, the world? That’s on you.
Mountain biking isn’t a team sport. It’s you against the course for 90min of teeth-gritting, and so unlike road cycling, the team-sponsorship opportunities aren’t that great. Travel is self-funded for all but the best (and in some circumstances, all including the best), which makes selection policies for large events that stipulate overseas travel is a must, quite problematic.
Perhaps the benefit of this is that you have to be intrinsically motivated to continue in the sport; after all, no one is going to pay your way, you have to do it for the love, for the challenge, not for reward.
If you are old enough to be paying your own bills it doesn’t get easier; as training and work and the rest of life have to be crammed in. Athletes before have taken the plunge, remortgaged their houses, taken redundancies, in order to secure their overseas World Cup campaigns, in the name of worlds/Comm Games etc selection. Which is all fine and well; after all as mentioned, finding money in the sport is like spotting the Tasmanian Tiger and so if you want to have a campaign, it requires sacrifice.
The point is, there are few people out there that can afford the sacrifice. I am talking about the higher levels of sport, but when was the last time a socio-economically disadvantaged person found themselves on a podium of a state or national series event?
Sure, we live in Australia which is by and large very affluent, but cycling is a luxury pretty much for the 1%. You may not believe you’re the 1% but if you have a job in Austalia and money in your wallet you’re pretty much it when compared to the rest of the world.
The prohibitive costs of equipment are quite a wall to entry to the world of competitive cycling. When you add in the need to have time for training (often best accommodated by white collar work, or upper-echelon jobs that allow flexibility) that further excludes many potential athletes.
When you look specifically at elite women, knowing that they often have a later and longer lifespan within elite sport, the demands of children and cost of childcare are also thrown into the mix.
It’s no wonder cycling is seen as the new golf, and why parents (often late to cycling themselves because of the aforementioned reasons; no judgment just a fact) see their child’s cycling career as a legitimate career path.
Why am I writing this? Because I am dead-set ordinary. Yet I am privileged; privileged enough to be a person that owns a house, has a supportive husband, a kid at school (and with outside hours school care help when required) and a job that while is staunchly in the blue collar brigade, pays the bills and I don’t have to turn up too often. Privileged enough to have a bike (or two or three) and a car and all the other material items that so many people confuse with happiness (BTW: it’s a ruse, I have experienced enough of life to know the lure of shiny things don’t make you happy).
I am privileged enough to be afforded enough time on my bike in between everything else that I can race at a relatively high level, I live in a place where I don’t fear for my life, and food is on the table every day. I am privileged enough that things like ‘skinfolds’ have at times entered my vocabulary, and in a country where obesity is rife, reducing them is the last bastion of the privileged. After all, if you can’t pay for food or don’t have a job, counting macronutrients is the last thing on your mind.
So with this in mind, and—sadly—knowing that the best potential mountain biker in the world is probably on the couch, downing KFC and drinking VB, I am acknowledging my privilege, heading to Cairns to throw myself down some rocks in a white, green and gold unitard.
PS: Don’t get me wrong, sports federations have to have some way of selecting riders which usually involves overseas campaigns, and there is no one to help the fact that the money in the sport is scant, I am merely highlighting the privilege one has to have to undertake such a feat. I don’t have the answers, I just do the sport because I love it.