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Rebecca McConnell has been a stalwart of the cross country mountain bike scene since she began racing internationally in 2008 and at World Cups since 2010. Until April this year, however, she had yet to win an elite World Cup.
The first round of the 2022 series took place in April with the travelling circus of riders and crew heading to Petropolis, Brazil, to race in front of some of mountain biking’s most enthusiastic fans. McConnell had always been consistent, and in the latter half of 2021 she had made it onto the podium of World Cups, but a win still eluded her.
In Petropolis, however, it all came together for the Australian. The riders had to contend with heat and humidity over a tough course but despite the conditions, French national champion – and 2021 overall world cup winner – Loana Lecomte, appeared more than comfortable. The 22-year-old, who dominated the first four World Cup races last year, attacked early on in the first lap and immediately got a gap.
Just a few minutes into the race and Lecomte’s lead seemed unassailable, this round appeared to be set to follow the same pattern as the early 2021 races, but behind her a determined McConnell was chasing hard, her lap times equal to Lecomte’s. On the fourth lap of six, a mistake from Lecomte on the rock garden forced her to unclip and gave McConnell, who was at that point joined by Dutch rider Anne Terpstra, the chance to catch her.
The three women crossed the line together going into the fifth lap but an attack from Terpstra saw them split apart again. McConnell appeared to be on the back foot, dropping into third behind Lecomte as Terpstra maintained her lead going into the final lap. However, McConnell, who had stayed with Lecomte, chose her moment and attacked, catching back up to Terpstra and coming straight around the Ghost Factory Racing rider as they rode past the tech zone for the final time. That was the last Terpstra saw of her Australian rival, who crossed the line first, holding her hand to her mouth in disbelief. Her first World Cup win.
“Maybe after you win a few it becomes more real, but for me it’s still quite difficult to believe,” McConnell told Pinkbike in the wake of Brazil.
Two months later, McConnell is the winner of not one but three World Cups plus a short track race (XCC). A double-header in the second round in Albstadt saw her take both the 20-minute short track race on the Friday in a sprint against Pauline Ferrand Prevot, and the XCO race on the Sunday. A week later, in Nové Město na Moravě, McConnell came second in the XCC and led the XCO from the first lap until the finish in a confident and dominant performance.
Does she believe it now? “Winning a World Cup is something that doesn’t…I don’t know if it would ever feel real,” McConnell tells CyclingTips a week later.
Backing up Brazil
She may not fully believe it just yet, but the two subsequent wins have at least backed up her win in Brazil, which, she says, some were playing down.
“It was still ‘oh it’s the first World Cup of the season’ and then everybody’s saying I had favourable conditions, even though the whole of Australia is not hot and humid. But, yeah, it’s sort of like it was that one where [people were saying] ‘maybe she got a bit lucky,’” she recalls.
“And I think winning in the last two World Cups really cemented that I earned that win and I earned these two wins and at the moment, I’m the fastest rider in the world.”
Can she believe that at least? “That’s really an overwhelming thing to think, let alone believe.”
“I think it’s probably something that maybe in five years time, I might reflect back and really believe that. But at the moment, it’s just like I’m living in those moments that I’ve worked so hard for over the last however many years, but I’m a realistic person and I never realistically thought ‘I’m going to be world number one, or I’m going to win a World Cup’,” she explains. “So yeah it’s quite overwhelming.”
Although it is not a surprise to see McConnell achieve success – she has always been one of the top riders in the field, and last year had three World Cup podiums – it is clear that she has taken a step up this season. To what does she attribute the jump from top-10s or podium places to wins?
“That’s a question that I’m getting asked quite a bit lately given that I’ve also had some pretty big changes in my life,” she says. “But I think I’ve always been relatively consistent but the last three years I’ve been really consistent in the World Cup races and most of the time I’m on the podium, and then towards the back end of the season, I was really getting…like the last two World Cups I was second and so close to fighting for that win.”
One tangible change is switching up her coach. Her husband Dan, “had been coaching me for the most part of my career,” she says. Now, a new approach and a fresh set of eyes has, she says, “really just helped me kind of go from my strengths to finding these new little differences.”
Disrupting the routine and introducing a new coach can be a gamble, but it is one that has paid off for McConnell. She and her new coach, however, “have completely different backgrounds,” she says. “Coaches are…there’s so much more science and numbers to it these days, and I’m very like, I need to enjoy my training and I hate doing intervals.”
Despite their clashing approaches she says “we’ve found a really good balance” – the evidence is there in her dominance of the World Cup season so far.
Her physical performances have clearly improved, but success begets success and McConnell’s win in Brazil also gave her the confidence she needed going into the next two rounds.
“You can sort of see over the three races how my head is changing, or how I am in races is changing,” she says.
“In Albstadt…I’ve never ridden like that before, with that confidence, knowing like ‘if I’m still here, with a few laps to go I can race for the win’ and then Nove Mesto I just, I don’t know. It felt right. And that’s how it went.”
Much like Lecomte in Brazil, McConnell attacked more-or-less from the gun. Unlike the French rider on that occasion, McConnell stayed away for the entire race. “But it was like 100% not the easy way to win a World Cup,” she says. “It’s not the easy way to be in the front, from start to finish. So I don’t know if that’ll be my tactic next time.”
“We’re not the cool kind, we’re cross country”
To the women’s road cycling fan on the outside of the mountain bike world looking in, things appear a lot more equal between the men and women who race off road. Is that really the case?
“I’ve always been really grateful to be a female mountain biker as opposed to a female road cyclist,” McConnell says. “You know, it’s frustrating it’s like, where do you start?
I think in mountain biking, we’re so lucky…our races are both on the same weekend, big races are World Cups and men and women together at the World Championships. And I think in the early days, for sure, people came to see the men and the women’s crowds were way smaller. But I think now the sport is just so big that it’s the full house for the men’s race and the women’s race, and it’s not just, ‘oh, just come a little bit early to see the end of the women’s racing and watch the men,’ they’re there to see all of it.”
Does she ever think about racing on the road? “I love riding my road bike, I train on it more than my mountain bike. And I’ve been in the Road National Championships at home plenty of times and do the odd race here and there. But mountain biking is my passion,” she says. “When I was starting to race, there were more opportunities for me as a mountain biker than I would have ever had on the road.”
I suggest that MTB is much cooler anyway but McConnell insists that: “we’re not the cool kind, we’re cross country, you know.”
Mountain biking might have greater gender equality to boast about but the sport as a whole, however, has a lot more room for manoeuvre in other areas, says McConnell.
“For sure it’s not reaching its potential. People love the sport, there’s spectators and at every World Cup people are taking every opportunity to see mountain bike racing,” she says.
“I’m the female mountain bike rider rep on the Athletes Commission with the UCI…and now there’s a lot of changes coming with Discovery Sports taking over mountain bike for the next eight years. And is it good? Is it bad…?”
“I think honestly, probably the UCI has kept too much of a lid on the sport for the potential it has to be big.”
Closer to home, McConnell, who is the only female professional cross country rider on the World Cup scene, is critical of the support that Australian mountain bikers receive.
“Visibility is a big thing. We haven’t had any,” she says. “Obviously, as an Aussie, you have a lot of travel and expense and our federation is hopeless at supporting…it’s starting now, but on the whole over the big picture the support has been appalling and I think people slip through the cracks a lot.”
Being from down under presents a challenge at team level, too. “Even if you get to a pretty good level where if you were based in Europe you have a team as an Aussie, it’s more of an investment for the team, because of the expenses and the travel, and then you’re not here to race all season long. And so you really have to bring something and be worth the effort and the investment from the team. And I think that’s so hard when there’s such [a] limited number of places in teams.”
A lack of media coverage is also to blame, she says. “I think the media in Australia needs to do better too, like, bring that visibility of ‘we can be really good at this sport.’ We’re good at downhill racing, we’re good at road cycling, so there’s no logical reason why we wouldn’t be good at mountain bike if people could see that there’s a pathway there or there’s a way without a pathway, if you have that determination, and that want to do it.”
“I think that’s really important for the riders to see.”
Keeping up consistency
The next round of the UCI Cross Country World Cup will take place this weekend in Leogang, Austria. Does McConnell feel pressure to win again?
“People get used to seeing you win so quickly, but like, six weeks ago, I hadn’t had a World Cup win. And then now, after Albstadt it was like, ‘oh, well, that’s got to be in the bag.’ It’s like, ‘no, you still have to turn up and everything has to go right.’ But people get used to it so quickly and I think when you win you think ‘I have to win again, and if I don’t win, I’m failing because I have won [in the past].’ But you always have those wins.”
She will always have those wins, and no matter how the remainder of the season plays out she will be viewed in the same light as the top favourites at subsequent rounds. McConnell says that she would be content to just maintain the consistency she had towards the end of 2021:“It’s just now shifting goals again. I achieved way more than I set out to do this year. So it’s kind of like I can do a little bit…go back to the old Bec who was really consistent,” she says.
“I’ve achieved those wins and now I really want to be consistent for the rest of the season and sort of fight for those top places in the overall and then there’s World Champs coming later in the year. But I don’t have any pressure which is…we sort of made a choice that there’s no pressure with this.”
“I just feel like I’m waiting for something to go wrong and everything’s just been so right.”
Even if something were to go “wrong” in the upcoming races, McConnell’s start to the 2022 season will still go down in history.