Australian Bec McConnell has started the season brilliantly by winning the XCO World Cup in Petrópolis and taking the top spot in the UCI rankings. We had the opportunity to talk to her a few days later, and this is what she told us about her next goals, the keys to her victory, MTB in her country and much more.
You just won the Petrópolis World Cup and you are number 1 in the UCI ranking. We might be a bit late, but what are your goals for this season that has just started?
My goal for 2022 was to win a World Cup. Just one. It's a goal that I kept close to my chest and was not public about this. Actually the dream to really win a World Cup only became a 'goal' during the later half of last season. Before that, top 10 was always the goal, podium the ultimate performance and never the expectation to do better than that. My goals for this year continue the same. To maintain my consistency, performing regularly at every World Cup, keep fighting for podium positions and of course, the desire to win another World Cup is definitely inside me.
The Petrópolis event was new to the World Cup. How was the experience in Brazil with the circuit, the fans, the journey, etc.?
It was a very unique World Cup experience. It's the first time since COVID that we've really raced in front of such a big crowd. It's amazing to be back among such passionate supporters of our support and of course Brazil really did put on a show! There was a lot of unknows about travelling to Brazil for the first time and for sure this was a big challenge for the teams. Lucky as riders we are hidden from most of the problems and we are able to concentrate on our preparation. The first World Cup always comes with the most anticipation after a long break from International racing so it was just so nice to be back in the scene, with my team, seeing my friends again and being back at the MTB World Cup!!!
In the last 4 seasons you have always been fighting for the top positions, but the victory has come now, what have you changed or what do you think have been the key factors?
Yes for sure I've been really consistent over the last couple of seasons. Each year I continue to improve, from regular top 10's to regular podium positions. Always 'in' the race but never really fighting for the win. I am very realistic, I know that winning in Brazil doesn't mean that every race I'm going to be there fighting for another win. But of course I'm going to try. I have learnt a lot about racing at the front of the World Cup over the last couple of seasons, mostly due to the number of mistakes I have made and I wouldn't change it at all. I think all of this experience has helped me so much and of course some other obvious factors. I changed my coach over the summer (winter/off season) and we are working really well together. Both of us are compromising to find the balance and the best way. We have kept the same mentality I've had over the past few years but put some small changes in the structure of my training. And of course consistency - this is a key factor for me - in training, in life, with my team. I'm really happy to be starting my fifth year with PMG, I have a lot of trust in the team and that cannot be built in just one season.
It is difficult to find Australian riders in the XCO World Cup, how is the scene in your country? And why do you think there are not many Australian riders competing in the XCO World Cup?
Ohhhhhh, we need a whole interview just for this topic! It's an extremely difficult and frustrating one for me to discuss. There are more people riding bikes in Australia than ever before, yet it doesn't translate to racing. Every bike park is completely full of people riding, but nobody wants to race. There are quite a few issues, the mainstream media is one, even the MTB media does not cover World Cup racing despite an Aussie on the podium most races. It's crazy! I am more recognised on the roads in Spain than I am in Australia.
But the real issue is the Federation. In all my years of racing I've never had support from the federation until I won my first Medal at the World Championships in 2019, with Tokyo on the horizon it was the first time they had shown an interest in me. There is no development of our young riders, there is no high performance program for our top riders. All athletes are self funding to represent their country at the World Championships. (I am the most fortunate Aussie as my team, at their own expense come to support me at the World Championships each year) The last time we were a National Team together at the World Championships was 2014 in Norway.
There are many fundamental issues within the federation - over the years we have had some small MTB programs (although I was never included and many good riders have fallen through the cracks) but almost the entire government funding goes to the track cycling program due to Olympic medal chances being much easier to achieve. Even the road program got dissolved and we have many talented Aussie road riders. On the other hand when we have had MTB programs we have often had the wrong people running them and they have been completely unsuccessful, borderline disasterous! We have so much talent in Australia but as you can imagine making the jump to European racing is incredibly difficult and close to impossible without support. We lose a lot of our MTB talent to the road, purely just because there are more opportunities there and there are actual pathways from domestic teams to international teams.
There are barely any MTB teams in Australia, and none of them are supported financially. So there is no pathway or real support for the athletes. So money is also a really big factor, then try to travel to Europe for several months per year as a student, or rent a car when you are 18. There are just too many hurdles to get over and only those willing to sacrifice it all, have the talent, find or make the opportunities and really don't give up are going to make it. And even still, you need to find yourself on a European based team to be able to do it sustainably. Honestly, I could go on!
I will say now though, that finally there is a glimmer of hope as the Federation has made some enormous changes and now we have a small group of Aussies travelling to the next 2 World Cups and two scholarships for the UCI World Cycling Centre for U23 riders. It's not much, yet... but it's a start and I'm really motivated to work with our Federation to start to bring Aussies back to World Cup level.
We know you spend long periods of time in Spain but how does it affect you that most races are so far away from Australia?
Of course it does. Sometimes it's frustrating, but I've made peace with it and I am used to living out of my suitcase for 5-6 months per year. If I want to be a part of this sport, accepting that it is for the most part European based is just how it is. Not how I would like it in the ideal world. But it is what it is. I just have to laugh when Euro's complain about travelling or being away from home a couple of weeks. I miss my home a lot, I really love where I live, I miss my family and my friends and i REALLY miss my dog, Lenny. But the life I live is my choice, it's a sacrifice, but ultimately it's a privilege. I have met the most amazing people and now I have friends all over the World. I love what I do and I get to race my bike as my job, and sometimes on the best days, I even manage to make a lot of people happy!
Of course there are a lot of things that affect us just purely for the distance. Australia is a long way from Europe and the America's!
Your victory in Brazil was also the first for Mondraker in XCO. Did you know the brand before joining the team 5 years ago? What do you think about the evolution of the equipment in the last seasons?
Yes, that is true! PMG have taken Mondraker from a brand that was relatively new to XCO to being one of the highest ranked teams in the World. I had heard of Mondraker before I joined the team, but to be honest I didn't know too much about them. My first season we were racing on prototype F-Podium bikes and then they developed the World's lightest hardtail frame. I absolutely love working with Mondraker, as a 'smaller' brand the connection is so much more personal and I value that a lot. I think it's easy to see I am very happy and comfortable on my Mondraker bikes, and they are with me from my worst moments all the way through to reaching our first XCO World Cup win together.
What have you learnt over the years that you would have liked to know when you started competing in MTB?
Haha! I'll try not to write another book like above! It's such a tricky question as 'you don't know what you don't know' when you start out doing anything. And once you become proficient in what you are doing, there are so many things that become second nature that you no longer realise or remember that they are important details, or keys to your success. To me it's the small details that make life on the road easier that matter. Travel with an eye mask, ear plugs and a change of clothes. If you need help, ask for it. Make friends and be sincere (not making friends to use them for something). You need less clothes than you think, but more warm gear than you think! Come prepared with your equipment, race ready and in working order. Bring spares!
And just to know that it's an incredibly tough sport. No matter how good you think you are or the high that you are on, you will inevitably hit a low point. Getting back up from that low point is the most satisfying, rewarding and fulfilling experience, and that is what makes it worth it and our sport so amazing!