In 2016 Henderson and McConnell had what most Australian mountain bikers would consider an exceptional year. Henderson achieved a career best world cup finish on the elite circuit, with third in the opening round in Cairns. She backed this up later in the year with eighth place finishes in France and Canada.
McConnell, who achieved a clean sweep of the national cross-country series over the Australian summer last season, had a best world cup result of 11th in Switzerland in July.
But in an Olympic year, there’s one race that matters more than most. Henderson was forced out of contention due to excruciating back pain, while McConnell lost valuable positions early on with a flat tyre and finished 16th.
“Both of us have experienced the highs and lows of the Olympic experience, from the thrill and reward of just being selected to focusing your whole season on the Olympics to fall short of your goals on race day,” they said.
“The Olympics can bring the best and worst, and unfortunately 2016 brought the worst for both of us.”
Despite this, they returned to the world cup series and both finished the year ranked 11th in the world. They also finished the year with the news that they wouldn’t be returning to the Trek Factory Racing team in 2017, which came as a shock to the riders as well as their fans.
We caught up with the duo over email to discuss their plans going forward. The couple, who live together, train together and are planning a wedding together also answered our questions together.
Late last year you both announced that you’d no longer be racing with Trek Factory Racing. Are you able to share a bit about how those types of contracts are decided?
Honestly, we don’t have a great answer to that question. We were left in the dark throughout this decision process and left the World Cup finals in September with the indication from team management that we would both be resigned. We did not find out until November that we would not have our contracts renewed. We don’t know why.
Funding for mountain biking through Cycling Australia is largely dependant on Olympic results. Can you explain what that means for people unfamiliar with this system?
There is no funding from Cycling Australia for mountain bike. Mountain Bike Australia do their best to support riders where possible, using money raised from memberships and without much funding from Cycling Australia or the Australian government. The system is fairly complicated yet also very simple: you must win medals at the Olympic Games to receive funding – even Commonwealth Games medals is not enough.
You’ve said that despite recent challenges, your plans for 2017 remain the same: to ride the best you can at the top level. How much support is needed to do this?
It’s been a difficult transition over the last few months to get ourselves organised for the 2017 season, and continue to train at the level required as it has been a relatively late decision to run our own team.
We do require a lot of support to make it happen and while things are starting to come together, we are a long way from the support needed. We are currently employing our own mechanic for the World Cup series, and are still finalising a lot of details for the season.
It takes a team for a rider to race at the World Cup, and slowly but surely ours is coming together.
Given the need to balance the pressures of racing with finding and retaining the resources to race at the top level, what advice would you give up and coming racers?
Aussies have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to World Cup racing. You have to really stand out to be considered for a pro team and you need contacts, all of which are hard to get when you can spend so little time on the circuit.
Obviously, performance is the major one, you have to do everything within your ability to get your best possible performance, but engaging with your sponsors, support team and fans is important. Don’t burn bridges! Loyalty is huge to us.
You announced recently that Scott bikes have come on board for this season, along with several other sponsors, most who supported you both well before you signed with the Trek Factory Racing team. How do you think the professionalism you experienced through the Trek team will carry over to privateering again in 2017?
We will have a really good mix this year. We have done the privateering thing before for several years and now we have the insight to how the pro teams run.
One of the biggest things we have done to keep it professional is to have a mechanic with us at all of the races. We will continue to organise our own travel, flights, equipment, etc.
As we have grown as athletes we have learned that there are perks to both sides; privateering and pro teams. While we are less supported and have a lot more on our plate, it also gives us a lot more freedom. We can attend races of our choice and limit a lot of the travel required in the off season.
Having been based back in Australia over summer, what do you see as the biggest strengths of our own mountain bike scene compared to overseas?
The Australian scene is growing and participation, particularly with Juniors at the National Series this year has been great. However, we have a long way to go if we want to compare to overseas racing.
Last question. As a parting thought for people travelling to Cairns for the mountain bike World Championships in September, what can they look forward to?
We can’t promise anything but we hope Aussies can be looking for medals across all disciplines – Downhill, XC, Trials….
We have a really strong team of Aussies racing this year and if the World Cup in 2016 is any indication, the atmosphere is incredible and helps the riders to get the best out of themselves.