Build it and the results will come

Joe Ward

cycling, MTB, Australia, Rebecca Henderson, Daniel McConnell, Trek Factory Racing
Trek Factory Racing's Daniel McConnell tackles the rock garden section at Nove Mesto na Morave in the Czech Republic (Rob Jones)
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Another week, another set of great Australian results from the latest MTB World Cup round in Val di Sole Italy.

In previous years a blasé statement like this would be purely reserved for the gravity disciplines of 4-Cross or Downhill (DH) in which Australia has been very successful.

And while Dean Lucas pulled off a nail biting win in the Junior Men's DH at Val di Sole, the headlines have instead been focussed on two names, Rebecca Henderson and Dan McConnell.

They're lycra bandits, whippets, they ride XCO (Olympic format cross country) a discipline that largely fell off the radar for the average cycling fan ever since Cadel slipped on one of those hideous Mapei jerseys and rode off to make history over a decade ago.

The 2013 season had already been monumental for Henderson and McConnell after they were announced as part of the powerful domestic team Target Trek and that they would also ride overseas with Trek Factory Racing squad, a proper, well funded, you-beaut International Cycling Union (UCI) registered trade team.

That alone should have given us reason to celebrate, but as soon as they zipped up the new skin suits the wins started coming, with both placing first in the opening round of the US National series (Mellow Johnny's Classic) and most notably both winning at the opening round of the UCI MTB World Cup in Abstadt, Germany.

While it's true that Abstadt was missing some big names and two-time Olympic Champion Julien Absalon suffered a mechanical issue, McConnell was riding well above the level that we have come to expect from him, and this has been backed up by his recent results.

An second round 18th place at Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic might not sound that great by comparison but it was better than any other World Cup result he'd had prior to this season, and when he backed it up with a storming ride to sixth over the weekend it became clear he'd reached a new level.

McConnell now sits in second in the World Cup standings and eight in the UCI points table while Rebecca Henderson holds a slender lead in the Under-23 women's World Cup after her incredibly impressive results of two second placings and a win.

That the pair have also been in a long term relationship makes the story sweeter still.

One can't help but think that now, with the support of the Trek Factory Racing Team and without the everyday distractions that face privateers (organising travel, accommodation and decent food), winning has become a more realistic goal for them. A point that was vigorously outlined by the man behind the Target Trek team Richard Peil in this compelling article.

Peil makes the point that without adequate support, athletes find it difficult to achieve or surpass their goals. Funding for the Elite MTB program was dumped many years ago on the judgement (one would presume) that the funds would not derive a good return on investment.

Unfortunately for MTB, success is only measured by the Australian Sports Commission in Commonwealth and Olympic games medals for which there is only two opportunities available at each games - unlike the road which has four and track which has a whopping ten.

So while I can see the Cycling Australia (CA) and Mountain Biking Australia (MTBA) conundrum, McConnell and Henderson's results this season have proved Kevin Costner's 'Field of Dreams' line of "build it and they (results) will come".

Richard Peil was indeed right, Australian MTB riders can be competitive, given the right support.

In the wake of a fiery meeting held between representatives of MTBA and athletes about the Elite Development Program (EDP) during the National Championships in February, CA are currently in the a process of reviewing the program and attempting to address the many concerns that were raised.

Now this is a great step ahead and a clear signal CA are taking the fat-tyre folk seriously, but the problem always comes back to dollars. We could end up with the world's best designed Elite Development Program but no cash to implement it.

There have been proposals put to MTBA to embrace a public/private partnership, essentially pooling the scant resources of MTB trade teams and MTBA to create a funding pool that can create substantial support for riders.

The outcome from this review could be a while off but on the meantime it's good to reflect on the newfound joy of reading great XCO results, and knowing MTB is being treated with respect and that we have two World Cups and the 2017 World Championships coming up at Cairns.

We now have three years to develop an Olympic medalist and four years to build a World Champion. Bring it on!



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