Thirteen years is a long time between drinks for fans of Australian cross country (XCO) mountain biking but on Monday the community awoke to a pair of victories and blossoming hope for the future, writes Phil Gomes.
On Saturday night (AEST) Rebecca Henderson was the first to break the long running Australian drought by winning the opening race of the under 23 category at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Albstadt, Germany.
Her victory was the first recorded at that level by any Australian rider since Cadel Evans and Mary Grigson at the turn of the millennium in 2000.
Grigson, a multiple national champion and Olympian won her event in Napa, California while Evans, who needs absolutely no introduction, won in Canmore, Alberta and Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec.
On Sunday night (AEST) Daniel McConnell, Henderson’s partner and team-mate at the American based Trek Factory Racing Team, made it two-from-two for the Australian couple.
Both riders went into the opening round in Albstadt with mixed ambitions, for Henderson it was to build on her second place overall in last year’s under 23 World Cup, with hopes of standing on the top step in 2013.
“Everything just went perfectly. It's unbelievable," said Henderson. “My goal this year was to win a World Cup. I never thought it would be the opening round. It's a privilege to wear the leader's jersey.”
For McConnell the goals were more modest, try to stay in touch with the top riders and improve on his consistency at the highest level.
"I did not expect this," said McConnell. "I came into this looking for a solid top-15, so it's unbelievable. I got into the last corner with a little bit of a gap and nothing was going to get past me at that point, I was running on adrenalin."
In trying to put these victories in context I immediately came up with Matt Goss’s incredible win in Milan-San Remo in 2011, unexpected but also one that was coming due given the available talent.
Henderson and McConnell have pretty much accomplished everything they could have hoped for this season in just the one weekend in Germany. Not that they will coast, there has been too much blood, sweat and tears spilt to not adjust the goals upward once again.
Make no mistake, these victories do not belong to the blue blazer crowd who control the purse strings, and who no doubt would like to claim them as their own, they belong solely to McConnell and Henderson who have struggled for two years on the smell of an oily rag without any serious official support. The pair have either paid their own way or received support from personal sponsors, family and friends.
These victories are truly hard earned and well deserved.
They also come at an interesting time for the XCO discipline in this country and are doubly important given the recent news that Australia will host World Cup rounds in 2014 and 2016. It also comes at exactly the right time because of Cycling Australia’s review into MTB, one which seeks to rebuild and reorganise the sport. How much more motivation is now needed to throw a few bucks at XCO and hard working athletes like these?
Australian mountain bike athletes have always done extremely well in the gravity disciplines, Downhill and Four Cross, which is in rude health, but our obsession with road endurance has starved XCO not only of funds but also talent, with the best and brightest choosing the tarmac because of a lack of opportunity to build a career on the dirt, something that needs to change as soon as possible.
Both Henderson and McConnell head into next weekend’s round in Nove Mesto na Morave in the Czech Republic wearing the leader’s jerseys. There will be high expectations but I think we can forgive them just a little bit of a let down after the biggest weekend of their lives.