Rebecca (Bec) Henderson is Australia’s sole representative for the women’s cross-country mountain bike race. We caught up with the 24-year-old as she put in her final prep for Rio and asked her to give us an insight into her sport: what it’s like racing at the top, what she admires about her competition, and what people should look out for if mountain biking is about as familiar as speaking in Latin.
While some athletes plateau or find the lifestyle more challenging than the racing, the young Canberran has consistently moved up the world rankings each season. She has claimed the national champion title almost every year since 2004 when she was 15, before back-to-back-to-back victories in Elite category since 2013.
After racing as a privateer with her now-fiance Dan McConnell (who is competing for Australia in Rio in his third Games), the pair signed with Trek Factory Racing in 2013 and leap-frogged even further on the world circuit. Henderson won the overall title in the Under-23 mountain bike world cup series that year. She achieved a bronze medal result at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and in April this year reached her first Elite podium in the world cup series in Cairns.
Henderson finished 25th in the London Olympics, while she was still racing key events as an Under-23. We were curious to see how the lessons she’s learned over the last four years have shaped her approach to the Games in 2016. Her responses show the unwavering focus she has on her sport, something which is unusual for Australia’s best cross-country mountain bikers as they often compete in other disciplines, such as road or marathon mountain biking, to pay the bills and make ends meet.
Congratulations, Bec, on being selected for your second Olympics. How does it feel compared to London four years ago?
It’s really exciting to be named in the Olympic team. Having the experience of already going to London in 2012 I know what the hype is all about and I know the privilege and honour it is to be there. In 2012 I was unsure if I would be named on the team so I felt a lot of relief with the excitement last time. This time, I am focused on performing at my best in Rio.
What experiences from the London Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow do you think will help you most as you race in Rio?
London was a great experience which I feel helped me get the best out of myself at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Now I have both of these experiences under my belt and I am more confident in knowing what to expect from the Olympic Village, being surrounded by thousands of athletes and just keeping my ‘normal’ as best as possible despite so much hype and changes.
You’ve had some standout performances this year including third at the Cairns round of the cross-country world cup series and eighth in La Bresse a month later. How does it feel racing in such a select group?
Cairns was absolutely a stand out performance for me. The closer to the front you are, the more animated the crowds are. But in Cairns, the Australian support and my family support could never be matched.
I don’t have a lot of experience racing at the front but the closer to the front you get, the easier and smoother the racing becomes. In Lenzerheide (the most recent World Cup round, where she missed her pedal at the start) I was in the late 30’s for the early part of the race and there is little respect between the riders, so the racing is very erratic and rough. Riders waste extra energy for silly moves, it’s difficult to move up.
Closer to the front every rider is still just trying to ride as fast as possible, close the gap to the next group or rider and always focusing on moving forward.
What goes through your mind when you’re racing at that level?
When I am having a good race not a lot goes through my mind, just focusing on every section, pushing on each climb and keeping smooth and fuelling myself. When I’m having an off day that’s when my mind starts to wander. When my mind wanders I really have to spend extra energy to focus on exactly what I am doing.
What do you admire most about the other riders you’re fighting for position with out there?
What’s amazing in the women’s racing at the moment is that there are so many podium contenders. The racing is unpredictable and exciting. The young riders are really lifting the bar at the moment, not just at the front but in the top 10. There are so many young riders stepping up from Under-23 and riding ridiculously fast.
What I admire about all the girls I’m fighting for positions with, or who are riding away from me, is how much work they are putting in. I’m putting in the work to the best of my ability each and every day. I know every rider is working super hard.
Have there been any key turning points in your development as a rider to reach this level, or has it been more a case of steady progression with the right support at the right time?
I have had a pretty steady progression in the sport. The backbone to my progress has been the support of my family and of course Dan. We have spent years travelling in Europe on our own with bare minimum equipment, sometimes barely working bikes, supporting each other through the races while trying to perform at our best.
I would never change those early years, but joining Trek Factory Racing, which was a massive step in our careers, has allowed us to race with the best support so we can focus on our racing and training. Our equipment always works and we always have a place to sleep; two luxuries we didn’t always have on our own.
The mountain bike racing takes place over the last two days of the Games. What’s it like being there for the two weeks leading up to that, while other athletes are competing and partying?
We will arrive in Rio on the Monday morning before the race so will only be in the Olympic Village for a week. After the Mont Sainte Anne world cup we will stay on in Canada for another week to do our final training and then fly down to Rio.
I remember a lot of athletes were in party mode in London by the time it was our turn to race, but with a set of ear plugs this is not a problem. When you are at the Olympics you are focused on what you are doing. A few rowdy athletes are not enough to distract you from the biggest race of the year.
In your eyes, who are the riders to watch out of in the women’s cross-country mountain biking at Rio and why?
I think the obvious contenders are Annika Langvad (Denmark, current world champion) and Jolanda Neff (Switzerland, always at the top even on a bad day), but someone I think you can never rule out is Sabine Spitz (Germany, 2008 gold medalist and 2012 silver medalist). She is a lady who knows how to peak!
Aside from the two obvious favourites, I think there are a few young girls who can perform. There will be a lot of first-time Olympians, so for a lot of riders, it will depend on how they cope with the extra pressure and changed circumstances.
A lot of riders put so much focus on the Olympics and change things from their normal. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. We could see an underdog win and a few riders choke under pressure.
For people watching the race at home, who have never watched mountain biking before, what three things would you want them to know in order to get the most out of spectating?
Mountain biking is a sport dominated by Europeans, this isn’t swimming so don’t be disappointed when Aussies don’t win gold medals. There is such limited support and development of mountain bike in Australia and there is certainly not the money going into it that goes into those sports where the Aussies are cleaning up the medals.
As for the racing, it’s pretty simple: first one over the line wins! There is a set number of laps at the start of the race. The climbs are always steeper than they look on the TV and the descents more technical.
There are no heats or semis for the mountain bike racing. It’s one race and one race only.
Women’s cross-country mountain bike
- Olympic Mountain Bike Centre, Deodoro
- August 20
- 12.30pm (August 21, 1.30am AEST)
A sport for fans of adventure and adrenaline, mountain biking challenges competitors with steep climbs, fast descents and natural (and man-made) obstacles. It is a mass start event, with the fastest rider to complete multiple laps of the course taking home the spoils.