With half a lap to go in last month's World Cup season opener in Petropolis, Brazil, Bec McConnell pulled away from Anne Terpstra and Loana Lecomte and charged ahead, clearly able to put the power down in a way no other could compete with at that moment. That moment felt monumental, even just to watch.
That win was Australia's first XC World Cup victory since 2013 and only the second time an Aussie female has won in history, and it made total sense that Bec McConnell pulled it off. She's been a regular on the podium in both XCO and XCC, she represented Australia at the Olympics last year, and is one of the most consistent riders I can think of. Still, she had yet to claim the elusive win. Our chat reminded me that it doesn't matter if it's "been a long time coming," which was just about everyone's response to her win. There's no such thing as coasting to a World Cup victory. Regardless of how consistent she'd been in the past and how many second place medals she'd claimed, what mattered was whether she could put the ride together on race day.
And she did. We caught up with her to hear about the experience of winning a World Cup race, how her training is going, and what it's like to travel so much - plus a bit about the state of our sport.
First off, how does it feel to have won a World Cup race?
I think for me, it's still not that real. As an athlete, maybe after you win a few it becomes more real, but for me it's still quite difficult to believe. It’s only become an actual goal probably since late last year, so to achieve that at the first race, my mind is still in a cloud as far as that goes.
Before late last year, you'd also been on the podium quite a bit. What changed to make you think that you could actually win?
I've been super consistent, always there, but I've never really been totally fighting for a win. I got close at the last couple of World Cups last year and that gave me the taste to think that I could do it, but I think I lacked maybe a little bit of experience. I was always a bit off and there was always someone better. It’s definitely nice to be able to turn that around.
What were the pieces on that day in Brazil that fell into place for you to win?
The race was nothing special, as far as the race goes – I had been in a similar position, in the first few positions, early in the race. And then the same thing happened with two laps to go. I was like, "Well, it looks like I'm fighting for third or hoping to hold onto my position in third." Then, I just didn't run out of legs the way maybe I do or I have in the past. That's when I saw that the other girls were really on the limit and I still wasn't yet. I think just being quite strong in that last part of the race was probably the big difference.
It looked like you knew yourself and your pace really well and you were very patient. Did you have a strategy there?
I think I'm always quite patient. Sometimes it's to my detriment, and generally I do race quite conservatively. I'm also someone who's happy to fly a low profile and stay under the radar a bit, which might be a little bit more difficult now. Someone else is always willing to take the race from the front. I made that mistake at the first World Cup race last year, just not holding back a little bit, and I really paid for it. It being the first race of the season, no one really knows where they're at, so I was just trying to leave something for the second half of the race.
What was going through your head when you crossed the finish line?
I think I was just so overwhelmed. I didn't expect to do it. Sometimes when you are winning a race you know from fairly early in the race that you are going to win, or even maybe at one lap to go. I was pretty lucky actually that didn't have a lot of time to think about it. I only got away with half a lap to go, so I was 100% focused on what I was doing. When I came down that hill into the crowd, that's just a moment I'll never forget. I think I was just completely overwhelmed, and in shock or disbelief or whatever it was. And just total happiness, I guess.
That must have been so incredible. Has your view of yourself as a racer changed since winning?
I think I'm always a very realistic person. I don't talk a big game and I never promise results that I'm not going to deliver. A lot of athletes love to talk and love to bring that energy with them. I think I'm just more of a quiet achiever and I would rather under-promise and over-deliver. I mean, it gives me that confidence to know that I can win and that tactically, I did everything. It was the first race where I felt I could walk away without criticizing myself for some kind of mistake. It's really just nice to know I can execute a perfect race, but I’m also not thinking too much about future outcomes.
Yeah, that’s amazing. Going back a little bit, I know you worked with a new coach this off-season. Why did you make that change?
I guess I've been so close and so consistent the last few years, and my husband Dan has been coaching me for all of that time. It was a risk to take on a new coach, but for my personal situation and as an athlete, it was just time. It was a pretty nervous leap for me to take there, but I really just had good support around me to do it. And it's obviously worked out. We haven't changed that much actually from my point of view, but the structure of the training has changed a little bit. We’ve found a good balance.
Are there weaknesses that you're working to address specifically with your training or is it more general?
Not specifically. It's been a big compromise for both of us. My coach comes from a very structured background and I come from quite a relaxed background, so we've had to find a common ground in that way. I've put limits on him on how many intervals I'm willing to do, that kind of thing. We're compromising like that, but I'm just focusing on making sure I'm happy enough with what I'm doing with the training. I'm maintaining that level of enjoyment and letting him worry about the specific work.
What does that look like for you? How much happens on the mountain bike versus on the road bike versus on the gym?
I'm not in the gym at all, so I'm a little bit old school in that way, which is probably quite rare now for a rider in cross country. With the amount I'm traveling, it’s just not realistic to be consistent with it and I hate doing it, so it's just not an option. I just mix it up between the road and mountain bike.
Now I know you've mentioned that you’ve had a tough year in your personal life. Did that allow you to put more of yourself into your training?
My racing and my training is something really positive that I can and have been focused on. I reflect back and I am quite surprised with how well I managed the last season. I really enjoyed riding my bike and I was just immersed in it. Going home over the summer was pretty challenging, but I just found this energy in my training and the achievement that it would give me day-to-day. It was quite nervous for me to go to Brazil, and I think my team were quite nervous about how I was going to arrive. Pulling that off, I mean, I think everyone in my bubble would've been more than happy with a top 10, and so to come away with that [win], it just really calms me a lot to know that I can manage whatever's thrown at me.
You're so much in the public eye and I imagine it's probably weird having – I don't know exactly how many people watch the Red Bull TV live stream – but it's a lot of people. What's that like just also balancing being a human?
I'm not that super high profile athlete, like some of the others, so for me, it's not a thing. I'm not that much in the public eye. And I think social media also is as much as you want to share. I think you only have to put yourself in the public eye as much as you want to.
With social media, there are so many pieces now that go into being a pro mountain biker. What do you think about that?
I think it's so different. I can't imagine what it was like for people racing in the '90s or before social media. I guess it is part of the job and there is some expectation that you are sharing your journey on social media. It's part of what you do. I also definitely like to keep it quite personal, and it's still my page. It's something you can use as much or as little as you want but I see it as a place to share my story from my point of view. Just because you're posting doesn't mean you have to be sitting there spending hours stalking others on it as well.
That seems such a healthy way of looking at it. Do you think the non-racing parts of being a pro mountain biker – using social media and the expectation to be a “personality” – are different for women than they are for men?
That's a valid point. I think the personalities among the women seem much more unique and interesting, for lack of a better word. I think for the men, the performance is enough, what they do on the bike, whereas it does seem the girls have to provide a bit more. But again, it doesn't mean doing bikini photos. That's absolutely not a requirement. I'm quite passionate about being an example where you don't have to have the makeup on all the time or carry this image. At the end of the day, we're in the sport because we want to race bikes, and that's great if you want to take that avenue, but it's also not the only way.
What are your main motivations for riding and racing?
It's a good question. I used to think I just did it for racing, but I really actually enjoy the training and I think just working towards something. I think it's pretty cool that every day you go out and you achieve something on your bike, and that's so rewarding. It took me a lot of years to realize how important it is to be engaged with that process. I think I used to just ride because I was waiting for the next race to come around. But there are so many aspects to it. There's the social aspect, and really enjoying riding your bike, and all the cool people you meet, and there's all the travel you get to do. But I think the number one reason is for experiences like Brazil, working so hard and so long for something until that moment you finally achieve it. It’s pretty hard to top.
Do you have one particular highlight moment?
Well, I just got a new one a couple of weeks ago. I think that's the new top moment for sure.
I can only imagine. You're also the first Australian woman to win a World Cup in a really long time. How does it feel to make history like that?
Yeah, it's pretty crazy. We haven't had that many top Aussie mountain bikers. The last one to win a World Cup was Dan in 2013, and then there's only been one Aussie female before me. I didn't really know that. I think it's probably more sad than anything to be fair. Our level of support and our athletes in Aus is not where it should be or it could be. Someone Swiss can win a World Cup, and I mean, until you’re Nino and you win 33, you're never making history. So it's not awesome actually, I think.
Do you feel Australian racers face extra challenges just coming from somewhere so far away?
Yes, 100%. I think there are so many aspects that are so difficult. I mean, there's a whole part where our athletes don't have any support, and I could talk to you for hours about that. Just logistically, it's a long way and it's too far that you can't come and go too much. And then it's really difficult for Aussie riders to get on teams because the expenses are more. You really have to be worth it for the team to want to invest in you. With the lacking number of teams and places available in teams, it's a pretty hard mission for an Aussie to get in the bubble.
It also seems Aussies got the tough end of the COVID deal. You were stuck in Europe for a long time last year, right?
That is true. We did have to stay an extra month after the season, which was really tough, on top of the full race season. Again, this year, I just left a couple of weeks ago and I won't be home until late September. It's just not realistic with the gaps in the racing this year, it's just not really possible to go home. Sometimes I envy the North American riders who can just come and go like that, but I think I'm also quite used to all of these additional challenges. I think it's something I just have put behind me and accepted.
How does it feel when you're getting on a plane and knowing that you have an entire World Cup season ahead of you and you're just going to be living in that little bubble for the next several months?
Leaving is the hardest part. I have my dog, Lenny who's my... I don't want to say the most important thing in my life, but he kind of is.
I do see the dog necklace. It's adorable.
Yeah, I mean, leaving my family is quite hard, but you can talk to them while you're gone. And the dog is the only thing you can't talk to. But once you get going, it's okay. I'm also so lucky to have so many friends and really good people in my life over here. I live these two lives that just sort of mesh a bit together.
Do you think that the World Cup would benefit from being more global and less European?
I would love to see it. I know that it's, again, one of those things that you have to accept – Europe's where it's at. I like when we do have those couple of World Cups in North America. I think that's really important to keep it somewhat a World Cup. But I also know, from the point of view of the teams, most of the teams are European based, and just having Brazil was pretty tough. I think it would be amazing to have a global World Cup, but I think financially it could be really quite challenging to get the sponsor money into the sport to be able to do that, and I think teams would end up leaving some riders behind. I think that maybe wouldn't be the best.
What do you wish overall was different about the mountain bike world?
I think our sport is not reaching its potential. There are sports like tennis, where you go into a grand slam and you don't even make the first run around and you get loads of prize money. I think road cycling’s got that in the men's side. I think our sport should be just bigger on the whole. It would be great to see that out-of-industry support.
It seems like visibility mostly would be the way to get there with attracting non-endemic sponsors.
Yeah, for sure. It'll be interesting to see how it all goes with Discovery Sports taking over next year. Hopefully things pick up from there.
Lastly, what are you most proud of yourself for?
I think resilience. I've had a lot of setbacks over the years and I think I'm quite stubborn. I'm quite determined to keep going. That's probably what I'm most proud of.