Isla Short is a Scottish racer who likes to do things her own way. She's happiest while digging deep into a tough training block, but her enthusiasm is so infectious that you wouldn't necessarily even know she is suffering. After riding for a pro team in the U23s, she made the decision in 2019 to create her own program, and for 2022, she has signed with Juliana while her one-racer team, headed by Hunt Bike Wheels, grows into its own. Now headed into her fourth year in the elites, Isla has been steadily climbing the results sheets and even placed fifth at World Champs in 2020. We took some time to chat about her progression, what it will take for her to reach the World Cup podium, her history with disordered eating, her battle with endometriosis, and so much more.
First off, how are you doing?
I'm really good. It's been an exciting and busy winter with some fresh approaches to training, my setup and my progression. My season has started early with a trip to sunny Spain - much needed with the current rainfall situation in Scotland! It's nice to escape responsibilities in the outside world for a week and focus on racing again.
Oh, I feel that for sure. So what's your background in mountain biking? How did you get started?
Bikes were in my life from a really young age. My family are super outdoorsy and really enthusiastic cyclists, so all of our family holidays growing up were touring on the tandem, or on the triplet with my sisters, missing out on Disneyland, that at the time I thought was better, but now I'm so grateful for the privilege we had to experience a childhood immersed in the outdoors. My dad raced mountain bikes around Scotland and I went along to a few races with him just to support him for something fun to do at the weekend. Then we started doing a couple of them together longer events like 10 Under the Ben and Relentless. So we'd do them together and I would do maybe an hour, he'd do nine hours and then we'd win the mixed pairs. We were the dream team! Racing stemmed from adventures with my parents and that's why I feel so deeply connected to the bike.
It was quite a natural process from there to spending regular weekends away. I went to a boarding school and weekends at bike races were kind of my escape from that a little bit. I started racing on a national level in the UK when I was 14. I definitely wasn't winning everything and I think I was really lucky not to be one of the bigger riders who was winning at an early age because I learned to love the bike race as opposed to love being on the top step. I think that's made it really sustainable for me to become a professional and understand and appreciate the work that goes into it, and also love the process of training and not rely on success. So yeah - 10, 12 years later, I'm here and it's my job and it's just a really organic process.
You were really into music before you started racing, right? What was that like?
Yeah. So I went to a specialist music school when I was really young. I was there for four years and I think I realized through that time, I wanted to be outside and music couldn't offer that. That’s why I got so into mountain biking in my final years there, because it was something totally different from the intensity of being in that environment at such a young age. I definitely learned a lot about independence and discipline, but I would never send my kid there. It was a lot for someone that young and also a very insular environment with not much perspective on the real world. I transitioned in a totally different direction into mountain biking and I'm very glad I did.
How old were you when you stopped going to the music school?
I left when I was 15 and went to a high school in my hometown. I think I really struggled socially at the new school because I'd been in this very isolated environment at the music school. I think that increased my passion for being at the bike races on the weekends because that was where I felt socially comfortable, because it was the place I could express myself when I was younger.
That's awesome. That's actually kind of how I got into mountain biking, so your story sounds familiar. Do you feel like the intensity and training you had at the music school translated into learning to train for biking?
I think there are a lot of parallels between the two. Pursuing music at that level involves a lot of time on your own, a lot of hours working on something and feeling like you're not improving much. Then you have those little breakthrough moments and obviously you're competing with your friends, which is very similar to sport. I took a lot of those skills I learned into mountain biking, but I also think I am naturally a very one track minded person. I don't necessarily think one thing helped the other, I'm just drawn to pursuing something relentlessly, which is why I just ended up doing those two different things.
As you moved from the juniors through into the elites, what were the things you learned that helped you succeed?
I have learned a lot since being a junior racer and I'm still learning. One of the big things that I've learned, especially in my first few years as an elite rider, is that I took racing too seriously too early. I've definitely put the fun to the side a little bit too much, especially when I was U23. As a junior I was winning a lot, so it was easy. I would say I didn't have many lessons at that point because you don't learn very much when you're successful. Then when I went into Under 23 and I had a difficult time outside of racing, which translated into my performances and my enjoyment.
I remember being so consumed by being on the Under 23 World Cup podium, and I got fourth twice in my second and my final year. That was devastating at the time, and now I look back and I'm like, I'm going into my fourth year in elite and nobody cares that I didn't get on the Under 23 podium. I wish I'd understood how young I was in the sport and used the opportunities to learn rather than being obsessed with winning all the time, not making space for development. Because I'm still developing. I've struggled with confidence a lot and I've never been on a World Cup start line being like, "oh, today's the day to get on the podium." This is the first year where I'm aiming for the podium. It’s nice to be mature enough to understand that each race doesn't need to be better than the last to reflect progression.
Do you usually consider yourself more of a process minded person or a results mind person?
I think it depends. I love training, I probably love it more than racing, so in that sense I'm definitely process minded. I really love being an athlete and the lifestyle that comes with that - the discipline and the structure. I'm probably happiest when I'm in my own little training block with a race coming up, but then I definitely rely a lot on race results during the season to maintain my wellbeing. That’s something I need to get better at because it's quite exhausting riding that emotional rollercoaster every other weekend, all season. I love both aspects and sometimes I need both parts.
That makes sense. It seems like you can have podium goals to keep you training through the winter, but it’s the smaller pieces that make the work actually happen.
Yeah, exactly. I think I love hurting myself on the bike and that feeling of having done a big training day and that's not necessarily because I think it's going to make a podium more likely or anything, I just love that feeling. But then again, I wouldn't race my bike if I was finishing midfield and never progressing. But I try to leave that kind of mindset out of it as much as I can because it's not that useful until I'm actually in the bike race. I want to win big races more than anything but I also know that the pursuit of a goal that's not entirely within your control needs to be counterbalanced with a focus on health and happiness outside of racing.
Do you tend to be mostly a detail oriented person or are you able to think big picture more?
I'd say I'm in a transition state. I used to be very focused on marginal gains and very much a perfectionist. Now I'm on my way to the other end where I think prioritizing enjoyment is actually what makes me successful and missing one rep of an interval session because the weather's bad or being late for a flight or whatever, none of that actually matters. I've got the training nailed everything else that comes with looking after myself as an athlete, so I want to be better at understanding that having a good time means that the training takes care of itself and the results take care of themselves. It's easy to doubt yourself with so many ideas, secrets and trends out there but I've learned my body and my brain so well over the years and I have a lot of trust in my instincts around what will make me fast, and more importantly, happy.
What do you think is your greatest strength as a racer?
I think physically, everyone would say I'm a climber - I definitely feel most confident on the hilliest courses. I've had good results on lots of courses, but obviously my standout result, which was Worlds in 2020, is on the hilliest track on the circuit [Leogang]. I'm trying not to dwell too much on being a climber because it means that I ease off too much on other parts of the track because I think, "I can climb better than these people around me, so I'll get them on the climb." I'm trying to just think of myself as an all rounder good rider, but yeah, I would say the climbs help for sure. They sometimes feel like my secret weapon that's not very secret ha.
And then, it's not a physical strength, but I think it's been really helpful for me in my career to have chipped away and improved through the years, rather than having these huge results and then having the pressure of trying to get back there or trying to stay there. It means if I get a career best by one or two places instead of 10 places, there's still room for so many career bests and I can gradually work my way to the front of the bike race. By the time that I'm regularly at the front, which I hope will be in the next two or three years, I hope I'll have learned to be mature enough to maintain that and deal with that pressure. I think that's a strength that maybe not many people will see.
Going back to fifth at World Champs, obviously the climbing helped you. What are the other pieces that came together for that success?
We only had a three week World Cup season and I had trained so well all summer. Like I said, I love being in that training bubble where I'm just getting the hard work done and I'm appreciating my own progress rather than gauging that based on other riders or where you finished in a race. I think having that removed helped my mindset so much through the COVID summer of training because I could focus fully on the work and it didn't matter what anyone else was doing. I think because it was an unprecedented preseason buildup, everyone was kind of chilled out about how it was going to go.
I came off the back of the double header World Cup in Nove Mesto with a career best of 11th that I backed it up with 15th two days later. I historically haven't managed to string together a group of really good performances because my biggest challenge is the psychological approach to pressure. Then I'd finally got a string of good results so I went into Worlds knowing that the track suited me, knowing that I had the form, it wasn't going to go away in a week. I'd had a disastrous Worlds the year before, so I thought, "I'd love to get into the top 20," but I definitely wasn't aiming for a top five.
I was super calm because of that. I wasn't putting pressure on myself or feeling any urgency and I actually had a really good time in the race. The conditions just made it fun and like the trails at home. I'd found such a positive mindset around my racing. I went to European Champs the week after and then World Marathon Champs and got two top tens again. I look back at the season and it gives me so much confidence that I can be a consistently world class bike rider if I'm in that happy headspace, it's just a question of figuring out how to reach that place again and again.
Do you have any ideas of how do you get back to that headspace? What are the things that might need to happen in the next two years for you to be in the top five more consistently?
I'm still figuring it out. Something huge I've learned is to stop being bothered by little things, like I was saying. I know that I've never had a bad race because my physical form hasn't been there. It's always been because of my psychological state either around racing or because of real world things going on. I should take so much confidence that the physical stuff is there and the only thing between me and being one of the best bike riders consistently is my headspace and finding a way to just have more fun with it and enjoy everything that comes with this job results aside.
Removing the all-or-nothing mindset of "I have to do this today or it's a waste of time" is my goal. I guess just being more open minded to learn.
I’m sure it’s easier said than done to let go of all that stuff though. What's your routine on race day? Do you have any superstitions?
I used to have a very specific plan, but now I'm trying to teach myself that it doesn't matter if I can't have the same breakfast every time. It doesn't matter if this happens or that happens, if I feel shitty in my warmup. I have my pre race timings that more or less stay the same, but I try to steer away from anything that will make me nervous. I don't like to talk about a race at all really beforehand.
Quite often World Cups in the early afternoon, so I have a little bit of time in the morning. I'll probably just stick on a Netflix show. Sometimes I'm in my bed at 10:00 AM watching Netflix, racing a World Cup in three hours. It's kind of weird, but it's really chill and I'm not getting stressed about it. I try to be really sociable as well. I really make an effort to be lighthearted and talk to a bunch of people to distract myself from my own brain.
When you are at a race, who do you have with you as your support crew?
Good question. It depends. I obviously don't ride for a team and the past three seasons I've been at World Cups with British Cycling mostly, and a few with Scottish Cycling. I couldn't have created my own pathway if I didn't have British Cycling. I'm super grateful for that setup. I joined the GB squad in in 2019 and over the years, they've become my World Cup family. It's really nice to always have the same, familiar people at the races and they're really switched on with how to do a World Cup weekend. This year I'll be running a little setup with a mechanic and team manager at a few World Cups, and the smaller local or national events will be done with my Dad.
So you were on a pro team for a while then you went privateer.
Yeah, I was on pro teams when I was Under 23. When I went into my first year elite, I decided to try and do something myself because I knew I had the support at the races from British Cycling. I set out contacting a bunch of brands that I knew that I wanted to work with. One of the challenges with a pro team setup is that it's a package deal and you have to use everything that's within the team and you have to promote all their stuff regardless of whether you like it or not, because we're paid to sell products.
That doesn't sit right with me because social media's such a huge part of our jobs now and I'm so uncomfortable telling people to buy things that I don't want to buy myself. I managed to get a small setup going for 2019 as an Orbea UK ambassador and a couple of bits and pieces from a few of the brands I'd used previously and wanted to work with. It was all just free kit, no money or anything, and then GB supported me at the World Cups. Then in 2020, with my really successful season, I was suddenly asked to be on a few of the big teams.
|That doesn't sit right with me because social media's such a huge part of our jobs now and I'm so uncomfortable telling people to buy things that I don't want to buy myself.|
At this point in my setup, although not sustainable, felt like it was working and allowing me to perform well. I was getting a little bit of money and just felt a bit more established with it. It was quite a stressful few weeks with the team offers, because I suddenly had all this attention on me, especially after Worlds. Going back into a full team setup scared me though. My mental health can be affected easily by small things and I know part of how I can manage that is by being in control of my own race schedule, being home when I need to be home, telling the truth on social media - it might sound silly, but I just wanted agency with all that.
|My mental health can be affected quite easily by small things… I just wanted to be able to be in control of all of that.|
Having my own personal setup enabled me to do that. I turned down all the team offers, although I'd had two meetings with the team manager of one of the factory teams and was very close to joining. They are good, friendly people with a world class crew, but it came down to conflicts of interest with equipment and a feeling that I wasn't quite done pursuing my own setup. I really enjoy doing stuff differently and I think that's partly why I thrive on having my own setup. Even though it's a huge amount of work for me, it's something unique, and I love that. I did join the Orbea Factory Team for 2021, and everybody thought that meant I had full factory support at races, but they weren't a World Cup team.
I still had my own personal sponsors, I just rode in [the Orbea Factory Team] kit and had some expenses paid for and a salary, but I wasn't on full factory support and was still supported by GB at World Cups. For 2022 I've returned fully to running my own program, which has grown arms and legs a little bit! I read amusing comments on my Pinkbike article saying things like, "oh, such a shame she's not on factory support" or "seems a top 20 rider in the women's field can't get factory support." And I just want to be like, "guys, I chose this!" I've had offers from really great teams, but it's just not right for me at the moment.
|I’ve had offers from really great teams, but it’s just not right for me at the moment.|
I think people see the pro teams with the big shiny trucks and the custom bikes and they think it's everything. But actually, there are so many pros to doing it your own way. I'm really lucky because I have income from British Cycling and that's definitely gotten me to this point and I'm aware that their support has given me a big leg up. But being able to speak to sponsors directly and develop a personal relationship with them is really nice. Having multiple sponsors is useful financially because it means if you lose one, you still have income from other places.
I'm in charge of my own race calendar, which means I plan the season exactly how I want. If I need to look after myself, I'm not accountable to anyone. I can be home when I need to be and can prioritize my wellbeing.
Of course it can really challenging, especially as my profile has grown and I have more responsibilities, media obligations, and time commitments.
I'm effectively a team manager as well as an athlete, and up until this winter, I was on one year contracts for everything, which feels incredibly unstable every autumn. But now I've got this amazing unique setup with some really special people and I'm sorted for the next two years - I feel incredibly proud of what I've built with these amazing brands and without factory support.
Hunt Bike Wheels came on board for 2020 and they're a great example of the personal relationships you can develop when working directly with a brand. The guys have become good friends of mine and operate a sleek operation professionally. In 2020 I raced their prototype XC carbon race wheels which they then named after my performance at Leogang which was so special. This year they're stepping up as my title sponsor which is super exciting, and also another way I like to do things differently. Having a wheel brand take the head of the table is quite unusual and I'm excited to represent them on the world stage this way. The wheels - called Proven - will be launched this year and I feel super proud to have been a part of that development and given something back to the brand and the people behind it. It would be so epic to get the wheels to the XC World Cup podium. That's never been done before either.
Fantastic. Hopefully that sorts out some of the men on the internet once they read that. How did the Juliana deal come about?
I have a relationship with Jungle, the UK distributor for Juliana through KS Suspension. A couple of years ago they had asked me if I would be interested in frames, Santa Cruz frames I think. But at the time I was tied into Orbea and I was pretty happy with my Orbea setup. When I was looking to move on and work with someone new this year, I felt that my ethos around racing and my values in the real world would fit really well into Juliana. First I was looking at the frames because there's no point in me reaching out to a brand if their bikes don't fit me, but I just loved the concept of being part of Juliana's movement in women's cycling. I think you can promote women's cycling really well but also really badly. Juliana are doing amazing work for women's cycling and I really want to be part of that.
They've got an awesome group of women who all bring something totally different to the brand. Aneela McKenna who's pushing diversity and inclusion in sport and there's hardly anyone doing that, is a bit of an idol of mine, and then you've got a couple of riders in the US who do adventure, bike packing type stuff among others. I knew that they had no top level XC racers, so I could also bring something new and different to the brand. I approached them and I was like, “I think you'll be really interested in my setup and my story and I'm going to get your bike to the World Cup podium.” Haha!
It's not present at the World Cups. I’d just love to take the Wilder, their XC bike, onto the podium. I've signed two years with them, during which time I hope I can make this a reality. Everyone I've met so far has been so welcoming and I take so much from that. I value people making the effort to have a relationship with their riders - not just hiding behind emails. I think it's going to be a good adventure.
Are you mainly riding the Wilder or do you have other Juliana bikes as well?
I only have the Wilder at the moment because of COVID, but I've got a Roubion on the way, which I'm pretty excited about because it's 650b and it's basically the smallest trail bike ever (I'm only 5'1"). And I've got the Quincy, which is their gravel bike, coming as well.
You mentioned promoting women cycling poorly versus well. What does that mean?
Ideas like making women's frames because apparently women need different shaped frames or fat saddles or less 'racy' setups. Those are just wee things, but it's a big subject.
And there's some of the commentary, I think people are trying to do a good job at promoting the women's field but sometimes what they're saying is actually quite offensive. We want to talk about women being strong and skillful, but they'll just say the physically bigger women are strong. It’s like, no, you're actually just making a comment about their weight or their physical appearance, you're not saying anything useful. There are so many different bodies in the women's field and we're strong in different and similar ways - That's what makes our sport quite unique I think.
We want to chat about the women's level and how they're performing in the same way we do the men's, but with the women, it's always like, "she's put on weight so she's not going very well" or "she's looking really lean, which means she's going be fast this year." You know what? Nobody says that about the men, so stop. Apparently the only reason a woman can either go well or not go well is how heavy she is. Do you know what I mean? I've shouted at a lot of TV screens when watching races.
Yeah, that's brutal, and I did want to talk about that. I know you’ve struggled with disordered eating in the past. Going back to when you were younger, what’s your story with that?
Well, I was fine as a junior. Then, when I moved into Under 23, suddenly it felt like everyone was going on and on about me being a really good climber and as well, everyone's obsessed with the weight of bike components. I started to think that if the bike needs to be light, then I need to be light as well because we're one. I can go uphill fast, so I'm going to utilize that as much as I can. I think that's where it stemmed from. I just became obsessed with needing to be the fastest uphill and that translated into being really light. Mine was never an aesthetic thing, I've never been particularly self-conscious about my figure or how I look, it was always a performance-related problem. I guess in some ways that's made it easier for me to recover and find rationality with it all.
Again, it also coincided with me being super obsessive with my training and wanting to be in control of everything. That included weighing my food because it was a way for me to validate my commitment to my training. It was like, I'm a really good athlete because I weigh my food and I make sure I don't go over this weight. Then it just extended into everything. I would have this weird messed up fulfillment through getting my skin folds done and my nutritionist couldn't understand why I wouldn't fluctuate all year round until we realized that I had disordered eating and I had such a level of control over my portioning and what I ate. I could keep my weight the same all year, which is not really normal or healthy.
|It was a way for me to validate my commitment to my training. It was like, well, I'm a really good athlete because I weigh my food and make sure I don't go over this weight.|
I started going really badly the year I had Commonwealth Games qualifying and that was the year where it was the worst. I was weighing myself multiple times a day and eating a little bit less on race week in particular, because I wanted to be light for the weekend, which obviously meant I went like shit. But when what you're doing isn't translating into race results, you don't think, “oh, maybe I'm not eating enough.” You think “I'm still eating too much, I'm still not light enough,” so then it perpetuates. I think I'm quite lucky that I talk about things openly. I would talk to my boyfriend about stuff, even if I didn't realize what I was doing was a problem. I think I told him that I'd weighed myself like five times that day and pushed me to seek out support because there was clearly a big problem.
I started to get some support from the Scottish Cycling practitioners. The nutritionist in particular was really helpful with me. I can't remember particular strategies or exactly how I got better. I think it was little things. For example, I would never eat dairy because dairy is “fattening.” It would then progress to being able to eat dairy every second day. My sister lives in New Zealand and she would buy me chocolate every time she came home and I would eat one square every Monday. My level of control was insane and so irrational, now that I look back.
That was progress, but it was still a level of structure focused around control instead of smart decision making. Soon, I could eat cake on rest days. Then eventually, I just slowly, slowly learned that it was okay to eat these things without that need for regulation or label scanning. In Winter 2018, I had a big off-season break and made a big breakthrough by being able to switch off those thoughts and starting to enjoy these foods again. I went so well that winter, just in local cross races, but I was noticing how strong I felt and how quickly I was recovering from sessions.
Then I was like, “I'm going to just try and do this into the season and see what happens,” and I went really well. Eventually, the need for control kind of disappeared and these days my strategy is to eat when I'm hungry, eat what I want and if in doubt, eat more. Having spoken to Haley Smith and read a lot about her eating disorder
, I do think sometimes it becomes about managing or accepting that you have this relationship with food and finding strategies to distance yourself. There are aspects of mine that linger, such as my response to weighing scales. I don't use them because I know that weighing myself is a trigger. Fortunately now, the will to step on the scales is rarely there and my boyfriend makes sure the house is always stocked with cookies which help me stay on track. I have to relearn these healthy habits quite often because it's easy to slip back into old thought patterns. As long as I continue to remind myself to eat these things regularly, then I'll continue to reteach myself, if I need to again and again to remember that by doing so I'm actually helping my performance and my health.
What about systemic recovery? It seems like all of racing, especially women's racing, has a problem. What do you think needs to change in the whole World Cup scene for the relationship with food to get better?
As I said earlier, I think how the women's race is portrayed to the world through commentary and media is very important.
I think the other thing is, as a female athlete, we're operating in a world that sexualizes the female body which is very difficult to navigate. I do think we can try to fight this and to share a healthy and positive message to young athletes, particularly with the massive space social media occupies in our lives and the effect that can have on people. Women should be able to post photos of themselves without sexual judgment and they should be able to eat cake and tell the world without shame. It's a really complex dilemma to break down. I think for young girls it's really damaging to always be forced to focus on these culturally perfect bodies from top athletes all the time when the conversation around physical strength and skill is largely missing, as is the knowledge around food. If you've got young teenagers who are seeing these bodies deemed perfect by society coupled with a sense that athletes don't touch 'unhealthy' foods, they won't stay in the sport.
We need to find a way to break free from the cycle of negative relationships with food and weight that is so prevalent. And that can't just come from the athletes. Coaches, parents and support staff need to change their understanding around food and sport so that riders can be learning healthier lessons from a younger age. I try and make a big effort on my social media to put up a story if I'm having a cake or something, just to kind of drip feed to my followers who are probably a lot of young riders that it's GOOD to eat and enjoy these foods, to train more effectively, be happier and maintain long term health when high level sport is no longer the goal.
I also think normalizing chat around periods would be really helpful. Some people are still so uncomfortable with the subject! When I wasn't very well, I thrived on not having a period because I thought it meant that I was a good athlete. I honestly don't know if half the women's field have a period and I bet a lot of them don't because I think disordered eating is unfortunately way more common than people think it is. I'd love to have a big group conversation with the women's field about this! It would be super interesting.
For sure, I'd want to sit in on that.
I think it would be an education for us all. I was diagnosed with endometriosis in September, so I can't have a period anymore. I didn't have one for a long time when I was younger because of disordered eating. I finally got mine back monthly for the last two years and that was massive for me because it showed an obvious improvement in my health and my relationship with food. I've struggled to process that. I didn't realize how important it was to me until it was taken away.
You should be proud, I think, to have a regular period because it's a sign that you're healthy and your body's functioning properly and your career is sustainable.
Yeah. I feel like we can only scratch the surface, it just goes so deep. But endometriosis, that sounds incredibly painful. What's that been like for you?
Yeah, it's a very under researched condition despite 10% of women suffering from it. I started getting bad pain in my diaphragm during my period in December 2020. over the next three, four months, each month it got exponentially worse each time. By April I'd had five episodes over 36 hours of excruciating pain, lying on the floor in a ball just sobbing, not knowing what it was. I'd been referred to a gynecologist and done a bit of research myself. My pain was all centered around my diaphragm and I'd found diaphragmatic endometriosis so I pursued that.
The gynecologist told me it was super rare and highly unlikely. And I was like, well if it's not unheard of... That was in April. Throughout the year I was in the hospital for ultrasounds and MRI scans, then they found a deposit of endometriosis on my diaphragm in July. I had surgery after the season, which was a laparoscopy – a diagnostic surgery, so they don't remove anything. They found it in multiple places, including a big growth on my diaphragm. I'd been put on the contraceptive pill in April which had hugely improved my symptoms as the medication had stopped my period. There's no cure or specific treatment for endometriosis other than surgery or stopping your period.
Endometriosis is when cells from your uterus migrate to other places and grow monthly as well. They proliferate and then bleed, which is why it hurts a lot when you have your period. The growth on my diaphragm is big enough that I still get pain when I do hard intervals sometimes, despite being on medication, but I decided not to have my diaphragm operated on because the risk to my career is too high. But I'm very lucky. The average diagnosis is seven years, which scares me a lot.
I really want to help to get the word out for young female cyclists. I'm thinking if one in ten women have it, there's eighty women in the World Cup field. So where are the other women who have it? Because I don't know any of them.
Rather than having to search these people out, it would be really nice for young riders to see high level athletes with the condition. I've had a few messages from young girls and it's just been really nice to interact with them because it's such an obvious way to spread awareness and prevent people becoming severely unwell.
It seems like there's so much to dig into there with doctors believing women and all of that as well. But what's your relationship like with social media? I know that's a big question.
Well, it depends. I think social media can be a really positive space. During the first year of COVID, it really benefited my mental health just because we were all locked away and nobody was really doing anything exciting. It was just about interacting with people you weren't seeing and sharing experiences that were the same, but in different places. In the second lockdown, I found social media to be a really difficult space because like my mental health was in a really bad place and nobody was talking about the connection between our wellbeing and COVID. I've talked quite a bit about it on social media which is a way for me to use that space positively. If I had it my way, I would just delete everything and I would just race my bike, but I know that's not realistic for my work.
If I have to be on social media, be present and be marketable, I need to find a way to do it that's sustainable for me and is not only manageable, but also fulfilling. I try to find a helpful balance between sharing the good, the bad and the authentic.
I think my audience maybe grows a bit smaller than other people's because I'm not posting the viral content, but I have really real conversations with people and have made really amazing connections with others through shared experiences. I want to be relatable and try to steer clear of portraying a shiny, perfect lifestyle because I want people to gain something positive and useful through following my story instead of idolizing me based on inaccurate version of my life.
For athletes, social media is such a huge part of the job. But none of us are told how to market ourselves effectively or how to manage what is essentially sexual harassment through messages or comments, or any of that stuff. Everyone's kind of just winging it and I think it would be quite cool if there was something set up for athletes to be able to manage that.
And not just athletes, but anyone, because it's a well known thing that social media has a massive impact on people's mental health. I try to think, what do I want to see on social media? And what would help me if I was having a hard time? And what would make me feel fulfilled and happy? It's finding a balance between posting the best days but also not being afraid to say things are a bit shit. The pressure to be present on these platforms when real life isn't going well is a very hard thing to navigate, so I try to just be real and honest, and happy when I'm actually happy!
Shifting gears a little bit, I saw that you raced an EWS in 2021. How did that go? And do you see yourself doing more of that in the future?
I loved the EWS so much for a whole heap of reasons. It's funny because all my sponsors this year have been like, "she's trying her hand at EWS" and guys, I'm not really. COVID has taught me a lot, like everyone, and I want to push my limits and explore new experiences in a more immediate sense than before. Racing an EWS has been on my list for a few years and I wanted to see where I'd finish, but I had no real attachment to that finishing position or anything, I was just curious.
And I just loved it. It felt like racing felt when I was younger and the point of it was that it was a fun weekend. It wasn't to get a result or because I need to perform well for my sponsors or because there's this internal pressure or any of that. It was like doing what I love about bikes, in its simplest form, it's just a weekend with friends racing. It was so refreshing because cross country riders are so serious. I think this is a thing I find interesting too - there's a lot of comments on Pinkbike saying, "can you please separate the cross country stuff? We don't want to see it." I totally get that because we're so boring and serious and we all need to chill out a little bit!
It just made me realize, I don't have to be, "leave me alone on race weeks" and "I need to focus." Actually, I'm the best athlete version of me when I'm having a good time. I also was really happy with my riding, so the whole point of me doing EWS is not trying to be successful on paper. I have real goals to win one. My descending hasn't been as good during a race as I can ride in training, and part of it is because I've had two spinal injuries when I was younger and I've carried a lot of that anxiety around racing near others, and wanting to protect myself. Basically, I needed to learn to race
downhill, so it's about developing my own riding and to keep me sane during a very chaotic cross country circuit.
|I've had two spinal injuries when I was younger and I've carried a lot of that anxiety around racing near others and needing to protect myself.|
I can ride downhill really fast, but I need to be able to deliver that in a race setting where there is the search for seconds here and there.
It's just for myself, which is actually really nice. Maybe that's what all my racing should be, just for myself, At the Tweed Valley EWS, Bex Baraona won and Jess Stone was leading by seven seconds when she broke her finger. I obviously saw all that unfold and can relate to both of those girls and how they have felt, so much, because that is also my world.
I finished last on two of the stages in the pro category. So to be shoved from focusing on the front of a bike race every weekend to literally being last, it was so humbling. And then watching the emotions of Bex and Jess, but to be on the outside of that for a change, was so refreshing. The whole weekend was such an eye-opener for me, emotionally and mentally.
Looking ahead to the future, what would you like to see happen for yourself?
I think I would finish my career happy if I won a World Cup. I think that's underselling myself because I'm good enough to do more than that, but I'm also aware that the women's field is so strong and it's getting stronger every year. You could have 15 riders and one of them could win any day now. Last year, the Olympic podium and World Champs podium only had one rider in common. That's how strong the field is. That's amazing because it means every weekend is a bit more unpredictable. Your best day ever might put you 10 places ahead or it might put you 10 places down if everyone else is on a really good day. I think that's what makes the sport so exciting.
I've been in the top 15 six times now and it's getting a bit old! So the top 10 is what I'm going for, hopefully early season this year. And then I would love to get on a podium and I think it's realistic this season. Longer term, Paris 2024 Olympics is a big goal. Tokyo was only on the table for a short time so I was never long term invested in it. So when I didn't get selected, it had no impact on my plans.
I'd love to win World Marathon Champs also. Next year we have World XCO Champs in Scotland. So obviously I'd be lying if I said winning wasn't my goal there, but also, winning's incredibly hard. You have to balance life as an athlete with life in the real world which is unpredictable and overwhelming in a much bigger way than sport. I'd just like to put myself in the best place to have a good ride there. And then there’s longer term - which is partly why Juliana appealed to me so much as well. I’d like to be doing some stuff that's bigger than World Cups in terms of the world outside professional racing. But at the moment, I'm going to be a bike racer.
Do you have any advice for any young riders who might want to follow in your footsteps?
I would say always try and keep a close hold of why you entered into the sport because most people don't win a big race and then go, "I want to do this." You see your friends or you love being in nature and the trips away and that never needs to go away if you don't let it. When things get serious and it becomes a job and you have the pressure and expectation, you can lose all that and make it pretty miserable. It's so important to understand that you started on the journey for fun and that doesn't need to stop. I'm relearning this!
"my boyfriend makes sure the house is always stocked with cookies which help me stay on track"
This is not the problem I have with cookies! But seriously, thanks for talking about disordered eating.
Isla, I wish you all the happiness and success in the world.
So stoked that Isla spoke about her life and experiences, more of this please Pinkbike! just loved and related to everything she discussed in this interview
@HuntBikeWheels props to you supporting an athlete who wants to do things differently, makes me excited for the future
Future podcast interviewee? More people should be hearing these stories & insights
"It's rare to find riders like Isla and Evie who've gotten a handle on their diets while maintaining a high level of performance." - what's your source for that? How do you even know who's got a "handle on their diet"?
It also looks like you are drawing a straight connection between Courtney's weight and results, with no consideration of other potential factors.
"The ones who nail that equation simply have better genetics." - there's so much wrong with that statement, it's hard to know where to start!
Above all though, I'm curious if you have commented similarly on Men's XC, or if you only see weight as a discussion topic relevant to women's racing?
Ideal race weight I could hang.
That's the difference.
Fun fact: my buddies and I used to call each other fat when we were fat. I'd call myself fat at 5 ft 11, 148 lbs.
Men don't talk about red-s, but certainly it is a known problem at the highest levels. If it doesn't come up I'm not going to talk about it.
There is no stigma for women XC racers to talk about it.
Better genetics wins. If you don't think that then you don't follow sports.
She's poor technically, in her words she tunes out her team sometimes, she doesn't focus on on bike strength, preferring virtue signaling heavy weights for Instagram, her fitness coach is part of a silicon valley startup that consolidates data and spits out training plans but does not have specific plans for the sport.
Don't get me started on Jim Miller who, in his words, had not really coached an xc Rider prior to 2018.
One of the questions was about disordered eating, so I gave her kudos for being successful despite that.
Did you read it or did you just miss that part.
I was light when racing elite XC (63 kilos) and gaining 1 kilo would have moved me from 4.76 w/kg to 4.68 w/kg. The difference between me having a good day on the bike vs. a bad day is far, far greater than that difference, even on a climb-heavy course.
I'm 70 kg now and honestly I'm faster on rolling terrain and flat races. It has to get both steep and long (climb-wise) before I'm off the pace compared with before. 1 to 5 minute power is much higher and I am a better crit racer, for example, heavier.
I really question the statement that 1 kg put you off the pace. That's a full water bottle. Most people vary more than 1 kg from day to day.
And sure - red-s is a problem in all power-to-weight sports. In both sexes. The problem is that being chronically underfed will lead to short-term success at the expense of long-term health - it's not sustainable.
Heck, look at Evie - a more healthy body size than many of the other racers and absolutely killing it.
I think you are not factoring in the fact that you raced elite and I was just a hack - I could just recover better when I was lighter, ymmv.
Plus you're not considering what that kilo consisted of.
Let me know if you want me to spell that out.
Let me know if you need me to spell that out.
There's an old official photo of her when she was going through that - she looks completely tired and miserable. I had to look at it twice to make sure it was her.
I dropped a comment in another thread about how she is much better technically based upon video her coach supplied.
She's absolutely destroying it.
"And there's some of the commentary, I think people are trying to do a good job at promoting the women's field but sometimes what they're saying is actually quite offensive. We want to talk about women being strong and skillful, but they'll just say the physically bigger women are strong. It’s like, no, you're actually just making a comment about their weight or their physical appearance, you're not saying anything useful. There are so many different bodies in the women's field and we're strong in different and similar ways - That's what makes our sport quite unique I think.
We want to chat about the women's level and how they're performing in the same way we do the men's, but with the women, it's always like, "she's put on weight so she's not going very well" or "she's looking really lean, which means she's going be fast this year." You know what? Nobody says that about the men, so stop. Apparently the only reason a woman can either go well or not go well is how heavy she is. Do you know what I mean? I've shouted at a lot of TV screens when watching races."
I don't know who she's quoting who would say that but he's obviously a moron.
If you're going to conflate what I voice dictated with what that guy said, you really to reread my comment that you had an issue with.
I can't teach you what I know; I've been thinking about this stupid sport since the '70s attempts at racing.
I think what you don't understand is power to weight ratio, because what you are challenging me on is the weight part of the equation and it's perceived impact on you.
This is the race I would target every year because it was in my backyard:
We did this three or four times, can't remember.
Definitely not a crit with some punchy climbs, but not a road race in the Sierras either. Somewhere in between.
If you race road at a high amateur level you have no clue as to what a lowly cat 4 has to contend with - a small weight gain is hardly noticeable giving your Superior Oxygen processing abilities.
Since you don't have any sustained climbs and if you would like to walk a mile in my shoes do a 60 percent of mhr effort with your mouth taped shut to simulate the amount of air I got back then.
You would come out of that experiment thankful for the gifts you have.
Your experiences are yours and can't be compared with mine. There are no broadly applicable rules that every racer must follow.
Back to my main point: Courtney has increased her body mass by almost 5%, much of which is upper body muscle. She's been at this weight since the move to Scott, free falling in the standings. The same coaches same everything but less races, no training camp this year.
She's had plenty of time to build bike strength yet could not even finish her last world cup race due to a physical and mental breakdown. That's particularly ironic given how much she tells us how tough she is all the time.
She looks healthy and strong but her power is maxed out. All of that equals a UCI ranking of 23.
Power to weight ratio, that's all there is.
The rest of this comment thread is bizarre, people voting and being offended, forgetting what the topic is, which is bike racing.
So many triggers so little thinking
"Don't feed the trolls"
7 posts in a row, spouting your expertise on women's pro XC, based on your experience in men's amateur road. You are out of touch, and your dominance of the conversation is the kind of harm that Isla and Evie are on about.
Apparently your reading comprehension isn't very good as I've said exactly what those two did.
False equivalences seem to be your metier.
If your hiding behind someone else's words and experiences with no experience in the sport nor any apparent duration or knowledge your comment designed to hurt me is worthless.
Because of your poor comprehension I will spell it out for you again: Evie and Isla have got a great handle on their nutritional needs balanced with results.
I said it in my first post that people had a problem with - how about you go back and read it and get back to me if you have any questions.
Exactly what do you think you're doing?
I was having semi private conversations with various individuals til you chose to troll in with poor comprehension of the salient facts I presented.
Further more the key message often forgotten by many. You have to enjoy what you do.
Well done and best of luck!
Know a girl who had been suffering from it for over 10 years before any docter decided to really look into it.
Also, awesome tool box! What is that? jealous
Quit the reverse sexism please. Lots of men are suffering right now.
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