At the World Cup level, every racer aims to toe the start line of the season with the confidence that they have, bar none, done everything possible with their training, nutrition, equipment, and in today's world, dodged Covid-19 and its hurdles, to be the fastest person of the day. It's this never-ending race off the track that is just as important to performance on the track.
All bike racers are chasing that form—the extra gear that lets them feel the strongest, last the longest—and ultimately, bow to no one. For some riders, it's a power that can be fleeting, showing up for a day where they get their win. For a few others, it can result in a closet full of trophies, a wall of framed rainbow jerseys, and a palate tailored for champagne. After years of fine-tuning and precisely engineering human performance for incremental gains, what does it take to finally unleash one's winning form?
For Rebecca McConnell, it has been a long chase to find it. 2022 is her ninth year racing in the Elite Women's category. After some ups and downs in the early years, Rebecca has been methodically building towards medal standing, becoming one of the most consistent threats to the podium over the past few seasons. But ultimately, her palmarès remained void of any UCI Mountain Bike World Cup victories. That changed at 2022's opening round in Petrópolis, Brazil, where she showed up with a different tune. After glancing the podium in 4th place in the XCC, Rebecca made her statement on the last lap of the XCO, as her two on-track rivals couldn't match her consistent pace, securing her maiden World Cup victory and the overall leader's jersey.
Knowing that you have the winning form is the ultimate advantage. But even after a victory as monumental as your first World Cup win, it can be hard to believe that it wasn't just your lucky day or that it will carry into the next race. At Round 2 in Albstadt, Germany, everything changed when Rebecca sealed a weekend of pure gold in both XCC and XCO.
"Today is the first time that I really believed it. Brazil—you know, you can't fluke a World Cup win—but I didn't have any expectations after enjoying the wave. And then, on Friday in the short track, I was like 'Wow! I won that race because I was the strongest. And then today I had the quiet confidence inside me knowing that I could go with any move."
Today is the first time that I really believed it. Brazil—you know, you can't fluke a World Cup win—but I didn't have any expectations after enjoying the wave.
Where does this form come from? Changes off-track can have a big impact on the foundation, but sometimes it's just a single piece on-track that makes everything click. Gaining experience riding at the front over the last few years has exposed Rebecca to the tactics and gamesmanship of her fellow racers. This has changed her approach to her racecraft.
"I've been really consistent the last three seasons—averaging 5th place. I'm always there, so I think a lot is just being there. I've learned a lot about being at the front of the race, just never in the decisive moves."
In Albstadt, Bec was able to read her rival with a new mindset and know when and where she could make it her race.
"Jenny and I were in a race of our own. And she was playing games a bit, and I was like, 'We don't want to open the door to let the other girls back into the race' - but that’s my old way of thinking, defending my position as opposed to fighting for the win. So I told myself to relax and that you're fighting for the win and not racing to hold a second position. That’s when I was able to keep calm and make my move."
But this is where tactics and relationships become different. When your fellow racers know you're a threat. And you make your move, it's for real. In turn, they will respond through primal instincts.
You only get away with that once. So I won't be surprising anyone, I will have to earn it for sure.
"During the short track, Pauline would have been feeling comfortable as second wheel going into the sprint finish but was probably shocked to discover that I was still there. And you only get away with that once. So I won't be surprising anyone, I will have to earn it for sure."
We know from experience that the Elite Women's field will not stay static for long. We witnessed Loana Lecomte ride in what seemed like her own race for the first four World Cup XCOs in 2021, before the soon-to-be Olympian and World Champion teammates—Jolanda Neff and Evie Richards—found their form precisely when they were looking for it. While a myriad of physiological, mechanical, and external factors play into finding peak human performance, arguably the greatest factor at hand is the mindset when you line up. That when it's time to make a move, your body will respond in a way that no one can match. The only question is, whose move is it next?