The ultimate disappointment – Olympic bad luck
09 May 2016
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Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, good to have you tuning in. I’m Gerald de Kock and I hope you’ll enjoy the next 10 minutes or so as we discuss this wonderful sport of mountain biking. Today we’re talking about the racing side of it. Obviously recently the Olympic Games took place in Rio de Janeiro, South Africa had two men racing the mountain biking.
Alan Hatherly, the 20-year-old who finished in 26th place and 24-year-old James Reid who had a slightly less satisfying time at the mountain bike race at Rio de Janeiro. I’m sitting with James now, back in the Western Cape and James, almost two weeks to reflect on your time there, James, thanks for chatting. Where’s your mind now after that experience at Rio?
James Reid: Sjoe, very difficult to say and define it as such, but I’ve been saying to people, there’s disappointment and then there’s Rio. In terms of balance and setting yourself up for something that really was like a borderline traumatic experience. You have so much hope. Preparation and time, effort, money and love from friends and family and personal expectation goes into a single day.
Then when there are uncontrollables that come into the situation and affect the race like it did. I still haven’t made complete sense of it. But it’s a little bit clearer now. It just was a horrible day on top of what was an incredible experience. Separating the two is always the difficulty, especially when you’re younger. I’m better at it now, but separating the result from the experience is always the trick.
Hanging around in anticipation of your event
GDK: Take us through what those 3-4 days leading into and the race itself, I think you’ve spoken about it being a bit of a rollercoaster at times wasn’t it?
JR: The Olympic experience, being an athlete in the village, preparing for your chosen sport and I’m obviously not the only one that was disappointed there. I sat next to a 100m sprinter on the plane from South Africa who tore his hamstring in practice and never even got out onto the track. So there’s also that side. There are people who are more disappointed, bigger names with more expectations. So you can kind of console yourself in the sense that sport can be brutally disappointing.
The whole week leading into it was, it really felt like my body had come right, I had the right sensations, I was tapering nicely. They say the Olympic experience, you walk around too much and you expend too much energy. But I really felt like, if anything, I would say performance on the day would have been boosted by a percentage or two.
Because you have access to the best physios, the diet is top class, you’re watching inspirational sport and hearing incredible stories happen all around you. I’d say everyone has that experience, it’s not like at a world cup where you don’t have that village charge of energy. I feel like it was only positive and the stories about you’ll expend too much energy before your event because there’s too much hype.
Yes, there’s more expectation on the day, but I feel like everybody benefits performance-wise. In Team South Africa, at the African block at the Olympic village we had everything we needed. From private escorts on the road when you were training to wilted spinach and salmon at 3:00 in the morning. If you felt like that was your thing.
That really built to this crescendo which was the event, which was okay. Now your country has done everything for you at the Games and both back home. The support from back home was incredible and you’re like cool, here it is. Let’s do this, let’s get out there and put it all on the line.
The training fall that knocked me
GDK: You had a slightly unfortunate fall on I think the Thursday, a couple of days before the race?
JR: Yes, so in practice, it’s strange because at a World Cup you’ll have hundreds of riders practicing the days before. It was actually on the Friday of the event, there was only maybe 20 people on the course, a men’s only practice. I came over a blind rise and there was an Italian guy checking a line.
I went slightly left to avoid him and then there was a huge hole there. Ten seconds later, twenty seconds before, it wouldn’t have happened. He did apologise and rode off, but I had a slight concussion. But there were other stories. On that exact course a Mauritian rider had crashed on the drop and wasn’t even going to start the event.
There were two non-starts from crashes in the practice beforehand. It wasn’t a big crash, it was just unsettling and unnerving. Got to the event, so maybe a percentage or two in terms of overall performance down. But it was obviously the boost from being a part of the Olympics that was there as well.
GDK: Then on race day, take us through that, I suppose the sensation, you did have a few laps racing at the Olympics and then what actually happened?
JR: Just was an arena and a celebration of mountain biking like no other. Crazed fans, we get crazed fans on a World Cup circuit, but that was like something else. I didn’t know the Brazilians were so passionate about mountain biking. Actually if you look at ticket sales, this was one of the most highly sought after and sold-out the quickest events that there were.
How race day went South
The start was always going to be manic, totally different. You go as hard as you can and then wait for the sensations of being able to move around the place where you are. It’s always that fine line between do you go, do you go slightly easier and then the race leaves. Or do you go slightly harder and then you’re ahead, but then the race picks up speed.
After that first lap I kind of had a bit of traction, I was sitting in 22nd, 23rd. But the time splits are very small and I could really feel like it was time to move up. Second lap came around, I had a nice group, we were working nicely with my Belgian friend Jens Schuermans. Who I’ve done multiple races with in South Africa.
I actually went up the first climb, which was the flatter switchback one and was saying to myself, this really isn’t hurting, it’s time to go now. Conditioning was good, I was finding real traction. The end of the second came around, the start of the third lap I went into it, left his group.
We were around 20th now, we were the 17-22 group, five of us working together. It was quite, like a lot of pack racing. Then came across, there was a dual track rock section up and then down and then Peter Sagan was lying in the rocks. He had crashed in front of me. I know, cause later I looked and he also had front wheel punctures. From experience, riding rocks with the front wheel flat is not possible, you end up face down on the rocks most of the time.
I avoided him and then I went down. But just twisted the bar and the stem and that wasn’t so bad because the feed zone was just further on. Hit one section with the bar slightly askew, got to the feed zone and I said, ‘front wheel skewed,’ to the mechanic.
He grabbed a front wheel, but I was like ‘no, no, no,’ there wasn’t a flat because I’d hit two log drops beforehand and there was no roll of the tyre, fast corners. He straightened the bar, just like wheel between the legs and straightened it out. Then we went through the next, under the bridge and maybe two corners later and I took it slightly wider and then slashed the front wheel.
Well, not slashed, but like cut it fast enough that it almost lost all air, completely. From there you’ve just passed the feed zone, cross country rules, you can’t go back. Obviously the feelings are, you still want to give everything, you’re still trying to do everything.
But you have no air canister, I mean nobody rides with air canisters. You’re all committed to this sort of point. If it was a back wheel it would have been different, you can destroy a rim. I mean it’s the Olympics, you don’t care about a R7 000 rim. Just ride it, get to the line and fix it. But on a front wheel you physically actually can’t get around the track fast enough.
You’re running, walking, running, walking, up the second climb, down the rocks. Those rocks are impossible to ride with the front wheel flat. Got to the feed zone but by then I was seven minutes behind. Changed the front wheel and when you come through the start/finish and you’re plus 8:24 with four laps to go, the writing is on the wall.
Cross country uses 80% rules so that the leaders never encounter traffic. It can be brutal if you’re having a bad day. That being said, maybe 20 riders were pulled, of 50. So two-fifths were no longer a part of the finish. But to be on the side lines watching people finish their first Olympics is devastating.
I was in good company! Peter Sagan, Sam Gaze, Howard Grotts, all classy riders and the best in their respective countries at mountain biking, not being able to finish. So there’s some sort of sense of, like it wasn’t only me. You don’t really grasp the gravity of it until you realise the kind of extent, the Olympics are only ever four years. It’s something you build towards, to try and take the lessons aside from the result, I have to admit, are hard. But it grows you in ways that I think incremental success doesn’t.
Important to keep the riding ticking over
GDK: Emotional time. You’re not riding the final World Cup of the year. What’s the remainder of the year for you and what are your thoughts about 2017?
JR: The final World Cup, I got back and I slept for a week. I was quite sick and I had to make a decision quickly, but I think just all the emotional stress gathered up. I did a five week course of antibiotics and it seemed to come right.
But the World Cup, like now it seems like a good idea, but it’s two days to go and you have to make that kind of call. I feel like I raced too much and too hard, didn’t make the end of the World Cup circuit. Too much emotional investment in individual races and the long-term strategy has been a bit out.
But that’s what it’s like in an Olympic year when you’re fighting for qualifications. You see it across the sports that people kill themselves in January/February/March, just to get the ticket. Then it’s kind of when the race comes, it’s a last minute patch job and that’s what we really have to get right.
I suppose by being head and shoulders the fastest athlete in South Africa is maybe the optimal strategy, so there’s no doubt around selection. The rest of the year, it’s still filled with a lot of racing. We have some exciting developments in the Spur High School Mountain Bike League, we are actively a part of that. Including the Grand Final, which is one of the most well attended junior development events in the whole country.
I’m doing a fair amount of stage racing, a mix between local and multi-day. But also I feel like it’s been quite difficult to get back into the same routine and the same rhythm and have the same motivation. That’s been a real challenge the last two weeks.
So, the great unspoken of sport, mental taxation of kind of individual pursuit of one thing. So to not have too defined goals is kind of the objective at the moment. I’m sort of drifting a bit, training a fair amount, even doing intervals, but it’s not very structured. Racing as much as I can, just to stay kind of distracted.
It’s more in the moments where you’re focusing on one thing in particular where it brings back the memories of pre-Rio and all of the feelings associated. I’ve been working with a sports psychologist, chatting to a lot of people, racing a lot. If I stop, yes, I think sometimes the best strategy when you’re going through a tough patch is just to keep going, just keep racing. Looking to end the season at Wines2Whales again this year. Because it’s a classy event for pros and amateurs alike.
Then next year a full World Cup circuit, but just focused on the World Cup circuit, no distraction. Less racing in South Africa, definitely. Almost being based over there for longer and putting more impetus, but balancing local objectives and international ambition. Especially with the kind of sponsorship landscape as it is, it does make it difficult.
You have to almost pick your high quality return events in South Africa very selectively. If we can do that at the end of this year with a race like Wines2Whales, with the amount of interest and prize money around it, I think that’s a good strategy.
GDK: Still with Spur next year?
JR: It looks like it, yes, we’re in that stage of the negotiations. But it’s a bit of an unknown, but it looks like it.
GDK: James, thanks for sharing your emotions, your thoughts, your experiences, as you said, it strengthened you going forward.
JR: Yes, and not easy to talk about and sport, you put yourself out there. You publicly risk a lot of, I guess, judgment and humiliation if you fail. Sometimes it happens, but you’ve got to brush that aside and that’s why sport sells. People buy into your success and your failure I think.
If it was all just success for everyone all the time, there’d be no…so yes, I feel like I’ve unfinished business and cross country racing in this country is really going from strength to strength. There’s a crop of youngster coming through that have definitely the talent and ambition to really take it up a level. But I feel like we need to unite behind a common goal of improving internationally and getting faster.
GDK: James Reid, Olympian, that he still is, less we forget that he was there in 2016. I think in a few years’ time, the hard times will fade and the good memories will be there to spur you on and drive you forward. Thanks for chatting to us, James Reid, here chatting to us on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking. Please join us again, please download once more. We’ll hear from yet more characters, personalities and people involved in mountain biking. Until next time, cheers.