MTBA caught up with Imogen Smith after her great result (20th) at the UCI Mountain Bike World Marathon Champs in France for her account of the race and goals for the summer season.
Do you feel it was all worthwhile?
For sure! I ride my bike because I love it, so it’s easy to stay really motivated, even through the harder times like when there’s injury or sacrifices to be made.
Was the race all that you imagined?
Kind of. There were some things that were different – I expected girls out there to be fit to kill one another trying to get an edge but to be honest the vibe was super-friendly and supportive – that was a lovely surprise. I had expected to the track to be muddier but it dried out really fast – other than that I had pre-ridden most sections of the trail, or seen photos and videos of the other bits, so I knew all the tricky and taxing parts and didn’t get any nasty surprises!
Nothing could prepare me for the atmosphere though – French crowds must be the best in the world and there must have been a thousand-odd spectators on the track, and at the finish line people were five or six deep on the barricades. It was incredibly uplifting.
Can you run us through some key moments for you and how you reacted to them?
I had a bad start position on the last row but worked really hard in the first few kilometres to move up – the road racing I’ve done definitely helped and I was glad I kept a really cool head and got exactly where I needed to be.
Other than that I had one small disaster in that my rear wheel started making a terrible noise on the first major descent and I was sure I had a broken spoke. At the first tech zone I decided to put the spare in and lost several places changing the wheel (even though it was a masterful wheel change by Mike – everyone was really close together) to a (heavier) spare – only to have the noise return pretty soon after. I stopped a few times before working out that I had, in fact, just the cable end of my rear derailleur bent into my spokes! I’d lost so much time on nothing at all. I had to roll with it though and just put a very silly mistake behind me and apart from the wheel change and all those little pauses I didn’t lose much time – two or three minutes in total? Now I’m trying not to think ‘what if’ where losing those minutes is concerned. Everyone has little struggles in every race.
Can you describe the pace and intensity in a world champs race?
I was shocked actually, at how easy it went out. I had expected an XCO-style start but it was just a bit harder than starting with the men in any Australian Marathon – solid, but not an all-out sprint. It ramped up once we started climbing and hit the dirt and I had to make some difficult decisions about how hard to let myself go – I didn’t want to go anaerobic for long as I knew I would pay for it later. This meant letting the top 25 or so go in the first 10 minutes. Everyone got into a rhythm soon and I was able to reel people in – but very slowly!
During the race itself the pace isn’t ridiculous. A marathon, even at this level and with this number of competitors, is usually just a four-to-five-hour individual time trial. Everyone just finds their rhythm and pretty much sticks to it. Sure, sometimes you’ll grab a wheel, or attack to try to shake someone off, and there’s a bit of swapping around as some people descend faster, some climb faster, but generally you’re around the same people for much of the race. For me, not getting carried away and chasing people down was very important for pacing myself sensibly to finish strong. If you look at the results we were all pretty well spaced out by the end. I spent quite a bit of the race alone with my Garmin just monitoring my progress and talking to myself!
Is there anything Jolanda Neff can’t do?
Well, at 22 or so she can’t hire a car in many European countries. Seriously, she’s one of the best bike riders in the world, and also a lovely person with immense star power. It was amazing to have her there.
Financially it’s not easy but would you consider, after your results this year having a crack again?
Yes, I would. Money is really hard, of course, but this has been one of the high points of my biking life and I do want to keep racing marathons for another couple of years at least. I think I’ve got room to improve and I find the racing in Europe incredibly inspiring and satisfying – the places you see and the people you meet make it worth the expense. That’s what life’s about isn’t it?! It will depend though, on how my body goes and especially on what my husband Mike wants to do!
And finally your plans when you get back a good rest or is there another goal you have your eye on?
I will definitely have a rest and keep doing some road racing, too. I’ll be doing a few of the National XCO rounds probably, over summer, and then of course will be looking to XCM Nationals next year in my home state of Queensland! After that… I’d love to get back to Europe in a year’s time.