Caroline Buchanan classifies herself as “a cyclist”. It’s a general term and it has to be that way because her skill set on a bike is so diverse. It’s BMX that got her started and she’s the reigning world champion in that discipline but the mountain bike also got a work-out again in 2013. She won the four-cross world championship in Austria and also contested the downhill event in South Africa (finishing fifth). Early in November she was voted ‘Australian Cyclist of the Year’.
A few weeks after being presented with the ‘Oppy’ at Cycling Australia’s gala night at the Crown Casino in Melbourne, Rob Arnold spoke with the 23-year-old to find out about her season, her aspirations for the years ahead and, of course, the possibility of her expanding her repertoire to track and road racing. She had recently returned to California and the chat was done via Skype as she lamented having recently caught a cold. “It’s the inevitable,” she said. “When you’ve flat-out, as soon as you stop it hits you.”
Still, aside from her referencing the fact that she sounded a little croaky in the voice, there was no sign of any ailment. Vivacious, animated, analytical and entertaining, she talked about her career and the year that was. Here is a transcript of that discussion…
Caroline Buchanan: champion on many levels
(22 November 2013)
– By Rob Arnold
RIDE: Congrats on being Australian Cyclist of the Year. It seemed a pretty obvious choice for 2013 but it’s nice that you did get the award and recognition. Does it feel like you’re in a broader community now because it that?
Caroline Buchanan: “It’s breaking the mold for the cycling world, I guess. It does feel a little different, definitely. I went into the awards sort of with the expectation that, with BMX and mountain bike, it was likely to get up on stage because of winning the two world titles this year. But I never would have expected the Peoples’ Choice – that’s the peoples vote, that’s the cycling community.
“The whole road and track disciplines have a huge following and a lot of people are involved while BMX is quite small compared to that. I went in, I guess you could say, with blinkers on – not expecting to walk away with the Peoples’ Choice. That was a huge honour. It was like the peers’ vote so to have that kind of respect from the rest of the cycling community was great. Then to win the ‘Oppy’, yeah – I was a little bit emotional…
“I remember sitting back in a similar setting, in the room with all the other cyclists from other categories at awards like that when I was a junior. I looked at the Australian Cyclist of the Year prize as never really being an achievable goal. Going up against a Tour de France-winning cyclist, or Anna Meares and her multiple Olympic medals, I couldn’t foresee BMX – with its one medal shot – being on the same level of recognition.
“It was a little girl dream but a dream that I never thought would come true. But then this year, when I set out for that three world championship goal, it wasn’t because I was thinking about the accolades… it was nothing like that. It was just about challenging myself. I wanted to get off the path, make my own trail…”
You just like to ride your bike fast and because of that you’re standing on stages and making speeches.
“I know. And wearing heals and smiling for the cameras and working out what outfit to wear… it was all good fun.”
I first started hearing your name around the time of the mountain bike world championships in Canberra in 2009.
“To me that’s The World Championships. It was in my hometown and the first world title is the one that matters, it really launched my career.
“It’s funny to think about it because there’s a story behind Stromlo [where the titles were contested]: it came from the ashes. There were the fires that burned all through the area and that produced Stromlo [as a cycling facility]. Those same fires burned my family’s house down.
“I grew up in BMX, doing it as a family in a real family sport. We lost our house in the fires. And, at the same time, my brother who got me into BMX – and also got me into mountain biking – had a bad accident and broke his neck, C3 and C4, and he was basically told he was going to be a quadriplegic. His condition improved but they were saying, ‘paraplegic’… and now he’s okay. He’s had a lot of surgery but the doctors had said he’ll never ride again. And he was my inspiration to get into the sport.
“From that tough year, the win in Stromlo came out of it: a world title in my home town… and that was really the start. I was 18.”
The four-cross is such a great event to watch. It’s very colourful and exciting. But it’s almost over in the time that you’ve taken a breath, isn’t it.
“Yeah, it’s very short and sharp and action-packed. But it’s a really good spectator sport and I think that’s why everyone really came on board with BMX around the time of the Beijing Olympics. I think that caught a lot of attention. By the London Games, the track was bigger and better than Beijing. There was a cross-over, the tunnel… the track itself looked like a picturesque golf course and it was amazing to ride. It is an action sport and it is very exciting to watch.
“It’s also a sport of the future too because BMX – especially now with this 2-5 category, in Australia they’re calling it ‘mini-wheelers’ – is still evolving. Now there are little kids basically running around on balance bikes. That category, that is the grassroots – it’s the entry point into all cycling disciplines: road, track, mountain bike… the lot!
“Those little ones really are the future of the sport, the next generation. And it’s cool to see that there are so many little BMX kids getting involved.
“They recently had the world championships – the balance bike worlds – for under five-year-olds and it was massive and it was so competitive! I can’t believe it but it is painting a bright cycling future, for sure.”
How old were you when you started racing?
“At the age of five. I’m 23 now, so that’s a fair percentage of my life.”
There was an industry rumour floating around about 10 years ago that Wade Bootes [a coach of Caroline’s, and a former member of the BMX factory team sponsored by Trek] could be credited with selling more Trek bikes than Lance Armstrong did during his heyday. Do you think that could be realistic? Do you feel like there’s enough interest in BMX that it could be like that? When you race in the States is it in massive stadiums? What is it like?
“In terms of an Olympic sport and the viewership that the Olympics attract, I know that BMX was one of the most successful events of the Games [in 2012]. It was a capacity crowd and the online viewing numbers were well above what they had expected. They now want double the TV time for Rio [in 2016] so the sport is definitely a drawcard.
“I think that fans of all cycling disciplines can watch it and relate. I think all cyclists in general can have that wow-factor. There is a very high skill level and, at the same time, you have got to be athletes. You do have to be fit. It’s really the whole package.
“I don’t know about that claim but it would be interesting to see the sales statistics.
“BMX is a sport that I think all cyclists can appreciate and feel the excitement of it. Whereas I think some extreme mountain bikers may not necessarily be able to sit back and watch some events on the velodrome going around and around in circles and appreciate how hard that sport is, so maybe that’s the little edge that BMX has.”
Do we call you a BMXer, a mountain biker, or a bike rider. How do you classify yourself?
“I’m a cyclist.
“I think we’re all one big community. But BMX is where it started for me. That’s my roots and I’m staying true to my roots.”
That leads us to the next obvious question: when are you going to pick up a road bike or a track bike and really diversify?
“I don’t know. My next goal is definitely Rio but knowing myself, I’m aware that I’m never really quite content with that I’m doing. I always want to push those boundaries: take it to the limit, go off that path and create my own way. That, I think, is when true success happens.
“It could something that I’d like to do in the future. My dad was a track cyclist. That’s where I get my racing genes from. He was qualifying for the Welsh team for the Commonwealth Games when he was young. He was very good and could have gone on but he didn’t have the support and backing from his family.
“He moved to Australia, started a new life, had kids and he’s given me every opportunity I can to have that success.”
I remember watching Jamie Staff win the keirin worlds back in 2004 and it was a very exciting race. He’s got the top end speed but it was also his track craft that got him the win.
“In BMX you learn a lot of bike control and a lot of those handling skills and race craft comes into play. You need that.
“I think it shows that BMX and mountain biking are good crossovers and there is an opportunity to go from one cycling discipline to another. Cadel Evans used to do mountain biking, Anna Meares used to race BMX…. there is a mix through all of cycling.”
Can you talk about some of the specifics of your [BMX] world title in New Zealand. What gear did you ride and how have bikes evolved since you’ve been involved?
“I won the world title with a 43×16.
“The bike technology has changed a lot over the years but the gearing has essentially stayed the same as it always was.
“The bikes are lighter. They’ve moved to oversized bars, bigger stems, the oversized BB30 bottom bracket, 20mm through-axles front and rear… and it’s really stiffened the bikes up a lot and eliminated a lot of that flex. There are quite a few carbon-fibre frames around at the moment.
“But the gearing is pretty much the same as it’s always been.
“We don’t really pedal too much on the track these days – especially at the world championships. It’s all over in around 25 seconds.
“Eight pedal strokes at the one time is the most that you ever get so the skill element of BMX is huge. To get out of the gate, out in front and out of trouble, and then be able to navigate the jumps and all the rest, that’s one of the most important bits of BMX.
“The pedalling we do is generally down the start ramp or out of the turns because, through the straights, you’ll never get that much of a chance to pedal.
“The US is still a bit different. They have tracks that need a bit more horsepower – quite small, flat first straights… but the Olympic standard, the big Super Cross eight-and-a-half metre high start ramp, eight pedals is all you get.”
And coming out of the gate, what sort of wattage are you putting out?
“It’s 1,200 watts. That’s what I put out. I’m 65kg at the moment. For my last power-to-weight session, it was around 17 watts per kilo. That’s the most important number for BMX. You’ve got to be strong but you’ve also got to be light, quick, agile… have that reaction time to get out of the gate and get going. And then that top end speed comes into it with the revolutions per minute.”
You’ve obviously analysed everything to the nth degree. So what have you found is the biggest amendment you’ve made based on what the tech-heads tell you?
“I made a mistake leading into London – with the new, big Super Cross start ramp. I did some testing with some weight vests and figured out that, with the momentum, I got with that extra weight I could hit the bottom of the ramp and obviously, with the inertia, gain speed; land the jump, gain speed… and that extra weight helped. But you’ve got to be able to move it so it’s got to be functional weight.
“I did get quite big and strong and got up to about 72kg and that was before the Games. I was definitely strong, probably more built like a track sprinter: big legs and lots of power. But for BMX that wasn’t what worked.
“I really did a lot with my training and diet. I went gluten free and everything and then, coming into the Olympic Games, I dropped about eight kilos. My power-to-weight ratio went up, vertical jump went up… everything. And that was really good timing. Coming into the Games, there was a huge peak in my performance.
“I just did testing with the weight vest. And it definitely did help to have the extra weight but then it’s got to be functional at the same time.
“I’d love to be able to put on eight kilos of muscle and still be lean and active and agile… but it’s a fine line.”
Going back to the velodrome discussion: have you tried a fixed gear?
“I’ve done that on a BMX and it’s very scary! I have also gotten on the track [velodrome] before when ACTAS (ACT Academy of Sport) got me up to Sydney and got me to do a flying 200 metre time trial. At the time, about four years ago, my times were comparable to a silver medal at the Oceania championships.
“I know ACTAS really wanted to get me on the track but there was just something that didn’t work at the time. It didn’t really excite me. I was too focussed on the London Olympic Games and my focus now is on Rio. But quite a few athletes in the past have gone and done the track purely for strength training before coming back to BMX. But you’ve then got to be able to transfer that strength and have the skill to be able to use it.
“I enjoyed the track but I think I was on a juvenile gearing at the time but it felt massive compared to what I’m used to on a BMX.
“Our roll-out on a BMX is like a 52-inch gear. It’s tiny! But we spin that at 260 revs per minute so it’s very high. Still, I’ve enjoyed the velodrome experience and I didn’t find it too hard.”
And road cycling – do you do that as cross-training?
“No. I haven’t done much with cross-training. Generally, to build that endurance I did quite a lot of swimming. I had to try some things to fine-tune for the downhill worlds because it was around a five minute race. But I kept my legs ticking over fast with BMX-specific and mountain bike training.
“This year with the three-event challenge that I set myself – BMX, four-cross and downhill – the races were varying in time. BMX was an indoor so it was all over in 25 seconds. It was very short: about half the size of a normal BMX track: 400 metres is the average, and in 2013 it was only a little over 200 metres. It was short and sharp: three turns, 25 seconds… done.
“The downhill world championships was a three-and-a-half kilometre course and that took about five minutes. It was pretty much a straight descent and required a very high endurance element. That was quite hard and I had quite a bit of lactic burn.
“Then the four-cross was a mixture of BMX and mountain biking and it was about a minute long. Four riders – so half the amount then a BMX race – and that’s a lot more biff and shove.
“All those three world title races were within 56 days all in different places around the world: BMX in New Zealand, downhill in South Africa and four-cross in Austria. It was three different bikes, three different mindsets, three different skill sets, three different energy systems… everything. It was fun and a big challenge.”
I’ve always been impressed with Marianne Vos because she can win mountain bike races, cyclocross world titles, Olympic track races and, of course, road races. She’s evolving still and it seems like you might be too. It’s enjoyable to watch you two superstars of cycling…
“I think me and her are the only two cycling females to win more than one cycling discipline in one year so it’s quite a big honour to be up there.”
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