Photos: Rogers, Rousu, Waygood

Need it even be said that mountain biking is booming. Kids skills clinics are sold out in capital and regional cities alike. In the wake of COVID we have seen a seismic shift towards active recreation, and mountain biking is a beneficiary. Kids have access to better cycling equipment and technology in 2022 (quality kids bikes and attire), coaching clinics and kid-specific clubs, as well as increasing numbers of trail networks around the country. These kids aren’t growing up wondering if it’s possible—they’re on YouTube in the afternoon watching RedBull hardline, Tom Pidcock's domination across multiple disciplines, and Danny McAskill videos—it’s a case of when.

So surely with the boom in mountain biking’s uptake more broadly, Australia should feel pretty confident in its ability to represent at the highest level, especially with the Brisbane 2032 Olympics looming large?

Despite junior participation rising, Australia has historically had a hard time when it comes to the pointy level in mountain bike endurance, and Cross Country Olympic (XCO) is the only mountain bike discipline set to feature at the Brisbane games. On the other hand, considering our governing bodies (MTBA now AusCycling) scant funding of gravity-based disciplines (downhill, enduro), Australia actually thrives when it comes to this arm of the sport. So what makes a rider successful at the highest level? Here I discuss the key elements in ‘bridging the gap’ from domestic junior racing to making it at the ‘big time’, and talk to coaches, athletes and high performance representatives at AusCycling themselves to see how they are looking to tackle this problem head-on.

We start with the kids

From the available research I have found in endurance cycling, U15 and U17 are largely unreliable predictors of performance at the elite level. There is some correlation at U19, but making it through the ‘espoir’ or U23 category is key in bridging the gap. Furthermore, athletes that struggle with each age group transition are less likely to become successful in the elite ranks.1

So while U15 and U17 is an important stage in an athlete's journey into the elite ranks (and a key level to target grassroots participation to swell the selection pool in the future for high performance), it’s not the time to be cranking out 15-hour weeks. For this age group cycling training should be focussed on learning to train, gaining skills and experiencing competition. Cycling is a sport that preferences late specialisation, compared to sport such as Gymnastics, where early entry and high performance programs beget performance at much younger age (the definition of early specialisation is <12, meaning that the athlete narrows their sporting focus to their chosen discipline at this time, compared to entering the sport with multiple other activities/no specialisation)2.

Adam Kelsall, coach at Hero Dirt Cycle Coaching, who has worked as the Junior performance coach alongside MTBA for high performance campaigns at Cairns, Lenzerheide and Mont Ste Anne World cups, states that athlete development through this time should be rider-led in accordance with Long Term Athlete Development principles (LTAD) and allow a broad range of exploration of disciplines, including time off from the sport throughout the year. Adam states; “Parents and coaches should work with athletes to develop balance during those four weeks - go bushwalking, surfing, reconnect with mates, read books etc.”

It's not Kelsall's first rodeo


1 Mireille Mostaert, Pieter Vansteenkiste, Johan Pion, Frederik J.A. Deconinck & Matthieu Lenoir (2021) The importance of performance in youth competitions as an indicator of future success in cycling, European Journal of Sport Science, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2021.1877359