Words: Georgina von Marburg

Photos: Georgina von Marburg, Matt Rousu, Nick Waygood

Zoe Cuthbert is a fast becoming a household name in the Aussie cross-country scene, but her insatiable search for new challenges has produced some astonishing results across the various mountain bike disciplines. Zoe demonstrates the purest passion for mountain biking, unhindered by typical expectations or paths to success. I sat down with the 20-year-old Canberran for a candid chat about her achievements, struggles, and what drives her to ride everything.

From a young age, Zoe was swaddled in outdoor enthusiasm. Her family is extraordinary in the true sense of the word, and it’s little wonder their eldest daughter manifests such courage and ambition. “Most family trips are just people sitting on the beach having a chill time, but we’re battling through forests and everything we do is just such an experience.” Both parents were elite rock climbers, with her mother Tara representing Australia in the X Games for rock-climbing. Her dad Paul later competed in ultra-marathons and grueling, multi-day adventure races. “As a kid I’ve always grown up doing cool things in the outdoors… running, riding, camping, hiking, exploring… it’s just been part of my childhood.”

Zoe loves the outdoors.

While she also dabbled in road and track racing, these activities didn’t immerse her in the exciting and “unpredictable” natural landscape like others did. Referring to her eventual bikepacking expeditions, “you’ll ride through a countryside or small town that you wouldn’t have gone through otherwise.” On one occasion, Zoe was lost (“I always get lost”) and came across a fellow bikepacker riding the other way who offered some local knowledge and directions. After exchanging their journeys thus far, the stranger went home to tell his daughter about the feats of Zoe; but Zoe was in turn inspired by this man who traversed the same homemade route every weekend.

“I would never have gone and talked to this guy, but because of the place we were and the bikes [we were on], we were able to find a connection.” Whether it’s meeting new people or conquering unruly weather, mundanity does not exist on dirt tracks. Obsessed with adventure, the way Zoe explored nature would foreshadow the way she explored mountain biking.

Diving into competition:

Zoe’s first encounter with mountain biking was through racing. Entering her first club race alongside her mum, “I lost my chain and came last,” Zoe recalls. She then prematurely progressed from Under 8s to Under 13s, and the next race descended an unexpected blue trail. As many mothers could relate, Tara was concerned for her gung-ho daughter; “but it was all good and I survived!” Zoe laughs.

These early tribulations ignited her passion for bar-to-bar racing, as she began writing her own training programs and put her name on every start list possible. Zoe joined the Canberra Off-Road Cyclists Club (CORC) junior program, for which she would eventually become a coach, bringing the community involvement full-circle.  One of her current jobs further cultivates the burgeoning mountain biking scene in Canberra and surrounds; employed by respected trail-building company Iconic Trails, Zoe has poured sweat into popular parks and networks from Majura Pines to the South Coast.

Zoe was then signed to the prominent Trek Shimano cross-country team, and the ensuing achievements are well known by those in the sport. 2x Junior National XCO jerseys and 2x Junior Oceania XCO jerseys are just a handful of her recent crowns, and in both 2018 and 2019 she was awarded the Cycling Australia Female MTB Junior of the Year, followed by a Sport Australia Hall of Fame Scholarship in 2021.

Zoe races for the prestigious Trek Shimano Australia team.

Ride everything:

For Zoe however, cross-country was just the gate through which she entered mountain biking, not a box of confinement. In 2019, she claimed a remarkable quartet of Junior National jerseys: XCO, XCC, XCR, and Gravity Enduro. In both 2019 and 2020 she claimed silver medals in the Elite Pump Track National Championships – a widely overlooked discipline but arguably the purest test of MTB technique and rhythm. Sandwiched between this silverware was an Elite podium at the 2019 Asia Pacific Enduro Series in Derby, Tasmania; second only to renowned local Rowena Fry. Zoe shaved seconds off decorated riders who had dedicated years to enduro racing. On the other end of the spectrum, Zoe has sunk her teeth into the ultra-endurance world of bikepacking. While the pandemic quashed hopes of a 2020 Tour Divide, the 4500km race across America remains a non-negotiable goal. On her bedroom wall hangs a timeline of events she aims to race, accompanied by a bicycle figurine which progresses across as they’re completed. “The very last one is Tour Divide. One day we will get there – it might take a few years, but it’s up there.”

Zoe's Calendar looks ... busy.

While some may see competing in other disciplines as wasteful or unfocused, Zoe’s mindset is a refreshing antidote to this tradition of structure and restraint. “In my mind, mountain biking includes all the disciplines” she says, surprised by people who think otherwise. “I couldn’t just do cross-country. I love being able to do all the different sports and be able to challenge myself in different ways.” A supportive coach who has integrated and encouraged Zoe’s quiver of talents is also an essential component of her success. Initially adverse to the idea of being “told what to do,” Zoe has developed a trusting and understanding relationship with coach Adam Kelsall (Hero Dirt Cycling). For example, bikepacking is branded as base training, and enduro as skills practice. “[All] the disciplines really help each other. I know that I wouldn’t be able to do the other disciplines if I hadn’t done cross-country, and I know that all the other disciplines really feed into my cross-country.”

Of goals and challenges:

Despite this extensive experience on tyres of every size, a 5th place at the 2019 XCO Junior World Championships remains Zoe’s most prized memory. As she details the experience, Zoe’s dedication to push herself into new realms shines through again. “I’m not going to lie, I hated every moment of that race… before and after [the race] was amazing, but it was just – pain.” Surprisingly, as she continues to list her favourite results, neither enduro, pump track, nor bike-packing make the cut. When asked what her goals are in 1 year from now, the answer is emphatic: racing XCO World Cups. In 10 years? After some quick math, the answer is again, racing XCO World Cups. “People are always worried I’m going to give it [cross-country] up, but it’s what I was born doing and I just love the head-to-head racing,” she assures. The Aussie XC community can sleep easy knowing this, though the gravity family still retains their adopted daughter; these other disciplines remain integral pillars in her mountain biking journey.

Zoe riding for Australia at the 2018 World Championships.

But every tale of success is also a tale of suffering, and Zoe’s exceptionally unique upbringing and talent is underscored by the hurdles many people – women in particular – have experienced themselves. These are the struggles which remain veiled in post-race interviews; you won’t find them on her Sport Australia Hall of Fame profile, or plastered over social media. But in Zoe’s opinion, it’s critical these issues are discussed more openly in sport and society at large. 

“A few years back I regularly struggled with some mental health problems,” she explains. With her motivation uncharacteristically sapped, functioning as an elite athlete was a tall order. “I would have to cancel plans or break down mid-ride… it took me a while to explain to my coach that some days I just couldn’t train.” Between working, studying, and racing, Zoe’s high-stimulus lifestyle and self-inflicted pressure to perform only worsened the effects of declining mental health. But her source of recovery would come from the ever-present buttress of family and friends that engulfs this young athlete. Seeking professional help and freeing up her daily schedules came as a result of being more open in explaining her situation to everyone, including her coach.  “I was surrounded by such good people, that I managed to keep going… definitely talking to people about it really helped me.”   

It’s a stark realisation that even a high-achieving and audacious person can be afflicted by such immobilising ailments. But sharing her hardships is something Zoe is passionate about in the quest to normalise and encourage conversation around the topic. “It’s sad when you begin to realise that a lot of people go through a similar thing… It does affect you in the same way a sickness or an injury would, and you have to look after it like that and allow yourself to rest and recover.”  

After delving into these mental battles, it was another reality check uncovering Zoe’s toughest physical battles. Recalling her hardest moments on the bike, “pushing through period pain” tops the list without hesitation. Racing laps while enduring the “excruciating pain” of the monthly menstrual cycle is common for Zoe, and for countless women in general. “I’ve talked to other elite women at the top level and they are dealing with this too,” Zoe emphasises. “Being a male-dominated sport, women don’t really want to speak out about it… a lot of women are suffering silently.” The common remedy offered by doctors for the regulation of periods is birth control, but for Zoe this results in the well-known side effect of depression. “So I’ll be in a excruciating pain or severely depressed – those are great options to choose from!” she sarcastically remarks. Fortunately, Zoe’s coach works her training load around the cycle; but the same cannot be done for scheduled races, requiring an extra level of pain tolerance in those unavoidable circumstances.

Continuing on the topic of women’s issues, Zoe recounts some shocking - albeit hilarious – anecdotes. At her first World Championships in Switzerland, there was a particular downhill feature with an unconventional but faster line through it. After eyeballing and carefully evaluating this more technical option, Zoe then witnessed it being used by non-other than 5x World Champion Julien Absalon. Naturally, she deemed it an optimal line for herself. Initially adverse to the challenge, the entire Australian team began using the line thanks to Zoe’s innate curiosity. While Zoe sessioned the line, a female coach from a competing country watched on in disapproval. “No! Not for girls,” the coach scolded, in front of her own two pupils. “That’s only a line for the boys.” It’s incredulous that a lack of belief in female riders’ abilities still persists, and particularly disheartening when it comes from those in positions of authority and influence.

Zoe has faced scrutiny due to her gender throughout her career.

Balancing gender in sport: 

With intrinsic and external barriers discouraging female participation in mountain biking, Zoe has dwelt on the issue of representation a fair amount. Involving girls at a young age is one important component of growing the sport in her opinion. The current culture of coaching and racing revolves predominantly around young boys – who are essential, but this invitation needs to extend to girls. “Once the girls get into the system and we can support them, we can have a lot more girls racing,” says Zoe. The topic of prize money inevitably enters here. While there are less girls racing, receiving lesser prizes only perpetuates the problem. “If they’re being punished because there’s less of them, it will just discourage them and there will be less again.” Exemplifying this lack of depth, Zoe’s first national season saw her competing against only one other girl. However, greater awareness has bolstered numbers and hope has been rekindled. “Now there’s tonnes of young girls coming up and they’re really quick… I think we’re moving in the right direction but we’ve definitely still got a ways to go.”

Zoe is a great role model for juniors to look up to.

As the evening wore on and my multifaceted discussion with Zoe drew to a close, I was left with the daunting task of surmising everything she had laid bare in front of my keyboard. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that our conversation had the same breadth as its subjects' journeys – as Zoe says about adventures, “it’s about the experience not the achievement at the end.” In any case, Zoe had shown herself in a new light as she retraced not only the highs, but also the lows of her young career. I began this interview viewing Zoe as a singular and enigmatic talent, with everything she touched turning to gold. All this remains accurate. However, there’s another dimension to her character, one of an ordinary girl experiencing the everyday struggles and barriers of all girls. It makes her unending search for new challenges all the more impressive, an inspiration for anyone on two wheels. Asked whether she will persevere with cementing her craft in different disciplines, “mentally, it’s what keeps me motived and what keeps me training hard.” So while she may become an Aussie cross-country icon, I doubt we can ever pigeon hole this renaissance rider.