The Australian duo with the CX factor! – Bike Magazine Australia

Photos: Kurt van Hout

Locke (the 2016 Australian national champion) and Williams (winner of the 2016 NCXS series) recently spent six weeks competing against the best female riders on the planet – culminating in the World Championships in Luxembourg. It was an incredible journey, both literally and metaphorically, not least because they both only took up cyclocross seriously about one year ago.

Williams, who hails from Tasmania, started riding BMX at the age of nine, then progressed through the Australian Institute for Sport into road and track racing, before switching her focus to mountain bikes. Locke, a firefighter in Melbourne, began as a triathlete, then moved into road racing and later scored a series of impressive results in marathon mountain bike events.

But, for 2016, the pair fancied yet another change and decided to concentrate solely on CX – with sensational returns as they dominated the Aussie domestic season and claimed the two big prizes between them.

Locke says: “I’ve been doing cycling since I was about 17 and have been interested in cyclocross probably for the past three or four years. Other commitments have kept us away from being able to do it, but last year we just decided to have a bit of a crack because it looked like a lot of fun.

“I wish I had started three or four years ago because it’s a lot of fun and we’ve really enjoyed racing and the atmosphere and the people – it’s been fantastic. I was interested in it because it’s a shorter discipline and is easily accessible. I work shift-work as a firefighter which makes it difficult sometimes to travel to other types of bike races and compete,” she adds. “CX just looked like so much fun and my first experience of it was fantastic, like nothing I have ever experienced before in other events.”

Locke had actually ridden in the 2015 Australian national cyclocross championships after making a last-minute decision to enter, which resulted in using a bike loaned to her from a friend at work. Finishing fifth with virtually no preparation was a portent of what was to come with extra dedication.

However, the dynamic duo admit that it was a steep learning curve given the technical nature of CX. Unlike many cycling events, where pure fitness is often the crucial element, in cyclocross the races are often won and lost depending on the level of skill in terms of mounting and dismounting the bike, bunny-hopping over barriers or riding the deep ruts that can develop on the course.

And while a certain degree of technique was needed during the Australian domestic season, the bar went up an astronomical amount of notches when racing against the very best from Europe.

“I realise from racing bikes for a long time that things hurt. But I never realised how much pain you can feel when you ride a bike for 95 per cent of your heart-rate for 45 minutes or an hour,” Locke says. “That’s definitely been a learning curve and also a change in the structure of training because I am very much a diesel engine. That’s been good and a nice challenge for me.

“And then we have to learn about all the different types of courses and how to corner properly, especially in Europe. For me personally I almost have to race the first couple of laps to work out what is the fastest way of doing each section. A lot of the other girls probably already know that instinctively, whereas I’m learning while I’m in the race.

“It’s a bit scary how fast we’ve progressed in CX. I think we’d done about 14 races in the sport up to the point where we were about to ride in the World Championships!” And Williams echoes the fact that in cyclocross it’s possible to lose huge amounts of time if your bike skills are not up to scratch.

She and Locke are coached by former men’s national CX champion Chris Jongewaard, but after just one year in the sport there is still so much for them to learn.

“We still struggle a bit with getting on and off the bikes during the races,” Williams admits. “We are both carrying injuries from years of racing. Bec has a bit of a bad hip and I’ve got a bit of a bad lower back. So getting on and off the bike is not the nicest thing we have to do. It’s something we maybe try to avoid. But the reality is that there are plenty of times when it is better to get off the bike and run because it will be faster.

“Our mounting and dismounting is not great to be honest. We do a funny little shuffle when we get back on, whereas the pros in Europe do it in one really awesome smooth movement. We’re still trying to learn how to do that and even carrying the bike is difficult for us because it just doesn’t come automatically for us yet. Every time we race we probably do it a bit differently, but we are getting there.”

The point was really rammed home once they qualified for the World Championships in Luxembourg and decided to travel over to Belgium more than a month in advance to take part in a full winter campaign in Europe.

They were suddenly up against superstar female riders such as Marianne Vos and Sanne Cant and every little error was punished hard. “I was in a race and had a great start and was up at the pointy end on the first lap,” Williams recalls. “Then we hit the mud and I tried to ride it and promptly got passed by lots of people running with their bikes.

“You have to really think about what you need to do. Even if you know you can ride through a certain section, it might be much quicker to run. You really notice that in Europe and you have to think on your feet really quickly. Sometimes there might be traffic in front of you and that means it’s better and quicker to jump off the bike and run. 

“Thinking fast in the race has been difficult because it takes a while to get used to the intensity. We’ve probably made mistakes in terms of getting on and off the bike quickly and at the right times. It’s one of those repetitive things that you just get better at the more you do it.”

Instead of winning nearly every race in Australia, Williams and Locke had to get used to finishing 40th or 50th in Europe. Although that could have been completely disheartening to some people, the pair were determined to learn every lesson from every single race to make them better riders going forward.

Locke sums it up perfectly as she says: “In Australia we were racing to win, whereas in Europe we are racing to finish. That’s the difference.

“The European girls have been racing for so long and have so much experience that it’s really difficult to come over from Australia and compete in Europe.” Williams adds: “Because of our lack of UCI points we started at the back of the field in every race over in Europe. That means we have to work our way through a lot of riders just to pick up a good result and get more points. That’s been the case for all the Australians that have come over here in the past few years.

“Most of the top five or ten in the world were in many of the races we entered. The European professionals have just been racing at a higher level from a much younger age. The level they are at is insane! And we’re not professionals, we are amateurs. We fit our training around other commitments. We don’t have a huge support team just doing stuff for us.”

And that’s why Locke and Williams are keen to help cyclocross go from strength to strength in Australia now they have returned home to prepare for another domestic season. That’s the only way that they – and younger Aussie riders coming through – will ever be able to seriously challenge big names such as Vos and Cant in the future.

But they are confident that the sport will continue to flourish and point to the fact that other disciplines faced similar problems in the past before the famous Aussie spirit saw competitors in the green and gold battle their way on the top step of the podium.

Williams says: “We want to help grow CX in Australia and maybe it will be like the road racing was. Australians used to come over to Europe in the mid 1990s, especially the women, and just finish in the middle of the pack. But then by the start of the 2000s we had riders regularly in the top three in the world and even No.1 (Oenone Wood and Anna Millward). So it shows that you have to start somewhere.”

Locke agrees and believes cyclocross is definitely on an upward trend Down Under. “Australia is improving and maybe in the next five or ten years we can take that next step,” she says. “It has been a slow progression, but this year in Australia they were getting 500 people turning up for some races and that is just unheard of. So it’s been getting better definitely. They are doing such a great thing at the moment.

“They’ve been improving gradually and last year there were more races – and I think the more racing we have the better. It’s just hard sometimes to secure locations and also to put on events from a financial point of view. But if we can get some awesome courses and add a few more races then I think the sport will really grow.”

And after learning so much from their time in Europe, what specific improvements could be made to CX in Australia? Williams is sure she has at least one brilliant plan to get the sport buzzing.

“The one thing we’d love to bring to Australia as a new idea is the disco tent, which really goes off at events in Europe,” she explains.

“You’ll be riding around on the course and the crowd is going crazy, but then you come to the disco tent and all you can hear is ‘Douff, douff, douff’ with the DJ playing and it is packed out. I reckon that could definitely work in some places in Australia!”