Interview: Oli Beckingsale, cross-country racer

His demons, his hopes for London 2012, and his swan song

“It hasn’t been disastrous but it hasn’t been great either,” says Giant Factory Racing rider Oli Beckingsale pragmatically of the opening to his 2010 cross-country season.

“Last year I came off 2008, an amazing year [where he came 12th at the Olympics, 10th at the World Champs and ninth at the World Cup round in Val di Sole, Italy]. Then, rolling into 2009, I kinda had a bit of a hangover from the Olympics so I was steady, but I was prepared for that. The plan was to wind it up for this year.”

However, Oli's preparation stuttered just weeks before the opening round of the 2010 World Cup at Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire, when he became ill and missed a crucial pre-season training phase. “I think I was a bit too keen and overdid it,“ he reflects soberly. Although he raced, the two-week block of missed training saw him off the pace of his usual top-20 performance.

Oli went on to finish 37th, some 7min 6sec slower than the winner, Nino Schurter; a result that left the 34-year-old frustrated at not having performed well on home soil. Unfortunately for Oli, further bad luck was to come. He finished 40th at the second round in Houffalize, Belgium – on a sodden new course which he disliked for ruining the classic “Houff” experience – and Offenburg in Germany was even worse, as an unfixable mechanical forced him to retire mid-race.

Despite these setbacks, Oli is neither cowed nor beaten. “The game plan was to be really good at both the first World Cups and I messed that up,” he admits. “I’ve got some work to do in June and then I'll have to be back on it in July and August to be really good at the World Cup at Val di Sole – I got top 10 in the World Champs there so I want to be on it. Then there’s the Worlds at Mont-Sainte-Anne [Canada] and I want to do well there as I have some personal demons to put to bed in that place.”

Asked if he’ll again be targeting a top-10 finish at the Worlds, Oli is quick to dismiss any such speculation: “The plan is to go back over there and nail it [the course], the result is irrelevant,” he says emphatically. “It’s the quality of the ride I’m after as I don’t like riding like a dick.” He lets the last word hang in the air like a bad smell. Then, when it’s lingered long enough, he fills in the context to his exclamation.

“I had a really bad crash there [Mont-St-Anne in 2009] as I was struggling,” he explains. “There was a technical section and a bridge that had got covered in mud and didn’t have any chicken wire so it was super-slippery. I crashed and went over the netting, and a branch or a bungee stick stuck a 1.5in slice through my ear and into my head; a lot of blood and it hurt like hell. I didn’t finish that race and I was beat up.” Despite the drama, Oli doesn’t flirt with hyperbole and is quick to admit that “I was struggling before I did it because of the conditions and that’s why I crashed”.

If Oli needed a pick-me-up following his tough opening to the 2010 World Cup season then the third round of the British XC Series at Margam Park, South Wales at the end of May couldn’t have been timed better. Amid uncharacteristically cold and wet conditions, he put in a convincing performance to win by a clear 40 seconds ahead of Commonwealth gold medallist and reigning British National Champion Liam Killeen (himself coming back from the wilderness after a tough 2009 which saw him retire from the Trek World Racing team).

The result confirms Oli’s admission to BikeRadar just a few days prior to the race that he wanted "another pop" at the national champs jersey. Could it be that Oli is consciously downplaying his expectations, especially given that the 2012 London Olympics are beginning to loom large? “Long-term I want to get a ride in London in the Games,” he confirms without hesitation, “that’s the aim.” If he does make the team, it’ll be his fourth Olympics following Sydney (2000, where he placed 23rd) Athens (2004, 17th) and Beijing (2008,12th).

“I’ve been making steady progress,” he says of his Olympic record. “Last time my aim was to get into the top 10 and I was close – I was fighting on the very last climb for 10th.” Before he can hope to improve on this upward curve, he has to make it onto the Olympic team. And the best way for him to shorten the odds on that is to ensure that Team GB are allocated not the minimum one place – which is assumed to be Liam Killeen’s – but two or even possibly three.

“They’ve changed the way places are allocated by the IOC for the Olympics,” he explains. "It’s now a two-year points window [rather than the previous four] that runs from 23 May this year to 23 May 2012. So right now it’s about getting to races and scoring points. Last time there were two spots for Team GB but even then we were on the edge of just having one, so we have to work as a team to get points to earn places. Then we [Oli, Liam Killeen and Dave Fletcher] can fight for who gets those places.”

Oli is no stranger to chasing qualifying points and has done so in advance of every Olympics he’s competed at. But assuming the points are successfully chased down, and Oli again proves without doubt that he is worthy of one of the Olympic places, what then? From Oli’s reply it’s clear that he has given this much thought and intends – if he’s selected – to make the Olympic race his swan song: “If I get there that’ll be my last international race. Definitely,” he reveals. “I’d like to be in the shape of my life, race my heart out in that race and then retire. It’d be a cool way to go out.”

If things play out as Oli intends then his record fourth ride in consecutive Olympics will set up the prospect for a true fairytale finish to a career that began in 1998 when he turned pro. But can this fairytale genuinely come true, especially as the pro echelons of mountain bike racing are becoming increasingly competitive? This year different riders – Schurter, Jose Antonio Hermida, and Julien Absalon – have taken the first three World Cups, in stark contrast to 2008 when Absalon won all three before going on to win five of the nine World Cups as well as Olympic gold.

Just like Mont-St-Anne, Oli has unfinished business with the Olympics and he has the ability, the experience, and the mental resolve and drive to produce world-class results when it counts. But he’s never said he’ll take gold. While this must be an aim for any Olympian, he professes to be more concerned with the quality of his ride – a philosophy that has remained consistent through the years and one that he alluded to in an interview with BikeRadarprior to the Beijing Games in 2008.

“To be selected again means a chance to prove I can ride faster than I ever have done before," he said. "I want to ride in that top 10. I’ve got the legs and I know I have the ability to do that. I want to be part of that race. I don’t want to just ride round and finish, I want to be in the thick of things. If this is the last race I ever do, I want to make sure I’m proud of what I’ve done. If I can get old and go on club runs and tell people I raced well at the Olympics, I’ll be happy.”

At a time when the cycling world is again being rocked by allegations of performance enhancing drug abuse and now ‘mechanical doping’ too, Oli’s philosophy stands out as a refreshing, honest, and straight-talking counterpoint to all the duplicity and subterfuge. Indeed, on his own website he advises young riders quite simply that: “You only get out what you put in: cycling’s a sport with no shortcuts.” And he’s right.

Oli may not have become world champion, taken Olympic gold or won the World Cup overall but he’s succeeded in forging a long-lasting and successful (and ongoing) career as a pro mountain bike racer, has raced with and against many of the great racers elbow-to-elbow, and has climbed as high as 13th in the UCI world rankings. He's the reigning Commonwealth Games silver medallist; a five-time British national champion, six-time National Series champion and the current national marathon champion; has represented Britain at a record three Olympics; has placed in the top 10 at the World Champs twice; and has his eye on making history at London 2012.

Despite the disappointing start to his season, it's clear that he's far from done yet. He knows he is world class, knows he can go faster still and, fuelled by a palpable fire in his belly, is using his head by putting the work in to lay the foundations for his long-term goals. “The thing that motivates me,” he has written, “is to work hard at something and for it to work and be worthwhile.” And no matter what happens at the London Olympics, that list above already has to be worthwhile fodder for club-run anecdotes 10 years from now. An Olympic success would simply be the sweetest, most satisfying icing on the cake.

Oli at BikeRadar Live

Oli will be racing in the What Mountain Bike Dirt Crit Champs, powered by Rose Bikes, at BikeRadar Live on 10-11 July, and you can read his preview of the purpose-built course and his tips for success here.

Don’t miss it! 

Book online at www.bikeradar.com/live or call 0871 230 1085 (lines open 24 hours, calls cost 10p per minute) now!

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