Words by Haley Smith
“With two laps to go, I was sitting in 6th with a 30 second gap to the podium. I’d been chasing solo the entire race, and on that penultimate lap, the gap started to shrink. I knew this was it - go now or forever wonder. 1 lap to go and the gap was down to 14 sec. I charged so hard, and bridged up to Jolanda and Sina, when the three of us collectively moved into 3-4-5. I made one pass and then gave it everything in the final 5 minutes to move into 3rd. I crossed the line in a mix of disbelief and elation. New horizons have been uncovered. I wonder what’s possible now?”
Nearly a year on, I can still close my eyes and recall May 26th with perfect clarity. I was in Nove Mesto Na Morave with my team for the second round of the World Cup. The morning dawned clear and warm, the fields of mustard seed were vibrant and still. I woke up early, as is my habit on race morning, went for a walk, did some yoga, and began to prepare for my race.
Nothing was different or exceptional about the day, except perhaps my attitude. I felt optimistic, bright, and had no pressure. I was carrying a lot of confidence from the previous week's World Cup in Germany, where I had my first Euro top 10 (finishing 9th). I had nothing to lose or protect, and was excited to see what I could do.
I had a second row start and chose the far left of the grid (I told you I could picture it like it was yesterday) and had a fantastic start. Within the first 100m, the pavement opened up in front of me, and I actually took the lead, riding on the front two-up with Annie Last. We hit the dirt and I paid for my enthusiasm a little bit, cresting the first major climb in about 11th. Still, I wasn’t discouraged; I was stuck-in and fully focused on competing.
Luckily, I had a smooth start lap. I avoided two separate crashes in front of me which, though they slowed me down, was evidence that Lady Luck was smiling on me today. With the crashes and a bit of single file traffic, I came around the start loop within the top 10, 45 seconds behind the leaders.
The first half of the race was steady. I mostly rode in 7th/8th, at a good rhythm and pretty smoothly. But on lap 4 of 6, I noticed something… the women I was riding around had begun to tire and fade, whereas I was getting stronger.
The course in Nove Mesto suits me well. It is a power course, all about rhythm and demanding a relentless focus. You have to attack everything, putting out countless micro accelerations. In a way, it’s like riding in Ontario, where the pace is always some degree of “on” as you fight to earn your momentum.
By the time the final lap rolled around, I just knew I could achieve a podium. I’d been watching my gap to the top 5 come down all race: on the second last lap, I’d pulled 16 seconds out of a 30 second gap. I knew I could find those remaining 14 seconds. Or at least, I knew it was worth a try.
What I didn’t know was how quickly I’d be able to make up that gap. Within 2 or 3 minutes, I had caught Sina and Jolanda in 4th and 5th place. In that first quarter lap, I passed my team manager in the feed zone for the final time. He calmly gave me a, “Let’s go, Hales”. No injection of emotion - just continue to do your job.
On the first challenging technical climb of the lap, the three of us passed Anne Tauber, who had been leading but was having mechanical problems. Before the top of that climb, I passed Jolanda as well - I knew I wanted to descend before her. Sina had a second or two on me, but I dug in and passed her on the ensuing main climb of the lap. I was hurting so much - suffering - but that pain was secondary to the outcome I had a chance of realizing. All of a sudden, I was in 3rd. On the final climb, I could see Rebecca in second, but had run out of real estate. The final 5 minutes, all I could think about was, “Just ride the trail. Don’t get to the finish line before your body.” Revisiting old footage, I know that my teammates and friends were screaming and shouting, but nothing penetrated my zone of focus.
If you watched the race, you know what that finish meant to me in the moment. I may have unintentionally dropped a cuss word in my excitement. Sorry about that, eh? It was a spectacular moment. Less of a finish line than a realization that a whole new field of play had become open to me. I had unlocked a new level of potential within myself.
The aftermath of the race is less clear in my mind than the lead up and the race itself. I guess that says something about what parts of our sport are fulfilling for me. I like the “doing” rather than the acknowledgement and celebration that come afterwards. That said, I won’t ever forget the faces of my fiancé, coach, manager, physio, and friends waiting at the finish line. And I will always cherish the moments of private quiet I had in the following days, reflecting on my personal sense of achievement.
For some reason, I don’t have a medal from that day (there weren’t any in the ceremony) and Redbull’s coverage didn’t include my own personal ascent during the race, but none of that external stuff really matters. I can close my eyes and still taste, feel and see the wealth of emotion and aliveness I experienced that day. You can bet those memories are providing a lot of motivation right now.
Haley Smith and the Norco Factory team will return to Nove Mesto for two rounds of the 2020 UCI MTB World Cup on September 28 - October 4.