Dan McConnell (my husband!) is the Australian XCO Champion, he has been racing internationally since his first Junior World Championships in 2002. He wasn’t such a stand out rider as a Junior but made his name with a huge break through in 2013 winning the famous World Cup in Albstadt. Dan grew up on a berry farm with his family in country town Bruthen, Victoria.
Bec McConnell: From late 2010 through to the end of 2017 only you and Burry Stander were able to break the World Cup winning streaks of Nino Schurter, Julien Absalon and Jaroslav Kulhavy. Together they dominated 46 World Cup races in a row between them excluding your Win in 2013 and Burry’s in 2012. How do you reflect on that?
Dan McConnell: Yeah. It was a pretty crazy time in my life. Those guys were untouchable for so long so it was amazing to be among that company.
Obviously winning that World Cup in Albstadt in 2013 has been your biggest career success (so far) refresh our memory and yours about that day.
I’m not sure where to start about that day. It was my first World Cup racing for Trek Factory so I really wanted to prove myself, I had had a really good lead up winning a few races but realistically I was aiming for a top 20 which would have been my best world cup result in Europe to date. The race was everything I hated about racing; wet, horrendously muddy, freezing conditions but for some reason mentally I was just ready.
I just had a super smooth race, made sure I looked after my bike in the crazy muddy conditions and kept focused. I remember rolling onto Sergio Mantecon’s wheel just before the finish straight, the amount of adrenaline pumping through my body was ridiculous, I was in 2nd but nothing was going to stop me getting to that line first as I knew that opportunities like that don’t just come around or get handed out. I didn’t even feel my legs the last meters, it was just disbelief.
You went on to finish 2nd in the World Cup overall that year and 3rdin the World Cup overall the following year in 2014. Was it winning that World Cup that gave you the confidence to race at the at that level or what changed?
Its really hard to put your finger on just one thing, everything just clicked. Riding for Trek was way more of a Rockstar life (especially where we were coming from), and I loved it. It just seemed that nothing could go wrong and I was just riding the wave. In those years I was on the podium more than not, you won the U23 world cup and we were just high on life.
After your four most successful seasons you were dropped with little notice from the Trek Factory Racing team, did that come as a surprise to you and do you feel like it hurt your confidence going into the next season?
Yeah, it was a total bombshell. We had talks with Trek during the World Cup season and the manager said all is good moving forward. So to be dropped in late November by email was probably one of the biggest hits we have had to take, it left us with no time to find a new team. When the mountain bike World Cup is such a close knit family and the racing is one big rolling circus it definitely left a sour taste in my mouth and is something that still gets me upset. I really loved my time with Trek, from the engineers to the race shop it was a great vibe and a big family, its sad that just a few people take advantage of their power.
With no financial support we were able to scrape things together for the 2017 season, it was an expensive and exhausting year but it also proved to us that we do it for the right reasons. How hard did you find that season?
It was a super tough season to put together and in many ways we had already burnt a lot of candles before the season had started but we did what we had to do to stay on the circuit, follow our dreams and ultimately that paid off signing with PMX in 2018.
Do you have any regrets or things you would do differently looking back?
Of course there are things I would do different but I think the important thing is that you learn from your mistakes and really try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
You’ve been racing overseas since 2002 and spend about half a year, every year away from home chasing your dreams and goals. That’s about 7-8 years you’ve spent offshore chasing the racing circus. Has it been worth it?
Totally, I’ve been doing this for a long time now but I still love what I do. For sure you go through some hard times, being an athlete is hard and 99% of people don’t really understand how hard it is. It’s a 24/7 job where you don’t get to slacken off even after training is done, you still have to be strict with your diet, sleeping routines not to mention the weather. Sporting life at the top end doesn’t wait for anybody.
I have always said that I will race until I lose the will to hurt and no longer have fun so at least until 2021 its full focus to be the best I can be.
The Olympic Games have been postponed, you’re looking at your fourth Olympic Games next year. What is it about the Olympic Games that is so special for you?
The Olympics for me are the pinnacle of sport. My mum went to the Olympics for Athletics, I grew up watching them and it was always a goal of mine. Once you have been to one you really don’t want to miss out again, so although the games have been postponed until next year I’m still focused and really hope to put my best foot forward. It would be amazing to make it to my fourth games, currently Australia hasn’t 100% qualified a spot in the men so I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure we get a spot. I think it’s so important for the sport in Australia and gives so much exposure and dreams to the riders of the future.
There are so many challenges as an athlete, getting the perfect balance with training, recovery, nutrition etc. Your self-coached and have been since 2012/13, when most athletes have a coach why do you prefer to coach yourself. There are obviously good and bad parts to that. How do the positives outweigh the negatives and how do you overcome the self-doubt when things aren’t going to plan?
I’m not going to lie, its tough but I really feel for me that it works super well. I have seen so many mistakes that coaches in Australia make in XC racing because haven’t seen the changes in XC over the last 5-10 years. I went from being ranked outside the top 50 to 3rd in the World the year I changed to myself so I think that speaks for itself.
On top of coaching yourself, you also coach me. Do you feel extra pressure and stress with that added role or do you prefer to have that control and guidance knowing I am in good hands?
I do feel the pressure for sure, more so now that you’re the 3rd fastest rider in the World but at the same time we can really hone in on you. I train with you everyday, see your mental and physical attitude on the bike and around the house and we can talk openly about everything not to mention change the programs last minute which is really important while travelling or at other times when you need flexibility.
You’ve always had to juggle my racing and yours but this year was a little more stressful for you when I was racing in podium positions. How do you try to stay relaxed and stick to your pre race routine or do you just get excited and run with it?
This is one of the challenges for me and on a few occasions this year my nerves watching RedBull TV was too much and I would have to get track side! We have been doing this for a long time now so I have learnt that a written time line before the race works well for me.
We’ve heard it time and time again that you shouldn’t coach me, that I’m holding you back by training with you. Does this ever get to you and why do you think our way of training works for both of us?
I think the people who say this don’t understand us and our dynamic and maybe should worry about their own back yard.
You haven’t had your BEST years recently, which isn’t easy when you set the bar so high. Why do you think that is and what have you been doing differently? Or what will you do differently to keep fighting to be back to where you know you can be?
Yeah, its been a tough few years results wise. I think that I have had the form on occasion in the last years but never consistent enough. You need to have all things line up perfect to be anywhere near the front and I just haven’t been able to do that in the last few years. I feel that I have been building really well that last 12 months. After a nervous start I now feel very comfortable in the PMX team and mentally the race brain is back to where it needs to be so for the first time in a few years I think I can get back towards the top.
With so many travel adventures and races behind you, what are your most fond memories?
This question is impossible to answer. I have experienced so many amazing experiences from my first years travelling with the national team and the notorious tripod to watching to you win a medal at worlds. Its been amazing! Many of my fondest memories are not race related, but from unexpected shenanigans that happen when travelling on a shoestring budget in foreign countries.
Speaking of adventures, we have had some crazy times and dealing with things over the years that professional athletes wouldn’t usually have to deal with, what do you think is one of the most unfortunate but funny situations you’ve found yourself in?
We have had so many weird, bizarre and strange experiences. We had a deal with a 4-5 star hotel chain which was amazing, the problem was we couldn’t afford to eat there so we would smuggle our gas bottle and cooker into these flash rooms and cook in our rooms. We have also gone to check into our hotel room at 2000m altitude for the World Championships but the hotel left the key inside the building that was locked. The car was so full we were forced to sleep on a cardboard box next to the car, it was freezing! Perfect race prep!
You come from Australia, we have a strong downhill background but don’t have consistent high performances in XCO, why do you think this is and how have you been Australia’s only successful male XCO racer in the last 10 years? Why have you been able to do something that other Aussies can’t?
That’s the million dollar question. I think coming from Australia is the first challenge, if you don’t get on a team straight out of juniors it’s an expensive exercise to live in Europe following the races. With no national funding or pathway it seems much easier to jump across to skinny tires and ride for a team nationally.
For me I just love the MTB and I never gave up on my dream, Australia has the talent in XC it just has to find a pathway that makes it possible for our young riders to spend bulk time in Europe. We also need to find ways for more elite level training and XC specific expertise and guidance.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
The biggest challenges for me have been trying to find a way through to get onto a Pro team, it took many years of hard work, building relationships within the circuit and always following my dream. I was 27 when that dream came reality and it was totally worth all the sacrifice. It’s so great to see now some of the young fast guys we have getting that chance and I just hope that I have given them that extra motivation that it can be done.