Between the Tape
Last issue I looked at the benefits of using sport science to excel at mountain biking, and how a few European countries were leveraging the benefits of funding to push into the future, but it isn’t really the whole story. The top twenty of the World Cup is consistently filled by the ‘go-to’ Euro nations, France, Switzerland et cetera. But the top twenty isn’t full of Euros. One elite man that is taking it to the Euros is the ‘pride of Brazil’, Henrique Avancini.
The year 2018 has been a stellar year for the Brazilian with a strong showing at the Cape Epic with team mate Manuel Fumic, consistent placings in the World Cup and a win at the Andorran short- course World Cup. The crowning achievement was his amazing victory at the Marathon World Championships. This consistently strong year proved that Henrique is one of the top riders in the world. But it is where this consistency was built that is the real story and in some respects his real crowning achievement.
Henrique’s story has a lot of similarities to the stories of Australian riders. A rider from a faraway land that sold his belongings to travel to Europe and chase the dream. Henrique was an ok junior and as an U23 he wasn’t bad, but it was racing on an Italian road team where he realised things weren’t going to fall in place. In an interview for aCrosstheCountry.com he even spoke of his team manager at the time, around 2011, telling him he might want to go back to Brazil as he might not have what it takes to be a top rider.
This was a real turning point for Henrique as he had to admit he didn’t have the talent of other riders. It was a turning point, not in terms of quitting or continuing, but of how to continue. He decided to work harder, he didn’t have the ‘talent’ so he was going to work harder than anyone. In my last Between the Tape, I wrote ‘working hard wins one race, knowing what to work hard at wins two’, and Henrique alludes to this in terms of balance.
He had worked hard, he could be strong at one race, but he couldn’t be a consistent performer until he put everything together. That is, being physically fit, technically great and at the same time mentally balanced. This all came together in 2016 when he started working with a psychologist alongside Cannondale Factory Racing’s performance manager, Phil Dixon. This helped him step up in terms of racing, but also step over the mental gap of coming from a country outside the established mountain bike nations. An idea Australians can relate to.
It can be hard going to Europe and living on the road for up to 6 months, knowing the people you’re versing can go home at the end of the weekend while you’re travelling on to the next booked accommodation. Henrique does say it annoys him that Brazilian athletes sometimes place themselves below Europeans when they come to Europe given the Europeans have better training facilities and opportunities. He also speaks of the generation gap with reference to Switzerland where they have had three generations of top tier athletes in Thomas Frischknecht, Christoph Sauser and now Nino Schurter. This has helped build a knowledge base that must be overcome by other nations.
The key point throughout the interview as well as in Henrique’s comments on his Instagram is that he might have been behind, in terms of talent and resources, but that didn’t stop him. He built what he didn’t have. The fitness, the ability to work hard, the team around him to achieve what he wanted. It was never they’re ahead and that is that, it was they’re ahead, how do I catch up?
On September 10, the Monday after the XCO World Champs, Henrique put up an Instagram picture from the start of the World Champs with him in the middle and four swiss riders around him. The caption, translated from Portuguese (thanks to Google Translate), said,
“I definitely do not have what these guys have. I’m not one of them... The only certainty I have is that my path, where I came from and how far I’ve come, brought me something that these guys will never have. Any disadvantage I’ve had in the past will be my biggest advantage in the future. You do not have to be exceptional to do something extraordinary.”
That weekend he went on to become the first Brazilian MTB World Champion by winning the Marathon World Champs. Extraordinary!