Australia’s Olympic mountain biking couple helping each other to new heights | Tokyo Olympic Games 2020

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Canberra couple Dan and Bec McConnell don’t need to go on holidays together. Instead, they go to the Olympics every four (or five) years, plus annual trips to world championships at exotic locations around the globe. This week the married pair will represent Australia in the mountain bike cross-country races, a fourth Olympic appearance for Dan and third for Bec.

“It’s an absolute privilege to be here with my husband,” says Bec. “It’s my third Olympics and he’s been at all three of those with me.” The feeling is mutual. “It’s pretty amazing,” says Dan. “This is our third Games together. We never really expected to be able to do that. Just to make the Olympics once was a big achievement.”

But the McConnells are more than just a pair of mountain bikers who happen to be married. The Canberra duo are also training partners and Dan coaches Bec. “Sometimes we have our moments as far as coaching goes,” she laughs.

By working together, the pair have helped each other to great heights. “To be able to go out training [with him] is a huge help for me,” says Bec. “It’s easy for him to pick up on places where I can improve, where I’m not going as fast or as smooth as I could be, that’s super helpful for us. And there’s time where I can also help him improve.”

Bec also takes care of the paperwork involved with being globe-trotting athletes, which has only piled up since the pandemic prompted Australia to slam its borders shut. “There has been a lot of things to get done – even just to get out of the country involves more paperwork,” says Dan. “I’m pretty lucky Bec takes care of most of that stuff, so it’s pretty easy for me.”

Neither McConnell has secured a medal at the seven Olympic appearances between them. Dan finished 39th in his debut in Beijing, improved to 21st in London and was sitting inside the top three on the opening lap in Rio, before a broken wheel ended his chances and saw him end in 16th. But the 35-year-old has mountain bike pedigree; he finished second overall at the 2013 UCI World Cup and won bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. A medal on Monday afternoon in the 28.25-kilometre race outside Tokyo, at the Izu MTB course, is not out of the question.

“I probably haven’t had the best races previously at the Olympics – I’ve had a little bit of bad luck with mechanicals and what not,” he says. “Coming into here just the last few weeks things have started to click pretty nicely.”

Dan McConnell in action at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Dan McConnell in action at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Bec, meanwhile, is a strong podium prospect. She placed 25th in London and had to withdraw mid-race in Rio due to an injury. But the 29-year-old has won bronze medals at the consecutive world championships, in Canada in 2019 and in Austria last year. The women’s 24.2-kilometre race is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Bec says she is trying to avoid the pressure that comes with high expectations. “You have to be a pretty special character – or extremely confident – to be feeling confident about a podium at the Olympics,” she says. “I’ve had a good season so far, and the last two world championships have gone amazingly, but I’m definitely not putting any pressure or expectations on a result. I really just want to come away happy with my race. For anybody to get a medal, things have to go perfectly. I’ve had some bad experiences at the Olympics, too. I just want to go in with an open mind and do what I can.”

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One factor that could influence both races is the weather. The course at Izu is technically challenging. “Big rock-boulder drops, jumps and stuff – it’s probably one of the most difficult mountain bike courses that we’ve seen,” says Bec. If it rains, the course could become it treacherous. A typhoon is currently heading towards Japan’s east-coast, and is expected to make landfall on Tuesday. It could bring with it up to 150 millimetres of rain.

“We were here for the test event in 2019 and the course didn’t hold up that well with just a small amount of rain,” says Bec. “Then we came here expecting a lot of rain which we haven’t had yet. At the moment it’s very dusty but it could change quite quickly. There are a lot of sections that would become quite dangerous when the wet mud goes onto the rocks and then it becomes super slippery. It’s just about having the right equipment and being mentally ready for whatever could happen with the course.”

Since mountain bike cross country racing made its Olympics debut in 1996, Australia has never won a medal. Without prominent competitive success, the sport has languished behind road and track cycling for high performance funding and support in Australia, despite a large participation base. Whatever the weather brings this week, the McConnells will be hoping for the best.

“I would love to [win Australia’s first medal],” says Bec. “That would be amazing. It’s going to take a big change, a big result, to put mountain bike on the map in Australia, to get the sport the support it needs. I think the fact that we have not medalled at the Olympics Games is probably an indication of issues within the sport. The development pathway is just not there. Of course I would love to be able to change that. But these aren’t things I think about too much – I’m just focusing on only the part that I can control.”



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