By Susan Westemeyer
Irina Kalentieva came originally from the little-known Russian province of Chuvash to conquer the world – the world of mountain biking. She won the World Championship title in cross country last year in Fort William, and will look to defend that title next week in Val di Sole, Italy. She has lived in Germany for the past five years.
Talking with the 30 year-old, one is struck by how often she mentions her motivation, leading to the question, does she ride with her head as much as with her legs? "My head – the motivation – is the most important. All the riders have good legs, good training, we are all equal physically. Five or six of us, all the same," she said. "But the one who will win in the end is the one who is strongest in the head, who thinks positively. For me, I use my head a lot in racing, for example in tactics." She continued, "In the World Championships, all are strong and it is very difficult, but I tell myself that I can do it. That is my strength."
That was also how the Topeak Ergon racer won the World title last year. "It was something very special, all the strongest riders in the world were there, even (Gunn-Rita) Dahle Flesjå (Multivan Merida). It was very special. I thought I could finish in the top three. The course was very good for me, the downhill, everything worked out 100 percent.
"I had the strongest motivation to win and to become World Champion, that helped. Perhaps I was no stronger than the others, but with this motivation ... that I one day wanted to become World Champion, that helped" to bring her the title.
Winning that title was the best moment in her career. The worst moment was four years ago, in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. "I got sick two days before the race. We figured on a medal and then I got sick. I rode anyway, and finished 13th out of 32, fever and all. I could have died, but that didn't matter."
The Russian is from Norwash-Shigalj in the Russian province of Chuvash, which is located in the Volga region not far from Nijnij Novgorod. Why did she make the long trip to Aalen, Germany, and end up living there? I wanted to go to Europe because there are so many races there, World Cup or Bundesliga," she said. "All of my main rivals are in Europe. It is perfect for preparation and for taking part in races. I can watch my rivals closely and change my training plans quickly when I need to."
The proximity to the races has been good for her. In 2007 she won the World Championships, the World Cup and four World Cup races. She was second in the recent European Championships in St. Wendel, Germany, as she also was in the 2006 worlds in Rotorua, New Zealand. She has been Russian national champion seven times, and is the five-time winner of the German National Series (Bundesliga).
There is another advantage to living in Germany, and that is that "it is much easier to go mountain biking in Germany than in Russia. Here in Germany there are many bike paths, where you can ride away from the autos, and in the forest, too, where you can train in peace and quiet. In Russia there is only the road, and no special trails for mountain bikers. It is much too dangerous to train there."
Kalentieva started out in track and field and tried cyclo-cross before turning to mountain biking in 1993. Her change came about this way: "Our city bought two mountain bikes for the athletes. We got one, that is, our team's trainer got one. Then I just started riding it. I liked it a lot, it was something special, and I really enjoyed it a lot, this technique. That's when I decided: I want to ride mountain bikes."
Read the complete feature.