Last week was an amazing week for pro mountain biker Max Plaxton (Specialized). It all started when he defended his Canadian cross country national championship title. A few days later, he was named to the Canadian Olympic team, and he finished the week off by stepping onto the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup podium for the first time in his career after finishing fifth in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, Canada.
"This year I set myself a goal to get one [World Cup] podium leading into the Olympics for confidence. Now that I achieved that, I'll continue to train harder than ever for the next three to four weeks leading into it," said Plaxton to Cyclingnews. "It's a huge honor to be top five in the World Cup. There aren't that many guys missing. Maybe [Julien] Absalon and one other, so it's a pretty legit podium."
It was extra special for Plaxton to step onto his first podium at the only World Cup in Canada. The achievement came after the last World Cup in La Bresse, France, where he finished ninth.
Plaxton's first World Cup at Mont-Sainte-Anne was in 2004, when he finished in the top 15. "I have good memories of here. I've been racing awhile and the fans were pushing me up those switchbacks... not literally of course, but they were cheering."
"It was a tough course and I think a lot of guys were kind of scared of the course. Living in Victoria on the west coast, we train in this stuff every day of the winter. I was telling myself to 'just get on the trail and have a smooth start and just ride your race'."
When asked about his new-found success at the highest level, he said, "Part of it is confidence and getting my training down and figuring out what works for me. The last years have been building each year. It was the goal to be on the podiums at the World Cup. I think I have decent talent and can ride a mountain bike pretty well but it takes time to get to this level. A few years ago, I knew I wanted to be here, but I knew it would take a few years."
Plaxton said the two recent top 10 results have shifted his outlook. "Now, that's where I expect myself to be. Now it's the podium. I think I belong on this group and I hope to continue to show that I do."
He has been steadily working his way up the ranks for years, having done well at Canadian national-level races as well as the US Pro XCT. Plaxton, who is coached by Dan Proulx, said it was hard for some to understand why he was good at the US Pro XCT, but took more time to be competitive nearer to the top of the World Cup ranks.
"I dominated Pro XCT and it's tough. To guys on the outside, I was beating guys like Geoff [Kabush] and Todd [Wells], who have podiumed at World Cups before. Then I'd get to the World Cups and I'd not have the best result. I haven't been on a World Cup team. I've been on a North American team my whole career so I've had more domestic support. Fortunately, the Canadian national team and Specialized North America, we've made it work, but I'd like to get the full World Cup support."
He has also learned to moderate his race efforts. "Back in my earlier days, I'd blow up a lot. That's something I try to avoid now," he said. "I didn't have the best start - losing 45 seconds on the first lap. I think if I could not lose so much on the first lap, I could finish even higher." Racers who get better starts save energy by not having to pass as many people.
Plaxton is in Windham, New York for this weekend's World Cup, then he heads home to Victoria to train. After that it's the final World Cup in Val d'Isere, France and the Olympic Games in London.
"It's a huge honor. I crossed the first goal off the list of making the team. Now I will focus on making the best race I can."
Making the team wasn't easy with a tough spring campaign of qualifying World Cups. "People put so much weight on the Olympics and making the Olympics. I got caught up in it sometimes. The early World Cups weren't going great and everyone was like 'Olympics and if I chose a team, Max would not be on it'. I knew that wasn't where I belonged - I had some bad results, and I was confident it would come together."
It will be Plaxton's first Olympic Games, but he's not letting it overwhelm him. "I've been in the sport a long time and I will treat it like any big race."