Three-time Olympian Oli Beckingsale started his 2010 season off with a win at the opening round of the British Cross Country Series at Sherwood Pines at the end of March. The 33-year-old racer for Team Giant is looking forward to a full season of cross country races, but he also intends to apply much of his training and racing focus this season to marathons.
"I did marathon worlds for the first time last year. It was a steep learning curve," said Great Britian's Beckingsale of the race in Graz, Austria. "I'd never even done an international-level marathon before that. I went into it open minded to learn.
"I didn't know how the marathon race would take shape," he added. "I didn't know about the intensity or the pacing. I knew what I could do, but not what others would do. It was more intense than I thought it would be.
"I was in good shape and climbing very well. I was in the front group, from third through sixth places, with good legs, so then I decided to go for it, but it didn't work out. I died, but I learned a lot. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done." A puncture didn't help either, but he attributed his 23rd place finish to "flat legs, not the puncture".
Beckingsale, who lives in Bristol, went into the race as the British national marathon champion, and he is aiming to defend his title again this year, en route to another shot at the worlds, this time in St. Wendel, Germany.
"I enjoy the marathon races. It's something I've always wanted to do more of, but with the Olympic cross country format as my focus, I haven't wanted to do both for fear of doing two things badly," he said.
However, Beckingsale has some time before he has to be in peak Olympic cross country form, so he'll mix cross country and marathon this season. He prefers marathons on the European continent and will aim to race several of them. "Marathons are better in Europe because at home, we have to do laps," he explained.
This year, Beckingsale will skip the cross country World Cup round in Champery, Switzerland, to focus on doing well in the marathon worlds. "I don't like missing World Cups, but I've done it before and it's worked out," he said.
The move toward more marathons doesn't mean Beckingsale's heart isn't still in cross country racing. "If I didn't race any cross country and only did marathons, I'd miss them. The marathons are something different. I like racing fast, so I like cross country better. I have no intention of riding for hours and hours and hours slowly. For marathons, I like them because you get out there on one big loop in the mountains - there are no laps.
"I don't go to races and ride around. I go to race to race," he added. "My favorite races in the world are cross country, one-lap races. If I could re-invent mountain biking, that's how I'd do it."
The format was popular in the early days of mountain bike racing in the United States, and many traditional, domestic races have continued in this vein for 20-plus years. Beckingsale pointed to the Roc d'Azur as one of his favorite events and explained why.
"It's a 2.25-hour, one loop race," he said. "Every year, I don't pre-ride. I race it blind. I'm not quite sure of everything and it's really fun to race it at cross country speed."
The downside to the World Cup-type of cross country racing according to Beckingsale is that: "To bring in spectators, you have to shorten the course and then we are basically racing a summer cyclo-cross".
Experience pays off
Through his years of racing on the international circuit, Beckingsale has gained some perspective on mountain biking and his potential.
"I'm not an overall athlete. I've been in the sport long enough that I know my limitations," he said. "If I get everything right, I can place in the top 10 in the biggest races in the world.
"I can do the whole (World Cup) series and come away with 10th or 12th overall, but at this stage of my career, I'd rather pick the best races for me and do the best I can. If you're outside the top five, I don't think that people really consider the overall World Cup a success," he said. "You're better off having good single day results and wins than consistency."
The other races that he will focus on in 2010 include the first two World Cups in Dalby, Great Britain, and in Houffalize, Belgium. He also hopes to do well at the World Cup in Val di Sole, Italy.
"Heubach and Roc d'Azur are also two big one-day races that suit my strengths," he said. "Smaller targets for me include the United Kingdom's national championships in Redding. I haven't won in a few years. I had the British title in 2007, and Liam (Killeen) and I were battling the past few years."
Nonetheless, Beckingsale has still claimed five national cross country titles during his career thus far. "I don't think I'm getting any slower. I think I get faster by using my experience better. You learn until the day you stop in this game," he said.
Countdown to Dalby
Beckingsale has played an important role in the development of the Dalby cross country World Cup, which will happen on April 25. "I've had a reasonable amount of input regarding the course," he said. "I'm one of the most experienced UK riders on the circuit.
"I wasn't involved in the initial course design. Last year, British Cycling took organizers to Offenburg, and I talked to them there. Nick Craig was involved in the course design from the start. We had a national-level test race last year and they did a great job."
Fort William, Scotland, hosts regular downhill World Cups and it's previously hosted the cross country World Championships, but it's been a few years since the UK has hosted a cross country World Cup. "The location in Dalby National Forest is very English," he said. "It's in North Yorkshire and the villages are old stone and there are tea shops. It's a nice location. The biggest city that is nearby is York. People will fly into Manchester or Leeds. York is a biking town with a lot of history.
"There is a mix of natural and man-made trails," he added. "I rode the course in the test race and twice this winter, giving feedback. They've made a few changes based on my input. I don't think anyone will be dsiappointed with the course. It's a difficult course, but the racing will be quite close I predict."
When Beckingsale was asked for input, the topography was already set, but he took a look at some other important characteristics. "I evaluted how well it flowed and how well the course will go in a group situation."
"It's always a bit of chaos at the start with 200 guys. I can advise how to open up a section or have an alternative line that's important on the first lap. I advised about the technical sections and how they ride when you're going really hard and come in at the angle you would be really coming into it racing. I worked with them to help the flow of the race - to make it better for the racers and the overall experience."
The return of cross country World Cup racing seems to go well with the general rise in the popularity of cycling in general in the United Kingdom. "UK cycling is going through a positive period which is great timing considering the economic situation with a lot of countries, England included."
"There are a number of reasons why. Road cycling in the UK is nuts at the moment. There was a good push in cycling after the success of the track team in Beijing. People like Mark Cavendish and Brad Wiggins has helped put things up a notch in the UK on the road. There is a good crit series in the UK, which is televised. Generally, cycling is a fashionable thing at the moment. London businessmen are buying bikes - they are doing randonees and Etape du Tour events. The big rides are filling up 3,000 entries in 24 hours."
The surge in popularity has extended to off-road cycling. "Mountain biking has been having a good patch for awhile, but the main thing has been the trail centers. We have a lot of people in a small country and there are a lot of trail issues, but the trail centers have changed all of that."
"It was Scotland and Wales thing, but now England is catching up. It makes mountain biking fun, accessible and cheap and weatherproof. I live near the Welsh border, and I drive an hour to ride 90km, 80 percent singletrack at the trail center and my bike doesn't get trashed. It costs me one pound to park my car. It's fun. If I'm finding it fun to ride there after 20-odd years, that's good, and I think people just getting into it will really find it fun, too."
"Dalby Forest is an example of the trail centers," he said. "They are not far from Scottish border and they noticed that residents of North Yorkshire were driving to Scotland every weekend, and they decided to build more local trails. The World Cup is part of that vision overall."
When asked about his life after being a professional mountain bike racer, Beckingsale said: "I'm not too worried about what happens next. There's plenty of time."
Instead, his attention turns to the 2012 Olympic Games. He represented Great Britain at the last three Olympic Games. He's hopeful of making it four in a row in London in 2012 and improving his finish after a 23rd in 2000, a 17th in 2004 and a 12th in 2008.
He knows it won't be easy to make the team. "Liam Killeen and I have been to the last two Olympics. The last two or three occasions, we (Great Britian - ed.) were on the edge of being qualified to send two riders. It's always been dodgy for the selection. We really need three people to ride consistently for four years to qualify more riders."
Beckingsale pointed to Killeen and himself as favorites, but refused to count out the younger talent, and he mentioned Under 23 riders like Dave Fletcher, who are steadily climbing the ranks. If he is selected, however, he's prepared to give it all to get a medal.
"At the moment I'm making the marathon racing fit, but if I'm lining up to race in 2012 in London, I won't be doing any marathons. Managing both now is a compromise," he said. "I'm knocking a few places off each year at the Olympics. If I could knock another six or so off, I'd be happy with that, it'd be a way to finish my career," he said. "Top 10 in London would be the best result of my life." Such a result would be extra special. "I've got two kids at home who are one and four. By then, they'll be four and seven, and they'll be able to come and watch and remember."
In the meantime, watch for Beckingsale at most of the World Cup cross country races and select one-day and marathon events around the world.