Great Britain's Annie Last is looking forward to her first year of racing full time on the international mountain bike circuit. The 19-year-old finished school last June and has already shown how more dedicated training time can pay off. She won the opening round of the British Cross Country Series in Sherwood Pines this weekend against an international field.
"It was my first mountain bike race of the season, so I went into it to see how I'd feel and what my racing legs were like," said Last to Cyclingnews. "I felt quite strong during the race, and I enjoyed racing again."
"From the start, I was riding with Rosara (Joseph), Kate (Potter) and Lily (Matthews). On the start of the third lap, I got a bit of a gap, but Rosara came back onto my wheel. We rode together with Kate chasing. On the last lap, I dropped Rosara and was on my own for the rest of the race."
Last, who races for 100%ME, is spending a week training at the Dalby World Cup course with other young British hopefuls. Dalby will host the opening round of the cross country World Cup on April 25.
"I arrived at Dalby last night. This week is about getting on the course and getting to know it."
Last spent Tuesday talking to the media, but she was excited about getting out to ride the rest of the week. "I raced Dalby last year for the national series, and I think the course is pretty similar to what it was then, though I think it has had some modifications. I enjoyed the race last year and liked the course. There are some new sections that have been added that I haven't seen yet."
"I think it'll be good to race in Dalby again. I did the worlds at Fort William (in 2007). You get so much more support racing at home. British fans get behind you and come out and they enjoy watching the race."
Despite being preoccupied with school until June of 2009, Last had a successful season. She finished fourth in the European Championships, was the British under 23 cross country champion and raced to fifth place - even after crashing and damaging her shoe - among the Under 23s at the World Championships in Australia. She went on to race her first World Cups, in Champery and Schladming at the end of the season.
"The World Cups were such an experience. I had done quite a bit of racing with the Worlds in Australia. I had just a week between them and Champery. In the World Cups, I raced an elite field. There were more spectators than at non-World Cup events."
"I was used to being in the top 10 in the under 23s. All the sudden, I had loads of people racing around me. If you make a mistake, there are people everywhere. It felt like a much bigger race. It was quite different. The elite women are a lot faster."
"Overall last year, I was pleased with my results. I finished up a good season, especially in my first year under 23. I went into the year not knowing how I'd progress, moving up from the junior category."
In 2010, Last will race all six World Cups, the British national series and the World Championships. Instead of setting specific goals, she was looking at the bigger picture, "I want to feel like I'm moving forward and progressing in all aspects of racing. It's not just about numbers, it's about how I'm moving forward as an athlete."
Building a career
Last got into mountain bike racing via cyclo-cross. "I used to go to 'cross races with my dad and my brother. Dad would take him and I'd go along, so I did a few under 12 races. I got psyched to do some more races and then I did some crits. When I was about 14, I got into the British Cycling talent youth development program and started to train more. When I was a last-year junior, I enjoyed mountain biking more and started to focus on it."
Last said she enjoys cyclo-cross racing, but her heart is in mountain biking. "Mountain biking is what I do and what I train for. Cyclo-cross is good training for mountain biking."
"I did a few races on the road, more when I was a junior. I did the Het Volk at the start this year, but I won't do any more road races this year. Maybe one day, I'll do a bit more road?"
As a mountain biker, Last went on to be part of the British Cycling Olympic Development Program. Now she's part of British Cycling's Olympic Academy program for under 23 riders. She spent the winter living and training in Manchester with other Academy cyclists. Now she's back to being based in Sheffield at the home of her parents for the season.
Having finished up her school in math, chemistry and biology, Last has earned herself a place at University, studying medicine, but she's deferred pursuing further education for the time being.
"I think I will keep cycling full time if I can for now, and the university is something I can fall back to. I think I'll want to do medicine, but that could change in a couple of years."
For now, she's all about cycling. "I feel like I got this year off to a good start. Without school, I have more time. I don't have to fit in school and training. It's not just the training, I have more time to stretch and to rest. I get more out of what I do."
Long term, Last is looking toward the Olympic Games in London in 2012. "If I'm good enough in 2012, I'd really like to race them. We'll have to wait and see."
She is careful not to get ahead of herself. "It's my first year racing full time, so I feel like there is a lot I can work on. I work at technical riding and going faster, including speedwork. I've still got a long way to go."
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.