Nic Leary's 2010 has gotten off to a stellar start. In February, she won the New Zealand national titles in both the short track and the cross country. Last weekend, racing in Dunedin, she took home the Oceania cross country championship by 1:20 over Australian favorite Rowena Fry.
All three titles were career firsts for Leary, who is in her second season of elite mountain bike racing. The 26-year-old comes from a background of rugby, running and hockey. Coming one day after her birthday, the Oceania title was the perfect present for the rider with even bigger international ambitions.
Leary's national title was something she'd been working toward since last season. "I raced my first national championships race last year in 2009, and I was second to Rosara Joseph, who has been the top female mountain biker from New Zealand for the past few years," said Leary to Cyclingnews. "She beat me by 10 minutes which was quite a lot. That was my first multi-lap format race. I was disappointed that she beat me by that much, but it was motivation." Based in European, Joseph wasn't at nationals this year to defend her title.
Leary, who races for Avanti Bikes, got her first taste of international competition later in 2009, the year she stepped up to elite mountain biking. She raced both World Cups in Canada, finishing 33rd in Mont Sainte Anne and 25th in Bromont on back-to-back weekends. With just two World Cup appearances, she ended up ranked 61st in the World Cup and as the top female rider from New Zealand.
The experience motivated Leary to continue her newfound dedication to mountain biking. "This year I'm more focused. I had some more encouraging results at the World Cup last year. It was my first taste of international racing. I want to be the best mountain biker I can be."
Going to Europe
"In three weeks, I fly to Europe, and I will do the first three World Cups in Dalby Forest (United Kingdom), Houffalize (Belgium) and Offenburg (Germany) as well as a national series race, in Heubach, Germany."
"Four races in six weeks will be a great racing block. I want to use my good form and the points from my National and Oceania titles to help me get good results while I'm on my game."
"I think my experience in Europe will be hard, but I look forward to it. The fields are deeper in quality and quantity, and I know how much my experience in Canada last year helped me." Leary will confront larger fields with plenty of strong women against whom she can measure herself.
As a rider from the southern hemisphere, Leary has had to learn to balance her race season at home in New Zealand with that of the international calendar, which primarily features northern hemisphere races. It'd be easy to do too many races and burn out - something of which Leary is mindful.
"We've been very selective with my race schedule here in New Zealand in the summer. To be honest, I didn't do many of the North Island and South Island Cups. I just did a few training races in January. The National Championships and Oceania Championships were the focus."
After her European World Cup debut, Leary will return home to New Zealand for June and July.
"I'll have a short break and rebuild for six weeks. Then I'll be based in Quebec for the month before worlds, and I plan on racing the Canada Cup and the final World Cup in New York and the World Championship." She is especially looking forward to racing in the black and white colors of her new National Champion's jersey.
Becoming a mountain biker
Leary, who grew up on a farm in Raetihi, now resides in Rotorua. "As a kid, I was on a farm, so I was always fit and strong. Now I ride on the farm quite a lot when I'm home," she said.
After competing in athletics and rugby in high school, Leary attended Otago University where she continued to play rugby and then started to dabble in endurance sports. She is trained as a physiotherapist although she presently works in a bike shop to accommodate her lifestyle - along with its many hours of training - as an elite mountain bike racer.
She first rode a mountain bike in 2007. That lead to racing multi-sport events including Xterras and she became the New Zealand champion of Xterra. "I was a jack of all trades and after watching my partner Mark (Leishman) race at nationals in 2007, I thought, 'I could do that'. I went about doing small events in 2007 and started my first season in 2008."
In the meantime, Leary is continuing to improve her fitness and technical skills. "I'm really loving riding at the moment. The sport is challenging and gives me more to work on."
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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.