Six-months from a suitcase
words by Michael Hayward
Images by Sven Martin & Digby Shaw

Kiwi racer Rae Morrison recently got back from another six months of enduro racing abroad, in her most consistent season yet. SPOKE caught up with her as she relaxed into her off-season in sunny Nelson.

Now you’ve been home a few weeks, what are your reflections on last season?

I’m really happy with how the season went. It was the first time I’ve completed a whole season and remained injury-free for the entire year. I had some strong stages early on and then towards the end was finally able to find consistency and finish with two sixth places, which slingshots my overall ranking to eighth overall. This means all next year I’ll be riding the number 8 plate.

What’s it like being away racing for a whole season? It looks fun but hectic—what are the best bits, and what’s challenging?

Fun but hectic is exactly how I would describe it. I love experiencing different places, cultures, and more obviously riding at these amazing mountain bike destinations around the world. The not so glamourous part is living out of a bag for six months, the jet lag, and so much time spent at airports—especially travelling with an excessive amount of luggage—is not so fun. I’m usually in a place for only one week to ten days, which does make it hard to fully relax, become familiar with my surroundings and to feel at home. I enjoy it and it’s really fun and full of adventure but by the end of the six months it gets quite weary and I crave to come home to my own bed and pillow and a stable time zone.

How does having the support of being on a team change things?

This year has been quite different for me. For the last three years I’ve been part of a factory team which meant my travel, logistics at races, sponsors and calendar were all sorted for me. The first few years, this was great and meant I could mostly just concentrate on riding and racing. The only difficult thing was that we didn’t have any say, and the travel became pretty gnarly with last-minute flights being booked, meaning a 30 hour journey to Europe would become a 50 hour journey including an 11 hour layover, and we sometimes got called away last minute for video/photoshoots or races.

I had a rough time last year after a month averaging five hours of sleep a night during video shoots and racing. The team went from photo shoots in the USA to race Chile, to a video shoot in Colombia, to a race in Colombia, to a video shoot back in the USA—with no rest or break between—and I ended up getting really sick with pneumonia. After that I lost the passion and enjoyment and I knew I couldn’t sustain the lifestyle and needed to change something. I really loved the team environment and my teammates and the ease of having support at the races but I wanted more control over my schedule and travel arrangements.

So when my contract was up I explored the idea of self-managing and having Jesse (my husband) as my mechanic. I’m so grateful Liv were super open and supportive of this idea and took the chance on me. I booked all the flights at the start of the year with the help of my travel agent, Wildside Travel—all accommodation, rental cars, etc. We set up a travel schedule to include all races, media obligations and office visits, which were organised to tie trips in with each other. The week of each race Jesse took over as manager, soigneur, and mechanic, and I just focused on athlete things, prioritising recovery after track walks and trainings. It ended up working exceptionally well and I was stoked to still have a teammate, Leonie Picton, to track walk and train with and bounce ideas off. I think I had the best of both worlds this year being able to self-manage and choose my own schedule while being looked after at the races and having a teammate.

How do you deal with the pressures of racing? Do you have any routines or techniques to make sure you’re mentally ready to go?

I used to get extremely nervous when I first started racing internationally—mostly from all the pressure I put on myself to perform, it used to cripple me. I would get in the habit of doubting myself with line choice, my riding ability and my fitness, and ended up never racing well. I think being a confident person would help. I’m not a naturally confident person, so the nerves and not dealing with the pressure were slow to fade, but did improve over time, and as I raced more I discovered techniques that helped me—simple things like deep breathing, singing to myself in my head, and visualising myself riding fast and smooth before I start a stage really help. It keeps me in the moment and stops me fretting about things that aren’t beneficial to my performance.

What will the off-season look like for you? Are there specific things you plan to focus on?

Pretty much organising next year. The first part is to try and renew contracts with all my sponsors, then the second part is looking at the itinerary, organising and booking my travel for the year. Training wise, I spend a lot of time in the gym building strength, lots of time on the bike with plenty of social rides and some fun races thrown in the mix. What are your goals for the upcoming season? I want to continue with my setup and retain all my personal sponsors as well. I’d like to have more consistency with my stage results. At the moment I’ve placed anywhere between first and 15th on a stage so it would be ideal if I could throw down more consistent runs. I want to crash less, continue inside the top 10, and then I would obviously love an EWS podium.

Are there any venues you especially like racing at?

Canazei (Italy) and Whistler. Whistler I really enjoy, the riding is awesome, and it always seems like a good time and incredible atmosphere. Post-race is just as good, being a part of Crankworx, with lake swims and A-Line laps with the other girls. Canazei is just an incredible race; Italians know how to put on a good race with so much passion behind it, amazing food, and the views of the Dolomites are just insane. It’s definitely one of my favourite places in the world.

Why do you love racing?

I like pushing and testing my limits, I love the people I meet and the places I go. When a race goes well and I’m happy with my performance and get a great result, the feeling and euphoria you get is addictive.

How has the EWS changed or evolved in the years you’ve been competing?

Every year it becomes more professional. It’s now UCI sanctioned with drug testing, there’s more media coverage, companies and sponsors are invested more into the sport so there are higher salaries, more athletes on pro contracts and a larger competitive field. I think it makes racing a lot more exciting and brings further credibility to the sport.

Women’s racing is getting stronger every year. What’s your take on where the women’s scene is at? What do you think could be done to keep improving it?

The women’s field is just going from strength to strength. It’s getting easier and more welcoming for women to race and make it as professional athletes. It’s also really exciting now as the times are so close, and about fifteen women have the potential to make it onto the podium.

I think improvements could be made for teams to invest more in female riders. The teams are very male dominated; most teams have a token female (some still don’t see the point in that), but the majority of money and resources will go to the male teammates. Most of the fast, successful women have either started their own teams or self-manage, for example Isabeau Courdurier, Cecile Ravanel, Anita and Caro Gehrig, Morgane Charre. I don’t know if it’s because the team environment isn’t set up for women to excel (very broadly speaking) or if it’s because going individual gives us the opportunity to make more money and have more support from individual sponsors. Whatever the reasons, self-management seems to be working for these fast ladies.

Is there anything else you want to say?

New Zealand has such a strong and talented mountain bike scene. I still think the talent here per capita exceeds anywhere in the world. I’m blown away by the speed and talent of the up and coming riders and juniors. I can’t wait to see more Kiwis flying the flag overseas.

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