We interviewed the Norwegian biker, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå who holds a hard-to-break record with six UCI Mountain Bike World Championships Gold Medals, about the value of the rainbow jersey, the importance of working hard and of course about 2020 UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championship in Sakarya.
Can you tell us about how you started cycling?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: I started mountain biking in April 1995. Back then, I was studying journalism at the University of Stavanger. I was training with a local cycling club in Sandnes, where I lived. I liked to test myself and push myself to the limits with new activities. This practice ride was a completely new experience to 22-year-old me, who had never ridden an off-road bike in her life before.
You are well known for your training, which is as intense as a race. How do you manage to keep your training motivation after so many years?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: My first year of mountain biking was all about learning, practicing and enjoying a new environment. Then, MTB became a lifestyle for my family, my friends and me. I was lucky enough to have a great team consisting of my husband - who was my coach - my practice partner, my manager and my physiotherapist, from the very outset. We learned something new every year, and this was crucial in providing the motivation we need during the long Norwegian winters.
I have always been excited about facing new challenges. I’ve loved to work hard since I was born, and reaching my goals has always been one of the greatest sources of motivation. So keeping up the hard work was easy for me.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: I guess my partner is the brains behind my success. We had a great adventure with the Multivan Merida Biking Team, and achieving all of this was a great opportunity for me.
What is the key to success?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: Success is strongly correlated with hard work and discipline. Determination, priorities and practice are vital aspects of success. You should enjoy having these qualities in your daily life.
What are some of the characteristics a marathon cyclist should have?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: He or she should be well prepared both physically and mentally, as cycling for five hours straight on different tracks is not easy. Marathons may have different tracks and obstacles, so if you aim to win the big marathons, you must prepare yourself for everything. You should also have a strong mind.
You have had many years of first-hand experience in mountain biking. How much has mountain-biking changed in terms of races and equipment?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: Cycling has changed immensely since I started back in 1995. Race routes, rankings, bicycles and equipment are completely different from the ones in the past. In modern XCO races, I probably could not ride the bike I rode during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It was an aluminium bike, weighing 12.6 kilos. It was a 26-inch wheel bike, with eight rear and three front gear set and a 48-cm handlebar. It is not really suitable for modern mountain biking races. I have had to keep up with the changing technology throughout my career, and this has given me extra motivation.
You’ve won many titles in mountain biking. Is there a special trophy for you?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: It is really hard to pick any one or two achievements from such a large collection. Each gold medal has a different backstory, and every achievement is another adventure. I’ve won many international titles such as at the Athens Olympics, 30 World Cup XCO titles and 31 national medals. I’m proud of every one of them, and I know that hard work is what is behind all of them.
However, becoming a mother was the greatest achievement of my career. Nothing compares to it. Continuing my career with a larger family was wonderful and added motivation.
You’ve won the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships six times. What would you like to say about it?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: Every world championship race was different. Only one thing remained the same; you have to be at your best all the time.
What does a world championship mean for a cyclist?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: Winning a world championship is the greatest achievement for a cyclist. Wearing the rainbow jersey for a year is a huge motivation. It makes you feel like you’re riding your bike for the first time. It also makes everything easier on sponsors.
As you know, the 2020 Marathon will take place in Sakarya, Turkey. What is the importance of the World Championship for cyclists?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: World Championship is also a race in which we ride for our country and represent our country best by winning the race. This is an honour and a source of energy and motivation on its own. You compete for the chance to wear the rainbow jersey for a year in the world championship. Bet even winning a medal is a source of pride. Still, what else could be more important to a cyclist? Work hard, don’t let anything demotivate you and set your priorities in line with the goals you’ve set. Most importantly, believe in yourself.
Have you had a chance to compete in Turkey before?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: I’ve wanted to come to Turkey and compete in big races. I guess I need an invitation for that (she chuckles).
You’ve been to many world championships in numerous countries. What makes world championships unforgettable?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: First of all, the organization must be passionate about cycling. This way, the championship will have spirit. I prefer to have racetracks with all types of difficulties (climbs, tricky descents and ascents, dirt and asphalt roads). Having informative maps for teams and athletes is crucial. These allow you to easily find technical assistance and feed zones. The track must also be marked very clearly before the race. Tracks that have been marked a week in advance are especially helpful for cyclists.
Finally, what would you recommend to young women cyclists?
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå: If you really love MTB, you can become a champion. Commit yourself to the idea because it’s worth it.