The end of this month sees our 17-strong New Zealand team head to Germany for the final World Track Championships before the big one; the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. In that squad, and looking to continue what has already been a history-making summer, is Kirstie James.
When we spoke to Kirstie Klingbenberg (née James) she had just accomplished yet another national title in the women’s individual pursuit; with a personal best time; defeating teammate Jaime Nielsen in the gold medal final with a performance that had all the sounds of a clinical display of bike riding.
“It was a really cool ride and it was really satisfying to just go out there, execute my strategy really well and to get a PB was just the icing on the cake,” Kirstie told us post-race.
It is a discipline that Kirstie has made her own with some exceptional performances at national and world championship level; she finished fourth at the discipline in last year’s worlds. With the emphasis when it comes to crunch time being on producing smooth consistent performances we asked how much thought goes into each performance in the heat of the moment to ensure that smooth, clinical performance.
“For the IP I don’t focus on it too much, I think I’ve only done two sessions before nationals so I’m just relying on past experience, but for the TP obviously we’re training full-time for that,” Kirstie explained. “We aim to have all the hard thinking done before race day, during training we try to give ourselves extra stresses and extra challenges to try and cope with it so that race day seems a lot more simple. So our coach will try and throw stuff at us in training to cope with mentally, and then on race day it just seems like a simple straightforward thing; everyone does their role. I find I’m a lot more confident because I know I can do it.”
Extra stresses and extra challenges in training come courtesy of women’s endurance coach Ross Machejefski. In a team that has really evolved in terms of its culture recently the shifts in Cycling New Zealand that have seen Craig Palmer move to male endurance coach, Ross to female endurance and Rene Wolff to sprint coach; has all had a significant impact on the riders. Culture is crucial to Cycling New Zealand, and it’s been something that has been at the forefront of establishing clear direction for the team. So far it seems to have paid off well.
“The team’s so cool to be a part of and in sport it’s so easy to get wrapped up in having sport as your identity. So we’ve tried to build deeper roots than that, and to get our identity outside of sport as well to try and give us a bit more grounding. It means that when you don’t get selected for a race you have that perspective that it’s only a bike race, it’s not who I am as a person. And at the same time when you do get selected it’s just the icing on the cake. So having that perspective of sport being something you do not necessarily who you are has been really important to us as a team to grow and develop together,” Kirstie revealed.
Typically when you consult an athlete about the reasons behind their success they will reference their coach as a key source of success. Likewise a good coach when asked about their success will insist that the raw ingredients were there all along, they just brought them to the surface. We asked Kirstie what it is that Ross has actually done to influence the women’s endurance programme.
“Really [Ross has been] exploring what our strengths are, and not being afraid to make mistakes in non-pinnacle events where the stakes aren’t as high has been key to us developing. Trying other strategies, trying people in different positions, trying a two-turn strategy, putting things like that in place has really been a cornerstone for us, because as athletes and a staff team it’s really easy to get so deep into your processes that you don’t think about changing enough. So we’ve really gone for an approaching success model rather than as an athlete or as a coach team falling into that complacency where you just try not to lose,” Kirstie said.
This summer has been such a memorable one for Kirstie and the women’s team pursuit combination in particular. In Cambridge James together with Rushlee Buchanan, Bryony Botha and Holly Edmondston stopped the clock against Australia in the second fastest time in history; an emphatic gold medal-winning performance that emphasised to the whole world that another level was being reached down in our corner of the globe.
“That was one of my career highlights for sure. It was incredible to do that sort of time and especially in front of a home crowd. It’s so meaningful to have my family, husband, the people who have been supporting and sponsoring me for all these years to get to see it happen on the day,” Kirstie said.
What stands out in Kirstie’s answer, however, is reflective of what she had to say about doing all the difficult work in training and then coming into race time to simply execute. How often do you hear someone speak about the second fastest time in history with the word ‘unremarkable?’
“Upon some deeper reflection of it looking at the numbers and the graphs and everything, I really thought what we did should – in a textbook – be actually kind of unremarkable because we actually just rode to our ability and executed it with the most precision we ever have. On paper we really just executed as best we could, but in reality those days are very few and far between in sport because almost always something goes wrong. So it was really awesome to get our processes right, to flow on from one another in the race and come out with such a massive result.”
When Martin Barras gave his statement on the team selected for Germany, he emphasised that the women’s endurance programme really is going to a World Championship with another event in mind; no prizes for guessing which event.
“The bigger picture is that everything they do in Berlin will incorporate a clear Olympic outcome, and not solely about a rainbow jersey,” Barras said at the time.
To a casual sports fan, hearing that your national team is almost going into the World Championships still not quite at the peak of its powers and with another goal in mind can seem almost ludicrous. But there seems to be an appreciation and gratitude amongst the team that this is the way Cycling New Zealand have approached this year’s Worlds.
“To be honest it’s not something I’ve ever dealt with before in my own experience, so I’m really banking on the experience of my teammates; people like Rushlee [Buchanan], Jaime [Nielsen], Racquel [Sheath] they’ve experienced that before,” Kirstie explained.
“But I think we’re in a good position this year with Cycling New Zealand really backing us through to the Games and allowing us to train through the World Champs. In the back of our mind we just have to almost lower our expectations knowing that we’re going in [to World Champs] not fully peaking and tapering. Our coach, Ross, said to me that I might personally be going in with the same form I had at Oceania Champs which honestly is a bit demoralising! I really didn’t feel like I was at my best for that event, but it’s always reassuring when you think about the long game.”
That backbone of teammates Kirstie refers to who have been through the Olympic cycle all rode at the Rio Olympics and are in contention to return in Tokyo; although Racquel will not be racing at the World Championships this year. Jaime Nielsen, however, will be. It’s not been long since Nielsen returned to the highest level, taking on Kirstie in the individual pursuit final. Mentioning Jaime’s return to the reigning IP national champion causes Kirstie to enter into high praise mode for a teammate and friend she looks up to and admires deeply.
“Jaime is such an asset to have on the team, even just who she is as a person. She just radiates compassion and she’s a phenomenal athlete; so it’s really inspiring to have her back on the team. I compare myself to her a lot and I find it really motivating to push myself against her. So to have that positive competition in someone like Jaime is so rewarding and adds such a cool dynamic to our team,” she said.
It’s exciting that the women’s endurance programme has arguably an unparalleled level of depth in the squad that has never been seen in its history; and it all seems to be coming to a head with the Olympics just months away. The excitement is buzzing, the big target now finally almost visible, but the grounded-ness is still evident even in view of the certain excitement.
“We’ve had the Olympics on the back of our mind for so long that it’s slowly been getting closer and closer but one really cool thing about our team is that the culture and foundation is really strong. Whoever is riding on the day we all feel as though we’re a part of that result because we’re so connected to each other and have that foundation in our team culture which is really rewarding,” Kirstie told us.
Look out for Kirstie as her run up to Worlds – and who knows . . . . Tokyo – continues. The World Championships kick off in Berlin on 26th February and run through to the 1st March, while the big one that sports fans the world over will be glued to begins on 24th July.