La Femme Niki

"Whether on singletrack or the runway, Australia’s Niki Gudex is graceful with every turn." _nikigudex_intoutgo1

As the sky descended into a down-pour, the earth became thick, slippery mud, abruptly ending the photo shoot and drenching Niki Gudex—broken foot, sodden cast, gauzy dress, and all. After hobbling to a nearby car for shelter, Gudex realized that she had dropped a bike part in her mad dash for cover.

Despite the hair plastered to her head and a runnel of water streaming into her cast, she bounded off into the Australian bush in search of the hardware, emerging a few minutes later, triumphant but even wetter than before. Part recovered, but attitude soured?

Many models would have had a prima donna meltdown at such moments, but Gudex is no diva, and fashion model is, at best, third on her list of titles, which includes professional mountain biker and graphic designer. The episode captures the young athlete’s essence. When dealt adversity, Gudex is dead set on overcoming it—it’s as if she thrives on the challenge. And it’s not pride; rather, the prospect of accomplishment simply outweighs the demands, no matter what they may be. Consider her broken foot, courtesy of a cross-training surf session in Sydney last November: Though the injury had derailed her hopes for the Beijing Olympics, and though her cast was now ankle-deep in mud, Gudex remained stunningly upbeat.

“It was the worst possible thing that could happen,” Gudex later said of the deluge, but her sigh morphed into a chuckle. “I just wanted to sit down and laugh.”

This gritty, optimistic woman has stared down much worse than a little rain. A decade ago, while attending a snowboarding school in Sweden, Gudex made the last-minute decision to replace a reluctant classmate during backflip practice. Having not planned her aerial, she landed awkwardly and fractured and compressed part of her spine. She spent the next two months recovering in bed, contemplating youthful delusions of invincibility. “I learned a lot about commitment through that,” she says.

Born in England, Gudex grew up in urban Sydney, Australia, far from the continent’s prized mountain-biking terrain. But a year after her snowboarding accident, fully recovered and living back in Sydney, she made the fateful decision to borrow a mountain bike and pedal out to watch a friend ride motocross. On her way back to town, she became disoriented on an unfamiliar trail system, and a 30-minute spin turned into a three-hour odyssey. Along the way, Gudex made a discovery: She liked being on a bicycle—a lot.

Three years later, she was crowned Australia’s national downhill mountain-bike champion. Not limiting herself to being a single-discipline cyclist, Gudex went on to earn podium finishes in both the downhill and cross-country series in Australia’s 2003 nationals. By 2005, she had earned second overall in the Australian cross-country nationals and represented Aussie women at the world champi?onships in Livigno, Italy.

Judging by her immediate success in cycling, it’s scary to think how dominant Gudex might have been had she hopped on a bike earlier in her life. But like the trees and jagged rocks she dodges on the trail, Gudex avoids excuses at every turn. “In this world, anything is possible. Sometimes there’s an easy path, and then there’s a hard path,” she says. “You’ve got to know what your passion is about and keep that passion through the harder times.”

Even as she was cleaning up on the professional mountain-bike circuit, Gudex was attending the University of Wollongong, where she earned a degree in creative arts with a concentration in graphic design and new media. It was a juggling act that earned her the Wollongong Sportsperson of the Year award in addition to the university’s Blues Award, given to students who demonstrate exceptional academic and athletic achievements. Gudex satisfies her artistic interests by designing the graphics for the Contessa line of Scott Bicycles, which she rides, in addition to actively participating in product research and development for Oakley, a sponsor for the past eight years.

Though she keeps a full business schedule, she has still managed to rack up major biking mileage by alternating hemispheres to race. “I don’t know that I’ve seen someone work harder,” says her former coach, James Herrera, who trains Slipstream pro Mike Creed as well as some of the U.S. cycling hopefuls for the Olympics in Beijing this summer. When Herrera first sat down with Gudex in late 2004 to design a training program with Olympic intentions, he met a woman possessed: “She was hell-bent and willing to do whatever it took to win.”

But her Beijing hopes evaporated when she rode smack into another setback. In 2006, Gudex entered race after race, only to drop out early because she was suffering from bouts of exhaustion. Her doctors were stymied until they finally diagnosed a virus, which Gudex likely picked up on a riding trip in Peru. Then, as she was finally recovering from the fatigue and training to salvage the 2007 season, she broke the foot that’s now in a cast, prompting another period of career contemplation. “The breaks don’t bother me,” she says. “They’re symbolic of a chance to slow down and have a check at what I’m doing.”

As in a forest after a fire, felled trees lead to new growth, and Gudex has already drawn up a rough 2008 race schedule that will see her based out of her stateside home in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she will be from May through October to race in Idaho’s Wood River Cup series. And while the schedule seems dense with training sessions, sponsorship appearances, and races, including California’s daunting Downieville Classic, Gudex is not one to get overwhelmed by obligations. “I want a good quality of life, and I want to have a strong career,” she says. “That’s why biking is a good thing for me: It puts me in the moment like a meditation.”

Gudex experienced just this sort of meditative moment four years ago at a frigid cross-country race in Les Gets, France. After heavy sprinting in the cold air, she noticed the world around her was growing darker—a storm approaching, she thought. But on second reflection, she realized that she was on the verge of passing out on her bike. Gudex stopped on the course, slammed a pocketful of energy gels, and took a moment to regain her composure. Then she set off into the track’s treacherous downhill, where nearly every rider before her had either tossed her bike down or walked.

Gudex thrives in these moments; giving in to a challenge is not her style. “I don’t like getting off my bike , because it breaks my rhythm,” she says, remembering the experience. “You have to stay within your capabilities, but you should never be scared to push yourself.” At Les Gets, she clenched the handlebars and picked a line between the slippery boulders and a muddy wall that bordered that section of track. And despite the fact that she had nearly blacked out minutes earlier, Gudex nailed the descent, rode the section, and went on to finish the race. Mission accomplished and, as always, attitude intact.

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Article by Aaron Martinez. Photographer - Tom Holland. "La Femme Niki" Outside Go Magazine (US), June/July 2008 Issue.

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