“Steer clear of the parks and trails when Niki Gudex gets a head of steam going - the national series mountain bike champ may not even slow down.”
“Okay! Now show us a snarl . . .”
Lights, camera, action on a mountainbike trail above Manly Dam in Sydney’s north, and 23-year-old Niki Gudex is doing it tough. “Grrrr! Aggression! Come on, insult the camera! You’re the best! You’re family money, you’re gorgeous, you’ve got the admiration of all. But you don’t want it – you don’t need it. You’re above all that. You’re four years tough in upstate New York, you’re a year at snowboarding school in the mountains of Sweden. You’re four languages! You’re a 13-thousand-dollar bike! You’re winning it all at home and you’re about to go worldwide! Now for the love of God, sneer!”
But it’s no use. Niki Gudex is none of those things. Or rather, she’s none of the things a resume like that could so easily have made her. So the snarl holds for a moment, splutters, and gives way to a laugh. Because the truth is, she’s lovely. She loves her sport, loves to chat, thinks carefully about what she says, always tries her best, and laughs at herself in a bright red bikini and body armour.
“It’s a terrifically fun sport, and I find it’s very true . . .” she says, somewhat obliquely, once the shoot director has sighed and wandered off. “When you’re out riding, you get to know the people very well. Sport of any kind – when you’re pushing your boundaries – helps you to exist in the moment, and I believe that’s when people are at their best. Mountain biking is challenging in that way, and that’s what inspires me to really try and accomplish things.”
And accomplish things she has. After falling into the sport quite by accident (One – practise backflips on trampoline at snowboard school. Two – hurt back badly. Three – buy bike for recovery and fitness. Four – enter dirt race following weekend. Five – win), Niki has seen the podium seven times in state and national competitions since starting a little over two years ago. And we’re not talking bronze medals either: “I guess my highlight should be winning the national series this year, but a personal highlight for me was coming second in the national champs itself, because it was a very strong field at that particular race.”
Placing first in the series wasn’t her highlight? That’s what’s so great about riding, for Niki – whether it’s solo or with friends, practising or competing: “Exhaust yourself on a really hard ride, and you don’t need to win to be satisfied. If you’ve done your best and worked hard, what else matters?”
Well, family for a start. Niki’s father, David, isn’t just a source of proud encouragement. Dr Gudex – Sydney Radiology – is a major sponsor. You get to be called a “major sponsor” when you’re one of only two – the other is Oakley – and you’re the Dad. Three brothers (“Tim, 18, studying to be a pilot; Ben, 15, great at cricket; Sam, 13, wise beyond his years”) round out the Gudex clan, but it’s Niki’s mother, Pru (“She’s an artist – painting mostly”), that passed on the creative gene.
“It has been said,” laughs Niki. “I love my art – I guess that’s why I’m studying graphic design at university. And mountain biking certainly complements that well, too. They’re just two completely different worlds in which you can express different parts of yourself. Of course, in juggling riding with full time study, it was always going to be a challenge . . . but then that’s the joy in it. I’m never really happy unless I’m busy. Since starting uni I’ve learned that you’ve only got so much time in the day. You have to learn to commit to a timetable. And I’ve committed to a hectic one.”
Niki is representing Australia as a downhill rider at the World Championships in Vail, Colorado, this month – her first crack at overseas competition – and admits to having thoughts of Athens in 2004, even though downhill is not currently an Olympic event. Cross country is, though.
“I have a great love for both disciplines. And there’s not many riders out there at the top level who do both. Good cross country riders seem to be quite strong in the legs and light in the upper body – built for endurance – while downhill is more to do with technique and aggression.” See the inscription between the handlebars of Niki’s beloved downhill bike – “Pedal Faster Fool!” – if you don’t believe her.“
While I’ve been told I have a very smooth, fluid style that suits downhill, I think I have more potential in cross country in the long run. I’m definitely built for it. You can just tell with certain people – either you’re a greyhound or a great Dane!” No prizes for guessing which category the diminutive Sydneysider falls into.
“So, yes. If I was fit enough I’d love to think about competing at the Olympics. The fight for spots will be very tough, though.” There’s a pause here as Niki considers the possibility, however remote. After such a short time in the sport, it’s a bit like asking an undergrad graphic designer how she thinks her first work is going to look in the Louvre. Until you realise your potential, the question just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “Put it this way: it’s definitely a long-term goal for me – but it’d be a very long ride.”
In the meantime, there’s races to be won, exams to pass and, whether she’s aware of it or not, a role model’s role to play. The prized Wonder Woman sticker on the front of Niki’s bike – “Because she’s tough” – sits perfectly alongside the image she hopes to portray to any women hoping to start out in the sport. “Being able to provide a good role model, portray women in a good, strong light, is important to me. I believe everyone has their own unique abilities, so it’s satisfying to think that maybe I’ll be able to use mine to have a positive effect on people.”
And in case you thought the sport of mountain biking didn’t already have enough to recommend itself, just watch Niki go: “Oh God, yes. I couldn’t recommend a better sport. You can step out of your house, hop on a bike and just ride. You don’t even need to get a really great bike; you can just ride whatever! It’s about having fun, getting out there and participating. As you get older you realise how important it is to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. It’s your life, and if you don’t have fun, then what was it all for?”
And with that, the interview is over. The light is fading but, for Niki, there’s just time for a snicker and a “Ha!” as she belts past, flicking mud all over her tormented photographer. At least she’s having fun.
Profile: Greg Barton. Photographers: Jodie Burns and Jake McBride. "Pedal Power" - Inside Sport Magazine, November 2001 Issue.