"Our cover shoot was fun but a little scary, as she rode along cliff tops and scrambled over rocks with her bike. Fearless is a word that springs to mind." Health and fitness magazine First's editor Kirsty Munro takes a fresh look at mountain biking."
You may not have heard of Niki Gudex, but in the world of mountain biking, she’s hot. In the US, where the sport has a high profile, she’s in demand for interviews, fashion shoots, sponsorships and autographs. She turned down Playboy, but she’s delighted to talk with First. Constant demand for information has led her to create her own website, www.nikigudex.com. So far, she still manages to answer every fan email personally, but her growing profile and her focus on the 2006 Commonwealth Games may make that difficult.
How does a petite Sydney girl get involved in cross-country mountain biking? “I was snowboarding for nine years” she explains, “and I moved to Sweden to go to a snowboard school. Three quarters of the way through the year there I broke my back and I had a year off recovering. I went back to snowboarding but I wasn’t progressing.” One day at the snow with friends, she borrowed a friend’s bike to go for a quick ride. “I got a bit lost and rode back through the bush,” she laughs. “Then the pedal broke, so I went into a bike shop to get it fixed and the guy asked me if I raced, and I thought that sounded good, so I just bought a bike and entered a race. I started in the deep end and that’s how I’ve been going along. It started by accident but I’m so glad it did because it’s just changed my life.” That’s the thing about Gudex. She never thinks she can’t do something. She just has a go and so far, she has succeeded beyond her dreams.
Ticket to ride She immediately started competing and rose to number one in women’s downhill racing. She needed a new challenge. “Two years ago I changed to cross-country. So I’ve been focussing on cross-country internationally, but I still race downhill, just for fun and because it’s relaxing. I prefer to be known for mountain biking rather than specifically for cross-country or downhill, because mountain biking is such an open and friendly sport. It’s nice to mix it up. But cross-country is an event at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.” It’s also one of the few sports where athletes can improve with age. While at 26 she may seem old compared with the 15 year old swimmers rising through the ranks, as Gudex notes, “Women peak at about 35 for cross-country so I’ve got plenty of time ahead of me.”
While the sport does not yet have the profile of sports like swimming or tennis, the competition is fierce. In order to compete on a world level, Gudex spends about six months of the year living out of a suitcase. “ In 2005 I’ll have the National Championships and the Oceania Championships, then head to America in April for the National American series, some of the world cups, world championships and then start preparing for the Commonwealth Games.” Ask her how long she has until the Commonwealth Games and her answer is instant. “67 weekends!” she exclaims, laughing. “I know it’s going to go by so quickly. I really wanted to go to Athens, but in the end, I hadn’t been doing cross-country for that long; I was second in line and they only sent one person.”
Olympic Hopes She’ll be ready for Beijing – just about hitting her peak, and intends to go the Olympics after that, too. “At the moment I’m just concentrating on keeping my health. It’s so hard when you’re competing overseas, just living in hotels out of suitcases. It’s been really good to be back home.” The race circuit is akin to touring with a band. “Usually, you’ll practice the course on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday , then race on Sunday; then Monday you drive or fly to the next one. And that’s how your weeks go in the season.
Originally I hoped to keep competing in downhill races at the same time, but it’s just impossible – with the time and the physical demands. A race goes for around 2 hours 15 to 2 and a half hours. The terrain is challenging.” Gudex rises to the topic with enthusiasm. “It’s really rewarding because it’s so gruelling!” she says. But Gudex relishes the difficult courses: “I think the rocks and the hard terrain make it more fun. I wouldn’t enjoy just road racing so much.”
Gudex trains around two to three hours a day, under the supervision of her new coach, James Hererra. Their training program is unusual: he is based in the US and overseas her training from there. Gudex explains the logistics of such remote supervision:. “I’ve got special cranks on my bike which measure the watts I’m putting out and I can download the data and he’ll know everything – down to how many traffic lights I stopped at. Then he can really monitor my progress and fine tune my training. We speak daily. In the past I was just given a program on a six-week basis, which was far less flexible.”
For an elite athlete, Gudex is surprisingly petite, but her strength is astonishing. Perhaps, her secret is chocolate – which seems to work for the Swiss riders too. “I just eat whole foods; natural foods,” she says. “I like chocolate and cheese, but I don’t think there’s much of a problem with these. For the past five weeks I’ve been eating Swiss chocolate every day! Spending time with the European riders was really good to see they’ve got a really natural approach. I stay away from too much sugar, drink plenty of water, get lots of sleep, but I don’t stress too much.”
Blooming Opportunities Constant training and touring make it difficult to hold a full time job. Luckily Oakley offered to take her on “head-to-toe”: they supply all her riding gear, plus casual gear and of course, sunglasses. “The travelling is a major expense, plus the bikes and staying overseas, but it’s not a sport you’d do for the money, it’s very much a love sport,” she explains. “Oakley have been really good. I did a prescription eyewear campaign; they’ve flown me to the States for shoots and they’re always there at the races supporting you; it feels like family.”
She also models occasionally and puts her university degree in graphic design to good use, designing posters and even a bag for Oakley. Other careers may beckon. If she ever tires of racing, there’s every possibility that she could be coming to a theatre near you. Last time she was in the US, she was approached by 20th Century Fox to audition for a major film (Marvel comic "Fantastic Four").
“I had no acting experience, but it was really good fun and they were really cool. And so I’ve started taking some acting classes here. I think that’s what you’ve got to do – just keep trying new things and taking opportunities as they come. It would be nice to get into some TV stuff that would complement my racing. I’d love to work on a sports, lifestyle or kids show … maybe one day …”
Profile: Kirsty Munro. Photographer: Steven Chee. "Mountain High - Niki Lives To Ride" First Magazine, Autumn 2005 Issue.