Caroline Buchanan discusses her big ambitions and reinvention for 2021 and beyond
Caroline Buchanan is a planner, but not in the sense you might think.
Often, a “planner” is considered a cautious sort, someone with a severe aversion to spontaneous, potentially uncomfortable experiences. But Buchanan is the rare type who encourages themselves into uncharted territory, whose greatest nemesis is stagnation. She plans for discomfort.
“If I find a goal that terrifies me and excites me, I know that I’m completely on track,” she says. “I’m excited to continue to push that.”
Buchanan’s BMX and mountain biking career is a testament to her eclectic talents and interests. She has won five world championships: four in four-cross and another in the BMX time trial. She has won the BMX World Cup twice, and the Australian BMX national title 11 times. She’s a two-time Olympian who is gunning for a third appearance in Tokyo this summer. All the while, she has built herself into one of Australia’s most popular athletes, and used her status and energy to give scholarships to girls so that they can pursue their own athletic glory.
Now, Buchanan is also considering her next evolution. She built a nine-foot ramp in her backyard to become a better freestyle rider, and wants to dedicate herself full-time to mountain biking as soon as the Olympic period is over. She never stops piling up goals.
The only thing that has ever perceptibly slowed her down was an accident in an offroad vehicle in December 2017. Buchanan suffered a broken nose, broken sternum, collapsed lungs and a punctured heart wall, and went into a recovery process that stretched nearly two-and-a-half years through three surgeries. She was forced to wait for her body to cooperate with her motivation.
“I had this real negativity around my sternum just not healing,” Buchanan says. “It was a real mental shift for me just to go like, ‘I have to be really patient, and I have to love this bone in my body that heals super slow but it protected my organs.'”
Buchanan doesn’t have to sit any longer. She’s has a Plan A and a Plan B for how she wants 2021 to unfold, and probably a Plan C and D, too. She’s hustling as hard as she can, imposing her own order within a chaotic environment, because that’s what the greatest planners do.
In the following interview, Buchanan discusses everything she has in store, including her racing schedule, scholarship program and film ambitions. She also talks about her junior downhill racing days, and how her mother feels about her going all out on a bike again. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
What’s sort of your athletic program for this year? What have you been up to?
Caroline Buchanan: I’ve got a Plan A and Plan B. Throughout my career, I’ve jumped between BMX and mountain bike. So, every Olympic year, I focus more on BMX, and then the three years after I’ve more prioritized my mountain biking. This year with the delay of Tokyo, I’m still sort of patiently waiting for an announcement if this Olympics is going to go ahead. Most of my training program for the first six months of this year is focused on BMX to Tokyo, but at any minute, if they can’t slow it back, then I’ll be full-time mountain bike.
And how is racing going so far? What events have you been competing in lately and how have those been going?
Buchanan: Good. So lately we’ve just had a lot of Olympic BMX races. Ironically enough, we’ve been pretty limited on girl numbers. So I’ve been racing with the boys like I did when I was 11 years old, just getting times and trying to build on paper for Olympic selection. So yeah, we’ve been traveling all around the country here in Australia just competing in these sort of BMXtrial events.
And then for mountain biking through the offseason that we just had, the winter, I was fortunate enough that my boyfriend is in moto. He has a huge motorbike airbag, so I did a backyard project and claimed his airbag for the winter, and I got all the specs for the Crankworx speed and style ramp.
I ended up building a nine foot ramp in my backyard and worked on my progression of tricks. I flew up to Ryan Williams, who’s a Nitro Circus athlete, and learned how to do front flips. I was working on a backflip to dirt last week.
I guess between pushing my freestyle progression, training for an Olympics and just being really proactive about working with brands and sponsors here in Australia, I’ve been keeping busy through COVID while there’s not a lot of the normal events on the calendar that I’m used to.
I was fortunate enough that my boyfriend is in moto. He has a huge motorbike airbag, so I did a backyard project and claimed his airbag for the winter.
What’s your plan for later in the year?
I’ll be an ambassador for Sea Otter Australia. So that’s coming up in October. I’ll also be doing the Crankworx final, which will be in New Zealand. That one I think is definitely one we’ll be able to travel to, so that’s November. Then, we’re hoping to get a girls class in the Nitro Circus World Games, which will be in Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, going for the best trick on the mega ramp. We should have about four or five girls from Australia and New Zealand competing in that. And then another massive goal of mine is Real Mountain Bike at the X Games, which is the video category.
It seems like you’re making the most out of a very fractious schedule. Tell me a little bit more about Olympic preparation; this would be your third one. Does preparing for this one feel different than preparing for the others? You’re coming back from a major injury, but also is your mindset different as a more veteran rider now?
Buchanan: Yeah, really different. In 2016, I went to the Rio Olympics. In 2012, I did London as my first. And then yeah, in 2017 I had an offroad vehicle accident, and then spent ’17 and ’18 and part of ’19 out of the sport — so a solid two and a half years. I’ve finally rebuilt from all of that, and at the moment, I think it’s really good.
It’s kind of a blessing that the Olympics got canceled for 12 months because I just put in solid training blocks. And for BMX, it’s such a power sport, there’s so much more that goes into the gym than mountain biking. I brought all my numbers in the gym up to my personal best levels, and lots of work on the Wattbike to build up my power and strength and that repeatable BMX effort. Now we’re waiting on the UCI World Cup to get announced.
Are you still planning to make this your last Olympic games?
Buchanan: Yeah. So when BMX was added to the Olympics in 2008, I was too young. I was 17 at the time, and you had to be 18. Then through these three Olympics, I just thought, “I’m gonna prioritize BMX.” But I’ve always wanted my career post-Olympics to be in mountain biking full time, so that’s where my next few years are going.
Which is actually awesome. There’s a couple of rumors of Crankworx being in Australia next year, and we now have a Sea Otter in Australia as well. So there’s quite a few more events popping up here locally, and that gives me a lot of hope that if this global travel isn’t happening as much, that at least this part of the world can compete in some action.
Tell me a little bit about moving that focus on mountain biking. Is it something you want to focus on because you haven’t been able to emphasize it as much as you’d like? Or is it a more enjoyable sport to you?
Buchanan: Yeah, BMX has always been the Olympic discipline, but it’s always come with a lot of high stakes, high pressure. For me, mountain biking was always that off switch, it was that reset. And the places you go to in the mountains, and just the whole scene and environment is so much fun. That’s the passion side of it for me.
I also see a big opportunity with the women now in mountain biking that — with Crankworx, Audi Nines, Nitro and all these different events around the world — they’re really starting to get behind pushing the freeride slope discipline. And right now, there’s myself and maybe two others in the world that are even dabbling in learning. There’s a lot of depth in the 11- to 14-year-old categories of girls popping up around the world. Following along the women’s freestyle movement on Instagram, you’re starting to see that there are a lot more girls, but right now I see a bit of gap in the industry, and it’s where events are pushing.
And for me, I love making content, and I’ve achieved so much in my career already with world titles and Crankworx titles and everything like that, that this can be more like a legacy piece for me. For the last sort of five to eight years of my solid professional career, I may be a little bit less of that racer and really make waves in that area.
If I find a goal that terrifies me and excites me, I know that I’m completely on track. I’m excited to continue to push that.
If I find a goal that terrifies me and excites me, I know that I'm completely on track. I'm excited to continue to push that.
Tell me more about your creative pursuits. You mentioned the Real Mountain Bike competition at the X Games?
Buchanan: That’s something that only just dropped in the last few months. My boyfriend lives on 600 acres, and there’s cattle and sheep, and he does motocross and motorbikes. So he’s got motorbike tracks, and that’s sort of where I’ve built this mountain bike trick skill development jump. My goal is to expand that into a bit of a dream epic compound and create that mountain bike video.
Any interest in going back to downhill racing?
Buchanan: No, no. I did downhill when I was a junior. So I raced my first Worlds as an Elite in Pietermaritzburg and got fifth in the final for downhill. That was my best downhill result, ever. And then I raced Val di Sole in Italy, which was like a crazy downhill track. That was back when we were wearing skinsuits bombing down the Fort William, Scotland, downhill course.
And I think it was really good for my skill base. As a junior, I was pushing into mountain biking, and at the time I sort of saw downhill as the only avenue. Whereas since then, all these festival events have popped up, and there’s been a push at Crankworx where they’ve had the air downhill, the pump track, the slalom, the whip, the speed and style — you now go there, and there’s five other bikes you can ride in five other disciplines. And you can sort of be in that hunt for the queen of Crankworx without being that downhill specialist.
I enjoyed it, but I was never really the athlete that could just ride on the edge for an entire run. It didn’t suit my sort of style of riding. I definitely loved it, but those girls are crazy.
I know you have your scholarship program, Next Gen, and you have a book series. What are your plans to keep putting people on bikes?
Buchanan: So actually, I’m doing a bit of a restructure, which will be good to bring in more of the mountain bike side. I’ve ran Next Gen for seven years now, and it has invested 76,000 Australian dollars into 12 girls. It has helped boost their careers from the national level of BMX to traveling internationally to the Worlds every year. So they get that global experience to race the World Championships. Some have gone on to other sports — mountain biking, Rugby Sevens in the Olympics now.
But what I want to do this year, with travel limited, is strip it back from being an event-based scholarship, and open it up to mountain bike as well. So, I’m going to launch the program this year with BMX and mountain bike girls, and it’ll be more of a project-based scholarship. The girls are gonna write into me, and it could be anything from wanting to build a pump track in their backyard, or they want an airbag, or they need a gym trainer for the year. It’s a $5,000 scholarship, so they may go, “You know I really want a mountain bike because it’s gonna fix this gap in my career.”
So they pitch their project and their idea to me. And then with the $5,000 scholarship to each girl, I basically mentor them towards that goal, and help them with those funds. So that’s how I want to restructure it, which is awesome because there are quite a few up and coming mountain bike girls in that 14-, 15 year-old-age group that Next Gen supports. I’m excited to see what they pitch to me, and what their dreams are and kind of how I can help, regardless of global travel and events.
We had to cancel it last year because there were no events, and I was like, “We can do this a different way and keep girls inspired and keep girls on bikes.” So I’m still continuing with Next Gen, and then I’m hoping to relaunch another book this year as well in my Girls Can B program.
Are you reviewing all of those applications personally?
Buchanan: Yeah. So I’ll put it out probably at the end of February, or early March to Australian girls in the BMX bike disciplines. I’m going to teach them everything from being their own brand, how to invest in themselves and how invest into their goals, but also how to be accountable to your sponsors of the future. At 14, these are not things that they’re aware of. So it’s really about building the whole brand of them. Then they’ll document their journey and I’ll continue to share that too, and inspire the next year’s girls that come through.
Now all my numbers are back to the best of my career, if not higher than where they've ever been. So I'm just waiting for racing and the world to open up.
Tell me a little bit about aligning with Trek. What is your partnership with Trek like, and how is that relationship mutually beneficial for your goals and Trek’s goals?
Buchanan: For the last year and a half now, I’ve been on Trek bikes. And for me, I went to them and I was like, “I want to ride your bikes.” For me, I always saw Trek as the pinnacle, elusive brand. All my friends rode it. I’ve definitely seen the alignment through a lot of my sponsors as well, with Fasthouse and with SRAM-RockShox. And a lot of the riders on the C3 Project, they’re all my friends, we’re all supported by the same industry, so I thought, “This is definitely the brand that I not only want to be around at the races, but I just want to support long term.” I loved what they were doing.
And it’s been crazy now because being back in Australia, COVID has just boomed our mountain bike industry, and at every Bike Park and Kids Park, the amount of kids on Treks — and high end Treks, which is unreal — they’re just everywhere. So that’s been pretty rad to see.
And they’ve just been super accommodating. We worked on a custom smaller prototype Ticket last year, which has really been aimed towards my goals of pump track and the freestyle discipline. So I needed a smaller Ticket to achieve those goals.
It’s honestly the sickest bike I’ve ever had. It’s turned a few eyes already. Everything from it being shorter to more compact, shorter standover height, all of the geometry is littler, it’s wider. So out of the Trek fleet, that custom prototype smaller Ticket is the favorite.
You mentioned that the delay in the Olympics gave you a little bit more time to get up to full speed. Do you feel like you’re up to full speed now? Do you feel like you’re back to where you were before your surgeries?
Buchanan: Yeah, I do. Initially a lot of the healing time was just trying to heal my sternum bone. That was the longest one. After three redo surgeries, it was the third and final one that worked. It took a lot of time, nine months, just to heal, and then from there it took more time to work on my posture and conditioning, and sort of rebuild my immune system. And then from there, I was able to go back to being a high performance sport athlete, and I could really bring in strength and conditioning and do the heavy weight in the gym, holding front squats and back squats and really put that load through my spine.
Now all my numbers are back to the best of my career, if not higher than where they’ve ever been. So I’m just waiting for racing and the world to open up and get back out there.
And in getting back to full gas now, did you have any hesitancy mentally? Your accident wasn’t on a bike, but you do sort of realize how vulnerable the human body can be. Did you have any hesitancy really throwing yourself around again on a bike?
Buchanan: No, no, not really. I think it was the combination of going through those two years and the complications of it. Obviously you have your real down days going through your injury, when it’s so long and I’m out of my career and not doing what I’ve done my entire life. I had this real negativity around my sternum just not healing, and it was a real mental shift for me just to go like, “I have to be really patient, and I have to love this bone in my body that heals super slow but it protected my organs.” So I really shifted my mindset around going, “It may have punctured and collapsed my lungs and punctured my heart wall and did damage, but it at least saved me.”
Finally, when I got the last CT scan, the surgeon was like, “You really can’t do this damage on a bike. So I hope that gives you confidence.” And that was all I needed to hear. I was like, “All right, if a vehicle with that much weight and that much force can do this damage, I now know the amount of metal and hardware which is in my chest, I’m pretty good to get back on a bike and do the career that I lead, and do massive front flips and back flips and tricks and bomb down mountains.”
I think that was a confidence boost, and a reminder from him to say, “It’s been hell, but live your life.” Much to my mom’s non-agreeance.