Catching up with Caroline Buchanan on the new chapter in her career
Caroline Buchanan has five bikes with her in Auckland, New Zealand, where she’s spending quarantine ahead of Crankworx Rotorua. That’s a bike for every discipline she’ll be tackling at the event: speed & style, whip-off, downhill, pump track and dual slalom.
It’s her first Crankworx of 2021, closing a year of transformation and milestones. She’s smiling. She’s bouncing. She’s been biking competitively since she was a kid, but this year she turned her primary attention to freeride mountain biking for the first time in her career. She can’t wait for the event to get started.
“It is really re-energizing. It’s good to feel those nerves again,” Buchanan says. “I love that feeling of fear and the unknown, and being excited again, being challenged.”
Rotorua is the last of three stops on the Crankworx tour this year. Buchanan isn’t the only Trek rider aiming to close the season with a bang. Casey Brown, the two-time Queen of Crankworx, will be taking on the whip-off, downhill and dual slalom events. And Emil Johannsson needs no introduction: He’ll be going for his sixth consecutive Crankworx slopestyle win, and the coveted Crankworx Triple Crown title for any rider who can manage to win all three slopestyle contests in the year.
Crankworx event finals run from Nov. 4-8, with speed & style up first on Thursday, Nov. 4, followed by downhill and whip-off on Friday, slopestyle and pump track on Saturday, and dual slalom on Sunday. You can catch all the events live — for free! — on Red Bull TV.
The event will be particularly meaningful to Buchanan, who will be competing nearby (relatively speaking) her home country of Australia. She’s making the most of the trip, staying in New Zealand through the first two weeks of December so she can also participate in the Crankworx Summer Series, which is a showcase of individual Crankworx disciplines taking place across the country.
Below, we caught up with Buchanan about being part of the women’s freeride movement, building dirt jumps in her backyard and whether she’ll ever slow down (the short answer: no). The follow conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I love that feeling of fear and the unknown, and being excited again, being challenged.
Your focus this year was to really push your freestyle progression. How do you feel about what you’ve been able to accomplish this year?
Caroline Buchanan: Coming towards the end of 2021 now, looking back over the last 10 months, I would say it’s been a hell of a ride. One of my major goals was to go to the Tokyo Olympics for BMX racing. So preparing my mind and body and just the physical strength requirements to get there, I got very close. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the selection for the team. So I wasn’t able to tick off that third Olympic Games for myself, which was that final stone in BMX I wanted to turn.
So for me, it was quite a quick turnaround. I got the phone call one day that I wasn’t selected for the team and the very next day I got another phone call from Audi Nines saying, ‘Hey, this is the first year we’re gonna have women involved, representing freeride mountain biking. Do you want to come to Germany and be amongst these first nine girls?’ It was like, one door closed, the next door opened, and very, very quickly I knew at that time that I was going to hang up my BMX bike, officially retire and really focus all my attention on mountain biking.
I know the Olympics was a big goal of yours. I’m sure it was disappointing not to go. How did you cope with that? Did mountain biking help?
Buchanan: To an extent I was a little bit disappointed. But I was coming back from so much time out from the sport and injuries, and I knew that if I could set that goal to get to an Olympic Games — the lifts, the gym, just the capacity of strength that I needed to have to get there — I knew that if I got to those levels, I’d be prepared for anything that I needed in my cycling career. So I kinda was like, ‘I’m here. I’m ready.’ And to be honest, when I was in those final moments — I didn’t know if the World Cups would be canceled, maybe the Olympics would be canceled — I was watching the progression of freeride around the world, and I saw women doing the very first backflip that had ever been done in Crankworx, and I’m just watching this unfold in front of my eyes, and I wanted to be on that train as well.
So I guess it was a real pulling force that was driving me towards freeride mountain biking. I think I was disappointed with not going to the Olympics, but at the same time I was semi-relieved just to follow my passion and where I think I need to be in the sport right now.
I saw women doing the very first backflip that had ever been done in Crankworx, and I'm just watching this unfold in front of my eyes, and I wanted to be on that train as well.
What was the Audi Nines experience like? Being part of the first group of women to be there, and also making history with your front flip?
Buchanan: We were the first nine girls to ever go. A real broad mix, from a 14-year-old German girl, right through to a 40-year-old UK girl. We came from all different backgrounds of cycling. They did a really good job of pulling a whole bunch of skill sets together to come to one place and take on something that we’ve never done before.
And for me, I had a goal coming in. I’ve been practicing my front flips at home on my backyard set up. In this two-month window of not qualifying for the Games, and turning around to prepare for Audi Nines, I rebuilt my whole backyard with dirt jumps, got a builder to come in. We rebuilt some Crankworx-specific speed and style ramps, like the nine foot takeoffs. And I also filled up my airbag a little bit more proper so I could learn these tricks and be safe.
So I landed four or five successful front flips to my airbag. And going over to Audi Nines, I knew that if there was that perfect setup, and I landed this front flip to the dirt over there, that it was going to be a world’s first in women’s mountain biking.
It was mental to say the least [laughs]. It was a really good progressive environment for the women to get in and ride features. Like I’d never rode a whale tail, I’d never rode a quarter pipe, I never rode these things. So to get in and get my hands amongst it, and then to walk away successfully landing a world’s first and best trick of the comp, that was pretty cool.
You’ve been a competitor for a really, really long time in a lot of different disciplines. Does it feel refreshing or reinvigorating to be on this journey in women’s freeride?
Buchanan: It is really re-energizing. It’s good to feel those nerves again. Like even coming into this first week of Crankworx, the very first event is speed and style. And for me, that’s one where it has that element of my racer background, going head to head in that dual slalom format. But then there’s the trick component. So for me, that’s my main focus. I love that feeling of fear and the unknown, and being excited again, being challenged.
I think having a career since the age of five racing BMX, going to world championships at nine years old, and now being in my 30s, to have such a successful long-term career, to have those options I think has really given me longevity in the sport, and the ability to feel refreshed and still feel motivated and excited.
Tell us more about your preparation for Crankworx, especially for the speed and style event. What do you have in store?
Buchanan: Yeah, so my backyard at home, the rebuild has really helped me prepare. Going to things like Audi Nines, as well. Looking at the last two years, basically the progression has stayed the same. They’ve finally changed the scorecard. So being able to look at the scorecard, knowing what the tricks score and knowing my speed in comparison to the girls, I’ve basically got a rough game plan. The goal is to backflip the top jump, and then tuck no-hand at the bottom. I feel like that would be a really solid run with my speed, and hopefully get me through to the finals and onto the podium.
You can't be what you can't see.
You’re basically in New Zealand for two months with the Summer Series as well. What are you doing after that? Any plans to sit still, or are you on to the next thing?
Buchanan: Definitely on to the next thing. I’m always hungry to push, especially right now, in mountain biking. There’s the industry support, the event support and there’s the girls that are hungry in this freeride space. So, for me, watching a year ago, when it was not necessarily aa movement, to now, really seeing this whole wave and energy, I just want to keep being a part of it and pushing it. For me, I guess you could say I’m towards the end of my career, so it’s more of that legacy piece.
And then there’s work on my scholarship program, Ignite. I just ignited some girls’ scholarships in Australia. So the plan over Christmas and New Year’s is to break my goal of giving $100,000 back to women in sport. We’re getting quite close now at the $97,000 mark. So that’s one of the next goalposts.
What have you seen in the last year that has made you so encouraged about the women’s freeride scene?
Buchanan: It’s just been the perfect blend of everything, to be honest. Tokyo brought in five new action sports to the Summer Olympics with freestyle BMX, skateboarding, surfing — that’s been a huge push on women’s action sports development. I think as soon as one sanctioning body does something, the next follows, and it puts pressure on Audi Nines to do it, then it’s going to put pressure on Nitro Circus to do it, and then X Games. They all follow. That’s been a really big stepping stone that it’s on that Olympic front now.
The other thing I really think is lockdown. All the athletes not competing, and going back to their homes, being back in those environments where they’re not worried about competition and can focus simply on progress, I think that was a really good point. That women’s freeride hashtag on social media, following that movement and the progression, you are seeing girls over the world landing bar spins, landing backflips, myself landing a world’s first front flip. You can’t be what you can’t see. And now that we’re seeing it, and the industry is seeing it, and the events are seeing it, we’re here, and it’s arrived.
Have you started looking forward to 2022 and what you’d like to accomplish next year?
Buchanan: Luckily I’ve locked away my sponsors and partners for 2022. As I said, I want to hit $100K of support back to women in sports. So through my Ignite scholarships, lining up merchandise and things like that, that’s a huge goal.
But for myself, personally, I would love to do the whole Crankworx series. So if we do kick off in Australia, that stop, then Austria for the next one. Hopefully back to Whistler for the third. And then wrapping it up in New Zealand again for the fourth. So a whole Crankworx tour. Maybe pumptrack worlds if I can get to it again would be another goal. And then back to Audi Nines. And Sea Otter in Australia too.