Natural Born Racer

Rushlee laughs a lot. This time she’s laughing at herself, again: “I'm far more nervous for tonight than I am for the bloody World Champs!” After already completing her prescribed daily gym and road sessions, she’s on the rollers warming up and getting ready to join the rest of the riders for the Te Awamutu club’s track night at the Avantidrome.

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“I've said this before and people think I'm crazy but T.A. racing is some of the hardest racing I've ever done. You don't ever peak for it, you just turn up and do it. Racing the guys, in the rain, on the tough chip seal roads, it’s some of the best race training you can get. But I'll give it to them tonight, I’ll just get in there, don’t really care, nothing to lose. Just fun!” she says, laughing again.

WORLDS APART

Combining racing for the New Zealand track squad with racing for the US-based UnitedHealthcare Pro road team, it would be fair to say Rushlee has a busy life, but one she has in common with her husband, Adrian Hegyvary. Uniquely, the couple both race for the same road team as well as racing for their respective national track squads, although the two often find themselves on completely different timetables. “We'll go to a crit and although we only race for an hour and a half we don’t even see each other because we're on different squads, different races and different schedules. Even when we travel with the track it's really luck of the draw.”

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Together they split the year between Cambridge and their US home in Asheville, which is nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. “It’s really good training there, too. There’s tree covered mountains all around but we only live at 800 metres so they are not snow covered all year. The vibe is really chilled, it’s a craft beer and culinary capital with an awesome music scene. It’s just cool, it’s like a little oasis.” But it’s also the racing that draws her to the States every year. “People say you haven’t made it until you go to Europe, which I don't necessarily think is fair because it’s totally different racing. Don’t get me wrong, I've done the Spring Classics, and Europe is definitely hard, but racing at altitude or across a desert in America is not easy riding either; it’s just different. With UHC we are able to pick and choose what races we do. We race all the big races in America and choose the ones suited to us in Europe: Quality not quantity.”

Indeed, UHC showed their depth of quality during the 2017 Tour of California. Although squeezed out of the race lead (by a heartbreaking one second) on the last day by UCI World Tour winner Anna van der Breggen and her strong Boels-Dolmans team, they still took the team and the mountain classifications, with Rushlee awarded the most courageous rider on the last day. “I think they felt sorry for me because I literally sat on the front of the peloton for two whole days,” she laughs, “But my teammate Katie Hall was in the yellow jersey and leading by one second over Van der Breggen, so it was like a UHC-Dolmans battle. It was so fun and it was so intense, there was yelling and it was really aggressive but it was cool. I was just thinking, 'Stuff you, you think you're going to come here and win easily and boss these American teams around. Nah, we’re going to fight for it!' And it was fun to give it to them, some of the most fun I've had on the bike; challenging and fighting for position all the time.”

It’s this kind of take-it-to-them fighting spirit that’s earned Rushlee multiple national titles; looking through the history books, in fact, it’s hard to find a year she hasn’t been national champion since she started racing at age thirteen. The first and only woman to rack up four national road titles, this current national criterium champion notched her elite first win back in 2009: aggressive racing and tactical know-how come naturally to her. “I just create opportunities, I've always been like that, always. When you're in the race and the race is happening and you're just attacking or following wheels and the race is moving and flowing you are just so in the moment. It's so awesome that feeling, racing like it's instinctive.”

STILL HUNGRY

With three Commonwealth Games and two Olympic Games under her belt, let’s say she is one of the more experienced members of the New Zealand squad. “Yeah. I'm now the oldest on the track team. It's official,” she laughs, but Rushlee clearly has no inclination to back off just yet. Indeed, her tone changes when she speaks of her future, a more mature and seasoned Rushlee steering her focus toward exploring what she is ultimately capable of, determined to hone her strengths for even more success.

“I feel like I'm really in a good place now, free to choose what I really want to focus on. So I think in the next few years you'll see me maybe do [fewer] events but I'll be choosing my challenges and then going after them.

“I definitely don't think I have reached my potential yet, reached the top of me yet. I don't know what that top is but I feel I still have more. And that is exciting,”  she beams, her passion obvious, “And that is what still drives me.” 


Words & Images: Russel Jones & Tim Bardsley-Smith

This first appeared in Volume 6 print edition of the New Zealand Cycling Journal. Subscribe Today.