It's safe to say Maria Larkin is the competitor travelling furthest to compete in this weekend's National Cyclocross Championships, writes Stephen Barry.
Call it a delayed Christmas homecoming if you will, but the Mayo native once again flew across the Atlantic midweek to try to claim the title of Irish champion.
“It's killing two birds with the one stone,” says Larkin, “coming home to see the family and then get the race in as well.”
Living in Chicago on and off since 2009 and a full-time Windy City resident for the last six years, Larkin returns to compete in the winter cycling event for a fourth time, having collected two silvers and a bronze from her first three January trips.
She arrived unknown to the Irish cyclocross circuit in 2015 for the first of those medals, and returns this year to an event which sees previous champions Beth McCluskey and Fran Meehan marked absent.
But before we travel forward in time to Sunday's race, it was Larkin's emigration to the States which brought her into cyclocross – a sport she describes as being “like a cross between cross-country running and steeplechase”. Not quite mountain biking, so, but cycling parkland circuits through mud, sand, grass and even dismounting to get over hills and obstacles.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re slipping down on your arse in the mud,” Larkin laughs. “It’s a good spectator sport because the riders are moving a bit slower and you can see the technique and everything that’s going on.”
An architect by trade, Larkin left DIT for America during the construction collapse as one of the only members of her class with a job coming out of college.
“I didn’t have very much money when I started off in Chicago and I needed a way to get around. It’s really flat so I got a cheap bike, about $100, and it ended up needing repairs.
“I went into this bike shop and that’s where I met the husband, Kyle. He was already into bikes and it was an easy way to plug into a small community within a big city to make it feel a bit friendlier.
“I didn’t do cyclocross straight away, I did road racing and velodrome racing, so I wasn’t up to much the first year I did it. It’s very technique based. I didn’t have that knowledge of the sport or even know there was Nationals.
“I raced for a couple of years and decided I’d come home for Christmas but it’s a bit more expensive to fly home then and, it was as good an excuse as any, I saw the race was in Swords (in January 2015).
“I didn’t know what to expect and they didn’t know what to expect. I ended up getting second and then I got a bit more serious about it.
“I enjoy the skills aspect, and the mud too. It’s challenging and mentally difficult to be in the wet, mud and cold.”
This year’s visit is shorter (although she did manage to fit in a pre-season Mayo football match) because, all going well, she hopes to return to Europe to compete in the World Championships next month.
Cycling Ireland has refused to send national elite champions to previous championships but published a list of selection criteria last summer to add clarity to the process.
“They’re slowly opening up the World Championship teams, which I think is great. They released new criteria and I’m hoping to get that spot because I’ve done most of the things on that list.
“If I’m top-three on Sunday that’s enough to qualify. I’m cutting my trip short in the hopes that I’ll make it, because the World Championship is February 4th.
“I’d love to have that jersey and represent Ireland on a world stage.”
Currently racing in the jersey of her team, The Meteor p/b Allied, it can be tough for her to sustain her high-level sporting life and work.
“I’m still working full-time as an architect and it’s very hard as a woman to make money off of cycling. Women’s sport isn’t exactly paid very well anywhere but women’s cycling is particularly bad.
“To get onto a good professional road team, you might only make $10,000 a year – that’d be really good money, unless you get on one of the very top European pro teams.
“In cyclocross, I’d say there’s about three American women who are making enough money for themselves in a year. Oftentimes, spouses have a full-time job and are helping out too as the mechanic. There’s a lot of couples like that.”
As for Sunday at Glencullen Adventure Park in Dublin, the competition will be somewhat of a mystery to Larkin, but it’s nothing she’s unused to.
“Every year I come back and I don’t really know because some people stay in the sport for years and some people go in and out.
“This year Beth isn’t racing and every year I think I’ve been improving, so we’ll see what happens. You never know.
“If I was racing here at least I’d know where I’d stand. That’s the thing I’m most nervous about.”
- Digital desk