Kiwi mountainbiker's fast track to Olympics

FAST TRACK: New Zealand's Karen Hanlen is riding in a mountainbike event at the Olympics only two years after taking up the sport.
FAST TRACK: New Zealand's Karen Hanlen is riding in a mountainbike event at the Olympics only two years after taking up the sport.

A pile of good luck letters from room 12 at Apanui Primary School are among Karen Hanlen's treasured possessions in the Olympic athletes' village.

The physiotherapist at Whakatane Hospital, and mum-of-two, smiles broadly when she recalls receiving the hand-written notes from some of her smallest fans. Not that the 32-year-old needs much reminding that the whole Bay of Plenty town is willing her on, in Hanlen's Olympic mountainbiking debut at Hadleigh Farm in Essex tomorrow night (NZ time), just two years after buying her first bike.

"It's really special, you get these little kids writing letters and they're so cute. They've got dreams of Olympics too and to be here as proof it can happen, you can just encourage them and I'm pretty excited about that," Hanlen said.

"I've had heaps of messages; lots of schoolkids sending through little letters of support. I wouldn't be here without the support of my community. They've made it possible with fundraising and giving me the opportunity to race at the World Cup to gain selection. I'm representing New Zealand but I'm doing it for Whakatane."

As Hanlen brushes past megastars LeBron James, Usain Bolt or Serena Williams in the athletes' village, hers is the feelgood story of the 184 New Zealand athletes, a throwback to the amateur era.

A former mountain runner, Hanlen took up multisport in 2010 but didn't own a bike. She parted with $3000 to buy a carbon fibre model on TradeMe, then discovered she was quite good at it. A year later she was locked in a two-way battle with 2008 Olympian Rosara Joseph for New Zealand's solitary spot in London.

Still working as a physio, she and husband Mark, a physical education teacher at Whakatane High School, took out a second mortgage to fund her qualifying campaign in World Cup events. Then Hanlen's workmates and the townsfolk mobilised. Movie screenings and car washes were among the fundraising drives and she soon had $7000 in the kitty. She won the national and Oceania titles, then sealed her selection with an eighth placing in a top field in South Africa in March.

Now her five-year-old son, Caleb, is a minor celebrity at Awakere Primary, his mum's old school.

"Caleb's getting a lot of attention at school so I think he quite likes that. Aramia, who's three, knows mum is away mountainbiking. I guess when they get older they'll know exactly what I've done. It'll be a few more years, then they probably won't believe me," Hanlen laughs.

Having toured the World Cup circuit largely on her own, Hanlen savoured her welcome into the athletes' village last weekend. She's hit it off with the cycling team-mates she shares an apartment with; Sarah Walker, Natasha Hansen and Linda Villumsen, the latter already with her tale of Olympic heartbreak after finishing 1.8sec off a bronze medal.

Hanlen's final lead-up race, a 21st placing in the rain in France on July 28 after three weeks of altitude training, wasn't her best work and she knows her starts need improvement.

The first five to 10 minutes are crucial in the sprint for positions before they continue on the undulating track that will take around two hours to complete. At least in the Olympics the women's field is restricted to 30 riders, compared with 100-plus in some World Cup events.

"There's a tiny bit more leeway to get yourself back into it if you don't get the most perfect start. But there's always a bit of carnage.

"It's going to be a fast one; it's got a few technical sections but very man made. It's on the side of a hill and very spectator friendly. I think it should suit me. I've run through all the technical parts."

Toughest to beat will be the Canadians, current world champion Catharine Pendrel and Emily Batty, along with Frenchwoman Julie Bresset. When Hanlen was selected, she was given a top-10 finish as a target. While that would represent an excellent showing, she insisted she wasn't going around for experience and would target a medal.

"Anything can happen in mountainbiking; that's the beauty of it. I want to do well at these Games. I haven't really thought past this. Who knows what will happen; I didn't expect to be here last year, it's a pretty big bonus."