Janine Jungfels: The DIY story of Australia’s least known world champion

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On a wet and miserable day high in the Pyrenees mountains eight years ago, an Australian rider claimed a UCI World Championship in a cycling discipline you may never heard of.

Held in Vallnord, Andorra, the 2015 UCI Women’s Observed Trials featured a three-way shootout between Australia’s Janine Jungfels, defending champion Tatiana Janíčková (Slovakia), and Germany’s Nina Reichenbach.

In the slippery conditions, Jungfels held her nerve and emerged victorious on 22 points, a whopping 10 points ahead of nearest rival Janíčková, with Reichenbach taking the bronze.

It remains Australia’s only UCI World Championship gold medal in Observed Trials, a lesser-known mountain bike discipline where riders attempt to pass through a series of gates set out on an obstacle course, without setting foot to ground.

“YOU HAD TO FIGHT FOR EVERY POINT IN EVERY SECTION”

Speaking to AusCycling recently, Jungfels recalls how she rode extensively in World Cups throughout Europe leading up to the championship, to sharpen her skills against the best in the world.

“With competition, strategy comes into play as well, with what risks to take and those sorts of things, because sometimes the courses can be quite technical, but not hard. So that's the advantage of riding more comps. You get a better strategy game,” Jungfels said.

Given the preparation, the Queenslander felt confident heading into the championship, but steady rain on the day of competition made already tricky sections extremely difficult.

“There were a couple of creek sections, so you’re on river rocks and the water came up a bit with the rain, and all the rocks were slippery, and the banks were muddy,” explains Jungfels.

Saturated grass banks and wet logs further challenged riders, but Jungfels remembers putting the conditions out of her mind by focussing on the job at hand.

“Look, I wouldn't say I love [riding in the rain], but you’re just like, ‘Okay, well, this is going to be hard, so it’s going to be hard for everyone.’ I think it’s more just a mental approach.

“It was a good competition in that the rain made it a lot harder. You had to pretty much fight for every point in every section.”

Slovakian Janíčková crashed and incurred the maximum penalty during her run, opening the door for Jungfels, and she recounts the moment she realised the World Championship was hers.

“It was the second last section I rode, and my margin was big enough that I'd won. I rolled out and I had my minder [Carles Diaz] there and another rider that I travelled with [Rick Koekoek], and they were like, ‘You've won!’

“It was a bit surreal. I was just in shock and then ecstatic afterwards I guess, just because I’d been pretty much trying to get that win since the first comp I rode in Canberra in 2009. That was when I was like, ‘Put the head down, I really want to get this title’,” the 2022 Australian national champion said

Despite having just reached the pinnacle of the sport, there was little time for celebration. Spectators scattered in the miserable conditions, while many riders packed up in readiness to travel the following day.

Interest from the media was also sparse, although recognition did come from the close-knit Trials community, with Jungfels saying, “Everyone's always kind of up to date with the latest news there, so there was recognition there, which was nice.”

Jungfels took silver the following year and a bronze in 2018. Combined with a previous bronze in 2013, she is solely responsible for all four Australian World Championship medals in the sport.

SACRIFICE AND SMASHED SHINS

The road to the World Championship involved an incredible amount of personal sacrifice and austerity, with Jungfels starting a Go Fund Me page to help cover the expenses of competing in Andorra.

“If I'm going to be honest, financially you can't live off competition Trials. You could live off riding [exhibition] shows and those sorts of things, and there's lots of riders doing that, but that's not really something that I'm interested in doing,” she said.

While she contemplated moving to Europe in her formative days to be closer to the international Trials scene, career and lifestyle circumstances mean relocating is no longer an option, with Jungfels keeping her skills sharp by creating sections at home and riding with other Trials riders locally.

However, maintaining motivation has been difficult at times in the context of COVID-19.

“It ebbs and flows sometimes. At the moment, I know Glasgow is on the cards. Having a competition to aim for, it makes training a lot easier, because you’re just like, ‘Yep, I can implement this training plan,’ and then you can just stick to it week to week.”

Jungfels, now 34, says years of training and time on the bike has made her far stronger, especially in grip strength and back muscles “because you're like lifting the bike up a lot,” although the extra strength has come at a cost.

“I've had so many injuries. I've had dislocated finger, rolled my ankle two or three times. I had a bulging disc in my lower back.

“It also will kill your shin modelling career if you don’t wear shin guards,” she laughed.

The technical skills acquired in Trials has also improved her mountain bike riding as she can “pick certain lines and use Trial techniques to get up and over obstacles,” but perhaps the greatest benefit has been how the sport has changed her mentally.

“When I ride, I can just focus on that, and if you’re stressed about some stuff going on at work, you can go riding. And because it requires so much focus and effort, I just forget about those things,” she said.

“I think also competitions have been good in stressful life situations too, in being able to try and keep a calm head and try to make the right decision. Building physical and mental resilience too, because you're like, ‘Oh, well, I've done harder stuff.’”

FINDING THE TRIALS RIDER WITHIN

The amount of time necessary to develop trials skills puts most people off the sport, with Jungfels suggesting it can take two years of training “just to do the absolute bare minimum basics.”

However, she feels there is an appeal in the sport for those up for a challenge and limited by space, saying she can spend hours on the street or in her backyard practicing skills-based techniques.

“I used to just use chalk, draw squares, and do a couple of hours just out the front [of my house] there. If you’re creative in your thinking, you can pretty much do anything by just creating limits.

“And I really enjoy the fact that there's so many different kinds of techniques that you can use. You can have one obstacle, but use four different techniques to try and get up it. So it's quite diverse. I find I never really get bored.”

While Jungfels’ passion for the sport was ignited when a family friend introduced her to a Trials bike, she also believes there are simple ways to help the sport grow in Australia, such as building Trials parks near existing mountain bike parks, and investing in suitably durable obstacles and infrastructure.

However, her immediate focus is on limiting injury and making the most out of the time she has left in the sport, with Jungfels taking a practical approach to her chances in Glasgow.

“Ideally, I would love to make a podium position, but I need to be realistic of the circumstances. I'm trying to get over and maybe ride one World Cup [beforehand], just to see where my level is at compared to some of the younger riders coming through.

“I'm quite proud of what I've been able to achieve, and of the time I had to go over there and ride in Europe. It's probably some of the most enjoyable time I’ve had actually.

“I've met heaps of different people, heaps of different riders from different countries, and just riding lots of different spots. I can't say there was anything I didn't like about that time.”

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