Living the vanlife: MTB privateer Zoe Cuthbert is treading her own path

Matilda Raynolds catches up with 22-year-old Aussie MTBer Zoe Cuthbert about life on the road.

Matilda Raynolds
by Matilda Raynolds 10.08.2023 Photography by
Piper Albrecht
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Zoe Cuthbert is a 22-year-old from Canberra, Australia who has taken podiums across a multitude of mountain biking disciplines, from pump track to Enduro, as well as throwing herself quite literally downhill. But it is in cross-country that she is making the most noise. A silver at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and then a fourth at this year’s U23 Short Track World Cup in Lenzerheide and a fifth in the Olympic Cross-Country on the same weekend, had people talking.

But what is most impressive about Cuthbert is how she is going about it. As a privateer, living and travelling throughout Europe in her van ‘Possil’, Cuthbert is a solo rider relying mostly on the kindness of strangers and new friends to help live her dream. From dealing with wild pigs, floods, foreign languages, and the highs of an U23 World Cup podium, we catch up with Cuthbert, fittingly, in her van on her way from Morzine to catch a flight to the U23 XC World Championships in Glasgow.


Matilda Raynolds: Zoe, talk to me about #vanlife?

Zoe Cuthbert: Well my van almost didn’t make it. I had to come over the Pyrenees and had to stop a few times to give her a rest – she wasn’t coping with the mountain climbs too well. But it’s awesome; definitely has its pros and cons. After a few weeks I usually run out of water and power so I’ll be trying to recharge in a cafe and then showering in the lake, but it’s a pretty fun experience.

How is it to be living such a raw life and turning up to these World Cups around Europe where your competitors are backed by some of the biggest factory racing teams in mountain biking?

It’s kind of weird to comprehend. But whilst I think it would be easier being in a team, living in a van comes with different pressures with a lot less expectations that a team may put on you. I try to keep things in perspective. But of course when I have no clean clothes, everything is either breaking down or already broken, it’d be nice to lean on a team to just sort it and help me out. 

So who are you leaning on, because you can’t get through these brutal cross-country courses without some assistance on the day? 

Fortunately quite a few of my sponsors have people at the events like Shimano and Maxxis. They’ll help you where they can, but they have to help their team first. Some of the other Aussies help out, but many of them are also athletes so they’re working. But ultimately just meeting some amazing people who are willing to help, who are fans of the sport. Even to just get bottles handed during the race or tech support; they are just people who I’ve met over here. 

Are there many others living this van life?

There are a lot in Enduro, but really no others in XC, and there aren’t many Aussies over here either.

Talk me through your amazing fourth and fifth at Lenzerheide?

It was awesome. Last year I came ninth in three races, and I was just always consistently around that top 10, so to break into the top five gave me a lot of confidence that I can do this and race against these top girls. It felt like a huge step.

I actually did a bit of work with a sports psychologist around confidence and believing that I am good enough to do it.

Cuthbert celebrating fifth in the U23 women’s XCO event at the Lenzerheide World Cup earlier this season.

The courses look brutal. What sort of training are you doing to prepare and what data are you producing to be on the podium in these races (sorry, I know that’s a very roadie question)?

I only got a power meter in the last few weeks, but my heart rate rarely gets above 160 bpm in training. In these races it’s upwards of 180-190 bpm average for over an hour of racing, and sometimes 200 bpm.

I actually split my training 50/50 with doing a heap of riding on enduro trails, and then doing intervals and long rides on my cross-country bike, as well as the gym, but leading up to Worlds I’m really dialling in my XC riding. 

You must be one of the only riders who has had a top-five in an XC World Cup and is also racing the Enduro World Series. How are you going with that balance?

It’s definitely not that common in XC. In my mind I’m a cross-country rider who’s doing Enduro. I prioritise XC and utilise Enduro for training. 

Do you feel you’ll need to pick one discipline?

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve already chosen XC, but I love Enduro and feel it can be super beneficial for long rides and improving my technical skill on the trails. It’s important for me to keep doing lots of disciplines even if it’s just to improve my XC riding.

I do all the Enduro World Cups I can, which wasn’t my intention but it’s just worked out I’ve competed in almost all of them.

How are you feeling about Worlds in Glasgow?

I haven’t seen the course but it looks pretty exciting with lots of rock features that suit me. It’s hard to have expectations – I feel like I’ve had a great training block, obviously recently introducing power, but I’ve also been struggling with quite a bit of sickness, which has been challenging.

Having six weeks between races has allowed me to decompress and then wind up again for the World Champs. I’m feeling positive but I can never guess my form. I also don’t know who the competition will be – some riders who race elites may race U23 or may race up. I assume Puck Pieterse, who is an U23 but is winning all the elite races, will race the elites with a shot at the overall world title. But you don’t really know; plenty of rumours going around.

This is actually my first World Champs. There’s just been this series of bad luck from COVID restrictions to being sick which has meant I’ve never contested Worlds.

Cuthbert in action at Nové Město earlier this season where she finished 10th in the XCO.

Give us a little more insight into being a privateer.

I’ve always been a privateer. You can choose your own races and own path. The challenge is definitely a lack of support, as well as financial support. Hopefully I can work something out for next year to make it more sustainable.

What’s the worst thing that has gone wrong whilst living in your van?

It’s an old van – it’s older than me. A lot of it has broken. Probably the two worst incidents were when I got bogged in a field. It was midnight, I couldn’t get out of the field, no one spoke English, but it ended up being really wholesome.

I walked into town knocking on doors asking for help. I found this guy who didn’t speak any English, but through a lot of hand gestures I explained the situation and he was able to come down with his wife and his tractor and tow me out. 

And then another one was the rear door on my van broke, where the bikes are, and wouldn’t close; like I couldn’t close it to drive. I was parked on this beautiful hill, completely by myself, taking the locking mechanism apart. It was getting dark and all these wild boars came out with their piglets and they came really close. I was googling “Are wild boars dangerous?” Only if they have young, so I was pretty scared.

I was finally able to get out of there. Completely took apart the rear door mechanism and rebuilt it. 

You should apply for that TV series ‘Alone’, the survivor show!

Yeah I said before I’d even done any races this year, even if the racing goes terribly and I have no money, the life skills that I have learnt, the resilience and independence is just so worth it.

Everyone who’s watching on, back home, overseas, new and old fans, are just so impressed with you – the results alone are amazing but to be living this van life … I know beyond the cool vibe it would be very difficult.

The XC scene in Australia is nowhere near the level in Europe both in competition and support. To travel overseas and make that next step is an enormous leap, mostly out of reach. Many don’t appreciate how difficult it is to be on the start line. Hopefully I’m demonstrating to other Australians that it is possible. 

I really hope with myself and Bec Henderson (elite World Cup winner) being over here that girls back home can see that it’s possible. But it is so common for Australians to come over and be disillusioned or have a bad result and give up.

But talking to Sam Fox, who’s another elite rider from Australia whose just signed onto a pro team, he mentioned how terribly he did in the first season. Just because you do badly when you arrive doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it. I think because the Europeans do well from such a young age it’s not really talked about. We forget we just have a lot to learn from the size of the huge crowds, to the courses, altitude, and competition.   

It’s a bit of a rite of passage for most Australians. You hear some crazy privateer stories, from hitch hiking to sleeping on trains. As difficult as it is, people are so kind and willing to help. 

What are your immediate and future goals?

Definitely to step up and race elites next year which is more exciting than daunting. I feel like I’m ready. There’s no ‘buts’ in elite – you do well in U23 ‘but’ it was U23. In elites you’re racing the best in the world, period.

I try not to make goals around race results because so much of your position in the field is out of your control. I can’t put a number on it; I’m not even sure of the startlist. But once you’ve had a taste of the top you definitely want to stay around that area. I just want to keep chipping away, keep improving, overall.

It’s difficult to consistently have good results in XC because of the different courses, ebbs and flows of form and weather. It’s difficult to constantly be winning but it is what makes the racing so exciting.

Ultimately I want to sign onto a professional team. I love being a privateer but it’s not sustainable. Shout out to any pro teams – I’m open to any offers!

We wish you massive good luck at Worlds, Zoe. We’re all willing you on and congratulations on treading such an important path for hopefully more riders to follow … maybe minus the wild boars!

Thank you so much!

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