Over the next few days, Rushlee Buchanan will be striving for a fourth world championship track cycling medal.
Not bad going for a self-confessed “unathletic” youngster who fell off her bike in the first race she entered.
From such an unpromising start has grown a rider who now holds a swag of national road and track titles, is a two-time Olympian and has a reputation of being among the most reliable of international cycling competitors. Buchanan has been described as the “glue” in the New Zealand women’s track programme.
This week the 31-year-old will ride the team pursuit and the four-discipline omnium at the world track championships in Pruszkow, Poland.
As well as giving her the chance to race against the sport’s best – and perhaps better the bronze she bagged at last year’s worlds – she’ll get to spend time with her husband, American rider Adrian Hegyvary.
Any time the pair get to be together is to be cherished. This is a marriage based around cycling.
They both have international obligations – Hegyvary rides pursuit for the US team. They split their time between homes in Cambridge, in the Waikato, and Asheville, North Carolina. Depending on their schedules, they can spend months apart.
It’s not for everyone, but this is their life.
“It’s a kind of strange time, to be honest, when we see each other at track events,” Buchanan says.
“You have your own track time, your own area in the middle of the track and we’re on our own schedule. So sometimes we literally wave at each other from the other side of the velodrome.
“Some days you have the same schedule and are staying at the same hotel, but it’s totally luck of the draw where your country has put you.”
Together or apart, husband and wife share the same goal – to ride at next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
It was a school project on the Olympics that proved pivotal to Buchanan’s sporting career.
“I did the classic kid thing and tried pretty much every sport. I remember my parents [Donald and Vivienne] carting me round. Swimming, tennis, netball – but nothing took my heart like cycling,” she says.
At St Peter’s School in Cambridge, a class project led her to discover that cycling was an Olympic sport.
“I literally went into the garage, got on Dad’s bike and rode round the block,” Buchanan says.
She was hooked. And she had significant help along the way. The day after her early tumble, former New Zealand champion road rider Jack Swart, a family friend, lent her a bike.
Buchanan’s burgeoning talent quickly turned heads. If you look for a pivotal time when she advanced from just another promising young rider, try 2005-07. She won a silver medal in the points race at the world junior championships in Austria in 2005 – and met Susy Pryde.
Pryde was a versatile two-time Olympian and three-time Commonwealth Games rider, who won silver medals in 1998 and 2002 – one on the road and one in mountain-biking.
Their paths crossed when Pryde was taking young riders to the US to enhance their development.
“She scooped me up out of the junior programme and helped me through my first elite year. Those last two years of juniors and the first in the elite were make-or-break years,” Buchanan says.
She had to decide whether to devote herself to her sport, or go to university.
“Women’s cycling was developing internationally and I came into it at a very good time. It was on the up and up, especially in the US,” she says.
Almost 15 years on, Pryde has clear memories of the tough-minded and committed teenager.
“She was obviously already a very fast learner, but [also] a great listener, particularly when things weren’t going well,” she says.
“She had remarkable resilience and maturity to realise there would be another event to perform in, to put things behind her and channel her energy in a positive way.
“To me, that’s one of the key things to really make it in any sport. Keep focusing, bounce back, go again. At her age I remember thinking ‘Oh boy, this girl’s got some gumption’.”
Buchanan has just finished with the United Healthcare professional road team in America after a distinguished 11-year road career, taking in four professional teams.
Not all riders can compete with equal facility on road and track. Buchanan has, and does. At last year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, she rode in the road race, and on the track, winning silver in the team pursuit.
But the road may largely be in the past – with her mind firmly on the track. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics beckon.
They will be her third Games, after London and Rio, where she was part of the team pursuit that finished fifth and fourth respectively.
Buchanan has a clutch of single digit finishes in notable races around the globe.
Most significant are the three world championship bronze medals – with the team pursuit in 2010 and 2017, and most recently, bronze in the omnium last year.
The seven-year gap between pursuit successes included a period when Cycling NZ decided the women weren’t cutting it and threw all its eggs in the men’s basket. There was no women’s track programme.
“A lot happened in those years,” Buchanan says, a touch cryptically.
“It’s water under the bridge, but myself, Lauren [Ellis] and Jaime [Nielsen] stuck together, got on with it and three years later got fourth at the worlds in 2015. So we still did the hard yards, but just didn’t have the opportunities like the men.
“It definitely wouldn’t fly today, but it was all learning.”
Buchanan is reluctant to dip into the imbroglio which has surrounded CNZ for the last year, resulting in resignations; the most high-profile being the departure of men’s sprint coach Anthony Peden.
She says the organisation has given her solid support and she suspects CNZ doesn’t necessarily deserve all of the bad rap it has received.
The women’s programme is now run by the highly-rated Ross Machejefski, and former Welsh women’s cyclist Alex Greenfield.
“It’s now a really good place to be and honestly we’re really enjoying it. I’d be the first to say 12 months ago I wasn’t feeling like I feel now,” Buchanan says.
“I wasn’t sure how the programme was going to go. Sometimes you need a kick up the bum to realise what you have and how you should use it to your benefit. Ross and Alex really worked on the culture of this team.”
Her omnium bronze last year rates as her personal career highlight.
“The women missed our goal in the team pursuit, so to be able to pick myself up, get back on the bike and perform in an event for the first time was pretty cool,” she says.
“It was only in the last 10 laps of the final event [the omnium has four bunch races, with points accumulating along the way] that I realised I could actually get a medal here. It was just a cool day to look back on and recognise the fight I had throughout the day.”
All of which brings us neatly to what lies ahead.
Buchanan relishes the new omnium format. Four bunch races in one day – the scratch, points race, elimination and tempo points race, a 30-lap race where only one rider gets a point each lap.
“I love bunch racing, and that comes from my road background. Timed events didn’t suit me; now it’s very much endurance events that suit me. But this year is going to be a lot harder. I’m now a known name.”
She wants to put her hand up for the omnium in Tokyo next year, along with the team pursuit or madison – the three endurance options for both men and women.
For both Buchanan and Hegyvary, Tokyo could be the end of their long careers.
“We’re both in our 30s, and I’ve been doing this a long time. There are different challenges out there in life I can go and chase.
“I hope I get to the point where I can stop and say ‘this is the right time to do something else’ rather than hate it and then leave it.”
One major factor that will sway their decision is a shared love of dogs.
“We haven’t been able to have any pets for so long because we’ve been on the road,” she says. “I think one day one of us will buy a dog, come home and that will be it.”
Buchanan has plans for a career after competition. She has a business degree, and is doing her masters in sport management. She wants to use her knowledge and experiences to help young women transition from the junior to elite categories, and not just in cycling.
“I’ve seen so many girls struggle through that. It’s a most confusing time – do you go to university or do sport, or move away from home? So many questions.”
* Buchanan will compete in the team pursuit on Friday morning (NZ time) and the omnium Saturday morning.