I should start to thank the rainy days here in Gavirate, as I’m forced to slow down and take in all that I have experienced and achieved this year. I just finished reading the last blog I published in March. How things have turned around for both the team and myself in the last 3 months. The spring classics brought nothing but injuries, bad luck, disagreements and frustration to Orica-AIS. Coming into 2015 Orica had seen a full revamp, injecting a number of new riders and consequently new personalities. Like in any work environment, it takes time to understand other colleagues 'work processes' and adjust to their idiosyncrasies. It’s the same for professional cycling, but it’s even more intense because you don’t clock off at 5pm but instead go eat dinner with them, sleep next to them and wake up to them! So you can only image how stressful this living environment can get when the team isn’t performing well. There have been a few instances over the past months where I have questioned my decision to pursue my dream as a professional cyclist. I always come back to the same point - I love racing my bike. Plus, I get to travel the globe, generally wake up at late, eat heaps, sleep even more and have massages on a regular basis, so really in retrospect, my life doesn’t seem that bad. On a serious note, when I’ve been pushed to my physical and mental limit it has brought on growth and positive change that I would have not experienced if I hadn’t been faced with these challenges. This year has allowed me to understand myself better as a person foremost, and secondly to develop my ability to be a loyal teammate and friend. Racing for Orica-AIS has taught me to be more accountable, honest, selfless, patient, forgiving, thoughtful and most importantly punctual (although I’m still working on that final point). So anyone out there that wants to improve on one or all of these personal characteristics, I encourage you to become a professional cyclist….or instead, join a cult.
Since my first World Cup Drenthe (the disaster race), I have completed 2 more World Cups, Cittiglio and Flèche Wallone. Both these races went a lot smoother than my first and the courses suited my racing style a lot better. I even got myself ‘in front’ of the race in Flèche for a brief moment, bridging across to an American rider that was in a solo breakaway. This was short lived and the bunch swallowed us up 30km from the finish. Although it did create the top teams to waste energy on the front to bring us back (this was my job for the day, the sacrificial lamb as they say).
I have also completed 3 stage races, Energiewacht Tour in April, Luxembourg in May and Bira just the other week. I put my hand up for Energiewacht Tour in Holland because I knew I had to go back and face my fears of ‘Dutch racing' and gain more experience on flat, hectic (large pelotons of up to 170 riders) and windy races. This turned out to be a brave move as Energiewacht has a reputation of being a very tough tour hosting gale force winds, rain and echelons. My goals for this tour included, fight for, and hold good position in large pelotons, learn how to ride echelons correctly, and get my bitch face on. To give you a brief description of what the racing is like in Holland. Well, imagine you have to catch the only boat home and there are only 10 spots on that boat, but 150 people want to get on. So it’s a race to the port and the entry is a 'bike path’ sized road. It’s desperate, people are taking massive risks, women are screaming at you to move out of their way, but all you can think is, ‘I have to get there first’. That’s Dutch racing. If you miss that first break where the road narrows and the crosswinds hit, you've missed the boat. And you drown. I died a number of deaths that week but somehow came out the other side unscathed even after a near miss of flying over my handlebars into the canal. Lucky for the canal fence, my front wheel wedged into it and stopped my momentum and I had the time to grab onto the fencing and pull myself back down to earth…I missed the boat that day and almost got hyperthermia. But Holland isn’t all bad. The bakery goods are incredibly tasty; the bread is on another level! I also was given the opportunity to ride my first ever Teams Time Trial. That was a special day for me, and to top it off, we just missed out on the podium coming 4th with 3 virgin TTT members. Marv was a proud dad. That was our best team result that week, so the feeling around the team was fairly melancholy.
Tour of Luxembourg
This tour was a different story for both myself and the team. The style of racing was much more suited to me, circuit style courses (laps) on undulating terrain. The tour began with a 6km prologue which was pretty much up a 2km climb, flat for 2km and then the run down into the finish. I was first off the rank for our team and I managed to clock the fastest time, despite making multiple technical mistakes. The coaches’ response was “that was a shocker! Imagine if you took the shortest line and cornered correctly, you could have won it!" I learnt a lot that day about the right line to take by following my teammates Mel Hoskins and Kat Garfoot in the team car during their prologue - both experts in their field. Both Kat and I finished in the top 10 that day so I felt confident going into day 2. As the tour went on our team went from strength to strength with Spratty sprinting to 3rd place in a four women breakaway, a long awaited podium result for this hardworking and diligent athlete. Day 3 was spent racing in torrential rain, at times I felt like I was actually in the sea swimming, not riding my bike. With 20km to go we had the whole team in a select group of 25 riders, which gave us the luxury of being the aggressors. Kat timed her attack perfectly and rode away with 3 others to finish 2nd in the stage. She almost managed to steal the overall tour! Post race, the 'baby wipe’ shower didn’t seem all that bad after our team’s successful tour. As we alI wiped grit from eyes, the same feeling resonated around the team, Orica is BACK! Now to the next battle, the 7-hour car trip back to Italy.
Our team were carrying some newfound confidence going into Birra, knowing that we CAN be there contesting with the best female cyclists in the world. I had come off a solo win in Switzerland, my first European win! This was a smaller one-day race, a circuit style course (9 laps of a 9.2km circuit) that featured a punchy short climb with technical narrow farm roads. Perfect for me. We had a strong team and knew we had multiple options with our riders. On the 2nd last lap, I attacked on the decent, knowing that I could ride it faster than the group of riders that were there. The only gamble was if I could hold off the peloton for another full lap. The team did a fantastic job of slowing up the bunch for that final 10km’s and I managed to stay away. You bloody ripper! And it was the first win for the team this year. Then to top things off, Gracie Elvin won 5hrs later in Belgium. Our drought was well and truly broken, and it was pouring!
So after 2 wins and multiple podium results, as a team we knew that winning Birra or taking some stage wins was a real possibility. Birra was a 5-day tour but it also included a one-day race, Durango the day before the tour began. The Durango course had 2 solid climbs, ranging from 5-7km and gradients up to 15%. The final climb was only 15km from the finish so we knew that the selected group that crested over that final climb first would generally stay away for the run into the finale. Our plan was to have numbers going over that final climb which would allow either Emma Johansson or Kat Garfoot to attack near the summit and extend that gap on the decent into the finish. Now in bike racing, circumstances can change instantly and the team plan can quickly go out the door. But today it was Orica's day. Everyone played an important part in the race, from early on when Rachel Neylan had to control the pace so an early break didn’t blow out to an unreachable mark and then Vale and Spratty forming a breakaway over the first climb. And then it was both myself and Kat’s shot at 'turning up the heat’ on the final climb. All these individual efforts forced other teams to chase and allowed Emma to sit in and conserve her energy until the right moment when she could put in one ‘solid' attack at crunch time when everyone is at their limit. 500m from the top she went, by this time I was dropped from the select group and could see the move go. Only one other Claudia (Rabo-liv) could follow her. As predicted, Emma and Claudia stayed away until the finish and she convincingly won the 2 up sprint. I came across the line a minute or so later bleeding and in shock after crashing (50km/hr) on the decent 10km from the finish. I guess I took that hairpin corner a little too quick and my back end slid out from beneath me. Luck was definitely there for us that day as I walked away with only a few scratches and some ripped knicks. 4 of us finished in the top 10 and we went into Birra with what looked like the strongest team. To briefly sum up Birra, we had 3 riders in Emma, Kat and Spratty that rode very strongly all week. Emma won 2 stages and Kat had 2 podiums, marginally missing out on winning the 2km prologue to Anna Van Vluten. Like Durango, the team rode superbly as a unit and we went away winning the team classification, and Emma Johansson finishing 3rd overall.
Reflecting on my own performance, I went away from Birra a little disappointed I couldn’t be there at the pointy end of the races with the top girls. Now I’m only more motivated to train harder and smarter. Racing the highest level this year has shown me that you can’t get by on ‘natural ability’ alone. I’m learning how to train properly, no more snivelling (meaning: sucking off other riders slip streams), as my coach puts it, ‘I’m training you to be able to push wind’ (which pretty much means, making me as strong as humanly possible). Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to this process. Only time and handwork will get me there. I find it funny how that my posts on social media are ‘happy snaps’ of my glorified life. But behind the scenes no one sees the tears rolling down my cheeks from pain and exhaustion in training, and frustration and disappointment when I don’t reach my goals. Also adding to the fact that my main support network (partner, family and friends) are on the opposite side of the world sometimes only intensifies the emotions and challenges. But I chose this path and I’m going to continue following it as long as I’m moving forward, not backward. Now to face my next challenge - the Giro Rosa, the biggest and longest (10 days) stage race on the professional women’s cycling calendar. You can follow our teams progress in the Giro Rosa through my daily updates written by;
E L L A C Y C L I N G T I P S