|Traversing the marginal gap from good to great|
|Written by Bridie O'Donnell|
|Wednesday, 08 August 2012 22:24|
The Australian women’s road program is being out-performed by the men*
At the London Olympics, we had unremarkable results, with Queenslander Shara Gillow, the reigning AUS and Oceania ITT Champion, placing 13th in the TT and the only finisher in the RR.
Other than the poor performance of our road team in Beijing (by their own admission, Cycling Australia selectors made a mistake: electing to ‘re-present athletes who knew how to win, rather than provide development opportunities for new athletes’), we have had some stellar results given the number of AUS women racing internationally.
Over the past 20 years, we have seen some extraordinary quality in our riders with two Gold medals in the Olympic road race: Kathy Watt in Barcelona 1992 (and silver in the 3km IP) and Sara Carrigan in Athens 2004.
All-rounder Anna Wilson was 4th in both the TT and RR in Sydney 2000, a fantastic performance for the rider who had dominated the US peloton in the late 90s & won stages in European races.
Since the first women’s RR at World Championships in 1958, AUS women have won a bronze (Wood in 2005) and two silver: Liz Tadich in 1997 and Wilson in 1999.
In the time trial (since 1994), Watt won bronze in 1995 and Wilson silver (again!) in 1999.
Oenone Wood was arguably the rider to beat over the beginning of last decade, winning the women’s World Cup while riding as a member of the AIS women’s National team.
She went into Athens as a definite favourite, finishing 4th in the sprint for bronze after Carrigan had broken away with Judith Arndt (GER), who would go on to win the World Championships just a few weeks later.
These were fantastic results. The usual suspects of GER, FRA ITA and NED have always dominated the podium at Worlds but only NED has won more gold than AUS in the RR at Olympic Games and of a small nation with an even smaller population of elite female bike racers, we have earnt the right to be very proud.
In this Olympic year, we started the season ranked sixth behind NED, ITA, GER, USA and GBR. Australian women won UCI 1.1 races (Hosking in Dwingeloo), World Cup races (Hoskins in China), a stage of the Giro Donne (Cromwell in a wonderful 100km solo break) and garnered some podiums through the year (Gilmore in Gatineau & Liberty Classic).
There should also be mention made of the very classy AIS National team rider and reigning Oceania Champion, Gracie Elvin who had some terrific results in her first European season. She secured a contract with Gilmore’s pro team Faren Honda in time for the Giro Donne.
By the Olympic selection cut-off, we had 3 riders in the top 40 in UCI rankings: Hosking 12th, Hoskins 26th & Gilmore 36th (all sprinters), though there was significant drop off in points from world No. 1 Marianne Vos to the ‘rest of the world.’
USA Cycling made their intentions clear very early to use their National team and its key world class riders to improve the nation’s UCI standing in the hope of qualifying a 4th rider for their RR team.
After a series of great results by Armstrong (2nd in Flanders, 1st in Energiewacht Tour), Stevens (winning Fléche Wallone & ExergyTour) and Olds (winning Chongming Island World Cup), they had done what they set out to do.
Australia fielded a less experienced AIS National team, but was represented by more women racing with professional teams in Europe than the US. Like a lot of nations, athletes are looking for personal results rather than altruistically racing for ‘good of the country’ and so we arrived in time for London with one place in the Time Trial and 3 in the Road Race.
Riders’ tendency to ride for personal glory rather than the National good is understandable – a lack of security in teams and small number of high functioning team structures means women will always instinctively protect their position/contract over an attempt to qualify another spot that may go to someone else, just as teams expect total commitment within the limited, underfunded world of women’s professional cycling.
A lack of physical and cultural proximity to the world we’re competing against is a huge barrier for Australian riders, men and women alike. Our physical distance from Europe makes it challenging for young women to leave behind families, partners, jobs & university and live in less than ideal circumstances; they fund themselves, borrow from parents or are supported by their partners., knowing that there will never be the financial rewards the successful men with enjoy, or, with the demise of the Geelong World Cup, the chance to race against the best females on home soil.
The familiar roads, language and culture of home are not accessible, though it’s somewhat eased for those national team riders living at the AIS base in Varese, ITA.
Despite the growing popularity of cycling in major cities in Australia, the rapid increase in bike sales is not translating to an increase in women racing bikes, but we certainly have more active recreational athletes and middle-aged men with disposable incomes buying bikes.
Let’s use the Dutch model of the how to win a Gold medal, seeing as the team of world number 1. Marianne Vos and her three teammates displayed an unparalleled attacking style that set Vos up for the win.
In the Netherlands, people ride bicycles everywhere, all types of people, on all types of bikes.
They commute to school from a young age and see their mothers riding every day. Girls ride to work and university, to meet their friends, and to do the shopping. Pregnant women ride and elderly women ride with their husbands on the weekends.
Dutch women bike racers learn from a young age that there are hundreds of others like them, and ample racing every week to allow for a new champion every day, and a deep resource of female role models, coaches and supporters. (Even if you grew up in Vos’ hometown, you may still win a race, one day)
The Dutch style of racing is aggressive, relentless, honest and hardworking. The ‘hide and sprint’ style is not going to win you races in the early days, given the endless cross winds, pavé and inclement weather they face.
Obviously, this is the extreme example of cycling culture, and Australia is unlikely to fosterthis lifestyle. Nor should we: we have hills in our cities; humid and stifling summers; ‘unfriendly’ motorists; and less than satisfactory public transport systems compared with the Dutch.
As a distinct contrast, another female powerhouse of champion cyclists is Italy. Road cycling is the most popular women's sport and adored a close second behind football. Podium at a world championships or win a stage of the Giro and you’re a national heroine.
Again, the pool of women who race is enormous compared with Australia. Their understanding of tactics, gamesmanship, and their commitment to ‘team’ is exemplary. It’s no surprise that ITA women have won four of the last five road world championships (Bastianelli, Guderzo, Bronzini x 2), all climbers who have had the benefit of numbers in the finales of their races.
Fortunately, however, Australia is a nation that holds elite sport (and a preoccupation with winning) in high regard. We set the standard for sports science and attention to detail in coaching with the founding of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 1981, a model adopted by other nations seeking to excel in sport - no more so than the extraordinary efforts of GB Cycling in the past 4-5 years.
For over three Olympic cycles, we have based women’s National teams in Europe for up to six months.
Since former CA High Performance Director (now GreenEDGE General Manager) Shayne Bannan established a base in Novara and later, Varese, it has been an extraordinary opportunity for AUS athletes to be close to the action.
Of course, it’s not easy for coaching staff to be away from Australia for so long, especially those with partners and children.
Since before the Sydney 2000 Olympics to today, we have seen James Victor, Warren McDonald and former track cycling coach Martin Barras hold the role of AIS women’s road coach (and usually head selector of the world and Olympic teams during their tenure).
Having worked closely with McDonald and Barras, there is no doubt as to their enthusiasm, expertise and commitment to the women’s road program. Over the past four years, Barras has certainly brought his own form of Quebecois ‘energy’ and his preference for competitive training sessions and brutal training/selection camps.
However, in an Olympic year, a coach who’s responsibility is to the AIS national team riders AND the professional riders in selection contention (for numerous countries) AND selecting the team AND then coaching/directing that team at Olympics and world championships is unsurprisingly overcommitted.
When that coach is also in charge of writing the training programs for the AIS team as well as many of the GreenEDGE riders and other professional riders, then of course time management skills are of the essence!
Mostly, our coaching staff have enjoyed great support, but there is no infinite pot of gold to provide these valuable human beings with the holidays, breaks or even weekends off that they so deserve and need to ensure the quality of their efforts does not decline through fatigue.
The role of the coach is of course, not just about embracing sports science and writing a training program, The mental and physical wellbeing of young women in the AIS National team is paramount. ‘Development’ is not just about using riders whose capabilities suit a certain race and then disposing of them once they’re sick, injured, overtrained or no longer ‘useful.’
In the lead up to an Olympic or World Championship road race, we see a very different approach from the elite men’s program than that of the women.
This year in London, our men’s team was composed of experienced veterans, in particular: O’Grady, Rogers and Evans. The women on the other hand were all competing in their first Olympics, all under 25 years old and all coached by the National selector, and AIS head coach, Barras.
Clearly age, experience and maturity are vital components to consistent performance and achieving one’s best on the day that really counts. In the women’s TT in London, the average age of the podium was 36 years old, with gold (Armstrong, USA) and bronze (Zabelinskaya, RUS) medallists both riders who had taken breaks to become mothers.
Arndt (GER), the silver medallist and reigning world champion, has been a world class rider for over a decade.
If a rider doesn’t know what preparation/taper she needs for the all-important 2-4 weeks leading into what may be the biggest race of her career, then she risks arriving overdone (it’s not often we see elite athletes undertrained).
What can we do?
Get girls riding bikes and get women joining clubs that support female membership. I hope that young women riders would want to grow up to be Vos, Teutenburg, Pooley, or Armstrong, and not just name Voigt, Cancellara, Boonen or Evans as their role models.
Encourage racing at all levels. We see men of all shapes and sizes, levels of fitness and degrees of skill entering crits and road races domestically. Women need to take some heart from the fact that one has to start somewhere, and that we can all excel in areas that suit our physiology!
The National Road Series in AUS has gone from strength to strength in the past 12 months, now requiring women to be in a registered team to participate in the 5 race series.
It’s not quite at the level of the men’s events in the series, but it’ll do wonders for the summer racing of crits and the National Championships. Teamwork and responsibility in races is learned and best honed with plenty of practice, error and feedback.
Invest in our national team directors. Their role is a challenging one, but vital to the support, growth and success of a women’s road program. We should endorse an environment where coaches are given the time and opportunity to develop their skills in managing riders and support staff.
All CEOs get training in management, it would be unheard of in high-level corporations for performance reviews not to occur. We know that a huge component of the success of British Cycling has come from a very successful, cohesive staff group, determined to give their best.
Ask the questions about whether the right women are being selected and whether they’re being adequately coached in the lead up to championship events. Spratt and Hosking both were unable to stay in contact with the bunch in the Olympic RR in London, despite both having great results in one-day and stage races this season, and were obviously sound choices for selection in the event.
Reassess the capabilities of our AIS national team. As outlined in a great article about women’s cycling by Prendas DS Stefan Wyman, I agree that riding for your country in a National team is a privilege, not a right. The question of whether National teams should be allowed to race in World Cup events when their Nation is already fielding a Pro team is a valid one.
The women’s track endurance team of Tomic, Hoskins, Cure and Edmondson achieved terrific results and valuable experience racing kermesses and lesser ranked races in Belgium and Holland over the past few years. Winning a race does a lot more for one’s confidence than repeated DNFs in Trofeo Binda, Flanders and Fléche Wallonne, whilst also validating the learning process.
Support our elite women racing in Pro teams. We all know how much the reality of ‘living the dream’ as a pro cyclist departs from the reality . Many riders have inadequate staff support, limited medical care whether healthy or injured and are left off race rosters because they’re foreigners.
When a Pro team chooses not to attend a world cup or a stage race, often a nation will send a National team stacked with elite riders. In Women’s Tour of Qatar, ITA enter a team with Bronzini, Cantele, Baccaille and Guderzo and there is no reason why AUS couldn’t do the same with talented riders who have a quiet race schedule.
Encourage retired riders to give back. There has been an unfortunate but understandable trend of women leaving the pro peloton, only to ‘disappear’ back to their real lives. They choose to start a family, re-enter their careers or go to university, some embittered upon realising their dream was just that.
Not many stay in the community, despite the huge wealth of knowledge and experience they could pass on. They could provide insight, advice, support and advocacy. They could apply for coaching positions, act as domestic team directors or at least be a point of contact for current and future talent.
Expect more of the mainstream media and those who consume it. Thanks to social media, women athletes have never been more recognised, supported and acknowledged for their efforts. But the Olympic coverage has shown the mainstream media still has a way to go in bringing female athletes to the foreground, especially in AUS where football and cricket still dominate the sports pages. It is the personality of these extraordinary women, their struggles and dreams that make great media and fans, not simply badly commentated races.
We have extraordinary staff in this country – scientists, masseurs, mechanics and coaches. We have motivated and passionate riders who are inspired to quit their ‘real lives’ and live in foreign countries chasing their ‘ideal lives’. We have an enormous and supportive fan base that includes our loved ones and friends who continue to encourage and inspire us. And we have a Sports Commission that funds our sport and expects it to thrive.
I think we can do better, I think we can traverse the marginal gap between good and great.
*We are still outperforming the other non-European countries that share the challenges of geography, bike racing culture and depth/quality. But if we compare our performances with the AUS men’s team, something is amiss.