Interview with Jessie MacLean

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Orica-AIS rider Jessie MacLean had a childhood full of volleyball, hockey and rowing and it was only in 2000 that she left those behind and took up cycling. The year after receiving a scholarship with the ACT Academy of Sport, Jessie won the U19 Pursuit at the Australian Nationals. She won gold at the Junior World Pursuit Championships the following year.

Robin Parsons caught up with Jessie to learn a bit more about her experience as a domestique/lead-out rider in the Orica-AIS squad and what she’d like to achieve in the coming years.

How did you first get into the sport? And what memories do you have of your first club?

My first and only club is the Canberra Cycling Club. The Canberra cycling community is big (we love cycling in the ACT) but we’re also close knit. When I first started at Canberra CC it was like having a bunch of older siblings showing me the ropes, pushing and supporting in turn.

I was lucky enough to come through a Talent ID program, which meant starting this foreign sport with a bunch of equal hubbards. It was a relief to have people in the same boat as me. We all looked ridiculous of course — hockey socks and ski thermals with second-hand fluoro jerseys — but we had fun experiencing and learning together. It made the early mornings bearable (well, mostly). I have very fond memories from that time.

The club itself is always striving to put on better races, support new members, and provide an environment that benefits all in the cycling community and I’m very proud to be a member.

The Orica-GreenEDGE/AIS YouTube videos seem to show a great camaraderie within the team. How does being at Orica-AIS compare to other teams you’ve been with?

Most in the cycling community understand the implications of Orica-AIS for Australian cycling. Not only the impact it’s having in promoting women cycling at home but also abroad as a leading example of how well a combined men’s and women’s team can work.

We have great staff behind the scenes that support and promote our team. I’m sure my teammates will agree it’s a privilege to ride for Orica AIS, especially as an Aussie.

In my first small team racing in the States I was having a hard time. It was nothing to do with cycling — although it easily could’ve been. But something my teammate and her husband said has stuck with me: “When you’re here, we’re your family.” And they still are.

Orica has that same feel. We’re a family. We are very different personalities with different skills, but we have the same values and ideals and that’s what’s important. There is trust and support, both on and off the bike. We love our jobs and everybody (staff and riders) are committed to achieving a common goal. It is important to be successful, but for us it’s also important how we do that; the way we race and conduct ourselves off the bike.

That said, if you can’t handle having the piss taken out of you then you are probably not going to be a good fit in this team … we’re very Australian in that respect.

Jessie at the front of the bunch during the 2013 Classica Padova.

Being a domestique is often seen as a thankless job by those outside the team. How do you explain to people that the team has won a race but only one person gets the accolades?

For anyone who doesn’t understand the sport I would describe it like any other team sport. One person may be the highest scorer, or kick the winning goal, but they can’t do that without a team setting up the move. Or if you prefer, it’s like a relay; everybody has input at some point in the race to the finish, but in the end only one person crosses the finish line.

However cycling is more exciting, varied, stunning, tactical, gruelling, harsh, faster and slower, unpredictable, physically and mentally tough, thrilling, heartbreaking, and rewarding than any other sport so it’s not really fair to compare.

Women’s cycling doesn’t attract the money and sponsorship that men’s cycling does. Do you think this will change?

Yes. It already is changing but it’s such a slow and frustrating rate of change. Orica-AIS, Lululemon Specialized, and Rabobank are examples of teams working hard to improve support for women. There is a plethora of websites and social media coverage of races just outside the mainstream media (and some in). Select races have televised highlights packages and do a great job promoting the sport. The racing is exciting to watch, if only more people actually could.

I do feel the UCI has let us down somewhat here by not providing leadership in addressing the lack of sponsorship and coverage for women. It has exacerbated the issue of inequality by not drawing more sponsors and hence better conditions for female cyclists.

Instead it has been more of a grassroots push, with the help of some enlightened and forward-thinking companies. It’s disappointing that the people governing a sport you love haven’t fully comprehended the lost opportunity to bring more people (women) to cycling, and grow the sport and importantly, the cycling industry with it.

They talk of globalising the sport, but making it global for half the population is not what I would call success. Australia and New Zealand both used to have a World Cup now neither do, we’ve also lost races in South Africa, and the exceptional Exergy Tour in the States.

There is this old rhetoric that women’s cycling is not as exciting as the men’s. This is rubbish. Look at the London Olympics road race, Flanders, Qatar … there was attack after attack. There are plenty of boring men’s races but they still get sponsorship, it is just ignorant for some to claim our races don’t warrant TV coverage. We have the right to expect more, but we have to work to make it happen and not accept second-rate solutions.

The UCI have made some promising steps, like the announcement by the World Cycling Centre to run a coaches course exclusively for women and equal prize money for men and women at the World Championships this year. It is astounding that it has taken this long but having more women like Tracey Gaudry involved in the UCI at a high level will no doubt lead to greater change. I just wish they hadn’t dragged their feet for so long.

There are fantastic people and ideas out there so I hold a lot of hope for the future.

Jessie (right) with her Orica-AIS teammate Tiffany Cromwell during the Drentse 8 van Dwingeloo.

Last year we saw Australian rider Rachel Neylan get silver at the UCI Elite Women’s Road World Championships. What’s your experience of the Worlds been so far?

At the start of 2012 I participated in the first AIS selection camp, also known as the SAS-inspired holiday in hell. On one of the rides early in the camp Dave McPartland [Orica-GreenEDGE/AIS sports director] was riding next to me (that’s how you know it was early; Macca was on the bike, and we weren’t zombies yet so I could hold a conversation) and he asked me what my goal was for the year. I said I wanted to ride the road race at the Worlds because I thought the course would suit me and I could make a valuable contribution to the team.

The minute it came out of my mouth I thought “oh shit, he doesn’t know me from a bar of soap. He probably thinks I’m just talking it up trying to impress, or that I’m a complete loony”. He looked pretty surprised. I hadn’t even raced in Europe yet.

In Copenhagen [at the 2011 Road World Championships] that’s what I was thinking about. I had come a long way in a year and to be honest I was relieved that I had proved myself right. We all know how embarrassing it is to talk it up then fall seriously short.

Last year the Worlds was different but just as exciting. In the lead-up there was a fair amount of uncertainty in the number of girls that were going to be selected for the team, and then the date for the announcement came and went without a word. So we went in feeling really lucky to be there. I think the team knew we were strong but we still felt like the underdogs with something to prove. The result is impressive, and not just for Rachel. It is great for Australian cycling and vindicated the team selections.

There are a lot of superlatives I could use to describe my World Championships experiences. The crowds are huge, supportive, vocal; the riders courageous and rise to the occasion. Going up the Cauberg [in the Netherlands, in last year’s Worlds] with all the colour, noise, and the thrill of racing, all combined with nerves — it’s a privilege. I could try to describe it all day long and still not do it justice.

What would you like to achieve as a cyclist?

I’ve been cycling for a while but got lost after the Junior Worlds and lacked guidance when I probably needed it most. I think some people underestimated my commitment to cycling. I had fun but now I’m making up for lost time. I’ve fallen in love all over again (can you tell?) and really want to make an impact on this sport.

My two big goals are:

– get into a winning habit, be successful, and inspire more people to take up cycling. If I am the best at my job in a given race, and get the most out of myself, then it’s a really good day
– improve conditions for women: the hardest part about cycling is not the training or the risks and sacrifices, it’s witnessing the inequity.

When you aren’t training or racing what do you do to chill-out?

I live with Spratty (Amanda Spratt, fellow Orica-AIS rider) so we hang out drinking coffee and talking gibberish, we watch hilarious videos and fix the world’s problems. I also read a lot (I should write to the inventor of the Kindle to thank him), go walkabout, and find new recipes to try.

I love to cook and wander the supermarket aisles. I also like to catch up on Q&A [on ABC TV] and various TV shows. But ultimately I could always spend hours in an art gallery, especially if there’s a good impressionists collection.

You can follow Jessie on Twitter here.

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