Surviving the AIS women’s selection camp

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The AIS women’s road cycling selection camp has attracted plenty of attention in recent years for being brutally tough and unforgiving, due largely to the fact it’s based on military special forces boot camps. Tess Fabry went along to this year’s camp, held over the past nine days, and filed this report.

It was Day 6 of the AIS women’s road cycling selection camp and all I had to do was keep riding. That was all I could do. We weren’t told where we were going, how far we were going or how long we would be riding. We just had to ride until we were told to stop. Simple. Or it would be if it weren’t for the effects of the previous five days.

The first three days of the camp were tough, but heavily scheduled with a series of lab tests, skills sessions and races. There was little downtime and our bodies weren’t given the chance to recover.

On Day 4, of the 19 women that started the camp, 11 were sent home. To my surprise, I was not one of them. From this point the strict scheduling was thrown out the window and replaced with uncertainty and chaos.

For our first task we were given directions in Dutch to an unknown destination and a driver, Paulo, who only spoke Italian. Paulo was very talkative and determined not to let us sleep, and would often try to randomly exit the freeway to make sure we were paying attention.

We ended up at a velodrome in Sydney, where we did a two-hour track session, then we were given more Dutch directions, a French driver, and later a Danish driver for the way home. I am proud to say I now know how to say “left” and “right” in five languages.

Tess (top right) enjoys a rare moment of downtime.
Tess (top right) enjoys a rare moment of downtime.

Day 5 was gruelling. We had a three-stage race with long hilly rides between the stages, totalling around 150km. The last stage was a 60km road race, roughly half of which was on loose, rocky gravel. Descending was sketchy to say the least. The race was designed for us to get punctures. It was a success.

After that day my legs were gone. And that’s when we were each given a bidon full of sand and lead. Awesome. The closest thing they could give us to a literal cup of concrete.

On Day 6 we had to carry that bidon while riding. It was a ride that ended up being 200km long with over 5,000m elevation. We knew it was going to be a long ride but we weren’t told how long or where we were going, we were just told to ride.

We stopped three times to perform individual time trials where we weren’t told the distance, we just had to ride until we reached the car. The first two were short, but then the last one just kept going. The last of these was where I reached breaking point.

The caption on this Instgram photo by Tess reads: “So time is up for no 17 at the AIS selection camp. I’m back home with this little souvenir… a drink bottle full of sand, which we carried for a 200km ride with over 5000m elevation … We weren’t told where we were going, we all thought Thredbo was the end point but they made the finish about 5km further just to f**k with us. It was snowing. I thought I was going to die. Good times.”


About midway through the ride, some of the girls who knew the area suggested we must be ending at Thredbo. It made sense. It would make the ride about 200km, it was on top of a mountain. There was nothing else within 100km. We pretty much decided it would end there.

The last time trial started at about 170km and unlike the first two, it just kept going. I climbed. In the saddle, then out of the saddle. It went from 5% to 15% over an over again. It all hurt. Getting near the top of the mountain, every corner felt like it must be the last. This went on for at least half an hour.

When I reached the top, everything was white with fog swept across the road. I could see snow on the mountains in the distance. It would have been incredibly beautiful on a good day, but I just found it frightening.

I started to descend, and I started to freeze. I was wearing one layer, only arm warmers and short-finger gloves. The roads were wet, my hands were numb, and as I descended I started to shake. It started to rain, then snow. Finally I could see Thredbo Village in the distance. “I’m almost there”, I thought. I looked for the van. Where the f**k was the van?! I rolled slowly past Thredbo, looking around corners, I couldn’t believe they weren’t there.

Louisa Lobigs (right), Chloe McConville (center) and others take on a 30-minute time trial.

The last 5km or so is a blur. I just remember thinking “I can’t stop, I don’t know how long I’ll be waiting if I stop. I don’t want to freeze to death on the side of the road, I have to keep going.” When I eventually got to the van I dropped my bike on the ground and was escorted into the van by one of the coaches. I shivered uncontrollably, distressed at being unable to move my hands to take off my wet shoes. I had reached my limit. This was the most extreme ride I had ever done.

I was sent home on Day 7. Although I had the physical strength to keep up, with only six months of racing experience behind me, there are still a lot of things I need to work on. I was ready to go home. After such a short time racing I was extremely happy just to be invited to the camp, and even happier to be able to experience the epicness of the second block of three days.

I would like to thank all the coaches and support staff at the AIS for putting on this awesome program and Rebecca McConnell from the Cycling Victoria Development Team Breeze for helping me to access this opportunity.

The camp allowed me to explore my limits. I found out my limit was riding through snow in only arm warmers and short finger gloves, after riding 200km, on the back of five days of heavy training. Not too bad for a fixie rider from Brunswick I guess.

You can check out Tess’s Strava files from the camp here. You can follow Tess on Twitter here and on Instagram here.

For further insight into the camp, check out Gina Ricardo’s piece at the RIDE website and this news report from ABC TV in the ACT. The AIS women’s road cycling selection camp ends today.

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