A chat with Lizzie Williams, winner of the 2014 Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship
Today the Amy Gillett Foundation announced that Victoria’s Lizzie Williams has become the ninth winner of the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship, an honour which includes two months of racing in Europe with the national team. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef caught up with Lizzie to find out more about her journey back to the sport after a 10-year hiatus and her goals from here on in.
If you haven’t already, click here to read our feature article about the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship and what it’s all about.
It’s been a big seven months for Lizzie Williams. After getting back into racing in September last year after 10 years away from the sport, she’s won a host of local races, finished fourth in the national criterium championships (a title she won back in 2003), and been dominant in the National Road Series (NRS) with a worst showing of fifth overall in the three NRS tours so far.
She was fourth at the Adelaide Tour including two podium finishes, fifth at the Mersey Valley Tour including a win on stage 3, and she was second overall at the Battle on the Border, where she won two stages and was second on another.
Her success in the NRS saw Williams get a two-month spot riding for the Vanderkitten team in the US and Canada. She landed on her feet, coming sixth in the UCI1.1 Philadelphia Cycling Classic, her first international race. She’s also picked up a number of top-five finishes in other races in the States as well, including a third place in the North Star Bike Festival criterium in Minneapolis just yesterday.
And now, she’s been named as the recipient of the 2014 Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship, an award previously won by world championship silver medallist Rachel Neylan, as well as a host of other top Aussie pros. Below is the full transcript of our chat.
First up, congratulations on winning the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship!
Thanks, it’s been a whirlwind over the past seven months. My life can’t really get any better at this point I feel!
What does it mean to win this scholarship?
I actually knew Amy Gillett — I rode with Amy when I was 18 or 19 so when I was in the VIS I think she was guest riding with the VIS. So I physically knew her and remembered her. And she was a lot older than me at that time but I knew that she’d come out of a rowing background and she was really big and tall and strong. So I remember her from those days and so it means a lot to me [to win this scholarship] because I knew her personally.
It’s pretty crazy because how I got my passion back [for racing] was through Amy’s Gran Fondo last year in September. I did the race with some mates and after that I was like “I think I want to start racing again”. So I joined Brunswick Cycling Club, my old club, in November, and it’s just snowballed from there.
Applying for the Amy Gillett [Scholarship] it was kind of ironic how it all came about and to be able to go on and uphold Amy’s legacy and race internationally … and continuing on with spreading the good word with safety on the road and just the love of riding my bike — it all just falls in with what I love to do.
So what’s your schedule from here? Before winning the scholarship you were planning on racing in the US for two months before heading back to race the rest of the NRS season weren’t you?
Plans have changed. I will be here in America and Canada until the 10th of July and then my first race [as part of the scholarship] is in Germany [on July 14, Thüringen Rundfahrt] so I’ll be flying straight to Europe. So unfortunately I’ll miss a couple of the NRS tours but for me the NRS was a stepping stone to get noticed and to be seen and to be able to move over and start racing internationally. It’s all been fast-tracked really. It’s been a sweet run.
I believe the second race you’ll be doing will be La Course by Le Tour de France, on the Champs Elysees?
Yeah, just that little race. I’ve come back into the women’s cycling at a really exciting time I think. In cycling you do need to have a bit of luck — it’s not all talent. It’s who you know as well, and networking — it’s all just fallen into my lap nicely.
My first race in Germany is on the 14th of July so I still have to work out with the national coach what date he wants me over there. I guess it will be a few days before that.
My last race [in North America] will be in Vancouver with Vanderkitten. So they’re doing BC Superweek and Tour de Delta, which is another UCI 1.1 tour. So that will be my last event with Vanderkitten and then I head overseas to Europe.
So how did the gig with Vanderkitten come about?
I am friends with [photographer] Kirsty Baxter and I was in Sydney at the time and I went out to dinner with her. I just mentioned to her that I was looking to get overseas in the two-month break [in the NRS season] to get away from the Melbourne winter so she sent a message on Facebook that night to Jono Coulter, the manager of Vanderkitten — she knows him and just mentioned that I was looking around for something.
I wasn’t looking overly hard because I was talking to the national coach and they were potentially going to give me an offer of going over there, paying my own way — that sort of thing. I was just sort of sussing things out at that point. Jono didn’t have a spot on the team and then a few days later one of his riders from New Zealand got injured and she couldn’t come over [to the US]. So suddenly there was a spot free for two months and he just Facebook-ed me and said “can you get over here?”
He wanted me over there for the Tour of California [ed. two women’s races were held alongside the men’s tour] but that was too soon and I had to work out logistics. I was working — I’m a teacher — and I’m packing up my house and I have a dog — there was a lot of things I had to take into account.
So it was through networking and then Jono did say he was watching me and saw me at the Bay Crits and I guess he was following what was happening in Australia through the NRS series as well.
There was a Bike Gallery function here in Melbourne a few weeks back to raise money for your trip. What was that experience like?
Yeah, with the Vanderkitten team, once I was here [in the US] entries would be paid for, accommodation — we stay with host housing so that’s for free — and getting to races was covered by I had to pay for flights, my racing insurance, food while I’m here … So quite a bit of money I needed to raise to actually make it happen.
So BG got on board and Rapha Australia — I met Andy Pike [Sales and Marketing Representative, Rapha Australia] through Bike Gallery and the boys there. People were so generous and willing to help. I organised that night with another guy who owns The Spin Room in North Fitzroy, Sam Stapleton — so he helped me get that going. It was Pikey’s idea to have it at Bike Gallery so then I just asked the boys and they said it was fine and then I accumulated things to auction off on the night.
It was just a bit of a celebration I think for what’s going on. It was a great night, a really fun night. It was a like a 30th I never had last year, because I had my whole family there.
You must have been pretty happy with your form when you landed in the States. Sixth in the Philly Cycling Classic is a great result!
I knew I was going well in Australia but I didn’t know how much of a jump it was … from Australia to America and how much depth there is in the peloton. Philly was definitely pretty full on but that’s what I like — I like that really intense racing. I sort of thrive off that.
I went into the race wanting to do well — I went there to win. I’m always critiquing myself in every race that I do but sixth in my first race? I was pretty happy and the team was really happy as well. We worked so well together straight off the bat — I’d flown in [only] five days before that but we worked really well as a team so I couldn’t have asked for any more really.
And this was your first race outside of Australia, right?
How would you compare the standard at the Philly Classic to the NRS?
Completely different. It’s a different style of racing — it’s full gas the whole time whereas NRS is very stop-starty. Instead of having five really strong girls [in an NRS race] you’ve got 50 strong girls in a UCI race. It’s fast. It reminded me of racing A grade men’s crits — that’s all I could really compare it to. There’s a lot more emphasis on team play whereas in the NRS the level isn’t high enough.
Stepping back a bit, you quit the sport a year or so after winning the national criterium championships at 19. What made you leave cycling behind?
There were a number of reasons. One: I had a couple of years of my university degree left to complete and I was invited overseas to race with the development AIS squad, so I was going to have to put [the degree] on hold. And at that point I was feeling burnt out, to tell you the truth.
I’d been going full gas since I was 14 — I was 20 at that point. I just wasn’t ready to go overseas I don’t think. I made the decision that I was going to go on a break. Halfway through the Buninyong nationals I pulled out of the race.
It was a really competitive time because girls were trying to get into the Commonwealth Games. So there were some really strong riders. I guess I was sort of floating around those riders but I knew I wasn’t ready. So I rode off half way through that Buninyong nationals road race, threw the bike on the ground and told my dad “that’s it; I quit” and that was it.
What’s changed for you in the last 10 years that’s allowed you to feel more comfortable taking this step up?
Life experience plays a massive role in you dealing with misfortune and disappointment and learning about your body and what works for you. Now when I ride against girls that are younger than me, 19 or 20, I think back on what I was like and I already feel like I’ve got something over them mentally. Mentally I’m just a lot stronger [than I was]. Physically I’m a lot stronger; through those 10 years I did weights, I was a personal trainer, I played football [Aussie Rules]. I did a lot of things — I travelled the world so now I’ve done so much in my life.
Back when I was 20 I don’t think I was ready to give up my life but I’ve lived and I’ve done all that stuff now and I’m ready now to do this.
How hard has it been getting your fitness back to and beyond what it was 10 years ago? Was it just in September, after Amy’s Gran Fondo, that you started training seriously?
During last year I was training for a half Ironman so I was always keeping fit. I was riding maybe three times a week and I just started to enjoy the bike a lot and I got to September and my friend who I was doing this [half Ironman] with pulled out. So I was like “well, I’m going to pull out too and I’m going to train for the Bay Crits.”
I made the decision after Amy’s Gran Fondo, I wrote my own training program, I joined a club and starting racing. I started racing crits — I was doing a couple crits a week. I didn’t find the transition hard because I did it for so long when I was younger that I just used the same methods that I did all those years ago and I think being older and having done other things — I did weights for years — helped me build up my overall power and strength I think.
How has cycling changed in the 10 years you’ve been away from it?
The number of women riding is tenfold from when I was racing. At that time I think there was only two girls in the VIS and when I would tell people I was a road cyclist people wouldn’t even know what that was. Now, just through TV coverage and publicity and our Australian male and females riders [doing well] — Anna Meares at the Olympic level and Cadel Evans winning the Tour de France — that’s all contributed to cycling as a sport being exposed. People just love to do it for exercise and for social reasons.
The depth now [compared] to 10 years ago is completely different. And for the women, the pelotons are triple the size compared to when I was doing it and the enthusiasm and support that the women are getting now …
For example, for me to come in to race the NRS and get flights covered and accommodation covered and all this equipment given to me — I wouldn’t have heard of that back then. Just the financial support is a lot different. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s heading in the right direction.
So where to from here? Obviously you’ve got the scholarship over the next couple months but what’s after that?
I’m wanting to try and land a professional contract next year and do a full road season in Europe and just see how that goes and if I enjoy it. I need to have fun and enjoy it for me to continue with it. Obviously you don’t always enjoy training and sometimes you don’t want to do it, but when it comes down to it I have to always ask “Am I enjoying it? Is this what I want to do?” I’ve just got the hunger back and I want to go to the top.