Victoria’s Lizzie Williams has just been announced as the ninth winner of the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship and will soon head to Europe for two months of racing with the Cycling Australia Women’s Endurance Program. As CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef writes, the scholarship has helped some of Australia’s most promising female cyclists take the step up to the pro ranks since its inception in 2006 and that trend looks set to continue with the selection of this year’s winner.
Lizzie Williams, 2014 scholarship winner
Back in 2003, when she was just 19 years old, Lizzie Williams won the Australian national criterium title. It was around this time that she came to know and look up to Amy Gillett.
“I rode with Amy when I was 18 or 19. When I was in the VIS I think she was guest riding with the VIS. 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 [winning the scholarship] means a lot to me because I knew her personally.”
Williams quit cycling not long after winning her national title and spent nearly a decade away from the sport. In that time she finished off a teaching degree, worked, travelled the world and played Aussie Rules football before returning to the sport late last year.
“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.”
And snowballed it has. In the three women’s National Road Series (NRS) races that have been held so far this year, Williams’ worst finish is fifth overall. She was fourth at the Adelaide Tour including two podium finishes, fifth at the Mersey Valley Tour including a win on stage 3, and second overall at the Battle on the Border, where she won two stages and was second on another.
Her success in the NRS (not to mention a host of other local events) saw Williams get a two-month spot riding for Vanderkitten 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 since 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.
Williams had planned to come back and finish off the NRS after her stint in the US and Canada, but her plans have had to change after winning the scholarship.
“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 so I’ll be flying straight to Europe”, Williams said. “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.”
Choosing a winner
Applications for this year’s scholarship closed in late May after which a panel — which featured Simon Gillett, Phil Anderson, Martin Barras (AIS women’s coach), Donna Rae-Szalinski (national junior women’s road coach) and Sara Carrigan (Olympic and world championships representative) — individually graded the applications according to six criteria.
Equal weighting was given to the cyclist’s potential, their previous results, their current work or study plans, their ability to uphold and represent the philosophies of the Amy Gillett Foundation, and the ability to work in a team. A background in another sport (to tie in with Amy’s rowing background) would be considered in the case of a tie-breaker.
A shortlist was compiled, at which point the panellists met to select a winner. As Simon Gillett told CyclingTips, the process wasn’t easy.
“This year was the greatest depth of applicants we’ve ever had — we had 16 applications”, he said. “To get down to the final eight was relatively straightforward; to get down to the final four was hard. The final one after that was really really hard.”
“It was a unanimous decision even though it was very very close.”
The Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship
And so Lizzie Williams joins eight other cyclists to have won the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship and adds her name to a list that includes some of the biggest names in Australian women’s cycling.
“We actually pride ourselves on doing a pretty good job of picking our scholarship holders. Most of the girls have gone on to pro contracts”, Simon Gillett told CyclingTips.
“Obviously Rachel Neylan’s silver at the world championships in 2012 [was a highlight] — just about every year a previous scholarship holder pops up and wins a national title. Jess MacLean was our first scholarship holder and she’s now obviously riding with GreenEdge. It’s really great to be able to track their careers.”
— vanderkitten (@vanderkitten) May 28, 2014
As winner of this year’s scholarship Lizzie Williams will receive a number of opportunities and benefits, including flights to and from Europe, travel, accommodation, meals, insurance coverage, and a living allowance of $600 a month (the same as other AIS riders get).
Most significantly, Lizzie will join the National Women’s Endurance Program and race with the Australian national team for roughly two months.
“Her first event will be the Tour of Thuringen* on the 14th of July and would you believe her second event is going to be the Champs Elysees race at the end of the Tour de France,” Simon Gillett told CyclingTips.
“Then on the 10th of August she’s racing the seven-day Route de France, which is the old equivalent of the women’s Tour. It’s going to be a pretty exciting start to her career.”
One of the reasons the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship was founded (aside from honouring Amy’s life and legacy) was to provide a leg-up, financially and otherwise, to female cyclists that are on the cusp of reaching international level.
“It’s a fairly daunting world if you’re a young cyclist and you don’t know the ins and outs”, Simon Gillett told CyclingTips. “We thought if we can help out somehow, both financially and logistically, that would be a great way to try and promote Amy’s legacy and women’s cycling.”
— Elle Anderson (@ellebellerina) May 31, 2014
Jo Hogan is currently racing for the Swiss Bigla team and believes winning the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship in 2011 gave her career a huge boost.
“I started competing in cycling at the age of 26. Having not had the earlier years of development behind me, I raced and competed in Australia for two years prior to going overseas”, she said. “Whilst still continuing my nursing career, I was finding it difficult financially to race across Australia and also take extended time off work. The foundation assisted me to be able to take this opportunity.
“Without their support, I may not be where I am today, competing in my third European season as a professional cyclist.”
Inaugural winner Jessie MacLean offers a similar story.
“Unfortunately I was wiped out with illness for the majority of 2006 and was unable to go over to Europe with the national team as planned, so the Foundation gave me a ticket to fly overseas the following year”, she said.
“In 2007 I went to the States to race for a small team for the season. It may not have been Europe but I learned a lot from my time there. I see that time as the stepping stone that gave me renewed focus and support.”
— vanderkitten (@vanderkitten) June 1, 2014
But as Jo Hogan told CyclingTips, winning the scholarship is about more than bike racing — it’s about being an ambassador for the Amy Gillett Foundation.
“Receiving the scholarship was a true honour, but also being involved in spreading the road safety message for all road users is something that I am very passionate about”, she said. “Respect and understanding from both cyclists and drivers alike is vital for safety, and the foundation do a tremendous job in advocating this.”
Amy Gillett and her legacy
There wouldn’t be many Australian cyclists that haven’t heard of the Amy Gillett Foundation (AGF). But for those that are relatively new to sport, the story of Amy Gillett herself mightn’t be as familiar.
In 1992, at 16 years of age, Amy Gillett was identified as a future rowing star by the South Australian Sports Institute and a year later she was world champion in the junior pairs. She was world champion in the single scull the following year and went on to represent Australia at the rowing world championships every year from 1993 until 1999.
As Amy’s husband and AGF executive patron told CyclingTips, it was the following year that Amy made the switch from rowing to cycling.
“She just missed [Olympic] selection in 2000 and was pretty pissed off about that. She’d always done a lot of cross training on the bike and decided to have a crack at cycling and within a couple of years she was the national pursuit champion”, he said. “And then she switched to road [where] she was a specialist in the time trial.”
Amy rode with the AIS from 2002 through to 2005 until, on July 18 of that year, she and five of her teammates were hit by a car while training in Germany for the Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen stage race. Amy was tragically killed while her five teammates suffered a range of injuries, many of them serious.
The Amy Gillett Foundation was established the following year to provide financial support to Amy’s injured teammates, to promote road safety awareness and to establish the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship.
As inaugural scholarship winner and current Orica-AIS rider Jessie MacLean told CyclingTips this week, Amy’s death has had a lasting impact on the Australian cycling community.
“The last few years I’ve been at Thuringen* we’ve stopped to visit Amy’s memorial on the side of the road. It’s on a quiet unassuming road in green rolling hills. There’s no ceremony, we just stop and take a moment to reflect before the chaos of racing. A few who remember too well where they were that day struggle to stay composed.”
Last year as the peloton rolled out for the final stage of Thüringen the national team and the other Australian riders rode on the front as they passed Amy’s memorial.
“Maybe because we were exhausted from the last few weeks of racing, or maybe [it was] because Al Rhodes [ed. one of Amy’s teammates injured in the crash] wasn’t there making us laugh and being her rock-solid self, but Spratty [Amanda Spratt] and I completely lost it”, MacLean said. “We rode along, chests heaving, with tears streaming down our faces. It’s the one time we let ourselves remember how hard this sport can be. How dangerous, unpredictable, unfair. Her death was close enough to home it brings forward all the fears we hold.”
An eye to the future
Honouring Amy Gillett’s legacy is just one of the things Lizzie Williams is looking forward to taking on as winner of this year’s scholarship.
“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”.
And while the opportunities provided by the Amy Gillett Cycling Scholarship will keep Williams occupied for the next few months, she’s got her sights firmly set on 2015.
“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,” she said. “Obviously you don’t always enjoy training and sometims 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?”
The answer would seem to be “yes”.
“I’ve just got the hunger back and I want to go to the top.”
* The race Amy and the team was preparing for at the time of the accident.