On a cold, rain-soaked early Saturday morning in late November, Tiffany Cromwell stands prim and proper in the Taiwanese seaside village of Qixingtan. She’s waiting for the start of what French magazine Le Cycle has called one of the world’s toughest bike races — the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
Wearing her Specialized-lululemon race kit and standing next to her matching road bike Cromwell looks more like a Hollywood actress portraying a bike rider rather than an actual professional who just wrapped the season with a hard-fought fifth at the UCI Road World Championships in Spain. That is until she mounts her Specialized Tarmac and the horn sounds. When it comes to cycling – and life in general – Cromwell is all business.
Returning to Asia to race the Taiwan KOM Challenge for a second straight year, Cromwell’s toughness and tenacity became clear after being clipped by a fellow rider within 20 kilometres of the mixed-gender mass start. The 26-year-old from Adelaide hit the deck and slid across the wet asphalt, as did compatriot and fellow pro rider Joanne Hogan.
While Hogan struggled to regain her composure and her breath after the crash (yet went on to finish fourth) a torn, tattered and expressionless Cromwell re-mounted her bike and was soon back in the bunch.
“It was just one of those annoying things that happens,” Cromwell tells CyclingTips. “A male rider from one of the Asian teams was a bit nervous and clipped a wheel and I had nowhere to go but down. Just a case of wrong place and wrong time, but that’s racing.”
With shredded knicks leaving the majority of her right hip exposed, Cromwell soldiered on. But soldiering on is nothing new to the former track star-turned-roadie.
“Forever the bridesmaid” might be a cliche, but it’s apt in the case of Cromwell’s efforts at a championship level. With six podiums at the Oceanias on the track (2004-05), four on the road at the U23 Australian nationals (2008-10), a second place in the senior road nationals in 2012, her Commonwealth Games fourth place and her Worlds fifth, Cromwell has yet to capture the elusive championship gold she claims still ultimately drives her.
“There are things I still want to achieve, such as a national title, the Tour of Flanders, a world championship, a World Cup series and, of course, Olympic gold”, Cromwell says.
“I realise I’m aiming high, but reaching my full potential is the ultimate goal. If I can finish my career knowing I got the absolute best out of myself then I will finish with no regrets – even if that means I do not reach some or all of them.”
On paper 2014 was an mixed year for Australia’s best elite female road cyclist, who opted to forgo a contract renewal with Orica-AIS, a team she joined in 2011 and had finished as the UCI’s top-ranked women’s squad in 2013. Cromwell instead made the decision to join Specialized-lululemon, who will be known in 2015 as Velocio-SRAM. It was a move that Cromwell admits was risky but was met with a positive response.
“I think a lot of people respected what I did, even within Orica,” says Cromwell, who first started racing on the track at age 13. “At the end of the day, Orica-AIS is an extension of the national program, which is a program I have been involved with the whole way.
“I felt as though I needed something different and was ready to mix it up and the only way I was going to do that was to step outside my comfort zone and explore new opportunities and learn new ways of riding from a new team with new coaches and teammates.”
While Cromwell narrowly missed bronze in a photo finish at the Commonwealth Games in July, and finished fifth at the Road Worlds in September, she acknowledges that her first season away from Orica was not what she envisaged.
“I was hoping for more results – period,” says Cromwell whose last win came in 2013 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “I could have done more in Glasgow at the finish to take third, and I would have preferred to reach the podium more throughout the season, but I am back in the swing of my training with a team camp in Lanzarote, Spain in December.
“For me it’s all about preparations for the season and the upcoming Aussie nationals.”
The past month has been a whirlwind for Cromwell, who has globe-trotted from her home in Monaco to Vancouver, to Taiwan, to Australia and back to Europe in a span of four weeks.
The yoga devotee and former stage winner at both the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile (2012) and La Route de France (2009) admits finding balance between her life on and off the bike is often her biggest struggle. The budding fashionista launched her own cycling apparel line ‘Tiffany Jane’ in 2008 with sporadic releases since, but is busy sourcing new fabrics from Morocco and sketching new designs for a 2015 range. That is, when she’s not jet-setting around the world or training on the road.
“Throughout my career I’ve struggled with finding balance,” says Cromwell, who tells CyclingTips she regrets not taking advantage of an opportunity to race the time trial at the UCI Road Worlds in Mendrisio, Switzerland in 2009.
“I have had opportunities that I have pushed away because I didn’t feel as though I was ready, when in retrospect I missed on the experience it would have provided.
“I’m a very active person and I’m not so good at recovery because I just want to be out doing things. I’m trying to learn how to switch on 100 per cent as an athlete and realising the times you can switch off as well.”
Unlike most of cycling nations, Australia hosts its road national championships prior to the start of the professional season, forcing riders to peak in January and thus making for a long season for those with podium aspirations in the second half of the year.
For Cromwell, who has finished inside the top 10 for two consecutive years at the Road Worlds, late season form is critical.
“Everyone wants to win the national title – I know I do,” she says. “To have the honour of wearing our green and gold stripes on my jersey and represent Australia around the world is certainly a major career goal, but because our nationals are in January it’s hard to find that balance in regards to form.
“We all can’t be like Simon Gerrans who is obviously very good at being up and down throughout the season,” Cromwell adds. “His ability to peak for nationals, the Classics, the Tour de France and the Worlds is enviable.”
Back in Taiwan, Cromwell bravely reaches the summit just outside the women’s top 10 after forging onwards and upwards since the early race crash. A hunger flat with 40 kilometres to go in the 105-kilometre race — which featured gradient spikes of 27.3% en route to Wuling at 3,275m in elevation — left her visibly shaking, but not shaken.
The self-confessed tomboy and younger sister of two brothers, Mark (43) and Sam (28), shows no signs of emotion, sitting quietly in a support van calmly sipping on hot tea and routinely responding to media.
Cromwell says she gets her stoicism from her mother and that moving abroad and living on her own has only reinforced her independence and self-reliance.
“In terms of being tough and not showing emotion, I’ve always been like that,” says Cromwell. “I’m just not that kind of person. I used to keep a lot inside and would not be the one having ‘deep and meaningfuls’ with anyone.
“I have changed a bit and am willing to talk openly with my girlfriends, but it’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve really come out of my shell, so to speak.”
When asked if there is anything that breaks the surface and effects her personally, Cromwell, who was involved in a relationship with fellow pro cyclist and compatriot Richie Porte (Sky) last year, promptly – and jokingly – says “maybe boys?”
Armed with a two-year contract extension, and fresh off a personal-best result at the world championships, Cromwell once again has her sights set on nationals and the worlds, but claims her long-term objective remains Rio in 2016.
“I’m in a pretty good spot at the moment,” she says. “That’s why I chose to stay with my current team. They want to work closely with me and fought pretty hard to keep me.
“The extension showed they believe in me a lot and they know I have my abilities, it’s just trying to control the distractions that get in the way of my recovery.
“My coaches have already started the plan for the Olympics as now is the time to set out for Rio, plus I have a lot of support from the national high-performance program.
“I have everything I need to achieve my goals,” Cromwell concludes. “I have no excuses as it’s all up to me – that’s the way I like it.”
About the author:
Aaron S. Lee is the former editor of Cyclist Magazine and 220 Triathlon, and is currently a cycling columnist for Eurosport Australia. This is his first contribution to CyclingTips.