Gracie Elvin Q&A: The vulnerability of the pre-race favourite

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It was inevitable that Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS) would line up for the women’s road race at the Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships as a marked rider. The defending champion had taken back-to-back titles (2013-2014) and the possibility of a record-equalling three-peat was a favourite discussion point amongst media and fans alike.

Elvin projected a calm confidence ahead of the marquee event. A win in Geelong’s Eastern Park on day two of the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic seemed to only elevate her chances. She was clearly motivated and fit – and her team had yet to lose a national road title since its inception in 2012.

The 26-year-old missed the race-winning move made by Peta Mullens (SRAM) on the penultimate lap. Elvin hesitated when Mullens bridged across to Rachel Neylan, who had slipped away solo on the ninth ascent of Mount Buninyong. Mullens would go on to win a two-up sprint from Neylan and pull on the coveted green and gold jersey of national champion. Elvin finished in 22nd place, 1:16 behind the race winner.

We sat down for a chat with Elvin in Buninyong during the final laps of the elite men’s race. A transcript of the conversation, modified slightly for fluency, is below.

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CyclingTips: You projected quite a bit of confidence in the build-up to Nationals and seemed to really put yourself out their as a pre-race favourite. Was that a conscious choice and is it one you stand-by now?

Gracie Elvin: I’m not someone to talk myself up, but because this was always going to come up anyway with the media and fans, because they were going to talk it up anyway, I just decided to go with it. It also was a good tactic for our team in a way because it took pressure off the other girls. It was a choice between putting more pressure on myself for the better of the team or spreading the pressure amongst my teammates, and I chose to take on that pressure. Because I had been through it last year, I knew what to expect.

The most pressure I felt was from myself anyway. It didn’t matter how much was coming from all other sources. I decided to go with it and humour everyone else who wanted to talk it up before the event.

Can you compare the pressure you felt leading into nationals to other high-pressure situations you’ve been in?

This definitely compared to the Commonwealth Games last year. We came in as one of the favourites as a group even though we didn’t have a favourite rider, which was Lizzie Armitstead. I put a lot of pressure on myself for that event, and I worked so hard to build into it. It was all I was thinking about. I had to go through the motions of calming myself down.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous personally leading up to the race as I was for Nationals, so I’m really glad it’s over purely for that reason. If I had won a third time, the pressure would have been even higher to try to get four. It was going to happen at some point anyway. I couldn’t keep winning forever.

I was pretty upset after the race finished. I cried a few times. It was because I didn’t win, but it was also a release of all that built-up pressure from the week.

You ended your season early last year. What was the story behind that?

After the race had finished, I was pretty upset that we didn’t get a medal. We raced for gold and that was the gamble. I was totally exhausted following the race. It was the physical peak of my season, but it was also such an emotional peak as well. I spent the whole week after that event in my pajamas, and I was just totally wrecked. I did some easy rides, but I had no power and no energy. I was still motivated to finish the season but just so tired. I was sleeping a lot.

I think that’s why I didn’t finish the season. I did the best I could to look after myself in terms of health and physical fitness, but it wasn’t enough.

This time around for nationals, it was the same pressure, and it was all coming from myself. I just wanted to do the best that I could. I feel like I’m in best shape I’ve ever been in. I’ve worked hard, and I did everything I wanted to do in the off-season.

In the ‘Bay Crits’ I felt amazing. I felt better than I’ve ever felt on the bike. I managed to get a win, so that was pretty cool. It made me pretty happy, but it also added to that pressure. People knew I was fit. I knew I was fit. I had to put everything on the line. It was my race to lose.

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What was your build-up to the race from a mental perspective?

I just felt nervous all week. I was nervous at the ‘Bay Crits’ but excited. I really wanted to race hard because there was no pressure there to win even though we wanted to get good results. I was just having a lot of fun in those races.

As soon as they were over, I felt nervous all the time. Even before the crit this week, on Wednesday, I was nervous, but it was all about the road race even thought I was about to do the crit. It kept playing on my mind. Don’t crash. Don’t waste too much energy even though you want to get a good result. It was this balancing act of focus and nerves.

The minute the crit ended, I was thinking about the road race. We had two days between the two races, and I did everything I could to relax. I was reading some good books and hanging out with my teammates and with my fiancé Stu [Shaw], who always does the best at keeping me calm and keeping my mind off of things.

I decided not to think about the race too much and just to talk about it when it mattered. We had some good team meetings to talk through every race scenario and come up with a really strong plan that we could commit to from the start, which meant we wouldn’t have to make too many decisions out on the road. That helped a lot instead of leaving things to chance.

In a team meeting, I get all wound up again. I get nervous even though it’s a day ahead, but it’s really important. In a way, it makes me nervous because I’m thinking about what I have to do and what if I don’t do my job properly. What if this? What if that? In another way, it’s a lot better to talk through the plan and have a clear focus and know exactly what you have to do instead of think about how to respond to the different scenarios because you know your job and your expected response.

We have some great tacticians in Spratty and [sport director] Gene Bates. I was pretty confident once we talked a lot of it through that we would do a good job.

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What was it like to stand on the start line on Saturday?

On the start line of the Comm Games, I was sick with nerves. I felt nauseous. On the start line of this Nationals, I focused my mind enough and gotten through the nerves, I just wanted them to start and blow the whistle and get it going. I knew what I had to do and I was ready to do it. I trusted myself that I would make the right decisions out on the road, so I was pretty nervous but I wasn’t sick with nerves like I’ve been in the past. That was an improvement.

I was focusing on eating and drinking a lot in the race, and I was really struggling to get any food down. That’s a sign that you’re still nervous when you can’t swallow. I was really working on all the small things I needed to do to look after myself and that took a bit of the nerves away as well.

Can you talk about the experience of riding as the marked rider as opposed to the experience of lining up as the underdog or working for the team leader?

To be honest, I haven’t had that many opportunities to ride as a marked rider or favourite rider or supported ride in a team. I’ve really been working towards that, and that is my big goal for this year to create those opportunities for myself, which means I have to be in great shape and get to that next level of competitiveness to ride alongside Emma Johansson, Marianne Vos and all those girls. That’s where my big focus is – and it’s puts on a lot of pressure.

I’ve been riding for more than 12 years now, and I was never the best junior. I was the one that got dropped on the first climb of every race and had to ride on my own for the rest of the race. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I’ve started to find success in the sport.

I’ve come from a background of just surviving but loving cycling, and now I have to teach myself how to win. That’s what I’m struggling with at times – backing myself and believing in myself that I deserve to be there and that I can win. That’s different than just being in the race and supporting my teammates. I feel that I have it in me to be one of the best riders in the world. It’s a mental process not just a physical process.

How much of that struggle do you need to overcome internally versus looking to your support system to play a role?

I definitely internalise things a lot. I’m not someone that talks about things a lot. I’m lucky to have people in my life that make me talk about what’s going on in my head. It makes it easier and takes things off my shoulders because I love to internalise things. It’s not very healthy.

My whole team – our number one goal for every race, every training camp, every everything – we prioritise communication and being honest with one another and talking things through. Usually when you talk about things, you realise they’re not as bad as you think they are.

I’m working on becoming a winner, getting into that winning mindset instead of the let’s see what happens mindset or the I’m going help someone else win mindset. It is quite challenging to turn that around in your own head, and I’m lucky to have people that can help me do that.

Prior to this conversation, you mentioned that you continue to replay the moment the winning move went. What do you think it’s going to take for you to stop replaying that?

Even a day later, I’ve stopped replaying it as much. I’m probably going to replay it for another week in my head, but I really have to tell myself that there’s nothing I can do now. It’s in the past. It’s just an event. It’s the national championships. It’s a big deal to everyone, but it’s a one-day race.

Anything can happen. You can have good legs or bad legs even when you’re fit or in my case you can be going well and make the wrong decision. That’s what bike racing is, and that’s what makes it so exciting. I still have another 50 chances this year to try to win a race, so there’s a lot of hope there as well.

You talked about the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games and how depleted you were. You don’t really have the luxury of easy rides and pajamas at this point in the season. What are you doing to actively make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and able to move forward in a positive way despite your disappointment?

It’s going to be really important for me not to shut things down because I don’t want to have to rebuild now that I’m in such good form coming into the season. I have a lot to look forward to, races that I’m really suited to like Qatar and the Spring Classics.

This week I’m going to relax at home in Canberra. I’ll hang out with my best friends and Stu and my family. I’ll do lots of coffee rides and start to build back into training after a few days, making sure I get rid of all the fatigue from the race. I’ll refocus again and start looking at all those small things that I can keep improving on.

There’s a lot I can still do as a professional, and I’m really trying to nail down those one-percenters this year. Taking things step by step and really focusing on the small details is what’s I need to do to win some races overseas this year.

Anything else you want to add?

Yes – I think there’s been some negative comments this week about ORICA-AIS not having won any jerseys or any medals at the Nationals. We’re all human. We’re meant to be the best team coming out of Australia. We’re Australia’s national team, but we’re not perfect.

We’re doing our best, and I think we have ridden really well in the races we’ve done so far. When we’ve broken it down as a team, we’re really happy with the way we’ve done things and kept our heads. We’ve all been really positive and gotten closer as team. Even though we haven’t come away with any medals at the national championships, we can still walk away with our heads held high and also pretty proud of the fact that Australian women’s cycling is getting stronger every year. I think that’s really awesome.

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