The Veloroos Roundtable: A conversation with Australia’s first all-female RAAM team

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Meet the Veloroos. This four-women, all-Aussie team is in the final stages of preparation for the Race Across America (RAAM). RAAM will take the Veloroos from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland. In riding from the west coast of the US to the east coast, these four women will cover 4,828 kilometres across 12 states. They’ve publicly stated their goal of completing the distance in seven days and winning their category (four-women team).

Julie-Anne Hazlett, Natasha Horne, Sarah Matthews and Nicole Stanners are age-group triathletes in their thirties and forties. All women work full-time and juggle training alongside professional and personal obligations. To reach their goal, they will each need to complete around 200 kilometres daily with an average speed of 32 kilometres per hour. They will be supported by a 13-person crew, which plays an integral part in the team’s cross-country efforts.

Matthews completed RAAM last year in a mixed-gender team and roped the rest of her teammates into the challenge. She described their strategy like this: “We’re divided into pairs. There’s one RV, which is a big bus, and that’s where the resting crew and resting riders sleep and eat. We have two support cars, one for each pair. There’s a working pair and a resting pair.”

“The working pair is trading-off doing 20 minute sprints. One rider sprints while the other rider is with the crew being driven 20 minutes up the road. It’s a rolling exchange that continues all day and all night, but at night we legally need to have a follow car, so there’s a second car following the rider out on the road with headlights on that rider at all times.”

“Essentially you have a cyclist and three cars moving across the States at any one time.”

More than a physical and mental challenge, the quartet is using this race, which begins on June 20th, to raise funds and awareness for Tour de Cure and the Amy Gillett Foundation.

“We’re all really excited about the actual race, but we wanted to turn the challenge into something more and use it as a platform to support the causes that are close to our heart,” said Stanners. “We’ve all been touched by cancer, so it’s an appropriate one given the personal connection, and we love the way Tour de Cure combines cycling and the search for a cure.”

“With the Amy Gillett Foundation, there’s a lot of interesting discussion around the relationship between motorists and cyclists,” Stanners added. “We’re passionate about driver education – and cyclist education, too.”

“It feels good and inspiring to know that we’re out there training for something that is bigger than just the four of us,” Stanners said.

JULIE-ANNE HAZLETT

How do you train for an event like RAAM?

We are all triathletes that have competed in various distances in the sport – from Olympic distance all the way up to Ironman. All four of us have a triathlon training background and have had one for several years. That’s our starting point.

My last race was the Auckland 70.3 in January, and I qualified for the World Championships in Austria because I won my age group. I plan to race the World Championships in August, but I’ve taken a step back from triathlon training since Auckland to focus on RAAM.

In training for RAAM, I’ve cut back on my running and done more cycling and swimming. Running is the one of the three where you’re most likely to get injured. From January, I’ve increased my cycling on the weekends to between 450 to 500 kilometres. We all have full-time jobs, which means shorter training sessions Monday through Friday. That’s when I do intervals.

What do you feel most prepared for and what do you feel least prepared for when you think about starting RAAM next week?

It’s winter in Sydney, so it’s really, really cold. I think the heat in the States is going to be a bit of a shock.

I don’t feel especially prepared for the big mountains we will encounter. There are no big mountain passes in Australia, so it’s difficult to train for something like that.

I feel prepared for the endurance required. With the 300 and 200 kilometres days I’ve done on the weekends or three or four days in a row, because of holidays or days off, I do feel confident about the distance that.

We had a training weekend in Bathurst where we had the RV and did the 20-minutes on and 20-minutes off like we’ll do during RAAM. It was a great learning experience and showed us the things that we do really well and the things that we’ll need to change. Even though it was only 24 hours, it gave us a real glimpse of what we can expect.

NATASHA HORNE

What is it about RAAM that jumped out and grabbed you?

That’s what everyone wants to know! I think that it’s just something so out of the ordinary. People have done triathlons. They know what that is. When I talk to them about it, they can relate. When I say: “Hey, I’m going to race across America.” They have no idea how to wrap their minds around that. It’s the challenge of doing something completely new and different to what other people have done.

What has been your biggest challenge to date?

My biggest athletic challenge has probably been the Half-Ironman World Championships in Canada last year. That or Xterra – Xterra is probably harder. Xterra New Zealand and the Xterra World Championships in Maui.

My biggest mental challenge would have to be getting my PhD in forensic intelligence. It’s an ongoing challenge as I’m still in the writing phase. I’ve had to take a leave of absence because of RAAM.

What was your relationship like with your teammates prior to deciding to take on RAAM? What is it like now?

I knew Julie-Anne quite well. We had met in June last year at the airport coming back from the Cairns Half-Ironman. We trained together for the Canada World Championships. I had never met Nicole or Sarah before all this.

Now we know each other pretty well. We did the simulation weekend, and we spent a lot of time together there. We’ve done media appearances together, and we train together when we can. I expect we’ll get to know each other a lot more over the next couple of weeks.

SARAH MATTHEWS

What about this experience is most daunting?

I’ve done RAAM before, so I know what I’m in for later this month. I think that gives me a degree of control around expectations that the others don’t have. We have very high expectations in terms of our achievements. We want to win, and to win, we need to cross the country in seven days. It’s daunting to put something like that out there and then have to live up to the expectations we’ve set.

How will you define RAAM success?

Just to complete the race in a harmonious and unscathed fashion is my personal definition of a win. I had a relatively inexperienced crew last year, which made things a bit more difficult than they needed to be.

They did very, very well given their backgrounds and small numbers, but we lost time as a result of their exhaustion and inexperience – especially during the changeovers. If you lose one or two minutes every time you change, that adds up to hours lost.

Provided that the riders arrive fit and stay healthy, RAAM is essentially a logistical challenge. In a lot of ways, it’s essentially the crew’s responsibility to ensure the riders are successful.

NICOLE STANNERS

What has been the biggest surprise or challenge up until this point?

Being an athlete, I thought about the training that would go into this first. I thought about what it would be like to train for an event of this magnitude and what it would be like to ride across the United States. I did not think about the organization and logistics of putting this trip together – of getting four riders and 13 crew members to Oceanside. That has been both a surprise and a challenge, but it’s one we’ve embraced.

It’s been hard to fundraise, harder than I thought it would be. We wanted to generate the most awareness possible in terms of media because we knew that would help our fundraising efforts. It was difficult at first, but I think once people hear our story, that’s all the hook they need. We’ve started to get a lot of momentum – maybe later than we’ve wanted – and that is going to help us raise as much money as we can.

Another surprise has been our crew. I thought it would be difficult to get people on board, but everyone we’ve asked has been interested. They’re just as motivated to be a part of this challenge as we are.

Beyond training, what part of this whole project have you assumed responsibility for?

Early on, I tried to use my marketing skills to look at media coverage and sponsorship. More recently, I’ve taken on other roles. We knew we would need a crew chief, but we also recently decided that we wanted a ride captain, a point-person for the riders in the same way the crew chief is the point-person for the crew.

As ride captain, I’m responsibly for rider cohesion and unity. It’s important that we approach this with the same purpose and principles. I lead the discussion around questions like: What are our goals? What are our principles around how we behave as a team and with the crew? What will we do and what won’t we do? These were all conversations we needed to have honestly.

We want to finish the race and enjoy it. We’ve got ambitions of winning the female section, and we’ve had to be clear with ourselves and with each other about what that would require from us.

It’s also important that we manage our behaviour with the crew. Exhaustion does crazy things to people. We’ve all adopted the principle of “breathe, think, talk.” As we become more tired, we know we’re going to become more emotional. We need to make sure our conversations and interactions add value and are focused on the positive rather than the negative and the unproductive.

We’ve spoken to people who have done the race and we watched a lot of race footage. We know that this interpersonal stuff can be one of the biggest challenges. It’s amazing how frayed and emotional people become when they’re lacking sleep. We’re doing everything we can to prepare ourselves for that.

Learn more about the Veloroos and follow along as they begin their final preparations for RAAM:

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