A pre-Route de France diary with Australian National Team director Donna Rae-Szalinski

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Elite cycling coach Donna Rae-Szalinski fielded our phone call earlier this week from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) European Training Centre in Gavirate, Italy. The Victorian is in Europe to direct the five-rider Subaru High5 Australian National Team. Australian criterium champion Kimberley Wells received the Amy Gillett Foundation scholarship to earn her spot on the national team while Shannon Malseed, Jennelle Crooks, Jessica Mundy and Ellen Skerrit were chosen from a group of 18 athletes who survived and thrived at the AIS selection camp in May.

The quintet’s race programme includes four stage races and a handful of kermesse races in Belgium from mid-July through late August. The group already completed a successful outing at Thüringen Rundfahrt at the end of last month, the first race on their European calendar. They return to racing this weekend at the Route de France. They will be joined in France by Loren Rowney (Velocio-SRAM), who will provide critical leadership to the eager but inexperienced squad.

The call with Rae-Szalinski is the first of our check-ins with the national team. It’s the prelude to the daily phone calls with the Aussie squad throughout Route de France to produce a daily diary with a different member of the Subaru High5 Australian National Team following every stage of the seven-day race.


The Route de France is a French tour that begins on Sunday, August 9, with a three kilometre prologue in Enghien les Bains, and ends the following weekend with a 116.4km road race in the Alsace region. The race will cover over 700 kilometres, 13 start or finish towns, five regions and nine ‘departments’ in northern and central France.

The race offers a bit of something for every rider. Sprint stages follow the prologue, and the race gets steadily more difficult throughout the week until the climbers come out to play on the final stages. The mountains aren’t quite as high as the Giro Rosa, and the routes are rarely as technical as those featured in Thüringen so it’s perfect terrain for an all-rounder who can hold her own in the medium mountains.

Linda Villumsen (UnitedHealthcare) won the Route de France last year. Evelyn Stevens (Boels-Dolmans) won the year before that. Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda) holds the record for most stage wins with seven to Ina Teutenberg’s six.

Rae-Szalinski’s team is ready to soak up the experience – whatever that means on any given day. Her riders have jobs and goals and various methods of measuring success, and following their experience racing Thüringen, they’re ready to have another crack.

In her own words, Rae-Szalinski reviews the Subaru High5 Australian National Team’s experiences in Europe to date and previews the Route de France:

THE DEVELOPMENT TEAM

Thuringen - Rundfahrt for women stage - 5

This team was chosen on the basis of selection camp, but nothing was made public for well over a month. The team was announced, and not too long after that, they were on their way to Europe. They had five days in Italy before Thüringen started. That time was to help them acclimatise and get the equipment set up and that sort of stuff.

Don’t forget that it’s winter in Australia. Some of them came from the single digits and had to deal with very hot temperature straight off the plane. They also had to contend with jetlag. That’s a lot to manage all at once.

They were thrown straight into racing. Thüringen was quite the shock to them, I think. They are so keen, but there are some really hard moments, too. Despite how hard it got at Thüringen, one of the girls said, a bit ironically, that racing in Germany wasn’t as mentally or physically challenging as selection camp. I thought that was an interesting take on things.

The best way to describe the team is to say that they’re just so excited to be here. They’re so excited to have this opportunity. Despite the fact that some of the girls in Thürigen were obviously in a development stage, every day was: ‘I want to go. I want to help the team. I want to be involved in the race.’ That’s so refreshing. That eagerness and that wide-eyed wonder – you almost wish you could bottle it.

KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EURO RACING AND AUSSIE RACING

We are constantly looking at the differences between racing in Europe and racing in Australia. They want to develop and acquire skills that they now realise are clearly required to succeed over here.

The biggest differences have to do with presence in the peloton. How do you hold your position? How do you own your space? Can you read the washing machine effect of the peloton and understand where to be when and who to follow? What is a gap and what isn’t? We simply don’t have fields big enough and strong enough in Australia consistency to replicate these situations at home.

We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face. We can practise skills at home, but until you’re put into this environment, you can’t understand how it all works – and that’s why the girls are here. They’re here to understand how it all works and see how they can cope.

LOOKING BACKWARDS

Thuringen - Rundfahrt for women stage - 5

We had several small successes at Thüringen, and we’re hoping to build on these successes at the Route de France. Initially, they found positioning really intense. As a group, they found they could make their way to the front of the peloton, and they could hold their position when the bigger riders and the bigger names were happy to have them there, but when it came to the business end of the race, that’s another skill. How do you hold your position then? By the end of Thüringen, they all had presence at the front of the bunch at times. We were really proud of that.

Jennelle Crooks won the U23 jersey, and this was significant on several fronts. To actually secure a jersey at a UCI tour with a development team was great. It was also fantastic that the girls got to experience what it is like to protect a jersey. They had a chance to experience the process involved, the responsibilities involved, how to divide up those responsibilities amongst the team. That was really cool for them.

We also tried set Kimbers up for the sprints. There weren’t really flat stages, but we tried to practise our sprint anytime it came down to a larger group. It’s quite a skill to deliver a sprinter to the line. We got a top 10 on one of the stages, and that’s a step in the right direction. We hope to improve upon that in Route de France.

ROUTE DE FRANCE – IN GENERAL TERMS

We’re looking at a seven-day race with a prologue and then six road stages that are in the vicinity of 100-120 kilometres each. The first few days are typically what we’d describe as sprinter days. The last couple days get into the hills for the climbs. All the races are point-to-point. We stay at a different hotel every night, which means there is a lot of travel involved. A number of stages finish with circuits in town, so we past the finish line a few times, which gives us the opportunity to have a look at things.

I did the Route de France last year with the national team, and it was an enjoyable experience. Given the other events that are on during the Route de France, it’s possible that the standard of the field might not be quite as top-end as it was in Thüringen. I certainly hope that will give our girls an opportunity to dip their toes in the pointy end a bit more.

Certain aspects of the Route de France can be more challenging than Thüringen, but transfers and spotty Wi-Fi and lack of variety in meals, those are all things we deal with at selection camp. We take phones and computers away, so the riders are deprived of Wi-Fi. We sometimes restrict choices of food so the riders experience what it’s like to have limited meal options at races. The bottom line is that what we have is what is being provided by the race organisers. We have the choice to be here or be at home, and we choose to be here. We make sure we select riders that can put up with or shine in every environment they face.

ROUTE DE FRANCE AMBITIONS

We have two ways of measuring success in France – and only one is results-oriented. We would love to have a podium of some description. That’s our first way of measuring success. Equally important is for the girls to be recognised for the way they’ve raced – that could be in the breakaway or in the sprint or in the hills. By the end of the Route de France, I want people to have talked about the Australian team in a positive manner.

We’ll have Loren Rowney with us, and she’s a huge part of what we’re hoping to accomplish. She was with last year’s national team at Route de France last year. She was an amazing captain on the road and a huge help with Lizzie Williams, especially in the sprints.

The way Loren conducts herself on a day-to-day basis is so important for the girls to see, and she remembers what it was like to be at their level. She’s patient and helpful and a huge asset. We’re certainly very excited to have a rider of her caliber working with the team again this year.


We’ll be checking in with the Subaru High5 Australian National Team on Sunday following stage one. If you have any questions you’d like us to pass along, feel free to pipe up in the comments.

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