Ella CyclingTips spent an afternoon with several athletes that live in Girona or spend time training here during the season. We met at La Fabrica Girona, a café owned by professional cyclist Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEdge) and his wife Amber, to talk first bike races. In a roundtable format, we listened as Julie Leth (Hitec Products), Lucy Martin (Matrix), Ashleigh Moolman-Paiso (Bigla), Carlee Taylor (Lotto Soudal Ladies), Sharon Laws (Bigla) and Loren Rowney (Velocio-SRAM) shared stories of their start in the sport.
Surprisingly, none of the women we spoke with started at a very young age. Leth, Martin, Taylor and Rowney were all teens. Moolman-Paiso stumbled into the sport while at university, Laws was in her mid-twenties before she found road racing. Amongst the six, none climbed to the top step on her first attempt.
JULIE LETH – THE ACCIDENTAL BREAKAWAY
It was a local race with the girls racing with the boys. I had never been in a peloton before, and a lot of the guys were super strong. I think I was around 16 at the time. I had been doing time trials for a few years, but this was my first road race. I got dropped on the first gravel section along with a club-mate of mine.
When we passed the finish line for the first time, my dad was going absolutely crazy on the side of the road. He was cheering and jumping up and down and just generally going nuts. I remember thinking: “What in the world is going on?”
It turns out the front car in the peloton had gone the wrong way, so the two of us were the first to pass the finish line. My dad thought we were in a two-rider breakaway leading the race, and he was so proud of me.
LUCY MARTIN – NO UNDERWEAR
I don’t remember anything about my first race except that I showed up with underwear under my knicks and then got told off for it.
This is met with a chorus of “I did that, too!”
Loren: I did that for a long time.
Mara Abbott (Wiggle Honda): People told me it was a bad idea, but I thought I knew better. I kept doing it. There was on ride where wearing underwear was so incredibly unpleasant that I stopped at a gas station and took them off and threw them in the trash. That’s when I finally started riding without them.
I thought everyone was joking when they told me I needed to take them off. I just couldn’t believe it. How could you ride without your underwear?
Loren: As long as once you realise that you ride without underwear, you also realise you need to wash your knicks every day…
ASHLEIGH MOOLMAN-PAISO – LEARNING TO DIG DEEP
I started riding at university after I met Carl, who is now my husband. He was a super triathlete at the time, and after we had been dating for about a month, he took me home to meet his family.
His entire family is very sporty. They got out for runs and swims and rides together. I got thrown into the mix on a borrowed hybrid bike. I was wearing running shorts and my trainers. We went out his dad, his brother and his sister.
They treated the ride like a full-on race. They would ride these circuits, and it ended up this steep climb in the area. I remember the climb specifically because I was on this borrowed hybrid bike and in my trainers, and I was holding my own on the climb. When we were done, Carl’s dad said to him: “You have to get this girl on a proper bike. She can ride.” That’s where it all started.
My first real race was in the same town where Carl’s family lives. It started with a five-kilometre climb. There were some pros from South Africa in the field. I got dropped on the very first climb.
I don’t remember where I finished, but I remember after the race, I had this conversation with Carl where he was asking me what had happened and why I wasn’t at the front. Having discovered me as a sort of climber, I think he was surprised that I had gotten dropped on the climb. I explained that I had ridden as hard as I could but that I just couldn’t stay with the group. He insisted that if I had ridden my hardest, I wouldn’t have gotten dropped.
This become this sort of ongoing argument or fight between us. I would do a race. If there was a climb and I got dropped, I would insist: “I did my best. I went my hardest.” And Carl would insist back: “No. You didn’t. You could have gone harder.” It was maddening. I would think: “How do you know? You’re not there? You don’t know what I’m feeling.”
Eventually, I don’t know how many races down the line, I finally understood. We started climbing quite early on, and I dug deeper than I had ever gone to stay with the group. Pushing myself that hard allowed me stay with them. That’s when I finally understood what Carl meant when he was telling me I wasn’t going as hard as I could. It was a big lesson to learn, and I think that’s what defines a serious professional athlete compared to someone who just does it for fun.
CARLEE TAYLER – “YES, I’M WINNING!”
My first race was the Schools Tour in Adelaide. I was 15. Tiffany Cromwell (Velocio-SRAM) was also racing, and I knew she would be my biggest competition. I really wanted to win, and I guess I thought to win, I needed to be “winning” for most of the race.
I sat on the front the entire race, and I was surprised when Tiffany sprinted past me in the end. During the entire descent before the finish line, I thought: “Yes, I’m winning!” And then Tiff sprinted past me. She even put a time gap in – which I suppose isn’t surprising considering my current sprinting prowess.
Tiff won. I got second. And we still race each other today.
SHARON LAWS – LATE RACE ATTACK FOR THE WIN
My first race was the 94.7 Cycle Challenge in South Africa when I was 27. I drove the route with a friend the day before the race. It was a different course then than the one used now. When we were driving this hill near the end, my friend told me: “If you get to this hill, and you’re in the front, you need to attack.”
I was so nervous the day of race, but things went quite smoothly actually. When we got to the hill, I thought: “This is it. I’m in the group, so I have to attack.” I attacked, and I got a gap straight away.
The race ended in a stadium, and I entered the stadium alone. I remember thinking: “I might win this.” And then just after I entered the stadium, a huge rush of people came past me.
To add insult to injury, I got told off at the finish for wearing a sleeveless jersey. I had no idea it was a rule that you needed to race with sleeves.
LOREN ROWNEY – RIDE THEM OFF YOUR WHEEL
I was a track and field athlete, so I applied the same tactics I used when running races to my first bike race. I had no grasp on the concept that riding on the front wastes energy because when I ran track, and I would get on the front of the pack, and I could run everyone off me. I thought I would ride people off my wheel, too.
My neighbour was racing. She was actually the entire reason that I wanted to race my bike. We didn’t like each other, and we were super competitive. I started racing solely so that I could beat her.
The race was a criterium. I rode on the front the entire time, and my neighbour sat on my wheel. She rolled me on the line.
I was so angry. I could not understand how I had done all this work and clearly been the strongest the entire race but yet I had gotten beaten in the end.
You’d think that would have taught me about tactics quickly, but it didn’t. It took me a long time to get my mind around the whole concept.