Making it to Europe is as tough as ever
The key development pathway for female Australian road riders wanting to launch themselves into professional racing is the High5 Dream Team and the biggest opportunity is earning a place in the Australian women’s European development program. Last year Ellen Skerritt experienced both and then managed to take the next coveted step and sign with Ale Cipollini Galassia to race professionally in Europe. We spoke to the 21-year-old Queenslander to find out more about how the opportunity to follow her cycling dream unfolded.
As the end of last year approached up and coming Australian rider Ellen Skerritt didn’t know if she would have a team to race with for the following season in Australia, let alone overseas. It was a tough situation to be in after a successful year. Everything had seemed to be falling into place in 2015 as Skerritt raced a full season with the High5 Dream Team and was sent to Europe with the Australian women’s development team.
Skerritt had set out an ambitious plan for 2016 and for it to have any chance of success she had to take a risk and keep her options open till the last minute. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for Australian female riders to break into top level riding overseas, so she was determined to make the most of the international exposure that came from taking part in European races such as Thuringen Rundfahrt and the Route de France during her two-month stint with the national team. Instead of putting all her energy into chasing domestic opportunities she went on a mission to find a spot in a European team.
By December however, scores of emails she had sent out were unanswered and the ones that did come back were rejections.
But then, as she feared the worst, she heard from Italian team Ale Cipollini.
“Up until this point I had no options for 2016. It was all up in the air. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was kind of a bit lost,” Skerritt told Ella CyclingTips. “When this came up I was like ‘wow.’ I’ve done a full 180 from not knowing where I’m going, maybe not even riding in 2016, to turning professional.”
Skerritt will fly away from her home and family in Queensland next week, where she has been working at a bike store and bridal shop, to get ready to race Ronde van Drenthe in March. Skerritt will not only have to manage the heavy demands of a new life as a professional cyclist away from her familiar support network, but also the challenges of being so far from home in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and in a team where little English is spoken.
“I really did explain to the team that this is going to be a whole new world for me and they were very supportive, so I am really excited to be spending the year with them,” said Skerritt. “I know of one [other] English speaker. Some staff speak a little bit, but I know that most of them speak Italian so I am learning, because I really don’t have a choice. Also it would be rude not to. I really want to immerse myself in the team.”
Not surprisingly the Italian team is predominately made up of Italian riders, with one Polish, one Spanish and one Swedish cyclist. Skerritt did spend time in Italy last year and picked up a smattering of the language during her time with the Australian development team last year, but in an environment surrounded by Australian teammates and staff it gave her barely a glimpse of what life will be like in the year ahead. However, the experience in the peloton during the busy race schedule is something she does expect will make the transition easier.
“I learnt a lot from that because we really did pack it in when we were over there, we got to see a little bit of everything,” said Skerritt. “I have a bit of an insight into what I am going to be seeing and what I am going to be involved with so that gives me a lot of confidence, but still I just have to take things as they come and handle them in the best way I can really.”
The year ahead will be all about settling in, helping her team and learning.
“I’m just looking to develop my own bike skills, but also general life skills as well,” said Skerritt. “This is a huge change. There is so much new happening this year that I have never experienced before. There is always going to be a lot of learning. It’s not so much about results this year. It’s about gaining those skills,”
Landing a place in High5, a spot in the women’s Australian European development programme and then a pro-contract at the young age of 21 could give the impression that Skerritt’s path into pro-cycling had been a smooth run. In reality, though, she’s had her fair share of obstacles since she started out.
Skerritt tried many sports, but it wasn’t until she started cycling at the age of 15 that she found one that she wanted to be in for the long haul.
“I was transitioning out of running and so then when I found cycling I liked how much depth was in the sport,” said Skerritt. “All the different people you got to meet and all the different places you got to go and also you have got that element of tactics and the fact that you can take it all over the world. There is just so much to the sport that it really just grabbed me.”
Skerritt developed as an athlete, with encouragement and support from coach Marcel Bengston, who runs a local bike shop, MB Cycles, where she still works.
“Pretty much with his belief, that of other people around me and how far I saw myself going, that meant I really got into it and focussed on getting results.”
After finishing high school Skerritt intensified her focus on cycling and had her first experience with the notoriously gruelling Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) selection camp for the European development program. It wasn’t an easy one for her when she was just 18, relatively new to the sport and one of the youngest participants there.
“One of the major cons for me out of the 2013 camp was the sense that I’d been labelled and that was very disappointing,” said Skerritt, who was disturbed to have the tag of being a selfish athlete placed on her by people who she felt had so little knowledge of her. “I thought it was a really good opportunity for me to grow but in fact it did the opposite, but I think I was lucky that I had a strong determination in the sport and I was able to move past it. Other people in my situation may have taken it a different way.”
This was only the first of Skerritt’s setbacks in 2013 and the next was far larger. She came down with glandular fever and then post viral fatigue, so there could be little thought of the bike as first she needed to regain her health at the most basic level.
“I had taken a really big step up with racing and I think I pushed it a little bit too much,” said Skerritt. “I just keep pushing it because I just wanted it so bad.”
It was a difficult experience at the time. However, Skerritt values the experience as it delivered perspective and clarity.
“It’s hard when you are sick and all you can focus on is getting better in that moment. But once I felt better, then I could focus on more and then my desire came back and my drive,” said Skerritt. “It also came after going to AIS selection camp in 2013, not being selected and feeling that a lot of people from that camp didn’t believe in me. That also gave me a real drive to make myself healthy again and prove to them that yes I can actually do this. That was a big motivator for me.”
She got back into NRS racing in 2014 with Holden Women’s Cycling and in September came across the line first at Amy’s Otway Classic and then shortly after earned her maiden tour victory when she took out the National Capital Tour.
It was a year that set her up for selection in the High5 Dream Team and also for selection to go to Europe.
“I have to give credit to the national team because without the exposure I wouldn’t have gotten the contract,” said Skerritt.
Still, the international trip wasn’t the networking opportunity she had hoped it would be. Instead she was left scouring the internet to find team email addresses and sent off messages to every team she could find to try and gain a spot.
Once discussions got to the stage where a contract needed to be negotiated, Skerritt again found herself in difficult territory.
“It was quite confusing because I have never been in a position like this before so I didn’t want to undervalue myself or overvalue either, so that’s when I called on some people. There are a lot of helpful cyclists from Australia who I was able to turn to and were really, really good to me about helping.”
Australia’s cycling health: “It is naïve to say it has gotten a lot better”
Heading overseas to start life as a professional cyclist means Skerritt appears to be one of the success stories of the Australian development process, but it wasn’t a process without its challenges and Skerritt is forthright about these as she would like to see changes that benefit others coming through and women’s cycling in general.
At the start of last year the opportunities for Australia’s female cyclists to get overseas experience were looking particularly slim, with the European Development program on the chopping block, but Rochelle Gilmore stepped in to form a partnership with Cycling Australia to keep the program going.
“It’s one of the only viable options. I am still relatively new in the cycling world so I don’t have the contacts and if I didn’t have the national team I wouldn’t have been able to get the exposure in Europe to gain a professional contract. That is where you can get stuck in Australia … so it is good we have got that opportunity up and running because otherwise there is no other way for girls to be fed into Europe,” said Skerritt.
But, she had hoped it would to go beyond providing the European racing experience and help more with the process of reaching out to teams and making contacts, so once athletes have the race exposure they can then capitalise on it. And she would particularly like to see more opportunities, support and advice for those who are trying to pursue other options to make it as a professional rider internationally, so there are more clear pathways overseas.
“I would like to see, at the end of the day, a little bit more understanding for the range of people that come to the sport,” said Skerritt. “I want to see the sport grow.”
Then there is the health of the domestic scene to consider, and how well it prepares athletes to take the next step. For many years Australia hasn’t had a women’s UCI categorised race, but this year there were two, as the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Santos Women’s Tour were both UCI ranked. However, it has been a year when National Road Series races are falling by the wayside, decreasing the options for female domestic riders trying to get the amount of high level racing they need to progress.
“I feel like it is transitioning with UCI races coming to Australia. That is fantastic but it is also naive to say it has gotten a lot better, because there are less races in Australia now. There are some aspects that have grown but there are some that are lacking and have actually taken a backward step,” said Skerritt.
If you want to read more about Ellen Skerritt’s journey you can click through to her blog here.