It can be tough to make it to Europe to race professionally, but once you get there it can be even tougher. Young Australian rider Ellen Skerritt was signed to pro-team Ale Cipollini Galassia this year and a month ago headed off to Europe from Queensland to follow her cycling dream. She’s in an Italian team and living in Spain, has only a smattering of the languages she is surrounded by every day. The 21-year-old always knew she was going to face many challenges, but finding herself lost and stranded in the middle of her first race and not even knowing what country she was in was the stuff her nightmares are made of. Once she could look back on her chaotic classic debut with at least a hint of a chuckle, she put pen to paper to share the experience of settling in and somehow finding her way back to the team at the end of that race.
– Simone Giuliani
There has been so much new happening this year. It has been HECTIC from the moment I left Australia; from traveling alone with no one at the other end to greet me, organising my residency in a foreign country, to successfully setting up my new home abroad whilst competing in some of Europe’s most gruelling races. It seems 2016 is not a year for wasting time.
During the first week of arriving in my new home town Girona, Spain I committed to getting the essentials of setting up abroad out of the way, so by the time I started racing I had no outside stressors to distract me. Since my visa was organised and approved in advance it only took a couple of days. Later I set up a Spanish bank account and settled into my fabulous new home. It has been a relatively smooth transition moving abroad and I believe being over prepared really helped with the whole stressful moving overseas thing. A good thing, because there was more than enough stress at my first European race of the season. Ronde Van Drenthe (also known as Ronde van Death) lived up to its name, and was NOT an easy race to start the season with. I was reminded of this many times.
Being my first classic EVER I expected the worst and that’s exactly what I got. It was a difficult two days for a non-Dutchy. In fact it was such a traumatic experience that originally I was quite reluctant to write about it. But at least I can laugh at it now …
So here’s how my first weekend of racing went. Let me first begin by reminding everyone that I have signed with an Italian team, which means the chosen language among staff and riders is Italian. I do not speak Italian. This aspect can make most situations quite challenging, for example when the team director is shouting instructions through the race radio and you have no f***ing clue what is going on. This scenario pretty much translated into most situations. When is the team meeting? No idea. Breakfast? Who knows. To avoid nagging the girls with questions, I would have to choose my questions wisely – a bit like I had a five questions-per-day-limit. For me to ‘just go with the flow’ is something unnatural and foreign (my parents know how much I love to ask questions).
Travel day is always a hectic rush to get to the accommodation (usually hosted by a town in the middle of nowhere) and took place the day before the race. In the back of my mind I always hope that someone will be there at the other end to collect me. Being stranded in an unfamiliar country is what nightmares are made of, but more on this later. We arrived at our hotel with only a short amount of time to fit in a quick spin before we rushed off to presentations. It was nice to see many familiar faces and a number of Aussies in the large group of girls. We returned to our hotel later that evening and ran through logistics of race day. Needless to say not much was understood in the team meeting and I quickly used up my five questions but, with help from the girls, my role was made clear.
It was going to be hell … I didn’t need that translated.
Race day brought sunshine and warm weather of 10 degrees. A stunning day in the Netherlands! With a quality line up of riders and a large field, it was a battle for position on the narrow roads. Every corner was making the riders nervous of a change in wind direction. It was a stressful start to the race and there wasn’t a moment to relax, you had to stay on the ball every-god-damn-second. I made it half way through the race until I mentally bonked. It was like I had my maximum dose of information and there was no more I could take in.
I lost contact with the main peloton and suddenly I was stranded in that shitty place between the main peloton and grupetto. Now, what did I learn from racing on the weekend? Do not EVER lose contact with the main peloton in a race in the Netherlands or if you are going to get dropped at least take a Dutchy with you. Now I was in no man’s land – alone – and it gets worse. I miss a turn and stop seeing the signs of the course. I’m lost. My race radio is cutting in and out as I try to make contact with the team director, “Mayday, help, I’m lost!”. I was unable to get through.
Imagine this: Lost in a country you don’t know and you are not even sure what country you are in. Am in the Netherlands or in Holland? Or is it the same thing? No phone. No map. My survival instincts kicked in and suddenly my priorities changed from racing to making it home alive. I decided to continue riding till the next check point, the feed zone, which according to my Garmin was not far. I reached my checkpoint and decided now I was actually really lost as there were no team vans or swannies in sight. The only form of life was two people looking to head out on a lovely Saturday afternoon drive, until I ruined their afternoon. After I explained my situation my new friends were more than generous in helping me find my final destination. Which is in which town? I have no idea. After driving around fruitlessly, I was now lost with my new friends as we searched the countryside looking for the finish line. Luckily enough we ran into a couple of policemen who pointed us in the right direction, only 10km’s away (so we weren’t THAT lost).
After my little adventure, we arrived in the small town just in time for the finish of my race. As I parted ways with my new friends, I apologised for ruining their lovely Saturday afternoon plans and thanked them for being so helpful. I have never been so grateful in all my life!
I rolled to the carpark where all the team vans were parked, waiting for the riders to make their way back. Desperately I searched for my team van, worried that they had already packed up and left. Luckily I found them and was greeted by Gigi with a big hug. Before I could say anything, the rest of the team rolled in behind me. After my dramatic afternoon it was almost like nothing had happened … It was quite a story for dinner later that night.
Even though it was quite a horrific weekend of racing I managed to pull a few positives to take away:
- more race experience
- another learning experience of how to be resourceful and remain calm in extreme situations
- I survived.
And sometimes, when you are faced with so many new things at once, survival has to be enough. At times this new lifestyle can be testing and I can get very frustrated with myself. Constantly I have to remember that this is a good chance to learn (on the run, with mistakes) and gain more valuable life experience. I have always pushed myself to move forward in my life and it can be very uncomfortable at times, but I believe this is how I become a more rounded person.
Here are a few things I’ve learnt from my settling in experience so far:
Turns out it is much easier to have everything done 10,000 kilometres away than to actually get anything done in Spain. I spent two days in immigration with all my paperwork ready, I couldn’t imagine coming to Spain with anything less. Start learning some basics like taxi/shopping language, it is really appreciated and will get you far – to mainly not piss off the locals and help with not looking like a complete tourist. However in saying this, don’t panic you will also learn bits and pieces on the run. I learnt a few numbers from just sitting in the immigration office, making sure I didn’t miss my number when they shouted it out. This was a tricky one!
Once I hit the ground, I needed to be ready to run. I had a short time-frame to set up my place, organise equipment, to then get stuck into training so the following week I could begin racing. Having an easy week of training the previous week to prepare for a stressful week ensured I was fresh enough to be able to handle all the change.
This would be my number one tip. Especially for people like me who suffer from RBT (Resting Bitch Face). I smiled my way through the train station to get my bike on the train with no issues or questions asked (which has been an issue for most cyclists in Girona). I smiled my way through immigration and even though I was in the wrong building the person behind the desk walked with me to the correct building. How helpful!
It is difficult to make smart decisions if you are stressed. Plus you probably won’t be smiling (back to previous tip) if you are having a freak out. I live by ‘fake it, until you make it’, which I also translate in to races as my ‘poker face’. It helps me to believe I’m okay even when my heart rate is 200bpm and I feel like death and still have 100 kilometres to go. Staying calm has been an important aspect for me to learn because it is something I struggle with. To remain calm requires certain qualities I am yet to possess – like patience. However, good planning has allowed time to be patient and if I plan to get done in Italy or Spain I double the amount of time I think it will take to complete the task. I planned to get immigration completed in one day, so I doubled it and in the end, it took two days. In the team we call this being tranquillo.
I guess you can say that I have been quite fortunate to have been able to move overseas and have people I know from home around (who have been so helpful with finding good training routes and the go-to-coffee shops with good muffins in town). I can happily say I have also met so many new people who have helped me feel like I have found a second home. Being an independent woman, I have always had this internal struggle of relying on the people around me, however being able to set up another network of friends has made the move much easier.
Later this week I am in search of hills and warmer weather. Trofeo Binda is my next race coming up on Sunday. Lucky for me the race is held around Gavirate, Italy which is where I was based for a short period of time last year. I look forward to racing on familiar roads and making some improvements on my performance. A map might not be necessary for this race, however for the following race I might pack one – just in case.
If you would like to read about Ellen’s experiences in more detail she has a great blog that is regularly updated. The link is here.