Calling the shots: Rachel Heal’s path to becoming the first female director at the men’s WorldTour

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The 2017 women’s Tour of California in May saw a fierce battle between the American UnitedHealthcare team and the European powerhouse team, Boels-Dolmans. Going into the final stage – a criterium in downtown Sacramento – UHC’s Katie Hall led the General Classification by just one second. Anna van der Breggen and her Boels-Dolmans teammates were nipping at her heels.

A pure climber, Hall was not suited for the fast and flat final two stages, but her blue squad had been doing everything in their power to protect their GC rider during the third stage and were determined to do it again in the finale. Van der Breggen and Boels-Dolmans meanwhile were relying on their proven teamwork and Van der Breggen’s kick to go after the intermediate sprint bonus seconds.

Just one single second. If UHC could keep Boels-Dolmans from earning the bonus seconds, they’d take home the yellow leader’s jersey and a huge victory for an American team in the only WorldTour event on home soil.

What are you going to do? Ella CyclingTips had asked UHC sports director Rachel Heal.

“I have no clue but I have 12 hours to figure it out,” the 44-year-old Briton responded confidently.

| Related: Cyclocrosser Katerina Nash takes on the women’s Tour of California: final report

While the UHC squad was unsuccessful in fighting off the orange Boels train as they came barreling down Sacramento’s L Street to deliver Van der Breggen to the intermediate sprint and ultimately earn two bonus seconds for the win, it wasn’t due to a lack of trying. A line of blue jerseys spent the entire day at the front, keeping the pace high, stringing out the peloton and responding to attacks. The team effort on both sides of the battle was inspiring, and while the ‘underdog versus the big team’ story line didn’t end up with a fairy tale ending for UHC, it did gain them a lot of respect and new fans.

Looking on, Heal was bummed to not take the win, sure, but also one proud director.

“It was exciting bike racing,” Heal told Ella CyclingTips. “The fact that it came down to one second made for a compelling race.”

“Although Boels-Dolmans wasn’t as dominant this year as they were last year, they’re still pretty dominant. If they had been leading after stage two, or going into the last stage, I think people would have just accepted Boels-Dolmans’ win. Now that we took over the jersey with Katie in stage two, it all got very exciting.”

Heal spoke with pride about the performance of her riders in California, and paid little attention to the frenzy that followed the supposed feud between her team and Boels.

“Oh, that’s just bike racing,” she said with a laugh.

Double duty

As the riders packed their bags upon the completion of the women’s race, Heal was staying in California. The men’s race was ongoing, and she was on deck.

Now in her eighth year as a director, Heal started breaking perceptions and glass ceilings in 2014 when she started doing double duty, serving as c0-director for the UHC men’s team in addition to her full-time role as lead DS of the women’s team. While she thinks little of it, female sports directors are still far from common in women’s cycling. In men’s cycling, it’s nothing short of a rarity.

In fact, Heal made cycling history when at the 2014 Milan-Sanremo, she became the first woman to direct a men’s professional cycling team at a WorldTour event.

“When I joined United Healthcare, they said from the beginning that they would also get me involved with the men’s team,” Heal said. “But I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Within my first year, I was second DS at Coppi e Bartali.”

And it continues to be a rarity – a woman directing a men’s team. “I think I may have bumped into one other female DS in men’s cycling in three years,” Heal said.

“But there aren’t many female DS’s in women’s teams either. You probably see about 70 to 80 percent male directors all across cycling.”

While she can’t really explain why  –as the whole sport is growing – there aren’t more women staying in the sports after retiring from racing, she does understand the struggles of stepping into a men’s world.

“It’s an even bigger jump to become DS in a men’s team because it’s unusual. A high percentage of directors have raced themselves, and as a female, you haven’t raced any of the men’s races. It shouldn’t matter, as that’s the same for male directors in women’s cycling, but maybe that’s part of the reason.”

But when it comes to Heal, it simply comes down to experience and proven competence.

“Her DSing for the men’s team is a product of her being so friggin good on the women’s side,” commented rider Lauren Hall, who’s ridden for Heal on several teams. “And it’s not just the directing. She is so good with logistics, staff and management. With her engineering background, she’s very keyed in on details, looks at things from all angles, and can move people around very well.”

DS Rachel Heal talks to rider Tayler Wiles during a training camp.

A pedaling past

Heal’s expertise as a sports director comes from years of racing herself. The former Olympian and British national team member started cycling for transportation initially, using the bike to get around while at university. But riding turned into racing, and it wasn’t long before her results caught the attention of British Cycling.

“One of the girls at the club wanted to enter a competition where you needed two riders, so she persuaded me to do a time trial, which I kind of enjoyed. The year after, I did a road race. Then I was hooked. The time trial was okay, but road racing got me hooked,” Heal recalled.

She enrolled into British Cycling’s World Class Performance Plan in 2001.

“I raced in England for a couple of years, in which I did OK,” Heal said humbly.  “My boss [at the time] offered me a year off and told me my job would still be there at the end of that. I was lucky my boss had a daughter of the same age. He said I’d never get this opportunity again, so I had do it.”

But after a year, there was never any question of going back to the job for Heal.

“I liked my job better than other jobs, but every morning when I woke up and you’d ask me whether I’d prefer to go to my job or ride a bike, it would have been the bike.”

And so, with a chemical engineering degree in her back pocket, she made cycling her job, and raced with the national team for three years before transferring to the Belgian Farm Frites-Hartol team to race in Europe.

Looking for change, she rode out her career in the US, headlining for Team Victory Brewing, Team Webcor, Team Tibco-SVB and Team Colavita.

During her 10-year career, Heal collected a series of British national championship medals in road racing, cyclocross and track events, and gained valuable experiences at  several Commonwealth and  World Championships as well as the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens.

It’s this rider experience that adds to her qualities as a director, said Hall.

“She was a domestique for Nicole Cooke for ever and ever, and knows what it feels like to sacrifice your form and your result for another rider. Yet also what it’s like to be in the lead role,” Hall said. “She’s very humble but don’t let her fool you, she was a really good rider.”

DS Rachel Heal (centre) talks with Lauren Hall (left) and Ruth Winder (right)

As soon as her time as a professional cyclist was ending, another door opened.  At the end of her last season as a professional rider, Colavita’s team director, Iona Wynter, went back to her native Jamaica, and so Heal stepped in.

Heal served as the co-sports director for Team Colavita in 2010, alongside then teammate Tina Pic, for two years, before changing teams to become the lead sports director for Optum p/b Kelly Benefits. In 2013,  she joined the United Healthcare program, where she continues to direct both the women’s and men’s teams.

“Rachel is a very special director. She goes above and beyond director duty,” said Hall. “One, she really cares. And two, she’s really good at her job. She always says it’s not rocket science, and no it’s not, but at the same time, her team tactics are very clear and concise. There’s nothing left to question. Everyone has their role and everyone gets their day.”

Quick-fire round of questions

Ella CyclingTips: In your 18+ years in the sport, have you seen women’s cycling grow?
Heal: “I feel like women’s cycling is growing. It’s not a super fast growth, but that’s maybe a good thing in order to be sustainable.”

“It needs to be small steps and growth each year. There is lots of talk about needing minimum salaries or equal race distances, but it all has to happen in small steps. Huge changes limits the people and teams profiting from it and may potentially hurt the sport. Small steps and continued growth is the way forward.”

“The more the races are televised or live streamed, the more the sport is going to grow. Women’s races have the tendency to be more exciting as they are less scripted.”

Ella: How does the US scene compare to Europe nowadays?
Heal: “The number of UCI races we’ve got in the US has gotten bigger. And the level of races has gotten higher as well. The teams that travelled to California this year have been the best in all the years we’ve seen. There was definitely more quality than in the past.”

“In terms of the growth of teams and their riders, the level in Europe is still higher. In order to develop as a rider, you need to go the Europe. I think what we try to do is do the majority of races in the US to develop in that style of racing.”

Ella: Do you still ride a bike yourself?
Heal: “I do. It depends on how busy the race schedule is how much I get to be on the bike. But I ride when I can. I ride most in November.”

Ella: Do you live full-time in the US?
Heal: “I’m still on a visa, but I’m based here eleven months in the year.””I like it here. For sure the weather’s better in the US. I’m now riding around with bright blue skies. I really like the place I’m living in, which is Asheville. It’s a nice town; up in the mountains, outdoorsy, most of the times the weather’s great. The culture is not hugely different to England. For me it was an easy move.”

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