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“There are good days and bad days, and today I’m having a bad day.”
It’s the middle of the week, and Australian rider Lizzie Williams is laying in a bed in a host house in some small town in Southeast USA.
She laid down for a post-ride nap but her mind won’t let her sleep. It’s whirring.
We shouldn’t have missed the break. Dragging Lauretta Hanson to the finish was a really poor tactical mistake. I could have done better. Third isn’t good enough …
Reliving the last few races is a bad idea, but she can’t help it.
Williams took home the most courageous rider award at the Women’s Tour of California, and finished third in the Winston-Salem criterium a week later. But to her, those seem like mere consolation prizes for the lack of victories.
The disappointment is weighing heavy and the frustration is bitter. Tears are prickling behind her eyes and her voice cracks. Talking to a journalist in this moment is not ideal. But it’s also authentic. These feelings she’s having, that is bike racing too. The ups come with downs. And as authenticity is one of her new values to live by, she musters up the courage and continues on.
So much of bike racing is a mental game. In the mad dash to the line, the legs do the work but the real battle is fought behind the tinted lenses of the riders’ sunglasses. While the physical pain stops after the finish line, the pressure to perform – to do better and deliver results – never stops.
“I know I can be quite negative and down on myself, but it’s also the pressures of being a professional cyclist in a team,” Williams tells Ella CyclingTips. “It’s a really different type of a sport – everyone’s got their personal goals and we’ve got team goals as well and putting all those pieces together for it to work is often quite hard.”
In the run-in to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, these pressures to perform – in order to make national selection – were mounting so high for Williams that eventually she cracked. She abruptly left the Orica-AIS base in Italy and simply disappeared.
For months we didn’t hear from Williams.
“I came back home to my parents. I just needed to completely have a break. I needed to be by myself for quite a long time,” Williams says. “I don’t think I left my parents’ house for a whole month — I just needed to recharge “And I needed to get professional help – psychiatrist, psychologist, medication, all that.”
The Comeback, part 1
As a junior, Williams had been an accomplished track and road racer, but she hung up her bike to finish her studies and become a high school teacher. But in 2013, after nearly a decade away from the sport, she decided to give professional bike racing another go.
She quickly rose through the ranks, starting with stage wins at several Australian National Road Series races. She then spent several months in the U.S., riding as a Vanderkitten and picking up a number of top-10 finishes including an impressive solo victory at North Star’s infamous Stillwater Criterium.
This was followed by a stint in Europe, where she raced as part of the Australian national team, and netted several additional top-10 finishes. Her successful comeback did not go unnoticed and Williams eventually secured a spot on the Orica-AIS squad for 2015 and 2016.
Where it all went wrong
With the introduction of the UCI Women’s WorldTour, and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games quickly approaching, the level of women’s cycling was higher than ever before, and so were the stakes. Competition between and within teams was cut-throat.
“I was riding in a predominantly Australian team and everyone [was] trying to get a result to be selected for the Olympics. [It] made for a really stressful, highly anxious environment and that was just not healthy for me,” Williams reveals.
“In the end, it also came down to luck. With cycling, a lot has to do with luck as well and I just had some really shit luck. The last four races I did in Europe I crashed in all of them, and I just watched my opportunity to be selected for Olympics wash away.”
Is that where it all went wrong?
“I think it was the pressure within the team and the pressure I put on myself … trying to qualify for the Olympics. That was the big problem and everything else manifested from that, I think,” she says.
In need of serious help, Williams found refuge at home with her parents.
“My parents are amazing. They provided me with free refuge and all the support I needed,” Williams said. “They have seen me through my peaks and troughs in the past 15 years. This, however, was the toughest one they have seen and I’m sure that was hard for them – to see it and not know how to fix it.”
Thanks to professional help and a network of support, Williams got back onto her feet. She found herself a part-time teaching job and went about a ‘normal’ life.
“I got back into substitute teaching and bought a cyclocross [bike]. I just rode to work and home, and sometimes through the trails on my way home. I was just commuting for exercise. Riding alone through the bush, that’s when I started to find my passion for cycling again.”
The real turn-around point came when Jono Coulter, manager of the US-based Hagens Berman – Supermint women’s team, reached out to Williams.
“We have a good friendship and I told him everything, and he said he’d love to have me in America if I was up for racing at that level,” Williams shares. “Jono offering me that contract is what got me back on the road bike and back at it. It was either that or looking for a full-time position teaching the following year.”
“Jono provided me with options because I wasn’t proactive. I wasn’t going to go out and contact teams because I didn’t want to have to go through my background history and share what happened. I didn’t want to be vulnerable.”
But when racing caused so much emotional and mental turmoil, why would one go back yet again?
“I realised that I’m not ready to hang the bike up,” Williams explains. “I’m not ready to live the mundane nine-to-five way of life. That’s my personality. I also just love racing my bike. I’m starting to come back now and feel that drive to be the best that I can be on the bike.”
Falling back in love with cycling
Still, Williams knew she had to be careful. She didn’t want to fall into the same unhealthy patterns. In addition to building a network of support around her, she left the power meter and computer at home. There were no zones, no targets to hit or numbers to maintain.
“For all my training, I just went back to basics – sprinting to signs or riding to landmarks. And that was really needed and refreshing for me,” Williams says.
“I am so competitive that I was always competing against myself and numbers, and if I didn’t hit those numbers it would really affect my mental state and so I had to strip that back and go back to just riding my bike. I like exploring and going on roads where no one is around. It’s about the adventure for me. And that helped me fall back in love with riding.”
And her parents?
“Look, at the end of the day, parents just want you to be happy. My Dad and I are close in that he was an Australian champion runner and he can relate to the athlete part of my life and the struggles,” she says. “When I told my dad that I was going to go back to racing, that made him so happy.”
The Comeback, part 2
And so we saw Williams return to professional racing at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in January before heading to America for a few busy months of racing there.
She’s had some solid top-10 results at the UCI level and made the team proud during the Amgen Tour of California, a WorldTour event, with a gutsy solo that earned her the most courageous rider jersey for a stage. In Winston-Salem and Dana Point, we saw her finish on the podium, and together with former Australian road champion, Peta Mullens, she’s taking the U.S. crit scene by storm.
“It’s been good racing,” Williams says. “In Europe, the level was so high and I was running at such a high anxiety level, I just wasn’t taking anything in. I also was a domestique, and so I was burying myself before the action actually happened.
“I couldn’t play the game. I get to play now and that’s rewarding.”
Aside from the lower level of racing, Williams is happier and better-equipped to deal with the challenges that come with professional bike racing.
“For me, my quality of life is a bit better because it’s not so isolating or one-dimensional. I had a great time with the Orica team but I was always around Orica riders and staff. I was always on. I was never not an Orica rider,” Williams explains. “Here I travel from host house to host house and meet different people, hear different stories and I can be more of an individual and do my own thing, you know?
“Also, I have come back with a different mindset and tools to manage all the different facets of racing in a professional team. I have created a network for myself – I have a sports psychologist, a coach, a mentor, as well as my own personal tools that I have worked out with my sports psych to maintain while I’m away.”
Williams says that she’s taking racing one day at a time, and trying not to obsess about results.
“A lot comes down to deciding what type of person I want to be. I’m a cyclist but that’s not who I am. I’m not letting myself be defined by my results,” she explains. “And I think I am not thinking of other people. I’m just thinking about myself and being the best athlete I can be. And as a whole person, not just physically.”
She’ll consider the 2017 season a success if she returns to Australia content and mentally healthy.
“I just want to be in a good, happy headspace by the end of the season,” Williams says. “I think that’s probably my biggest goal … and to not come back so broken.”
Deciding to come back to racing was the “absolute” right decision, Williams said, but there’s one major point of business left unfinished.
“I’m thinking of going back to Italy because I would like to go back there and close that chapter,” Williams says. “I never went back there. I left my apartment completely set up – my bedroom and everything, like I was always going to come back. But I just never did.
“I’d like to go back to Italy, maybe do some riding and training there, catch up with my old teammates as well as Vale Scandolara.”
And what does closure look like?
“To just be at peace with it, and not have bad memories from it. Because it may not sound like it, but I predominantly have really great memories from those two years in Italy with Orica.”
Williams only has a short month of racing left in North America and then her season with Hagens Berman- Supermint is done.
She hopes to return to Melbourne happy, refreshed and ready to start training.
“I’ve got aspirations for training properly for the [Australian] national championships in January,” she reveals. “To be national road champion has always been something that’s been in the back of my mind, and I should have the right environment. I can have a good balance – I can train, I can teach a little. But I have to take it one day at a time.
“I also know that Peta [Mullens] is going back for the Australian cyclocross championships so maybe I’ll go back and take her on.”
So she’s going to stick around the racing scene for a while?
“Oh for sure!” Williams says. “Being on the road has forced me to work on myself, get out of my comfort zone and grow as a person.
“There is always going to be another bike race to win or lose. At the end of the day, it’s not about bike racing, it’s about who you are as a person.”
And that person is happier now?
“I think so. I think I’m starting to understand her a lot better,” says Williams, laughing now.