Commentary: Australian women’s performance cause for celebration, not turmoil
Australian women’s cycling is looking back on a turbulent few weeks, between team selection dramas, question marks over development paths and uncertainty about exactly what a sharpened focus on Olympic medal performance will mean for road cycling support.
It’s the type of turmoil you often see when things are at a low ebb, in need of a drastic shake-up to address a slide in performance. However, that just doesn’t fit with the reality for women’s road cycling right now. Quite simply when it comes to Australia’s women’s cycling performance, there is plenty of cause for celebration.
The women have just walked away from the 2017 UCI Road World Championships with their strongest elite level performance since Anna Wilson delivered a silver medal in both the time trial and road race in 1999. In fact, the only nation that did better in this year’s elite women’s events was the complete powerhouse of a Dutch team.
Australian time trial expert Katrin Garfoot walked away with two medals: a bronze medal in the individual time trial and a silver medal in the road race. Adding these medals to Garfoot’s 2016 bronze-medal time trial performance brings her tally up to three elite individual UCI World Road Championships medals, a feat that only one other Australian —man or woman — has matched. Time trialist Michael Rogers dominated the discipline between 2003 and 2005, earning three gold medals in those years.
“Maybe these medals are a good thing and now we’ll be taken more seriously. I think that women’s cycling is being taken more seriously [in general] so perhaps Australian cycling will follow suit,” commented Garfoot after the road race.
In addition to Garfoot’s medals, Madeleine Fasnacht added another bronze medal to the count in the junior time trial. This means that there was but one women’s event in which the Australian women did not medal, and that was the junior road race in which Fasnacht, the sole Australian representative, was taken out by a crash.
But even before this impressive Worlds performance, the Ella CyclingTips crew had started to work on an article celebrating the current state of Australian women’s cycling, prompted by excitement about Australia’s third place in the UCI nations ranking at the time and a great season in general. It was 2009 that Australia last managed to finish the year in such a high position and that upwards progression led to a stellar few years in the 2000’s when Australians were at the very top of the World Cup standings thanks to the performances of riders like Oenone Wood and Anna Wilson.
But then, celebrations turned to turmoil.
First, Cycling Australia decided to take only five riders to the World Road Championships, even though Australia was awarded seven spots by virtue of its high ranking in the nation points table. Australia’s national cycling federation received a lot of criticism and after a successful appeal by Chloe Hosking (Alé Cipollini) and Rachel Neylan (Orica-Scott), they were eventually added to the Worlds Road team.
But while the Worlds selection was sorted and the Worlds results definitely came out in Australia’s favour, another potential setback still looms. There is still the possibility that Cycling Australia’s intensification of its focus on Olympic performances may put the future of the High5 Dream Team and the High5 Australian Women’s Road Development Team in jeopardy.
The Australian domestic cycling team, the High5 Dream Team, and the High5 National Development Team, which allows domestic riders to travel to Europe to experience racing at the highest level, have both received substantial support from Cycling Australia in the past. However, manager and financial contributor to both programmes, Rochelle Gilmore, told Ella CyclingTips the future is now uncertain without the support of the national federation, though she hasn’t given up yet.
And it didn’t stop there. Cycling Australia also ended its support for the Orica-Scott women’s team. Although owner Gerry Ryan stepped up and announced he would provide increased funding to help cover the shortfall, it was still a major blow to Australian women’s cycling.
The news came as Cycling Australia said from next year it will focus on individual athletes, domestic development of road cycling and its role in the Australian Cycling Team at World Championships and Olympic Games. The organisation is expected to deliver its new High Performance Plan in the coming weeks.
Australian women’s cycling now and how it got here
There are currently 18 Australian cyclists who are signed by a UCI team. Of these, 13 are members of teams that are at the core of the Women’s WorldTour. Most Australian cyclists are signed by Orica-Scott. Jessica Allen, Georgia Baker, Jenelle Crooks, Gracie Elvin, Katrin Garfoot, Alexandra Manly, Neylan, Sarah Roy and Amanda Spratt are all part of the only Australian UCI team.
In 2017, there are only two non-Australian women on the team; Annemiek van Vleuten from the Netherlands and New-Zealander Georgia Williams. Belgian sprinter Jolien D’Hoore will join the team in 2018.
But while the quantity of Australian professional cyclists might be nice, it’s the quality that truly matters. And quality there is.
Australian riders are increasingly finding themselves a place on Women’s WorldTour and World Championship podiums. In 2016, Australian rider Hosking was considered a top favourite to take the World Road Championships win. Although the race didn’t fall her way on the day, compatriot Garfoot did walk away with a medal in the time trial and followed that up this year before being just one step away from the road race rainbow jersey.
Australia has been close to the rainbow stripes in the road race three times before, but it’s been a few years. The last time was in the Limburg hills at the 2012 World Road Championships, when Neylan was in the race-winning move of five and climbed towards Worlds silver behind Marianne Vos.
She was the fourth Australian woman to end up on the World Road Championships podium. Elizabeth Tadich was the first in 1997, earning silver. Anna Wilson also won silver, only two years later. And in 2005, Oenone Wood took bronze.
A new beginning: GreenEdge Cycling
In 2011, Australian cycling received a new pulse, with a first-ever Australian UCI team.
The goal was clear: “Australian cyclists, Australian management, Australian coaches and support staff all working together to achieve success on the international stage.”
Although the video is heavily focused on male riders, with only Australian track rider Anna Meares making an appearance in the video, the creation of a UCI women’s team was part of the GreenEDGE plan right from the start.
Aussies Tiffany Cromwell, Rowena Fry, Shara Gillow, Melissa Hoskins, Jessie MacLean, Alex Rhodes and Spratt were all part of the original Orica-GreenEDGE team, along with New-Zealander Linda Villumsen, German riders Judith Arndt and Claudia Lichtenberg, and Loes Gunnewijk from the Netherlands.
The introduction of Orica-GreenEDGE, which this year became Orica-Scott, has given young Australian girls a goal to work towards to, knowing there’s a clear next step to take after racing in Europe with the aforementioned Australian High5 National Development team. However, it must be said that ever since the inception of the team, it has been a non-Australian cyclist who was the main driver in the UCI team ranking.
Still, it’s undeniable that the arrival of an Australian UCI team has bolstered the women’s peloton and the opportunities for Australian riders, as the team offers some 10 spots for Australians to race at the Women’s WorldTour level each year.
The team’s riders have certainly helped Australia’s standing in the UCI nations ranking, though they certainly haven’t done it alone. Alé Cipollini’s Hosking, who has clearly demonstrated that one can find her way to Europe via other paths, was the biggest individual points contributor this year.
Hosking (Alé Cipollini) is the big individual driver in the UCI nations ranking with 704 points. Orica-Scott’s Garfoot contributed an additional 546 points, while Gillow (FDJ-Futuruscope-NA) offered 426 points. Orica-Scott’s Amanda Spratt and Sarah Roy are the other points drivers.
Funnily enough, when Australia was third in 2009, it also was Hosking who was one of the key drivers behind the points, along with Rochelle Gilmore and Ruth Corset.
Hoping the pinnacle doesn’t become too distant
With the country doing so well, it’s seems such a shame that Australian cycling has been in the media for other reasons in the past couple of weeks. What would be a bigger shame though would be that if decisions made now, regarding development opportunities and rider support, jeopardised the ability of Australia’s female riders to continue pushing through to compete at the highest level in significant numbers.
“The results in any sport, or walk of life, really come from having depth in numbers and people always stepping on your toes and having to push it to maximum limit to be selected for certain roles,” said Gilmore, who is not only behind the Australian development teams but also the owner of women’s WorldTour team Wiggle High5.
Gilmore said she believed the strength and depth of Australian women’s cycling now has a lot to so with the really healthy development structure the nation has had, with riders seeing opportunities to constantly push up, bit by bit, to another level.
“If the pinnacle is too far away and there’s not the stepping stone to work towards then I think we will have riders falling away,” said Gilmore.