The European road season ended in a lot of turbulence for Australian women’s cycling. Leading up to the season’s pinnacle at the UCI World Road Championships in Bergen, the media was filled with stories of selection dramas, question marks over development pathways and uncertainty about exactly what a sharpened focus on Olympic medal performance may mean for future road cycling support.
But high in the mountains, completing final preparations for her big season goal, Australian time trial expert Katrin Garfoot only got wind of some of it. Garfoot stays away from most social media and aside from a supportive text message to her teammates, refrained from getting mixed up in the drama.
The current Australian champion both in the time trial and on the road focussed on herself. She was grateful that the spotlight did not shine in her direction, at least not until a medal hung around her neck.
In spite of all the doubt, drama and pressure that preceded the world championships, the Australian women delivered with Garfoot leading the charge.
Netting both a bronze medal in the individual time trial and a silver medal in the road race, Garfoot now has three World Championship medals in her possession, a feat that only one other Australian — time triallist Michael Rogers — has matched.
Always the competitor, Garfoot was quick to point out that his were in fact gold medals and she has yet to stand on that top step.
Still, Garfoot’s achievement were the cause for the celebratory season ending the Australian women deserved. It has been a fantastic year for Australian women’s cycling with stellar performances in the women’s WorldTour and an appearance on the top-3 of the UCI nations ranking.
The German-born Aussie with a medal streak
Despite having more Road World Championship medals than any other Australian female rider, the 36-year-old tends to fly under the radar somewhat, not attracting the general attention you’d expect from someone with her results. This is perhaps, in part, due to her relatively short time in the sport.
Garfoot’s start in cycling came at a time when many professional athletes start contemplating retirement.
It was 2011 and the then 30-year-old Garfoot had just bought her first three-day racing license at her husband insistence. She’d been crushing his weekend warrior rides and it was time for her to stomp on other people’s egos.
And that she did.
By 2013, Garfoot had won the Australian National Road Series title. But there was something standing in the way of her pursuing opportunities to represent the country she lived in: her German citizenship.
Married to an Australian, Garfoot had been a full-time resident of Australia since 2008, and while her accent and forthright manners are unmistakably German, becoming a naturalised Australian citizen opened up exciting prospects and career opportunities.
Standing on the podium after winning at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, tears glistened in her eyes. She couldn’t have been more proud to be wearing the Australian colours.
In her four years of riding as professional for Orica-AIS and the Australian national team, Garfoot has been wildly successful, winning several Oceania gold medals, two national time trial titles, one national road race title and three world championship medals.
An uncertain future
Despite her impressive performances, at the time of this interview, there was a lot of instability and uncertainty for Garfoot’s career going forward. So much so that it’s unclear what kit Garfoot will be wearing when the Australian Summer of Cycling kicks off in January.
In May of this year, she decided she didn’t want to race in Europe anymore and so Orica won’t be signing her for the 2018 season. They have a full European racing schedule after all, and don’t have the means to support a lone rider in Australia.
But due to Cycling Australia’s new high performance strategy – which also resulted in it withdrawing its support from the Orica-Scott women’s team – opportunities have opened up for a medal-candidate like Garfoot. Cycling Australia announced that in its ambitious pursuit of Olympic medals, a new high performance strategy will shift its early athlete development to the track and increase the depth in its focus on individuals with medal potential.
“I will not be on the Orica roster in 2018, but Orica has allowed me to use their bikes until the Commonwealth Games as Cycling Australia won’t have the structure to give me that support that quickly. So I am thankful that I can stay on the bikes that I know,” Garfoot told Ella CyclingTips.
There may be a national team for the Australian summer of racing but that too, is still up in the air, she said.
In the meantime, she’s flying solo.
“I am sort of fazed but in the end it was my decision to not race in Europe next year. I made it in May, before Cycling Australia and Orica split,” said Garfoot. “Now that Cycling Australia is able to give me support in some way or another, I am actually lucky.”
Taking little to no time to recover following Worlds, Garfoot is back to training and laser focussed. She’s got a plan laid out all the way through to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, covering national and Commonwealth targets and even a baby along the way.
We caught up with Garfoot to talk about her remarkable career, family planning and Cycling Australia support.
Q & A
Anne-Marije Rook for Ella CyclingTips: Let’s talk about Cycling Australia’s new high performance strategy. As someone who has won a lot of medals these past few years, that is a good thing, no?
Katrin Garfoot: In principle, yes.
And in effect?
We will see. Cycling Australia still hasn’t sorted itself out properly so obviously they cannot tell me yet how they are going to support me because they don’t fully know yet how they are going to run their programs. This is being sorted still.
But you feel optimistic?
I do. I think that the change is certainly positive in a lot of different ways. For example, Orica is now a proper team, which means the girls get more money, which is a long time coming. And I think that Cycling Australia needed restructuring.
I think that all us cyclists would like to be involved a bit more but it’s quite hard for us. We are athletes, and I think CA needs to figure out their structure more before us athletes can have a say.
The season has barely ended and you’re already talking about Nats and the Commonwealth Games and Tokyo 2020, but I’m hearing that you’re hoping to pop out a kid somewhere in there as well.
Yeah. That is one of the plans after the Commonwealth Games — to start a family and then come back for Tokyo.
Do you plan everything in life like that?
Yes, of course. You have to nowadays, I reckon. If you want to be on top of something, you have to have good plans to get there.
What’s the bigger goal — to start a family or to medal at the Tokyo Olympics?
I want both. I know both are possible. As I said, the planning is not fully developed yet and should I not be able to do both equally well then I’ll make that decision as it comes to me.
What happens if I don’t get pregnant in May? Well, then I will probably race Worlds next year and start a family after Tokyo. That has crossed my mind as well. But I haven’t fully developed that plan yet.
You’re so hyper-focused on your career, what do you do to relax and turn it all of?
[Laughing] At this stage it’s quite hard to find the time to relax. But we do like going out on jet-skis. I like kite surfing but that doesn’t fit in with the sport. So we go out on a jet ski and do some fishing. That’s quite relaxing.
Editor’s note: Fun fact: Kat met her husband Chris while kite surfing in 2006. A bit of a thrill seeker, Kat also was a half pipe skater for a bit as a teenager. “To get better, you must push yourself out of your comfort zone,” she says.
I read somewhere that you didn’t actually like cycling when you started. Is that true?
I just went out with friends mountain biking because I didn’t want to sit at home. I didn’t particularly like riding my bike, I just chose that over sitting at home while Chris went riding. So I went out with Chris and his friends and I liked competing [against] them. Obviously, I am very competitive and competing against boys and making them feel bad was a bit of fun for me.
Chris, my husband, then bought me a road bike. He said I needed one – I didn’t think so — but we rode with friends and I turned out to be good at it.
Then he said I should race and so I started road racing.
… because you always do what your husband says?
[laughing] No. That is why it took so long! I should have done it earlier.
I just needed someone to push me [in the way Chris did]. I would not have chosen road cycling myself. But then I just got sucked in. I like what I am good at and the better I am at something, the more I want to do it, I guess.
Is that the same competitive drive you have today – the desire for competition?
No, I think today it’s more about being the best I can be. I want to improve myself. And I think that’s important in high performance cycling — for me anyway — that you focus on yourself and not the competition. I think it is very easy for me to get sidetracked looking at what the people are doing and then I lose valuable time I could have spent on myself.
This is probably why you are so good at time trialling — the individual aspect, the process, the control.
Yes. I like that there aren’t that many [outside] factors that can influence the outcome, whereas in a road race there are a lot of different factors that create more of a lottery outcome.
But do you like riding bikes, now?
I do like time trialing, but I have a love-hate relationship with road racing. I think I didn’t have the easiest road getting into road racing — like being put into the Spring Classics first, for example. I had a lot of crashes in my first two years, and I didn’t know much and politics got in the way. There were a lot of factors that retrospectively could have been smoother if I had known more going in, or had had better support.
At your first Commonwealth Games you wrote something on your handlebars — “It’s worth tolerating, it’s bearable.” What did your bars read at Worlds this year?
It only had the world stripes, no words. I stepped up a bit in my psychological manoeuvres on the bike, I guess.
You got close in the TT. I’m sure you’ve analysed that race a lot. Is there anything you could have done differently?
The preparation could have been more perfect but I don’t think I could have raced much differently. I think the race was really good.
There are always questions afterward. The further you go away from the race, the more ‘could haves’ pop up. Could I have started harder? Could I have maintained it if I had started harder?
These are just questions, which are not all that productive. I don’t think it is reasonable to say I could have done better at Worlds because after Worlds I thought I had given it all I had.
Some criticised your road race performance — accepting the race for second instead of going for gold. Do you field that critique well, do you read the critique that’s out there in the media?
No I don’t read critique and I am actually really bad at social media. I focus on myself and not on other people. But I do think a lot of people may not have understood what I was doing, and I also think that it’s hard for them to make a judgement without the full picture.
In my head I was totally preparing for the TT at Worlds. I knew that when I am well-trained for the TT, I’m OK on the road. That’s just what experience tells us, and luckily I had someone to believe in me. Our DS, Martin Barras, believed in me and gave me that role in the team. And I was smart enough to not say anything because I did not believe I could do it but I, for once, did not say anything and it worked out. I just took on the role I was given and played it out.
That self-doubt, does that plague you often? Do you need someone else to believe in you?
In preparing for Worlds I didn’t know where I was at in terms of power because I had been building my training up again from having been sick. Whereas I am usually very good at knowing what my body can and cannot do, at Worlds I let that doubt creep in.
Does you background in osteopathy help you as an athlete?
Yes, I think that having studied osteopathy helps me think a different way that makes me think out of the box a bit more. It’s just a different thinking pattern that I can apply to all aspects of life now.
In osteopathy there’s a theory that all things are connected. And so I think I have a broader mindset of searching for things that could affect my cycling or things that could help me improve. I don’t just look at the obvious.
I try to cover all bases and I am not scared to ask people for whatever, to get answers that are perhaps random.
I read somewhere that if you weren’t a cyclist, you’d either be a principal of a school, the Prime Minister of Australia, a novelist, a teacher or a mom. Clearly, you’re working on the latter and you’ve already been a teacher, are we going to see you start a career in politics next?
[Laughs] No. But in part because I don’t actually know how that system works. And partly because when I listen to them I just shake my head at the politics in politics.
I would like to do something that matters in the future. That has an impact. But I haven’t figured out yet what that is.
As an athlete, do you feel like a public figure? Someone others look to? Someone with a voice?
[Women’s cycling] isn’t big enough. And the things is, as a cyclist you don’t actually realise that people might look up to you or that you are influencing people. I don’t have a media presence — I do think that’ll change in the coming year when I stay home — and there are a lot of races where we don’t get the publicity or fan support.
Why should people pay attention to women’s cycling?
Huh. I have never thought about that. I don’t watch cycling but I don’t watch any sport. It agitates me to watch it, I want to go out and do it myself. And it’s not that I don’t want to support it.
I do think that women need to empower other women, and that starts perhaps by watching women’s sports more. It gives inspiration, I hope, to be better, to get out and try things.
I guess I try by helping other women in sport. I have so much knowledge that I don’t want to see disappear.
I think you can also help simply through sharing your story. It’s quite inspiring that someone can start racing bikes at 30 and be one of the best just years later. It shows that you’re never too old to try something new.
You know, I wasn’t always a high achiever. At some age I actually learned to try to get what I wanted. And I am still in the trying part, I think.
At school I wasn’t a high achiever at all, I couldn’t be a doctor because my grades weren’t good enough. But it’s never too late, especially nowadays when it’s normal to switch careers a few times. Just pick what you want to do and try to be the best at it. Just keep doing it.
Of course, for me to do this was only possible because I have one of the most supportive husbands anyone could have. He put me on the bike and he is staying home while I am in Europe for most of the year. And I don’t think that many women at my age at that time, 32, would have had that experience. Women’s cycling is not sustainable enough at this stage that women would choose cycling over another employment if they do not have someone in the background providing money.
But I do want to tell every woman out there to focus on something and keep trying. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it before, just start now. Now is the right time.
Were you ever afraid of failing?
Every road race I start. I am afraid of not being as good as I want to be. It comes out more in road racing than time trialling because in time trialling I am way more focused on the process. Road racing there are so many things to consider, to think about and do. It’s easy to fail in road racing.
Would you rather just be a time triallist then?
Yes, and that is why I decided to not race in Europe next year. Cycling Australia [in terms of qualifications for big international competitions] allows me to just do time trials and not race in Europe.
Would you ever do the UCI Hour Record?
No, I have no interest in it I must say. I think the effort that goes in it is not worth the outcome. I don’t need the bragging rights.
What is the ultimate goal then? What is all the effort worth it for?
I think the journey, definitely not the outcome of one specific race. It’s all part of the journey. And I think what I have learned through this journey has put me miles ahead of where I was when I started, and of the person I had been before I started cycling. I know myself better. I know my strengths and weaknesses better. I learned a lot of things along the way that I can apply for the rest of my life. It’s a good journey.