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There were five days of impressive performances at Australia’s FedUni Road National Championships in Ballarat last week, showing a depth and strength in Australian women’s cycling that delivered plenty of hope a resurgence is underway. The road race finale was one of the most exciting finishes we’ve seen in years, but even that could not overshadow the achievements of 17-year-old Sarah Gigante (Holden Team Gusto) who started the week by lapping the criterium field and then finished with all three Under 19 national titles in her possession.
We met with Gigante the day she completed the triple to find out more about this talented and hard working high school student, who we’ll surely be hearing plenty more about in the future.
Finishing Nats week with an emphatic victory in the road race and a clean sweep of all the Under 19 category events wasn’t the first time Gigante has been welcomed to the line with cheers from a hugely impressed crowd. That came more than a decade ago. And unlike the quiet celebration on Saturday, the then six year old threw her arms up in the air in a victory salute.
That early satisfaction of a big performance on the bike came at the finish of the Great Victorian Bike Ride, on the back of a tag-a-long bike with mum Kerry. Her victory was powering through a long, cold and hilly day of riding. She’d been responding to her mum’s request for a “boost” pedalling effort to zoom them up to the back of a group or get over a particularly steep bit.
Mum had been impressed by the extra power her little legs could deliver, and so were the other riders on the 500-kilometre, multi-day bicycle tour of the Australian state of Victoria. They duo rolled into camp amidst cheers, and Gigante was hooked.
After doing the tour of the state on the tag-a-long and another on the tandem, the seven-year-old Gigante was determined to fly solo next time and take on the week of cycling on her own pair of wheels. To help her work up to the challenge, her mother, Kerry, suggested she join a club, and that’s when her passion for the bike turned into a passion for racing.
Kerry took her along to a Brunswick Cycling Club track clinic for kids, where helping out was one of the standout supporters of getting kids on bikes in Melbourne’s racing scene, David Morgan. Although, he is better known as Mr. Pink, given his tendency to dress head to toe in the colour.
“The clinic had finished and she was still going around and around and around,” recalled Kerry. “He (Mr Pink) said ‘you are going to need a crowbar to get that girl off the bike’.”
He was just about right.
“I didn’t think when I was just doing the Great Vic ride I knew it was really a sport. But once I got to clinic and realised people do this and they do it really fast, straight away it was, yeah, I love this sport,” Gigante told Ella CyclingTIps. “Cycling is so fun, the people are so awesome and there is so much adrenaline too.”
As soon as Gigante was old enough to enter the National Championships, she jumped at the chance, on the road and track. In fact, at the ripe old age of 17 she’s already lost count of how many she’s done. And at the rate she is going she might lose track of how many national titles medals she’s won before long as well.
Gigante was only 16 when she stepped up to the Australian National Road Series last year. Most would expect it to be a period of riding around the back and finding her feet, but that’s just not Gigante’s style. Gigante had a number of top ten finishes in 2017, took out the young rider classification at Amy’s Otway Tour, and managed an impressive second place in the final stage of the series. Now she’s shifted from the role of guest rider to signing up with top NRS team, Holden Team Gusto this year.
Her rise hasn’t been all smooth sailing, however.
In December 2016 a separated shoulder from a track accident had her off the bike. She was still determined to stick to her goal for the year of riding the bike every day so a rope rig was set up hanging from the curtain rail to support her shoulder so she could still get on the trainer. Then in early 2017, when Gigante was coming back from that, she came down with Glandular Fever. Efforts were kept short and easy on the trainer initially and then as she got better and returned to the bike efforts were limited to an hour, no more.
That’s why the race at the Oceania Championship in March – where she put in a powerful performance to come second to Madeleine Fasnacht – jumps to the top of her mind when she is asked about her favourite race. Even when its straight after an unexpected triple nationals victory.
Lapping the field
Gigante was hoping to do well this year, but had never imaganed she’d dominate as she did – she has way too much respect for her fellow riders to think any of the races were going to be easy wins. In fact, her goals were a medal in the criterium and the road race, the latter could even be won if everything played out just right. For the time trial, she expected her ride to be outside medal pace.
The Under 19 criterium was the first race of the week, and what a race to start with. Gigante didn’t just win, but set a blistering pace to catch a breakaway rider, and then just kept going to lap the field.
“I was so stunned,” said Gigante.
“I just wound it up a little bit more and then I was solo. I was like oh my gosh this is amazing. That was the coolest moment, you know, just making people hurt,” said Gigante with a cheeky grin and chuckle.
But don’t take that as a sign that the category is cut-throat. While the group may be fiercely competitive on the road, when the racing was done they actually looked like the most supportive bunch who revelled in others’ achievements. The podium chats of the Under 19 categories were a lesson in good sportsmanship, and watching the riders seek the barriers after their race to cheer their competition in and congratulate each other was heart-warming.
With the time trial under her belt on Friday – which Gigante was shocked to find out she’d won as she’d initially misheard the announcers and thought she was off the podium – expectations were high that Gigante could take the triple. It’s the type of pressure that could make even the most experienced of athletes crack. Somehow Gigante seemed to take it in her stride. She chatted amiably to the commentators at the start and remained focussed and strategic on the road.
“I think its really fun. The bigger the race the better,” said Gigante when asked about dealing with race stress. “A lot of people were saying you are going to get three. I tried to pretend it was just another race.”
She wasn’t going to win without a fight. Jemma Eastwood took off on the very first lap, so Gigante chased her down and then worked with her until there was little more than a lap to go. Getting the gap, Gigante pushed to the end to take a solo victory, sealing the triple. It was a quite an understated celebration, but the growing smile that took over her face said it all.
How does she do it? Balance and support.
There was no shortage of applause as Gigante crossed the line, but one of the loudest and proudest people in the crowd was perhaps Gigante’s grandmother, clapping with her hands raised in the air.
And how could she not be proud of her granddaughter? Level-headed, an academic achiever – having just completed two tough year 12 subjects in year 11 – and relentlessly hard-working. And that’s before even talking about her cycling achievements.
It’s clear that those around Gigante are thrilled with what she has been able to achieve, from her grandmother to the extended clan of uncles and aunts sitting roadside and of course, her mother who started it all.
“I couldn’t do any of it without mum, especially juggling school and cycling,” said Gigante. “She is always there for me. She’s a really special person.”
Then to add to the family backing there is her regular riding bunch, Tour de Burbs, Brunswick Cycling Club and now her new cycling team, Holden Team Gusto.
The squad has a track record of developing young riders, with newly crowned Australian champion Shannon Malseed as a recent example. The team took on Malseed as an 18-year-old and developed her until she was ready for her new phase as a professional rider with Team TIBCO-SVB.
The team were visible in their support of their youngest member. Former Australian criterium champion, Kimberley Wells, delivered tomes of advice when the young rider asked for some pointers and Erin Kinnealy was forthcoming with the time trial tips. Former teammate Malseed was waiting on the side of the road to congratulate and support Gigante, even though the next day she had her own monumental day on the bike to prepare for.
The nice thing though, is that the support goes both ways. Gigante talked excitedly about going out to cheer on her teammates at the women’s Herald Sun Tour this year and yelled out “go mum” from the post podium interview at the time trial as Kerry took off on the club team time trial. Even after winning the road race and taking the triple she stuck closely to the barriers so she could cheer the other riders in.
Along with the sense of community, ‘fun’ is still a word that comes up often when Gigante talks about the bike. Despite her incredible results and the early step up into the pressure of racing in the National Road Series, the joy of the ride seems to come first and foremost.
While her cycling future looks bright and Gigante clearly relishes the sport, she is far from one to neglect school in favour of cycling. It’s routine to take the text books to races and she was even sitting down to do some homework after her National time trial title win on Friday. So it’s year 12 and the NRS for 2018, and university is on the cards the year after. Bike racing is there too, but we’ll just have to wait and see how and where.
“I’ll just keep having fun and if that takes me to Europe that’s cool, but if it doesn’t that’s cool too,” said Gigante.