UniSA-Australia, the nation's first women’s national team to race at the Santos Women's Tour, had a job on their hands to defend the ochre jersey, but a powerful bunch of riders to do it. Usually competitors on different teams, this time they huddled together in the team bus to quickly run through the conditions, what to watch for and who would take what role. They were a team with a plan … now they just had to get out there and see if they could make it work.

A golden opportunity: The story behind Australia’s new national team

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There’s been plenty of attention on Cycling Australia’s moves around its high performance programme since it launched its new strategy with a keener focus on medal winning performances.  At first it was hard to look beyond what had been lost on the road – particularly with the discontinuation of a European development squad – but this summer we got to see evidence of something gained.

For the first time there was a women’s national team to contest the UCI-ranked Australian summer races: the Santos Women’s Tour, the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Women’s Herald Sun Tour.

Looking back on the January race block it’s clear the addition wasn’t only a boon for the team members. It introduced a new level of competition and excitement into a block of racing which is usually dominated by Australia’s only UCI-listed women’s team, Mitchelton Scott.

We spent time with the national team, sponsored by UniSA and KordaMentha, across the month of racing to find out more about this new addition to Australia’s women’s cycling landscape.

Huddled in the team bus on a blustery, sand-swept race track, the Australian national team was going through the plan for the crucial stage 3 of the Santos Women’s Tour. UniSA-Australia’s Katrin Garfoot would start the day in the ochre leader’s jersey but with three powerful Mitchelton-Scott riders breathing down her neck on the GC, keeping the leader’s jersey was never going to be easy.

For any other team, the discussion in the bus would only be centred around that race lead and how to keep it. But this was not any other team.

Packed with some of the biggest names in Australian women’s cycling – Garfoot, Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM), Rachel Neylan (Movistar), Lauren Kitchen and Shara Gillow (both FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) – there was more to this squad than winning the race they were currently competing in.

It was part of a new paradigm, an unflinching focus on better building an environment with which to win the big races for Australia, like the Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games and World Championships. The squad fitted comfortably with that strategy but also provided many other opportunities on the way.

It was an opportunity for Australian riders who didn’t have their teams out in Australia for the summer.

“It is pretty special for us to race on home turf,” said Neylan. “That momentum around women’s sport in Australia is growing exponentially at the moment and it’s nice for us to really be a part of it and this is the one month of the year that we can do that and help elevate women’s cycling onto that same platform.”

It was an opportunity for riders who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to show what they were capable of before selection closed for the Commonwealth Games closed.

“Obviously an Australian Games is really important and as an Australian athlete we all want to be there,” said Cromwell.  “And Australia’s women’s cycling is a huge strength at the moment so you know it’s not going to be easy by any means.”

It was an opportunity for Australia’s summer of racing to have its very best athletes on display.

“It’s an impressive team line-up. It could almost be a World Championship team. They’re all really impressive riders so I don’t underestimate any of them out there,” said eventual Santos Women’s Tour winner, Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) after the pivotal third stage.

And it was an opportunity for less-experienced riders to be exposed to the very best the nation has to offer, helping give rise to a new generation of riders with potential to represent Australia.

“I’m working hard toward [Commonwealth Games] selection, so if I get in that would be amazing, but it’s still a great experience just to try for it,” said the youngest member of the team, Lauretta Hanson (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling). “It’s helping me move into that mindset of going for these teams and getting used to that pressure and experience.”

So in that spirit of opportunity and learning, there was no one team leader throughout the summer, no-win-at-all-costs attitude and no one road captain. The squad could have staked everything on the ochre jersey during the crucial Stage 3 of the Santos Women’s Tour, but a podium for one of those riders who hadn’t had their chance yet was also a priority.

“Obviously with any team, and particularly with an eye to sponsorship, its good to showcase the team and show the ability and therefore winning is an objective,” said director sportif, Kim Palmer. “But it was not the only objective.”

Things didn’t quite go to plan on stage 3 of the Santos Women’s Tour and the national team walked away without the leader’s jersey or a podium (their ambitious strategies did deliver a tour win later in January, however). But more importantly – given current priorities – was what the team members, the support staff and the selectors learnt that day and in the days before and after. These are the things that may be one more building block to medal success.

Picking priorities

Australian cycling fans have long been used to seeing a national team take part in the men’s races throughout the Australian summer. This team is generally filled with up-and-comers, plus the occasional seasoned campaigner to help guide the younger riders.

It was with good reason that a different formula would be used for the first women’s national team contesting the January block of international events. For a start, with a ranking below Women’s WorldTour status, there wasn’t a full contingent of international teams making their way out to Australia.

As a result, some top-notch Australian riders wouldn’t have the chance to take part in Australia’s biggest races. Unless of course, there was a national team for them to ride in.

Tiffany Cromwell (front left) talking about how much it meant to be racing her home race, the Santos Women’s Tour. Garfoot centre in the sprint jersey, which she held onto.

“We had quite an extensive amount of top quality athletes potentially needing a start, in particular because it’s a Commonwealth Games selection period,” said Brad McGee, Cycling Australia’s technical director for road cycling. “There was definitely a need and we just had to create an opportunity for all our high-ranking girls who have got their hand up for Commonwealth Games selection — they all needed a start.”

Otherwise the riders wouldn’t have got their chance in front of the local fans, wouldn’t have got to show their form in front of Cycling Australia in a crucial selection period for Commonwealth Games and wouldn’t have the shot at that automatic Commonwealth Games qualification that went to the winner of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

McGee with World Road Championships 2012 silver medallist (and 2015 Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race winner), Rachel Neylan.

“It comes down to each athlete having the opportunity to present themselves and what they’ve got in this selection window and also with a mind of what’s coming up in offering development opportunities for future athletes,” said McGee, who was responsible for the team’s selection.

“I know there’s been a lot of media attention and an easy, quick, one-liner is that CA is pulling out of women’s development, but it’s not true, said McGee. “In this short interim we have worked very hard to make sure everyone has got an opportunity for these summer events. Beyond that longer term my objectives are to make sure that our Tokyo Olympians are receiving exactly what they need first and foremost as a priority and then we will slowly work back into that development space.

“It’s not as if it’s completely off the table. It’s just that we need to make sure that our current priority athletes are getting what they need before we dig into that development,” said McGee.

And while the development aspect may not have been the sole driver for the national team, there is no doubt that inclusion in the squad was an extremely valuable experience for two up-and-coming athletes.

Soaking it up

Not only did the pair of Hanson and Brodie Chapman learn from the experience of racing for their country, they both pulled off impressive results to book-end the team’s racing block.

Starting the podium appearances for UniSA-Australia was Hanson, on stage 1 of the Santos Women’s Tour which came down to a sprint finish. The 23-year-old Hanson has long been racing, and is currently with US team UnitedHealthcare, but she wants to step it up another level; to represent her country and secure a European contract.

Hanson talked of how beneficial it was purely to be in the team soaking up the approach, strategies and bunch behaviour of the experienced riders around her. But to be given a big opportunity on the very first day of racing together for the team took the experience to a whole new level.

“I have spent a lot of the past couple of years being a domestique, which I really love, but then to have them say ‘no, its your turn’, it was a little nerve-wracking,” said Hanson. “But their faith in me gave me confidence. I knew all the girls were going to put me in the right spot so I just had to follow a wheel,” said Hanson, who climbed on to the podium with a third on that first day of the Santos Women’s Tour.

“That was a phenomenal start of the season for me.”

Hanson (left of picture) pulls off third place behind Annette Edmondson (Wiggle High5) and two-time world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Cylance Pro Cycling).

Just as the team’s journey started with a big opportunity for a developing rider, so it ended with one. The biggest win of the Australian summer for the squad, which was called KordaMentha-Australia for the later races, came from its willingness to give its least experienced rider a huge chance. As a result Chapman, who had just come into the national team for the Women’s Herald Sun Tour, walked away with not only a stage win but the entire tour.

“The knowledge and experience collectively in that team is just so invaluable,” said Chapman. “I can’t thank them enough.”

Chapman discussed how much difference the planning from her teammates made and the reassurance of knowing that they were out there on the road. In fact the support out there from Cromwell was crucial.

“When Tiff came across to me after I was riding out there by myself for a while I was so relieved because she was our road captain and she just tells it how it is,” she said. “I couldn’t thank her enough to be honest.”

It also went well beyond what was happening on the road. The night before Neylan had been sharing her cycling history with Chapman and talking about seizing opportunities when they come your way. It looks like it was a piece of mentoring that struck a chord right when it was needed.

“When I gave her a big hug after the race and she said ‘oh my gosh all I was thinking about all day was that chat we had last night’; that was an extraordinary moment for me,” said Neylan. “To know that maybe I made some small impact by sharing my journey and my experience … it’s a real honour and a satisfying part of being an athlete for me.”

Now, 26-year-old Chapman has gone from a full-time office job to a contract with US-based Team Tibco-SVB with whom she’ll be heading off to Europe to race the Spring Classics.

The unconventional cyclist

Not only did the up-and-coming athletes deliver a couple of great results for the team, but even having them there in the first place has changed the perception of what prospects are available for a whole new range of riders.

In previous years, Cycling Australia supported the women’s Orica-Scott team (the previous incarnation of Mitchelton-Scott). There had been a perception that it was harder to get into national teams if you weren’t a part of the squad. Additionally you’d often hear from riders who strayed from the more conventional development pathway and European road team structure that they felt it was near impossible to break through, even when they were delivering results that made them worthy of notice.

Peta Mullens, 2015 Australian road champion.

This team though, was one where the unconventional road cyclist was welcomed in with an opportunity to post results and make a claim for a Commonwealth Games spot or gain experience. Multi-discipline cyclist Peta Mullens – who has worn the green and gold of the Australian national champion in mountain biking, road and cyclocross – joined the team for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Herald Sun Tour.

Chapman, who also races in the dirt and has had a stymied National Road Series showing due to injury, was brought in for the Herald Sun Tour. The 26-year-old secured that spot after a feisty performance at Australia’s National Road Championships, where she came sixth.

Chapman after pulling off the win of her career – so far.

Then there was US-based Hanson, who was with the national team throughout.

“Cycling Australia have tended to pick from a select pool and I think in recent years there’s been a lot of growth in development from outside of that pool of riders,” said Hanson. “With the results that a lot of these riders have had its hard to deny that they deserve opportunities, so I think it’s quite important that we continue this growth and continue to get results that show young riders that there are also other opportunities as well.

“It’s a good step and it’s good to see this progression from Cycling Australia. I’m excited with the direction that it’s taking.”

There’s one thing that certainly hasn’t changed — the appreciation the riders have for those investing in the development of women’s cycling. Every single rider we spoke to mentioned how grateful they were for the opportunity to race and particularly for the support of sponsors UniSA and KordaMentha Real Estate.

“We actually didn’t know until a few months back that there would be a team supporting us,” said dual 2017 World Road Championships medallist Garfoot. “We are very very grateful for this opportunity, so we want to obviously give back and do our best,” she added after winning Stage 2 of the Santos Women’s Tour.

Let’s hope the opportunities keep flowing.

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