Bridie O’Donnell took to cycling late, but a rapid rise to the top ranks of the Australian scene fuelled her ambitions. Ultimately the hard work, planning, persistence and determination lead her to a truly extraordinary sporting performance when, at the age of 41, she set a UCI Hour Record in January 2016 with a distance of 46.882 kilometres. However, there was one heck of a roller coaster ride before she got there. O’Donnell put her career as a medical doctor on hold and spent her mid-30’s chasing the dream of representing her country and racing her bike in Europe among the best in the world. At times it turned into a battle not only against the world’s best cyclists but of also shutting out the voices bluntly telling her she was too old, too fat and too slow.
O’Donnell has written about the experience in her newly released book Life and Death, which not only tells the tale of the personal journey, but also shines a light on many of the issues those in the women’s peloton have to grapple with if they choose to chase cycling success. We venture into the book with an excerpt from Chapter 7, where O’Donnell recounts what she saw when she headed to Europe to race for an Italian team in 2010. The joy of having secured that first pro-contract was quickly dented by some fairly harsh realities, not the least of which was seeing the damage some cyclists were prepared to inflict on their bodies in the pursuit of success.
A cult of self-destruction
Very early in my cycling career, I came to appreciate that body image issues and the pressure to conform to a physical ideal have long plagued elite women’s sport. In road cycling, where images of men with lean, tanned legs and hollowed cheekbones had been emblematic of true ‘professionalism,’ most teams aspired for the same appearance for their women riders. The cause and effect: get lean first and the results will follow. As a medical practitioner and a professional athlete with experience across many sports, my opinions are always shaped by a mixture of theoretical and practical knowledge.
When I was a rower, there were two weight categories for elite competition. There was no chance I could have been a lightweight; I was too tall with healthy but heavy muscle mass that would have required me to radically transform my eating habits. The upper limit of the lightweight category was 59kg, and the majority of women who rowed for Australia were heavyweights. They were selected because of their admirable strength, their long limbs, and the extraordinary power required for a six or seven-minute effort.
I arrived in that sport aged 26, weighing just below 70kg, which put me right in the middle of two body types. It meant I was surrounded either by taller, heavier women—their physical prowess enviable—or small, wiry and dynamic lightweights, who were always adding a run or an extra ride to their countless on-water sessions. Before rowing, when I was an ironman triathlete, leanness in the elite women was a common physical feature, and a requirement for athletes’ frames to endure the rigours of a nine or 10-hour event. Hardiness and resilience were prerequisites.
It wasn’t until I made the move across to road cycling that I encountered so much discussion of power-to-weight ratio, a topic preoccupying riders, coaches, and the DS of any team. Once the road went up and gravity became a factor, women whose physiology could generate power while carrying as little weight as possible were the benchmark.
With power-to-weight ratios being such an important factor, the female athlete has a far greater risk of suffering eating disorders than does her male counterpart. For women, it was a legal version of doping, without the financial cost or the risk of being caught breaking the rules. The discipline required to constantly deny oneself adequate calories to fuel hard training was also something that others would admire in many women riders: “Did you see how she is looking now for the Giro? She will win for sure!”
Given that most of the mid-season races on the women’s calendar were between three and four hours long, and involved circuits with long climbs and technical descents, riders who had been on a bike for decades and were not only fearless and desperate, but quite literally, hungry, were potential winners. This put many of the Australian women—like myself, often converts from other sports like running, rowing or triathlon—at a distinct disadvantage.
Talent transfer athletes had basic physiology that was often dramatically different from other riders, and we lacked the innate riding instincts that come from growing up in cycling-mad European countries. In the early season Spring Classics, races in northern Europe that were renowned for their cobbled roads and inclement weather, race winners were invariably strong, ferocious Dutch or Belgian women who didn’t mind sideways rain or being ‘put in the gutter’ (pushed to the dangerous and unpredictable soft edges of the roads) by other riders.
My ‘skill set’ as Team Valdarno’s only Australian—the oldest, the least experienced and the heaviest—definitely didn’t fulfil the kind of ‘outlier’ traits Italian women’s cycling valued. To make matters worse, at least in the eyes of management, I showed nowhere near enough shame about my body and its apparently “terrible” excesses.
During my first week riding in Italy, after the team presentation and before we embarked on the season of racing up north, one of my teammates insisted she had to lose 5kg, otherwise everything would be very, very bad. She was tall and had the arms of a prima ballerina—strong, but skinny as hell. Her legs already had veins showing, which is a sign of limited body fat; I was struggling to determine where she was going to lose nearly 10% of her body mass.
A typical training day would unfold in a series of slow, generally silent manoeuvres. I would make some coffee and then I would eat some sort of cereal with yogurt and berries. My teammate would eat an apple.
By mid-morning, it would be sunny and above 15 degrees, so we would train. My sessions were always prescribed by Donna [Rae-Szalinski]; they were time trial-specific, and often focused on flat roads, whereas my teammate would put in four or five hours of slow pedalling, then maybe some climbs, usually across the highway towards Sienna. I soon realised the reason for her meandering: the beauty of riding for long, slow hours with no money on her was that she wouldn’t be tempted or able to eat. She would also not need to, given the low intensity of the session.
A performance enhancing illness
It blew my mind. As a doctor, and being well aware of ideal training methods, nutrition and exercise physiology after spending three years studying for my sports medicine exams, I knew what I was seeing was unsustainable in the short term and unhealthy in the long term. Inwardly, I shook my head contemplating the likely osteoporosis resulting from her weight loss, the amenorrhoea and the malnutrition. Although many cyclists used all sorts of methods to lose weight—some dangerous or highly questionable, others under the supervision of a qualified dietician or coach—this was clearly not a new strategy for her.
Devastatingly however, it was working: her illness—I saw it clearly as an illness—was performance-enhancing. Of course, knowing when to stop would be the ‘trick’ that allowed her to get her body to where she wanted it to be, and subsequently, to win. It became a vicious cycle. Her argument would be that all those smaller concerns over her long-term health could be dealt with later in life. The dilemma for me was obvious: my concern for her health, and my medical knowledge about the long-term effects on her body and her mind, let alone her career, were constantly in my thoughts. There was also no escaping it as a teammate working so closely with her.
But, like so many young women I would encounter in my time racing, she would only allow me to be a doctor on her terms. When teammates wanted free advice, or an answer to support their theory, I was of use. When I offered an unsolicited opinion—one that in any way questioned maladaptive or unhealthy behavior—it was greeted with silence, a dismissive and wagging finger, or eye-rolling. They would lament conspiratorially how irritating it was that an idiot old lady with no authority, who was not a world champion, was telling them what to do.
“It also soon became clear enough to them that I wasn’t ‘committed enough’ (their term) to join in their cult of self-destruction; I learned quickly to just keep quiet, and not yield to my doctorly instincts to intervene.
Eating little to lose a lot wasn’t restricted to my teammate in Italy, and it wasn’t the first or last time I would ride with a woman whose peak performances coincided with a body fat percentage edging dangerously close to a medical admission. It was a problem all over the world—what you’d almost term performance-enhancing eating disorders. Once, an Aussie teammate had to be given a ‘break from racing’ to allow her to gain some weight.
Another of my pro teammates restricted her carbohydrate intake for the eight weeks leading into a major race, losing 20% of her body weight, and she placed third overall, securing herself a strong result and a bonus from her bike sponsor (‘bonus’ is probably too strong a word for it; when women cyclists get a ‘bonus’ from a bike sponsor, it tends to be $500 or $1000, for men it might be a million Euro for a Tour de France win). Understandably, for the month leading in, she was irritable, selfish and prone to wild mood swings, but that was the requisite sacrifice, and standing atop the podium the reward. So we all bore the moody behaviour for the good of the team.
When people talk about the sacrifices required of women in sport, they rarely consider body image and physical health, but if my years in the professional peloton taught me anything, it’s that this problem requires a far greater level of understanding and care.