Heading into the crucial climbing stages of the 2018 Giro Rosa, there is no question which team is in the strongest position in the battle for overall victory. Mitchelton-Scott’s Amanda Spratt has just ridden herself into the leader’s pink jersey and teammate Annemiek van Vleuten is sitting close behind, in third overall.
On just its second attempt at targeting the GC, the Australian team is threatening to break years of dominance by Dutch powerhouse teams. So how did they go from not even riding the Giro Rosa in 2016 to becoming top challengers in 2018? We talked to the team to find out.
The tale of Mitchelton-Scott’s transformation starts in an unusual place. It was at the 2016 Rio Olympics that the team’s marquee rider, Annemiek van Vleuten, crashed horribly on a descent while leading the road race. Instead of heading to a medal ceremony to claim a gold medal, Van Vleuten was headed to intensive care instead.
Fortunately, the Dutchwoman’s recovery from concussion and three spinal fractures was remarkably quick — it was only a month later that she was back racing. Instead of dwelling on that crash and what could have been, new plans were being hatched. The big thing that her trade team took away from the Olympics was not the opportunity missed, but the ones still to come.
It was hard to ignore van Vleuten’s performance at that Olympic road race, not because of her crash, but what came before it. Van Vleuten had lined up against the best climbers in the world, and she’d ridden away from them and looked set to win gold as a result.
It was a performance that got Mitchelton-Scott’s sports director, Gene Bates, thinking. Was it time for the Mitchelton-Scott women’s team to follow the same path as the men’s and start targeting not just stage wins, but overall victory at the biggest races? It would be a big change. In fact Mitchelton-Scott hadn’t raced the Giro Rosa at all that year and the overall definitely hadn’t been their plan when they’d ridden it in the past.
“Prior to 2017 it was all about just targeting selected stages with different riders,” Bates told Ella CyclingTips. “We just didn’t have the right rider or right composition to chase the GC.”
In fact chasing the GC seemed like a big ask for just about any team, as it was hard to look beyond the overwhelming dominance of the now-defunct Rabobank, and then Boels-Dolmans. It was an effort for other teams to even get a foot on the podium, let alone have a real shot at the win.
The truths we are told … that turn out not to be so true
In van Vleuten, Bates saw a rider that had the potential to break through.
“With Annemiek I’d just seen a few things along the way, such as the outrageously good climbing in Rio, that very good ability to time trial and I thought, well this is a really good challenge and she’s a rider that really thrives on those types of challenges,” said Bates. “We put it out there.”
So what was van Vleuten’s reaction when the possibility was first raised?
“No, no way,” said van Vleuten emphatically. “Before, my DSs had always told me, ‘You’re not a climber. You can not win the Giro — you’re just more a Classics rider’, so you start to believe in that … I got really stuck into the belief that I’m not a climber.”
But her performance at the Rio Olympics showed otherwise and, in fact, so did her past results at the Giro. She’d finished eighth in 2014 while working for her team leaders at Rabobank.
With teammates Marianne Vos, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Anna van der Breggen making it a clean sweep of the podium that year, van Vleuten’s top-ten finish and GC potential slipped into the background at Rabobank. “No one’s talking about eighth place there,” said van Vleuten.
And while there may not have been room for yet another GC contender at Rabobank, things were different at the team now known as Mitchelton-Scott. So after a bit of a nudge from Bates and some time to process, it was decided that in 2017 the team would line up to chase pink for the first time.
Of course, it wasn’t just about van Vleuten, as no overall contender can do it alone. The team around her — then known as Orica-Scott — stepped up to the plate as well.
Annemiek van Vleuten and Katrin Garfoot were in lead roles, along with long-time Orica-Scott rider Amanda Spratt who was clearly starting to hit her stride. The team had also built up its support strength — not only did they have riders like Sarah Roy who excelled on the flatter stages, in New Zealander Georgia Williams they also had a new recruit to help on the climbs.
Still, being the first year going for GC, it was a see-how-it-goes kind of year. You’d have to say it went pretty well.
Results delivered, but mistakes made and lessons learned
It was a spectacular start to Mitchelton-Scott’s tilt at pink, and Aussie fans had every reason to fire up their coffee pots and stay up late to support their only top level women’s team.
It wasn’t the tour for Garfoot, who was unwell, but van Vleuten and Spratt really stepped up to the plate. In fact van Vleuten looked well in contention for the top step before a lapse in concentration saw her miss a split on the seemingly innocuous fourth stage. Still, she fought back and took third overall.
Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) won but with Elisa Longo Borghini – then of Wiggle High5 – in second it became the first time since 2013 that the Dutch teams of Rabobank or Boels hadn’t held at least two of the three podium spots.
Third overall wasn’t the sum total of Orica-Scott’s achievements either — there were two stage victories for van Vleuten, a third in the team time-trial, a second from Spratt in the final stage and to top it off, the Australian rider finished in fifth overall.
And the team got more out of the 2017 Giro Rosa than its strong results.
“We made some big mistakes but I think we learned collectively,” said Bates before this year’s Giro. “We learned some valuable lessons that we can take into this year. I’m not saying this year is going to be perfect and that we’re going to walk away with it by 10 minutes by any stretch of the imagination but I feel like we are better prepared.”
The most obvious mistake? That split van Vleuten missed, costing her nearly two minutes. She finished the Giro Rosa only 1:39 down on eventual winner Anna van der Breggen.
“We are coming here now to take the experience of last year and take it to the next level this year,” said van Vleuten before the 2018 Giro Rosa. “For myself, what I think is that last year I made a mistake to think already about that time trial that was the day after … I’ve learnt to think day by day, that you don’t get one moment to switch off.”
Beating the unbeatable team
This year Mitchelton-Scott undoubtedly walked into the Giro Rosa as one of the teams to beat. Not only did they show their potential in last year’s race, they have also proven to be powerful competitors throughout this season. They’ve entered the Giro on a high.
The results have been rolling in thick and fast from across the team, as they yield the fruits of their long-term labours. These labours have gone beyond physical preparation and include a focus on their confidence and trust in one another. The Australian team has now leapt up the ranks to sit second in the Women’s WorldTour teams classification behind what had seemed to be an unbeatable Boels-Dolmans squad.
And that momentum is not just because of one successful rider — so much of the team has stepped up with impressive results. The team has kept clocking up podiums at the highest level, from OVO Women’s Tour stage wins with newly recruited Belgian sprint star Jolien D’hoore and Aussie Sarah Roy, to Amanda Spratt and Annemiek van Vleuten’s 1-2 finish at Emakumeen Bira.
Indeed, the team’s biggest asset going into the Giro Rosa was its strength across the board.
“I’ve been with the team since 2012 and at that point it was more like we had a couple of top riders and everyone else was very much developing,” Amanda Spratt told Ella CyclingTips. “Now we really have an entire roster that is performing and can perform.”
Nowhere has that transformation been more evident than with Spratt herself. The 30-year-old now sits in second position on the Women’s WorldTour behind last year’s winner Anna van der Breggen. Spratt’s pre-Giro target was the Ardennes week and there she seemed to grow in confidence at every one of the three prestigious races. Fifth was her worst result, at Fleche Wallonne — she finished third at the Amstel Gold Race and was second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Spratt stepped up even further at the hilly four-day Emakumeen Bira, taking her first Women’s WorldTour stage win and leap-frogging teammate van Vleuten to also win the general classification. It turned out to be a coup for Mitchelton-Scott — they took first with Spratt, second with van Vleuten and fourth with Williams.
It was a real show of strength for the team, with Boels-Dolmans kept to third on the podium with Anna van der Breggen. Mitchelton-Scott had used the Dutch team’s usual strategy of strength in numbers against them, and the Australian squad played it to perfection.
“Boels are often using their numbers and we kind of were able to do the same and I think we took a lot of confidence out of that as a whole team,” said Spratt. “That’s what we want to do in the Giro as well.”
Having that ability to put multiple riders at the front, with the ability to play off each other is crucial in women’s racing at the top level.
“You put one rider in a group of 12 in the last 20 kilometres and and Boels would have two or three and that’s a near impossible situation to beat,” Bates said. “So it [the multi-pronged strategy] was more born out of necessity than anything else.”
Taking turns to build a team
At last year’s Giro Rosa Boels-Dolmans had the formidable trio of Anna van der Breggen, Megan Guarnier and Lizzie Deignan to use to their advantage, but this time they’ve lost Deignan — who is pregnant — and van der Breggen, who opted to ride a mountain bike World Cup instead. They still have a formidable team, built around former Giro Rosa winner Guarnier, but they lack the overwhelming, multi-faceted strength of last year.
Meanwhile Mitchelton-Scott has two well-credentialed leaders in Spratt and world time trial champion van Vleuten. Both now have experience in the fight for pink after their efforts last year. Both riders also went in looking well prepared, confident and well able to cope with the rigours ahead.
The team also has experienced heads in D’hoore and two-time Australian champion Gracie Elvin, along with savvy sprinter and relentless worker Sarah Roy. The plan had been for Williams and Aussie climber Lucy Kennedy to be there for support in the hills, too, but Williams crashed in training and Kennedy crashed out of the race on stage 3 with a broken collarbone — a cruel blow after just coming back from injury.
But while they don’t have as many cards to play in the mountains as they were hoping for, it would seem Mitchelton-Scott’s strength is as much about how it works together as it is about individual riders.
“We make sure that during the course of the season … that everyone has the chance to be the supported rider and it just works better when it comes time to work for someone else,” said Bates. “At the end of the day the women, as you know, are not on million-dollar wages so there is a lot of passion involved in the team, and you’ve got to really look after that passion.”
And the importance of that goes beyond the riders.
“It’s the people that make this team what it is and so successful,” Bates continued. “Everyone, from the mechanics and soigneurs, to the directors, sports science and medical support, and to the likes of Kevin Tabotta, Shayne Bannan, and of course Gerry Ryan. Without this commitment, support and hard work – we wouldn’t achieve much at all I’m sure.
“I feel very lucky to be able to work with this incredible group of people. We might not win tomorrow, but you know its only a matter of time,” said Bates just before the Giro Rosa.
What Mitchelton-Scott has achieved this year has already made it the team’s best year. But it really does look like it is about to get even better.
Preparation over, now it time to see how the cards fall
Mitchelton-Scott has finished the first half of the Giro Rosa with their trump cards ideally positioned in the GC deck. The squad started off the 10-day tour by coming in just one second behind team time trial winners, Team Sunweb, providing an early advantage over all its key rivals. As Sunweb passed the pink jersey around the team in the first five stages, Mitchelton-Scott focussed on keeping their GC position ahead of those that looked most likely to pose a challenge once the race moved into its mountainous second half.
They didn’t miss a beat. D’hoore sprinted to two stage wins while still keeping van Vleuten and Spratt well positioned. The pair manage to escape unscathed from the numerous crashes that chipped away at other key contenders’ times. This left the team’s dual leaders poised comfortably near the top of the GC ranks when it came to Wednesday’s stage 6 — the race’s first uphill finish. It was the first real skirmish in the GC battle, and Mitchelton-Scott came out on top.
Spratt rode away from all the top contenders to take a solo win at the top of the category 2 climb of the Gerola Alta, while van Vleuten came in at the front of a small group to take second ahead of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo-Bigla). Not only did Spratt take the stage victory and valuable time in the GC competition, but she also rode into the pink jersey.
Spratt’s nearest rival is now stage 5 winner Ruth Winder (Team Sunweb), who sits 30 seconds back. The nearest of the GC favourites, at 33 seconds behind, is none other than Spratt’s teammate, van Vleuten.
There is no doubt Mitchelton-Scott has played its hand to perfection so far, but times are still tight on the overall with a strong contingent of powerful rivals in the battle for pink. Moolman-Pasio, Niewiadoma and Guarnier are all within two minutes. It is certainly too soon to count on a team victory, whether it be Spratt holding that gap and becoming the first Australian winner of the Giro Rosa, or van Vleuten rising to the top.
As with any stage race, there’s so much that could happen in those last few stages before they get to cross the final finish line. Particularly given those final days include a testing uphill time trial and a mountain-top finish on the brutally steep Monte Zoncolan, just one day before the Giro Rosa finishes.
Right now though, you’d have to say Mitchelton-Scott has done exactly what it needed to to provide the very best chance of riding away with pink.
Update: Mitchelton Scott did in fact take pink, with van Vleuten taking a firm and unrelenting grip on the race after the stage 7 uphill time trial. Spratt finished third and took out the green mountain classification jersey. Between two stage wins from the team’s Belgian sprinter D’hoore, one from Spratt and three from van Vleuten Mitchelton-Scott also walked away with six stage victories.