From inline skating to pro cycling: A chat with Aussie climber Lionel Mawditt

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In less than two-and-a-half years, Melbourne’s Lionel Mawditt has gone from riding his very first road race, to riding some of the biggest road races in the U.S. It’s been a rapid rise through the cycling ranks for a man who represented Australia at three inline speed skating world championships between 2013 and 2015.

In 2017, in his first season in Australia’s National Road Series (NRS), Mawditt won the series’ most prestigious stage race: the Tour of Tasmania. That ride earned the diminutive climber a place in the Australian national team for the 2018 Jayco Herald Sun Tour — his first UCI-race, and an event he’d finish in 11th, just one second outside the top 10.

In April 2018 he travelled to the U.S. on his own dime, joining Project Echelon Racing for a handful of stage races. He excelled, finishing third overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race, and second at the Redlands Classic.

Those rides attracted the attention of long-time US Continental team Jelly Belly, which Mawditt has since joined for the second half of the season. In recent weeks the 23-year-old has raced both the Tour of Utah and Colorado Classic with the team, and has a handful of other races coming up soon.

In the days after the Tour of Utah, Mawditt took the time to speak to CyclingTips about his journey from inline speed skating to cycling, his progression through the ranks, and what he hopes to achieve from here. The following is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for fluency.

CyclingTips: For readers that aren’t familiar with your story, can you talk about your time as an inline skater and how that led you into cycling?

Mawditt: I was an inline speed skater for 10 years roughly. It started out just as casual weekend sport, slowly progressed: state, national, international level. My last three years I was at two junior world championships and then one senior world championships.

I was doing a little bit of cycling for cross training and just found that I was enjoying it more. I decided that I would maybe spend a season trying out some racing and see how it goes. And then I was just really enjoying it from there.

I sort of looked to someone like Primoz Roglic [ed. a former ski jumper] as an example of what can be achieved in a pretty short period of time.

It seems like only yesterday that you were doing local club and state-level races here in Victoria. It’s been a very swift rise hasn’t it?

Yes. It was just yesterday that someone mentioned to me … ‘Oh this time last year you were at [Tour of the] Great South Coast [ed. an NRS race] getting dropped and then riding grupetto’. It’s a bit of a shock when someone points that out to you. You don’t really realise.

Your first road race was in early 2016, right?

Yeah. My first road race was Tour of East Gippsland [ed. a Victorian Road Series (VRS) race] in C grade and that was at the start of 2016 — I think that was maybe February or March.

Did you have somebody to help guide you through the ranks from there? Or was it all you?

You get a little bit of testing done from the start so you sort of understand that maybe you have a little bit of potential to go a bit further. But I guess it’s more about just having guys around you that say ‘Hey, we believe that you can take this a bit further.’ And then they can provide you with opportunities for that.

It’s just about taking as many of those opportunities as you can and being a real sponge for information off everyone that’s willing to teach you — just a little tip here and there. Every one of those adds up and makes a difference.

How significant was the Tour of Tasmania win for you last year?

That felt like a big breakthrough. It was probably the first opportunity really that I felt like we’d had to test ourselves against a higher level of competition where there was hills involved and a really good GC and hilly tour. There wasn’t a whole lot available in the NRS.

Just before that I went over to the Tour of Southland [ed. a non-UCI-classified race in New Zealand] with Skoda and that was really good. They had a lot of young guys there. They were young but they seem to have a fair bit of experience and they were really good with positioning.

That helped a bit, and then just the hilltops there gave me a little bit more confidence heading into Tassie [ed. In two uphill finishes at Southland, Mawditt finished fifth and then third.]. Confidence is definitely a key part in this sport so you’ve got to have that. Tassie played a big part.

It seemed like things really started to ramp up for you this year with your selection for the national team for Sun Tour — your first UCI race …

Yeah, that was a great experience. I didn’t really know what to expect there but Brad McGee is just an amazing DS. Sitting down at the start of the week he maybe went a little bit away from the traditional model where we might go all in for one or two riders and said ‘Alright guys, what do you each want to get out of this week?’

So all of us were able to have a crack at our own goals and see, I guess, where we fit in the peloton. You definitely don’t get held back there — you get a great opportunity just to learn without any pressure.

You came up against some world-class riders there and animated the race on Lake Mountain. Did that give you confidence in your ability to race at that level?

Yeah, maybe I didn’t race as smart as I could have up Lake Mountain but I think being able to mix with those guys there — it’s another whole level of confidence that yeah, you can do this.

But there was also that moment where I was away with Dylan Sunderland and feeling really good. We had a bit of a gap on the peloton but he was saying after I came through for one of the turns that we just needed to back it off a little bit.

At that point in time I just didn’t think I could go by myself. With hindsight maybe I should have just kept riding and seeing what happened because once we got back to the bunch they were sort of playing cat and mouse games again.

From that I learned to just back myself because it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t come off anymore. You’re there in that position anyway, why not have a crack?

Was it your ride at Sun Tour that led to the Project Echelon spot? Or did that come later?

They’re linked a little bit. After Sun Tour I had one of my contacts, the director of Skoda [ed. Brad Tilby], he sent me a message and he said ‘Hey, I think it’d be a really good idea for you to get involved with some UCI racing, [and] really show the guys what you can do and [it would] help with your development.’

I told him I had no idea how to do that and he sort of guided me through the whole process which was basically selecting races that suited me a little bit and then contacting teams on the start list to try to get a ride just for those. And yeah, Project Echelon was the team that gave me the opportunity.

You’ve had a great start to racing in the U.S., with third at Joe Martin and second at Redlands. Were you expecting to go so well?

It’s hard to say. I kind of thought that I would be in the mix, maybe not quite that high.

To be honest with you it was a bit of a shock getting second at Redlands. You sort of believe that you might have what it takes but then you’re riding guys off the wheel that you … you know their name and you’ve seen them in results and you’ve seen them on TV or highlights and you go ‘Woah, that’s pretty cool.’

You had to pay for your own flights to the U.S. when you raced with Project Echelon. It seems like that investment in yourself paid off?

Yeah, and I would definitely advise anyone that’s looking to make that quick progression and advance their development … it’s an investment into yourself, if you really want to progress.

There’s a really limited window in cycling in terms of age and starting [in the sport] older I understand that if you don’t force your way through that window it’s going to close pretty quickly on you.

Was it your ride at Redlands that attracted the attention of Jelly Belly?

Yeah, so it was about halfway through Redlands — the power meter that I was running: the battery had run flat. I was walking around asking about just getting a battery to use in my power meter and went over there and we started talking a little bit.

I introduced myself and they were interested in me and I was obviously really interested in the opportunity to race the big tours like Utah and Colorado and we might possibly do [Tour of] Hainan later in the year.

That’s pretty much how it happened — it was just a little bit of chance. I was introducing myself to some of the teams, just to see what sort of interest you could get. But I wasn’t quite expecting anything quite like that, at this stage anyway.

The Tour of Utah was your first time racing a 2.HC event. Was the level of the racing higher than you were expecting or that you were used to?

Yeah, it was definitely harder than what I was used to. The whole idea of coming to Jelly Belly for the second half of the season though was to get an exposure to that kind of racing so that you can sort of fast-track your development a little bit because, you know, it’s important to put yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s what cycling’s about isn’t it?

Are you happy with how you rode there? You spent a whole bunch of time out front in the breakaway …

Yeah, someone told me the other day that it was the third most time out of the peloton, in the break. So yeah, that was a bit different. I’m probably typically more of a GC rider or just a pure climber that would go for stages but this week the team wanted to put me into the role of just going in the break in trying to get the KOM jersey.

But Lotto[NL-Jumbo] were keeping the breaks on a pretty tight leash after day one. Because they had the jersey from day one, they decided to hold onto it and they just marked me with their guy that had the jersey early. And then Sep Kuss ended up taking it because, yeah, he was just killing it over all the climbs.

Where do you hope this all leads? What do you want to achieve on the bike?

I mean, the goal is to be racing at WorldTour level. I think that’s a realistic goal but it’s also one that’s realistic for a lot of people and might never happen. There’s a lot of good cyclists that miss out. At the moment I’m just sort of keen to see where I can head in 2019.

I think it would be unrealistic to say that I’d be ready for the WorldTour next year and it’s something [that’s possible in] maybe a year or two’s time. That’s the end goal really, and not just to make the WorldTour. I think you hear a lot of guys; they just want to make the WorldTour but I think you’d be crazy to just want to be at that level. Maybe if you want to get to that level you want to win bike races — that’s what we do this for, or you want to help a teammate win a race.

What are the races that sing out to you — the ones that you’d love to race in the future?

I don’t know — I guess I’m not looking too far ahead, at that level. Sort of those one-week tours through the hills: that’s more probably what I’d be suited to at this stage, I think.

You say it will probably take a year or two before you’ll be ready to race at WorldTour level. What needs to happen in that time?

If you look at the holistic development of an athlete — you’ve got to learn things off the bike in terms of preparation, things that you don’t even know that you’re not aware of right now. And just little things about saving energy in the bunch.

Positioning is always something that you can work on I think. There’s a few guys that seem to be gifted and can just always be in the right spot, all day. But I think for the majority of cyclists it’s something that can always be worked on, that whole positioning and fighting for position and saving energy.

And then getting stronger as well — there’s guys out there that just have huge engines and you’ve got to be able to develop over time. Especially being in the sport only for a couple of years, I’d like to think that there’s a whole lot of development still left in terms of potential.

And just physically, coming from a sport where the efforts you’re doing are more five- to 10-minute efforts for a full race and then transitioning over to week-long tours of four- or five-hour days — it’s a big jump and it’s just something that it’s going to take a few years for your body to transition to completely.

Do you feel like there are things you learned from skating that you can apply to your cycling, even if the length of the efforts is different?

Yeah absolutely. In terms of traveling and off-the-bike or off-the-skates preparation, that’s a big part, especially with all the traveling that I was doing with skating, competing overseas. You learn to adjust and make sure you can make your schedule work and your routine work, not just from home.

But then I would also liken speed skating to track cycling. It’s similar in terms of tactics like that. It definitely helps. But at the end of the day, it’s still more time on the bike that is the best way to learn for on the bike.

The fact that you were good at speed skating suggests you’ve got a very big engine and that translates well to cycling …

Yeah. I mean it’s really similar muscle groups as well. So glutes, quads, hamstrings … body position. I think if you were a really big guy, as a speed skater, you’d probably transition really well to be a big good track cyclist, if you could learn to navigate the bunch.

What does the rest of the year hold for you?

We’ve got a short tour in Japan after this for myself [ed. Tour de Hokkaido] and then I’ll head back to Australia for a few weeks. We haven’t got our calendar 100% finalised yet. But it’s mostly just Asian racing for the rest of the year. We’ve got possibly … I think it’s [Tour of] Taihu Lake and possibly [Tour de] Poyang Lake. I’m not 100% sure on which ones we’re getting sent to this year.

You say a WorldTour spot is probably a couple years away. What are you hoping for in terms of a contract next year?

I think Pro Continental … that would probably be the goal for next year. Not probably, it is the goal for next year. Finding a [Pro] Continental team where I can continue that experience and development. At the same time a Continental-level can provide you with a similar level of opportunities provided it’s the right Continental team.

So I guess it’s just sort of a case of seeing who’s interested in me and potentially what opportunities are best for that next step in development.

Is that something you are taking on yourself, contacting teams, or have you got a manager who is doing that for you?

I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s important to have an agent because they have a lot of contacts and they know the system quite well. But at the same time I think a lot of teams want to get to know you as the person.

Who you are as a person is probably more significant than a lot of people realise when they’re talking the teams. From what I’ve experienced just talking to teams in the U.S., a lot of their directors really emphasised how important it is that they know you as a person and they know your character, your goals …. so that when you do actually apply for the team and you send them the numbers they know who you are as a person.

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