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Text: Matt de Neef | Photography: JoJo Harper, fullgasimagery & Con Chronis

The physical demands of our sport are obvious. You don’t need to be a cyclist to understand the rigours of racing up a mountain. Even the most casual observer can appreciate the fitness required to race for hours on end, day after day.

Far less obvious are the psychological demands of the sport. Self-belief, motivation, positive direction — lack these and your performance will suffer as much as if you’re in poor physical shape. The best power numbers in the world mean nothing without the right mindset to put them to use.

Jaime Gunning (Specialized Women’s Racing) knows this all too well. Over the past 12 months she’s seen the difference a healthy headspace can make: how having others believe in you can prompt you to believe in yourself and the impact that can have on your racing.

Judging by her breakout performance at last week’s Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, it would seem the 20-year-old Queenslander is in a pretty good place at the moment.

Gunning’s rise through the junior ranks was impressive. After making the switch from triathlon to cycling, she became Australian junior time trial champion in 2016 and Oceania time trial champion in 2017. That same year she raced with Holden Women’s Racing in Australia’s National Road Series (NRS) before joining Splatt Lawyers Women’s Racing in 2018.

But as she neared the end of her teenage years, Gunning reached an inflection point. For most of the 2018 season, cycling didn’t hold the same appeal it once had. She’d done a few NRS races and achieved some respectable results, but her heart really wasn’t in it. In her own words, she’d “checked out”.

“I was at that age where … I’d done cycling all up through juniors, I went to junior Worlds in 2016, and I just needed time away from it just to kind of work out what I wanted,” Gunning told CyclingTips. “It was nothing bad; if anything it was really good — it was really refreshing and I was able to reset.”

After a lighter racing load for much of last year, Gunning reached another inflection point in September. Specialized Women’s Racing was looking for an U23 rider for the 2019 season and sports director Mark Brady thought Gunning would be the perfect fit.

“When I found out that Splatt Lawyers was no longer going to be around I actually approached [Jaime’s] former DS [sports director] to try and steal her, which she was happy with because they weren’t going anywhere,” Brady told CyclingTips. “And I’d actually done a little bit of riding with Jaime on the Gold Coast in training so after seeing how she rode a bike and also knowing her, [I] thought that she would be a great fit for our team and that she could benefit from the experience of the team.”

Gunning describes herself as “lucky” to have received that offer from Specialized.

“I was like ‘I don’t think I really deserve it because I haven’t done any training,’” she said. “I’d been out of it for about nine months, I was just getting by. And I was like ‘Alright, so this is a new opportunity to get back into it.’

“So yeah, I grabbed that with both hands and ran with it.”

Photo: @fullgasimagery

While Gunning lacked confidence, Brady knew his new recruit just needed a fresh start and some guidance to get her back on track.

“There’s that bit of lag that happens after junior Worlds,” Brady said. “I think some of them get a little bit lost and I think she was possibly in that sort of headspace and probably lacking a little bit of direction which we’ve been able to provide for her and create some opportunities for her.

“Which is exciting for us, but more importantly it’s exciting for her and she’s happy. [When] bike riders are happy and they’re doing the work, they race well.”

Brady is right. After a vote of confidence from Specialized Women’s Racing, things seemed to change almost overnight for Gunning. She had a renewed sense of purpose on the bike and started training seriously again. And it showed.

The offer from Specialized had come between two NRS tours — Amy’s Otway Tour and the Tour of Gippsland — and her results in the two couldn’t have been more different.

“I got dropped at the Amy’s road race, and then at Tour of Gippsland, the next race, [I got] my first NRS podium. Two podiums!”

Gunning was second on the opening stage (from a two-rider break with Emily Roper) then third in the bunch kick on stage 2. She finished fifth overall.

And things only improved from there. At the inaugural women’s Tour of Tasmania, Gunning finished on the podium on all three stages — second on stage 1, second on stage 2, then third on the final stage. She finished the race in second overall — a stellar result for a woman who’d only turned 20 a few months earlier.

“My coach and I, we had used that race as almost like a benchmark just to see where I was at,” Gunning explained. “I think I’d only been training for about two months and obviously Nationals [in January] was a goal from when we started.

“We went in with no expectations, just purely to see how my form was. That was pretty surprising!”

Surprising perhaps, but certainly not the last time Gunning would impress. In fact, the most exciting results were still to come.

Photo: Con Chronis

Gunning’s first race for Specialized Women’s Racing would be the pan-flat SKCC Shimano Supercrit in December 2017 — a world away from the hilly Tour of Tasmania. And yet the diminutive climber excelled there as well.

With just one lap to go Gunning got off the front of the bunch and made it to the line with only Jess Mundy for company. She managed to win the two-up sprint. The confidence Specialized had shown in Gunning had motivated her through the back end of the 2017 NRS season and now it had helped her to victory in her very first outing with the new team.

“I think having Specialized believe in me helped so much,” Gunning said with a smile. “Like, massively. They believed in me before I even believed in myself, and I still stand by that. And they still do.”

Photo: Con Chronis

If 2018 ended in impressive fashion, then 2019 has started brilliantly. At the Australian Road National Championships, Gunning lined up for the elite and U23 women’s road race as one of the protected riders for Specialized Women’s Racing.

In the closing laps around Mt. Buninyong, when the decisive attacks started to fly, Gunning was still in the mix. Her hopes of a gold medal in the U23 field were dashed by a still unfathomable ride by 18-year-old phenom Sarah Gigante, but Gunning held firm to finish in excellent company. She crossed the line eighth in the combined elite and U23 field, in a group with two-time winner Gracie Elvin plus world championships silver medalist Rachel Neylan. Gunning had taken silver in the U23 category.

And then, just four days after that Nationals road race, Gunning found herself on the startline of the Women’s Tour Down Under in Adelaide. Her second outing at the event would end up being the best race of her young career.

Specialized Women’s Racing started the race with the goal of supporting Gunning in the battle for the best young rider’s jersey. On Friday’s stage 2 they made that happen.

“That stage was the one we had kind of anticipated was going to be the GC decider and the jersey decider for the U23s,” Gunning said. “So I think we put a lot of emphasis on that stage in particular with positioning, as best as possible, going into the base of that climb.”

“That climb” was Mengler Hill, a testing drag of nearly 3km that played host to the finish of stage 2. Specialized Women’s Racing threw everything at putting Gunning and teammate Taryn Heather into the top 10 spots at the base of the final climb.

“The team did it so well — it couldn’t have been better and I was able to get in the front group,” Gunning said. “The race had actually split just before the climb, within the [kilometre] just before the climb started and I was in that split with another one of the girls, Taryn. So pretty much once we got to the climb we just had to go with whatever legs we had.

“It would have been very very hard for us to have been in that split if all the other girls hadn’t have helped to try and position [us]. That’s how hard it was.”

The climb unfolded exactly as everyone predicted. Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott) attacked as soon as the climb began but rather than following, Gunning bided her time.

“I didn’t react to that, I just sat at my own tempo,” she said. “And then of course Spratty [defending champion Amanda Spratt] went and she’s so strong. I don’t know how she can just … it blows my mind.

“She pretty much went and no one else had the legs to go with her.”

From there to the top Gunning focused on riding a tempo she could manage. Impressively, that tempo was enough to see her across the line in fifth, 53 seconds behind solo winner Spratt. She’d beaten a bunch of quality world-class riders, not least multiple-time South African champion Ashleigh Moolman and two-time Giro Rosa winner Elisa Longo-Borghini.

Fifth on the stage earned Gunning the same spot on GC at day’s end, plus the best young rider’s jersey the team had worked so hard for. She’d ultimately slip to sixth on GC by the end of the final stage but she’d done more than enough to wrap up the best young rider classification.

It’s little surprise that Gunning views her Tour Down Under result as her greatest achievement on the bike thus far. For her team manager and coach Mark Brady, the result is both surprising and not.

“She’s been doing the work for four months and this month of January has been an objective for her,” he said. “We knew she’d go well as an under 23 — we didn’t quite know she’d go this well to be honest but we knew she had the goods.”

While Gunning has had a stellar January, she’s not getting too far ahead of herself. She knows she’ll be racing the NRS with Specialized Women’s Racing this year, but beyond that, she hasn’t got concrete plans. Brady sees a slightly clearer path.

“[She] expressed an interest that she was looking to step through to the professional ranks,” Brady said. “So we are happy to provide a pathway for her over the next couple of years to hopefully be a part of that little journey.”

Gunning admits that she does think about one day competing in events like the world championships and Olympics, even if they aren’t goals she’s focused on every day when she goes out to train.

“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” said Gunning. “I think it’s good to strive for a long-term thing. For me at least it would be hard to keep going without that in the back of your mind.”

At the same time, she says, “it’s super important to keep going day-by-day.”

It seems clear that Gunning has an exciting future ahead of her, so long as that’s something she wants and that continues to motivate her. She’s not terribly worried about falling out of love with the sport again — after all, she’s now had a taste of success.

“For me, now, I want to see what I’m capable of,” she said. “How far [I] can go. And something I’ve really noticed is this sport is such a mental thing.”

The confidence Specialized Women’s Racing showed in signing Gunning helped spark the young rider’s self-belief. That self-belief helped push Gunning towards some great results which, in turn, helped build further self-belief.

Photos: @fullgasimagery

Given this cycle of positive reinforcement, it’s natural Gunning has developed a renewed curiosity for what she might be able to achieve. She’s just not sure what that might be.

“It changes day by day — it depends on how my mental state is,” she says. “That’s with anyone as well. I think anyone can do whatever they think they’re capable of.”

Mark Brady believes that, given time, Gunning could be capable of just about anything. He also believes she shouldn’t be in any rush to reach the professional ranks.

“I think she’s got to stay in Australia for another couple of years,” he said. “She is only 20 and we’re trying to sort something out overseas for her for some smaller stints, but I think the sky’s the limit for her.”

It’s clear that Gunning has the physical capabilities to continue her impressive progression. And with the right support and self-belief, who knows what she could be capable of. She, and the rest of us, will find out soon enough.