The making of a champion: Sarah Gigante’s extraordinary Nationals win

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Simply put, it’s a win that will go down in Australian cycling folklore. Eighteen-year-old Sarah Gigante (Roxsolt-Attaquer), in her first year out of the junior ranks, outgunning and outsmarting the best riders in Australia to win a national road title. And not just the U23 title she was eligible for, but the elite title as well. An Australian first.

Gigante’s haul at last year’s Road Nationals was extraordinary — wins in the U19 criterium, time trial, and road race — but this year’s road race victory is on another level entirely.

When the seven-rider breakaway got clear on lap 1, Gigante was there, riding alongside international stars like Chloe Hosking and Sarah Roy — riders Gigante later described as her “idols”. On the penultimate lap, when that break was down to just three, Gigante was still there, with only Roy (Mitchelton-Scott) and Shara Gillow (FDJ) for company. It was looking like an elite medal might have been possible for the first-year U23.

And then, in one brief moment on that penultimate lap, Gigante proved decisively that she’s as smart on the bike as she is strong. After coming through a corner in the Federation University campus, Gigante looked back and saw she’d opened a slight gap on Roy and Gillow. At that, her racing instincts kicked in.

“Well I was pretty surprised to be honest because I was actually losing ground through most of the corners so the first thing that went through my mind was ‘Wow, that was a good corner,’” Gigante said. “And secondly I was like, ‘Oh, they’re going to play cat and mouse now…’”

In that moment, Gigante had quickly identified the competing priorities of her former companions. Roy had a handful of Mitchelton-Scott teammates coming up from behind and was happy not to work with Gillow. Gillow, meanwhile, didn’t want to help tow the faster-finishing Roy across to Gigante.

“‘Oh, this is perfect – I just have to go”,” Gigante thought to herself. “I was going to go on the last climb — I felt really good on the climbs. So I was like ‘Well it’s only 5km earlier and I’ve got the gap — I might as well just go for it.”

And so she did.

Gigante started the final lap on her own, 30 seconds ahead of Gillow and Roy. Gillow dropped Roy on the final ascent while two-time winner (and pre-race favourite) Amanda Spratt (Michelton-Scott) desperately tried to get across on her own. But she’d left it too late.

Gigante rocked and rolled over Mt. Buninyong, back through Fed Uni, and down into Buninyong to take a truly extraordinary solo victory. The sort of victory that really shouldn’t be possible for an 18-year-old, in one of the longest races she’d done, against the might of Mitchelton-Scott.

That team wound up with second, third and fifth on the day. Spratt caught Gillow in the closing kilometres then sprinted clear for second, while Roy overtook Gillow with mere metres to spare — the latter having decided, strangely, to sit up before the line. Two-time winner Gracie Elvin followed Gillow across in fifth.

Despite taking two spots on the podium, Mitchelton-Scott will be understandably disappointed. They had the strongest team on the startlist and the most cards to play, but things didn’t go their way.

“We were really happy actually with Sarah Roy in that break,” said silver medallist Spratt. “And she had been feeling good all the way through. [But] we got word with about a lap and a half to go that she wasn’t so good. So we sort of went a little bit into plan B and that’s when I attacked across on the climb.

“I don’t think we could have done too much differently to be honest. I think that break was just a little too strong for us in the end.”

But Spratt is a professional and she knows a phenomenal performance when she sees one.

“Of course we came here to win but we also have to acknowledge that [Gigante] had an absolutely incredible ride,” said Spratt, a teammate of Gigante’s at the recent Bay Crits. “I think she showed last year in Ballarat what she’s capable of, the talent that she has. But I mean, hats off to her — she rode away from a class field, even in that breakaway.”

Roy was similarly full of praise for her young rival.

“Oh look, she played the game really well out there today,” the bronze medallist said. “Not only was she super strong she was pretty clever. To be honest I was watching her and I was under the impression she was struggling. It’s all part of the game though.

“The moment I realised she was going better than I thought was when she stuck with Shara [Gillow] on the climb over the QOM and I got a little bit dropped. But I didn’t expect her to attack actually. I thought she could hold her own just sitting on Shara’s wheel and sprint her. But yeah, great move …”

Today’s win caps a big 12 months for Gigante. Her three U19 road titles in January 2018 were followed a month later by three U19 national track titles (in the madison, team pursuit and points race). A month later she won the U19 Oceania road title as well.

A big crash at the 3-Day Tour in late April left Gigante with two broken arms, one of them shattered, and in need of help to get herself dressed in the morning. Her mother, Kerry, helped transcribe her homework for the next six weeks.

That homework paid off. Gigante scored a perfect high school score of 99.95 by year’s end — remarkable in itself — and by that stage she was well and truly back to racing. In August she had taken a silver medal in the points race at the Junior Track World Championships — a month after a shoulder dislocation, no less — and in September she represented Australia at the Road Worlds as well.

Gigante still bears scars from her 2018 crash, physically and psychologically. She admits she’s lost confidence in the bunch and can often be seen riding at the back of the peloton (as she did for most of the Nationals crit on Friday) or getting in the break. She describes it as “avoiding some of my weaknesses.” But it’s a weakness she’s working on.

“Coming back from that’s been tough but I’m sure I can keep improving,” Gigante said with an ever-present smile. “I’ve already improved a lot from where I was so I just keep improving and having fun and staying relaxed and hopefully in the future I’ll be like my idols in the bunch. That’d be good.”

Gigante talks about her idols a lot. She was riding with her idols in the break today, she had her idols chasing her when she was out front, she wants to be as confident as her idols in the bunch. It’s good to admire those who have come before, to respect their achievements and to aspire towards greatness in a similar way. After her performance today, it’s clear Gigante is well and truly on the right path.

Assuming that’s what she wants.

“I have no idea what will happen,” Gigante said of her future. “I’ll just keep having fun on the bike, working hard off the bike with my studies — I’m doing a Bachelor of Science this year. So I’m looking forward to that and also hopefully racing a bit overseas this year so it should be good.”

For now, she’s not thinking too much further ahead than that — goals like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, for example, aren’t yet on her radar.

“That’s a long way in the future if it’s ever in my future,” she said. “I think I’ll just stay grounded for now. I’m only 18.”

She is, and that’s what makes her win today all the more extraordinary. For those that witnessed it on this fine January morning, it’s a victory we won’t soon forget.

Take a bow, Sarah Gigante.

Race results

1. Sarah GIGANTE* 3h03:36
2. Amanda SPRATT +50
3. Sarah ROY +54
4. Shara GILLOW +54
5. Gracie ELVIN +1:10
6. Rachel NEYLAN +1:10
7. Emily ROPER +1:10
8. Jaime GUNNING* +1:10
9. Brodie CHAPMAN +1:10
10. Lucy KENNEDY +1:59

Follow the link to full results from the U23 and elite womne’s road race.

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