The SHEcret Pro: Suspicious performances and the dangers of malnutrition

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The last we heard from The SHEcret Pro it was October 2018 and she was giving us the lowdown on the Road World Championships. Now, our anonymous insider is back with the latest goss from within the professional women’s peloton, including a look at some suspicious performances, some worrying approaches to nutrition, and a reflection on Kelly Catlin’s tragic passing.

So, here we are, well and truly into another season. There’s a lot that is the same in 2019, but there’s been plenty of changes to keep the women’s peloton on its toes too.

One of the most notable differences is the presence of the new all-star team, Trek-Segafedo. After many years watching teams come and go from the women’s WorldTour, it’s hard for me to get excited. But when the team was announced mid last year, they slowly released a long list of signings, including some of the strongest riders in the peloton.

There was a lot of hype about how they would change the dynamics at the top. Would they replace Boels-Dolmans as the dominant team? Well, with a fair amount of racing now behind us, I think we can agree they are by no means dominant, but they’ve certainly levelled out the playing field.

If anyone is dominating at the moment, it’s hard not to think of Marta Bastianelli and her humble team Virtu Cycling. She’s won two of the hardest World Tour races of the year — the Ronde van Drenthe and the Tour of Flanders — appeared on the podium four other times and finished within the top 10 in all 11 races she’s lined up for this season.

We all hope that Bastianelli’s phenomenal performances are a result of her being really happy in her new team and being given the freedom to go for her own results. However, I can tell you there have been a few suspicious whispers with backwards glances at her documented past. That was 10 years ago, and she denied any wrongdoing, but she served a two-year ban for a doping violation, and whether or not it’s fair, the memory of that sticks with an athlete for their entire career.

Marta Bastianelli winning the Tour of Flanders.

Turning our attention to other outstanding performances — albeit less controversial ones — Annemiek Van Vleuten continues to impress. After crashing and breaking her knee at the Innsbruck World Championships in September last year, we all thought she would have a slow start to the year. But anyone who follows her on Strava or other social media would have put those thoughts quickly behind them.

Not long after being allowed back on the bike she somehow got involved in the Mitchelton-Scott men’s team training camp. I don’t think there are many others in the peloton doing training quite as crazy as this: almost 2,000km and 32,000m vertical in just nine days … let alone as their first major training block post-injury! And then she comes along and wins Strade Bianche.

So it looks like we’re about to see Annemiek step up another level again this year, which is scary! Hopefully there are some crumbs left for we lesser mortals.

Van Vleuten winning Strade Bianche, just her second race of the year.

Even though there have been some stand-out performers so far this season, it’s not like these girls have left the rest of the peloton in their wake. The level of racing, in general, has gone up again this year. Every single race has been, to use Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s favourite term, a ‘just-crazy’-hard battle all the way to the end. No one is getting easy wins, that’s for sure!

It’s been great to see some of the smaller teams have some success too. WNT-Rotor Pro Cycling are a force to be reckoned with in any sprint finish with the Lisa Brennauer-Kirsten Wild duo. We’ve also seen some impressive performances by the youngster Lorena Wiebes of Parkhotel Valkenburg.

I’d like to return (yet again) to a darker topic. Thankfully it’s not so common to talk of eating disorders in women’s cycling at the moment, but everyone sits up and takes notice when someone suddenly starts looking a little “too” skinny.

There was one rider that definitely got everyone’s attention when she suddenly turned into a feather-light climber at the start of this season. I don’t want to name the rider, nor do I want to discredit her results on the bike, but it’s also important not to praise or idealise malnutrition as a form of performance enhancement. Maybe it will bring some short-lived success, but in the long term it does a lot of damage to the body and mind.

I’ve been around long enough to know how hard it is to sustain this as a professional athlete. I think nutrition is something a lot of women’s teams can improve on. It’s really complicated trying to balance getting enough energy and staying at our optimal weight for performance. And add to that the extra requirements of being female, and it’s a very hard task.

The Cyclist Alliance is doing a great job introducing highly qualified nutritionist Judith Haudum to riders at races, but we need more structured guidance from our teams about working out our energy requirements during racing and training and understanding, “what does that look like on a plate?” And no, don’t just copy and paste guidelines from some men’s team!

While I’m on serious topics it would be remiss of me not to mention the effect Kelly Catlin’s story has had on the cycling community. She wasn’t all that well known to the wider women’s peloton, but it seems she definitely touched the hearts of many.

I read a blog that Kelly had written only a few months ago where she spoke about how balancing her academic pursuits and cycling was like “juggling with knives”. In hindsight, this blog is a huge warning sign that Kelly was struggling.

As elite athletes, I think we can all empathise with the pressure we put on ourselves to be the best in whatever we do. It’s important to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Sometimes getting stuck in the professional cycling bubble is a dangerous place to be for our mental health.

Kelly’s deteriorating mental health has also been connected with a concussion she obtained during a crash late last year. It’s not a symptom often mentioned in relation to concussion, but apparently, it’s common to experience depression, anxiety, insomnia and other problems as a result.

Given that head injuries are relatively common in our sport, I think we need to give far more attention to these side-effects and get a better understanding of how resulting mental illness can be overcome with proper treatment. Hopefully we won’t have any more stories like Kelly’s.

Sorry to leave on a heavy note, but I think it’s best to talk about these things and hopefully learn from them so that we can continue to grow our sport to a standard that we’re proud of. But let’s not forget to enjoy the racing too. With the Ardennes week in full swing and Liege-Bastogne-Liege coming up this week, there’s plenty to be excited about!

Until next time,

The SHEcret Pro

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