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BUNINYONG, Australia (CT) – Sarah Gigante is struggling to breathe. Not because she’s working hard on the bike — that’s finished with for today — but because breathing is hard when pure joy is flooding out of you in long, run-on sentences.
“I just can’t believe I was able to win the elite time trial,” she says to a small huddle of reporters. “I don’t think I’ve beaten any of the ladies that came in the top five in a time trial before and probably only beaten them once in a race before, at last year’s Nationals.”
Were it not for that remarkable win a year ago, today’s result might have seemed truly extraordinary. Had she not beaten some of the world’s best as an 18-year-old, in a dazzling display of strength and tactical nous, we might be calling her time trial win a breakthrough. As it is, it’s merely amazing; confirmation that we’re witnessing the emergence of a very special rider.
Gigante wears a wide, beaming smile for almost the entirety of her post-race interview. It disappears just once, and understandably so.
“My teammate Shannon Malseed isn’t able to be here this week because she had a nasty crash,” Gigante says.
Just four days ago Gigante sat cross-legged on the bitumen in Geelong’s Eastern Gardens, gently stroking Malseed’s head. Malseed had fallen heavily on the final lap of the Bay Crits’ second stage, fracturing her scapula and a vertebra.
Gigante sat with her friend for most of an hour as parademics worked to stabilise Malseed, offering words of support and the comfort of physical contact. She’d ridden down to Malseed with a blanket under one arm, hoping to make her friend just a little more comfortable.
When the ambulance finally departed, Gigante stood up, visibly shaken — the shock of seeing a friend in considerable distress, certainly; perhaps also the memory of her own significant crash in April 2018 that left both her arms broken.
She knows what it takes to come back from a significant injury. She also knows what it’s like to be successful once you do.
A year after stunning the Australian cycling community with her Nationals road race win, Gigante is at another level again. She is fitter, stronger, and she no longer hangs off the back of the bunch for fear of another big crash. She’s stepped up to the pro ranks with Tibco-SVB and now, for the first time, she’s working with a coach.
“It’s made a huge difference,” Gigante says. “I mean, I liked time-trialling before but I didn’t really ever focus the training on it as much as I have this whole past year. So yeah, thanks Dylan [Lindsey] — thanks so much for all those hard ergos, those efforts.
“Oh, my gosh, I just can’t believe it.”
Gigante’s interview is punctuated with statements like these. Much like the rest of us, she’s still coming to terms with the weight of her achievements and her new standing in the Australian cycling hierarchy.
But for all her excitement and breathless disbelief, Gigante is still a model of professional poise. It’s her first race in Tibco colours and yet she remembers to mention the team by name, twice. She has the grace to praise the strength of her rivals. She thanks her auntie and uncle for letting her visit for several rounds of course reconnaissance. She thanks her mum for driving her to those visits. In another interview she thanks her brother Scott who joined her on training rides in the lead-up and who is in Ballarat to support his little sister.
At just 19, Gigante already has two elite national titles to her name. It’s hard to imagine her career ending with the same number. If her current trajectory is anything to go by, overseas success is surely on the way. Indeed, in this moment, it’s hard to imagine that anything is beyond her.
Perhaps best of all, there’s more to this 19-year-old than a phenomenal bike racer; more even than a super-bright scholar who, almost unfathomably, achieved a perfect score in her year 12 studies while riding to the top of Australian cycling.
In Gigante, Australia has a most deserving champion. An affable champion whose hard-earned progress will draw the attention of many fans, present and future. A humble, positive and compassionate role model for those coming through the ranks behind her.
A couple hours after crossing the finish line, Gigante descends from the presentation podium, resplendent in her new green and gold jersey, gold medal around her neck. On the sidelines a small, patient crowd has gathered — young children and their parents, all wanting a photo with the new national champion.
Gigante takes the attention in her stride, posing in turn with everyone that has waited. She chats warmly and patiently to all and smiles broadly throughout. She seems as excited by the opportunity as the children are.