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I was keeping an eye on Twitter as I always do when watching races. When Grace Brown attacked in Liège-Bastogne-Liège people from all over the world cheered her on: the underdog was taking on a rider in top shape at the moment, Lizzie Deignan. Deignan went on to win, but Brown was second, just nine seconds behind.
The Twitterverse almost exploded three days later when Brown netted her first European win after a long solo in Brabantse Pijl.
I first came across Grace Brown when she was on a long and audacious solo attack during the 2019 Ronde van Drenthe. I photographed her on the VAM-berg, shared the picture on Instagram, and kept following her. But I actually didn’t know anything about her background. After her excellent start to this month, I figured it was time to give her a call.
Brown’s profile page on ProCyclingStats doesn’t show a particularly long history in the sport. Her first race was the Australian national championships in 2016 when she was already 23 years old.
“That was actually my first road race,” Brown tells me from a hotel near Gent, Belgium. “I started my sports career in running: crosscountry and middle-to-long distances on the track, so from 1,500 metres to 5 kilometres. I competed nationally but never outside of Australia.
“My physique was actually not that great for running and I suffered from a long line of injuries like stress fractures. After so many years of getting injured and recovering again I was fed up with it all. Some people had suggested I should ride a bike but I held that off. I did some commuting on a bike but that was it. But shortly after university [Brown has an Honours degree in Politics and International Studies] I bought my first carbon bike.”
Brown had been living in Melbourne for a while after leaving her small hometown of Camperdown in southwest Victoria to go to boarding school and later university.
“After I bought the bike, I was looking for people to ride with,” she says. “I joined a club in Melbourne and started riding crit races. That feeling of wanting to be competitive in this sport was almost instant. One day I was looking up road races on the internet because I wanted to do a proper road race after the crits I started with.
“The national championships were the first event on the schedule. I remember there was a button you could click to enter and I did that. About a week before the Nationals I started freaking out. What had I gotten myself into? I reached out to people and [former Australian time trial champion] Felicity Wardlaw responded. She helped me on my way and is now also my coach. Funny how things go sometimes.”
At the national championships in 2016 Brown rode with all the big names of Australian cycling, riders she would later become teammates with at Mitchelton-Scott. After impressing in Australia’s National Road Series and racing for the Australian women’s development team in Europe, Brown joined Mitchelton-Scott in 2019. She didn’t have to wait long for her first pro win.
“I felt and still feel such a newbie in cycling,” she says. “When I joined Mitchelton-Scott one of the first races was the Tour Down Under. I was under the impression that when coming into a new sport, a new team, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of chances for me. I had some previous race experience with Wiggle-Honda and Holden Team Gusto but not a lot. I was a neo-pro.
“On day three of the Tour Down Under the sports director said: ‘This stage really suits you, Grace’,” she remembers fondly. “And I won it too after a really, really, really long sprint.”
Brown has had a great string of results in the past few weeks with a fifth place at the time trial world championships, 30 seconds off the podium. But it was at Liège-Bastogne-Liège that many people really started to notice her.
“My sports director said when the breakaway went that this was the decisive move and that I should try to bridge across,” she recalls. “That was quite a big ask but I gave my everything in a six-minute effort. When I noticed that I recovered really well after that effort, I realized there was more. It was a weird sensation to describe but I just knew I could do this.”
She didn’t manage to bridge across to Lizzie Deignan but she got her fans back home in a party mood. A few days later came Brabantse Pijl, a race her family and friends back home could watch live as well. Her win in Brabantse Pijl is typical of how she races.
“I am not afraid to fail while trying,” she says of her race philosophy. “I just get very excited and want to get the most out of myself. It’s a disappointment if I feel like I couldn’t get the most out of myself on a given day.”
So which meant more: winning as a neo-pro at the Tour Down Under? Or winning Brabantse Pijl?
“You can’t really compare those two wins,” she says. “Of course, winning my first big race outside of Australia was amazing but the Tour Down Under stage was more unexpected than this one.
“I laid a solid foundation in Australia during the COVID-19 hiatus but I am also growing as a rider. With that process comes expectations too, mainly from myself. I already believed I could do this. Now the outside world sees it too. This win kind of cemented my abilities.”
Being away from home for long periods of time is always hard for riders from Australia. This is no different for Brown, although she’s got plenty of experience now.
“Halfway into high school I moved to a boarding school in Melbourne, two and a half hours from my hometown of Camperdown,” she says. “Academically I had more options in Melbourne than in my own small rural town but it was really hard.
“I learned how to be independent from a young age and still draw from those experiences. I know and learned how to be away from home but it doesn’t make it easier at all. My husband is at home in Australia. I have a flight booked but with the current situation they get cancelled all the time. It makes me anxious and stressed but I also know I can’t change the situation.”
Brown is nearing the end of her second season with Mitchelton-Scott. Next year Annemiek van Vleuten, alongside whom Brown has raced a lot, moves on to Movistar.
“Yes, this will change the dynamic of the team considerably,” Brown says. “Of course, we have Amanda Spratt as our captain but I believe other and more riders will be winning next season. We lined up at many races around Annemiek, we raced to her strengths. Next year racing will be more open.”
More immediately Brown is looking ahead to this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. She’s never done the race but it’s one she would love to win, like every rider in the peloton. In 2021 she wants to focus on the Women’s Tour in the United Kingdom, among other races, and she’s got some longer-term goals too.
“The world championships will be in Australia in 2022,” she says. “This is special for all the Australian riders. Seeing me race on TV is already so much more exciting for my family and friends than following text messages on Twitter but actually seeing me race in Australia is going to be so special.
“They haven’t released the courses yet but I hope to visit soon and discover the region of Wollongong. I would love to race for Australia there with all my family and friends lining the road.”
Grace Brown is ‘already’ 28 years old but feels and races like a newbie. With her great enthusiasm, and her attractive, attacking style of racing, she is most definitely a rider to watch in the future, including in Flanders this weekend.