End of an era: Specialized Women’s Racing calls it quits after a decade

Australia's longest-running domestic women's team is hanging up its wheels.

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Specialized Women’s Racing is the longest-standing women’s team in Australia’s National Road Series and arguably the most successful, having spent a decade providing pathways for some of the biggest female talents in the country. But now, the team’s run has come to an end.

In this article team founder Liz Phillipou reflects on what has been a mighty journey and a good old Aussie tale of teamwork and succeeding against the odds.

In 2011, opportunity came knocking. I was nearing the end of my cycling career and the thought of staying involved in a sport that had given me so much enjoyment was hard to turn down. In those days in Australia, there were only institute teams. Most of the women’s field was made up of individual riders and we did everything for ourselves. Bought our own equipment, did our own mechanics, and drove to and from races. If you were really lucky, you might have convinced your local bike shop to service your bike for free.

So the chance to work with Specialized Australia, one of the biggest bike brands in the world, which was breaking down all sorts of barriers for women’s cycling, was an opportunity I felt responsible to explore. 

In the beginning, I had no idea how far it would go or how long it would last. My objective above all others was to create a professional team environment where riders felt they were treated fairly and given an opportunity to achieve both their personal and team goals. The time and place was right, women’s cycling was on the rise, and the community had the right appetite to support our journey.

Ultimately I wanted it to be fun, creating a team full of enthusiastic people who loved to race their bikes and hopefully a place for up-and-comers to go onto greater things. 

The 2011 Noosa Criterium was our first race and I had barely managed to scrape together five riders to make up the team. We hadn’t received our sponsored bikes yet and there were a few jibes from the peloton about the taped-up logos on our own bikes. We had Specialized helmets and one set of kit each, and we were gearing up to face the start line amongst an international line-up including British Olympic champion Nicole Cooke, who was in Australia for a summer of racing.

Trudy Van Der Straaten, one of our original five, often reminds me about our team meeting prior to that race. She remembers her amusement when I gave the team the goal of finishing on the podium. It seems funny now, considering the level of the field, but in my mind our advantage was in our numbers and most of the field back then was made up of really classy individuals.

As Trudy stormed her way into second place that day, a legacy was born. There were many podiums to come, huge victories lay ahead, and some of the biggest names in women’s cycling would pass through our doors. But we always maintained our grassroots connection to the community.

Ange McLure, Bec Werner, Trudy Van Der Straaten, Narelle Hards, and Liz Phillipou at the 2011 Noosa Criterium.

Over the years there would be many challenges to our existence. Sponsorship was hard to come by and the biggest battle was always budget. At our highest point we were able to provide our riders with entries, accommodation, travel subsidy, and pay our staff a basic fee per event. At more difficult times, riders would pay their own travel and staff would work for nothing more than the pride and passion of helping others. 

Over the decade, our budget varied a fair bit. It reached its peak at the time when financial group Securitor signed a three-year deal (2013-15), but on average we would get by on roughly $50,000 per year. We made every dollar count and what we didn’t have we raised through fundraising, auctions, raffles, sausage sizzles at Bunnings, and redirecting all our prize money back into the team instead of splitting it amongst the riders.

From the outside looking in, we portrayed the image of a big team. Event organisers liked us because we were always eager to race, our riders always put on a good show, and we expressed our gratitude, never taking the opportunities for granted. Tour Down Under would have to be the greatest example of this. Year after year we would get invited back to compete against the best internationals and year after year our riders would exceed all expectations, standing on podiums, and tallying near the top of all classifications. 

Others referred to us as a ‘big budget team’. It was laughable what we were able to achieve on so little money. It all came down to passionate people and a cohesive team environment. 

When Australian apparel business Black Sheep joined us in 2018, their Evolution campaign saw our brand expand exponentially on social media. For years we had been juggling media duties amongst the team and did a pretty good job of it, but it quickly became apparent that we needed a media manager to handle that side of things.

Our financial model also changed. Instead of relying on cash injections from sponsors, we shifted to a more sustainable model, with Specialized and Black Sheep supporting us to take percentages of profits from selling team bikes and special edition kits.

It wasn’t always victories and high fives on the podium though. There were equally as many – if not more – lows and times where I questioned my motivations for continuing on.

As is the nature of sport, team selection always played a big part and there were certainly many instances of disappointment, annoyed parents of young riders, or frustrated sponsors. My least favourite responsibility was to tell a rider that their contract wasn’t being renewed or to have a difficult conversation with a sponsor about why their brand wasn’t getting the return on investment that they wanted. 

But on the flipside, there were the rewards, and not just from victories on the bike. It was not uncommon in the women’s peloton to find talented young riders that had been churned through the national system, who had lost their way after becoming fed up with the politics. We were able to offer them a lifeline to have another crack at their dreams and with the right support behind them, they found renewed passion for a long lost love of cycling.

And then there were those who just needed somebody else to believe in them, as they lacked belief in themselves. There was no greater feeling than witnessing the pride and solidarity of a team that worked together to execute a plan, who sacrificed everything for each other, irrespective of whether it produced a win or not.

Lizzie Williams (left) after winning the 2014 Mersey Valley Tour.

And of course, there were the victories. There have been so many memorable moments over the years that it’s hard to choose the best. The most special were the ones that were either unexpected or well deserved.

Bec Werner’s astonishing victory at Rymill Park at the 2012 TDU. Kimberley Wells’ thrilling upset at Richie Boulevard at the 2013 Bay Crits. Lizzie Williams’ comeback at Mersey Valley Tour in 2014. Sophie Mackay’s emphatic Nationals crit title in 2016. Lucy Bechtel’s nail-biting win at Noosa 2017. Kate Perry’s GC victory at the 2018 Tour of the King Valley. Ella Bloor’s well deserved first place at the Tour of Gippsland in 2019. Jaime Gunning’s inspirational best young rider jersey at the 2019 TDU. The list of successes goes on and on.

Behind every podium, there was a dedicated, selfless team giving everything to make it all happen both on the bike and behind the scenes. Each and every rider, staff member, and sponsor contributed in some way to the SWR family.

Jaime Gunning won the best young rider jersey at the 2019 TDU.

Not only was it a home for domestic talent, we also had the good fortune of regular international guest riders such as Chloe Hosking, Loren Rowney, and Tiff Cromwell donning our jersey on many occasions, providing rare and invaluable experience for our crew to ride alongside the best in the world.

We had a lot of big supporters along the way. This team had an infectious attraction and those who came along for one ride couldn’t wait to come back again. General managers and owners of our small and big business partners who became involved at a personal level, invested their time where they weren’t obliged to. All created the big family feel that Specialized Women’s Racing embodied.

The likes of Matt Englund and Jane Wilmott from Securitor cheering from the sideline of a Barossa vineyard, Peta Stewart investing not only her own money but her time to mentor our riders and deliver morning coffee runs, Chris Stevens from CartGIS generously volunteering his personal equipment or standing in feed zones for hours, Johnny Polson from Black Sheep flipping a sausage sizzle on a hot Adelaide summer’s night, or Mick Brown from Specialized risking his life hanging out a moving car window to fix a tangled radio wire. It has been such an enormous team effort.

Kate Perry won the 2018 Tour of the King Valley for SWR.

To Johnny Polson, Nik Howe, Nicole Moerig, Brie Thomas and all the team at Black Sheep, you changed the game for us. Your creativity and thoughtful content took things to a whole new level, almost to a point where we couldn’t keep up with how fast things were growing. You brought meaning and a cause committed to making a real difference not only to women’s cycling within Australia, but to riders’ wellbeing worldwide.

To Sam Monardo, Justin White, Tony Smith, Laura Wilson, Emily Smith, Mick Brown, Dan Purkis, Tim Webster, and all the team from Specialized both past and present, it’s hard to choose words big enough to express our gratitude. For a whole decade you have been by our side, willing and able to support us for as long as we had the will to keep turning the pedals.

No challenge was ever too great and no need ever went unanswered. You are the true meaning of special in Specialized Women’s Racing and the personal friendships that have been formed are so far above and beyond that of a sponsorship. 

For me it has been all about the people. Like with any team environment, the most integral part of making things work was the relationships between those involved. Whether it was between riders, family members, staff, sponsors, event organisers, or fans, the culture within the team has formed the team’s legacy. I have relished the opportunity to work alongside so many incredibly talented and passionate individuals who have left a lasting impression on me. 

To Poppy (Ian) Jensen, Lauren Hooper, and all the staff and volunteers who have worked with the team over the years, I couldn’t have done any of this without you. Your dedication to helping others for nothing more than personal satisfaction has been so greatly appreciated by all. Lastly to our DS Mark Brady, you have been the backbone of the team and we are fortunate to have been inspired and guided by your invaluable knowledge and pragmatic leadership. I am so grateful for your support.

It has been an honour to create a small part of Australian cycling history. To have provided a platform that gave so many people so much enjoyment leaves me with an enormous sense of pride. I will miss the camaraderie of the team, but I am satisfied that after 10 years I have given all that I could to progress our beautiful sport and I look forward to watching into the future as the next generation of teams and talents emerge.

Thank you to our fans and supporters. It has been an incredible ride and a privilege to share our journey with the Australian cycling community and beyond.

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