Unsung Heroes: Tiffany Cromwell

Kasia Niewiadoma reflects on what makes Tiffany Cromwell an indispensable teammate.

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When it comes to sports, cycling is a weird one. There’s the spandex, the jumbled calendar, the ever-changing list of people to keep track of. Perhaps the hardest thing to explain to a new fan is that cycling is a team sport. After all, at the end of the day, only one person stands on the top step of the podium, only one person gets a gold medal, only one person gets to call themselves a champion. In reality, five other people put them there. More than that, if you factor in team staff.

A cycling team revolves around its star riders, riders who win races and get their sponsors logos on the front pages of newspapers (or cycling websites).

In road cycling, the domestiques are the riders who give up everything for their team leader. They work collectively for the benefit of the team, using up their energy before the live coverage has even started. They get drinks and food from the car, move their leader around the peloton and keep them safe, and often are the orchestrators of a teams tactics before the winning move has gone up the road.

It’s about time these unsung heroes of cycling get a little bit of recognition.

We’re kicking off a series on these key riders with Tiffany Cromwell of Canyon-SRAM. The 33-year-old Australian is a contender in her own right, with two Giro Rosa stage wins and plenty of other results on her career palmares, but she’s also proved to be a valuable support rider.

Once a climber turned rouleur for the Classics, Cromwell has become one of the top road captains in the business, making tactical calls on the roads when the racing is on and the directors in the cars are of little help. Cromwell was indispensable to Canyon-SRAM in 2021, and her form in the leadup to the Olympics secured her a spot on the Australian team.

“She’s such a great road captain and a team leader,” Niewiadoma told CyclingTips. “She has experience and she knows when and where to be in the front and how to move in the peloton and how to save a leader’s energy for the finale.”

Cromwell’s strengths were on full display back in 2019 on stage 4 of the Women’s Tour. Niewiadoma couldn’t have taken the win that day it weren’t for both Cromwell and fellow teammate Hannah Barnes.

“They were just absolutely amazing that day and not only their performance, tactically as well,” Niewiadoma recalls. “I felt like they were super great because we were all riding with our hearts and everybody believed in winning the stage and everything worked out perfectly.”

Stage 4 was the longest stage of the OVO Energy Women’s Tour in 2019. The day was dreary, with clouds blocking any potential sunlight and keeping a threat of rain in the air. A trio of escapees left the peloton early in the day, but Trek-Segafredo kept the breakaway in check.

Elisa Longo Borghini was the rider to fracture the peloton, but Niewiadoma kept a cool head and followed the Italian when she made her move. On the final climb of the day, Niewiadoma went clear of the rest of the race to take the stage victory in the Burton Dassett hills.

“Tiffany and Hannah are awesome because they are amazing when it comes to positioning,” Niewiadoma said. “They always know when to bring you up to the front. Always, especially Tiffany.”

Wasting energy moving around the peloton can be the difference between first and fourth for a pro cyclist. When a team leader experiences some kind of mechanical, teammates go back to make sure their leader gets back into the peloton with as the least amount of energy wasted, and that same basic principle can be applied to moving around the peloton during the race. Moving up in the peloton wastes energy, but a teammate can guide their team leader through the peloton safely while keeping their legs fresh.

The easiest way to get from the back to the front is up the side of the peloton. A domestique will go ahead of their leader to protect them from the wind. Simple drafting.

“She’s also such an all-around type rider she’s also capable of helping me in hilly stage races or classics, but also she’s super helpful to our sprinters,” Niewiadoma said. “She can help Lisa Klien in the flat Belgian races even, so I feel like everyone appreciates Tiffany.”

For a leader like Niewiadoma, who is constantly fighting for WorldTour victories, it’s not just physical ability and tactical prowess that make a good domestique. Like any relationship, trust also comes into play.

“Especially when it comes to hectic and difficult moments, she’s smooth and her bike handling is amazing, I can fully trust her,” Niewiadoma said of Cromwell. “I never doubt being on her wheel or the actions she takes, I know it’s going to end up ok. It’s really important to have somebody you can fully trust and be committed to. I feel like it gives me this rest in my mind and relaxation before the important moments because I know I’m not alone.”

“I have someone who takes the pressure off of my shoulders.”

When a race ends, the winner gets whisked away for photos, the podium, and doping control. It’s not until the team is back at their hotel that they can fully celebrate a victory together. Like many athletes in cycling, Niewiadoma dislikes the separation that happens after a race. “No one sees the whole team that works for you to win,” she said.

“Maybe in the future there’s a podium for the top three but at the end the whole team gets this one moment on the stage where everyone can celebrate together because that’s one thing out sport is missing,” Niewiadoma said. “You are just taken to all these different press conferences or meetings or, I don’t know, doping control. And you lose the momentum, the magical moment that you want to share with your teammates. So I hope that one day that can change.”

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