Meet Ally Wollaston, the Kiwi track racer beating WorldTour riders on the road
The Kiwi track rider has been making a splash on the road in recent weeks.
The Kiwi track rider has been making a splash on the road in recent weeks.
Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, 21-year-old Ally Wollaston had spent the majority of her cycling career on the track, riding for the national team with a goal of racing at the Olympic Games.
In early 2021, however, she was caught up in a crash in the week before Road Nationals, which resulted in a concussion that kept her away from training and racing for two months. “That was just a bit average,” she tells me from Maastricht, where she is based during the season.
It was a lot worse than ‘average’, causing her to miss out on selection for Tokyo on the track. “I had really committed quite hard to get into the team. So that was a little bit disappointing for me,” she says.
But, like most of these things, missing out on Tokyo led Wollaston down a different pathway that is turning out to be a successful one.
“It was a pretty pivotal point,” Wollaston says, “where I kind of stepped back and I was like, ‘OK, well, what now? What am I supposed to do now?’ So I started looking for teams.”
She didn’t reach out to many, she says, but one of the few she contacted was the Dutch U23 development squad, AG Insurance – NXTG. “I just clicked on the ‘contact us’ button on the website and just sent them a little message like ‘hey, guys. I need a team to ride for.’”
Luckily, team manager Natascha Knaven replied saying the team would love to take Wollaston and “that was that,” she says. Wollaston spent a few months at the end of the 2021 season racing in Europe with NXTG, getting stuck in at Belgian kermesses and finishing the famously gruelling Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, before returning to the track and eventually heading back home, but not before signing for an additional season.
“They were really excited to have a Kiwi in the team,” Wollaston says. “I’m so glad that it turned out that way because it’s been pretty good, smooth sailing so far.” That’s another understatement from the 21-year-old for whom the past few weeks have brought the biggest results of her road career so far.
“Last season, when I first came over here I really, really struggled with the bunch and stuff,” she admits. “I sat at the back in every single race and I was just terrified. It was such a mental thing; a mental game. I always had the legs, but I couldn’t ever do anything with them when you’re at the back of the bunch.
“This year has been a real turning point for that. I don’t know what it was. I think the girls were so supportive and really helped me to get to the front during the week at Tour de Bretagne which was so helpful. There’s no way I could have done it without them.”
Wollaston came third in the sprint on stage one of the 2.1-level race, and after remaining consistent throughout – including riding to third on the TT stage – she found herself on the GC podium behind Vittoria Guazzini (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Cedrine Kerbaol (Cofidis).
“It was such a surprise,” she says. “I knew I could do well. And my goal at the start of the week was to just try and get involved in one bunch sprint for the week. That’s all I wanted to do, I wasn’t looking at doing well in GC. Especially the time trial – I haven’t time trialled since August last year or been on the time trial bike so yeah I just rocked down and did it.”
Getting herself up there in such a strong field was “such a big confidence boost,” she says. So much so that, at her next race, GP Morbihan, “I lined up knowing that I had the capability to win, I just had to race at the front. And that’s what I did.”
It is exactly what she did, but without the confidence she gained from Bretagne, Wollaston says she would “never have bridged the gap in the first place” to what was eventually the winning breakaway. “I think if I didn’t know I had the legs from last week, there’s no way I would have thought to bridge across on my own.”
The young Kiwi spent the race in a move of five riders which eventually reduced to just Wollaston against Vittoria Guazzini and Grace Brown of FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope. Despite having done her fair share of chasing down attacks and taking turns on the front, Wollaston out-sprinted both WorldTour riders to take the victory.
Even after the boost in confidence that led to her winning the race, she says that she “still can’t really believe it”.
“I think a bit of impostor syndrome is going on at the moment.”
2022 will be Wollaston’s first full season on the road. She is one of a number of young Kiwi women who have made an impression on the professional peloton in the past few years, alongside the likes of Niamh Fisher Black of SD Worx, and Mikayla Harvey and Ella Harris of Canyon-SRAM.
Wollaston says that the track offered a good development program when she was coming through, but for the road “it’s definitely a lot harder in New Zealand because if you don’t leave New Zealand I don’t think you’ll get anywhere.
“As soon as you book your first flight to Europe, the journey only starts there,” she says. “Because we try and get racing in New Zealand but with such a small amount of numbers you can only do so much to replicate the racing here.
“So yeah, I think it’s probably [something to] work on, a development programme for the road for women in New Zealand. But I think it’s so cool to see so many girls doing so well over here now. It never used to be like that but now it seems like there’s kind of a few of us which is really – yeah, it’s so awesome.”
Naturally, leaving the country to travel half-way around the world for your sport is a daunting leap for many. Wollaston, though, says she does not struggle with the distance – having gone to boarding school from the age of 15, she is used to being away from home.
Wollaston is happy with her own company and relishes spending time exploring Maastricht by herself, a useful tendency for someone who has to base themselves on the other side of the world from their family for work. “It’s a lot of time by myself, but I really love spending time with myself,” she says, describing how she often takes herself out for lunch or for coffee in the city.
The few months over in Europe last season “was like a perfect little tester”, she says, and it helps that she feels comfortable within the team. “It was so nice coming back to the team and seeing everyone. It’s just like a little family away from home.
“The girls are so awesome. And I think this year as well, the team has really stepped up with the staff. Our new DSs this year are amazing; Jolien and Chris have been so good. The team culture is just so, so good this year, and everyone is happy to be there.”
That said, Wollaston admits that her outlook may partly be down to the fact that she has yet to experience any adversity during her time away. “It’s great when everything’s going good,” she says. “I think it’s all quite easy, but when it’s not going so good, I can imagine it would get quite hard. I haven’t got to that point yet, but yeah, hopefully we don’t get there.”
She acknowledges that the racing lifestyle is tougher for her than for her European peers: “We all go to the same races but at the end of it most of the girls go back to a home-cooked meal … which is quite hard. Some people don’t understand how hard it is being away from home.”
In between racing and training Wollaston is studying part time for a law degree from the University of Waikato (located in Hamilton, New Zealand), and, like any student, she is prone to getting distracted.
“I sat down to watch a lecture, and I watched five minutes and I was like ‘I’m absolutely not doing this today’ and went less than a kilometre away and just went shopping,” she recalls.
She says she is not in a rush to finish her degree; she has bigger fish to fry. “I don’t think there’s anything I could do with it at the moment anyway,” she says. “It’s not like I could start working now.” But it does serve as a productive use of the expansive spare time that cyclists are often faced with.
“It’s amazing how much time you can waste doing absolutely nothing,” she says. “So I think it is quite motivating to have something else to do just to keep the brain busy.”
Having raced the Veenendaal – Veenendaal Classic on Friday, Wollaston will head to the UK for the (now three-day) RideLondon Classique, which will be her first WorldTour race. After that, the rest of her season is still very much TBD.
“So the plan for the next couple months is a little bit up in the air at the moment,” she says. “I think, coming over here, my priorities were quite heavily with the track with Commonwealth Games at the start of August. That was my big goal. But I think, yeah, since being over here, the road has really started going a lot better than I thought it would.”
Have her priorities shifted as a result?
“I’m not sure if my priorities have shifted but yeah, they’re definitely becoming a lot more equal now the road and the track,” she explains. “So it will be interesting to see where this year goes.”
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and the Commonwealth Games track events take place within the same week in July, meaning Wollaston will likely have to choose between one or the other. “Yeah, a lot of big decisions coming up,” she says.
There are worse dilemmas to be faced with than deciding between an international competition on the track and the biggest road race in the world, but, if she continues to deliver the same results, this won’t be the last decision of this nature that Wollaston has to make.