The pilgrimage: Lessons learned as an Aussie racing the European amateur scene

In seeking a pro contract, European results are the biggest bargaining chip. So off to Europe Matilda Raynolds went.

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In the past few years Matilda Raynolds has established herself as one of Australia’s strongest domestic-level bike racers. She’s a two-time winner of the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic, she’s been a podium finisher on a stage of the Tour Down Under, and you might even recognise her from CyclingTips’s attempt to ‘Everest’ the road to Mt. Everest Base Camp a few years ago.

Raynolds has dabbled in overseas racing as well, winning the Tour of America’s Dairyland (among other races) in a visit last year, but in 2022 she wanted to aim a little higher. This is her story of heading over to cycling’s heartland to test herself against the rigours of European racing.

I’m somewhere over the Timor Sea; I couldn’t tell you which timezone. My veil of anxiety is slightly lighter on this trip to Europe, my second in the past two months. This time I am fortunately heading over for work at the men’s Tour de l’Avenir on behalf of Black Sheep Cycling. I’ll use the opportunity to chase the final three UCI races in Belgium in September. 

Hold that thought for a moment.

Just a few months earlier I was heading to the Netherlands – the holy place where many aspiring cyclists have realised and retired their professional dreams – and I had no idea what I was pedalling towards. I googled, YouTubed, and tried to find out how this congregation worked. All I ended up finding was a video of some English lad whose chat was better than his skill, and inevitably his Belgian Classics vlog finished with a DNF.

It’s a well-trodden pilgrimage for Australians, one that was completely cut off for almost three years. For the past few years only a handful of Australian women have gone into the WorldTour, either through our Australian-owned BikeExchange-Jayco team, or Zwift which has become a legitimate pathway for us Down Under.

Last year, in a desperate bid for racing (and with government approval), I competed in the USA crit scene. It was a great experience, I snagged a few great wins, and met some wonderful people, but ultimately it was hardly worth putting on the CV. To the big teams Europe is what matters. Even Australian results – in high-level races held in recent years despite strict lockdowns – are rightly considered ‘untested’.

And so I went to Europe. Read on for some of the biggest lessons I learned from a mere six weeks of racing in cycling’s heartland for the first time.

Lesson #1: Ask for help

My independence has gotten me far. That Europe trip was a prime example – I was on my own without team or federation support. However, I really made it difficult for myself in a few areas which a simple Q&A could have helped with. Insurance, accomodation, teams, races, entries, general advice – there’s some incredible knowledge in the current and retired members of the women’s peloton. Be respectful of those still racing and gracious to those who have moved on when seeking this wisdom. 

I made some costly mistakes early, including paying way too much in UCI insurance. But through the help of a few current Australian pros I was able to find a place in the Netherlands and with the godfather of the Netherlands racing scene, Harry van der Horst. Harry is into his ’80s now so whilst he wasn’t able to take me out motorpacing like he used to for the likes of Iris Slappendel, he was able to guide me on the best races, find me a timing chip, and introduce me to my club team, Restore Ladies Cycling. That’s something I’ll always be grateful for.

Raynolds (centre) lining up with Restore Women’s Cycling.

Here’s how this church works. There’s literally a ‘kermesse’ or crit race every day of the week. These aren’t Australian- or US-style crits; these races are usually between 60 and 120 km; rather than one hour they’re closer to three. Get around these, show you can rub shoulders with your rivals, blow up, go again, don’t give up, have a go, show a bit of gumption, and you might just get picked up by a ‘club team’.

Now these aren’t ordinary club teams; they’re the equivalent of a team that might make up Australia’s National Road Series except the level is what you’d expect when everyone learned to ride cobbles right after they started crawling, the local fields are a minimum 140 female riders, the roads are tighter than your driveway, and there’s a Hunger Games mentality. 

The enormous benefit of getting on one of these teams is that they regularly get invitations to race the UCI events in Belgium and Netherlands. Like when a local Australian team could race the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, say.

It’s these UCI events that I’m here for. Show you can do well there and you’ll have a chance of signing with a Pro Continental or in some rare instances WorldTour team. 

My first race with Restore Cycling – a very young Dutch team – would be Veeneendal-Veeneendal, a 150 km multi-looped course. The startlist was strong: Jumbo-Visma, Liv-Racing, Valcar Travel & Service, Wahoo Le Col, and so on. 

Lesson #2: Stay calm, watch and learn 

There’s 160 women and a 9 km neutral zone. Knowing this’ll be the most terrifying moment of the race, it’s best to stay calm and breathe. No one can move up but equally everyone is moving up. There’s more furniture than a warehouse sale. Stay in the moment.

And then there’s Marianne Vos. She moves through the peloton like a Zwift beacon. She flows, she doesn’t brake, she clearly communicates danger. I find myself transfixed whilst trying not to be thrown into a bollard, equally watching and participating. Suddenly I’m chasing down her attack. “Settle, there are bigger teams for this,” I think to myself.

Being a ‘club’ team, we’re at the bottom of the food chain, and we’re pushed around like a bunch of unpopular kids. I remember Peter Sagan once saying he doesn’t fight during races until those final kilometres. When I say ‘fight’ he’s talking about spending energy. 

You see this a lot – there’s a lot of yelling, a lot of pushing. There’s a balance between protecting your position and your front wheel whilst also not blowing your puffer valve.

A few groups have gone and equally been reeled in. I’ve been in two boomerangs when two riders from Wahoo and Jumbo-Visma get away. It slightly settles, the peloton covers the road like lungs in and out, smothering the wider sections and somehow just squeezing through the extremely narrow sections between road islands.

It’s raining now. There’s the occasional clash of carbon. Disc brakes are screeching like a primary school kid’s first violin lesson. The harder, longer and more chaotic the race, the better I feel. The rain neutralises most of the bunch. It’s 10 km to go and I’ve found myself on Vos’s wheel and the Jumbo-Visma lead-out. This is where the fight kicks in. 

At 3 km to go I’m still there, pinching myself. At a late roundabout the Wahoo-Le Col lead-out slips down and out. In the long finishing straight my legs are heavy, I’m overgeared, and I get swamped in the finish, placing 15th. First non-pro. Is that a thing?

I’m happy and relieved. There’s an exhilaration in surviving; a small slice of confidence realising that you belong here.

It’s Dwars-Door Westhoek and there’s a bunch of Aussies here making up for being locked within a 5 km radius for so long. The familiarity is comforting.

I’m at the front but I relax too much and am wiggled back. The road would be considered a small one-way country lane and moving up is impossible. I’m frustrated and I keep pushing, trying to move into a slightly better position. It is here I learn the steep lesson of waiting for your moment, that your position can always be worse.

Bang. I’m pushed from behind, my front wheel veers off and I’m thrown into a ditch. Disaster. I take a moment, check my bike, do a quick body scan, and I’m back in the saddle, but my hand is excruciating. I move back through the vehicles to the back of the pack. I curse myself. “Breathe – don’t make the same mistake,” I urge myself.

There’s another massive crash in the middle of a downhill section. One of those crashes where no number of rosary beads would save you. Many riders I know go down. To avoid hitting the pile-up I take myself out into a ditch at speed, which comically is full of stinging nettle. My skin is on fire.

Someone’s having a laugh. I forget about my hand. We chase again. 

The road widens just before the QOM. The bunch swells and it’s easy to move to the front, until we are stopped. A chaotic hour (which feels like three) has taken all the emergency services off the course to deal with injured riders and the race has to pause for 20 minutes before restarting. I’m grateful for Femke Markus who translates the announcements. All of us Aussies check in with one another and laugh at our predicament. “How good’s racing?!” 

The final four laps of a long cobbled finish straight make it near impossible for my hand to even rest off the bars. I still have a somewhat misaligned finger as a momento. I do my best to help set up my teammate knowing that whilst I have the fight I don’t have the sword.

There’s some really important dialogue happening at the moment about injury, heroism and stupidity in cycling. For me, if I can finish safely, that’s really important. A DNF softens the brain, which in the future recognises there’s an easy way out.

I am unable to start the following day’s UCI race. That would be stupidity, even if every opportunity is as precious as a 12-speed chain during the pandemic.

Lesson #3: Enter the local races

These crits just hit different. I ride 15 km from my base for a local kermesse. There on the startline are Ellen van Dijk, Lucinda Brand, and Nina Kessler, with Iris Slappendel on the sideline, just to name-drop a few. You never know who will be watching.

I chop so hard with Lucinda Brand I envisage I’ll sign a contract on the finish line. Of course that outcome is just fantasy. My first European win comes as a relief. Despite it being a kermesse these can all add up.

There’s nothing comfortable or pleasant about these races. Logically it’s insane – such big fields weaving through tiny roads – but it instils an important skillset: cornering, calmness, finding peace in chaos, and fighting.

This trip has given me a newfound respect and admiration for the Aussies and Kiwis, many of whom haven’t been home for years. They can’t pop back home quickly over the weekend when things are tough – like the Europeans can – but equally I imagine the highs are higher and the experiences richer. It does make me want to cheer that bit louder having earned a very small amount of perspective of that journey. And that’s not to mention those who ‘make it’ from far less privileged countries than the one I call home.

Lesson #4: Seek opportunity 

The more who carve out this path the easier I imagine it will become, but let me insert a bold asterisk here. Don’t come to Europe if you’re not holding the wheel back home. Learn the craft, challenge yourself on both some bigger races and bigger bunch rides. Hurry slowly.

In my final week I contracted COVID, and finished with food poisoning on the 32-hour flight home to Australia. Trying to lie in the fetal position in a vertical shared toilet is enough to give one PTSD. If you’re coming across to Australia for Worlds from elsewhere, don’t forget how far away we are. 

What the final three UCI races in Belgium will hold for me, I’m unsure. Just to have a start is half the battle. All anyone can ask for, work for, earn, is opportunity.

There have already been some massive and well-deserved Australian signings to big teams these past few months with hopefully more to come. It’s been a great reminder to the world that we’re here and if a rider is willing to lick the toilet bowl and get back up off the cobbles then they may be worth that opportunity. 

Thank you for reading. 

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