Sarah Gigante on the ups and downs of her first WorldTour season

It's been a turbulent year or so for one of Australia's brightest stars. But it certainly hasn't been all bad.

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If you had to describe the first few seasons of Sarah Gigante’s professional racing career, you’d probably call them “disrupted”. Broken bones, concussion, COVID, a serious heart condition – all have led to extended stints off the bike for the now-22-year-old Australian.

There have been some soaring highs to go with those lows, too. Signing with one of the world’s top teams, for one, and representing Australia at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. And that’s not to mention her first professional victory in Europe, in May 2022.

One soggy afternoon in late October, Gigante and I catch up at a small cafe in inner-eastern Melbourne to talk about the ups and downs of the past year or so. As usual, she’s upbeat and animated, in spite of the fact that her season has come to a premature end due to yet another injury.

After completing her first WorldTour stage race in mid-August – the Tour of Scandinavia – Gigante had hoped to take part in the Tour de l’Ardeche in early September and the Tour de Romandie in early October. But a minor leg injury put an end to those plans. 

“I’ve never really had a planned off-season just because I end up getting injured or something and have my off-season that way!” Gigante says with a laugh. “This time with my leg I’ve had quite a lot of time off the bike.”

She doesn’t go into the specifics of the injury, but it’s clear she’s not too concerned by it.

“It wasn’t too bad,” she says. “It was just a bit of a bother that I had to miss a couple of races.”

Gigante in her first race of the 2022 season (and her first race in eight months): Danilith Nokere Koerse.

Gigante is no stranger to missing a couple races. In 2018, a couple years before joining the pro ranks with Tibco-SVB, Gigante had an extended stint on the sidelines after breaking both her arms in a crash. In her debut Flèche Wallonne in April 2021, she flipped over her handlebars and suffered three fractures: a broken leg, broken collarbone, and a broken elbow. It would take her more than three months to get back to racing.

But easily the biggest setback of Gigante’s young career was a major heart scare that came shortly after returning from those injuries sustained at Flèche Wallonne. A few days after representing Australia at the delayed Tokyo Olympics – where she finished 40th in the road race and 11th in the time trial – Gigante started getting chest pains.

She was in and out of hospital in her adopted European hometown of Girona and after a troubling period of uncertainty, she was eventually diagnosed with myopericarditis – inflammation of the heart and surrounding tissue. Gigante was told she’d have to have spend six months away from racing to let her heart heal.

“Getting the chest pain … and getting sent home from hospitals a few times – that was all super scary,” Gigante says. “And being on the other side of the world … I can speak beginner, OK Spanish now, but back then I didn’t know Spanish at all, so it was not the nicest period.”

Her recovery was long and slow. She started out riding an e-bike and making sure she kept her heartrate below 100 bpm. She gradually increased that over time, but it would be most of eight months between her Olympic debut and her next pro race. But while that period was a hard slog, it came with positives too.

“I feel like I’ve aged maybe 200 years since last July,” Gigante says. “I look back and I’m like ‘Oh, you didn’t know what was coming.’ I already didn’t complain about training. I love training. I love riding my bike, I love racing. But I dunno – if you have a really long ride and you are super tired and it’s raining … I’ve never been so appreciative of that. Just the fact that I’m healthy enough to go out and do it and I’m just so keen. Any problems seemed quite minor in comparison, I guess.”

Gigante’s first race back was Danilith Nokere Koerse in March 2022 – her first outing with her new WorldTour team, Movistar. She’d signed with the Spanish outfit for three years but her goals in that first season were modest: support her more experienced teammates, learn as much as she possibly could, and do more than the 11 race days she’d done in her disrupted 2021.

“I did race more race days [in 2022] , which wasn’t hard because I hardly raced any race days the last two years,” Gigante says. “But yeah, definitely not as many race days as we wanted. But I mean, what can you do? And I still had a lot of experience compared to the past.

“Getting to do races like Andalusia [Ruta del Sol] – that was really, really good experience, working so well together as a team and coming away with pretty much every win there with Arlenis [Sierra, overall winner] and Jelena [Erić]. That was probably my favourite week of the year.”

While Gigante would spend much of her 17 race days this year riding in support of teammates, she also got her own opportunities. Most notably at the Emakumeen Nafarroako Women’s Elite Classics in May, where she would ultimately take her first professional victory.

“In that race, my role was to attack really, really early, “Gigante says. “So go for the early break and then my teammates could rest behind … although it’s not really resting when the course had like 3,000 metres of climbing which was awesome!

“But yeah, it was to go early and then hopefully I would be able to last longer into the race that way. But then I couldn’t get away.”

While unable to get up the road early, Gigante managed to stick with the front group deep into the race. And from there she was able to launch her winning move with around 30 km to go.

“We were maybe a group of seven, I’d say, and we’d come over a lot of climbs and a lot of descents together and I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m still here. This is crazy!’” she recalls. “I was really surprised that I was in this small group and I had Paula [Andrea Patiño] and there were three BikeExchange women there, I think, and then the rest were individuals. So I was like, ‘Wow, this is such a great situation.’

“We got over the climb, we got down the descent. I was still there. And then I was like ‘Phew, we have a little valley; we can have a break for 10 km because I’m tired’ and I’d already had two bike changes. So I was just like, ‘OK, time to reset.’ And then Paula and the DS, Jorge [Sanz], they were both like, ‘OK, Sarah, go now!’ Someone had just done like a little attack off the front – they were like 20 metres off the front – and then we were catching them and they’re both like ‘OK, Vamos!’ I was like, ‘Oh, are you kidding? I’m so dead!’

To her great surprise, Gigante managed to get a gap. 

“That was the weirdest thing,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never actually been out the front by myself before in a European race.’ And then I was keeping the gap, which was even cooler. And then that’s it. It was just 30 k’s of time-trialing.”

Gigante would ultimately cross the finish line two and a half minutes ahead of the group she’d been in. Just past the finish line, with TV cameras on her, Gigante burst into tears, the significance of the moment sinking in.

“That video is a little bit embarrassing,” she says, looking back. “I don’t think I’ve ever burst into tears out of happiness like that before. It’s funny to see how overcome with emotion I was.

“It wasn’t the race. Winning is nice, but it was more about coming back from such a horrible, horrible, scary time last year. And, it just made me feel like, ‘OK, that’s over, we can just forget about that. Close the chapter.’ And also because I’d never even come in the top 10 in Europe before, so it was a pretty big step up.”

Sadly, it wouldn’t be long until Gigante was dealing with yet another setback. In fact, it was in the very race she won that the problem started.

“I was leading a group of four chasing back on [to two leaders] and I went to go around the car … but it just slammed on the brakes super, super suddenly,” she recalls. “Luckily we were going kind of uphill so I was going about 25 kilometres an hour. So not too fast, but I did smack right into the car.

“At that point I was in the front so I was just like, ‘OK, get back on!’ And I remember Kristen Faulkner – she’s not my teammate, but she’s my roommate – and she was like ‘Sarah, are you alright?!’ And I was like ‘Gotta. Get. Back. On!’ I changed bikes and I didn’t really think about it too much.

“At one point I asked someone in the group if my helmet was OK because I never thought to ask that before. But this time I was like ‘Oh, maybe I did hit my head.’ But I felt completely fine. And after the race, I even did the little interview in Spanish, I felt fine, and I was just really excited.”

But in the days that followed, Gigante’s condition started to deterioriate. She was starting to suffer the effects of a delayed concussion.

“I thought, maybe it’s just because I didn’t sleep well after I won,” she says. “I was on my phone too much and everything, which I’m sure made everything way worse looking back. But then a couple days later I was like, ‘Gee, this headache is crazy.’ And it started to get pretty bad.

“It was amazing. It just really opened my eyes to [the fact] you have to be super, super careful with concussions because I seemed so fine and then I really wasn’t. I was lying down for quite a long time after that.”

It was a few weeks before Gigante could ride again and a couple more until she was able to start training properly.

“I’m lucky I recovered completely fine but it was my first concussion and yeah, now I know what to look for I guess,” she says. “I’ve definitely learnt the last year: hearts and brains, super important. Look after them.”

While dealing with so many setbacks in a few short years has been a considerable challenge for Gigante, she’s learned a lot along the way.

“[The myopericarditis] was such a big deal that I was like ‘Ooh, OK. Scary things can happen even when you’re young and fit and healthy,’” she says. “In terms of all the other setbacks, even the concussion this year, it was really scary but then I’m able to be like, ‘OK, life goes on. I’ll get back.’ 

“Even when I broke my leg last year in Flèche Wallonne I was able to start riding really slowly on the trainer maybe a week later. I mean, it wasn’t ideal. I broke my collarbone, and elbow as well, so it wasn’t fun. But when the doctor told me I had to take six months off [with myopericarditis] I think that really gave me perspective. And just knowing that I’d be able to race again and recover completely fine in the future, that’s just … now I know that’s the main thing.

“So I guess every setback I’m like ‘Huh, it’s annoying, but I’ll be back.’ And that’s the main thing. I’ll be healthy again.”

After her concussion, Gigante didn’t race for another three months – not until that final race of the season, the Tour of Scandinavia in August. While it was concussion that kept her off the bike initially, that wasn’t the reason she spent so long away from racing.

“Our team didn’t do that many races apart from the Tour [de France Femmes] and Giro [d’Italia Donne] in that period,” Gigante recalls. “So of course, it’s all hands on deck for those massive tours. We were meant to do the Tour de Suisse, which looked super good, but I wasn’t the only one that was coming back from injury and everyone was at altitude getting ready for the Giro.

“So we didn’t end up racing that. So that would have been good. It had a time trial and a mountaintop finish. Hopefully next year.”

Speaking of next year, Gigante’s obviously hoping it will be a little less turbulent than previous seasons. Her goal: do more race days again.

“I’m going to make that my goal just because I think I need more experience,” she says. “Racing in the European peloton is totally different [compared to Australia] and I think I’ll get there, I just need to practise more. And I haven’t been able to practise too much yet.”

Movistar management have a few things they’re keen for Gigante to focus on as she moves into year two of her three-year contract.

“Being better in the bunch,” she says. “Stronger as well. More punchy. That was the goal this year as well, actually. My training has completely changed. More punchy efforts. I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest sprinter yet. Maybe one day. Lorena Wiebes better watch out!”

Now back in Australia for her off-season, Gigante’s riding is all about base kilometres for the season ahead, mainly on Zwift. She’s also focusing on her university studies.

Back in 2018, the year Gigante became Australian U19 road, time trial and criterium champion, she also finished high school with a perfect score of 99.95. She went to the University of Melbourne the following year, after being awarded a Chancellor’s Scholarship. And while it was science that initially had her interest, she’s now focusing her energy somewhere quite different.

“I was doing maths and computer science, but then I did a subject in linguistics as a breadth [subject], and I just loved it so much,” she says, even more animated than usual. “I have exams coming up. So this morning I was studying all the grammar to do with Warlpiri which is an Australian indigenous language. So learning about how possession works in different languages and it’s so so interesting. I can’t believe how much I love it.

“I’m trying to work out how I can fit in a PhD in remote Australia so I can do what these [researchers] do. They just spend time in the community and then they basically try to write a book about how the language works because a lot of them haven’t been written down before. So it’s really interesting.”

Gigante (second from left) alongside world-beating teammate Annemiek van Vleuten (third from left) at the 2022 Dwaars door Vlaanderen. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Once her exams are done, Gigante will turn her attention to the 2023 season in earnest. After missing the Australian Road Nationals in January of this year – while recovering from her heart condition – Gigante is keen to return in 2023. After all, Aussie Nationals is an event full of happy memories.

It was in Ballarat and Buninyong that she won all three U19 titles in 2018, where she won the combined elite and U23 road title as an 18-year-old in 2019, and where she became elite/U23 Australian TT champion in both 2020 and 2021.

“I’m not sure what Movistar’s plans are as to whether we’re coming to Australia or not,” Gigante says. “I saw there’s no Sun Tour but the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race is on and the Tour Down Under will be WorldTour for us [the women’s peloton] for the first time. So I really, really hope they’re coming, otherwise we do have team camp [in Spain] in January, like we did this year.

“Plans are yet to be confirmed, but Aussie Nationals – it’s my favourite race of the year. I love Nationals.”

Gigante’s many Australian fans will be hoping she’s on the startline in January, back at the races that kickstarted her career. More than that, they’ll hope that Aussie Nationals is the start of a 2023 season full of racing without the injuries and illnesses that have plagued her recent seasons. 

With any luck it will also be a year where Gigante continues on the impressive trajectory she’s been on ever since she left the junior ranks, in spite of all the setbacks she’s had along the way.

You can listen to our full, half-hour interview with Sarah Gigante on the Freewheeling Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

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