Surviving the women’s professional peloton: Big dreams, harsh realities

At the start of the year I signed my first professional road cycling contract for the 2016 European racing season – an Australian competing in Europe on an Italian team whilst residing in Spain. To prepare for the big journey I reached out to fellow Australian cyclists, who before my time had also found their way to Europe outside the mainstream route of Cycling Australia’s development pathway. In the process I received mixed responses – the best and worst experiences of the pro peloton. Little did I imagine that in my time overseas I would experience both extremes …

Upon returning home the most commonly asked question is: “How has your year been?” and in response I have my standard replies; “it was a roller coaster, an up and down year” or “I just had to ride the waves, you know?”

It was a frustrating year, to live month-by-month in a constant state of uncertainty – holding out to be raced, hoping to still have a contract and for weeks at a time I wouldn’t know. I took a faithful leap into the unknown world of professional bike racing and unfortunately did not achieve what I set out to do in Europe. Instead I spent the year trying to gain surety, breaking down communication barriers and battling team politics. Who was going to understand when I came home?

Women's cycling, Cittiglio - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Skerritt Ellen (Australia / Ale - Cipollini) pictured during the Women's World Tour cycling race Trofeo Alfredo Binda - Comune di Cittiglio 2016 (1.WWT) - photo Anton Vos/Cor Vos © 2016

So what did I really take from 2016? I’d have to say a new perspective.

Now the season has ended I have reflected on events from this and prior years in the sport and realised that sharing my experiences frankly may not only give readers an understanding of the challenges women face in pursuit of a cycling career, but could also be used as a powerful tool for cyclists wanting to reach the professional level in cycling.  Here are some of the things I had to cope with and the observations I made in my time signed with an international team:

1. The groundwork

Let’s start with the basics. In late 2015 I went from struggling to lock down a team to the excitement of signing a professional contract, which left a short two-month window to set up life overseas. In regard to requirements of living and working abroad there was little communication from the team so I ventured on a sort of self-discovery into the big wide world of documentation that is visa’s and residencies. So many questions: What kind of Visa will you need? Working or non-working? Where is your place of residence? What type of residency will you require? Temporary or permanent? Is an identification number necessary? Are you opening a bank account and do you have the papers to do this? Do you have ALL the insurance you need?

Assurance on insurance: That last question actually deserves it’s own point, because you really need to know your insurance. Enquire about the team’s policy. Do not make assumptions. This was a grey area coming onto the team and in the end required taking out personal high-risk insurance. Another personal cost. More $$$.

Living conditions: As a cyclist you may receive the option of living in a team house (free) or choose your own place of residence (expense). My team failed to communicate that not a single team member lived in the provided accommodation. I stayed for a single night in the team’s basic housing which was located outside a small town with few facilities. To buy groceries I would have to travel each day to the next town by bike. The closest point of significance was the train station, six kilometres away. I was left with one viable option, expensed living. My base became Girona, Spain: an accessible town with world-class training grounds.

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To rationalise this decision I described it as an investment. It was a place I built life-long connections (definitely one of the huge ups of my roller coaster year) and somewhere I now call my second home.

2. One step ahead

It was clear from the beginning of the season, despite going overseas with a team, that I was very much alone. This made it crucially important to be continually thinking ahead, to be on the ball at all times, as there was no one else that would do this for you. Any sort of problem encountered overseas is exaggerated by the fact you are VERY far from home. The ability to assert oneself and recognise limitations are an important foundation. Additionally qualities such as independence and self-reliance are key to survival.

The nature of living abroad: Regardless of location of residence there will always be a degree of isolation living abroad. The time I spent overseas can be broken into three phases. For the first three months I was eagerly trying to meet people – to set up a new support network. This was an extremely lonely time despite my motivation to build connections and, for days at a time there would be periods where I would not experience a genuine conversation.

Over the following months I pushed myself to avoid the ‘bubble that is Girona’ to expand my network. I started attending language classes, becoming involved in community events, exploring outside my hometown. This created a platform to meet varying groups of friends. In the final couple months of my cycling contract I relished the support network I was surrounded with. The effort put into setting up connections had paid off, helping to balance the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of each day. I strongly believe this is an aspect worth recognising as it could be the difference between surviving the season and heading home early.

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Know and communicate limitations: Let me reinforce that team priorities may not have individual team members best interests at heart. As an athlete communicating set boundaries and acknowledging personal needs is key to maximising the long-European season. An example is avoiding burnout due to isolating conditions by surrounding oneself with a support network.

Preparation: Don’t assume that because you are in an organised race with a team that you will not end up having to be self-reliant anyway. Readers that have seen the story of my first classic of the season have probably got a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from with this point, for others the title, Lost and stranded at Ronde van Drenthe should give you a pretty big clue. It was a race that quickly turned from competing against rivals to a race of survival. Little did I know at the time that this is the normality of racing in the Netherlands (I was later out done by a Data Dimension rider who was lost for over 15 hours).

This was a quick lesson to learn. From then on I always knew the answer to these questions: Where is the location of the hotel? Do I have a contact number for emergencies? How can I make contact with the team? The point I’m trying to make is do not overlook the details, they may seem minor at the time but they become pretty major when you are lost with no phone, no money and only a sketchy idea of where you are meant to be in a foreign country.

3. Team cultures

It is important to be conscious of how international teams operate and the differences that appear. For the short time I was contracted there was only going to be so much progress in terms of my abilities. My previous team experiences did little to prepare me for what turned out to be a year of accelerated learning as I picked up most skills on the run. There was little room to grow as a person or rider adjusting into a new team culture and unrealistic expectations were a clear barrier here.

Keep it real: My expectation of an international team was that there would be a level of understanding and acceptance of differences, especially in regards to native languages. The team’s belief was I should be fluent in Italian within the first two months. This was obviously not achievable nor a constructive goal with so much new going on. Although these natural limitations were present, they were not readily identified.

Communication differences: Over the course of the year there was a clear breakdown in communication due to a collision of differences. This breakdown appeared partly due to my inability to speak the chosen language of the team and the management’s lack of desire to converse in English. There were times of up to three weeks where zero contact would be made by the team in spite of my best efforts. The purpose of why I was in Europe during these periods was questionable and it was particularly challenging to continue training (I could only assume I still had a contract?).

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What is left unsaid: Cultural sensitivity is the basic skill of adjusting to new environments, however adapting to a team’s unstated rules is a challenge. These are a set of laws built upon the culture of a team to be learnt through trial-and-error. I spent the year picking up rules and battling punishments for reasons I cannot explain. It didn’t matter if I believed a decision was right or wrong it was simply the way of the team. There were several key aspects of the team’s culture to pick up such as recognising strict eating patterns, understanding the leadership style and being aware of cultural traditions present. I guess the question is, to conform or stand-alone?

4. Expect financial surprises

As a professional female cyclist a lack of income is of major concern. The inability to establish security is present from the base all the way through to the top (but more about that later).

Plan for hidden costs: Whether this issue was unique to the team I signed with or a problem across the sport, I felt the mindset of management was that I deserved my salary when I was racing well, however if issues surfaced my income for that month would be cut off. There was a failure to recognise that this was my only form of income to support myself with whilst abroad.

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Have a back-up: The year away was brought down with a feeling of guilt about how much I needed my parents to support me. In the women’s peloton irregular wages are not an uncommon experience and an issue to be expected and will continue until regulations are created and enforced.

No clear pathway = no guarantees: With little being done in terms of governance over the women’s pro peloton it was a bit of a free-for-all. This intensified feelings of isolation: who could be there for me when finances became a concern? Are teams held accountable by the UCI? Or is it vice versa? Who is responsible?

From what I am aware the UCI governing body has done an excellent job pointing the finger at teams to make the step up. This can be seen in the women’s pro peloton with the introduction of newer and bigger races, often alongside the men. This has had its advantages and disadvantages. Racing alongside the men’s field raises the bar for teams with large budgets to step up, however, this is still unreachable for smaller, lower budget women teams, which make up the most part of the peloton. The clear disadvantage is the UCI has transferred pressure onto professional teams causing a large degree of disparity, in terms of support and money across the women’s peloton.

5. Check expectations

Maybe the time spent overseas was a let down because my expectations had so far to fall. I realised my time racing in Europe had been no different from all those stories I heard from cyclists who before me were in a similar position. I anticipated with all this hyped forward-momentum there had been progress made in women’s professional cycling, now I have experienced that it still has a long way to go.

A key to change: Women’s cycling as a profession not a privilege

What is a professional? A failure to enforce minimum wage constructs a blurry, confusing line of who or what is professional, and can be little more than a title. It’s a title that does reflect competency and conduct, however in most cases does not guarantee income, or a regulated profession with longevity. There are top-level riders in the sport barely making ends meet on a low wage – do they still count as professional? Time in the sport does not guarantee financial return either: one year an athlete could be barely surviving and the next making enough to sustain ones own lifestyle.

The sporadic nature of income makes it difficult to choose this as a career option. For that to change it is important for the top level of cycling to be seen as profession rather than a ‘privilege’. The difference allows a level field of control, where athletes have rights and responsibilities and management a duty of care and accountability. Women in cycling remain voiceless and unable to speak as they are living to the ethical standards of the sport – remaining silent for fear of jeopardising their place in it. I encourage others to talk about issues openly, as until then change is limited.

A year I had to experience to believe

Although in some aspects it has been a disappointing year I do not regret going overseas and experiencing the world of professional bike racing. Like the saying goes ‘I had to experience it, to believe it’. I recognise cyclists have made their own success via the alternate pathway and reached the top rank in cycling, I’m simply writing this article to make known the difficulties along the way.

I have now returned home and am enjoying being back on the bike with a shift of focus looking into 2017. In the sport I look to remain a member in the cycling community, to continue achieving personal goals and offer a viewpoint promoting growth in the sport. My immediate goals are to continue racing in Australia whilst balancing other priorities. I think a part of me will always crave the thrill of racing.

Women's World tour Ronde van Drenthe 2016

I share this information with the hope that it will not be a timeless guide for future female cyclists pursuing a career in professional cycling. There is room for the sport of cycling to grow, however its only achievable through a concerted effort from those who govern and manage the sport, and the athletes who compete. We must all play our part.

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CHALLENGES OF LIVING ABROAD

It’s been a while and I am overdue for an update. I find it’s easy to write when life is going well, but when it is not quite matching my expectations the motivation plummets and negativity seems to seep into my writing. Don’t worry I think I’ve managed to find a good balance here, so continue reading…

 

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Racing in Belgium… is not for me.

 

Before venturing on my trip I was warned about this period athletes face at the almost halfway mark in the season. Once the busyness of settling in subsides, there is suddenly time to miss things from back home. Some of the fresh athletes are able to make it through unscathed – for others it is too much.

 

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A new walking trail!

 

Now if there is anything I have learned from being a traveling baby is that you don’t have to be okay with being displaced, but you will learn to appreciate the moments when you are settled.

 

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I remembered my fear of boating…

 

The initial adjustment of moving to Spain was smooth (I can thank my preparation in the months’ prior) and up until now I believed I was the exception, that all my life experiences had contributed to this moment and I would not be affected by the struggle of living away from home.

 

Essentially my childhood can be summed up in two words: constant movement. As a family we moved several times across Australia from Newcastle to Darwin – Sydney to Brisbane and later, in and out of South-East Asia. I guess you can say we were quite cultured children.

 

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Secret path!

 

To this day my family set up is quite unique. As some may know my parents relocated to South-East Asia in 2014 – dad continuing his work abroad and Mum taking her never ending studies with her. My sister is currently balancing her internships/ jobs with studies in Australia. And my fur baby (Lulu) is living between my sister and her adoptive mother Trudy. My opportunity has taken me across Europe, residing most of the time in Spain.  Somewhere in the world I will bump into a family member!

 

 

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Tossa de Mar

 

Despite my circumstances and previous life experiences I have recently come to terms that I am like any other 21 year old – who are in my position – and I am no more equipped to deal with challenges of living in a foreign country. And it is likely to be an ongoing learning experience.

 

 

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Day activities

 

I have been given many words of advice (which I am always open to hearing) on how to make it through the season. Some opt for the treat the year like a training camp by breaking the season into manageable pieces with others choosing to set up their new residence like home, replicating a familiar lifestyle – is anyone aware of any more options!?

I went for the latter option, because I personally don’t want to feel like I am on an Italian team training camp for eight-months.

 

Regardless of which option is chosen living in an unfamiliar environment provides opportunities to break out of comfortable routines, sometimes whether you want to or not.

 

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Caves!

 

Recently I was pushed to unlock a new level of independence by taking a 4-day holiday to the coast – alone. I figured it was well deserved to have some down time after surviving racing in China, and I needed a bit of a morale booster.

 

At first it was a little uncomfortable, but early in the week I made the decision that I would not get caught up in little side comments people would make and I would embrace my exciting new adventure. I refused to let my superficial worries hold me back and once I did let go – I found I was having so much fun.

 

 

Living abroad pushes you further into the unknown – into unfamiliar environments, new social groups and I don’t want to get all the-universe-helped-me-find-myself but you do learn a lot about yourself. You can either be intimidated by this or use this as a platform of opportunities to embrace.

 

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“What the heck am I doing in Belgium!?”

 

Even though I have found myself in a bit of a rough patch, I will continue to take hold of my opportunity with both hands and expect the challenges of living abroad (and push them just a bit!).

 

 

Lost in Translation

Where do I even start. Last weekend … was something else. I had only heard horror stories of the classics, it was a style of racing I was yet to experience. A challenging two days of being thrown in the deep.

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I kicked off the European season with Ronde Van Drenthe, a World Tour categorised event (which means it doesn’t get much harder). Renamed as Ronde Van Death it was a difficult race to start with, as I have never described myself as a classics rider. None the less I was keen to get the season underway and ready to race! With my training preparation coming together,  all my hard training during the summer months paying off – physically I felt ready with my motivation found once again.

However nothing could save me from the lack of race k’s and cobbles! I had to start somewhere right…

Oh and did I mention I was also racing the Sunday? No I didn’t sorry because I didn’t know either until the team meeting on Friday afternoon.  Must have been lost in translation?

Each a separate event presenting similar challenges – 2 x one-day races in the Netherlands on narrow roads, cobbles, a large field of girls and the Vamberg (a short 23% hill repeated multiple times) . By the time I got to Sunday night, my head was spinning from an overload of information.

It was exhausting constantly being on the ball – always alert for the next turn or for when the bunch would suddenly come to a halt on a straight road. In an already nervous bunch, this exacerbated my stress levels. Bodies were being thrown to the ground, it was ride or die. Teams were prepared to win at all costs to get their rider across the line in first place.

It was a difficult experience to take positives out of and in the end I managed to find a few..

So here is how my weekend went:

Let me first begin by reminding everyone (if you have forgotten) that I have signed with an Italian team, which means the chosen language among staff and riders is Italian. I do not speak Italian. This aspect can make most situations quite challenging, for example when the team director is shouting instructions through the race radio and you have no f****** clue what is going. This scenario pretty much translated into most situations… When is the team meeting? No idea. Breakfast? Who knows. To avoid nagging the girls with questions, I would have to choose my questions wisely. Like I had 5 questions-per-day-limit. For me to ’just go with the flow’ is something unnatural and foreign (my parents know much I love to ask questions!).

Travel day is always a hectic rush to get to the accommodation (usually hosted by town in the middle of nowhere) which took place the day before the race. In the back of my mind I always hope that someone will be there at the other end to collect me. Being stranded in a country is what nightmares are made of, but more on this later.

The day we arrived we only had a short amount of time to fit in a quick spin by the time we arrived at our hosted town, a bit rushed we got to presentations. It was nice to see many familiar faces and a number of Aussies in the large group of girls. We returned to our hotel and ran through logistics of race day. Needless to say not much was understood in the team meeting. I used up my five questions, got the gist and with the help from the girls- my role. It was going to be hell… I didn’t need that translated.

It was a somewhat “early race start” of 11.30am so I was keen to get sleep early, but my teammates insisted we must have espressos before bed. I politely refused and explained that I won’t sleep for at least two days if I have a double shot espresso at 11pm at night.

Race day brought sunshine and warm weather of 10degrees. A stunning day in the Netherlands! With a quality line up of riders and a large field, it was a battle for position on the narrow roads. Every corner making the riders nervous of the change in wind direction. It was a stressful start to the race and there wasn’t a moment to relax, you had to stay on the ball every-god-damn-second. I made it half way through the race until I mentally bonked. It was like I had my maximum dose of information and there was no more I could take in.

I lost contact with the main peloton and suddenly I was stranded in that shitty place between the main peloton and grupetto. Now, what did I learn from racing on the weekend? Do not EVER lose contact with the main peloton in a race in the Netherlands or if you are going to get dropped take a dutchy with you. Now I was in no mans land, alone and it gets worse… I miss a turn and stop seeing signs of the course… I’m lost. My race radio is cutting in and out as I try to make contact with the team director, “Mayday, help, I’m lost!”. To my demise I was unable to get through, even if I could…

Imagine this: lost in a country, where you don’t even know what country you are in. Am in the Netherlands or in Holland? Or is it the same thing? No phone. No map. My inner instincts kicked in and suddenly it went from racing to surviving. I decided to continue riding until the next check point – the feed zone, which according to my garmin was not far. I reached the 88km mark and now I was actually lost – there were no team vans or swannies in sight, the only form of life was two people looking to head out on a lovely Saturday afternoon drive. Until I ruined their afternoon. After explaining my situation, my new friends were more than generous to help me find my final destination. Which is in which town? I have no idea… After driving around fruitlessly, I am now lost with my new friends as we search the countryside looking for the finish line. Luckily enough we ran into a couple of policemen who pointed us in the right direction only 10km’s away (so we weren’t THAT lost).

After enduring my own adventure, we arrived in the small town just in time for the finish of my race. As I parted ways with my new friends, I apologised for ruining their lovely Saturday afternoon plans and thanked them for being so helpful. I have never been so grateful in all my life!

As I rolled to the car park where all the team vans were parked, waiting for their riders to make there way back. Desperately I searched for my team van, worried that they had already packed up and left. To my luck I found them and was greeted by Gigi with a big hug. Before I could say anything, the rest of the team rolled in behind me. After my dramatic afternoon it was like nothing had happened… The timing was impeccable. It was like my little adventure didn’t even happen.

It was quite a story for the dinner table.
Compilation of positives from racing in the Netherlands:
– More race experience
– Another learning experience of how to be resourceful and remaining calm in extreme situations
– I survived.

 

 

Later this week I am in search of hills and warmer weather. Trofeo Binda is my next race coming up on Sunday. Lucky for me the race is held around Gavirate, Italy which is where I was based for two months last year. I look forward to racing on familiar roads and make some improvements on my performance. A map might not be necessary for this race however for the following race I might pack one for just in case?

 

 

Settling in… New country, new home.

There has been so much new happening this year. From the moment I left Aus- traveling alone with no one at the other end to greet me, organising my residency in a foreign country, to successfully setting up my new home abroad whilst competing in some of Europe’s most grueling races …

…  it has been HECTIC.

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2016, is not the year of wasting time. During the first week of arrival I committed to getting the essentials of setting up abroad out the way, so by the time I started racing I had no stressors to distract me and since my visa was organised and approved in advance – this aspect only took two days, later I set up a Spanish Bank and settled into my fabulous new home. So far many challenges have been presented however I have found being over prepared has really helped with the transition of all this change and the whole-stressful-moving overseas thing… and I have not been spained,     yet.  ( To be ‘spained’ (verb) is to be screwed over by the country itself – whether it happens via a local ATM eating your card or you are left stranded with a broken bike to walk the remaining distance home – apparently it’s coming and unavoidable  ).

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My google translate lessons have paid off and the locals in Spain seem to be understanding me? Slowly my Italian has also been coming along,  although phrases at this stage are non existent, I can understand key words and throwing a few words around has helped to feel apart of the team… Especially when the entire team debrief is in fluent Italian and I’m there nodding, cluelessly!

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My first European race of the season has been done and dusted. Ronde Van Death (Drenthe) lived up to its name, and was NOT an easy race/s to start the season with – as I was reminded many times. Being my first classic EVER I expected the worst and that’s exactly what I got. I could feel the nervousness of the bunch, which added to my stress… It was a difficult two days for a non-dutchy.

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This race has quite a story to it but lets save this for another blog because it deserves its own write up. . .   It was quite an adventure!

From the past couple of weeks I have complied a few tips/ notes from my experience so far:

Come prepared – turns out it is much easier to have everything done 10000kms away than to actually get anything done in Spain. I spent two days in immigration with all my paperwork ready, I couldn’t imagine coming to Spain with anything less !?! Start learning some basics like taxi/ shopping language, it is really appreciated and will get you far – to mainly not piss off the locals and helps with not looking like a complete tourist. However in saying this, don’t panic you will also learn bits and pieces on the run! I learn’t a few numbers from just sitting in immigration, making sure I didn’t miss my number when they shouted it out. This one was a tricky one!

Be ready – once I hit the ground, I needed to be ready to run immediately. I had a short time frame to set up my place, organise equipment, to then get stuck into training with the following week to begin racing.  Having an easy week of training the previous week to prepare for a stressful week and ensure I was fresh enough to be able to handle all the change.

Smile – this would be my number one tip. Especially for people like me who suffers from RBT (Resting Bitch Face). I smiled my way through the train station, to get my bike on the train with no issues or questions asked (which has been an issue for most cyclists in Girona!). I smiled my through immigration (even though I was in the wrong building) in which the person behind the desk walked with me to the correct building. How helpful!

Stay calm – it is difficult to make smart decisions if you are stressed. Plus smiling is difficult to do when you are stressed (back to previous tip). I live by “fake it til you make it”, which I also translate to races as my “poker face”. It helps me to believe I’m okay even when my heart rate is 200bpm and I feel like death and still have 100km more to go in a bike race. Staying calm has been an important aspect for me to learn because it is something I struggle with. To remain calm requires certain qualities I am yet to possess – like patience. However, good planning has allowed time to be patient and anything I plan to get done in Italy or Spain – I double the amount of time I think it will take to complete the task. I planned to get immigration done in one day, so I doubled it. And in the end, it took two days. In the team we call this, tranquillo .

Network – I guess you can say that I have been quite fortunate to have been able to move overseas and have people I know from home (who have been so helpful with finding good training routes and the go-to-coffee shops with good muffins in town).  I can happily say I have also met so many new people who have helped me feel like I have found a second home.         Being an independent woman – I have always had this internal struggle of relying on the people around me, however being able to set up another network of friends has made the move much easier!

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Whats next?  Stay in touch for the next blog on Ronde Van Death – my first world tour race. Originally,   I was quite reluctant to write about this experience and only after some support that my story should be shared,  I have decided to do a write up. It was a traumatic experience.   One I can laugh at now…

 

 

 

Euro bound

The big move has finally come!

At this stage, I have re-checked my packed bags for the thousandth time and it’s now time to say last good byes – and worry dreadfully about forgetting something!

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Last goodbyes with my Lulu

Since being offered this incredible opportunity late last year,  to experience a full racing season in Europe, I have been busily running around trying to get life organised – which has been well worth it’s stress.  My Visa has been approved (with a couple of weeks to spare) which means the Spanish Consulate has successfully returned my passport, I’ve pulled together all the necessary paperwork (I think can think of so far) and my living arrangements are ready and waiting for me… Before even touching base in Spain! I figured it is much easier and less stressful process to get things done 15 774km (the exact distance to Spain) away, then to actually deal with the Spanish..

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From the last blog posted, “What’s to come…” I have been in contact with so many people who have been extremely generous with their advice. Thank you! I feel as though I have gained so much valuable life experience, vicariously through their encounters and have enough knowledge to survive, at least to begin with! And for those who know me quite well, you would understand how important it is for me to be over prepared.. For every occasion…
With 2016 underway, my new year has been a mad rush deciphering papers for my Visa application in which after sending it off to the consulate several days later, I was informed a couple of pieces were missing. It was bound to happen… And then another mad rush to send off the final pieces… Whilst trying to organise a place to live. It was busy busy busy!

 

For most people – comfortably, it will take around several months to organise a move overseas – I had to get it done in less than two months. And it has been well and truly worth it…  to get that tick of approval on my Visa. I would like to think, what an incredible accomplishment so far!

If anyone needs advice on how to apply for a Spanish Visa…

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The view from my apartment in Girona, Spain

In preparation for the trip ahead I have also given myself a couple of off-bike goals for the year. The first goal, which is easy to say let alone do, is to be completely immersed in the culture that I am surrounded in, and now with all this spare mental energy (that is not being used frustrated at the Spanish Consulate) I have been putting this into learning Italian, Spanish and a bit of Catalan (local language in Girona). My speaking capabilities are slowly coming along with a bit of study…

I may struggle to have a conversation, but at least I will be able to name every bike part in Italian and most importantly be able to order wine… Bianche or Rosso? With this personal goal I am also ready to make some massive lifestyle adjustments – to both the Spanish and Italian way of living. Bring on sleeping in til 10am and eating Paella at 10pm at night. It’s scary because its different.

Hopefully with a bit of preparation I have learn’t enough to have a basic understanding to be able to survive and at least understand whats going on in team meetings… However at this stage I feel like its going to be a lot, “si si si! what?” from me…
After the long haul flight and arriving in Girona, I have half a day to tranquillo in my new home town and explore off the bike before I will be off again the following day to travel to Verona, Italy to meet the crew who are behind the scenes, team directors and some team mates… During which time we will set up the new equipment (most importantly the Cipollini bikes!) and talk/ translate logistics. A quick pop over to Italy if you want to call it that!

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Looks like home already…

My first race of the season turns out to be a World Tour – one day classic in Mid-March – Ronde Van Drenthe in the Netherlands and that is correct, there is no easing into it in the cycling world…

Maybe I should start learning Dutch too?

 

 

 

Making it to Europe is as tough as ever

Life isn’t always as it appears and I hope by being able to share my story of my cycling journey a little more perspective can be gained.. All it takes is a little real talk.

Thank you for the opportunity Ella Cycling Tips,    enjoy!!

The key development pathway for female Australian road riders wanting to launch themselves into professional racing is the High5 Dream Team and the biggest opportunity is earning a place in the Australian women’s European development program. Last year Ellen Skerritt experienced both and then managed to take the next coveted step and sign with Ale Cipollini Galassia to race professionally in Europe. We spoke to the 21-year-old Queenslander to find out more about how the opportunity to follow her cycling dream unfolded.

By Simone Giuliani


As the end of last year approached up and coming Australian rider Ellen Skerritt didn’t know if she would have a team to race with for the following season in Australia, let alone overseas. It was a tough situation to be in after a successful year. Everything had seemed to be falling into place in 2015 as Skerritt raced a full season with the High5 Dream Team and was sent to Europe with the Australian women’s development team.

Skerritt had set out an ambitious plan for 2016 and for it to have any chance of success she had to take a risk and keep her options open till the last minute. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for Australian female riders to break into top level riding overseas, so she was determined to make the most of the international exposure that came from taking part in European races such as Thuringen Rundfahrt and the Route de France during her two-month stint with the national team. Instead of putting all her energy into chasing domestic opportunities she went on a mission to find a spot in a European team.

By December however, scores of emails she had sent out were unanswered and the ones that did come back were rejections.

But then, as she feared the worst, she heard from Italian team Ale Cipollini.

“Up until this point I had no options for 2016. It was all up in the air. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was kind of a bit lost,” Skerritt told Ella CyclingTips. “When this came up I was like ‘wow.’ I’ve done a full 360 from not knowing where I’m going, maybe not even riding in 2016, to turning professional.”

Skerritt will fly away from her home and family in Queensland next week, where she has been working at a bike store and bridal shop, to get ready to race Ronde van Drenthe in March. Skerritt will not only have to manage the heavy demands of a new life as a professional cyclist away from her familiar support network, but also the challenges of being so far from home in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and in a team where little English is spoken.

“I really did explain to the team that this is going to be a whole new world for me and they were very supportive, so I am really excited to be spending the year with them,” said Skerritt. “I know of one [other] English speaker. Some staff speak a little bit, but I know that most of them speak Italian so I am learning, because I really don’t have a choice. Also it would be rude not to. I really want to immerse myself in the team.”

Not surprisingly the Italian team is predominately made up of Italian riders, with one Polish, one Spanish and one Swedish cyclist. Skerritt did spend time in Italy last year and picked up a smattering of the language during her time with the Australian development team last year, but in an environment surrounded by Australian teammates and staff it gave her barely a glimpse of what life will be like in the year ahead. However, the experience in the peloton during the busy race schedule is something she does expect will make the transition easier.

“I learnt a lot from that because we really did pack it in when we were over there, we got to see a little bit of everything,” said Skerritt. “I have a bit of an insight into what I am going to be seeing and what I am going to be involved with so that gives me a lot of confidence, but still I just have to take things as they come and handle them in the best way I can really.”

The year ahead will be all about settling in, helping her team and learning.

“I’m just looking to develop my own bike skills, but also general life skills as well,” said Skerritt. “This is a huge change. There is so much new happening this year that I have never experienced before. There is always going to be a lot of learning. It’s not so much about results this year. It’s about gaining those skills,”

Skerritt rolling out at the Australian Road Nationals time trial, where she took tenth overall and second in the under 23 category

The Journey

Landing a place in High5, a spot in the women’s Australian European development programme and then a pro-contract at the young age of 21 could give the impression that Skerritt’s path into pro-cycling had been a smooth run. In reality, though, she’s had her fair share of obstacles since she started out.

Skerritt tried many sports, but it wasn’t until she started cycling at the age of 15 that she found one that she wanted to be in for the long haul.

“I was transitioning out of running and so then when I found cycling I liked how much depth was in the sport,” said Skerritt. “All the different people you got to meet and all the different places you got to go and also you have got that element of tactics and the fact that you can take it all over the world. There is just so much to the sport that it really just grabbed me.”

Skerritt developed as an athlete, with encouragement and support from coach Marcel Bengston, who runs a local bike shop, MB Cycles, where she still works.

“Pretty much with his belief, that of other people around me and how far I saw myself going, that meant I really got into it and focussed on getting results.”

After finishing high school Skerritt intensified her focus on cycling and had her first experience with the notoriously gruelling Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) selection camp for the European development program. It wasn’t an easy one for her when she was just 18, relatively new to the sport and one of the youngest participants there.

“One of the major cons for me out of the 2013 camp was the sense that I’d been labelled and that was very disappointing,” said Skerritt, who was disturbed to have the tag of being a selfish athlete placed on her by people who she felt had so little knowledge of her. “I thought it was a really good opportunity for me to grow but in fact it did the opposite, but I think I was lucky that I had a strong determination in the sport and I was able to move past it. Other people in my situation may have taken it a different way.”

This was only the first of Skerritt’s setbacks in 2013 and the next was far larger. She came down with glandular fever and then post viral fatigue, so there could be little thought of the bike as first she needed to regain her health at the most basic level.

“I had taken a really big step up with racing and I think I pushed it a little bit too much,” said Skerritt. “I just keep pushing it because I just wanted it so bad.”

It was a difficult experience at the time. However, Skerritt values the experience as it delivered perspective and clarity.

“It’s hard when you are sick and all you can focus on is getting better in that moment. But once I felt better, then I could focus on more and then my desire came back and my drive,” said Skerritt. “It also came after going to AIS selection camp in 2013, not being selected and feeling that a lot of people from that camp didn’t believe in me. That also gave me a real drive to make myself healthy again and prove to them that yes I can actually do this. That was a big motivator for me.”

She got back into NRS racing in 2014 with Holden Women’s Cycling and in September came across the line first at Amy’s Otway Classic and then shortly after earned her maiden tour victory when she took out the National Capital Tour.

It was a year that set her up for selection in the High5 Dream Team and also for selection to go to Europe.

“I have to give credit to the national team because without the exposure I wouldn’t have gotten the contract,” said Skerritt.

Still, the international trip wasn’t the networking opportunity she had hoped it would be. Instead she was left scouring the internet to find team email addresses and sent off messages to every team she could find to try and gain a spot.

Once discussions got to the stage where a contract needed to be negotiated, Skerritt again found herself in difficult territory.

“It was quite confusing because I have never been in a position like this before so I didn’t want to undervalue myself or overvalue either, so that’s when I called on some people. There are a lot of helpful cyclists from Australia who I was able to turn to and were really, really good to me about helping.”

RoadNats 2016 - WRR - Skerritt-1

Australia’s cycling health: “It is naïve to say it has gotten a lot better”

Heading overseas to start life as a professional cyclist means Skerritt appears to be one of the success stories of the Australian development process, but it wasn’t a process without its challenges and Skerritt is forthright about these as she would like to see changes that benefit others coming through and women’s cycling in general.

At the start of last year the opportunities for Australia’s female cyclists to get overseas experience were looking particularly slim, with the European Development program on the chopping block, but Rochelle Gilmore stepped in to form a partnership with Cycling Australia to keep the program going.

“It’s one of the only viable options. I am still relatively new in the cycling world so I don’t have the contacts and if I didn’t have the national team I wouldn’t have been able to get the exposure in Europe to gain a professional contract. That is where you can get stuck in Australia … so it is good we have got that opportunity up and running because otherwise there is no other way for girls to be fed into Europe,” said Skerritt.

But, she had hoped it would to go beyond providing the European racing experience and help more with the process of reaching out to teams and making contacts, so once athletes have the race exposure they can then capitalise on it. And she would particularly like to see more opportunities, support and advice for those who are trying to pursue other options to make it as a professional rider internationally, so there are more clear pathways overseas.

“I would like to see, at the end of the day, a little bit more understanding for the range of people that come to the sport,” said Skerritt. “I want to see the sport grow.”

Then there is the health of the domestic scene to consider, and how well it prepares athletes to take the next step. For many years Australia hasn’t had a women’s UCI categorised race, but this year there were two, as the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Santos Women’s Tour were both UCI ranked. However, it has been a year when National Road Series races are falling by the wayside, decreasing the options for female domestic riders trying to get the amount of high level racing they need to progress.

“I feel like it is transitioning with UCI races coming to Australia. That is fantastic but it is also naive to say it has gotten a lot better, because there are less races in Australia now. There are some aspects that have grown but there are some that are lacking and have actually taken a backward step,” said Skerritt.

Below is the link to the full article:

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/02/making-it-to-europe-is-as-tough-as-ever/

 

 

Ale Cipollini Galassia Pro Team

Alé Cipollini Galassia is pleased to announce the arrival among its ranks of the young and talented australian athlete Ellen Skerritt, who will debut with #yellowfluorange jersey on the Slovenian road.

 

Nats pic

Photo: 2016 Australian Road Championships – U23 Road Race Podium. 2nd place.

The Team Alé Cipollini Galassia, managed by Alessia Piccolo, in 2016 will be even more international: a young talent adds to the #yellowfluorange team. The new season sees the team an increasingly international thanks to the inclusion of Ellen Skerritt, Australian athlete born in 1994, who comes in Ale Cipollini Galassia with the ambition to grow and gain experience to achieve important results. This is a team that has created a group with athletes of experience and young talent, pursuing the idea of growing to compete and compete globally and become a team leader in the world of women’s cycling.

“I’m really excited to race for Alè Cipollini Galassia” – Ellen Skerritt said. – “ I am convinced that here I will have the chance to improve and do a lot of experience, I can’t wait to start racing in Europe. 2016 will be an important year for me, turning, but will also be a good season, I’m ready to have fun and get to know classmates and staff. I would like to thank right away Alessia Piccolo and both Sports Directors who have given me their trust”.

Her debut with the #yellowfluorange jersey will be on the roads of Slovenia, scheduled in late February.

The team is increasingly international: the Italian ladies are Annalisa Cucinotta, Marta Tagliaferro, Dalia Muccioli, Francesca Cauz, Marta Bastianelli, Anna Trevisi, Beatrice Rossato and Maritna Alzini addition the Polish national champion Malgorzata Jasinska and the Basque Ane Santesteban. To complete the line up the stronger Swedish Emilia Fahlin and the young Australian Ellen Skerritt. 12 ladies, who are ready to start, with their sports director Fortunato Lacquaniti and Fabiana Luperini, who will lead the team in 2016 for a new adventure #yellowfluorange, too.

To keep up to date with team news:

http://www.alecipolliniteam.com/en/news/2016