Wearing the green and gold of the Australian national team has always been a driving ambition for Rachel Neylan. Almost four years on from her silver medal at the Valkenberg Worlds, Neylan's dream of representing her country at the Olympic Games is close to becoming reality.
Neylan's cycling career has included several hurdles since taking up the sport in late 2007 but since joining the Orica-AIS squad in March last year, the 34-year-old has put together a solid 18-months of racing. Overall victory at the 2015 Trophée d'Or Féminin, podiums at the Australian nationals and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, 15th at La Flèche Wallonne Féminine and most recently, victory in the Grand Prix de Plumelec-Morbihan Dames has strengthened her position as one of the top Australians in the women's professional peloton.
An invitation to join a Cycling Australia reconnaissance of the Rio Olympics road race course last month did her selection chances no harm and provided greater insight into what Neylan would face should she be one of four Australian riders to be selected.
"I felt really fortunate to have the opportunity with Cycling Australia to do a very thorough recon of the course with Kevin Tabotta, Brad McGee and Marv [Martin Barras]. I came away from it with a lot of valuable information about the physical aspects of the course and also feeling what Rio is like as a city and the other challenges that will surround the Olympic Games," Neylan told Cyclingnews of her first impressions of the course.
"The other unique thing is that it's long at 140km, which is something that excites me. I like long courses which lend themselves to endurance. It's definitely been a huge asset having seen the course."
Compared to the parcours from London (2012), Beijing (2008) or Athens (2004), Rio has been described as a challenging and tough course suited for climbers. With climbing one of her strengths, Neylan could find herself in a protected position in the Australian team but explained as the race will be unlike anything else on the calendar, going in with a single leader could well backfire.
"The Olympics is a unique race with a smaller field and only three of four riders per team, so the dynamics are a bit different with what you see in a WorldTour race where we have six riders. It's going to be an aggressive and difficult race, and as far as my role, it's going to be entirely dependent on the combination and dynamic within the team. I see myself as a versatile rider on that course with my strengths lying in my climbing ability and endurance capacity," she said.
"It's definitely a course that everybody needs to have good climbing capacity, there is no doubt about that, it's a course that you need to go with multiple cards to play and riders who are looking to be opportunists as well."
Having ridden with Diadora-Pasta Zara in 2011, Abus Nutrixxion in 2013, Hitec Products in 2013 and the Australian national team in 2014, Neylan is into her second year with Orica-AIS in what is shaping to be her most important season as a professional cyclist. Being in the familiar environment of Orica-AIS has been a weight off Neylan's shoulders in her preparation for Rio and allowed her to simply focus on riding her bike as she explained.
"It's a real weight off my shoulders to just focus on my training and racing and not having to worry about a lot of other things when you're in an unstable environment," said the former runner. "The advantages of being in a well supported, well structured, well-planned environment has been a really valuable asset to my preparation over the last six months, and from the Worlds last year."
Focus on Olympic performance, not selection
In her three appearance with Australia at the World Championships, Neylan has finished second (2012), 24th (2014) and was 19th last year having animated the final laps in Richmond. Neylan points to these performances as evidence of her 'big race' ability and that she would not be satisfied with simply earning selection for Rio.
"It's no secret that I perform well in big races and have the ability to target big races from a long period out," she said. "I've proven that over the last couple of years. To have something like the Olympic Games, it's been a childhood dream for me. The summit of my career is to race an Olympic Games and ultimately to have a result. It's something that is quite innate and has driven me for a long time in my athletic career."
As Neylan puts it, selection would be confirmation of her progress but would not detract from the bigger goal of performing in Rio on Sunday, August 7.
"I feel pretty relaxed to be honest and if selection was to go my way and I was named in the Olympic team, I would feel like I was on the right path and continuing on the plan that I have, just keep doing the daily things to the best of my ability," she said. "Of course there is other hype which surrounds the Olympics but I have enough experience to know what really matters and to put my performance and training above everything else. For me, it's more about putting in a performance.
"Selection is just the first tiny little step so if I weren't able to perform in the Olympic Games, I wouldn't want to be selected. I am not looking at it to just get the green and gold jersey and pretty uniform. I am looking at it to contributing to Australia getting a result in the Olympic Games in the women's road race. That's my motivation."