Former Australian champion still with "unfinished business"
Carla Ryan lives in Girona, Spain, where she races with CyclelivePLUS-Zannata Ladies Team. She has spent the better part of the last decade racing successfully in Europe, but this year something has been bugging her, quite literally. As a former dual national Australian Champion and respected climber, she has a palmares that boasts an ability far greater than she has shown this season.
"This year I started off the year really well at nationals, I didn't win or anything but I was really in a good place, thinking 'yep this is going to be a good year,'" Ryan told Cyclingnews.
As the year unfolded, however, Ryan's performances deteriorated, leaving her wondering just what was going on. Even though she "knew something was wrong," she continued to "brush it off," ignoring the signals that her health was in decline.
"A week before the Tour of Czech I just got chronic cramps. I couldn't even get out of bed to ride my bike, it was just like something tearing my up inside," continued Ryan. "I even thought I might have had appendicitis!
"I knew something was wrong ... but the next day I felt fine. So I went to the race but I'd get through like 10-20 kilometres then I was just fighting like I've never had to fight before," explained Ryan. "I'm pushing my hardest and I'm at my maximum and I'm getting passed by so many girls and when you're one of the good climbers in the peloton and this is happening its quite demoralising. It's not normal. My training hasn't changed, so how can I be this bad?"
Hitting rock bottom
And as her performance plummeted further, the rumours began, and the frustration mounted.
"People that know me know that I'm not really in the media, I like to let the legs do the talking, but it's frustrating when I can't do that," said Ryan. "So yeah, you hear things, like people think that I'm no longer good anymore … and I started to think that too! I thought maybe I'm not good enough for the peloton anymore. But I can't go from being good to being really bad just overnight!"
After months of tests revealing all sorts of symptoms such as low iron and a low haematocrit, Ryan and her medical team finally struck an answer.
"I've had a debilitating parasite infection. Which has led to quite bad anaemia and liver disease," explained Ryan.
Ryan contracted the parasites back in Australia before the season began, and they have been robbing her of an estimated 90 percent of her nutritional input ever since.
"The doctor was like: 'I can't believe you've been riding, or even racing this year,'" she continued. "Most people would be in bed for months with these kind of illnesses."
But bed was a welcome friend for Ryan as she navigated the bevvy of illnesses and lack of energy that have plagued her season.
"Just two weeks ago I could only do 30 minutes on the bike then I had to sleep for most of the day."
Killing the parasites
As Ryan explains, getting enough rest was only one small part of her recovery. Specific medications and diet changes have left her not knowing what 'normal' feels like anymore.
"It's a special treatment that they have [in order to kill the parasites], it's a form of medication, as well as really changing your diet," explained Ryan. "It's been a lot of balancing, and avoiding things that will feed it [the parasites] like carbohydrates and sugars and a lot of things that they thrive on you have to eliminate from your diet.
"Initially it was no carbs, but then there's specific foods [to avoid] within that," added Ryan. "But it's [the low carb diet] been quite difficult because soon after I had the liver problems that prevented me from just eating protein ... then with the anaemia I needed more iron but again I could not just eat meat … and I've had to be on a liver detox as well so yeah, it's been pretty hard to balance it out."
Where to from here?
When quizzed about how soon she will be back to her best, Ryan does not dissemble.
"It's not likely for the rest of this season. But if the season was extended by another month, well I'd be right! Time is not on my side now, it's not perfect but I'm in the final stages of my treatment now so I should be back to my best soon."
In order to secure a contract for next year, Ryan is not willing to gamble her health, but she believes the goodwill she has within the peloton will see her through. And although female cycling is anything but financially secure, if Ryan can find a ride, she will make it work, regardless.
"So the dilemma is basically having people that believe in me and that believe in my abilities from previous years and knowing what I can do," explained Ryan. "First my concern will be a contract, and financially, I sort that out after. This year I got some support from a lot of friends and businesses back home and it was really good."
At the end the rainbow?
When racing winds down for Ryan, she is hoping to make her own mark on female cycling, sighting Rochelle Gilmore and her involvement with Wiggle-Honda for inspiring the idea.
"I've started to create a bit of a vision for how I'd like things to be run," said Ryan. "The prime example is Wiggle-Honda and seeing how Rochelle [Gilmore] has progressed her team. Seeing how she's grown from a cyclist into one of the top women's cycling managers is really quite inspirational and I've got lot of respect for her."
With this in mind, it's her time at Cervélo TestTeam that Ryan wants to emulate.
"One of my best experiences in cycling was with Cervélo TestTeam and that was unbelievable, I can't describe it," explained Ryan. "I would really love to create something with a similar philosophy.
"It's so cool to see so many Aussies coming through, there's so much growth," continued Ryan. "But there's really nowhere for them to go. We need to keep creating something for them to go somewhere in order to see girls see their potential and release their talent."
But in the meantime, Ryan still has "unfinished business" and whilst living out her own narrative, she is fiercely determined to re-write the current conclusion. For the 27-year-old Australian, it need not be a fairy tale ending, but she will only pull up stumps on her terms, and her terms only.
"I want to finish on a good note and I'd love to continuing racing and supporting some top riders or getting the chance to be a leader … I don't necessarily have the desire to win a world championships or something I just love to be in the peloton and I really love what I do."