Rochelle Gilmore Blog: UCI women's racing in Australia

2016 is underway! Wiggle High5 have raced their first two UCI races of the year - the Santos Women's Tour (TDU) and, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (Cadel's Race) and everything is going to plan.

The late announcement of UCI status for these two events really threw our team's early season plans out the window. We had to stand strong and make sure that if we were to participate, it wouldn't affect our season goals. This meant sending some younger riders from the UK who do not have major targets during the classic season.

I'm not an expert on the topic, but I was advised that if I sent Longo Borghini, Cordon, Johansson, and Pieters to Australia in January, they could potentially have suffered the consequences in April.

Our team's original plan was to do a training camp in Spain during December instead of having European athletes travel out to Australia in January. Our athletes' mentality was, 'it's an Olympic year so we'd like to minimise travel and start our season a tad later'. So, we held the training camp in Spain in early December and it went really well. We had great weather and I was absolutely blown away by the professionalism, determination, focus and fitness level of our athletes.

It was actually a little scary to see our athletes so focused and fit already in December, but it's simply due to being an Olympic year and everyone wanting to be the first from their nation to post a result and put their hand up for selection. In addition, they're fighting for race selections within Wiggle High5.

It's a difficult year for team managers and directors as we need to respect the ultimate dream of each of our athletes to compete and peak at the Olympic Games while still trying to mentally and physically prepare athletes for consistent results throughout the season – to maintain the team's stability.

I was personally in a very tough position when the UCI announced UCI status for the Women's TDU event and Cadel's Race. I had already invested funds into a pure (meaning no media, sponsors etc) training camp in Spain and had promised my athletes that I'd not ask them to travel to Australia for what we previously referred to as PR races. Before UCI status was given to these two events, my teams would participate with the sole ambition to gain media exposure for our major partners.

Now that two races in Australia had been given UCI status, I had no option but to find a way to be there with the World No.1 team.

My international athletes were not very enthusiastic about the long travel required for two UCI .2 races (.2 being the lowest UCI category race). Our budgets would be strained as we needed to book international flights in December and staff would be grumpy about having to leave their families for three additional unscheduled weeks away from home, ahead of an already crazy, busy season.

There was no logical sense in sending the team (at late notice) to these two new UCI .2 events, but my heart always speaks much louder than my head. I've been so deeply passionate about encouraging the UCI to do all they can to give UCI status to these races so how could I let my team sit them out?

I had no option but to put pressure on everyone – which I'm apparently famous for – to attend these events.

This meant that the team needed to go into the red financially in December (for an unbudgeted 2016 event), athletes needed to change their season preparation, trying to be race ready mid-January and the staff needed to pack their bags and leave their families for an additional three weeks pre-season.

I can understand that most of the other European teams declined the late invitations, but it wasn't an option for my teams to be absent. It's the chicken and the egg scenario again…. We had to support these races in order to have any hope of them reaching Women's WorldTour status in the future. I personally contacted all the team managers I knew, asking them to consider making the trip out to Australia to support the racing… I can't say that my begging was wasted energy because I'm sure they'll keep these races in mind for 2017.

As it turned out, the racing was world class. While the depth may not have been there, the level of racing at the business end (top 20) was world class. The Aussie athletes were at their fittest, having just peaked for their very important Australian National Championships, and then amongst them were some in-form Wigglettes, Americans and New Zealanders.

The Racing Starts

Wiggle High5 raced with three Australians and three British athletes. Two of our British athletes were extremely young and inexperienced with the long haul flight, jet lag and the Adelaide heat. They had the option to fly out earlier but as it was all last minute, they wanted to maximise their time at home before the season proper starts. They landed two days before the start of the Santos Women's Tour and they really suffered from day one. The race intensity alone was a shock, they were tired from the long flight, restless sleeps and the heat was killing them. I'm a big believer of learning from experience…. So I'm sure that if they're asked to race down under next year, they'll fly out a little earlier.

We had never planned to target the TDU event and we knew it would be extremely difficult to win without a pure GC rider – riding against a VERY strong, in-form Orica AIS. It’s fair to say that Orica were in control of the GC from day one with Katrin Garfoot. She was on fire and after day one… impossible to beat.

Our Wiggle High5 athletes focused on day two's big crit in the city. That's really the BIG one for the women. The women race in front of thousands of fans gathering to watch the men's TDU People’s Choice Classic.

I was quite shocked at the confidence our athletes showed during the day of this crit. They knew they wanted it and they had a sense of confidence that I've not seen before. They felt completely in control and happened to execute a perfect finish. It didn't go exactly to plan as Orica had a plan to upset our train…. which they did very well, however our athletes stayed relaxed and responded instinctively to win in style, taking a 1-2 through Nettie and Chloe.

Day 3 was looking promising until Dani King crashed hard with 800 metres to go. She had learnt from some small mistakes of anxiousness on day 1 and was set to finish off strongly.

The team once again impressed me with their ability to refocus on the last day as if it was a one-day race. They raced the final crit like true professionals, completely in control. They have an amazing bond where they can understand and read each other without speaking a word.

They were unfortunately just beaten to the line by one of my High5 Dream Team athletes and I could feel their immense disappointment. It was a difficult moment for me because I was extremely happy for the High5 Dream Team - who had just taken their first big UCI stage win but, at the same time, I was feeling helpless with managing the disappointment of the Wigglettes who had performed amazingly all race, as a team.

The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race was one of the most exciting women's races I've ever seen. It was again a bit of a Wiggle High5 versus Orica AIS showdown - with a few other strong outside chances in the mix. With 30km to go Wiggle High5 had 5 riders and Orica AIS had 3. We were looking good until Amanda Spratt launched her winning move and our two riders in that eventual break didn't respond (Chloe and Dani). Our 2 athletes themselves are not sure if they missed it because they couldn't react to it or if they just hesitated… Sometimes it's hard to know. But you can't take anything away from Spratty, she's in the form of her life and there's no stopping her. Spratty rode solo to the finish while Dani King of Wiggle High5 went out after her with former race winner Rach Neylan on her wheel. Rach took 2nd place, Dani 3rd. Chloe Hosking won the bunch sprint for 4th.

Our team debrief was all positive, we of course looked for some answers as to why we didn't win and the conclusion was hesitation, communication and lack of numbers at the end – as well as the fact Spratty is just a machine.

The Australian racing at the Women's TDU event and Cadel's Race has been a huge success for our team. As expressed earlier in this blog, it at first felt like a heavy burden to attend the races which are so far away from Europe, so early in the season and with low UCI points on offer.

Personally, I felt a lot of pride having my teams and athletes race on my home soil in front of so many dedicated fans of women's cycling in Australia. In addition, my younger, less experienced athletes learnt a lot about racing as a team, in races where they could play a major part and impact the race. My athletes ended up with 16 days of solid training in nice weather with great support from their team management and staff.

So much is happening for women's cycling at lightning fast speeds - I've just had to pinch myself, another dream has been realised – UCI women's racing in Australia!!! Wait, let me say it again, there are two UCI races for women in Australia! Big races too I might add. I'm sincerely grateful and very proud!

Ultimately, we achieved the goal of supporting and promoting two very well organised UCI races in Australia.

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Rochelle Gilmore...