“I feel like I’ve got all of my bad luck out of the way now,” Georgia Williams told Cyclingnews on the eve of her double-title defence at New Zealand's Road National Championships back in February of this year. Then, in an all too familiar twist for the 28-year-old, her well-laid plans unravelled.
The luck held through the time trial where she defended her title, but come the road race there was nothing less than a natural disaster that blew her off course. The wild winds of Cyclone Dovi brought down trees and power lines and the pivotal Maungakawa climb was, as a result, off the menu. That meant the climber faced a race day change to a flatter, rolling circuit and, unsurprisingly, relinquished the silver fern of the New Zealand road race champion.
Still, if Williams' career has taught her anything, it is how to cope with setbacks. “I can handle anything I think,” she said with a chuckle in that pre-race interview.
A good thing too, because that unfortunate turn of events at New Zealand's Road National Championships probably rates well down the scale on her list of career disruptions.
Williams was on the up in 2018 when she first took out both the time trial and road race titles. That year, she also won silver at the Commonwealth Games and twice fell just short of the podium in Women’s WorldTour-ranked races. It was a step up filled with even further promise for the then-24-year-old.
However, 2019 was disrupted by Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S), a medical disorder, and 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, which weighed particularly hard on riders from New Zealand with its closed borders. Then in 2021, the signs were good that her 2018 form was on the way back, as she headed to Europe with another set of national titles. The European season started well enough, but she then had to grapple with two concussions in the space of three months, the last of which ended her season at Paris-Roubaix.
That meant another extremely challenging recovery and yet another rebuild so she could start her t10th year of racing professionally, and sixth year as a BikeExchange-Jayco rider, at the New Zealand Road National Championships in 2022.
“You do have a lot of doubt,” Williams told Cyclingnews earlier this year. “You start to think ‘is this worth it, what am I doing’.
“I even thought, ‘oh, is this a sign that I should stop’ because it was just another thing and another thing. But, I just love it too much to stop and to let it get me down. I also like the process of a comeback. I like the process of getting stronger and feeling better on the bike each day, but, I guess you have to learn to like it, because comebacks are tough.”
Tough, but at least Williams saw a glimmer in 2021 that the form she’d enjoyed in 2018 was still within her grasp.
"It was such a good start,” said the rider who won both the road race and time trial at her national championships last year. “I really got excited and I was going good until July, so I got half a good year."
Additionally, last season was one where the team dynamic had changed substantially, with dominant leader Annemiek van Vleuten having moved on to Movistar so all of a sudden the opportunities were there for other team members to take their chances on a far more regular basis.
Williams said she had quite a few, before injury intervened, though unfortunately it didn’t show in her results with the cards not falling in her favour and the breaks she was in being caught.
“I did get my opportunity but I didn’t have a chance to show it,” said Williams. “But definitely more will come this year, I am sure.”
Perhaps even more so, as further changes in the team, with a changeover of around half the members, means Williams will be one of the experienced hands on the squad. Still, even after the injuries and doubts, her longevity doesn’t mean there is any diminishing of her drive or motivation.
"I'm still really excited,” said Williams. “I'm just as excited for this year as any of my other years really, almost even more so, because I still just want to … get back to that level because I was really happy with how I was going."
Since the interview, Williams has had her first races in Europe, starting with Le Samyn des Dames, moving onto Strade Bianche and Classic Brugge-De Panne, but it is only now that some of her key targets of the season are starting to emerge.
"Mainly the Ardennes Classics will be my focus in the first half," said Williams.
Amanda Spratt has been one of the team’s key go-to riders for the Ardennes in recent years, though the Australian is still building back to peak form after October’s iliac artery endofibrosis surgery so the team is likely to play a more open hand, with Williams one of the potential cards, in the trio of races which start with Amstel Gold Race on April 10.
“The team has been riding really well together in Belgium, they’ve missed a bit of luck in getting a top result but the team we have for Amstel is strong and well suited to the hilly races like Amstel Gold,” BikeExchange-Jayco Sports Director Alejandro Gonzales-Tablas said in a team release ahead of the first of the Ardennes Classics.
"Hopefully on Sunday we can be well represented at the front, race aggressively to get into the key moves and if the riders are in the right moves we have a good chance of getting a top result.”
Beyond the Ardennes Classics, which move on to La Flèche Wallonne on April 20 and then finish with Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 24, there are some unique opportunities this year. The Commonwealth Games, where Williams took silver in the road race in 2018, is something the rider hopes will fit in around team commitments and she is also looking forward to a UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong, Australia that is not only close to New Zealand but is also running on a course that suits her.
“I feel like it is as close as I am going to get to a home Worlds, my family and friends can come watch. It’s definitely a big goal. I’ve been just out of the top ten in the past so I’d love to get top ten,“ said the four-time New Zealand time trial champion, who came 11th in the discipline at Worlds in 2018 and 12th in 2020.
A win to retire happy
There is one target though, which stands firm no matter what race she is at. Williams may have quite a few New Zealand Road Championships victories under her belt, starting her 2022 season with one in the time trial, but is yet to log a win outside that, and that is what she is craving in the season ahead.
“I want to race well in all the races that I am targeting,” said Williams. “I would definitely like a win somewhere … then I feel like I could retire happy. That's just something that I'm still after. A win anywhere, in a 1.1 or a WorldTour race."
The rider is signed to BikeExchange-Jayco till the end of the season, not beyond, saying she wants to leave her options open, “take it year by year”. Though, even with the discussion of retirement and year-by-year approach, it is clear her enthusiasm for racing has not waned yet.
"I just love everything about it,” said Williams. “I love the challenge, I love training and the build up to a race. I love the feeling of crossing the line and having had a good race or having done something really good for your teammate or having had a real impact.
“I guess if crashes and injury happen again, then obviously that does put me off. But let's hope for none of that and maybe I'll be going a few more years.”
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