In the last year, Grace Brown has discovered a whole new level, with the late-comer to cycling delivering results to justifiably build an attitude that there is a chance of fighting for the win in every race. It is an outlook she’s not planning to abandon for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The 29-year-old will be lining up for her debut Olympic Games in a year where she has had the form of her life, taking on the time trial and the road race as part of a team of four that includes proven performer Amanda Spratt, experienced road captain Tiffany Cromwell and youthful talent Sarah Gigante. Australia as a team has shown it can deliver results on the world stage, with Spratt taking second and third in the 2018 and 2019 World Championships. Both of those years there was only one team that placed riders ahead of her, the Dutch squad, and it is fair to say they remain the most formidable of obstacles at the Olympics road race on July 25 and the time trial on July 28.
The squad from the Netherlands is lining up with four of the world’s top five riders on its squad, Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten, Demi Vollering and Marianne Vos. Any one of the them alone would be formidable on the 137-kilometre course for the road race with 2,692 vertical metres of climbing and together they look almost unstoppable. However, that almost parked in front of unstoppable is enough to make the Victorian rider with a nothing to lose attitude keep reaching for gold.
“I'm focussing a lot on the time trial, but also hoping to be to be able to race really strongly with Amanda Spratt and the rest of the team in the road race,” Brown told Cyclingnews in an interview before the crucial block of racing that started with La Course and finishes with the Olympic Games. ”We've got a great team and we can compete against the Netherlands.
“The combination of strength, the experience and everything on our team is going to make us really strong and it's not like we're racing for second. I think that we do have the option to race for the gold medal, which is pretty cool.”
Whether that medal could potentially be for Spratt, with her history of leading the Australian team, or another rider we shall see as there’s a measure of unpredictability caused by the course and, for that matter, the strong opposition. The longest climb crests more than 50 kilometres from the finish line and then the route, which finishes at the Fuji International Speedway, is regularly punctuated with shorter climbs that could be used to cause splits or launch breaks.
“It's not really a course that you can go into with one plan,” said Brown last month. “We haven't really knuckled down into our strategy yet, but I expect that we need to try and have as many of us as far into the race as possible.”
A new level
Spratt may have the record of performing over the years for the Australian team, though it’s a roll that was interrupted by injury in 2020, but there’s no doubt that Brown has stepped up into a new strata in the past year.
She has taken two Women’s WorldTour wins, helping place her among the top-10 riders in the world in her third season as a professional. Additionally, the rider who only picked up bike racing in Australia as a 23-year-old, has been remarkable in her consistency. Brown has stepped onto the podium on a stage of both the European multi-day races she’s done this year and finished in the top five in half the one-day races she’s competed in. That means the former runner, who didn’t have a single European top 3 result until October of last year, has already taken to the podium steps five times in Europe in 2021, and also twice at the Australian National Championships.
What’s more she’s done it across a variety of terrains. Brown won her first Women’s WorldTour race in March at Brugge de Panne – a flat event usually won by the sprinters – her second on the hilltop finish during the opening stage of the Vuelta a Burgos Feminas in May and then in July took a third place on the mountain time trial at the Giro d’Italia Donne.
It’s undoubtedly a big shift up for the Australian rider, and she’s in a place she could only have dreamed of when she started out. So what’s changed this year? For one, she’s now into her third season as a professional.
“I have always believed in my ability, but the racing at this level is so hard and there's so many elements that come into it that it still seemed a long way away," said Brown. "And particularly just the the more technical side of it. Physiologically, I knew that I had a really good ability, but I really had to learn how to race and position in the peloton and improve my technical skills, and that's something that you can't really rush.”
Taking a chance
That increased experience, too, has come at a time when the team dynamic has fundamentally altered, as with the departure of the team’s dominant rider, Annemiek van Vleuten, the Australian-based squad all of a sudden had a need to try different tactics and go for their chances with other riders and Brown, for one, was ready to step into the void.
“Any time that I've been given an opportunity in a race I've taken it whereas quite a lot of riders often get scared by opportunities and the pressure and might be afraid to take that chance and fail,” said Brown. “Whereas, that doesn't really scare me.”
Taking that chance and not failing, too, has helped deliver a wholesale mindset change about what is actually within reach.
"As soon as you realise what you're capable of, you start getting higher and higher goals. So definitely coming into this year, yeah, I wanted to win races,” Brown said. “I mean, this is always a little bit of doubt, like where those results just a fluke or was I just in this period of form that I'll never be able to reach again. But the more races I did this year, the more I realised that actually this is my level now and at every race I have a chance to compete in the final and race for the win.”
That’s why, even with the imposing Dutch lineup, its not overly surprising that Brown is still eyeing gold for Australia and she too hopes that the time trial, which she and Australian champion Gigante will be competing in, will be another opportunity for a medal.
Brown has shown that her work in the discipline is paying off, delivering third place in the mountain time trial, which wasn’t her ideal terrain, at the Giro d’Italia Donne. Unfortunately, she had to abandon the race after a fall, alongside Spratt, which left her with several wounds and a left shoulder contusion. However, she managed to get through most of the event – which she had expected to be good preparation for the Olympics – leaving on stage 8 to recover from her wounds before Tokyo.
In the race against the clock, the Dutch are again among the biggest rivals, with Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen having both worn the rainbow stripes of the World Champion, along with American Chloe Dygert, who will also be among the favourites. That means gold may be a step too far, but a medal doesn’t seem out of the question.
“I really want to be on the podium for the time trial, it's a hard discipline,” said Brown. “Especially since we don't have that many opportunities to practice in a race.
“It's an event that you love and hate at the same time. It is one of the most painful, painful experiences and you always get to the start ramp thinking, ‘why do I do this to myself?’ But you manage to put yourself through the pain of it and it's really rewarding at the finish line.”
Especially so, one would imagine, if it ends with a medal.
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