Grace Brown: 'I want to establish myself as one of the leaders in the peloton'
Australia's top-ranked road rider discusses injury recovery, embracing a new team plus Tour de France Femmes and Paris-Roubaix ambitions
A shoulder injury may have cut the 2021 season short for Grace Brown but there was still no doubt it was the best season of the Australian rider’s career so far, but with big plans afoot for the year ahead it may not stay that way for long.
It’ll be a new team in 2022 for the 29-year-old who is shifting away from the squad she started her career with, Team BikeExchange, to move to FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope. Plus she’ll have her focus firmly planted on the Tour de France Femmes and Paris-Roubaix Femmes, along with a home Road World Championships and it doesn’t end there. It may be a post Olympic year, but there are certainly no shortage of big goals for 2022 that Brown can reel off when asked what would make next season a good one.
“I want to establish myself as one of the leaders in the peloton and just have some consistent results. Obviously it would be awesome to get a few more WorldTour wins,” Brown told Cyclingnews, grinning as she continued on with her wish list for 2022.
“And, hopefully a medal at the Commonwealth Games in the time trial, preferably gold. And yeah, I would say a medal at World Champs, that would be a pretty good year,” she added with a chuckle.
High hopes, but given the speed of the riders progression over her three years as a professional it doesn’t seem unreasonable to dream big. Even with just 27 international race days in 2021 Brown delivered her first Women’s WorldTour win and then another, seven podium finishes, 15 top tens and a near miss of the time trial podium at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
It was an impressive tally for a season cut short because of a shoulder injury sustained in the Giro d’Italia Donne. She made it through the Olympics but it soon became clear her injury wasn’t healing as it should be and surgery would be required. That meant there was little choice but to pause and watch on remotely – and hopefully without too much regret – as a World Championships that suited, and the first ever women’s Paris-Roubaix, unfolded.
"I gave myself a bit of time to reflect on the fact that it had been a really good year and that I was really proud of the success that I'd had and just put a full stop on it there,” said Brown. “That was a really nice period up until my injury and then it was a matter of saying, all right, now I just have to work on the process of getting surgery and recovering from that.”
Vision and passion
Brown, 29, was a late starter in cycling after swapping over from running but quickly found her way in the sport and signed with the Australian GreenEdge team, now known as Team BikeExchange, from 2019. In her second season as a professional in 2020, she already started to make a substantial mark with the opportunities to step up into a leadership role open, first because of the departure of Annemiek van Vleuten to Movistar and then with Amanda Spratt facing problems as a result of Iliac artery endofibrosis.
It was in that first pandemic interrupted season that she took her initial European victory at Brabantse Pijl before moving onto even greater heights in 2021. Given her growth within her home-nation team, moving on to the French team which finished eighth on the UCI rankings this year, wasn’t exactly the expected option but was one she has wholeheartedly embraced.
“I spoke to some other teams and in the end my gut instinct was that FDJ was the best fit for me, that cultural fit as well,” said Brown. ”The obvious thing is to stay with GreenEdge but when I finish my career I want a range of experiences and I think that involves moving a little bit. I don't want to be constantly moving, but I think I'll be a more complete rider if I take myself out of the comfortable team environment and try something new.”
At FDJ she’ll be joining a team that looks to be building considerable momentum, with a swathe of talented developing young riders and some key players that can’t be ignored as a threat within the peloton. The long running squad has been working its way up the ranks the past two seasons and the signing of Brown in 2022, along with young Italian rider Vittoria Guazzini, is part of their plan to shift even higher.
“They had a lot of vision and passion to have me on the team and I was inspired by that and also what they are trying to do with the team,” said Brown. “It's a nice thing to be part of that and be with a team that's really aiming to be at the top and coming from a bit behind. But yeah, it's a nice purpose that they have and that inspired me, and I think they also really appreciated the type of rider that I am and want that style of racing on their team.”
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Brown’s attitude in races and decision to move to her new team as she’s a rider that seeks out opportunity, will back herself against the big names and, rather than sitting back and playing the safe game or letting others dictate terms, isn’t scared to take a risk to try and win.
With these attributes, it’s easy to see why she seems a good fit in the often race animating team of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope, which includes Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Marta Cavalli, Evita Muzic, Clara Copponi and fellow Australian Brodie Chapman. There she’ll come in as one of the leaders, that’s also fully prepared to slip into a support role, and the growing fire power of the team meaning the multi-pronged attack should more often become an option.
"I think with the other lead riders that they have on FDJ like Marta and Cecilie, they're both really good climbers and I think my strengths compliment them because I'm not the same type of riders as them, but I think we can really play off each other and get some good results."
Brown’s shoulder injury may have interrupted her season, but she was back on the bike and able to train from October, meaning she’s actually likely to start the 2022 season ahead of where she’d usually be. However, while her training form may have had time to develop, it’s been a long time between races.
Her last event was the Olympic time trial, back in July but fortunately before heading to Europe there are some Australian races to ease the transition, as even though the international events are cancelled there are still domestic ones going ahead.
We spoke to Brown on the sunny Geelong foreshore in December after the launch of the race that will be her first in more than five months, the Lexus of Blackburn Bay Crits. The two day event from January 8 and 9, where she’ll be racing for the Lexus of Blackburn team, will provide an opportunity to test her form before Australia’s Road National Championships from January 12 to 16.
First up at the Australian Championships will be the time trial, which she won in 2019 but has run second to Sarah Gigante in for the last two years. The pair were head and shoulders above their rivals in 2021 but, having faced health problems in 2021, Gigante won’t be defending her title so Brown looks to be almost unbeatable. Brown has also stood on the podium in the road race the past two years, but she'll be lining up in very different circumstances this year.
As part of Team BikeExchange, Australia’s only Women’s WorldTeam, Brown the past three years lined up with the squad that is usually the dominant force at the race but this year will front up alone as her only Australian teammate, Chapman, will not be making it back to the race in Buninyong this time. That means a different approach is required.
“It'll be not necessarily more difficult, you just have to race in a different way when you're on your own,” Brown said. “I think I have to be a bit more courageous in a way. I'll just have to commit to things. Depending on how the race unfolds, I might have to take some bigger risks.”
After Nationals attention will then turn to the Santos Festival of Cycling, with a four-day National Road Series event being put on from January 23 to 26 to replace the usual international event, which was cancelled for a second year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At this race she’ll be leading a young national team, Team Garmin Australia, before heading back to Europe and settling into her new team FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope.
Brown said while she doesn’t yet have her exact calendar she may start with February’s four-stage Setmana Ciclista Valenciana as a warm up before the cobbled Classics where her main targets will probably be Flanders, where she came third in 2021, and the second edition of the Paris-Roubaix Femmes. The next big item then is the Tour de France Femmes, a huge event for all but particularly a French team, and it's a race where Brown said she’ll be targeting stages.
That will be quickly followed by the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham early August before September brings the rare opportunity to compete at a home World Championships in Australia’s Wollongong. Brown said that given that the full courses, lap details and elevation gain details are yet to be released it was hard to know exactly what the route – which traverses the coastline before taking in a city circuit and loop with a climb of Mount Keira – would bring.
“From the information that we have, I think it's going to be a Classics style of race. There is that longer climb, which will work on a bit of the attrition in the race and then I expect it'll be a bit more punchy towards the end but it depends how it all lines up. But from the information that I have I think that it will be a course that can suit me.”
“But, we have to wait and see and also I have to juggle the time trial and the road race so as more information comes out, we'll be able to make a better plan around all of that”
There may still be some uncertainty around Browns exact calendar and plans, particularly without the full Worlds details having been revealed, but there is one thing there is no doubt over.
“It's going to be a year full of a lot of big things,” said Brown.
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Get The Leadout Newsletter
The latest race content, interviews, features, reviews and expert buying guides, direct to your inbox!
Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and as a correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.