Having 2020 not stack up to expectations is hardly unique, but for the climbers in the peloton, the layers of disappointment caused by unfulfilled expectations may have been a little thicker, with an ascent heavy Olympic Games postponed. Lucy Kennedy, though, at least seems to have emerged from that ‘frustrating season’ to find the opportunities multiplying as the racing and her squad, Team BikeExchange, evolves.
Already this year the Queenslander has got to race up one new iconic climb, Willunga Hill in South Australia, can now hopefully look forward to competing in that rescheduled Olympic Games and will be racing in a team where the departure of a dominant leader, Annemiek van Vleuten, opens the way for other riders – including Kennedy – to take their chances throughout the season.
“It's going to be a very different season for us with the changes in the team,” Kennedy told Cyclingnews while in her final stretch of time in Australia before heading back to racing in Europe. “Now that Annemiek is not there, Spratty [Amanda Spratt] is our obvious leader but I don't think it'll be quite so focused on that. I think we'll find that there will be a bit more emphasis on supporting different riders to different targets throughout the season. We have a lot of riders that can win races and maybe it will actually make us a bit more dynamic and less predictable.”
Van Vleuten was such a powerhouse on the team that the Dutch rider, who has worn both the rainbow jersey of the time trial and road world champion, could find her way onto the podium on just about any terrain. That meant if she was on the start line the strategy was obvious.
“Last year if it was a hard race it'd be ‘well guess who Mitchelton is riding for’,” said Kennedy referring to the predictability behind Mitchelton-Scott’s van Vleuten-led charge. “But now I think at BikeExchange the question is genuinely going to be ‘who are they going to ride for at this race?’ That is going to make it exciting.”
Beyond Spratt, who has stood on the podium at multiple World Road Championships and at the Giro Rosa, the team has a strong core of riders who after years with the squad are ready to embrace the extra opportunities – from all-rounder Grace Brown who took her first European victory last year, to sprinter Sarah Roy and, of course, able climber Kennedy.
The year has already thrown up one unexpected victor to illustrate the depth within the team, with a delighted but surprised Roy winning the national title at the Australian Road Championships where with the absence of the defending champion Spratt, most rivals, and even perhaps Roy herself, were likely to think that either Brown or Kennedy were the potential winning cards.
The alterations to the team also go well beyond the change in dynamic caused by the departure of van Vleuten, who went to Movistar, and a shift in sponsor, which has seen the name change from Mitchelton-Scott. The team has also bolstered the ranks, replacing van Vleuten and a retired Gracie Elvin with four new signings to bolster and broaden the squad, Spanish rider Ane Santesteban and Slovenian Urška Žigart for the climbs, Italian Arianna Fidanza to strengthen the classics team and Teniel Campbell, a rider from Trinidad and Tobago, who has potential to develop across varied terrains.
Embracing the hard and hilly
Newcomers to the team, Fidanza and Campbell, made their racing debut at Omloop Het Niewsblad, which opened up the women’s international racing in Europe on the weekend. Kennedy, however, isn't one for the cobbled classics and will be stepping into the fray at Strade Bianche, on Saturday March 6. The late-comer to cycling’s best result at the race so far has been when she came fifth in her debut year with Mitchelton-Scott in 2018. That was a year when van Vleuten didn’t take to the start line at the Italian race. The next two years she did and won it while Kennedy came 25th and 43rd.
Kennedy already has some racing in her legs, as while the international events during the Australian summer were cancelled as COVID-19 made travel more complicated, the Australian Road Championships were on and a fiercely contested four-stage National Road Series race, the Santos Festival of Cycling, was run in South Australia. Although the results from the tour may not have been what the Australian Women’s WorldTeam were hoping for, with Kennedy’s second place on the climb of Willunga Hill the squad’s best result, the competition as the team built back up from its off-season was a definite bonus for the 32 year old.
“I take a little while to get into it racing mode so, particularly after the couple of races we’ve done in Australia, I'm really looking forward to getting back into it,” said Kennedy, who then went onto talk about her schedule and targets for the year. “For me it is basically anything hilly and hard. I’m pretty light in the spring … with Strade Bianche and Trofeo Binda in Italy. Then the Ardennes are always a big target for me, probably more as a support rider but that is a really nice block of hard racing.”
From there the focus turns to the Spanish races in May, including Durango-Durango which she won in 2019, shifting to a big block of training in June where she will got to altitude in preparation for the Giro Rosa, a race where she got heartbreakingly close to winning a stage in 2019, and the Olympics “hopefully”.
“Hopeful for it going ahead and hopeful because we still have selection. There are a lot of riders going really well so there is certainly no guarantee, so there is a bit of pressure on these early races, these qualifying races,” said Kennedy. Strade Bianche and Trofeo Binda are both among the 2021 qualifying events for the Australian team.
Given its high place on the world rankings, fifth the last two years, the nation gets to line up with a team of four riders at the women’s elite road race, with the squad expected to centre around Spratt, who is suited to the terrain and has a record of delivering podium results at the big events. As one of Australia's most able climbers, Kennedy is certainly a contender for selection on the course with 2,692 metres of ascent, along with teammate Grace Brown.
“I’ve wanted to go to the Olympics since I can remember remembering,” said Kennedy. “Not in cycling because I wasn't a cyclist till a few years ago, so while the sport has changed the dream hasn't. The uncertainty is difficult but that's the very big goal.”
A big goal, but not the only one. The way the calendar is evolving, the opportunities on her preferred turf – the climbs – appear to be multiplying for the Australian rider, both at home and in Europe. The top-level women’s racing in Australia has started to integrate iconic climbs, with Kennedy securing the win at the Women's Herald Sun Tour last year on top of Falls Creek and standing on the podium at the Willunga climb stage of the Santos Festival of Cycling this year after the iconic ascent of the men’s event was for the first time also included for the women in the domestic version of the race.
“I think now that they've put it in there they can't take it out so hopefully next year will have the whole world back to race up there,” said Kennedy.
Then there is the momentum building behind a women’s Tour de France, which could in the future lead to the women racing on some of the most revered climbs in the cycling world. For now though, the focus is on making the most of year where it is still essential to take some level of uncertainty in the stride.
“At the end of last year I was just kind of unsatisfied, I think a lot of people were, but I want to go out of this season feeling that I took the opportunities that I did have. I don't know what they will be yet but I just don't want to feel like I missed an opportunity.”
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