Rachel Neylan hasn’t had the easiest of paths in recent seasons after finding herself in a team that didn’t get off the ground as expected in 2020, which meant few chances to race at a time when she felt she was carrying the form of her life. However, now condition and opportunity are aligning with the Australian leading the charge for her new team, Cofidis, at the Tour de France Femmes.
"I put the work in these last months but I've also put the work in the last year and I've put the work in the last two years,” the resilient Australian told Cyclingnews in the days before the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. “I've had the most consistent, uninterrupted two year training period of my whole career, so I've sown the seeds and now I'm ready to reap the harvest."
Of course, to reap that harvest on one of the biggest stages in the world, and at a key target race of the year for both Neylan and her French team, would be a dream outcome. The long-running men's squad has been fighting the past three weeks to sweep up its first victory since 2008 at the Tour de France – with Simon Geschke heartbreakingly losing the climbers jersey on the final day in the mountains – but on Sunday July 24 the mantle will be handed over to the women's team of Neylan, Martina Alzini, Victoire Berteau, Alana Castrique, Valentine Fortin and Sandra Levenez.
The general category in the eight-stage race to July 31 had been a goal for the squad initially, with Clara Koppenburg, but a crash at the Giro d’Italia Donne took her off the roster. That means stage results are now squarely the aim for both Neylan and the team.
"My objectives have always been focussed around stage opportunities. Obviously if things head in the right direction after stage 3 or 4 for the general classification, then of course I'm not going to lose time on purpose,” said Neylan. “But it's such a dynamic Tour full of opportunity every single day that for me it's more interesting to go for stage opportunities than for the overall.”
To tackle the Tour de France Femmes – which has four relatively flat stages interspersed with two hilly days before the finale of back-to-back mountain stages – Cofidis also has a solid sprint group that includes Martina Alzini, who was consistently in the top 20 of the Giro d’Italia Donne sprint stages. Still there is no doubt about the two days that really stand out for Neylan, as well as a number of other break hopefuls. They are the 133km stage 3 to Épernay and the 127km stage 4, which combines climbs and gravel roads on the way to Bar-Sur-Aube.
"We did go and recon stage 3 and stage 4,” said Neylan. “I really like them, they are full of hard punchy climbs, not long climbs and they're not short climbs, but they all come at the end of the race. I'm really, really looking forward to stage 3 and 4 and putting my focus on that."
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Coming to Cofidis, which started a women’s team at the start of this season, marked something of a turning point for Neylan. It provided a stable base to plot out a course through a season which contained some big targets, with the Tour de France Femmes of course among them as well as a hoped-for berth in the Australian team for a World Championships in Wollongong, located in Neylan’s home state of New South Wales.
It is somewhat of a contrast to the last two seasons. Neylan had signed for the Cronos-Casa Dorado team from the start of 2020, a new squad that had WorldTeam ambitions but failed to get a Continental team licence until mid-way through the year. They then had an extremely limited number of race days through the rest of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, particularly at Women’s WorldTour level.
“I feel like that really robbed me of 18 months of my career,” Neylan said when she spoke to Cyclingnews at the start of the season in Australia. “COVID hit as well on top of that so it was a double whammy and probably an athlete's worst nightmare. I was left with a team that didn't come to fruition, with no racing and with basically my Olympic dreams completely smashed to pieces.
“I made a decision that I could either pull out the violin and cry about it or I could control the controllables. The attitude that I had every single day was to be the best and strongest athlete that I could be, so I decided to do that and get myself in the best physical shape that I could.”
Form, however, wasn’t enough when she didn’t have the chance to show it.
“Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do any of the the Olympic selection races despite being in the form of my life, so I obviously wasn't selected for the Olympics,” said Neylan. “But I was able to overcome that and push the reset button and then have an amazing end of the season.”
She hit that reset button with Parkhotel Valkenburg, with a mid-season transfer, and immediately came sixth overall in the Ladies Tour of Norway, earned a place on the Australian team for the World Championships in Flanders and three podium spots throughout the rest of the season.
“Those performances speak for themselves, as well as the way that I conducted myself and invested in my preparation and performance during 2020 and especially during 2021," said Neylan.
Leaving no stone unturned
Those performances also meant there was every reason to enter the new season with a positive outlook, and Neylan turned up to Australia to wear the red and white Cofidis kit for the first time in January brimming with enthusiasm. She finished 12th in the Australian Road National Championships, without a single teammate, and then leapt into the European racing to make the lead group at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, which was 18 strong. She then made the select lead group again at Gent Wevelgem.
It was a promising start as Neylan built toward her first key season goals of La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but there were then some challenges along the way. Neylan had to cope with both Bronchitis and COVID-19 and while she still made those races, it wasn't in the condition she'd been hoping for, leaving her first season targets out of reach.
Still, the 2012 World Championship silver medallist has now had time to rebuild for the next big goal, the Tour de France Femmes. That rebuild included a strong performance in the break at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenges Femmes, before handing over to teammate Koppenburg who came second. Around the racing Neylan also had a consistent training block, which included two altitude camps.
With the preparation done and the Tour de France Femmes looming, it's almost time to discover what the harvest will yield.
"It's no secret I'm at the twilight of my career,” said Neylan. “And I want nothing more than a result for this team, for the people that have supported me my entire career, for my family and for every single choice and sacrifice made. I've worked so hard my entire career, I just really want it.
“But I am also realistic. It's the biggest stage and the biggest bike race in the world so it's not an easy task to stand on the podium. So what would make me happy is that I just give my heart and my soul, that I'm really able to go deep in every single race opportunity, that I race with intuition and that I leave no stone unturned."
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