News Feature, August 29, 2007
The life of Australian cyclist Amy Gillett ended abruptly at the age of 29 on a road in rural Germany in July 2005, shocking the cycling community around the world. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer talked to Amy's mother, Mary Safe, and to Emma Pooley, this year's winner of the award established to commemorate Amy Gillett.
"Amy's life and all that it means can still live on in all of our memories. As parents losing a daughter, that is so important to us," said Mary Safe, the mother of the Australian cyclist, still dealing with the tragic loss of her gifted daughter.
Following her death in 2005, the organizers of the Thüringen Rundfahrt introduced the Amy Gillett Award, which is given to the woman who best exhibits outstanding fairness and competitiveness in the race.
Amy Gillett was riding the course of the time trial for the Thüringen Rundfahrt on July 18, 2005, when a teenaged driver lost control of her car and ploughed into the Australian women's team, striking all six riders, killing Amy and seriously injuring the other five.
That tragic accident rocked the cycling world as it epitomized the daily dangers faced by every cyclist, and realized their worst fears: that of being hit in one's prime while riding with friends and fellow racers.
The organizers of the German race were equally traumatized by the event, as was most of the German public. So an award was established, among other initiatives, and this year it was presented to British rider Emma Pooley, of the new Team Specialized, who won the third stage of the 2007 edition of the race with a daring 80km solo attack, which also put her into the leader's jersey as she crossed the line almost five minutes ahead of the field.
Pooley eventually surrendered the lead to German powerhouse Judith Arndt (T-Mobile) as the German squad stepped up the pressure to take out the major German women's tour, but the British rider continued to make her presence felt, and eventually finished in fifth on GC and also with the mountains jersey.
After learning of this year's winner of the award, Mary Safe did some research - and was astonished by what she found. She had little doubt the right woman had won. "We noticed that Emma, like Amy, liked to ride in front for long distances alone, as well as trying hard all day and never giving up."
Her mother continued: "There is also another similarity to Amy, in that both girls have come to cycling after competing at an elite level in another sport -- in Amy's case as an Olympic rower and for Emma, as a World Champion in the duathlon."
Married, and loving life
Born Amy Safe in Adelaide, South Australia on January 9, 1976, Amy Gillett was a successful rower, representing Australia in the women's eight at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. After missing selection for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games rowing team, she turned her energy to cycling. Winning the 2002 national pursuit championship, she progressed rapidly and concentrated on the track World Cup series in 2002 and 2003, before shifting focus to the road in 2004. At the time of the tragedy, Amy Gillett was married to her former rowing coach, Simon Gillett, and was studying for a PhD.
There was more about Emma Pooley that struck Mrs Safe. "Emma spoke about the team element of road cycling and really paid tribute to their significance in her win. Amy would heartily agree as she was always such a committed team rider and could always look at the bigger picture."
Pooley's description of the race, her team and the award closely echo Mrs Safe's thoughts. After she won the stage and had taken over the leader's jersey, "things got tough. Defending the leader's jersey is hard work and indeed we only held it for one day. But the task of remaining high on the general classification was one that the whole team took up with enthusiasm," Pooley said.
"For me it became a desperate struggle to stay in the front group on every stage - the time gaps were so huge that one missed break could have meant the end of our GC ambitions.
"My team, riders and staff, were wonderful support, both whilst racing (moving me around the bunch, protecting me until the crucial moment) and in the recovery time. There's more to being a team than just taking orders down a race radio, and their enthusiasm and cheerfulness and above all their belief in me were a real motivation." she said.
The feeling of "team" helped Pooley through the tough times. "In the last stage I was exhausted and I think I only hung on because I knew that if I got dropped I'd be letting all of the other girls down, too. It's important to remember that the race is hard for everyone, and it's harder still when you're 40 minutes down on GC so your result doesn't seem important any more, and you're not getting much recognition for your effort. That's when mental toughness really shows.
"So when I went to the podium after the final stage to get the mountains and 'most active' jerseys I was there for the whole team, and proud of what we'd achieved together because we really had to fight for it," she said.
Those were exactly the qualities that the race organizers were looking for. "I didn't know anything about the Amy Gillett award so when it was announced I was surprised. It was very sobering to be reminded of the tragic accident of 2005 - that was my first season of road racing, and I can still remember hearing about it on the news."
The 25-year-old Englishwoman knows that every cyclist faces the threat of what happened to the Australian rider. "It put things back into perspective: where I finish in a race is really pretty trivial when I consider I'm lucky just to be able to get up every day and enjoy riding my bike at all," she said.
"I've had enough near-misses to know the same could happen to me. As a cyclist you just have to watch out for yourself as best you can, and sometimes cross your fingers and hope.
"I think in the end being given the Amy Gillett Award meant more to me than the race result. It was a great honour not just because it's in memory of a very good cyclist, but also because of what it stands for," she said.
"Competing fairly and giving everything you can in a race is more worthy on a personal level than winning. To that extent my team deserved the award more than me, because they rode just as hard in the race and got less recognition."
A memorial in Amy's honour has been placed at the site of the accident on the Landstrasse between Zeulenroda and Auma in Kreis Greiz, in the eastern part of Germany. As the anniversary of their daughter's death approached, Mary and Denis Safe "found ourselves here in Australia, needing to do something of significance in Germany and decided to arrange for some beautiful flowers to be placed at the memorial stone near Zeulenroda, along with a card containing some special words that we, and Amy's sister Georgina, had written."
They contacted one of Amy's "very special Aussie cycling mates", Natalie Bates, who was riding in Thüringen for the German Team Getränke Hoffman. "On July 18 she drove to the site and placed our flowers and card there along with her own flowers. She told us it was a beautiful sunny day and that the memorial site was well cared for."
"We really appreciate the help from the people of Zeulenroda and the Mayor, Frank Steinwachs, in achieving this as we are so far away here in Australia," Mrs Safe said. "It is a great comfort to know the memorial stone and the surrounds are well cared for."
"She also told us there were other flowers that had been placed there in memory of our beautiful Amy. We were very touched and humbled by that. We realize that Amy lives on in many people's hearts from all over the world."
Editor's note: The Amy Gillett Foundation was formed in Australia following the tragedy and its principal aim is to encourage safer cycling for all cyclists. Each of the five team-mates struck down in that tragic accident - Katie Brown, Lorian Graham, Kate Nichols, Alexis Rhodes and Louise Yaxley - have all made amazing recoveries after their horrific injuries and returned to competitive cycling.