Already Sarah Gigante (Movistar) has had a cycling career punctuated with a string of achievements many work decades towards – she’s been an Olympian, has multiple elite national championships to her name, has secured a three-year deal with a top WorldTour team and now has also just added her first European win to that list. The peaks have been lofty and plentiful, but so too have the troughs.
Even though the 21-year-old is now into her third year on an international team, she’s never, before this year, taken her European season beyond April. During her first year with TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, the pandemic hit 2020, Gigante only got as far as March and then it was all over by the start of April in 2021 when she broke her collarbone, elbow and fibula. She described that, however, as a walk in the park compared with her post-Olympic repeated hospitalisations with unexplained heart problems, eventually revealed as myopericarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle and sac surrounding the heart.
Then to top it off a long awaited return to racing, with an Australian starter scheduled in February of 2022 to ease her back into the peloton before heading overseas, was scotched by a COVID-19 test positive.
"It was going to be exactly 200 days between races, between the Olympics and The Tour of Gippsland and then I tested positive on the hundred ninety ninth day,” Gigante told Cyclingnews. “At that point I was sad for like half an hour, and then I was just laughing to myself, thinking this is ridiculous, the broken bones and then the heart stuff and then COVID.
"But now all my bad luck is done so I'm sweet for hopefully this year at least."
Gigante said that on one hand, it had felt like she couldn’t catch a break as one thing came after another, but on the other hand it was easier to put everything in perspective now.
“Every time something goes a little bit wrong, like that, then I just think of what happened last year and I think, yeah, ‘this is nothing’. I really wish it didn't happen, but I can see the positives when little things go wrong.”
Grateful to be healthy, able to ride and having secured the dream of a WorldTour contract, the Victorian with all the hallmark maturity and positivity of her Brunswick Cycling Club upbringing, is fortunately no less prone to bubbling over with enthusiasm and plastering a huge grin to her face as she talks of cycling. She may not be completely unchanged by her challenging year, but is clearly undaunted.
"I was a bit nervous heading over here,” Gigante said not long after her arrival in late March. “One part of me was like, what's going to happen this year? But then I think that's life, you don’t know what's going to happen and it could be bad things, but hopefully it’s good things.
“That surprise makes it all worth it, the ups and downs. So, yeah, I'm excited, a bit nervous, but I guess nervecited,” she said, breaking out one of her favourite invented words to describe the mixture of nerves and excitement.
Making it to May
The journey back to racing wasn’t exactly easy as even when she knew what the chest pain which arrived soon after she returned from the Olympics was, there was no quick fix. Initially she could ramp up to controlled indoor rides, then in November, after almost three months off the road completely, she was able to get out on the road in cruising mode, keeping her heart rate low with the help of an electric bike so she could at least enjoy riding outside on some of her favourite roads, with her ever supportive mum for company.
It wasn’t until January that she was cleared to put in an effort on the bike, in time to join training camp with her new team Movistar. That marked the beginning of a recovery process from a challenging period that made easier by the fact she had a newly signed three year contract in her hands and the team support that came with it.
"Knowing that they had confidence throughout the whole period, even though I felt very uncertain – but the team was always super supportive – that definitely helped. Just knowing that everyone else believed I could get back to where I was, without question.
“They were like ‘we are here waiting for you’ and they were really patient. So that helped me believe that I could do it and also to be patient, which was really necessary."
With her planned Australian restart scotched by COVID-19, it was instead Nokere Koerse voor Dames that marked her return to racing, 231 days since her last outing at the July time trial at the Olympic Games, where she came eleventh.
It was also nearly 11 months since her last European race, La Flèche Wallonne, the crash that left her with multiple breaks leading to her second short European season. In 2020, it was the early March race of Le Samyn des Dames that spelt the end of her racing in Europe, with the pandemic in full force and an Australian border closure adding to the complication.
It’s for that reason when asked about some of her goals for the season in March that she joked that firstly, “I want to make it past March/April”.
“I want to continue to get stronger, but also get more experience in the peloton and work on my positioning and everything like that because yeah, I still am young, have lots of things to learn still.
“Even though I've been on TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank for two years, so this is my third year now, I haven't raced that much in Europe, so I need more time and more races, but that is what I'll get this year.”
Treated like a Queen
After her Nokere Koerse voor Dames outing Gigante was pleased how she felt on her return to the peloton.
"I'm actually surprised, I feel quite normal,” said Gigante. “Like I can't really tell l had so long off the bike and off the bike sick, so I'm just happy to be back feeling great again.”
On top of that, she’s been enjoying the novelty of the team trappings that have come with the step up to Women’s WorldTour level, from the opportunity for extensive reconnaissance, to flights between races at times rather than a trip in the camper.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve always been well looked after … but I have to say I just can't believe how much of a Queen I feel like on this team. I can definitely feel the step up to the WorldTour, its super professional, and everything is focussed on making us as fast as we can be, which often means, making us as happy as can be.
“Any request seems fine so far, I haven't pushed it too far," Gigante said with a chuckle, " but the team really goes to the extra effort to make sure everything's in place so that we can perform to our best. And that's super, super nice.
"Everything feels very luxurious."
The perks of being with a WorldTour team are also not the only novelty Gigante is now enjoying.
After her season start at Nokere Koerse, she went on to race Trofeo Alfredo Binda, the first European UCI race she has lined up at twice and then it was another repeat with Dwars door Vlaanderen and De Brabantse Pijl before launching into new territory. Gigante, this season, made it to May for the first time and the hilly territory of the Spanish races that suit the Australian rider.
First it was the Vuelta a Andalucia, where she came 15th on GC while supporting teammate Arlenis Sierra in securing overall victory and two stage wins. Gigante described it on an Instagram post as “my favourite ever three days of Euro racing so far (by a long way!).” Her enjoyment couldn't have been more clear in the photos from the event, with Gigante working hard on the front of the pack but still with a huge grin plastered across her face, as those behind her displayed a serious look of focussed concentration as they held her wheel.
It was a reminder of the Gigante who as a likeable and gracious 17-year-old joked, with a wicked grin, that lapping the U19 criterium field at the Australian national championships "was the coolest moment, you know, just making people hurt". As affable as Gigante may be, she still clearly relished the feeling of pushing both herself and others to the limit while on the bike.
At the weekend's GP Ciudad de Eibar it was 12th place and then on Tuesday Gigante put the climbing and solo ability – that has taken so many impressive victories in Australia – on full display in Europe as she secured her first win in Movistar colours at Emakumeen Nafarroako.
"I’m in shock, it’s crazy," said Gigante in a team statement after the race. "I’ve never been in the top-10 of a European race, so making my first top-ten a victory is amazing."
What's more, even with a tough run into the season, Gigante took the win in emphatic style, coming over the line with a gap of more then two-and-a-half-minutes to her nearest rivals. It was clear just how much that victory meant when after throwing her arms in the air she then covered her face, the elated smile quickly giving way to a flood of emotion.
Then, with the tears of joy still flowing she quickly got on the radio to thank her teammates for all their help with her new found Spanish skills.
GIGI’S DONE IT! 🙌😊Ⓜ️@SarahGigante wins race one of the @Vuelta_Navarra #NWEC22 Classics in Irurtzun - our 1️⃣5️⃣th success of the season, and the Aussie’s first in Blue colours, at the town where our squad was born in 1980.#RodamosJuntos | @Telefonica pic.twitter.com/7t3ucxLwpxMay 10, 2022
Dreams and reality
Making it to May has definitely worked out well for Gigante so far, plus there is still plenty more of the month left. Of course, then there is also the rest of the season, where some big race goals reside.
High up on the list of key targets is, unsurprisingly, a home World Championships in Wollongong where, if selected for the Australian team, she will be eligible for the first ever U23 women’s title in the time trial and road race. Plus after her 11th place in the race against the clock at the Olympics, she's bound to be one of the favourites.
Then, there is the hope that Gigante will get a chance to test her climbing and endurance power with a start at either the Giro d’Italia Donne or Tour de France Femmes, both races where teammate Annemiek van Vleuten will be a key favourite.
"I feel like I'm a bit of a diesel so, in theory, hopefully needing the endurance is something that suits me. But anything in Europe is a whole new kettle of fish so I'll have to see how it goes.”
“I think your first time doing these races, it's a bit of an experience,” said Gigante.
Although, the rider from Melbourne is quick to add that taking on her first long, hilly stage race in Europe is also dependent on selections.
“I'm just happy I can be on such a strong team, very well supported, and making sure I don't burn out early by giving me too many races or anything, but still giving lots a go so that I can practise."
Riding isn’t the only thing Gigante is practising, having moved to a team where a language she didn’t know, Spanish, is the main means of communication. However, for the rider, who is also continuing her linguistics and geography studies at the University of Melbourne, it seems part of the fun of the signing.
Both on and off the bike, this will continue to be a year of learning for Gigante as she gets to tackle, what will hopefully be, something resembling a full European season for the first time. It’s also a year where she gets to see the fruits of her former labours and completes the transition from a promising teenager – who took a clean sweep of the U19 Australian titles and then confirmed her strength by taking the elite national title as an 18-year-old – to a professional competing at the very highest level.
"My whole life, I've been dreaming of making it onto a big team,” said Gigante. “I don't have to dream of that anymore because I am on, I say, the best team so now I can just focus on enjoying the opportunity that I have.”
Now as she rides with the squad that is also home to the world's top rider, Van Vleuten, Gigante said her aims include improving as a cyclist and being a good teammate, but that isn’t the end of the story.
“I don’t think I could pin it down to just one thing because I think as long as I get to the end of the season and can say, ‘Hey, I tried my best!’. Hopefully that means I also got to do lots of races. Hopefully that means I also got stronger and also got better in the bunch. Everything like that would be amazing. But all I can do is try my best, so I'll do that.”
And while that's all anyone can ask for, it turns out that what we have seen of her best so far just happens to be pretty spectacular.
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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 correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.
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