It's been over a year since a professional race was held in North America, and the riders from the US and Canada have had a distinct disadvantage compared with their European counterparts. This week, Cyclingnews highlights the racers and their journey through the coronavirus pandemic, the salient issues in the continent and the races that make the scene. Tayler Wiles spoke with Cyclingnews from the Trek-Segafredo camp in January shortly after 'cross racer Justin Laevens came out as gay.
From growing up in Utah surrounded by conservative Mormon culture to living in the Bay Area as an openly gay professional cyclist, American Tayler Wiles has forged her own unique path through life and sport. Cyclingnews spoke with the Trek-Segafredo rider about her hopes for gay riders in the men's peloton, cycling in the time of pandemic and the shifting Olympic dream.
Tayler Wiles and her partner Olivia Dillon have been the subject of numerous articles, they've been called one of cycling's coolest couples. Although their relationship was the first same-sex encounter for both, they have become an example of the power of love to overcome obstacles and inspire others.
The two met a decade ago when they were teammates on an elite amateur team in California and have been together ever since. While Wiles' career in the pro peloton takes her around the world, Dillon's role with the clothing company Velocio allows her to work remotely and join Wiles in Europe for long stretches – much like many married couples in the sport.
But it's not quite the same for the men's peloton: there are no openly gay WorldTour riders and when an U23 cyclo-cross racer Justin Laevens came out, it made headlines.
"I felt very lucky to come out in women's cycling because it is very common," Wiles says. "There are a lot of gay women in the sport and I've always had teammates that were gay. I felt like it was such a nice environment to come out in.
"I hope it becomes more open and accepting in the men's peloton because it's really such a lovely environment in the women's peloton. I'm happy to see that it's starting to get easier, even if it's little by little."
It may be that gay men perceive that sports aren't part of their culture or that pro sport's macho culture excludes them, but Wiles says she hopes the culture will change.
"There aren't many male sports where you see a lot of out athletes. In women's sports, it's much more common. It is a lot of that masculine macho stuff that men are taught when they're young, it's kind of beat into them – don't be vulnerable, don't show weakness – being feminine at all would be the worst thing ever.
"I think that culture is slowly changing just because of the way people are parenting boys now, it's not quite where we need it to be but teaching men from a young age that vulnerability is OK I think is the way forward.
"But now, the tough boy macho stuff is alive and well – I can tell you because we have a men's team."
Wiles missed out on the selection for the 2016 Olympic Games team despite winning the 2015 Tour de l'Ardèche overall and establishing herself as a top climber head of a hilly Olympic road race and an accomplished time trialist. She came into the 2020 season on strong form hoping to earn the eye of the Olympic selection committee only to have the pandemic bring the season to a sudden stop.
She came into the year with a podium in the Race Torquay after helping teammate Ruth Winder win the Santos Tour Down Under, and finished just off the podium in the first WorldTour race, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. She then headed to Belgium to prepare for the Classics but one race in, the early season was over.
"At the beginning of last year we were all peaking, the start of last year was going to be really important for Olympic selection," Wiles says. "The beginning of the season was looking bright, then everything happened with the coronavirus and everything got delayed."
When racing stopped, Wiles left her Girona base and headed home to California but by mid-summer, the races were back on. But after months of avoiding contact with people and wearing masks, she said getting on an airplane was a shock.
"We'd all been home for three months and COVID-19 was peaking and it was really freaky. That first flight was super scary and, yeah, it never feels comfortable anymore. Just being around all those people – it's a strange world we're living in."
The team fortunately avoided having anyone get infected and had an enormously successful season, with Lizzie Deignan winning the World Cup overall, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Course and the GP Plouay, and the team winning the Giro Rosa team time trial. But Wiles struggled without some of the smaller races to hone her form and get morale-boosting results.
"It was all we could do to get through the end of the year and but it was still really fun to be a part of the team wins as well. So I was happy with what we did with the season for sure," she says.
"It was really stressful coming back after the break, not knowing where any of our form was and I think all of us just really kind of united together and raced every race like it was the last because we just never knew what was going to happen.
"I think we came together really well and the team, the staff were really great at supporting us through that crazy time and making us feel safe through all the you know, the coronavirus protocols and all that stuff. And I think we were pretty lucky to get to race and so I think we just made the most of it and had a really good season, actually."
This year looks to be starting out again with uncertainty: Wiles' first race, the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, has been called off and she once again finds herself in wait-and-see mode.
"It's a bit of Groundhog Day – are the races going to happen? Are the Olympics going to happen? I think we've all learned to be adaptable and go with the flow. I always try to race my best, so we just have to take it day by day."
Wiles is now hoping to start with a series of one-day races: Strade Bianche, and the three Ardennes Classics, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège. Now that the new Itzulia women's race has been postponed, the rest of the calendar is "up in the air".
"I still don't know about our national championships, I've heard nothing about it. That part of the season is still unknown."
What is certain is that when racing gets underway, the new balance of power, with Annemiek van Vleuten moving to Movistar, Marianne Vos heading up the new Jumbo-Visma team and double world champion Anna van der Breggen's SD Worx squad and Trek-Segafredo largely intact will make for more dynamic racing.
"I think the peloton is really spread more evenly right now with the talent, so I think the racing is going to be really exciting. Five years ago there were five riders who could win any given race, now that number is much higher. It makes the racing super exciting. With Annemiek gone, I'm excited to see what Spratty can do, spread her wings and be a leader on that team. Vos is always a force. SD Worx still has a super strong squad, so I think it's going to be a really fun season."
The season just needs to get underway, and that depends on what goes on with the coronavirus. "When it first happened, I didn't know anybody that had it and now all of us almost everyone on the team knows somebody or has a family member [who's been infected]. So it seems like it's kind of closing in which is a little bit frightening but hopefully, you know the back seen rollout continues and things start to get better."
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