It’s the second stage of the first-ever women’s edition of the Vuelta a Andalucía. The route is hard and lumpy. It’s one of those races where the weaker riders are afraid to spend too much energy and prefer to bide their time on the bunch in order to avoid finishing outside the time limit, while the stronger ones are confident they will pull a good result if they wait long enough in the shelter of their domestiques. It's a conundrum that translates into dull racing.
With 60 kilometres to go, there is no breakaway and nothing to see. All of a sudden, a cyclist from Roxsolt-Liv-SRAM attacks. She's Australian, 29 years old, and has virtually no track record in road cycling. She was part of a four-strong break the previous day, though, and seemed competent.
Her name is Matilda 'Tilly' Field and she's being chased by the Massi-Tactic team as an intermediate sprint is scheduled 18 kilometres from the finish. The Catalan team wants it badly – as Field does. The Aussie rider fights tooth and nail on her solo effort and succeeds by a few seconds. She struggles to keep pedalling on a straight line while punching the air in celebration.
About 15 minutes after the race is over and ‘Tilly’ Field still exudes enthusiasm as we approach her for a small interview.
“Tell them how much you trained for this race,” yells one of her team’s staffers. She bursts into a laugh and clarifies that she hardly put on more than 200 kilometres per week – the amount of riding that a committed amateur does on a weekend alone. Furthermore, she did most of them on an indoor trainer.
Then we speak for five minutes on camera. She giggles while she tells us how little she knows about cycling and about what she can do on a bike. She grins while recounting how she gave up her job in the architecture business to come to Europe with her Roxsolt-Liv-SRAM team and America. She laughs again before fully stating: “I’m just living it day by day. I have the best life ever.”
That couple of sentences alone suggest there is more to this woman than your regular elite athlete.
It’s three days after the race and we meet Field over Zoom. She's back in the outskirts of Meulebeke, a small city in Belgium where Roxsolt-Liv-SRAM has set up camp for the European campaign.
Field still bears this frank smile, although her vibe is more relaxed and introspective. She hasn’t touched her bike for the last three days, while her teammates took the recovery rides that are usually prescribed after several days of effort.
“My hip is still sore after what I did in Spain," she said. “It’s OK.”
On the structured, often stressful environment of road cycling, such a nonchalant approach to missing three training rides in a row is unusual. An elite athlete nurtures her performance with every single one of her acts, on every single one of her days, and usually craves for the positive feedback of her trainer, her computer, her peers and her body. A bike rider crafts her schedule for the day around The Ride, that daily sacred moment of effort that sometimes carries her away from the many things that may worry a human being.
“Cycling is a bit random for me. Sometimes, when I am out there riding, or about to take part in a race, I ask questions to myself. What I am doing here? How did I get here? Where am I? I sort of live in the moment, and that is quite extraordinary for a professional athlete.”
As we dig deep into her life and her mindset, we get a clearer picture of what we suspected: ‘Tilly’ is an unconventional rider and an unconventional person. Or, as she puts it, “out of the pattern.”
Field spent her early years in Adelaide and moved to Melbourne at age 8. She describes her family as “poor” and “very religious.” They were all, her father, her mother and her six siblings, ascribed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as the Mormon Church.
Religion played a big part in Field’s education and life prospects. “I grew up with a very strict moral code,” she recounted. “There was a right and a wrong, black and white. I was held to very high standard and wanted to be successful. And, when I was younger, I defined that as having a career, making lots of money, being a mom and a wife. That was always on the back of my mind, affecting how I conducted myself as a person.”
As a child, Field was a “hustler” who began working here and there, babysitting or baking donuts, at age 12. In her last year of high school, Field grew interested in philosophy. “My mind cracked open since the very first class. My religious upbringing meant I was trained to think of existence, and purpose, and to analyse things. I had a natural propensity for it, too. To discover philosophy when I was 17 was spot on.”
On a professional level, Field chose to pursue a career in Interior Design. “I studied it in university and ended up working for Ikea, designing those little rooms you walk through when you are visiting the store. Later on, I moved to the business side of architecture because of money.”
It was a passion she later realised was not meant to represent her way of life for long. “I was enjoying a boujee lifestyle, pretending I was a rich, with my nice car, my nice home, my good coffee, my brunches and my well-paying job to support all this. I was happy, and successful. I was ticking boxes. The husband and the babies were not that easy to attain – not something you could plan. But, besides that, I felt I had made it. Where to go from there, I didn’t know. This was what I wanted to be. And now, what?”
And now, cycling.
Two wheels and an old cottage
Before taking on cycling, Field had been a consistent runner.
“I started running in my 20s,” she recalled. “It was a time when I was probably a bit depressed. I was struggling to find purpose in life and I wasn’t happy. Then I turned to running. It was pure freedom and pure living for me. Me, my body, pushing it. It was easy, simple, straightforward.”
She followed a structured training plan and completed several marathons.
“I never missed a run. No matter how tired or hurt I was, I pulled it off. I was very strict, and that was my downfall.”
Her technique was far from perfect. She got injured too often. She had to quit the sport.
“I was probably a better athlete by then, so to speak. But I saw what it did to me to be that way, and that’s why I am more free-flowing right now.”
With this background in an endurance sport that demands all too similar efforts from its athletes, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Field adapted so quickly to cycling. At age 27, her then-boyfriend provided her with a frame to build herself a road bike. She borrowed her father’s MTB. Then came the Instagram account “to build a community” around herself, and racing, and a crucial encounter with Peta Mullens, who has a swathe of Australian titles across disciplines, and is team manager of Roxsolt-Liv-Sram.
“Peta, and myself, are the reasons why I am in Europe right now,” Field asserted. “I met her two years ago, when I showed up to this XCO race, throwing myself into it as an elite women although I was a noob. My performance was decent and Peta noticed that my Strava times uphill were quite fast. She reckoned that I had some potential and reached to offer me a ride with a team’s bike on the 2021 Australian Road Race National Championships. It was a race of attrition, and I managed to finish. That’s when she offered me a spot on the team as of April 2021.”
Meanwhile, Field’s life outside sports also went through a complete overhaul. For starters, she gave up her religion.
“That was a big thing for me. It happened around the time I started cycling. I didn’t realise how much following my religion was putting me down. I was constantly feeling shame, and that I was not good enough. Letting go of those expectations of myself was liberating. Now I live and let live.”
She also decided to move houses and to drop her day job.
“I wanted to buy a property and renovate it myself, and I found this beautiful little cottage in Ballarat. I had to repair the carpet, repaint and plaster the walls, put on new doors… For a time, I was working a job, renovating the house and cycling, all at the same time. Every week I would sleep four nights on a couch in Melbourne while trying to juggle it all. At some point I realised my stress levels were too high and my wellbeing was out of the window. So, I chose to keep cycling and my house, and quit my job.”
Off to Europe and America
It was with this state of mind and affairs that she approached the 2022 cycling season. Over the Australian summer of racing, she scored top 10 finishes in the Bay Cycling Classic and the Santos Festival of Cycling. She later put on a remarkable performance at the Australian National Championships, being part of the days’ breakaway and proving instrumental in the victory of teammate Nicole Frain.
Last month, Field travelled to race in Europe for the first time, less than two years after taking on cycling. Her team, Roxsolt-Liv-SRAM, is registered as a UCI Continental Team, and supported by well-known brands such as Rapha, Liv and SRAM, yet it isn’t a fully professional outfit. Field makes a living out of her social media prowess, that enables her to land small gigs and photoshoots. Besides, she currently manages the social media channels of both the team and ‘Trail Towns’, a cycle tourism show broadcasted on Australian TV channel SBS.
After successfully taking part on her first few one-day races and the Vuelta a Andalucía Women, Field is meant to spend one more month racing in Europe before travelling to America for some crit racing.
“I want to experience it because I’m new to this sport and I think I can be very good at this style of racing. There are some indications that I am good at punchy efforts and crit racing may fit well with this.”
Yet the thrill for cycling hasn’t fully carried Field away yet. She admits riding on the road does “nothing” for her. She finds more joy by racing on Zwift or “doing crazy things on rock gardens” with her MTB. And, when compared to running, Field still likes the sneakers better than the cleats.
“I created so much emotional attachment with running, and it’s hard to compete with that," said Field. "I felt this sensation of joy and contentedness when running. Nothing mattered, nothing existed. With running, my full body felt alive. With cycling, I find more obstacles.”
It’s hard to say where this unusual approach will lead Field as a cyclist. She doesn’t have a coach and is unsure of being cut out for or willing to race in the WorldTour.
“I don’t know yet what it means emotionally, nor whether it suits me as a person,” she said. “Most athletes talk of hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and all those things that are very structured and regimented. Those are not the core principles I live by. I feel different to the rest of my peers.
"I look at my teammates and reckon how they are pure athletes. They eat well, train well and rest well, meticulously following proven methods, whereas I put my well-being first and don’t train if I don’t feel like it, eat whatever I want and go on with the flow. It probably comes from having a childhood like the one I had. I feel proud that it was unique and it formed me the way I am.”
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Fran Reyes is a Spanish sports journalist based in Granada. Back when he was a child, he loved cycling and he loved writing. Therefore, becoming a cycling writer made complete sense as a life project.
Over the years, he has published pieces as a freelance journalist at Ciclismo a Fondo, The Cycling Podcast, Cyclingtips, and Cyclingnews. He has also worked for ASO and Unpublic, organisers of the Tour de France and Vuelta a Españ, and made some of his dreams come true by laying the foundations of Spanish professional cycling team Equipo Kern Pharma, among other press officer roles at pro teams.
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