When Tiffany Cromwell began racing bikes in the junior ranks, she entered a talent identification programme that scouted hopefuls ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. More than 15 years later, she finally gets her first shot at the Olympics Games in Tokyo.
Cromwell was somewhat of a surprise selection but has been entrusted with the on-road captain's role to help guide the four-rider Australian national team toward a gold medal in the elite women's road race held on July 25.
"I'm excited ... We all dream of being at the Olympic Games. The way that I came into the sport was through a talent identification program where the goal was to get riders to Beijing, so it took a bit longer than planned," Cromwell told Cyclingnews.
Cromwell, 32, will captain the team, including Amanda Spratt, Grace Brown, and Sarah Gigante. Spratt, 33, has twice stepped on the podium at the World Championships (2018 and 2019) and is a proven contender in international events. Brown, 28, had a stellar spring campaign that saw her win Brugge-De Panne and finish on the podium at Tour of Flanders. Gigante, 20, has won the elite road race title and two elite time trial titles at the Australian Championships and is a talented climber on the international racing circuit.
"It's an exciting team. We have big talent, and it's a mix of youth and experience," said Cromwell. "For me, it's about being there as a road captain and being there as far as I can to support the team and keep them out of trouble. I believe that we can do good things together and I'm excited to be part of it.
"I'm a lot more comfortable than what I used to be in a leadership role. It's a massive honour to be put in that position and have the trust and belief in you to be able to do it.
"At a championship event where we don't have radios, it's important to have someone who can make quick decisions. I believe we have a strong group of riders, tactically, but to have someone who can be calm and guide, which is what I think I bring to a captain's role."
The call up
At the start of the season, Cromwell had settled on competing in a Spring Classics campaign followed by a select gravel racing calendar. The Olympic Games were the furthest thing from her mind.
Despite being selected to compete in ten previous World Championships events for Australia, she had tried but failed to make the selection for Beijing (2008), London (2012) and Rio de Janeiro (2016).
She chose not to deal with the high pressures of the selection process this time around, and instead, she focused on the healthier perspective of enjoying her team role as on-road captain this spring at Canyon-SRAM.
"If you had asked me at the start of the year, I had written myself off of the Olympic Games. That gives you an indication of how I felt then. It wasn't a complete surprise toward the end. I realised I had a chance after a good spring season of racing when I had more communication from the national team," Cromwell said.
Cromwell said she discussed the Tokyo Olympics with Rory Sutherland, who oversees the road programme and liaises between Australia and Europe at the beginning of the season. She wasn't in the mix of the short-list team at that time. That list had also include Lucy Kennedy, one of the nation's strongest climbers, who was ruled out following a bad crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, after which she underwent surgery on complicated fractures of her hand and collarbone.
"He said if I had a strong spring, though, things could change, but at the start of the year, that's where it stood," Cromwell said.
As it turns out, Cromwell ended up having one of the strongest spring campaigns in years. As the on-road captain in many events for her Canyon-SRAM squad, she guided the team at Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, often working for her teammates late into the final kilometres of the races.
"I got a message from Rory after Gent-Wevelgem," Cromwell said. "He told me that the Australian [federation] was watching, and they saw what I was doing, and to let me know that I was back in the mix [for Tokyo Olympics]."
Cromwell attributes her early-season success in the Spring Classics to being more grounded in the later stages of her career.
"I've cracked, in the past, by putting too much pressure on myself. That's why when it came down to the final crunch I didn't deal with the whole pressure of trying to make the team," Cromwell said.
Now, though, she can handle pressure in a more constructive way, feels valued at Canyon-SRAM and has a more settled lifestyle outside competition.
"This time, I was relaxed, and I did what I had to do, but I just enjoyed racing and did my job within my team, and that was maybe the secret to getting back to my full strength and in the position to being selected for the Olympic Games," Cromwell said.
"Step-by-step things started to come together, and my life became a bit more settled. Things became easier. Cycling is a super hard sport, but people know when they've been there, and everything clicks, and you enjoy what you're doing, everything flows.
"When you are in that rut, everything seems difficult, and you start to lose your passion. To come around [this spring] and then to see a clear chance at the Olympics gave me something to focus on."
Cromwell started racing professionally almost straight out of the junior ranks. She has been on European-based programmes since 2010 with the Lotto Ladies Team and Hitec Products before moving over to Orica-AIS. In 2014, she joined Specialized-lululemon and has remained with the team through its various title sponsors, Velocio-SRAM and now Canyon-SRAM.
"I've been on this team for a long time. I feel more and more comfortable with my role and within the atmosphere of the team. Feeling that the girls appreciate the experience and knowledge that I can give back to them helps me get more out of myself. It took a while to grow into the role," Cromwell said.
"The team has given me a couple more opportunities this year, but I have no problem killing myself for my teammates. I want to be there for as long as possible and do the best I can, and with everything else, the doors open when you get into the right moves or do your job – that's what I've focussed on."
This year, Cromwell had a mixed calendar of Spring Classics and climbing events. At many of those she was handpicked to support Kasia Niewiadoma.
"At the start of the year, Kasia asked specifically for me to be one of the riders in the team for Strade Bianche, for the ideal team she wanted around her. Things like this are meaningful to a rider, to know that you're valued as a teammate, and it gives you the motivation to give as much energy as you can to them," she said.
"With every race, my confidence grew a bit more. I could be in the races until 30km to go through the attacks and then set up in the finals. Feeling strong and being there when the selections were happening was important to show myself that I could be at the pointy end of racing again, at the fun part of the race.
"When I got the message from Rory, saying the national team was thinking about me for the Olympic selection, that gave me a bit more motivation to dig as deep as I could."
Being a world-class athlete inherently comes with heightened stress. Managing the pressures of training, racing, travel, nutrition, and expectations is essential to any athlete's success. Cromwell said that in addition to better handling pressure and feeling valued at her team, she also feels well-supported in her personal life and attributes some of her success to feeling settled.
"I'm more settled in my personal life. I've been in a relationship now for a year and a half, and things like that. We have our apartment. He's also a sportsperson and at the top of his game, so having that kind of mutual support for each other is important. He's been a massive influence in keeping me calm, not over-stressing and making sure that I'm doing little things right," said Cromwell of her partner Valtteri Bottas, who is from Finland and is a member of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team.
"I'm recovering properly, getting the proper nutrition, and looking after myself because I'm not stressing about everything else. Taking out a lot of the stress has helped a lot. Having new experiences has helped, too. We decided not to go back to Australia this year and spent the winter in Finland, which was a completely new experience.
"I didn't have the stress of being ready for the Australian races in the early season. Instead, I barely rode my bike until our first training camp in January. I had done a small bit in December, but then we were in Finland, minus 20 Celsius and snowing. I did other things, which is refreshing for the head. Little things like that, gaining new experiences and still knowing what you are capable of, so I came into the season fresh for our team camp for a big training block."
Cromwell also attributed her success this spring to a different approach to training. Rather than the almost never-ending training rides, she has cut down the hours and increased the intensity with more specific training efforts.
"My training approach has changed completely. I train less but much more specifically. I was a typical rider who overtrained and didn't like recovery days. I tried to do more than necessary and was always tired and couldn't figure out why I couldn't perform," Cromwell said.
"I have learned to embrace taking days off, rest weeks, and feel fresh and have the legs to do the proper intensity. I naturally felt stronger on the bike, ready and not fatigued."
Cromwell also said that the reducing stress and managing pressures has helped her change her body composition and improve her power-to-weight ratio.
"From power-to-weight point of view, it has definitely increased. My body composition has reduced quite a bit in the last year, without focus, but coming down to being calmer and reducing stress. Stress can play with your body composition a lot," she said.
"When you're more sure of yourself, not worrying, and have a bit more confidence in yourself, having the right people around you, and letting your body rest – those are the most important things."
Cromwell had initially committed to a season of gravel racing but has now rearranged her calendar with a focus on the Olympic Games. She plans to pick up her gravel racing plans post-Tokyo.
She is currently doing a three-week block of training in Monaco and plans to spend some time in Finland. She will next race at La Course on June 26 followed by the Giro d'Italia Donne from July 2-11.
"I normally come out of the Giro with good form and that will be good ahead of the Olympics," she said.
The Tokyo Olympic Games was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cromwell said that she understands that there will be extra protocols, restrictions, and health precautions at the venue, but that she is ready to take-in her first, and likely only, experience at the Olympic Games.
"Deep down you hope and wish and dream to go to the Olympic Games. We all want to represent our country at the Olympic Games, and of course, I still had that drive inside of me, knowing that this is the last chance because where I’m at in my career," Cromwell said.
"I’m happy to have support from my family and friends, and to feel what that magic everyone talks about feels like, and to race in my national team colours is very special."
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