Transfer Mechanics: Sarah Gigante’s transition from pursuer to pursued

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24: at the Women's Trek Stage 4 Victoria Park of the Santos Festival of Cycling on January 24, 2021 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Peter Mundy/Getty Images)
Sarah Gigante (Team Garmin-Australia) finishing off the 2021 Santos Festival of Cycling with overall victory and two stage wins (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Nearly three years ago Sarah Gigante delivered an astonishing victory, upsetting the seasoned professionals to take out the elite Australian road race title in her first foray out of the junior ranks. The 18-year-old now had a win that many professional cyclists spend their careers dreaming of, but what she didn’t have was a firm pathway so that she could become one herself.

The Australian development squads for aspiring road racers, which delivered chunks of overseas competition, had become a thing of the past with the high performance focus for developing talent having become track-centric. That meant for young riders from the far flung nation to gain a foothold in the world of professional cycling it became ever more crucial to find a spot on an International team to gain exposure in Europe.

However, even with the green and gold striped jersey of the elite national champion on her back, on top of her clean sweep of the U19 titles in 2018, it was far from an easy task for Gigante to make that step.

“Thinking back to 2019 it was trying to get email addresses, asking people or looking on the Internet, and not getting any replies,” Gigante told Cyclingnews.

It would probably be fair to say there may be a few teams that now could be regretting the decision not to reply to those emails from the aspiring young professional cyclist, who had launched to the top of the elite podium so quickly she was barely legally able to drink the sparkling wine she sprayed from the top step, after struggling unfamiliarly to open it. After two years with a team that did reply, TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, some of the world’s top outfits were now knocking on her door instead.

“It's a bit easier when it is the other way, rather than begging to get on to teams,” Gigante said. “It's nice to have some choice.”

That choice Gigante was faced with earlier this year included not just one top-tier team, but four or five, including one that has proven a launching pad for many developing Australian cyclists. Team BikeExchange, confirmed to Cyclingnews that they were among the squads that had been in discussions with the developing rider however, as much as the only home nation WorldTour team seems a likely choice for an Australian rider, they were not ultimately the squad that secured her signature.

Movistar, home to Dutch powerhouse Annemiek van Vleuten, won over Gigante, signing a three year deal that will see her riding with the Spanish Women's WorldTeam right through to the end of 2024.

So what changed so much in the space of under two years that turned Gigante from the pursuer to the pursued and why did Gigante choose Movistar over the other offers she had in place?

In demand

OYAMA JAPAN JULY 25 LR Sarah Gigante of Team Australia and Hannah Ludwig of Team Germany during the Womens road race on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Fuji International Speedway on July 25 2021 in Oyama Shizuoka Japan Photo by Michael SteeleGetty Images

Sarah Gigante front and centre at the women's road race where she secured one of the hotly contested spots on the Australian team despite being injured when the selections were announced (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

There is no doubt there have been changes afoot in women’s cycling.

Minimum wages have been introduced in the top-tier teams along with conditions that include maternity leave and the calendar is expanding, including the re-introduction of a Tour de France for women. The professionalism of the sport at the top level is increasing, along with the profile and demand for key riders as the number of women’s squads aspiring to the top-level are growing. 

The retirement of prolific winners too – such as Anna van der Breggen – and the talk by others – like Annemiek van Vleuten – of potentially calling an end to their careers before too long has highlighted the need to develop a new generation to take their place. Also, the altering calendar may have altered priority lists, with riders that have stage race potential now looking to have more high profile races available to develop and deliver on that promise.

These are circumstances that likely worked in Gigante’s favour, intensifying the spotlight on developing talent, particularly with Gigante's broad skill-set. Movistar’s women’s team manager Sebastián Unzué described her as “one of the biggest under-23 prospects in the whole international peloton right now," saying in a statement when the rider was signed  that she is “a really well rounded athlete, who defends herself brilliantly against the clock, who loves the mountains, and one whom I think will be a huge asset to the team from day one.”

Another one of the changes afoot in the women's peloton is that the use of agents is growing, though from a very low base. The Cyclists’ Alliance most recent survey put the number of riders represented by an agent at 18 per cent. This time Gigante was among that 18 percent.

The rider had Jamie Barlow from 258 Protégé representing her, also helping make the process an easier task than she faced in 2019 as she sent off emails – seemingly into the void – on her own. 

The responses were far more forthcoming this time, even though Gigante hadn’t exactly had the easiest of runs through her 2020 and 2021 seasons. Strict COVID-19 pandemic related restrictions in her home-country, injury and health issues combined to limit her opportunities but when she did get a chance to compete she delivered a number of performances that couldn’t be ignored.

Gigante added two Australian time-trial titles to her palmares delivered a gutsy long solo break and spectacular climb up Wilunga to win two stages and the overall at the Santos Festival of Cycling, again showing that she had what it took to match it against seasoned professionals. Her limited race days in Europe were nothing to write home about but she made a solid entry into the tough top level-peloton even in the races that didn’t play to her strengths. 

Unfortunately, just when the promise of more suitable terrain in the Ardennes arrived, injury struck again. Despite a broken collarbone, elbow and fibula, she recovered to take 11th in the time trial at the Olympic Games, which was only her first big international outing in the discipline. 

“Sarah's results had done most of the work,” her agent Barlow told Cyclingnews when asked what was required to fan the interest of teams. “She was already known to the top teams. All these teams now either have scouts employed or they see enough results to know who are the strong riders coming through. Sarah's name has been on the radar for a long time.

“I think she was going to get that step up regardless, it was just a case of stepping up with which team and in which environment."

Priorities and choices

BALLARAT AUSTRALIA FEBRUARY 03 Sarah Gigante of Team TibicoSilicon Valley Bank rides during the individual time trial as part of the Australian Road National Championships on February 03 2021 in Ballarat Australia Photo by Robert CianfloneGetty Images

Sarah Gigante (Team TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank) time trials her way to victory, and another national title, at the Australian Road Championships in 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Gigante had already learnt first hand how hard it can be to be a long way from home and established support networks when things didn’t go to plan. In her first full season in Europe, this year, the 20-year-old not only had to grapple with multiple breaks, but was frighteningly dealing with severe chest pain on her return from Tokyo. She was in and out of hospital as a result, eventually finding out the cause was myopericarditis.

Gigante said there was appeal on going to another team with a “family environment”, which she said she had also been fortunate to have at TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, and the focus wasn’t on money but finding a place where she’d enjoy the experience so could work her way toward a cycling career with longevity.

"The main part of that – apart from being healthy –, is being happy so we just went for a team where I would be really happy, hopefully, and learn as much as I can," said Gigante.

Having options, and a number of possibilities presented to her did mean that the young rider had a tough decision to make with the Gigante saying, "every team has big pros and many draw cards, but I'm really, really happy with my decision to go to Movistar.”

So what about Movistar stood out?

Apart from the family environment, a big part of the appeal for Gigante was those she'll be riding alongside.

"I'm so, so excited to be moving to Movistar," Gigante said, with her voice still bubbling over as she discussed the shift, even though when we spoke with her it had been weeks since the announcement.

"I think I'll be able to learn just so much from the riders around me and not just Annemiek. It's no secret that Annemiek is one of my favourite and I've looked up to her for so long," Gigante said, recounting the tale of how she'd snagged a selfie with the Dutch rider in the toilet queue at a kermesse in Belgium a couple of years ago. 

It's not surprising that she's drawn to the race dominating Dutch woman, with a similarity in areas that look to be among her developing strengths, from time trial promise to climbing prowess. Though, she also speaks with admiration of the rising talent of sprinter Emma Norsgaard.

"There are so many other riders too that I think I'll be able to learn so much from and also riders that are developing, like me."

The three year deal that Movistar offered, too, was seen as a vote of confidence.

“I really liked that part," said Gigante. "I really like the fact that they must have faith in me, they must believe in me, to sign me for that long.”

The challenge of learning to communicate in a team dominated by a language a rider is not familiar with could be something that is seen as a deterrent for some riders, however for an ever studious Gigante, who is also studying linguistics and geography at the University of Melbourne, it is just another element that she expects to enrich the experience.

"I can't wait to learn Spanish," Gigante said. "I'm trying now but I think it will be easier when I'm surrounded, so that is a little bonus."

No doubt by the time she's spent three years at Movistar she'll have mastered the language, along with the art of spraying champagne from the podium.

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Production editor

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 as a correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.