The 2016 season could hardly have started any better for Gracie Elvin who enjoyed a new year's day win at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic in Geelong to set up overall victory and see the Orica-AIS rider add her name to list of winners that includes the who's who in recent Australian cycling history.
Pushing for Rio Olympic Games selection, a good start to the season was key to Elvin's chances of making the team but the 27-year-old also knew consistency in Europe would keep her in contention for a plane ticket to Brazil.
With the departure of Emma Johansson at the end of 2015, Elvin and teammate Amanda Spratt have taken on greater responsibility and become key riders for the Australian team. The change in roles is one that Elvin has thoroughly enjoyed over the opening five months of the season as she explained to Cyclingnews from a team training camp in Tuscany last week.
"I've definitely stepped up again this year which is exciting and one of my goals was consistency as I probably mentioned to you last year," Elvin said of her 2016 season thus far which has included fifth place overall at the Ladies Tour of Qatar and second place at the Women's WorldTour Ronde van Drenthe race, doing her Rio claims no harm.
"Being able to go into every race and be competitive with the best girls has been pretty awesome and I am happy with how I am tracking with that. I am yet to get a win but I am definitely closer now than ever and it was awesome to get that WorldTour podium in Drenthe. I think the next few races coming up will be good opportunities for me for that win."
With the team losing the experience and guaranteed wins of Johansson, Orica-AIS brought in Annemiek van Vleuten and Tayler Wiles simultaneously handing Elvin a leadership role the Canberrean is starting to thrive in.
"It's been really interesting, the leadership skills have been something I really wanted to work on and have been working on the last couple of years," she said of the role. "Now that my own performances and my ability has improved, it's given me that extra confidence to be a leader within the team because I am able to do the things I want to on the bike. It's been easier for me to step up this year as a leader alongside Spratty and Annemiek. I've really enjoyed that so far and I've been trying to lead by example mostly."
Elvin is equally content with playing the team role, adding that "I am more confident in myself just from the way that I can race now so it is easier to say things to the other girls to help them improve or lead them in certain races, be the road captain."
Following her narrow loss at the Ronde van Drenthe, Elvin placed seventh the following day at Drentse Acht van Westerveld, 19th at Gent-Wevelgem and 11th at the Tour of Flanders with her performances and results repaying the faith placed her in by team management. A consistent week of racing at the Energiewacht Tour was up next with Elvin finishing in seventh place in a race that was dominated by the women's number one team, Boels Dolamans, to continue her run of good performances across the spring.
Gracie Elvin on the Ronde van Drenthe podium (Sean Robinson/Velofocus)
With the first stanza of the 2016 season having come to a close, Elvin and her teammates headed to Tuscany for a team training camp to prepare for the final push to earn Olympic selection. Teammate Katrin Garfoot is all but assured of her place in Rio for the time trial but the composition of the road team is far from finalised. As Elvin explained, her thoughts regarding the quadrennial event have changed with each passing day and with less than 100 days until the road race, the dream of representing Australia is closer than ever to becoming reality.
"Initially, at the start of the year the Olympics to me were seen as a reward for doing what I needed to do well already," Elvin said. "I did just want to perform consistently at the top level in the spring and get some results. If it went well and I got selected for the Olympic team, that meant I was doing the right things.
"Now that I am a lot closer than what I thought I would be at the start of the year to be in contention for that Olympic team, it's come to the front of my mind a lot more. Everything that I am doing is geared towards Olympic selection. I haven't had too much stress in the last few months but I am definitely feeling a bit of pressure now. Mostly from myself obviously, but I do really want to make that team. Everything I am doing is geared towards that."
"We have a few more races coming up that will be important. We don't have a whole lot longer, probably the most important race coming up is the Boels Rental Hills Classic and that's a very hilly race as the name suggests and a really good opportunity for me to show that I can get through a tough race like that," she said.
"The last couple of races in selection are stages within the Women's Tour of Britain and they've made it bit more hillier this year which is a perfect last opportunity of me to show that I can climb well."
As Elvin won't be going to Rio as the protected rider, she added that her role in the upcoming races will be to demonstrate her value as a domestique and 'opportunist'.
"I just need to show that I am still consistently riding at the top level but also really show that I can be there when it gets to quite hilly races," she said of what she needed to do to earn selection. "Because the Olympics are going to be so difficult I need to show that I can survive a really tough race, probably more so in a support role as that would be my position in the Olympic team. So I need to show that a, I can survive a hilly race and b, that I can do a lot of jobs doing that."
Last year Elvin won her first race on European soil in a two-up sprint over Ellen van Dijk (Boels Dolmans) at Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik which will serve as an important race again in 2016. The UCI 1.1 catergorised race has twice been won by Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv) since it debuted on the calendar in 2011 but it is to see a successful defence. Having successfully defending her Australian national title in 2014, Elvin is well aware of the pressure starting a race with the number one dossard and believes that experience can help propel her to her first European win of 2016 and further stake a claim for Rio.
"It's probably good having had that experience in Australia because it's quite nerve wracking. I think in Europe, I am still going to be nervous but I guess because the level and depth of competition is so much higher I'll be putting pressure on myself. Realistically, it's probably is a lot harder to repeat that win," she said.
"I am not saying that I can't do it, I am definitely going to try, but I think I'll be nervous and go in with a clear head and race my race and race the team race. I am pretty excited actually to go into that as defending champion, it will be a nice new experience."