As all the teams lined up in the women’s race at the Santos Festival of Cycling this year, there was a figure that stood out in the peloton and breaks. It wasn’t because she was high profile, well known or even featuring in one of the big teams. It was the exact opposite. Amid the sponsor clad riders the single plain light jersey of the relative unknown, Alana Forster, couldn’t be missed especially when it was out the front so often.
The 34-year-old Forster was one of two individual riders in the peloton but was certainly not content to sit back and just hold on for the ride, instead launching an audacious raid lasting to the final climb on stage 1 and then backing it up with another dig on stage 3 that was swallowed up on the run up to Willunga Hill.
“You want to light up a race a bit and you know nine times out of ten a break won't stick but there’s that chance it will. You've got to have a little bit of hope,” said Forster.
That little bit of hope saw the emergency department doctor try to single-handedly take on a peloton that included the team ranked fourth on the Women’s WorldTour, Team BikeExchange, and made her the only rider to take the most competitive rider award twice.
She spent more time on the awards stage than almost any other rider other than overall winner Sarah Gigante (Team Garmin Australia), who also walked away with the vast majority of the individual classifications.
There were no stage wins, podiums, or earth shattering climbs up the overall as a reward for the efforts, and no sponsors on the jersey that would be grateful for the television time, but the satisfaction and joy of having given it a whirl was clearly a huge prize.
“I wasn't in it for GC, I was in it for the experience,” said Forster who set her heart on racing in South Australia after being captivated by the atmosphere during a trip to stand on the roadside and cheer on the professional riders last year.
Impressively even after those solo efforts, plus a long hard chase back to the field on stage 2 after landing in a ditch while avoiding a skidding rider ahead, she still managed to consistently hold a good position to the line. That meant Forster took 26th on the overall of the fiercely contested four-day race. No easy effort without a team.
“You certainly see team tactics apply and it's hard because you want to participate but you know you’ve got a limited number of matches you can burn,” explained Forster.
“Certainly, on the Willunga day I knew I probably only had one or two chances to go in a break, so I guess that does mentally play on you because I'm by no means the strongest rider out there and a lot of times if you've got seven riders, you've got a lot of options to play with.”
It was circumstance, not choice, that left Forster without a team at the Santos Festival of Cycling.
"I was desperate to get a ride for this race and I'm really lucky that the stars aligned because I was meant to come over with the NSW Institute of Sport team but of course all of them are stuck on the wrong side of the border,” said Forster.
The South Australian border was closed to those from parts of New South Wales because of COVID-19 cases in and around Sydney, but that didn’t apply to the Canberra-based rider so she set about trying to find a way to make it as an individual. That was where the camaraderie of the peloton set in as what would have been a rival team, Butterfields Racing, welcomed her with open arms, supporting her on the logistics so she could still take to the start line.
“You don't think about the behind the scenes, things like accommodation or transport for a race, or nutrition, or feeding, post-race logistics etc and even just the team camaraderie in itself. It could be pretty isolating and lonely being on your own and I'm most grateful for the Butterfield's team,” said Forster.
In fact the attitude of the whole of the peloton made her feel that even though she was racing as an individual, she certainly wasn’t in it alone.
The fans alike embraced her, cheering as she went past out the front and often getting a wave from Forster in response. Much to her delight they also come up to her after the race.
“I've never had to give an autograph to anyone before unless it was on a prescription or something,” said the doctor.
The organisation, publicity and prestige associated with the Santos Festival of Cycling had far more in common with the usual men’s WorldTour event and the women’s 2.Pro ranked race, which was cancelled because of COVID-19, than a normal Australian National Road Series event.
The whole event received extensive media coverage, saw fiercely contested racing and included a sprinkling of the world’s top cyclists. However, without a field filled with WorldTour Teams, a whole lot of domestic racers who would never otherwise be able to enter got to revel in some of the type of treatment that is usually reserved for the top professional racers.
“If this was a UCI or WorldTour race I certainly wouldn't be here so I'm very grateful for the opportunity," said Forster.
Forster, who only got herself a road bike four years ago and then started racing at an elite level in 2019, is sure to embrace any more of those opportunities that come her way.
She has done some racing overseas over the last couple of years and was hoping this year would include plenty more after she signed with AWOL O’Shea for 2021. However, with the current circumstances making the international racing options uncertain she is for now focussed on the upcoming Australian Road National Championships.
“I'm a goal-oriented person, so I'd like to see where cycling could take me,” he said.
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