A racer since the age of 13, the 2013 Australian road race champion is looking forward to her second year as part of the Orica-AIS team. A few days out from her title defence on the circuit in Buninyong we spoke to 25-year-old Gracie Elvin about her expectations of the race, her career to date and what’s she’s learned since arriving on the pro scene.
Here is a transcript of Rob Arnold’s discussion with Gracie Elvin.
RIDE: The new outfits for the teams were launched for Orica-AIS and Orica-GreenEdge. Did you get to go along to that or are you staying up near where the nationals are being held?
Gracie Elvin: “No, we are all up in Ballarat and we had Loes Gunnewijk and Jessie McLean drive down to Melbourne today with some of the staff and some of the male riders as well, but not the whole team. Some of us are racing the time trial tomorrow (Wednesday, 8 January) so we didn’t really want to spend five hours in the car. It’s good that we had two girls go and represent us and show off the new kit – I think we’re all pretty happy with it.”
Was there much input from the team with the new sponsor, Craft? Did you have anything to say about what you wanted from the clothing?
“I guess we’ve all got a little bit of experience now of racing throughout the season and in different conditions so we certainly all had a few points that we wanted to make sure were covered in terms of having enough kit to chose from. We get so many different weather conditions and we really need a good selection of clothes and I think Craft really listened to that and we’ve been provided with a really good selection of things for us to wear through the season… we’re all looking forward to giving it a test run this weekend and seeing how it goes over in Europe.”
At this time of the year, when the new kit does arrive, do you just get a massive suitcase full of stuff and it’s a case of each time you get dressed it’s a new item of clothing? How does it work?
“In Australia they really just provide us with the bare minimum because we’ve all got to take it back to Europe anyway for the rest of the season so we’re just given two or three kits here and a few extra bits and pieces to keep us going for a couple of weeks before we head back to Europe. Once we’re there, we’ll probably get a big suitcase of stuff and it’s like a second Christmas – we all love it and have a good time trying everything on. But in terms of opening a fresh set of kit every time we go riding, I think that’s a bit of a myth. Maybe some of the men get that but not as far as I know.”
So what’s you’re feeling, do you think you’ll keep the colours of 2013 and be able to ride again in green and gold (as the national champion) – how are things shaping up for you at the nationals?
“I had a really good break after the world champs last year, I took about six weeks off the bike. I did a few fun rides – a few charity rides – but I really made sure I had a good break. It was more of a mental break as well.
“I needed to relax and spend time with friends and family.
“Then I got back into training again in November and started ramping it up a bit more in December so coming into the Bay Crits that we just finished, I wasn’t really sure of my form. I was actually a bit nervous but I raced really well and I surprised myself. Now I’m a lot more confident coming in to this week.
“I think I’ve got the fitness to do well at the road titles on Saturday but it’s anyone’s race and that’s what makes road cycling exciting – it’s that anything can happen on the day. I’m confident in my fitness but I’m just going to have to trust my instincts and we’ll just race well as a team and see what happens.
“I’ve raced the 10 laps before, a couple of times, so I know what I’m up for. Last year was different because we had the two big laps to start with and we really only did the climb seven times. So this year is definitely going to be pretty hard by the pointy end of the race and I think that’s what’s going to make the difference for a lot of girls – those last two or three climbs.
“As a team we’re all pretty confident that we’ll get around it.
“It’s going to be a hard day either way but that’s why we race and I think we’re all ready for it.”
How many Orica-AIS women will be in the race?
“We’ve got five, so just a ‘normal’ size team. We’re not going to be overly dominant but I think we definitely have the advantage of experience and confidence and sometimes I think people are a bit intimidated by that, so we use that as an upper hand.”
Can we get a little bit of background on you and find out how you came to be where you are today?
“Last year was my first year with the team; the nationals in 2013 was one of my first races with Orica-AIS so it was pretty fun to be able to win it. And it’s nice to consolidate this year and spend another year with the team. I feel really ‘at home’ and I think I can build on my performances and they have confidence in me for that too.”
If you started racing in your teens, can you offer a quick synopsis of the pathway to the professional ranks?
“I started cycling when I was about 13. I did a lot of junior cycling but it was more just for fun. By the time I was 17 I got into a mountain bike talent ID program which was called ‘Dirt Roads To London’. I had quite a few friends who were mountain biking at the time and they suggested I give it a go.
“I actually really enjoy mountain biking and I stayed with that sport for about five years. By the time I was 20, I was in the national team and we did all of the World Cups and world championships and by the end of that year, which was 2009, the government cut funding for mountain biking as a sport. So there was no national team and no state level funding or anything either.
“It became a self-funded sport and I stayed for another two years and paid my way to a few of the World Cup races and world champs but I always knew that I wanted to go back to the road and I guess the catalyst for that was because there were just really no opportunities left in mountain biking.
“It was a good time forme to have a think about what I wanted to do and I knew that I love road riding so I kept an ear out for opportunities.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘infamous’ women’s selection camps for the AIS… and, well, I did the 2011 edition of that and that’s how I got my AIS road scholarship. I did a year of racing overseas for the national team and that was for about the first half of the season. Then a lot of the team went home to Australia and I was asked to stay on in Europe and ride for an Italian team [Faren-Honda] for another three months – with Rochelle Gilmore and Nicole Cooke and lot of Italian riders. That was really one of my first tastes of professional riding in Europe and learning to deal with language barriers and adverse race conditions and a range of accommodation… and all that sort of stuff.
“It was good to be out of the AIS system for a little while just to get that different taste of life on the road. Even though we were with a really good team it was a reminder that you do get very well looked after with the AIS. It was good to see the other side of things.
“That was in 2012 and I did the world championships at the end of the season and it was an awesome way to finish my year as a professional roadie.
“It was pretty awesome to be able to support Rachel Neylan [who finished second, behind Marianne Vos, in the road race] and do it in Holland with the finish on the Cauberg with thousands of people there – it was a great atmosphere and you couldn’t even hear yourself breathe. It was incredible.”
Can you remind us of the scenario in Valkenburg – were you near the front group when the attacks started happening?
“About midway through the race, it was quite aggressive but nothing was really getting up the road. There was a small group off the front and I attacked to go with it and that kind of got the bunch surging and that’s when the main break got away with Rachel, and Marianne followed soon after that.
“It was all about timing, that race, but it was certainly a difficult course and Rachel rode a really good race and I think the rest of us were happy with the efforts that we made to get her into that position. It was an exciting day and we had a fun night after that.”
And that leads us to the nationals in 2013 and the season that you’ve just had. Apart from winning the green and gold jersey in January, what was the highlight of last year?
“Winning the nationals was definitely my highlight as I wasn’t expecting it and I had to keep pinching myself for days afterwards. To be able wear that jersey all through the season was pretty awesome. It put a little bit of a target on my back through; it was hard to get in any breakaways without getting chased down. I certainly felt like I earned a little bit more respect in the bunch and I felt really proud to be the Aussie champ.
“The team wasn’t expecting me to win the nationals; they had wanted me to use last year as a way to gain experience in some of the tougher racing like in the Classics.
“On one hand it was great for me to win the nationals but on the other it kind of put me in the spotlight a bit more than they wanted me to be. I still gained a lot of experience in those races but it was hard to find that balance of riding as a support rider and learning as much as possible while not putting too much pressure on myself – or having other people put pressure on me too. That was the balancing act last year.”
When you say you learned something last year, can you give us an example? I asked the same of [2013 men’s national champion] Luke Durbridge in a recent interview… what would you say was the biggest less on you had last year?
“I think I’ve got reasonably good instincts in terms of race tactics and what I was lacking was the that confidence to really see them through. Having girls like Loes Gunnewijk, the Dutch rider, and Emma Johansson, the Swede who is currently ranked world number-one, there to assist was great.
“They helped me gain that confidence of knowing I was doing the right thing in helping them and they were willing to back me up if I was in the right position.
“Seeing all the different race scenarios with them and learning from those experienced girls – that was the biggest thing I took away from the year. It’s about trusting yourself and trusting each other.”
What about some of the basics of this vagabond life – things like packing well and travelling properly and knowing when to put your feet up… understanding that you’ve got to see more of your hotel rooms than you otherwise might if you were travelling without a job. Did you slow down towards the end of the year because you weren’t trying to see so much of the world?
“You’re right. There are so many things that you just have to take on board. You can’t do it all in the first year that you go away.
“Last year was my first full season. I did all of the spring Classics and raced all the way to the world championships. It was a long season to be on the road and last year everyone said it was the worst spring they’d ever seen… it was just freezing cold, snowing, raining for two or three months at the start of the season. And I really had to learn how to look after myself really completely.
“I had to make sure I was sleeping a lot; always wearing the right clothes; make sure I was packing all the stuff that I needed each day or week or month that I was going to be away from my base; making sure your diet is good… and that’s always going to be a challenge for every rider but I think for girls it’s maybe a bit different. It’s about making sure that you get as much food as you need and not overdoing it either – it’s hard to find that balance.”
What was your trick with the diet? I know Kate Bates travels with a few little concoctions like cinnamon that she adds to her food to assist with digestion. Do you have any little kit-bag stuff like that?
“I usually eat gluten-free food when I’m racing just because I get pretty bad stomach pains if I don’t. I’m always bringing my own nuts and cereals and bread and stuff. Another thing that I always tell new arrivals who are coming from Australia is to bring your own snacks as well. Sometimes you’ll go for long periods without getting a meal or you may have to go to dinner later than you’re used to so I’ve always got a few nut bars or bags of nuts or fruit or something in my bag because I’m one of those people who needs snacks.
“That was my trick: just make sure that you’ve got enough of your own food to be self sufficient.”
You’ve explained that having Loes and Emma in your team has been good for your development. I wonder if there is someone in the peloton who you could nominate as someone you admire and respect – and what it is that they do that appeals to you.
“There are quite a few girls who I’ve looked up to the last couple of years that I’ve been in the peloton. One of my favourite riders is an Australian, Chloe Hoskings. She is younger than me but she has done so much: she’s been to a couple of world championships, she’s been to the Comm Games and Olympics… she’s had some ups and downs. She’s won a lot of races but has kept her head the whole time. I really respect her for that. And she always races fair as well.
“Even though she’s younger than me, I look up to her because she’s very mature about how she goes about things. If she’s passionate about something you’ll know about it – she’s very honest and she’s one of my favourite riders.
“There’s another girl – a Dutch girl – Ellen van Dijk who won the TT at the worlds in 2013: she’s great to look up to. She’s stepped up every year with her strengths. You can see that’s how some of the best riders evolve. They do it slowly over time and they work on different things all the time. Now she’s become such a strong and complete rider and that’s the kind of rider I want to be… you might not be the best in one area but you can always be there in a race and ride strongly.”
What’s going to happen in the time trial [at the nationals] – are you going to get into a new tuck? Have you changed your position? Have you done anything special for the TT?
“I still haven’t got much experience with the time trials. I had a few more opportunities last year to race the TT bike a little bit and tweak the position but as far as time trial training goes, it’s a very small percent of what some of the other girls have done.
“It’s just something that I really need to work into the training schedule and find time to get on that bike as well because it’s so different to the road bike. You really need to do quite a lot of training sessions on and get your body used to those different strengths that you draw on. This year I feel a little bit more prepared for it but I’m largely leaving it up to natural ability.”
From your observations in Ballarat leading up to the racing, who is going to be the winner of the TT?
“It’s hard to go past Shara Gillow, she’s won it three years in a row. She’s a very solid rider on a TT bike. She’s done a lot of work over the years and she hasn’t just won the last three years by a small margin – she’s won by at least a minute so… yeah, it’s going to be pretty hard to beat her.”