"It’s been an absolute whirlwind three years", says Rachel Neylan, about her life since she took up cycling. The 29-year old Australian is on a mission – not just to represent her country at the Olympics, a goal she’s dreamt of since childhood, but to use the opportunities she has as a pro athlete in a positive way, wanting "to work at a level where I can use my passion and enthusiasm for health and well-being for something bigger".
Speaking for myself, her inspiration is definitely working. There’s something about her story, and the way she tells in on her blog – the way she’s taken risks, given up everything for her dream, including booking herself onto a ‘plane to Europe, determined to find a team to take her on – that gives me hope and makes me smile. Sure, things haven’t always been easy for her, and she’s had lows as well as highs, but I was really pleased to get the chance to interview her. We spoke after she’d returned to Lucca, Italy from riding in the Tour of the Gila in the USA, and talked about how her cycling adventures started, and what her wider goals are.
Rachel Neylan has dreamed of being an Olympian since she was ten years old, and at 29, has London 2012 firmly in her sights.
"I was mesmerised by the Olympic games, I used to wake up at three, four in the morning to watch the opening ceremony. I remember Barcelona ’92, I’ve got memories of ’88, I’ve always been passionate about watching it. There’s something special, mystical, magical… pushing yourself to the maximum physical performance, it’s amazing what goes into that, how one gets there, the stories that go alongside it"
She started off on the track, in athletics, with hurdling being her favourite discipline, so although she was always a passionate athlete, and had good results in state competitions, she was never able to reach the top, no matter how hard she tried. Through a boyfriend at the time, she looked to rowing, and although she got to racing standard, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get to the Olympic standard she craved, so she went back to athletics, this time, middle-distance.
Rowing taught her she had potential for success in endurance sports – and talking about this now, it seems like it was always where she belonged. "At 10 I was a really skinny kid, skinny and lanky - I even looked like an endurance athlete, but somehow I fell in love with hurdling. I didn’t know sport apart from athletics."
Neylan studied physiotherapy at Sydney University, worked with top Australian Rules Football clubs (the Sydney Swans) and some of the top Sydney sports clinics, culminating with working with the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) and Rowing Australia. In the summer of 2007 she went out to Europe with Rowing Australia for ten weeks, supporting "Olympians, gold medallists" in their preparations for the 2008 Olympics. But even though her career was something most sports physios must dream of, her sporting ambitions made her frustrated.
"I was just filled with envy every time I was helping them achieve their goals, and I’d sneak off to do some training of my own. I knew that if I wasn’t happy, being at that level in my career at 25, I needed to change… I knew I could go to the London or Beijing Olympics [as a physio]… but I thought, I’ve got so many years ahead of me for my career"
While she was in Europe, she’d been talking with the team physiologist and physiotherapist about her dreams, and as result in August 2007 she decided it was time to give it a real try – she’d seriously commit to middle distance, or start triathlon… or cycling.
It seems a very Rachel Neylan trait that before she made her decision, she researched the hell out of it. She started looking into women’s cycling on the internet, especially women’s cycling development in Australia – and a press release from South Australian Sports Institute / National Talent Identification Department jumped out with her – advertising a programme with the Government-funded departments, to find new cyclists. There was just one problem – this was a region-specific programme, and she was born and living in Sydney, New South Wales. At first she was told she didn’t qualify, but she persuaded SASI to test her, if she paid her own way. So she jumped on a plane and headed off 1,400 km away for the testing.
"I don’t know what compelled me, looking back I think I was crazy", she laughs, "but I knew it was a credible programme". It was a four-week testing period, and she had to fly down twice – and in that time she travelled with the Australian rowing team to the World Championships in Germany ("I kept sneaking out to find a gym, to train on a spin bike, it was hilarious"). "I didn’t blow the numbers out of the water… but the final test was a road bike time trial, up a hill, and I posted a good time".
She was accepted onto the programme, and took the decision to move away from her family and friends, to a brand-new State – she’d sent her initial email to SASI at the end of August, and by 13th October was living in Adelaide. She spent 2008 racing the Australian domestic calendar, travelling interstate with SASI and learning how to become a cyclist, under the guidance of top Australian coach Gary West.
For the 2009 season she decided it was time to race internationally, and got herself a spot riding in the USA for four weeks on the Proman team (which has morphed into Peanut Butter & Co TWENTY12) alongside Shelley Olds. Four weeks stretched to ten, and after her experiences in the USA, she decided she was ready to race in Europe, got on a ‘plane and flew out to Italy.
I joke that I have this vision of her calling up the Australian National team, asking if she could race with them – and then next thing they knew, she’s on their doorstep with a bike and a backpack, but she had been confirmed to ride at least one race, the Sparkassen Giro. Of course, one race stretched to the rest of the season, and she rode the Holland Ladies Tour with Dutch Hepro' team, the World Cup Rund um die Nürnberger Altstadt with Team Australia and the Giro della Toscana with Team System Data. She’d paid for her whole year’s racing out of her own pocket – including the flights to America, Europe and back to Australia, and she was determined to have some more. However, there was a problem – AIS hadn’t offered her a spot for 2010. This didn’t stop her – she booked a flight anyway, and arranged a spot on Team System Data for 2010
"At that time it was before the Nationals, I didn’t get into the AIS team – but I thought the only way to progress was to go back to Europe. At that time the AIS door was shut, this was my last opportunity [with the Australian structures], but meanwhile I’d found another opportunity, even though it ended up I only rode for two races with the team."
And of course, she continued to train, and to race over the Australian summer – coming fourth overall in the hilly Tour of Bright, and fourth in the 2010 Australian National Road Race Championships. These results helped her with what she saw as her last chance through the Australian cycling system – she applied for the Amy Gillett Foundation’s Sporting Scholarship.
The Amy Gillett Foundation was set up after the death of Amy Gillett, an Australian rower and cyclist who had been killed in a horrific road accident in Germany in 2005, when the Australian cycling team were hit by a car, injuring five riders, and killing Amy.
The Foundation came from an idea of Amy's husband, Simon Gillett, a former head coach of Rowing Australia, who had overseen Australia’s huge rowing medal haul at the Atlanta Olympics. The Foundation runs on three strands – improving road safety for cyclists by working with drivers, cyclists and the Government, and supporting an academic scholarship; running mass participation rides (the Amy’s Rides that run all over the country, and will include their first ever closed-road, UCI-endorsed Gran Fondo – on the iconic Great Ocean Road on 18th September); and every year, supporting a woman cyclist to help reach her athletic goals.
The AGF sporting scholarship pays for accommodation and costs, and gives the holder a spot in the AIS team to race a specified stint in Europe. In return, the scholarship holder promotes the Foundation’s work, which Neylan, through her blog, twitter and personal work in the media, excelled at.
Her work for the AGF was so much more than just gratitude for them helping her – it was combining some of her wider interests.
"One day I would love to go back and work for them, they combine so many things I’m interested in – safe cycling; women’s sport; health; the environment; all the key benefits of cycling," she says. "If you can use your position as an Australian representative or pro athlete to help affect the health or well-being of others, that’s a pretty good place to be! If it’s only my facebook friends or Twitter followers – I’m not saying it’s a big influence on the world, but it makes it an absolute pleasure to do what I’m doing."
"After cycling I know I’ll have a full career, whatever my future destiny is – it will combine some of the experiences I’ve had from cycling.
The 2010 AGF scholarship gave her a place on the Australian team again, and her results improved throughout the spring – 13th in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda World Cup, sixth in the GP Mameranus (the Luxembourg race that closes the Classics season) and 10th in the Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria. Her season was interrupted by two major crashes (the first damaged her backside so much she couldn’t sit down, the second left her with a wired jaw and unable to smile or laugh, which seems much more of a problem for her) but she still finished 9th overall in the Tour Féminin en Limousin while working for teammate Ruth Corset who was second.
She was not able to rely on the national team for her whole year in Europe, only with the scholarship provided race stints, so set herself up in Lucca, Toscana. While living there, she met Manel Lacambra, who had moved from DS for the Cervélo Test Team’s fabulous 2009, to Team USA, where he oversaw the team’s huge success, with Mara Abbott winning the biggest race of the women’s calendar, the Giro Donne. Lacambra had seen her in training and racing and so when he left Team USA and became DS for Diadora-Pasta Zara, he invited Neylan to ride for the team.
It must be an interesting time to have joined the team. As Safi-Pasta Zara, they had been a very traditional and prestigious Italian women’s team, with a long history, and with Diana Ziliute, a highly respected DS who had been an elite cyclist in her own right – a former Road World Champion, Olympic bronze medallist and winner of the first ever UCI Road World Cup in 1998 and again in 2000. When the team came under the wing of the Geox cycling team, taken on a new DS and a whole set of new riders. How do they balance the traditions and the new direction?
"It’s an intricate balance" says Neylan, but it’s working. "It’s a full team of really fun, passionate, enthusiastic, energetic girls, a mix of eight different nationalities".
Neylan’s role in the team is climbing domestique and key worker for the team’s climbers, Claudia Häusler, Olga Zabelinskaya, and of course last year’s Giro winner, Mara Abbott, and it’s clear Neylan can’t wait for the hilly stage races to begin, so she can get on with her job.
"Racing for Mara, she is an incredible climber, such a talent", she says. With Häusler, too, she feels "privileged to have as a teammate - her experience and race knowledge is exceptional". She’s got positive things to say about everyone on the team – Zabelinskaya, who’s "got two children, she was an outstanding rider before she left to have her first child, and since she’s been back, she won Thüringen, and came 12th at the Worlds when she was still jet-lagged – they only arrived eight days before the race." And of course, her old friend Shelley Olds, who she rode with on Proman.
"It’s bizarre how it’s happened, that we’re linked up again. Shelley’s got an incredible story, really inspiring, and she’s such a positive person. She and I room together a lot and we get on really well"
Manel Lacambra and Diana Ziliute are sharing the role of DS, sharing the races, and both have already taught Neylan a lot. "I learnt more from Manel in the first couple of days in the Tour of New Zealand than I’d learnt in three years", she says. And of Ziliute, "It’s exciting and a privilege to have got to know her, she’s such an amazing athlete." Getting to learn from such different experts, whether the DSs or other team members, is one of the things Neylan’s clearly enjoying about her new team. She talks about how she wants to always associate herself with people she can learn from, and who she aspires to be like.
"I always need to be open to new knowledge – I have so much to learn – and I need to learn it fast! I always had this golden rule at work: the day I think I know everything is the day I’m the worst physiotherapist in the world – and it’s the same with cycling."
And of course, at the heart of the team remains Marina Romoli, who was hit by a car while training last year, and is still in a wheelchair as a result. She was at the centre of Safi-Pasta Zara last year, with riders dedicating their win to her, and this is one of the traditions Diadora are keeping hold of.
"I think it’s fantastic", says Neylan, "she’s a really good friend of all the girls, it reminds you not to take anything for granted. Seeing her at the team presentation, her first time out of hospital, and she sat in her wheelchair and spoke on stage, and spoke - that was quite a moment. She provides a lot of inspiration to a lot of people, it’s only right she’s still part of the team"
I’m interested in the transition from track athletics, an individual sport, to cycling, where as an untried domestique, Neylan’s role will be to work herself into the ground for her team leaders. How has this been for her?
"I’m just as ambitious for the team – the way we race and the tactics we pu
t into our racing makes it rewarding for the whole team. We know and we trust each other that we’re all going to put in 100%. It’s just as much – and more satisfying for the results for the team than as an individual"
"But individuality also comes in training. I’m ambitious about my SRM data and training load, to be the best cyclist I can be, in the short-term, for the next race, and for the next season. I’ve got a long-term development plan. There is a lot of solo time, in between traces, for training and preparation."
"This year, with a lot more of the top pro teams and talent spread out over more teams, and more development of cyclists from non-native cycling countries – like the UK, Australia and the USA. With the level increasing, there’s obviously more pressure. It’s harder than ever to get a spot in a UCI pro-team. You have to value team-work – you can’t get to number one in the world without a hundred percent team-work ethic."
In 2011 she’s back in Lucca, where off the bike she’s working for SRM, and living at their company’s Italian headquarters: "It gives me something to occupy my time apart from training and racing – and to develop skills in other areas of work. It pays for rent and gives me independence"
Despite her work with SRM and her salary from the team, she’s still living fairly hand-to-mouth, still occasionally dipping into her savings, and of course, relying on the support her sponsors give her. She works hard both to get sponsors, but also to give them a return on their investment.
"People say there’s a lot more at stake in men’s racing – with the money, the sponsorship, the tv. I’m not one to stamp my feet and say life’s not fair – but there is a lot at stake for women – women are combining racing with raising children, studying part-time, occupying professional jobs off the road, women are living off a couple of hundred Euros a month, riding on just pure passion"
That Neylan is riding on passion is so clear from how she talks – her voice is full of enthusiasm, and she’s working towards a clear plan - "to become a very, very intelligent and intuitive racer, and a strong time triallist… It’s going to be very difficult, but I’m more motivated than ever, I know what I have to do, and strategies mapped out"
Of course, she’s not the only Australian woman with her eye on the Olympics – and Neylan is happy to face that extra challenge, of having to compete with more riders to get the precious team spots. She says the profile of women’s cycling is growing in Australia, and cites Rupert Guiness at the Sydney Morning Herald with helping promote it and give the women more visibility. And she’s always doing her bit too, with her own blogs, and writing on the CyclingTips blog (I highly recommend her post on the current state of Australian women’s racing)
So she’ll be working hard over the next year to get to London, but even if she doesn’t make it, she’ll be finding new things to learn, and ways to use her experiences.
"Everything is a bonus – you can take a leap of faith and change your life. It’s not all easy sailing, but that makes you appreciate it. If you’re always asking yourself questions about do you really want it… if you don’t get forced to ask those hard questions, you won’t get that real stimulus of hunger"
"If I can use my passion, and my enthusiasm and my ability to try to inspire other people, that’s very humbling. I’m a big advocate for using my place in cycling for my place in the world. I want to inspire young girls to take up sport, for people to get fit – if I can just do that for people, then that’s success!"
Interview: Sarah Connolly
Rachel would particularly like to thank all her sponsors
All photos property of and used with permission of Rachel Neylan www.rachelneylan.com; cycling photos by Sam Roberts, used with permission of Rachel Neylan