At the start of the season, our own Monty described Lotto rider Vicki Whitelaw as "probably the nearest equivalent to Jens! that I can think of in the women's peloton... They don't make them soft in Oz"
She's one of those super-domestiques who'll kill themselves for their teams, and then go back to the hotel and tell us all about it on her blog, which is always appreciated, as it really gives an insight into the life of a pro-rider. She only started riding seriously in 2005, at the age of 28, and in her first European season she won stages in the most prestigious women’s races in the calendar, the Giro Donne and the Tour de lʼAude. She's just finished her third Euro season (her first with a stable pro team, Lotto) – and this year she won her first GC jersey, at the Tour de l'Ardèche. I interviewed her as she was enjoying a spring evening in her Canberra home, and we talked about why she writes, what it's like to ride your heart out for your team-mates, coming late into cycling – and much more! Read on below!
When we start talking, one of the first things that comes up is how pleased Vicki had been to read Montyʼs description of her
"Jens Voigt is a bit of a hero of mine. I don't idolise the guy, I donʼt idolise anyone, but to have [Monty] make that comment, I was really chuffed. I'd like to say I'm a similar style of rider, Iʼm not a little mountain goat, Iʼm good on the same type of races – I have power in the flats, on the hard races, rolling terrain, cobbles. I like to think I have the same "Shut up, legs!" attitude!"
"I like being the all-rounder that I am. I love the breakaways, that’s my forte. I can get results, and by shaking up the race, help my team."
The comparison with Jens is apt – as we're talking about her ethos and how she works for others, and she casually drops in "Once I put myself in an ambulance, which was interesting". In an ambulance? She has to tell us more about this!
"It was in the Giro del Trentino, and Nicole Cooke was going for the jersey. So Kim Anderson got away on the descent, and I marked Kim, I was rolling around a lot of the turns, doing all the work, with Nicole in my group. I was quite cactus by the time I got to the climbs. At 300m to go I thought I’d have to get off my bike and walk, I was seeing stars. I tumbled off my bike, and fainted, and the next thing I know, Iʼm in an ambulance on a drip... but my girl won, and that was exciting."
She started out riding by herself, and in 2006 had some great results, winning two Australian tours and the overall National Road Race Series in 2006. She won it again in 2007, along with a number of other prestigious domestic races. She was chosen for the Australian National Team for the Canadian portion of the season, and the following year rode the European season with them. Here she won the ITT stage of the Giro Donne and a stage at the Tour de lʼAude, and having a whole host of top 20 placings in important Tour stages and day races, before going back home for the domestic season, where she won the Tour of Bright.
2009 looked like it would be a good year – she signed to Vision 1, with World & Olympic Champion, Nicole Cooke.... only halfway through the season, the team imploded, and Whitelaw was left team-less, on her own, halfway across the World from her friends and family. No one would have blamed her if she’d turned round and gone home, but that’s not her style.
"It turned into a positive, I was scrambling for races – I picked up some races with the Australian National Team, and I got to ride with the oldest team in the world, the Royal Antwerp – I rode Trophee dʼOr with them. I had some experiences I wouldnʼt have had without it. I donʼt really understand the depth of the thing, but it turned into a positive"
Being the other side of the World and 11 hours away from friends and family is hard – if something goes wrong, she cant just nip home for the weekend, she has to stick it out, because to go home would mean the end of her season. She says that "Itʼs my number 1 priority, a fully functioning Skype. When Iʼm looking for somewhere to live, itʼs more than location, or training, or food!" This does give her and her Australian colleagues an edge over everyone else – "Because weʼre so far away, weʼre pretty thick-skinned, weʼre tough, weʼre committed. If we gave up easily, we wouldnʼt be there".
She talks about how much she’d love it if she was making enough money out of cycling for her husband, Dave, to join her in Europe, but follows it up by saying "I donʼt like to talk loads about the sacrifices, I hate that. Iʼm apart from my husband for 7-8 months each year… But Iʼm a competitor, I enjoy the competing – itʼs a decision I make, itʼs a decision we make together."
It was being so far away from home that started her blogging – it was easier to blog than to send out group emails, and when sheʼs too tired from racing, Dave takes over the blog duties. It has a great dual role – sharing her news with her friends and family back home, while helping fans follow the sport, when the mainstream media (and even races) donʼt keep us as up-to-date as weʼd like. For Whitelaw, "it has the bonus of letting me portray myself the way I want to be portrayed. This has been an avenue to express my own thoughts... And when I know that people are appreciating that inside knowledge, it motivates me to blog more."
Whitelaw races a heavy schedule - I asked her if there are any she doesn’t enjoying riding, and the answer was none – because even the ones that donʼt play to her strengths make her stronger. "I love a packed calendar...In the middle of the season I had the most number of UCI races of any girl, at least I was number 1 at that!"
"I enjoyed the Spring Classics, I would like to have another strong Classics season. I want to do well in those hard, hilly tours. The ones that are my kind of riding, not really long mountains, but the power climbs. The races to do well in are the ones where my strengths are. Tough, aggressive, power climb events. I seem to do well in the stages where everyone is tired."
All the same, this year’s Giro Donne tested her resolve. After being caught up in the big crash on the first stage, she rode the whole race with one injured leg, but still made it right to the end, supporting her team-mate Ashleigh Moolman – even over the penultimate stage that included the legendary Stelvio.
"They took that to another level. That climb! I hadn’t reconned it before, but Ashleigh had, and she described it to us, so I knew what to expect. The day before was just as horrendous, so to hit the Stelvio after doing a day like that before. That was my third Giro, so I was prepared for the intensity, but nothing prepares you for the Stelvio... I love everything about the Giro. It brings out a whole gamut of emotions in everyone. Everyone looks forward to the Giro Donne, even though itʼs so hard. Everyone’s been through that journey, and climbed it together."
After a season riding in support of her Lotto and Australian teammates, her European season ended on a high, winning the Tour de l'Ardèche. "It was nice, when I was in the position for them to do so, to have the girls lay it all out for me"
In Ardèche, her biggest rival was Cervéloʼs Sharon Laws, who is a similar type of rider to Whitelaw – a never-say-die domestique, who came into cycling after making a career for herself. "Weʼre quite good buddies, Sharon and I, sheʼs worked in Australia, and I was in a break with her in lʼAude & Ardèche – weʼre super-competitive on the road. We can be competitive and do all these races, but it can become quite a drag, unless you also have the friends. Some of the riders are just here to race, they donʼt need to have friends – whereas I want to enjoy my cycling. The moment I stop enjoying it – and having people I like enjoying the journeys with me – that’s when I’ll stop"
Other riders Whitelaw likes riding alongside are Amber Neben, who she admires "tremendously", for her ability to overcome adversity, and Judith Arndt, for her persistence "when last year she had injury after injury." Whitelaw calls Marianne Vos "a great role model." "Itʼs great to be riding against Nederland Bloeit – their guts, their aggression – that well-timed aggression, their intuition. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg is like the "peloton mother, she keeps us in line", sorting out issues and guiding new riders into the bunch. "She wins things, she has a great attitude, I donʼt want her to stop."
"Another rider Iʼm going to miss is Kim Anderson," says Whitelaw. " She fulfils a role that’s similar to me, she pulls out fantastic results, but even more, sheʼs working so hard for her team," the Aussie explains. "I love people who are true team-mates – that attitude of "you can’t win a race as an individual. You can win a certain amount of races if you are a great talent and are really fit, but you donʼt last long. If you look at the results the two big powerhouses have, itʼs because they are great teams. You donʼt last long as an individual – you should be doing triathlon, or cyclo-cross!"
Whitelaw is looking forward to her next season, and the way that after a few seasons of decline, 2011 will see a whole range of new and expanded teams, that will change the dynamic in the peloton where for the last few years HTC and Cervélo have operated at a level above all the other teams. With Geox investing in a women’s team, and a number of Dutch teams, like AA Drinks-Leontien.nl stepping up a level, not to mention her own team, Lotto, developing their relationships with Australian and South African teams, the racing is set to get even more intense.
"One of the things that really frustrated me in the first few seasons of racing was how the peloton would allow the major teams to dominate. Next year is looking really exciting, with the talent spread across a number of teams. I think that’s a great thing. Weʼre going to have some really interesting and aggressive racing. Itʼs going to be quite tricky to know who is going to go, who to chase"
"In the past, some girls joined other teams, and got a bit discouraged, the fact that those two teams are so strong. I thought about it – we donʼt have to give in to them. We might not win, but weʼre not going to die trying.
Whitelaw loves the attacking nature of women’s racing, and the fact that the shorter lengths means that there’s no respite from the racing, that it’s competitive from the word go. "I love that competition. I want people to continually throw it down, so itʼs tough to the end. Itʼs hard racing, but gee, itʼs exciting!"
Talking to Whitelaw has convinced me that Monty was right. She definitely embodies the tough, never-say-die attitude that we love in the best riders – the ability to suck up the pain, and make it work for her. It’s not always pleasant out there, but while she can, she’ll always keep going. "Sure, when you’re racing, you’re not enjoying every moment. Itʼs a funny thing, you can be gritting your teeth, hating every moment – wind, rain, cold cobbles – who’d enjoy that? But humans have an incredible ability to forget pain"
During our conversation, Vicki has laughed at the Podium Café’s "phenomenal" interview-to-win ratio, and she asks me how it works, whether itʼs the next race out, or if she can choose which race she can have her Podium Café effect. I’ve reserved it for her – and as you can imagine, itʼs a typically tough, hard race - but Iʼm not telling the world "because I’ll be a marked woman there", she laughs – but for accountability’s sake, if she wins, sheʼs promised to come back and tell us all about it! I can’t wait!
Interview by Sarah Connolly. All photos courtesy of www.vickiwhitelaw.com