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Interview: Rachel Neylan on triumphing over adversity and the Flèche Wallonne

While I was at the Flèche Wallonne with team Hitec Products UCK, I interviewed Rachel Neylan, just after she finished the race, where she’d ridden in support of her Hitec team-mate, Elisa Longo Borghini’s second place. I’ve interviewed Rachel before, in 2011, on her route into cycling, but in the time since then, she’s had a truly tumultuous time, due to team circumstances and injury, and her 2012 looked like it was a year to forget... until she came back in a mixed team at the Tour de l’Ardèche. Her results there, including 3rd place on Stage 6 and 4th in the GC, earned her a spot representing Australia at the 2012 Road World Championships, where she rode an amazing race, ending on the podium with a silver medal. We spoke about riding Flèche as a domestique, her Worlds race and triumphing over adversity.

Rachel Neylan before the Flèche Wallonne
Rachel Neylan before the Flèche Wallonne
Sarah Connolly

PdC: So Rachel, how was Flèche Wallonne for you?

Rachel: The race for me was absolutely perfect. Our goal today was to get Elisa on the podium. Our goal was to win the race, but obviously Marianne Vos is a very, very strong rider, she’s the World Champion, and second to Vos, it’s almost like a victory. Everything today was for Elisa and my job was to make sure she arrived on the podium, and I was really happy with the work that I did for her in the race.

We saw you on the front, as the race turned a corner – was it going into the penultimate climb, or the third-from the end? You were going hard!

Yeah, I think I attacked on all of the climbs in the last lap! Our goal was to make the race hard through the middle section of the last lap, to give everything on those climbs, make it hard, make it fast, just look out for Elisa and keep it fresh for the final.

Tell me about coming up the Mur from a domestique's point of view

Rachel: I attacked into the Mur on the first time, I wanted to ensure Elisa had good position. After the split came back together I was able to start moving the attacks and once I recovered a little bit, I started to attack and drive pace on the following climbs.

The final Mur – well actually I’d already done my work, and I dropped off the front group on the second-to-last climb. I pretty much had given everything, and I had nothing left.

PdC: But you still rode it?

Rachel: Yeah, it was nice actually, everyone’s really encouraging and cheering you on. It’s an amazing race, Flèche Wallonne, it’s one of the only races we get to race on a world stage and really show people what we can do. When I was riding up there, I couldn’t stop thinking of the result, and couldn’t help hoping Elisa had finished it off for us - and she had!

PdC: When did you hear Elisa had come second?

Rachel: Not ‘til I crossed the line and saw my soignie. I couldn’t feel happier!

It’s a really nice feeling! When you know that you’ve given everything in a race for a team-mate, and you cross the line, you’re absolutely exhausted, but you know you’re a team-mate and you know that you’ve had a direct impact on the result, then it’s just the same feeling as having a result yourself. I really believe that!

We’re a really strong, well-knit team and we have a lot of respect amongst each other, and we’re all very much focused and oriented on having one leader and one goal in every single race. And most of those races, most of those goals we’ve achieved in the races so far. We might be a small, little team, but we’re arriving on the podium in most races, so I don’t think we’re small any more!

PdC: You’re the biggest little team in cycling!

Rachel: Yes, that’s us!

Last year seemed so hard for you, and so brilliant for you at the end – if you had given up in June, no one would have been surprised, or blamed you

Rachel: Exactly, I don’t think anyone would have blamed me for giving up last year, after all the… curveballs, I’ll say, that were sent my way. I’ve said this before, I’m a big testament to going through adversity and coming out the other end stronger. And the opportunity to represent Australia was firstly such an honour, and I was just so happy to make that team. And then, in the final of that race, to be given the responsibility, having done my work as a domestique, and then being given the responsibility to finish that race off, and then managing to deliver….

And you rode such a clever race! At the end, how you held your nerve… can you tell me a bit about that, because that was just amazing!

A lot of people have asked me about that, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it myself actually. I am really proud that I managed to hold it together under pressure in the biggest race of my life, and managed to land the biggest result of my life, one which was in well timed need for Aussie women's cycling….

But if you only do it once…!

It was the best day of my life! I’m such a proud and patriotic Australian, that wearing the green and gold and representing my team, all the support staff, Cycling Australia, all the people who have been involved to make Australian cycling arrive on the world stage, I’m that patriotic that I wasn’t just doing it for myself.

I can’t explain it - people always tell you about being in this zone, being in the ultimate performance state of mind, where you can’t feel pain, you don’t feel nerves, you’re just absolutely just locked in the zone – and I can really say that it was a surreal experience, those last 5k, like I knew what I had to do, I had instructions from my team car and I managed to carry it out. I can only say that it was just representing Australia – that was what it was all about.

That’s so nice to hear! It was so exciting to watch. I’m a massive Vos fangirl, so I’m always going to be happy when Vos wins, but it was just such a beautiful podium – Vos, who’s amazing, Elisa, who’s the fresh young talent, and you, with your battles through adversity

And it was really one for the battlers. It was a victory for all the people who’ve been told they can’t. I’m getting emotional – but all the people who’ve ever told you you’re not good enough, all the people who’ve ever told you that you can’t do something, all the people who have said you’ll never make it!

I’ve never been told that I was great or brilliant, or talented and it’s always had to come from somewhere deep within – my drive and desire. And when you remain true to that, and you come to those precious situations – I’d been through so much bullshit that year that the challenges I’d faced, and the pain that I faced in that race, it was all put into perspective, because I’d already gone through the hard stuff.

And come out stronger! It’s inspiring, here you are – racing in the World Cups, and supporting your team-mats through this amazing season, and we’re only in April!

Rachel: It's been an incredible season so far for our team and such a thrill to be part of all these races and all these podiums that Elisa has been getting, I’ve been true to our goals, and I’m in this team to be a team player – and if that means that I don’t finish races in the front group at the moment – it’s no secret I’ve had some set-backs this year with injury, I’ve had minimal training and racing, so to be doing what I’m doing, I’m happy enough. I’m not in top race condition at the moment, so I know that podium results are not realistic for me right now, but I’m doing everything I can, sacrificing myself for the team and for the results and I’m just over the moon that we’re getting them.

PdC: And when it’s your turn later…

Rachel: Absolutely! You have to earn respect for your team-mates to work for you! It’s about sharing responsibility, sharing the load, and my time will come later into the season.

So if you could go back in time, and talk to yourself last year, or to someone who’s in a place where you were last year, what would you say?

Rachel: I would say "Know why you’re doing it". You have to have a really deep sense of faith and confidence that you’re doing the right thing, that you’re passionate about it, and that you’re in the right place. Because if don’t, and you keep second-guessing yourself, you don’t have a rock to stand on, when everything crumbles around you, you don’t have any solid platform to stand on.

So you have to have that deep desire, and that sense of calmness and strength, that you know that everything is going to be ok, and you just keep working every day. You live everyday, and tick off the boxes that you know how to the best, every single day doing the small things. All those little decisions, all those little sacrifices, all those little bits of hard work, they culminate at the end, and you finally arrive at the destination. I know it sounds really philosophical, but that’s just me!

You can find out more about Rachel on her website and by following her on twitter.

Big thanks to Karl Lima, and all of Hitec, for letting me spend the race with them - you can see more of my stories, interviews and photos in the storystream.