Bike racing has started again. But it is far from normal. And it is important to keep that in mind.
When racing ground to a halt in March I didn’t hesitate to get back on a plane and return to my home and my family in Australia. I gave zero thought to remaining in Europe and ‘waiting it out’. I am glad I made the decision to go home.
At first, I expected to be racing in the United States with my team in April. Then the months started to pass by with race after race cancelled. Things started to look up in June. It seemed like racing might actually start again. I had a goal and timeline and I could start preparing.
Listening to the radio in Canberra one day the talk back host was asking people how they felt about travelling again. I was blasé about it, “I’m not in a high-risk group, I feel fine about it. My biggest concern would be getting sick and infecting someone more vulnerable”.
Like when you plan an outfit in your head, try it on and realise it doesn’t work, more was starting to be learnt about COVID-19 and my mind was changing. In the slow drip of information, we now know more about COVID-19 and it’s long-term effects.
In a return to racing conference held by The Cyclists Alliance the guest doctor, Claire Rose, made it clear – if you catch the virus and recover it could still potentially be career ending. When you think about it, a virus that attacks the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe doesn’t fit with endurance sport.
Still, I charged ahead. I trained in Australia in preparation for a return to racing with my Rally Cycling team in Europe in late August. After months of no goals or timeline I was happy to have a schedule and a purpose. It felt better than the low mood and hours of Netflix I’d been watching and packet of Arnott’s biscuits I’d been eating since April.
My team booked me a ticket back to Europe at my request. I was due to fly on the 4th of August. Still, I had no concerns. But as my departure date got closer I could feel my body starting to get stressed. At the risk of sharing to much information, I was going to the toilet a lot. This usually only happens before big races. I was – albeit subconsciously – nervous.
I flew from Canberra to Sydney and had seven hours before the long-haul international leg was to begin. My flight had been cancelled and changed twice at this point, a reminder of the chaos that COVID-19 has wreaked on the aviation industry.
Sitting on a bench eating lunch it hit me. My chest started to constrict, I was short of breath and my throat tightened. I started to hyperventilate.
Was I doing the right thing? Was I about to put myself in an unnecessarily high-risk situation? Would the races even go ahead? What happens if I get to Europe and they stop? Then I have to fly home to Australia and do 14 days mandatory hotel quarantine.
I was leaving my ‘safe’ bubble of Canberra, which has had next to no community transmission, for the unknown. Should I go?
I sent a text message to the ‘Aussie Road Girls’, which might be self-explanatory but is a compilation of all the Australian women racing in World Tour or Continental teams in Europe; “Anyone who returned to Australia in March and has since returned to Europe can you please call me ASAP.”
Rachel Neylan, Brodie Chapman and Lauren Kitchen all called. I explained to them what I was feeling and asked how they felt where they were? Which was in Italy, Spain and France respectively. The resounding response was, ‘people are taking it seriously here’ and ‘ultimately, when not at races and travelling you can control a lot of your interactions’.
In the end, I felt an obligation to my team and teammates – although I know, had I not felt comfortable or safe, it is my choice to leave Australia – to return to Europe and compete with my team. It is, at the end of the day, my job.
Less altruistically though I was afraid of being ‘left behind’. Like when you miss too many Maths classes. I once had someone say to me that sprinters are ‘insecure’ and need validation. At the time it rubbed me the wrong way but when you strip everything away; we are athletes and we gain confidence from competing against, and beating, other athletes. If I didn’t return to Europe and the rest of my competitors continued to race at the highest level and gain the known performance benefits of this, would I be competitive against them next season? Or would I be a season behind? While I know people return from injuries all the time, I couldn’t bring myself – being healthy – to sideline myself. Only time will tell if I’ve made the right decision.
I hope knowing the decision-making process that went into me deciding to return to racing can give you some perspective. I want to implore you as a fan (and if you are watching and following the races I assume it is because you appreciate the product that us as athletes are producing for you) to keep in mind the unique and challenging circumstances we as athletes are facing.
If you are at a race, wear a mask.
Stand at a distance and observe; don’t run alongside us, yell in our faces or touch us.
Enjoy the racing, I intend to.