Should Australia’s Amanda Spratt win gold at the 2019 Road World Championships in England on Saturday, her mind will go from the hills of Yorkshire to the mountains of Livigno in the Italian Alps. Earlier this year, Spratt and the majority of her compatriots riding in the Women’s World Tour gathered in the picturesque ski resort town at the invitation of Cycling Australia.
It was an unusual invite. It was not on the eve of a major competition, nor did it bring together a group already selected for a particular race. The gathering had a higher purpose: to consolidate team chemistry and cohesion among a group of riders scattered across different trade teams and various locations.
“We invited all female Australian riders competing in Europe, to come along, share, learn and be stronger as a group moving forward,” says Brad McGee, head coach of the national road cycling team. “The intention was simply to bring the athletes together. There was no real agenda about a particular campaign, but we wanted to strengthen those relationships.”
For Spratt, already appointed Australia’s lead rider for the 2019 Road World Championships road race after finishing second last year, the opportunity to spend time with the riders she will rely on in Yorkshire was invaluable. “The catch-up in Italy was great,” she says. “We spend so much of the year racing against each other, so to get us all together to hang out – that was a special feeling.”
The team camp in Livigno is Cycling Australia’s latest answer to a vexing question: how do you build a collective ethos among riders that typically spend just one week together in national team colours each year? In a sport where team work matters, and the difference between first and fourth could be a misunderstanding between colleagues at a decisive moment, engendering a sense of common purpose is more important than any marginal gain.
“Physically we’re only together for short periods, but there are many ways to connect individuals during the year to become that team,” says McGee, a veteran of national squads on the track and road during his long professional career. “We maintain communication through Skype and WhatsApp, and encourage team leaders to stay connected with their likely support riders.”
Spratt, her mind set on gold this weekend, has been especially proactive. “Once the team was announced we had Skype meetings so everyone was clear on their roles,” she says. “We talked about how, with the riders we have, we can best win this world title, together. That is the focus – how can we maximise each other’s strengths.”
Team selection also plays a big role in building and maintaining team cohesion. “That can be by selecting some older mentor-type riders that carry the baton for that strong team culture,” says McGee. “Or by leaving riders out that have not been a value-add to that team culture. It is hard to build and very easy to destroy.”
When McGee was racing professionally in the early 2000s, close relationships with other Australians in the peloton were inevitable. “If you go back to my day, the total number of Aussies racing in Europe was low, so there was an automatic connection between us,” he says.
But the numerical rise of Australians on the World Tour, dotted across different trade teams, has required Cycling Australia to focus on team cohesion. “The larger rider base can dilute that connectivity and the awareness of other Aussies – more is not always better,” McGee says. “We have to create platforms and initiatives for the riders to bond, so that come world championships or Olympics, we have a connected team ready to deliver.”
The proliferation of Australian riders in Europe may have made this task more challenging, but the geographic distance from home does foster a natural bond. “We appreciate the sacrifices each of us have made to be over here,” says Spratt. “How far away we are from home, from our support networks – so we look out for each other.” That, says the rider, gives the Australians a competitive edge. “I think it brings the group a bit closer together than other national teams.”
Another advantage in the hunt for glory comes from the establishment of Mitchelton-Scott in 2011. Across the 15 men and women contesting the elite road races for Australia, one third currently ride for the Australian-registered World Tour outfit. Several more have spent time there in the past.
“A big part of the effectiveness of the Australian cycling team is down to Mitchelton-Scott,” says McGee. “When I make my recommendations to select riders, I am not particularly concerned with which trade team they ride for. But we are very appreciative of the relationship between the Australian road cycling team and Mitchelton-Scott. Their level of commitment is fantastic.”
This weekend, both Spratt and the men’s team leader Michael Matthews are genuine contenders to clinch the rainbow jersey. If either succeeds, they will have Cycling Australia’s emphasis on team cohesion to thank. “When you have that team feeling and then you pull on the green and gold at worlds,” says Spratt, “you feel ready to smash yourself for each other.”