During my trip to Australia, I was fortunate enough to witness Bridie O’Donnell throw down the gauntlet to other women cyclists by setting the UCI Women’s Elite Hour Record on 22 January. I was even luckier to catch up with her for an interview later. We touched briefly on the record but I was keener to find out what had driven a doctor in her thirties to become a professional cyclist and keep her motivation to compete at the highest level.
Sheree: Tell me how you got into cycling.
Bridie: In 2007, Cycling Australia put a call out to other sports for athletes with the potential to become time trialists. I was one of 70 who applied and one of 12 who got selected to be part of a testing programme. I was allocated a coach in my state, persisted through that year then won the time-trials in the Oceania and National Championships. Coincidentally, I had just been offered a college place to become a specialist physician in sports medicine but, when the national team offered me a scholarship at the training camp in Varese on AUS$ 20/day, I took it!
During 2008-9, I was in the Australian squad living in Varese surrounded by Australian riders, Australian staff and a really supportive environment. When you come into a sport late, you have no patience for mistakes. I couldn’t be like my younger teammates who shrugged off crashing out of a race. I was 33, had left my husband at home, quit my job, and my parents were questioning, what I was doing! People said patronisingly at least I had something to fall back on. I thought, “I don’t want something to fall back on. I’m trying to go to the Olympics here, set goals and achieve them.” I’m a workaholic personality type, I wanted results for my hard work!
As you know in road cycling, there are at least 5,983 things outside of your control and the strongest person doesn’t win. There are so many elements of decision making, tactics, luck, weather, being in the break with the wrong composition. That’s what makes it such a tantalisingly beautiful sport when you do win.
I had the great fortune to meet and train with near-neighbour Ivan Basso, who gave me some good advice: If you can get used to being disappointed all the time, you can become a good professional bike rider. Because you’re only going to win maybe once a year, maybe not even that, depending on the type of rider you are. Maybe a teammate will win, and maybe she’ll thank you, and you’ll feel good but if you can get used to disappointment and you can get used to performance-based, rather than result-based goals, then you’ll feel good about what you’re doing.
Learning through disappointment
That’s the thing I learned, but it took me a while. I had a stellar 2009, I won a lot of races and I was ranked 26th in the world in the time-trial, which was good for me. I got offered this pro contract by a new Italian team, which included the Italian, Spanish and Russian national champions – and me! How good was this going to be? There’s nothing that can go wrong here!
Looking back now it was farcical. I was 36, living in a house with non-English speakers which if, like me, you’re someone who’s known for being a good communicator, being unable to communicate because your Italian was rudimentary was both challenging and isolating. I’d split up from husband in messy divorce, and so I asked myself what are you doing this for?
Although I found this hard, I still had a great sense of myself. I looked across at younger women who were desperate – more desperate than me – and who put themselves in dangerous situations for their mental and physical health where they don’t get paid; they get exploited, abused and bullied. There were so many dodgy teams in and around this period but thankfully we’re seeing improvements.
There are advantages: You’re living in a beautiful country that loves and respects cycling so, away from the team environment, you have this amazing experience but you’re not always able to embrace it. I’d come back to Australia every summer and people would say, “you live in Italy and you ride your bike!” I’d think, “You have no idea. I’m sleeping in a bunk bed; I have no privacy, the team director shows up and screams at me on a regular basis.” It was very tough mentally and intellectually very challenging because when you’re being exploited you have no autonomy, power or choice. Your word is worth nothing!
Nothing will ever be as hard as that again and it has made me the person I am today. It’s heaven now to be with people who respect me as an athlete, who ask for my feedback and who want to work collaboratively. But the rest – it’s like you were in a destructive relationship and you didn’t want to tell anyone about it because that’s not the story they want to hear. It’s all #livingthedream pretending you’re having an idyllic lifestyle. Social media has been great for women’s cycling because it gives everyone access to results, the riders, and stories but it also puts a blanket of pressure on you to maintain the idyll: “I’m racing, I live in Girona, and my life is awesome.” No, it’s not, and you should probably be a bit more honest about it.
Sheree: Isn’t that an accusation you could level at any number of sports?
Bridie: Yes, the reality is way different from the image, particularly when you have no say or power in those situations. It’s the same with doping and performance enhancers. I’m a well-educated woman with a degree and a job. If I were a male, third-generation Kazakh potato farmer with few options, of course I would have doped! I’m all for clean sport and I’ve never in my life doped, nor would I endorse it, but I totally get why it happens – particularly when winning a Tour de France stage would change your entire life.
Women aren’t doping but it’s got nothing to do with our bodies or personalities, being more truthful or less ambitious. It’s that we don’t have money and if you did dope and won the Giro you’d get what, €180? Most of the abuse is in appetite suppressants. Anorexia is the new doping. I knew riders who spent their off-season taking only liquid meals. They were on anti-depressants and their lives were miserable.
It’s like the Essendon Aussie Rules doping scandal – whatever it takes. What aren’t the others doing? 50 years ago it was cocaine, 20 years ago EPO, 10 years ago blood doping, now it’s how little can you eat and still sustain good power output. From a medical perspective, what I find so damaging is that it’s performance enhancing. You’re lighter, you lose bone density, you’re osteoporotic, and you don’t get your period. These are all great things for going uphill faster. Where’s the downside?
Improvements in women’s cycling
Fortunately, a lot of that is now history and I’m already seeing so many wonderful improvements, much more proactive, good reliable and honest directors, more iron-clad contracts, shifts in sponsors’ perceptions and women’s cycling is attracting more cross-over sponsors who feel they can get a bigger payback, particularly when the men’s and women’s races take place the same weekend as in the Belgian and Ardennes Classics.
Anna van der Breggen wins La Fleche Wallonne Femmes 2015
But more needs to be done. I recall one team manager telling me the organisers of Fleche-Wallonne had video coverage of the women’s race which Eurosport was willing to use as part of a highlights package. But no one gave them the video! Talk about a breakdown in the communication chain! This would have been a win-win situation for everyone: the organisers, the sponsors, Eurosport, the women’s teams! Lots of sports have this sewn up already: tennis, golf, even women’s US collegiate sport, but not women’s cycling.
Sheree: Why do you think it isn’t happening for women’s cycling? Are there lessons to be learned from sports where women do get equal billing, such as rowing and triathlon?
Bridie: Women’s cycling isn’t seen as impressive by the average man because they can perform at the same level. If you’re a great amateur marathon runner, you can’t beat the best female pros and you won’t outsprint the best female sprinter or hit a ball faster than Serena. In other sports, there’s not this comparison between the men’s and women’s games, each is seen with as a sport in its own right. No one makes comparisons between Djoko and Serena; both are seen as best in their field. I frequently have guys sitting on my wheel on the beach road and when I say: “Do you mind? I’m just doing some training”, I get abused. I think a lot of it is about ego. People only seem to be impressed by numbers.
I recently had a go at SBS journalist Antony Tan, who criticised the women’s world championship race for not being very interesting. If you only have one standard for what makes a bike race interesting and it requires people attacking kamikaze-style, then you need teams of nine so that there are teammates you can use up during the race. Women’s teams are smaller; women don’t attack as much and as relentlessly because they don’t have the same physiology as men. Attacking for attacking sake isn’t bike racing!
Sometimes the commentators don’t help. For example, you can watch any sport at the Olympics, such as lawn bowls or an equestrian event, and the commentators are experts. That’s about respecting the sport enough to hire the right people to talk about it. Fortunately, we’re seeing a new generation of younger commentators who are crazily motivated. I watched Cross Vegas recently and there were three commentators on the live stream, a lady from Colorado and two other guys, who were sensational. They knew all the racers, described what kind of rider they were, gave equal airtime to the men’s and women’s races and were equally passionate in describing the way the races unfolded. The women’s race wasn’t seen as the warm-up to the men’s.
Commentators should be capable of comparing the women’s race leaders to other female riders in the peloton and describing equally elements of their psyche and performance. The seeds of change are there, but it’s taking some time to move in the right direction.
Sheree: If things are moving in the right direction for women’s cycling. What was the turning point?
Marianne Vos taking the gold in the 2012 Olympics
Bridie: The 2012 Olympic road race was a game changer. It was magnificent theatre, particularly the performances by Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armitstead and Ellen van Dijk. People here were watching that race in pubs seeing the effect of the terrible weather, the attacks of the Dutch and German teams, Shelley Olds puncturing and all of America going “Oh no!”
Of course, Vos has been a trail blazer for the sport in so many ways but what I love about her the most is that she races fearlessly and, as a consequence, women are racing much less conservatively. Women now think: “I don’t care if you’ve never heard of me or I’m not in the right team, I’m going to have a go.” I think it’s fantastic because, as athletes, that’s the only way we learn about our physical capabilities and what works. But it also shows people that women are aggressive, opportunistic, sneaky, and hardworking.
Sheree: What’s your next challenge?
Bridie: I’d like to win the world championships in my age group in September in Perth. I’m going over to Perth for the qualifiers in March and to check out the course. I’ll be racing women my age who, like me, have jobs so it’s a level-playing field. I’ll continue to ride in support of my Rush Women’s Team leader (Ruth Corset) in the national road series. Then there are a few other things I can’t yet talk about.
Sheree: What about that hour record?
Bridie: Well you were there. It was obvious that it wasn’t too difficult for me to set a new hour record. It’ll be broken by someone far superior to me and I certainly never imagined I was setting a benchmark. I’m not a Wiggins-worthy female rider and we haven’t seen a female equivalent yet, or even a Dowsett one. It’s not my job to wait around for someone really good to break it and then cry.
The amount of knowledge and skill I acquired in the last nine months wrangling sponsors, the UCI, the Australian Federation has been invaluable. But more importantly, failing miserably at things, improving and showing myself that I’m a responder, that’s been the best. I love the idea in physiology that you give a task to an athlete they’ve never done before. First off, they do it moderately poorly, then the next week they do it well and then they fuckin’ nail it.
And that’s what I found out about myself. There I was thinking there were so many aspects of my performance I couldn’t improve but I could. It’s hard but when you have this future date with destiny where the whole world is going to be watching you do something, it’s pretty good motivation.
What I’ve found so wonderfully reassuring and very humbling has been people’s responses. The world record is fantastic. People loved the ride, the enactment of a plan, pacing and all that stuff. Mostly, I think people appreciated that I had put myself out there, saying this is really scary and admitting it might not work but I really want it and I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen. That’s what really hit home for a lot of people. I’ve even gotten my 67-year-old mother riding and my nieces who go “Yah, we’ve got bikes just like Auntie Birdie!” To inspire your own parent or your nieces, it’s just brilliant.
More bikes were purchased last year in Australia than cars and more and more women are riding. We need to encourage people to get moving more and use the bike for commuting. If more women rode, they’d be safer. It’s life-changing and liberating. If I had a teenage daughter, I’d feel much safer about her cycling everywhere rather than trying to find a ride or use public transport.
Sheree: How do you manage to combine everything?
Bridie: I’m amazingly well organized. I don’t work as much as the average doctor, I only work 3.5 days/week. I manage the team I ride for (Rush Women’s Team) and I’m an Ambassador for Disability Sport and Recreation. I do a lot of unpaid work; I don’t train much, only 12-15 hours a week but it’s focussed training. When you’re not talented, you have to make it count. I have strength from my background as a rower but I need to work on changing pace, getting more top end out of myself, generating higher power and sustaining that power.
Sheree: Presumably, the team now benefits from your leadership and mentorship?
Bridie: It’s terrible for them, I’ll ride up to them on the road and say things like; “We’ve missed the break, you know we have to chase this down now, so go to the front.” It’s a pretty unique position to be in because I can ride around the peloton and actually talk to my riders. I’m doing what a directeur sportif in the car with a radio might do but I have the added advantage of seeing everything.
Sheree: No pulling the wool over your eyes?
Bridie: No! We’ve seen riders go through our team to national or bigger teams and we think that’s pretty cool and we’re trying to give them the wherewithal to survive. There’s a lot of emphasis today on the numbers where, if you test well, that bodes well for contracts. In my opinion, there needs also to be an emphasis on what’s happening in your head and heart. If you’re selfish, terrified, or make bad decisions, what good are those numbers? Sometimes I think coaches and selectors are too willing to put up with bad or unreliable behaviour providing the numbers stack up. I wish they’d show more faith in idiots like me that don’t test well but would always be there to help out. You need a bit of variety; you need a bit of both!
So, there you have it: Bridie O’Donnell, a rebel who thrives on challenges. You might be wondering how she’ll respond if Evie Stevens takes the hour record on 27 February. Readers, the clue is in the interview!
Header photograph from Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race © Kirsty Baxter