If there were any lingering doubts at Mitchelton-Scott about the wisdom of signing a 29-year-old neo-pro to the roster for 2018, Lucy Kennedy swiftly dispelled them at the iconic Strade Bianche on Saturday.
Despite spending most of the race working for Amanda Spratt, her climbing prowess saw the Classics debutant finish fifth, two places above Spratt.
"I was pretty nervous coming into the race," she said in a team statement. "Even without the conditions, it's unlike anything I've raced before. I was prepared for a really hard race and that's exactly what we got. The conditions were pretty horrible. Thankfully the temperature was a little warmer than recent days, but it was very very wet!
“I did do a lot of work in chasing back breaks in support of Spratty and Georgia (Williams). As we got deeper into the race, I just kept on feeling strong so continued to work to bring back the leaders. I surprised myself in still having something left for one last effort up the final climb."
But the Brisbane-born rider’s performance would come as no surprise to anyone who follows the domestic scene closely. Kennedy has been one of the best riders on Cycling Australia’s National Road Series in recent years and is a past winner of the Oceania time trial crown.
Following a successful stint in Europe last year on the Australian development team as the Amy Gillett scholar, Kennedy was recruited by Mitchelton-Scott for 2018.
“I am really enjoying it,” a cheerful Kennedy told Cycling Central just before she jetted off to Europe. “Everyone is super friendly and welcoming – I feel part of the team already.”
Kennedy, an engineering graduate, has spent the past five years working as a traffic modeller. She describes the switch as “a big change of lifestyle”, but so far is enjoying the new career.
“I can’t say I have missed going to the office every morning,” Kennedy admitted. “When I have some down-time I might miss that routine and mental stimulation, although I am sure I will find other things to fill it.”
One form of mental exercise on the agenda is learning Italian, with Kennedy describing her language abilities in her new homeland – she will be based in Varese – as “non-existent.”
Kennedy will also be kept occupied as she learns the ropes of professional cycling.
“For me it is a big development year. I will mainly have a support role, particularly in the hilly tours and tougher one-day races. It is all about learning – my first full season in Europe, so just getting used to it all.”
While Kennedy is eager to learn from her peers – she describes the team as being “full of some of the best cyclists in the world” – the former High5 Dream Team rider believes she can brings her own insight to Mitchelton-Scott.
“I am a first-year pro and I’m turning 30 this year,” Kennedy laughs. “Some of the girls are younger than me but have much more experience riding bikes. So I can learn a lot, but I also think I have a bit to offer – I have other life experiences to share.”
Kennedy’s sporting career began with running – she was a college athlete in the American NCAA system. But after suffering several injuries, she turned to cycling.
“I initially got on the bike to keep fit until I could run again,” says Kennedy. “I’ve never run again! I started doing club-level racing and just got more and more serious. Now here I am.”
She credits the National Road Series for providing a pathway from keen amateur to the pro ranks. Among Kennedy’s impressive domestic palmares are multiple stage wins and the National Capital Tour yellow jersey.
“It is a really good stepping stone,” she reflects. “It gets you used to racing and team tactics. The standard is high without being overwhelming. If you were to go straight into huge bunches in Europe it would be a bit much – the National Road Series is a good middle ground on the way.”
Her strong domestic results did not go unnoticed, and last year Kennedy was selected for the Australian development team to race in Europe. After an impressive campaign, including overall honours at the Tour de l'Ardèche, her phone rang.
“I accepted the contract just as I was leaving Europe,” she explains. “It was really cool to get that call – I did not quite believe it was happening. It was a bit more real at the team camp, but it wasn’t really until Nationals when I lined up to race with them that I felt it was actually happening.”
Even prior to her fifth at Strade Bianche, Kennedy’s debut season with Mitchelton-Scott was showing promise. She finished second in the time trial and ninth in the road race at the national championships, before ending the Women’s Tour Down Under in fourth overall.
“We had some good results and there was plenty of competition,” Kennedy says of her summer. “We did not dominate to the same extent as the team had in previous years, and it was good to have that strong level of competition.”
Looking towards the future, Kennedy has big ambitions.
“I want to ride for Australia at world champs level or maybe the Olympics,” she says. “And some of the really hilly races in Europe – the Giro Rosa, the Ardennes classics. For the moment I am getting the experience, and then maybe down the track I might be targeting them myself.”
If her first two months with Mitchelton-Scott are any indication, those goals are certainly within Kennedy’s reach. In fact, her biggest surprise on stepping up to World Tour level has been “how normal it all feels.”
“I don’t feel any different, even though I am now with the biggest team in Australia,” Kennedy concludes. “It is all very relaxed.”