• Valentina Scandolara in the team car for Sydney Uni-Staminade at the Herald Sun Tour. (Jamie Finch-Penninger)Source: Jamie Finch-Penninger
Three years of fighting the crippling effects of fatigue brought on from over-training saw Valentina Scandolara make the decision to quit riding at an elite level. However, a recent breakthrough thanks to alternative therapies has the charismatic Italian, who spends a lot of time in Australia, reconsidering her options.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

28 Feb 2019 - 2:16 PM 

Scandolara is renowned within the women’s WorldTour as a talented rider, a team player and one of the bubbliest personalities within the peloton. Coming into 2016, she had just completed the move from the Australian WorldTour squad (then Orica-AIS) to her new team Cylance and it looked like the world was at her feet.

Few would associate a lack of energy with the effervescent Scandolara, but that is exactly what afflicted her, a problem that has continued for almost three years.

“I had an overtraining problem, which wasn’t from too much training, it was because of a problem that started with a parasite when I was in Colombia in 2016,” Scandolara said. “It was very chaotic, the doctor told me to stop and the team need me to race so I couldn’t stop.

“When you are 50 per cent of the tank and you train normally, it’s not going to work. I didn’t actually train too much, it was too much for how my body was feeling.”

It hadn't been too much training at an absolute level, but rather overtraining by virtue of the Italian's reduced physical state. The fear and frustration from the condition grew and grew, with each attempt to rebound met by a corresponding return to lethargy.

“I had heard about over-training, but until you get to know it yourself… it totally changes your body,”  Scandolara said. “When I finally cracked, I stayed in bed for three to four weeks straight, I couldn’t do anything. My hormone levels changed and I’ve had those problems for the last three years."

“I’d feel a bit better then crash again, a little better then another crash. I always knew that crash was coming.”

Scandolara’s social media platforms record the adventures of the pint-sized rider, who has plenty of interests beyond cycling and is engaging to converse with on a wide range of issues. That diversity of interests was crucial to her during her troughs of energy.

“It was horrible,” she said. “When your body is cracked in that way, of course, your mind suffers the same way. I wasn’t depressed but I was really, really sad and demotivated.

“I always find motivation in other things, I had my studies and I went straight into my studies and I managed to finish my bachelor's degree (in psychology) one year early.

“I’m really lucky that I have many interests and I could transfer my energies into that. Otherwise, I would have gone crazy. If an athlete only has cycling, when something happens, it’s a big danger. I think I handled it well.”

One final push looked to be yielding some positivity as Scandolara raced on the US criterium scene in 2018, taking a number of top results at races like the Intelligentsia Cup. That preceded a late-season return to the WorldTour, where fatigue once again reared its head, prompting a life-changing decision.

“The plan was to come back in the WorldTour and try the last races of the season,” Scandolara said. “Again, my body cracked totally after that and I decided to give up."

“In these three years I really sensed and touched the possibility that I could stop. I finally arrived at the point where I said ‘I’m sick and tired of feeling like this, I’m over this’.”

Scandolara has seen more types of doctors than she can remember the names of in English, but it was a recommendation from a friend that has given her a new lease on life and a potential route back to the top-level of racing.

“Doctors have been bouncing me back from one to the other and I couldn’t heal any more like that,” she said. “Then a friend advised me to go these two doctors, one works with acupuncture and the other with herbs and stuff. I was a sceptic, but my friend found benefit in that, so I tried.

“They both agreed that my problem was most likely in the intestine, so they tried treating me with the two methods. I felt an immediate change.

“I felt more energised, all the problems, no recovery, slow recovery, lack of energy… went away. I’m not 100 per cent yet, but I’m much, much better and I felt the change straight away.

“That was in October. At that point, I’d already made my decision and had peace within my mind that I was leaving cycling in competition.”

“All of a sudden everything gets better, so I’m a bit confused. Before I’m taking any decisions, I really need to understand what I want and whether I’m ready to start it all over again. I still love cycling, I don’t think I would ever stray too far from cycling. But I have to feel that I one hundred per cent want it.”

Scandolara made the most of her new lease on life in Australia at the Bay Classic Criteriums, winning the women’s race overall after a series of consistent displays. The acceptance of moving on from elite racing had her seriously considering what the future off the bike would look like.

“There’s always the fear of the unknown,” she said. “I’ve been riding pretty much my whole life, it will be 21 years this year that I’ve been riding my bike, but it’s also exciting for me. To step out and not be a rider, it will be exciting to do and I have some projects in mind already.

“But, at this point, I think there will be a good chance that I’ll be back because I’m getting more and more motivated.”

Scandolara didn’t just complete her university studies in the past few years, she also took advantage of an UCI initiative to encourage women to train up in staff roles, completing both the sports director and coaching course.

She has put that into practical application during her summer in Australia, working in a number of women’s team cars at the big races.

“It really helps," she said. "With experiences that I’ve had this week (acting as sports director for Sydney Uni-Staminade) you feel that your experience is really valued and they really get benefit from all the years I’ve had on the bike. It makes me happy, for sure it helps me overcome the mental side of it and not knowing where I’m going.

“I can honestly say that I’m more happy when one of my riders wins than when I win myself. Of course, it’s different, but you can’t say it’s less.”

Spending a race with Scandolara in the car is a very positive experience, every time the race radio crackles out with the name of a rider she knows, she’ll relate a story that illustrates that rider’s ability or about their relationship. That was put most notably on display when she was behind the wheel for Roxsolt-Attaquer teammate Sarah Gigante’s surprise win in the elite women’s road race at nationals.

 

“I can’t describe the emotions, I love it,” Scandolara said. “It’s such a great joy. You feel that you’ve contributed to making someone’s dreams come true. I think it’s the best you can have.

“The win for yourself… it’s yours and Ok, you can share with your teammates. As a rider, when I did my job and contributed to a teammate’s win it was like I had won. I like taking care of people and working towards their success, sometimes more than my own.”

The decision on whether Scandolara will make the leap back to the WorldTour hasn’t been made yet, with a spot on the Roxsolt-Attaquer squad available if her ambitions of consistently riding the top events aren’t met. If she does return to the top level, there are still plenty of objectives that she wants to achieve.

“I need to get back to the level I was at least,” Scandolara said. “I think I could have gotten better after 2016. I have no idea if I can get back to that level and more, but that would be my target. I would love to go to the Olympics.

“If I wasn’t sick, I likely would have gone to Rio, but Tokyo is too hard for me. I reckon world championships, to go back and be part of the national team, that’s the first thing.”

One of the biggest objectives in talking about her problems has been in spreading knowledge of over-training, a scary condition for an elite-level cyclist.

“I didn’t know anything about over-training,” Scandolara said. “People talk about it but I didn’t know how bad it could be. I think that it’s important for people to know about it.”