• Sarah Gigante on her way to winning Stage 3 of the Santos Festival of Cycling (Santos Festival of Cycling)Source: Santos Festival of Cycling
When it comes to cycling talent, Australia has been blessed with a good tradition of exciting young prodigies showing themselves at an early age, but have we ever seen a prospect the equal of Sarah Gigante? SBS Cycling Central journalist Jamie Finch-Penninger thinks not.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

24 Jan 2021 - 12:36 PM 

It's a hard thing to quantify, the ability to be one of the best cyclists in the world. Generally, the best in the world reach their peak from 27 to 33 years of age, built on years of riding bulk kilometres, the experience of a thousand race days and the muscle memory of how to battle through the pain and continue the struggle to the finish line.

Those intervening years aren't always linear in their progression, if you looked at Amanda Spratt's early career there were only a few indications that she would become one of the world's best from 2017 onwards. Annemiek van Vleuten had always been a good professional, but not the world-beater who dominates entire WorldTour fields when she lines up in form.

In Sarah Gigante, we as Australians are lucky to be blessed with an up-close look at a rider who is already getting to the stage where she can be considered a peer of those best riders in the world. There's still plenty to prove in that regard, doing it on the road in Europe will be the big test, but her level currently is at what it takes to make an impact in the big races.

It's one thing to break away with 55 kilometres to ride as an individual and go and win a stage of the National Road Series by a monstrous seven minutes and 51 seconds as she did in the Tweed Valley at the end of 2020. It's a harder thing again to do it against Team BikeExchange in the replacement event for the Tour Down Under. This time just it was 'just' 50 kilometres of solo effort, for a stunning one minute and 54-second margin of victory. 

In terms of similar rides, solo against essentially a full peloton happy to chase you're talking about an elite club. Remco Evenepoel solo win at last year's Tour of Poland is probably the most analogous, van Vleuten at worlds in 2019 as well... most long-range solo wins come off a fractured group that's already off the front of the race. Think of Luke Durbridge in Stage 1 of the Festival of Cycling, or Philippe Gilbert in 2017 Flanders. 

Gigante stuns Festival of Cycling field with dominant win
In what is fast becoming a consistent theme, 20-year-old Sarah Gigante took another epic solo win, this time holding off world class riders and the National Road Series peloton during a 50-kilometre solo effort to win by a minute and 54 seconds in Lobethal.
Gigante's seven minute and 51 second win makes history
Sarah Gigante blitzed her way into the record books with a stunning ride that saw her leave the rest of the peloton behind to solo to victory by seven minutes and 51 seconds on one of the hardest stages of the National Road Series' nine days of racing to decide the 2020 season.

She then went and smashed the field from the bottom of the Willunga Hill climb, putting a minute into the entire field, with San Sebastian winner Lucy Kennedy a minute off the pace. Kennedy went faster than the reigning Strava QOM, it's just that Gigante was a minute faster than that with her ascent in eight minutes and 13 seconds. 

Her Willunga Hill ride would have been the 16th fastest of the men's event. Sure, you can argue that the men had a longer, significantly faster run-in to the climb, but also they had other riders to draft on the shallower gradient sections while Gigante was flying solo.  

Gone is any nervousness in the bunch after a nasty crash in 2018, her time-trialling is now a great strength and while she won't win bunch sprints any time soon, she's got a bit of pace in a flat finish.

That's enough to establish that she's pretty brilliant right now. I didn't even mention her two national championships triumphs. Such was her dominance, people are saying that it's likely that the whole field will ride against her at the national championships, where she'll be the only rider for TIBCO-SVB rather than riding with the national team.

She's already one of the most popular riders in Australia, and her infectious enthusiasm as a fan of the sport comes through in interviews. She's complimentary of her team, her opponents, naming them all in post-race interviews, dropping sponsor's names in there when appropriate, and most importantly transmits the joy that she feels on the bike. The 20-year-old inspires those around her as well, talking with fans after races and during rides.

We'll do our bit at SBS, but she could be a mainstream star as well, in the manner of Anna Meares or Caroline Buchanan. The normal springboard for that is Olympics success.

The next question is where she goes from here. Is it too soon for Olympics this year or world championships leadership talk? I personally think not, though there are considerations to be taken into account. 

If you're good enough, you're old enough. Cycling, particularly in recent years has shown that young riders can win big races early in their careers. Remco Evenepoel, Tadej Pogacar, Marc Hirschi, Joao Almeida.. the list rolls on. However, cycling is also a fickle sport, early success isn't a guarantee of future triumph.

Strike while the iron's hot, not all riders have 15-year careers in cycling. 

Look at Amalie Didreksen, world champion at 20 in Qatar in 2016, she's had four WorldTour wins since then. Nairo Quintana had his best Tours de France before he turned 26, same with Andy Schleck. 

On the other side, there are concerns of stretching a young body too hard, too soon, putting too much pressure on a young athlete's psyche too early. The last thing we want to happen is to have Gigante suffer from over-training, nutritional problems or fall out of love with the sport. Maybe there's little chance of the latter, as anyone that's seen an interview with Gigante can attest. 

Striking a Gigante balance
Sarah Gigante's feats from hospital to perfect VCE score to epic RoadNats win are already firmly etched into Australian cycling folklore. But we won't tire of telling them especially here as the AIS High Performance team provides a different perspective from Sarah's mum about those dark days of recovery and how Sarah strikes an all-important life balance.
Gigante's epic Roadnats victory
We're necessarily cautious about talking up young riders. But there's not enough superlatives when it comes to Sarah Gigante who triumphed over one of the best riders in the world to take the elite and under 23 women's titles at the 2019 Cycling Australia FedUni Road National Championships.
Aussie cycling star Gigante scores whopping 99.95 ATAR
Rising Australian cycling star Sarah Gigante has won a prestige university scholarship after her outstanding school exams result.

Too much pressure is a bit more nebulous. In my opinion, this comes when you are doing things, or feeling that you have to achieve things, because of other people rather than your own motivation. Gigante is very driven, she works very much from goal to goal, which is a good attitude to have.

She actually interacts a lot on social media, she'll jump into comments sections and defend people from negative comments, correct mistaken apprehensions or just say thanks to people who have nice things to say. People react to her positivity, but I'm not sure that I'd encourage her to maintain that going forward. Apart from anything else, it will be too much to do! 

In terms of fatigue, women's cycling doesn't have the three-week Grand Tours as in the men's. 35-50 UCI race day seasons are the norm, and a smart program from coach Dylan Lindsey should be able to keep Gigante at a top-level without over-extending her.  

Not all share this view, and perhaps this will be a larger topic of conversation going forward in an Olympic year. The current AusCycling Endurance Development Coordinator, who's regularly the women's race director for national teams, Donna Rae-Szalinski, had a different opinion when she was being talked up in advance of the 2020 Olympics.

"I would hate to see that kind of pressure put on a young girl," Rae-Szalinski said in an ABC interview. "For a first-year senior it's a dream to go to the Olympics, but to go from a beginner level to an Olympic medallist level, it's a 10 or 12-year journey."

A question raised on the Santos Festival of Cycling broadcast was why Australian WorldTour squad Team BikeExchange hadn't signed the young star of the sport. An Australian star on an Australian team makes a lot of sense. I put the question to head sports director at Team BikeExchange, Martin Vestby.

"Well, she's caught our attention," said Vestby. "We're fully aware of her capacity and how she's going. There's been talks with her, but I think it's about timing as well. So we'll see what happens."

TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank team have a stunning new talent on their roster, a rider who is worthy of the attention and incredibly entertaining to follow. I've never been as excited to see a rider come through the domestic scene and into the WorldTour.

Sarah Gigante's career will be a great journey to follow.