Jessica Pratt has swapped scrubs for lycra as she has made the unlikely progression from the nursing ranks to professional cycling.
Pratt will ride La Course in France this Saturday, to be shown on SBS, a world away literally and figuratively away from working as a nurse in Brisbane. Pratt describes it as ‘living the dream’, an aspiration that came into being after early experiences riding at a high level as a youngster in Australia.
“When I finished high school I went straight into uni like everyone does and continued my cycling,” said Pratt from her European base in Spain. “I was very lucky in 2017 to get the opportunity to go over to Europe with the Aussie development team and race so much. After that I was like ‘wow, I love this, I want to do it for my career’.
“But, in the back of my mind, I didn’t want to have half a nursing degree sitting there, partly because after a few years, you can’t complete the degree anymore and I’d already spent some money on it. I do value an education and it’s important to have a career outside cycling as you never know when your time in cycling will end for some reason.”
Pratt finished her degree in the middle of 2019 and immediately saw an unconventional opportunity to join the professional cycling ranks, through online cycling platform Zwift. An online cycling game or simulation, Zwift takes the readings from a power meter attached to a stationary cycling set-up and applies the power numbers to virtual world, pushing your cyclist avatars around virtual worlds. Pratt’s performance in the annual Zwift Academy, a competition to find the best amateur cyclists in the world, propelled her onto professional team Canyon-SRAM.
“I’m very grateful to the Zwift Academy,” said Pratt, “from the first time I jumped on Zwift I was addicted and I’m grateful for what it’s done for my cycling career.
“I’m pinching myself and I’m very lucky to be on Canyon-SRAM. The whole team is amazing and very professional and I’m looking forward to learning a lot with them.”
The Queenslander’s first taste of racing with her new team was in Australia in January, in races that she is used to as a regular on the local scene with a number of top domestic teams. What is more of an unknown is what is ahead of her as she transitions to top-level European racing against the best riders in the world on peak form.
“Last time I raced in Europe I was 19,” said Pratt. “Everyone’s bunch skills are better and that sort of thing. The racing was harder but I really enjoyed it. There’s probably a switch that flicks on, I’ve come from the other side of the world and I’m here to race.
“I’m feeling that added motivation. We’re not really supposed to be leaving Australia, so it’s a big move to come from Australia to Europe. I’ve come to race and I’m really looking forward to it.”
COVID-19 restrictions have radically transformed the cycling season, with Australian riders having to seek travel exemptions to leave the country, while Pratt personally was on call as a nurse should the pandemic hit hard in Queensland.
“I signed up to be ready in case they needed to call people up,” said Pratt. “Thankfully, in Queensland, nothing has really flared up and we’ve been quite fortunate.
Previously, I was a nurse and working with shift work I wasn’t able to train nearly as much. This year, I’ve been able to focus on training and recovery, that sort of stuff that I wasn’t able to fit in before.”
“It actually probably enabled me to knuckle down and make sure I was on top of my training. Previously, I was a nurse and working with shift work I wasn’t able to train nearly as much. This year, I’ve been able to focus on training and recovery, that sort of stuff that I wasn’t able to fit in before.”
The 22-year-old is set to ride on the biggest stage, La Course by Le Tour de France, the women’s showcase at the start of the men’s Grand Tour. It has been the scene for famous victories, like that of fellow Australian Chloe Hosking, which still rates as one of the highly-credentialled rider’s biggest career wins.
The race is shown across 155 countries throughout the world and is the single biggest annual televised race for women. Despite that status, it is hard not to contrast the comparative level of the men’s and women’s races. The men race for 21 days and the women race for one.
“There’s been a lot of positives in making male and female cycling a bit more equal,” said Pratt, “but there’s still a massive gap between the men’s and women’s side of the sport. It’s a bit frustrating, but we’ve been making small steps to close the gap and there have been those small steps recently.
“If you look at the virtual Tour de France on Zwift, we were racing the same distance as the men and getting the same coverage. It’s not the same racing, but it’s a step forward and hopefully more events like that bring things closer and closer.”
For now, Pratt is excited to be embarking upon her new adventure, settling into her home base of Girona, Spain before launching an assault upon the European races, with La Course next in her sights.
“I’m just looking forward to everything to be honest,” said Pratt. “Just walking around the streets of Girona is amazing, like a dream. It’s been a long time coming and there’s a lot of emotions building.”
SBS will broadcast La Course by Le Tour de France on Saturday 29 August from 7.30 pm AEST on SBS HD and streaming on SBS ON DEMAND as well as the SBS ŠKODA Tour Tracker.
Following La Course, tune into the Tour de France from August 29 - September 20, nightly on SBS. For more detail on how to watch, go here.