Rolling in the deep
When you ask Australian road cyclist Rachel Neylan what she does for fun she laughs a weight off her shoulders.
We’re at the end of an interview about her journey to the Rio Olympic Games in several months’ time and it’s been a deep, hour-long conversation. The laugh is welcome respite for us both.
Neylan at certain points during the call from her base in Italy has spoken with a quiver in her voice. You could imagine her eyes slightly welling, or her chin trembling on the other end of the telephone. But she never gives into it.
The 34-year-old is a definition of resilience. Nothing about her professional cycling career seems to have come easily in yet she has never lost faith in the sport or her desire to reach its pinnacle.
On paper, this is evident in her late signing to the Orica-AIS team in March last year.
Neylan had struggled with accidents and injury throughout 2014 and went into the off-season with zero certainty of her future and no Jerry Maguire type to find a contract on her behalf.
“In women’s cycling, unless you’re one of the top few in the world, not many have agents. I guess the salaries are not high enough, it’s not really worth it [for commission dependent rider agents],” Neylan tells Zela.
“I was spending so much time off the bike organising my own travel, my own races, trying to find teams and sponsors just to try and keep my head above water. And then I would have to go out training, look at recovery and nutrition, so I wasn’t able to switch off at all. I was trying to run my own show.”
The 2012 world champion silver medalist worked with the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) and coach Brad McGee to be ready when the 2015 season commenced. She came out firing and finished second at the Australian Road Championships, won the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, placed fourth at the Oceania titles and seventh overall at the Tour of New Zealand as a state, national or guest rider.
“My back was against the wall and I was training and racing every day basically with my career hanging by a thread. So there was a hell of a lot of motivation there,” Neylan says.
An offer she couldn’t refuse
The performances on home soil were valiant but still the Sydneysider went to Europe with no team and only sheer optimism to fall back on. There, in a turn of fortune, Orica-AIS reassessed its roster and called Neylan on her birthday with an offer.
“It was the summit of my career, and I’d climbed a lot of mountains before that,” Neylan recalls. “I had overcome car accidents, contracts, being told I wasn’t good enough to be in the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] and going alone in foreign hospitals.
“I think the amalgamation of all the previous experiences really built resilience.
"Persistence is one thing, but to go training when you don’t have a contract and you don’t know what is going to happen in the coming months - that’s sheer resilience."
"That has been built and layered throughout my career.”
Neylan explains she doesn’t want her father, Anthony, to be a headline of this story before she draws a breath.
He is as intrinsic to her Rio Olympic road race campaign as any sporting factor.
“It’s been a really intense two years, I guess since August 2014 when my Dad came over to Europe and ended up having a quadruple bypass,” she says. “I was commuting to the hospital [in France] to and from races in August before I made the  Worlds team in Ponferrada [Spain] and raced with him still in hospital.
“Then, three weeks later when we got back to Australia, he got diagnosed with prostate cancer.”
Neylan revered her father, a man who was a foreigner to professional cycling but knew what races were important to his daughter’s professional vision.
“He was never one of those pushy, athletic Dads. He was a real academic,” she says. “He really made such a beautiful effort to get his head around my passion and my career and did an incredible job of being able to help me.”
Neylan became accustomed with Orica-AIS through 2015 and returned to Australia following a lacklustre Giro d’Italia campaign in July. Her father’s health had deteriorated.
She was a consummate professional when she came back to Europe in August and won the Trophee d’Or Feminin, which preceded the GP de Plouay and the September UCI Road World Championships in North America.
“Dad wanted me to stay and race Plouay because he knew that was my final selection for Worlds,” she says. “Finally he agreed to let me come home after Plouay so I jumped on the first plane. I did all I could.”
Neylan trained for the Richmond World Championships around her New South Wales base and channeled her grief, ultimately into a 19th place finish behind Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain).
“I lost my dad three weeks before the Worlds last year and then had the race of my life. I made the solo breakaway and then was in a group of eight, still away at the front of the road race with 2km to go,” she recalls.
“He knew that [Worlds] was another step in the pathway towards Rio. He had an insight into how it all works. I needed to go and race Worlds and have a big performance there because there’s not many opportunities in your lifetime to race in the green and gold. That’s what he wanted me to do.”
Road racing to Rio
Neylan has worked toward an overarching goal of being selected in Australia’s elite women’s road race squad for the Rio Olympic Games. She has and is following a two-part performance plan orientated towards selection and then, if successful, the title event.
“I think it’s quite premature to talk about [race] leadership but obviously it’s a very specific course that suits climbers and people that can ride on the flat between the two climbs, that can ride aggressively and that can handle pressure in big races,” she says.
The last months without her father have perhaps been the most difficult Neylan’s personally ever endured.
“It’s really different. I don’t have one of my best mates. When you don’t have that person anymore and you don’t really want to replace them with anybody else there is no quick fix and no rule book for dealing with the grief of losing someone so close to you,” she says.
Neylan is doggedly still on target for Rio and has the upcoming Fleche Wallonne in her sights. She has kept ambitions high and her focus resolute, mindful of her father every day she trains and races in a now amplified environment.
“In an Olympic year everyone is fit and motivated and the races are just another level. For example, [at the 122km Pajot Hills Classic in March], it was just a 1.2 race but we averaged 38km/h for three hours and 15 minutes,” she says.
“My next target is Fleche Wallone and then the rest of the UCI program until the end of the selection period, which is the second week of June.”
Not the time to whine or wine
Neylan is a fighter, accustomed to being in the ring and that may be her biggest advantage in this Olympic pursuit.
“I think the mind-set I’ve had over the last six years has been there are no limits, there are no barriers that I can’t overcome and that’s nothing but just getting confidence from my own experiences,” she says.
“I guess it comes from the indomitable desire to take yourself to your optimum level and towards your biggest goals. It’s no one thing that drives you towards being an Olympian, or wanting an Olympic medal. It’s more a deep desire.”
There is no room for misdemeanour now but Neylan will eventually afford some fun.
“I do love fine wine in the company of good friends in the off-season,” she says.
A toast needs to be written first though.