Back in 2006 Elvin, 17 at the time and already standing out on the road bike, was part of a talent ID program looking to develop mountain bikers for the London Olympics. While a lot of the other riders were trying to tick every box in a hurry, Elvin impressed even then, showing the maturity of someone who had a longer view of the sport. She picked her races carefully, and in a sport where a lot of women burn out, she podiumed in the world mountain bike circuit before eventually turning to race professionally on the road.
Elvin has worn the Orica-AIS team colours since 2013. She won the national road title that year, and again 2014. She’s since broken into the top of the international road race circuit, recording big results in high-profile races that are difficult for Anglophones to pronounce. She achieved repeat victories in the Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik in Belgium in 2015 and 2016 and finished in second place earlier this year in the Ronde van Drenthe in the Netherlands.
The Australian women’s road team for Rio is four riders strong. Elvin will be joined by current national champion, Amanda Spratt, Rachel Neylan, who placed second in the world road championships in 2012, and two-time Oceania time trial champion Katrin Garfoot, who will race in the Rio time trial too.
The women’s road race kicks off 1.00am on Monday August 8 (AEST). Whether you’re a women's road racing expert, or just want to dabble in spectating for the Olympics, Elvin’s insights give a good sense of some of the tactics that will come into play on this course, the importance team dynamics and the difference of local support in reaching the top of a chosen sport.
Gracie, congratulations on being selected for the Australian Olympic road race team. What does it feel like knowing you’re going to Rio?
Thank you! I’m still in the ‘pinch-me’ phase of knowing I get to go to Rio. It was a long selection process and I tried not to get too excited until it was all signed and sealed. Once it was publicly announced it felt a lot more real. I think when I get to wear the Australian uniform I will really believe it is happening.
Can you briefly explain what goes into qualifying for the Games as an Australian road rider?
It was quite a long selection period beginning around mid-2015 and ending in June 2016. All of our race results were taken into consideration and a higher emphasis was put on hillier races such as Flanders, Fleche-Wallone and the Women’s Tour of Britain.
Winning or placing in hilly races put your name high up on the list, but ultimately the selections are discretionary by the selection committee as to whom they think is most suited and in the best form for the tough Rio course.
How will the road race in Rio differ from the races you compete in on the world circuit?
The race in Rio is looking to be a unique course. It can be best described as a ‘classics’ style course for the first two-thirds and then finishes with a tough eight-kilometre climb only about 20km from the finish.
We don’t have many races in the season like this one, so it was hard for riders to test or prove themselves. It also differs because there will be a lot less riders. Usually, there are six riders per team for every race, but the maximum in Rio is four (for the top five nations) and many countries will have even less. There will be less control by teams and it will be a very unpredictable race.
Your team-mates for the Games are also women ride with on the Orica-AIS team. Can you talk through some of the ways that experience will translate to racing together at the Games?
We are very fortunate this year that the entire Aussie Olympic road team comes from one trade team. This gives us an edge over our competitors in that we have raced alongside each other all year and really trust one another. We all bring something different to the team and have helped each other to results many times. We have worked a lot on communication and feedback, so when we hit the road in Rio it will be like second nature working together.
The road race is unusual in that you have a team of riders working together to position someone for an individual medal. How important are team tactics when the racing gets underway?
Teamwork and tactics are hugely important in road racing. You will always see a winning rider credit her team for the victory, and this is because it really takes many skills and sacrifices to make it possible.
In terms of the Rio course, many teams will have a ‘protected’ rider who will wait until the final climb to use their energy to win the race. There will also be countries who will employ riders to attack the race earlier on to break it up and isolate the other teams.
We prepare for the race by talking through all possible scenarios and our rivals and deciding on our plan of action. Plan A, B or Z often don’t go your way so adaptability and clear communication on the road is key. We will have a road captain who makes the last call if our plan changes in the race.
Who are the riders to watch out for in this race? And what do you admire about them?
Two clear favourites are Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) and Megan Guarnier (USA). They are complete riders who can climb and sprint and no team wants to take them all the way to the finish line. The Dutch have a whole team of favourites of different abilities, and I admire their racing style because they take control and are always fully committed.
You’ve written before about the impact and influence your dad has had on your riding career. Will your family be coming along to the race?
My dad and my family are definitely one of the main reasons I am successful because of the unwavering support, belief and friendship they have given me. They will not be making it to Rio but only because they want me to fully experience my first Games without any added pressure or stress. I know they will be following closely and I can’t wait to be home to celebrate with them in our own way.
What advice would you give to people who have a passion for sport but don’t have that kind of support from their families or their peers?
I’ve seen so many people, and mostly women, not succeed or even try sport for fear of failure. Failure doesn’t mean not winning in this instance, it means not being accepted or valued.
Finding the right coach and/or mentor is the most important thing you can do. You need someone who is 100 per cent in your corner and cheering you on.
The second most important factor is finding your community. This could be a team or a club, or, like me, a group of women who embrace sport alongside careers, children, mascara and coffee dates!
Lastly, the beauty of social media means you can contact your favourite athletes who are more than happy to provide advice if you reach out.
While audiences are getting more familiar with men’s road racing through live television coverage, the women’s events aren’t televised as often. What are some of the things viewers should look for as they watch the women’s road race in Rio that will help them appreciate the different tactics, strengths and strategies on display?
Women’s racing has many similarities with men’s road racing but the main difference is the length. Our races are generally half the distance and this provides a much more exciting way of racing. There are more attacks and breakaways because there is less time to control them, unlike the seemingly predictable men’s races.
In the Rio event, there will likely be countries with more interest in a breakaway because they don’t have a favourite for the final climb. Other countries with a favourite rider may not have enough strength to control the entire race from constant attacks and such riders will become isolated and exposed.
There will be riders purely looking after their leader, and there will be riders looking for opportunities to break away before the last climb. It will be a very interesting race because of the fewer number of riders and the challenging course. It is the Olympics and anything can happen!
There are two medal events for road cyclists at the Games. The road race and the individual time trial.
Women’s road race
- Fort Copacabana
- Saturday 7 August
- 12:15pm (Monday 8 August, 1.15am AEST)
Women’s time trial
- Wednesday 10 August
- 8:30am (9.30pm AEST)
The women’s road race course 141km and includes two laps of a 24.8km circuit. It is a mass start event with the first rider across the line claiming the gold medal.
The individual time trial is a race against the clock, where riders leave the start gate one by one, 90 seconds apart. The women’s race is 29.8km long and includes one lap of a 24.8km circuit. The rider who completes the course in the fastest time wins.