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Moving on

The time is long overdue to celebrate and criticise the Australian women's performances on the road with respect to their racing, it is time, to leave them to deal privately with their thoughts and feelings about the accident last July in which Amy Gillett was killed and the five others were injured.

By  CJ Farquharson

By way of an explanation :

As I embark upon this piece, I don't know if I should be writing it. I don't know that if committing my thoughts to text I am making myself as 'bad' as those I criticise below. Whatever the verdict, I continue with the best intentions. I hope that this piece is not hypocritical, I that hope you, the reader, will understand that I am writing with the intention of exorcising some of the demons which have haunted the Australian women's road team since last July, when a car careered into the team preparing for the start of the Rundfarht Thüringen in Germany, killing Amy Gillett and severely injuring her five team-mates, rather than glorifying their pain and suffering for the sake of a story.

I write this piece as someone who has spent much of the last 12 months closely following the Aussies' racing in Europe and in Australia; reporting on and photographing their wins and losses. I have been following their races, their performances, their love for what they do. I share their passion for racing and I am honoured to be bringing their endeavours to WomensCycling.net readers in text and pictures. They are, and I am, passionate about cycle racing - the hard miles, the hilly miles, the tactics, the taste of victory, the sprint, the breakaway and the disappointment of a loss.

We, at WomensCycling.net, have spoken to some of the Australian riders and team staff over the past couple of weeks, to confirm that our thinking is not out of line. We have tested the concept that a "move on, leave last July in the past" piece is not in contradiction with their thoughts and feelings. From the reaction of some of those directly involved and of those directly affected by the accident, the thoughts below are not out of line with theirs. To anyone who I misrepresent or upset with this piece, I most sincerely apologise.

For those who wish to read on, here it is:

Moving On

The Games are over; the Australian Cycling Team, the Cyclones, won 10 of the 18 cycling medals on offer during Melbourne 2006. The Aussies dominated the cycling - they were on the podium in every discipline, even when not collecting the gold medal.

This should be enough to write about, to celebrate, to congratulate the riders about. The women in the Australian team were selected on ability. In each event and discipline, there were more than enough riders for the selectors to choose from and still expect to win a medal. The depth of talent in the pool of available riders is such that those with gold Olympic, World or Commonwealth medals in their collections were not selected for some events.

On top of the depth of talent available, the riders were spurred to success by competing in this, their 'home' Games. Rarely do they get to perform at such a level in front of family and friends who are watching the racing live. For most of their careers, the Australian women pack up a case, board a plane and fly to Europe to live, train and race in front of a public which speaks a different language and with fellow riders who get to go home to their loved ones for a short time after a racing block. The Australians take off for up to 6 months at a time, they ‘do it tough’ and although they have each other in the peleton, their close bonds are not the same as going home to their loved ones and sleeping in their own beds every now and then in-between races. The Games presented a special context for the Aussies and it was one which they revelled in, as the results tell.

The Australian women, renowned for their team spirit, showed the Commonwealth how they felt about Natalie Bates' road race victory with a display of unity and patriotism. Once the medals had been awarded to Natalie Bates, Oenone Wood (silver) and Nicole Cooke (bronze, Wales), the other members of the victorious team crowded onto the podium and sang their hearts out as the National Anthem played. They were, as the Commonwealth Games slogan suggested "United By The Moment", they were smiling, they were happy and their team effort had resulted in two medals.

This will be my memory of the Games, of the road events especially. The dominance of the Australians in the cycling events, the team spirit shown by the women. Their joy at Nat's victory and the knowledge that they contributed to it stands out as a moment to savour.

There are some commentators who were focussed upon the cycling at these Games for other reasons. Commentators who wanted to take the Games back to July 2005, to the tragedy which occurred on 18th July in Thüringen in Germany.

Please don't get me wrong - do not underestimate the emotion and feeling I have for the team who were struck down that day. They and their family and friends, everyone who has shed a tear as a result. I proudly wear my Amy Gillett Foundation band, the only one I have ever worn (I have not felt an affinity with any of the causes promoted by the wearing of bands until this one). I dragged myself around Amy's Ride, despite too few miles under my wheels for the preceding six months, for the sake of the cause which it represented. Even now, at times, I am caught off guard; the shock and emotion that I felt at the moment I learnt of the accident resurges, a tear comes to my eyes, a lump to my throat and a stone drops to hit the bottom of my heart. I feel for those involved and affected by the accident; it smacks me in the gut.

My feelings are private feelings, to be dealt with, to develop as a person and move on from. In the same way, the emotions felt by the women who were involved in the accident in Germany are private. It is not just the five women who were injured either, it is their team-mates, the team staff, their friends too who are entitled to their private emotions. These people have their own feelings, their own moments where they are 'punched in the stomach', when they suddenly remember the reality of the accident and what it means to them. They are moving on too, each in their own way and at their own pace.

The Australian racing women have been in the mass media spotlight since the accident. The progress of the injured riders in Germany, their return to Australia - fair enough, perhaps, the public was interested and concerned. The reaction of their team-mates, friends and family who joined them in Germany as soon as they could was also covered. Even the point where Alexis Rhodes and Kate Nichols got back on their bikes to race again was covered not just by the cycling media, but by the mass media too. It was, after all a huge step in their rehabilitation. Perhaps naively, I thought that this would be the end of the spotlight on these five, brave women and those close to them. That two of them had returned to racing should have been enough; it was for WomensCycling.net. The glare of the spotlight was too bright, it was obvious to those around the riders that enough was enough - they just wanted to get on with what they love - racing their bikes. That should have been it. At the time, WomensCycling.net wrote that it was time for the cyclists to let their legs do the talking, to leave them alone, to report only on their racing endeavours.........

Towards the end of that week in January, there was the romance of Alexis Rhodes' victory in the National Criterium Championships in Geelong. A great comeback from one of the women directly involved in the accident. She won in great style and naturally, all thoughts went back to the accident, to Amy and the effort taken by Alexis to get to the Bay Series of races in competitive form. The next day, Amy's Ride took place and thoughts again were thrust back to the accident and the path trodden / ridden by the survivors since.

For me, that was the end, the point of closure and the time to move on. Alexis and Kate were performing with strength and speed. They were pleased with their progress and looking forward to furthering their racing careers. The others (Katie Brown, Louise Yaxley and Lorian Graham) were making progress and were sitting on the sidelines watching their friends racing, wishing that they too could be there. Their time will come. They sat out the Bay Series and subsequent events as injured riders. They are putting themselves back together and getting ready for a return to competition. Good luck to them and I personally hope that they are able to return soon to compete in the sport that they love. That should be it, let the other stories cease. Let us all return to analysing the competitive aspects of their performance.

For each of the five survivors and for their Australian compatriots, cycling is more than a job, its a lifestyle. No, its more than that, its their life. They pack their bags and travel extensively in order to race, or to support others in racing, their bikes. They live and breathe cycling and they are half a globe away from home while they do it. They deserve to be left to get on with their cycling and their lives. Each time that someone asks them how they feel about 'the accident' , or whether the victory was different because of the events of last July, they are touched to their hearts and it hurts them. Is it fair that they are brought back so publicly to the reality of their feelings time after time?

These women are not machines, they have been through a traumatic incident, have lost their friend and suffered greatly, the injured riders are recovering from injuries which many would not have survived. The others are dealing with the grief of losing a dear friend and the shock of the injuries to their team-mates and friends. I have been at events since last July where the race commentator has reduced an Australian rider to tears pre-race by reminding her of the accident, by clumsily asking her how she feels "x" months on from the accident. Of course she is still dealing with her emotions. There is no need for her to have to describe these to the general public minutes before she sets off to compete on her bike. This has been happening since August 2005 and is still going on.

At the Games, I was moved to tears in a media conference where ‘the question’ was asked of first Sara Carrigan and then Oenone Wood  about how they felt riding and winning medals in the event in which their team-mate Amy Gillett had identified as a target in her race schedule. Sara was able to keep her emotions in check  as she responded. Perhaps this was not enough for some in the room. The question was redirected at Oenone, she cracked, momentarily, her voice cracked as she responded and her eyes welled with tears. I did not know where to look, I was embarrassed for the manner in which the point had been pursued and at the same time, I was upset that the memories had been evoked... again. I was feeling my own grief and having to watch that of the riders. I was angry too, that ‘the question’ had been asked again with a seeming disregard for the riders' emotions. 

'The question' should no longer be asked. The women should be able to get on with their rides and their races. These women are not part of a circus, they are not without emotion and as I said before, they are not machines. They have emotions which they are dealing with, each in their own, private manner. They deserve their privacy. They are in the limelight primarily because they ride their bikes quickly and beat the competition frequently. It is time that the media returned to reporting their victories and their performances, it is time the mass media, those not interested in cycling concentrated on something else. It is time to analyse the riders in the context of their race tactics, to consider their form with respect to their wins or losses, to criticise and congratulate in the light of how they have prepared themselves for racing and how they have ridden their bikes with a number on their backs.

The moment of happiness and team spirit on the podium on Sunday was beautiful. "Six for one and one for all" if a quote may be borrowed and changed slightly. The riders were there, in the moment. They were celebrating their victory. Amy will have been there, looking down on them, she will be with them and in their thoughts for the rest of their lives, but the riders were happy on the podium, full of celebration of their efforts. They continue to grieve, but those thoughts and emotions are theirs. On Sunday, this group of Australians proved that they have moved on. They raced a great race, dominated the competition and then celebrated their collective victory. Their overriding emotion was of the huge joy of a good job, well done. It is time that the rest of us move on too.

The moment of the Games?

The Australian team join Natalie Bates and Oenone Wood on the podium to celebrate the team's victory

 

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