Talent Search Shows off Queensland's Finest
Melissa Giles reports on the 2005 Talent Search project
Two members represented Australia in 2006
In May 2005, the Queensland Academy of Sport identified 13 women from varied sporting backgrounds for its first adult Talent Search cycling squad.
Since then, several team members have won state and national races and two were invited by the Australian Institute of Sport to ride in Europe with the national team.
In 2005, the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) expanded its high school cycling talent identification program for the first time and advertised for women, regardless of cycling experience, to be tested for elite cycling potential.
Eighty applications were received and after a range of tests to determine physical and psychological suitability, 13 women, aged 17 to 29, were selected for Talent Search scholarships. Their coach, former elite cyclist Liz Hepple, was herself was a late starter to cycling at age 23
Talent Search squad member, Emma Mackie (20), showed immediate potential. She dominated the squad’s first national competition in September 2005, the club road championships, and was awarded ‘Best Female Rider’ after placing first in the elite road race and second in the elite criterium.
Mackie’s outstanding achievements earned her transfer from Talent Search to a full QAS scholarship and an invitation to an Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) training camp in December 2005. She was selected in the national team for the February/March Women’s World Cup races in Geelong and Wellington, New Zealand and her main priority was to gain overseas racing experience in 2006.
Mackie’s goal was to become a professional cyclist and she saw her Talent Search scholarship as a critical element in this pursuit. “I probably wouldn’t be where I am without the QAS,” she said. “James [Victor] and Liz [Hepple] opened up so many opportunities and the QAS has improved me as a cyclist. It’s very hard to do it from the outside.”
Emma Mackie in her DSB Bank colours during the Holland Ladies Tour
Photo CJ Farquharson 2006© WomensCycling.net
Early January 2006: Talent Search squad
During 2005, seven of the 13 women voluntarily withdrew from their Talent Search scholarships, so in the weeks before the second major milestone, the Australian Open Road Championships (AORC), only five continued training as part of the program. There were four road specialists, Kate Mercer (25), Louise Kerr (18), Nicole Magner (27) and Carla Ryan (20). The fifth, Rockhampton-based Anouska Edwards (26), was focusing on track training at that time.
With fewer women to train, Hepple was able to devote more time to ensuring each athlete’s muscle imbalances and injury problems were well looked after. She added regular strength and conditioning gym work, and another long ride to increase the weekly training distance to between 500 and 600 k.
“Physically they’re strong,” Hepple said, “but they are a little green when it comes to racing.” She explained that the squad needed the AORC experience to learn how to race with world-class cyclists.
Magner said she had benefited greatly from the new gym program and noticed huge gains in her overall performance, as well as that of her team mates, whose specific talents had become more obvious.
Mercer, a former QAS rower, was thrilled to place fifth in the elite road race in the September 2005 club nationals. She felt her cycling had improved dramatically and her fitness was ‘the best it has ever been’. Mercer said, “[I am] really keen to just get in there [at the AORC] and see what it is like to ride with the big guns.”
January 2006: Australian Open Road Championships
The 97.5 k AORC road race was contested on a scenic five-lap circuit, based around the Adelaide Hills town of Mt Torrens. Fifty-six women started the race, including Mackie and four Talent Search squad members: Mercer, Kerr, Magner and Ryan. The four joined the QAS team to support Sara Carrigan, their best chance to win.
The race ended in a close two-way sprint, with Carrigan placing second behind Kate Bates.
Mackie pulled out late in the event from exhaustion. “I tried to attack,” she said, “[and] do a lot of the work to set up Sara for the end.” Mackie was proud of her efforts and said Carrigan appreciated the QAS team’s support.
Mercer’s contribution was to keep the pace up early in the race. “My inexperience showed in the bunch sprint at the end,” she said. “I was in too heavy a gear and underestimated the headwind and uphill finish.”
Kate Mercer during the Australian Open Road Championships in 2006
Photo CJ Farquharson 2006© WomensCycling.net
She was excited to have crossed the line in the main group of 20 riders behind the medal winners, and was relieved to have avoided the nasty crash 8 k into the race, which injured Magner and Kerr.
Magner said after the crash she and Kerr were determined to complete the event despite their injuries. “My bike was a bit mangled. The wheels were buckled and the brakes were jamming…I spent so much energy chasing back on [to the group].”
According to Hepple, Ryan was suffering from a rib injury sustained before the event, so was also unable to perform at her best.
Despite the problems, Hepple was very proud of the Talent Search squad in their first major open race. During 2006, she planned to develop the women’s tactics and skills through frequent racing with seasoned and internationally-experienced cyclists.
April 2006: Mercer triumphs
During the Women’s World Cup races in February and March, Mercer had her first experience of racing with a field of overseas competitors. She said the realisation that she could keep up with the main bunch gave her new confidence.
In April, she won both the Sunshine Coast Tour and the Canberra Tour. “The win at the Sunshine Coast was a huge confidence booster,” Mercer said, “even though it wasn’t the biggest race.”
As an elite rower, she said she was used to coming first, so it was difficult to start in a new sport being a cyclist who hadn’t won anything.
After her second victory overall in the Canberra Tour, Mercer said: “It [didn’t] feel real. Even when I won the time trial at the beginning…Things just went my way.”
Mackie was also in good form at the Canberra Tour, winning the road race. And Carla Ryan placed eighth in the overall rankings.
In late May, Mercer backed up her April victories with a third place overall in the Tour de Perth. At this event, she placed second in both the time trial and the Queen of the Mountains competition.
Mercer and Mackie’s talent was noticed by HIT Racing and both were named as part of the first Queensland elite women’s team, launched in June. Along with QAS support through Talent Search, Mercer said it was a huge bonus to have sponsors to provide cycling gear and other assistance for domestic races.
Both women were also invited by the AIS to race in Europe as part of the national team. Mercer raced during June and July, and Mackie stayed on until mid-September.
After returning home in late July, Mercer said it was the best experience of her life, despite starting out with a disaster on the first day of the 10 day Giro. She made a costly error by following a police motorcycle in the wrong direction, just 300 metres from the finish line. “I lost about 30 seconds by the time I went to the end of the street [and] realised I'd gone the wrong way,” Mercer said.
Following that, she managed to work her way up the rankings in the group of 130 racers. “Each day I got better and better, adjusted to the large pack and gained confidence to work the race a little more,” she said.
She finished 33rd at the end of the Giro and said, “I was very happy with this result especially after the disaster start, it was certainly one hell of a lesson to have learnt.”
Mercer also raced a one day event at Cento, which the Australians dominated. All finished in the top 22 of more than 100 starters. The next week, Mercer rode in the German Thüringen-Rundfahrt, where she placed 18th of 90 starters.
“After 16 days of racing I can honestly say it probably wasn't until day 15 that I felt comfortable and confident in the bunch and felt like I actually made an impact on the race,” Mercer said. “I learnt so much and am so grateful for having had the experience.”
Mackie also raced in the Giro d’Italia and other races with the national team, but was later selected to ride with sponsored Dutch team DSB Bank until mid-September. The team included Norwegian national champion, Linn Torp, and national Dutch champion and world cyclo-cross champion, Marianne Vos. Mackie was noticed by the team after placing third in a Dutch criterium in Steenwijk.
Mackie said the ‘flat and fast’ criterium racing in Holland suited her. “[The criteriums] are usually around 60km long, around 1.5 hours of fast crazy racing," she said."[They consist] of sharp technical [corners], [cobbles], bricks, bumps, gutters, wind and rain.” In two of these Dutch criteriums, Mackie placed first and third, and has had top ten placings in the others.
In the French Trophée d'or Féminin in August, she placed 15th and 17th in two stages.
Mackie’s first European racing experience has left a lasting impact on her. “You not only learn a lot about cycling and the teams,” she said, “but a lot about yourself and if this is for you. [This experience] made me [realise] how much I want to be over here [next] year racing.”
Mercer (centre) lines up with the Aussie team for stage 5 of the Giro, Mackie had already retired
Photo CJ Farquharson 2006© WomensCycling.net
September 2006: National Road Cycling Championships
At the NRCC on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, only Carla Ryan and former QAS Talent Search Triathlete, Louise Kerr, competed from the Talent Search group.
Kate Mercer came second in the Queensland Road Race Championships in late August, behind HIT Racing team mate Carly Hibberd, and in front of third placed Louise Kerr, but had to withdraw from the NRCC for health reasons.
Anouska Edwards won the Individual 3k Pursuit at the Queensland track championships in January in a personal best time of 3:58 and won the Queensland Criterium Championships in June. Unfortunately, she was involved in a collision with a truck while training on the road in July and could not compete at the NRCC. She aimed to return to racing in early 2007.
The misfortune of the Talent Search athletes continued when Nicole Magner was hit by a car while cycling in September, not long before the NRCC, so had to withdraw from the event.
At the NRCC, Ryan won the 22k elite women’s individual time trial, with Kerr in third place. In the 91k elite road race, Ryan had her second podium finish, placing third with the same time behind Queenslanders, Ruth Corset and Carly Hibberd.
Ryan said her confidence had a massive boost in July after she won the Kowalski Tour. She was thrilled to have achieved both of her NRCC goals in her time trial win and road race placing.
For Ryan, 2005 was a year of injury setbacks, but she did not despair. She had come into the Talent Search squad with little cycling experience and after a bad start in 2005, she said, her fitness, strength and racing skills came together in 2006. “I haven’t been sick or had any injuries this year,” she said. “I got better with each tour and have more faith in my abilities.”
Talent Search coach Liz Hepple said the QAS Talent Search women’s cycling team has been a great success already, with fantastic results in the national series races. While some of the women have had outstanding individual performances, she said, “We haven’t seen the best of some of the athletes.” Recurring problems with injury and illness have particularly affected Kerr and Magner, according to Hepple.
Hepple maintains that other members of the Talent Search squad are ready for European racing. She has plans to help them ‘take the next step’ by riding in France for several weeks in 2007.
While the women’s Talent Search scholarships will finish at the end of March next year, Hepple said all of the remaining women have shown promise. It is possible that every team member may continue to be supported by the QAS until at least the end of 2007.
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