INDEX Consultants is proud to be supporting a wellness initiative of attracting and supporting women in sport. It was our pleasure to work alongside the organisers of the Hanging Rock Handicap 2020, an annual cycling race run by Alison Skene and supported by The Hawthorn Cycling Club. In 2019 the event broke the record for the most participants in a women's cycling race in Australia, and we are thrilled to say in 2020, we smashed that record with 120 entrants!
It takes a community to put on a cycling race, and a lot of committed, generous, well-meaning people to get it done seamlessly, successfully and safely.
In our experience we have found that women need more information, support and a safe environment in order to approach unfamiliar sports. Part of providing that inclusive and non-intimidating environment is making it a women's only event, where there are less barriers to entry. Cycling in Australia is a male dominated sport, with plenty of races for women to be part of, but in almost all cases they have to race alongside men, and are often the minority.
As a competitive cyclist, racing alongside 20-30 males is unquestionably intimidating. Men are not only bigger in size, but usually more powerful, aggressive and less tolerant of women in the peloton. As I stood on the start line at Hanging Rock waiting for my group's race briefing, I turned to a fellow competitor and said 'I weirdly don't feel nervous', she said 'me too!' Each of us, had been in this position together many times before and that was a first.
The race started and the girls went from the gun, no mucking around. Straight into fast rolling turns, working together as a united group against the clock, against the girls that had gone off anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes in front of us. Women's racing is very different to racing in a mixed gender world. Women communicate more, cheer each other on, are quick to give feedback where it is needed, and take charge when the wind turns and the group needs to roll another way.
In order to sit 5 centimetres behind the wheel of the person in front of you at 50kms/hr, there needs to be a fair degree of trust. Our group of 10 women bought into the trust, kept the chat up and the wheels turning. Having not raced for a couple of months my lack of nerves meant I hadn't wasted energy prior to the start, but I certainly needed it during the first 15 minutes. I resorted to using every ounce of aerodynamic smarts I had to do my share of the work, and gasp for breath when the roll was going to the back. Once you settle in and your body gets the gist that it is going to have to give 100%, then you focus on being smooth, smart and helpful. A handicap is an awesome race for this, as the slowest start off first, and then in increments of time, nine different groups are let off the leash over the course of 39 minutes. The fastest chase down the slowest, and first over the line wins. The way to race a handicap is to work with your group, evenly doing your turns and keeping the group together. You want all your riders to stay with you, which means you have 9 other people taking the wind for you, and you spend less time on the front.
The amazing thing that happened after the first 30 kilometres, is we started to catch slower riders, and with each and every rider we passed our group yelled out encouragements; 'Well done, keep on riding', 'Don't give up now, finish it'. It didn’t feel like we were battling against some enemy to beat them over the line, but that we were all united against the clock, the wind and our legs, but not pitted against one another.
Cycling is a funny thing, you can be going along one minute feeling great, and the next the proverbial wheels start coming off. I know myself well enough to know I am mentally a lot stronger than I am physically. Two hours of solid 95% flat-out racing put my body in the hurt locker, and with 4 kilometres to go on the last corner someone very nicely told me 'you will never catch limit, they have two minutes on you'. A smile came over my face as I thought, how amazing is that, in 66kms of working as solidly as we could in our group of 10, the women that went off before us had worked together, pushed and challenged themselves just as much if not more as the experienced groups behind, that I decided to just sit up and ride into the finish line taking it all in.
Is racing all about winning? If it was, you would never bother getting out of bed. In the hundreds of races I have done, I have won few of them. When it does matter is when you are new, when you are trying a sport out for size, and it gives you encouragement to keep going. It was awesome to cross the finish line and hear that the women that had won were all relatively new to bike riding, let alone racing; how extraordinary is that!
One of the great things about a handicap race is that every rider, first timer or experienced pro, has a chance to win and everyone has a story about how their race unfolded. It was wonderful hearing so many stories after the race. Everyone was smiling, the scenery with Hanging Rock in the background was stunning and there was a huge amount of happiness shared by all.
The community of people that put this event together, have to be very proud of themselves. The feedback has been overwhelmingly good, and it is comforting to know that in two editions it has proved the theory, that if you build it, they will come.
INDEX is proud to play a small part in this, making sure every racer had a fresh bottle, a gel and support from our experienced team. It is in our DNA to play an active part in the community we live and work in, and promote a balanced view on wellness. We don't all have to get on and race a bike, there are so many other ways we can create and journey through a healthy life Whatever you choose, we implore you to do something that brings fresh air into your lungs, and balance into your soul.