By Lucy Cara
As this crazy year winds to a close, we take the time to slow down and celebrate the wonderful careers of two very special riders to The Cyclists’ Alliance; Gracie Elvin and Roos Hoogeboom.
Both women announced in October that they were retiring from professional cycling and moving onto the next stage of their lives. Gracie and Roos have had a significant impact on the women’s peloton, both on and off the bike. Therefore, it would be very easy to worry about what we’ll do without them. However, as one door closes, another one opens, and thankfully just because they are leaving racing behind, it doesn’t mean they are leaving the sport, with both planning on maintaining a close connection to TCA.
With the input from colleagues and friends, we explore the truly special impact they have had on the people around them whilst racing. We also talk to Gracie and Roos about retirement, what’s next, and their future roles within TCA.
Gracie and Roos: Role models within the peloton
Gracie, one of the founding members of TCA, is one of the most recognizable names in the peloton, with an impressive palmarès from a long career in the saddle. She has two national road championships to her name, but she’s probably best known for the way she lights up racing at the classics, something that will be missed by everyone. Gracie has played a significant role for the team she’s been with her entire career, Mitchelton Scott, both as a leader, and support rider. Close teammate Sarah Roy puts into words what makes her so special,
“Our sport is a really tough one, and it takes special people to rise to the top like Gracie has. I've been a teammate of Gracie's for 6 years and have shared an incredible amount of intense highs and lows with her both on and off the bike. While she is a seriously strong and skilled rider, and I have great memories racing with her, my best memories are those of either deep conversation or in complete contrast; those of total silliness. This is the real stuff that I think defines her as a person. She is so easy to talk to and laugh with. You know a good human when you can be entirely yourself around them.”
Gracie is well-known for how much she has helped others. For Annemiek Van Vleuten, she was essential to making her feel at home when she joined Mitchelton Scott.
"I got to know Gracie during our first team training camp. I received a big fine from my previous team when a picture of me in an Orica t-shirt appeared on the internet too soon. Gracie was the one who initiated (without me knowing) raising money amongst the riders and staff to pay the fine. At the time I was pretty upset and scared, so was very moved by this gesture. It was the warmest welcome I could have dreamed of! For me, this is the perfect example of who Gracie is as a person and why she fits so well in her role within TCA. She is a smart bike rider, with a 'golden heart' who really stands up for her principles."
For Iris Slappendel, Gracie was always a clear choice when forming TCA;
“When I came up with the idea of a women's union, Gracie and Carmen where the first ones that were on my mind. I didn't know Gracie personally back then, but my 'gut feeling' on her has never let me down. She is incredibly smart, has a wide range of interests and frequently has original ideas and suggestions. Gracie has a great sense of justice and isn't afraid to speak up. I'm grateful she has jumped on this project from the beginning as she's been super important in building the foundations for TCA. She is a kind and well-respected person in the peloton. She can be brutally honest, and sometimes too hard on herself. That’s probably why she excels as an athlete, as well as a representative of the riders. Gracie is a person of few words, but what she says hits the nail on the head.”
Lesser known, but no lesser loved, TCA treasurer Roos came to cycling later in life, at aged 30. She packed everything into a short but sweet career, racing all over the world, having the best time. Roos was a great competitor, as her friend Kirsten Peetoom tells me,
“She was always racing aggressively, but always respectful and kind to others in the peloton.”
However, Roos was perhaps not the typical cyclist, with Iris explaining,
“I have known Roos for many years and a few times I’ve wondered if she isn't too much of a 'thinker' to be a racer. I often saw her struggling with her 'morals'. She loves to race, to take the opportunities that are out there, to travel the world and explore her talents, but she also doesn't want to neglect her own values.”
It was these qualities that made her a perfect choice for TCA. Iris knew she would always be a strong voice of reason, describing her best qualities to me,
“Roos is a very responsible and brave person. She has the courage to object if she doesn't agree and stand up for her teammates or colleagues in the peloton. Trust me, that is much harder for a rider like Roos, than for a professional with a big palmares, who has many offers to choose from. There are a lot of riders who face or have faced the same challenges as Roos in the peloton, but not many of them are so brave.”
There is so much love for these riders in the peloton and we could have filled a book with lovely comments about them, but now it’s time to hear from Gracie and Roos themselves, and their reflections on their careers.
How do you feel about retirement?
“Retirement is a tough but inevitable part of elite sport, and there is no ‘right’ reason to make the hard decision. It's a very personal choice and one that is made easier with a strong network around you. It comes with a lot of (over!) thinking, turmoil, emotions, and grief, but can also bring you to many wonderful moments of gratitude, reflection, and excitement for what lies ahead.
Athletes are a rare group of people who get to reinvent themselves again unlike many of their peers from school who went straight to university and into a lifelong career. It's an amazing opportunity to be forced to make a huge life change as an adult, and while it can be scary, it is exciting to start something new as an older and more mature version of yourself with so many incredible life experiences and skills behind you that most people couldn't even dream of.
I've been extremely fortunate to have such a long career as a cyclist and was able to be part of success far greater than my own personal goals. I was involved in many team wins over the years which was really special, but something else that I couldn't have predicted came along and gave me the opportunity to stretch myself mentally, politically, and morally, and gave me many more skills than I would have if I'd just stuck to being an athlete. Being a co-founder of the Cyclists' Alliance is one of the things I'm most proud of in my cycling career and has given me so much more strength and confidence in myself as a woman.”
“It’s been very weird with the COVID situation, but it feels like the right time to retire now. I can start looking forward to new projects and doing things in a different environment. I love to work on different things. Sometimes I’m just painting here in the house and my husband is like, ‘what are you doing now?!’ And I’m like ‘I just felt like I had to do this!’ I find it refreshing to do so many activities and progress on things and there’s more space to do this now.
I never went camping as a cyclist, I thought I need a good bed in a hotel, because I need good sleep, there’s a training schedule. I always weighed those things and thought no, but now I think yes, I can go on micro-adventures, it doesn’t matter if I don’t sleep. I think I will start running and speed skating again. Because before it was like I won’t run because it won’t make me faster on the bike.
I’m also doing a course at the cycling federation on coaching and I enjoy learning so much. Broadening my network and finding interesting people to talk to and discuss coaching and what steps they took to improve, and gain experience is interesting.
It’s funny because when I was riding in Spain, I kept thinking, I really wish I found cycling earlier in life. You know I was super fit and strong, and I even beat Annemiek van Vleuten in a crit and I wondered, if I started earlier where would it end? And it’s difficult because now it feels like I don’t have time. However, this year I’ve realised that there’s so much more to life than cycling. Now I’ve really found peace in myself and it’s the right time to go.”
What work have you done so far with TCA?
“In early 2017 Iris asked if I would like to help her and Carmen set up the first women's cycling union. Over about 6 months, we divided up the goals and tasks between us and some crucial advisors that were helping us. We all put in a lot of work to brainstorm ideas about how to structure things and what was needed. I became focused on the communications side of things, such as editing, social media, communication with the press, newsletters, and other calls to action.
It was challenging for me in many ways as I was still a professional rider and trying to achieve my own goals in cycling, as well as manage part time study. But I think the biggest challenge was putting my name to such a statement in the sport. Once we announced our intentions and launched the Alliance, I was nervous about how I might be judged for it. To my relief I was only met with respect, encouragement, and at worst ambivalence. I'm quite a shy and reserved person, so to be part of something like this seemed bold and out of my comfort zone, but because I was passionate about our issues and looked up to Iris and Carmen, I was able to overcome these feelings.
From the beginning we have all been doing this work as volunteers and never intended to make financial gains from the Alliance. As the union has grown, we have put the money from memberships and sponsors back into hiring more expertise to help riders across many areas. Juggling this work alongside our full-time commitments was hard for all of us, and many times I felt guilty for not doing enough!
Other challenges that we have come up against are resistance to our project. Some people in our sport see us as a threat to their position of power, and others have tried to compete with us. Our intention is never to take power in women's cycling, only to show riders that they themselves hold more power than they realize. We also want to work with other organizations to share the load of making our sport better for all, but sometimes this has not been met with the same enthusiasm unfortunately.
It has been rewarding almost from the very start. To see a good number of top riders sign up and spread the support through the peloton was amazing, and to be able to see our work directly help many riders over the last few years made the work worthwhile. I'm proud of my achievements as a rider, but I think I'm prouder of the impact I've had on the sport to keep building it for current and future riders.”
“In my role as treasurer, alongside Marnix and our legal officer, I keep track of the finances, membership payments and setup accounts for new rider members. On a yearly basis we also do the reporting and budgeting.
Daily, I oversee the member administration and communicate with the supporters. I’ve seen the number of supporters increasing so much in the last couple of months.
I’ve also been meeting with our ethics officer to work on a big stakeholder map, so we know who we need to work with in the future. It’s become so big!
I think we did a lot of good this year. This is motivating, working with Iris and the whole network and to see things are really happening and changing.”
What will your role be with TCA in the future and the mentorship programme?
“I'm not sure yet what my role will evolve into, but I'm keen to stay involved, help where I can, and share my thoughts and ideas. We have a larger and stronger team now so I feel like I can find new ways to use my skills and experience. I was never an expert in communications so I'm glad to see people more trained in that area take the lead!
Carmen was the driver of our mentor program from the beginning and it showed a lot of promise early on. It was cool to see younger and less experienced riders paired up with great leaders in our sport, across different teams and nationalities. We've learned a lot from the original program and want to create a more structured version to get the most out of it for all involved. I'm excited to be a part of that and help Carmen and the mentoring group in the future, and even become a mentor myself.”
“I just recently started to focus on the mentorship programme, helping in two areas. Firstly, with riders transitioning into retirement, which is interesting as I’m going through it myself. Secondly, supporting young riders coming up through the sport. I’m doing some research, interviewing riders, and assessing their needs. With the younger athletes the most important thing for me is to see that they are happy and it’s their decision to be cycling. I feel like I want to do something with that. I think it makes you a much stronger athlete if it’s your own decision and if it’s your process.
I’m taking the responsibility to build it with Gracie and Carmen. This has some links to the coaching course I’m doing now in Amsterdam; I think I can transfer these skills to the mentorship programme. I was also a tutor at university before I started racing. I taught problem-based learning, so I think I can also use that.
I’m also focusing on safety issues. So, I have a very broad base.”
What's your vision for the future of the women's peloton?
“Aside from the COVID situation giving a blow to the whole sport, I think women's cycling is gaining some great momentum. The level of professionalism is continuing to improve, but I'd love to see a more even spread of resources and money across more teams and riders. It is still a little too top heavy with the gap between the top teams and riders too wide.
I'd also love to see a tiered structure to the season, with less World Tour events and more races in the categories below, to allow for a really viable storyline in the World Tour that is attractive to major sponsors and broadcasters. This would give more opportunity for the smaller teams and younger riders to still have many races in the year to develop towards the World Tour. I'd even love to see a handful of under 23 races that could be used as an opportunity for teams to scout talent while they can get opportunities to race in a kinder environment.
Ultimately, live coverage of more races is the factor that needs to change the most, to ensure the success of the sport.”
“I think that if we stand together and unite, we can benefit from, and utilize our full potential as a group, to change things in the women’s peloton. I know that there is a lot of potential in the women that leave the sport, who have a lot of experience and knowledge. I would like to see that in some way they get a chance to give back to the sport. Especially the women from lower-ranked teams. Our sport is unbalanced, often it is just the top riders that become sports directors or managers. Whereas those from lower ranked teams have just as much to bring to the table, if not more sometimes, as they know the struggles and hurdles that the wider peloton is facing.
I would like to see that the working environment for all stakeholders in women's cycling become a more sustainable, safe, and stable environment.
Cycling is such a powerful sport, especially for women. Through cycling I discovered that, as a woman, I am capable of more than I thought. With that, it brings so much joy, satisfaction, and freedom. My mum is a great example for me, as she commutes to work by bike 80% of the time (30km per day). It encourages me to try to leave home 'unmotorised' and take the bike instead. I hope I can inspire women to cycle. Whether it is for commuting, in competition or for fun! But also for countries where cycling is not a typical sport or normal to have a bike, I believe it can empower women to be independent, to travel and to improve the environment where you live (no matter your background). I am aware that this is not the task for TCA, but more for municipalities and federations etc, but it is something I am really thinking about for the future.”
What advice would you give to riders coming into the sport?
“It's hard to give general advice as everyone handles things differently, but for me it was about learning how my body and my mind responds to stress and how to manage that. I know that if I set a big goal for myself I would thrive in the hard work and the pressure, but after it was over no matter if it was successful or not, I would always fall into a slump mentally and physically. It's important to learn how to switch off, as much as it is to know how to switch on. There aren't many athletes who can be ‘on’ for long periods of time. Figure out what helps you switch off so you can come back refreshed for the next goal.
Getting access to a sports psychologist can be helpful even when you feel like things are going well, in fact it's better to have that kind of support before you need it!
Having a strong support network is crucial factor. For some this includes family, for others it's friends, and for all it's a collection of professionals who help you towards your goals. It can be helpful to find people outside your team because you never know when you might change teams or experience political hurdles. You want to find people who believe in you, who give you their full attention when needed, and who are your cheerleaders. They don't need to be the best in their field, but you need to buy into their passion and expertise - you also need to believe in them. It's a two-way street and it's important to foster your relationships with these people so they want to continue to support you.
Being away from home is always a challenge, especially for non-European riders. We are lucky now to have so much technology to stay in touch with everyone, but it can also take away from where we are and what we are doing. It's important to be present and enjoy what you are doing, as well as staying in contact with your loved ones and support network. Schedule your communication time so you can look forward to the interactions, and then enjoy the places and people you are with when away racing. You don't want to look back and realise you didn't appreciate the cool places you were in because you were too glued to your phone.”
“If you’re looking to get into the sport, I really want to stress that whatever age you are, it doesn’t matter, if you feel a drive to get into cycling, then just do it. Just try, without trying you will never know and if you'll always regret.
Once in the sport, it’s good to look for diverse experiences. I have learned how to focus myself on different things, and that cycling is not everything.
But perhaps most importantly, you should be aware life’s journey is never a straight line. If you are trying to improve or whatever you are trying to do, it is never a straight line to reach that goal. Every time you fall, you stand up, you learn, it’s a process.”
2020 has been a phenomenally challenging year. It has affected us all in different ways, but no matter who we are, COVID has forced us to stop, take stock, and reflect on where we are in our lives.
As we head into 2021, a year that may look very different to what we would have expected, it’s important to remember that more than ever, we are all in this together. There is opportunity for everyone, to follow the path of Gracie and Roos in bringing the best of themselves to the sport; be compassionate towards others, fight for what you believe in, and be part of driving the women’s peloton forwards.