Words : E.J Macdonald & Charlie Coquillard / Pictures: Charlie Coquillard - 05/11/2020
Tales of an Australian cycling world championship talent.
EEj was born to perform, with a shoe size matching her age. She went from a national level basketball player to wear the yellow and green at the triathlon worlds to compete in an elite level in road cycling. All this before the age of 23.
We went down to Wollongong, where E.J currently lives, to follow her on one of her training rides and ask her a few questions about bicycle racing, training routines, and what it takes to make the worlds.
So how do you go from basketball to cycling?
" For eight years, my family and I traveled over 70 000KM across the country for me. Training camps, selection trials, competitions, a lot was going on. I felt like something was missing for all those years. Maybe it was just too much too young, or perhaps it was the fact that you needed to be well connected to progress; it wasn't enjoyable anymore, so I walked away.
What always triggered me is that you're not in control of the final result in basketball; there are so many variables that you can't influence. So you're always at the mercy of other players, the coach and the adverse team. That's part of the reason why I shifted to triathlon; I wanted to be the sole reason for which I succeeded or failed. "
How did your dad shape your love for cycling?
"At the time, my dad was the equivalent of what you can call an Elite racer these days. It was very different because it was super hard to travel. If you weren't the next Cadel Evans or from a wealthy family, it was impossible to travel to Europe to race; you had to take the boat, be on there for weeks, and spend a considerable amount of time over there. It wasn't financially viable at the time to go racing overseas.
So despite that, he still made it to the Olympic training squad for the Mexico games of 1968; unfortunately, he got hit by a truck during training, which ended his cycling career.
He never encouraged us (E.J and her sister) to get into cycling. He always brought up old photos and told us racing stories, but he didn't want to push us into cycling because he knew how hard it was.
After my basketball years, I decided to take on triathlon by myself, and we developed a powerful bond because of that love for the sport and cycling.
At the start, it was just the two of us training; I never really rode bikes before, except for getting into town. So my dad dusted off his old frame, a custom build Cecile Walker from his '68 Olympic squad. I still remember that it had those shitty top tube shifters, so I had to get my hands off the bar all the time. Also, riding with cleats for the first time, I was petrified; I guess everyone is the first time. "
You got selected for the worlds Mexico in 2016 but couldn't make it because of budget. Can you tell me more about the struggle for solo athletes in the sport?
"I was 19 at the time, and I just started Uni. Even if we were a team, we all had different coaches and training programs, so we were all solo athletes rather than a team. It's hard financially, cycling and triathlon are costly sports, so except if you have wealthy parents, it's hard to pierce through.
Some of the less wealthy athletes got there; they started crowdfunding campaigns or looked for personal sponsors. But it's tough because there are so many of us, it's a niche sport, and Triathlon Australia don't help financially. "
Lucky enough, you backed it up with a 2018 Worlds on the gold coast. Tell me more about that?
"It was a shock; after 2016, I took a step back, I kept cycling, but I let the other disciplines down. I found out in 2017 that the worlds would be on the Gold Coast, and I knew that was probably my best, and maybe an only chance, to ever make it to the world championships.
So I trained extremely hard for a year to catch up, did many local races, and just managed to scrape through and qualify for the worlds. Only 12 of us got selected in my age group that year. "
What made you go to bicycle racing only?
"I've always been able to run and swim, but competing in 2018 made me realise that I was quite a way back on the time table despite all the work I put in. However, my cycling time was close to the best of the day, and really, dad and I both knew cycling was my forte.
What I like about cycling is that it is so pure. No transitions, no energy savings, no thinking about the running, whoever is the strongest and fittest gets to the finish line first. There is no in-between, if you want to end yourself on a climb, you can, you may be paying for it later, but it won't penalise you on the run. Cycling is just purer, that's the way I would put it. "
How much do you currently train?
"I haven't followed a training program recently because of the pandemic, and to be fair, it's been lovely. Before, I used to train because I had to train, not because I wanted to. I went on gravel rides, discovered some new roads, it really helped me reconnect with my love for cycling.
I've just started a strict training program again, the nationals should happen in January, so I want to be ready for this. Performance-wise I'm probably not as fast as I could be, but mentally it was a great way to get a fresh start, clear all the goals I had in my head because they have all changed now. "
What are your rituals?
"I always start my days the same way, the time change but not the routine. I wake up, make my bed, make an espresso, and jump on the bike. Also, I've got that weird thing where if I get on a bridge, I'll make sure I put in an even number of pedal strokes before the end of the bridge. Sometimes I even downshift to get in the stroke I'm missing. I think it's a mental thing; I've always done that.
And I always clean my shoes; I think that if your equipment is nice and clean, you ride faster."
You've now started a coaching business. What motivates you to do this?
"It's now my 3rd sport where I start from the bottom and end up at an Elite level; combining this with my university study; I believe I can help people kick their goal.
There is a significant gap between going club racing; let's say B grade and elite. When I was in a club, the coaches assume you will change your mindset, diet without really telling you or guiding you correctly. Many people reach A grade and never go further because they aren't learning what is necessary to go to the next step.
They get given programs but aren't explained the why, and most of the time, sleep and nutrition aren't even on the map. That, and the mental state, is a significant part of it; there is limited coaching done for this. For me, my dad was here, so he helped me, but not everyone has this chance. I want to help people on and off the bike to get further into the sport, I've mentally done it multiple times, and I want to help people do the same thing. "
Study and high-level racing?
"I did study, high level racing plus work at the same time. I was prioritising what was most important week by week, it's a lot of planning, prepping and scheduling. I dropped work when I was too busy with Uni and training. I had to structure work and life, that's the only way I could achieve it and make it work.
When you have multiple commitments, you can't be 100% at all, so even at worlds I wasn't at my max. I'm excited for the next few years because I can just go all in with my cycling, for the previous years, I have had to be satisfied with a lower level because really you cannot be at the top of your game without giving up something. "
What's your next step in life, on and off the bike?
"Graduating from university is a big one; I don't want to drag it out too long. The reason why I haven't reached what I can achieve is because study is in the way. I'm very excited for next year as I can get full time on the bike, do it for a season, see how it goes, and take it from there.
An intermediate goal would be to medal at nationals TT; with my triathlon background, that's what suits me best. I can sit on the bike and stay at one constant pace the whole time; it works better for me. TT is a head game, I love analysing, numbers, I analyse everything, TT is very calculated, and that suits me."
We wish E.J the best of luck for her future racing career. She is an incredible racer, and we strive to supply her with the best garments we make. We make sure all of our pro Women range garments are super aero and breathable, so riders like E.J can perform at any time of the year.