THE FALL RISE AND RISE OF RACHEL NEYLAN
Australian cyclist Rachel Neylan is finally back at the top of the sport, after a tumultuous few years. She tells her remarkable story, with all its ups and downs, to Procycling and explains how she emerged stronger
None of my journey is separate from its other parts.
I was riding for Virtu Cycling in 2019, and had quite a good year, two WorldTour top 10s, I won a stage at a tour in the Czech Republic. Then the project shut its door and the money was pulled out of the team. Long story short, they closed the Conti team and the women’s team.
Straight away, I got a phone call from this new Spanish project.
It was supposed to be the next big thing. A three million dollar budget for four years. A fantastic agreement between three parties based out of Burgos, and we were assured it was with good people.
Come January there was still no money in the bank account.
It had been lost in international money transfers. Devastatingly, the Spanish entrepreneur who had been backing the team faded, and the money remained in the cloud. It was pretty traumatic for everyone involved; to put it simply the project never came to fruition. Financially, there was no way to go backwards and zero capacity to recoup losses, which is the other side of the story.
The main thing is that it ripped out 18 months of my career, and a lot of energy.
On multiple levels, just really destructive. Not just for me, but for a lot of great people. I’m a trustworthy person, and
I was all in from the beginning, and I trusted all the people that were involved. Covid complicated everything, and also there are minimal chances to move when you’re in a two-year contract. The team cut ties with the Casa Dorada sponsor that didn’t come to the table in the end, and we went with a small scale Conti team, with the Burgos Alimenta sponsors.
I continued because I wanted to qualify for the Olympics and didn’t want to change my environment.
We were assured of some quality race starts, but they didn’t happen. I decided I’d had enough of being in this situation and being part of an organisation where I didn’t have aligned values.
Now I’m moving on to be with an organisation that I’m more aligned with,
that is more suited to my values. Not only as a bike rider, but as a person, a human being as well. I’m emotionally quite exhausted after the last 18 months. There are small bits that I have left out, and it’s a lot more complex than I have been able to fully explain, but that’s the short version.
I didn’t make the Olympic team, and that was the final straw.
That was traumatic, and it was a position where it was, like, sink or swim: do I let this defeat me or do I control what I can control? I had the most incredible off-season, which was bike first, everything else second. I did some incredible training camps. A lot of people ask how I have managed to stay motivated, and I have just known deep down, through my training, that I am still getting stronger.
I had this unrelenting feeling that I deserved more than this.
I felt like I was being pushed into a corner. I had impostor syndrome and so much embarrassment around my situation. I’m not Anna van der Breggen or Annemiek van Vleuten, but I’ve had a good career considering where I’ve come from. I was still running around an athletics track in 2007.
I took advantage of the UCI’s mid-year transfer window, and thank god it exists.
There is no bad blood, it was an amicable separation, it just did not provide. I phoned Robbie Hunter... with my career hanging by a thread. I broke down in tears, explained everything that had happened.
He knew where I was at, we talked and I sent him my CV and performance profile.
I must have impressed him, and we got a contract with Parkhotel, and steps towards next year’s contract as well.
My first memory of seeing the green and gold was Kathy Watts winning at Barcelona in 1992; at 4am as a starry-eyed 10 year old.
From that moment on I was completely mesmerised and captivated by the Olympics, by world-stage athleticism. Anything athletically on the world stage I was obsessed with, whether that was rowing or swimming or
athletics. Every Olympics I would be in front of the TV for two weeks, I would have scrapbooks of my favourite athletes. I was a scrawny little kid, and I started doing athletics and loved it to bits, although I wasn’t very good.
I kept doing athletics through my teenage years.
I was probably naturally suited to endurance, but I never got that tap on my shoulder telling me to do the 3,000m or whatever, and instead I fell in love with hurdling. I studied hard at school too, and got the grades to go to uni to do physiotherapy.
My first year at Uni in Sydney coincided with the Sydney Olympics.
I couldn’t afford to get tickets, so I volunteered. Here is me, first year of university, discovering my new existence and then I was trackside at the Olympics. I was inside the stadium running the results sheets, and every now and then I saw these medals being won, which was an extraordinary experience. That was one of the key catalysts in my story. Those performances embedded within me a sense of deep knowing. That’s what I really want, to be an Australian athlete.
It took a couple of years, because I never really believed that I could.
I studied extra hard at university, and four years later I transferred my dream to being a world class physio. All my ambitions that I had in sport I transferred to that career.
A couple of years after the Sydney Olympics I was disillusioned with my athletic career.
My ex-boyfriend was a rower, and suggested that I get into rowing. Rowing was another pivotal point in my pathway. I liked to row and it confirmed that I was an endurance athlete. We did some work on stationary bikes, some running, and it really stimulated my engine that was lying there dormant.
I had been so determined to carry on with athletics, but rowing really opened that world up to me.
After 18 months I realised that it would take me 10 years in rowing to go to the Olympics.
I went back to running, and got a foot injury through coming back too hard. I had a go on a spin bike, and I loved the hurt and the pain. I would stay on there for hours and hours.
Meanwhile, my physio career was going really well.
In 2006 and 2007 I was a physio with the Australian Institute of Sport and then with the rowing team; I was working with them in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. I was 25, super motivated for my career, but I was still keeping really fit. I loved my job and everything about it, and I really understood high performance sport, which really helped accelerate my skills.
The real pivot point was at the end of the rowing tour in Europe.
I was in Switzerland and we had the last regatta, and Cameron Wurf turned up in his cycling kit. He had just stopped rowing and gone into cycling, and I had no
“In an athletic life, you are not always in control. In fact, rarely are you in control. But it is about your mindset, and how you respond to that”
idea about pro cycling. When we were out, I was standing talking to him at the bar and I started picking his brain about it, like who did you talk to and what did you do.
I put all that information in my pocket, and had more talks with my colleagues.
One asked me what I really wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be an athlete. That was the first time I ever said it out loud.
There was this flame that I couldn’t extinguish.
I went to the lakes in Switzerland and rented a mountain bike, and I remember I did this 60km ride. I made a promise to myself, I laid the bike down on the grass and looked up at the sky and the mountains around me. It sounds very romantic but it’s true. I promised to be true to my one desire, to be a world class Australian athlete.
What completed my life first was the first time I ever pulled on the green and gold jersey for the development team in 2009.
I moved from Sydney to Adelaide, went from a full-time physio to a part-time contract, just to pay my bills. I pulled my life 360 degrees. No more Sydney lifestyle, I went and lived like a hermit in Adelaide and focused on riding my bike. I threw the kitchen sink at it.
In 2012, standing on a World Championship podium, that was a surreal moment.
To have done that in five years was quite the achievement.
That podium felt like that was when I arrived on the world stage.
It was definitely a moment when the stars aligned, and it was when I could show my capacity for the first time. I rode myself into the breakaway, and I was left to fly the flag for Australia. I felt like I could deliver because I was in really good shape.
There was quite a difficult situation because the following year the GreenEdge team started up and I was not part of it, so I had to deal with feelings of rejection.
It was not a fairytale. Within a couple of weeks of my medal it was Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, so it wasn’t good timing.
I ended up with a pretty bad knee injury in 2013, and my way back from that was starting working with Bradley McGee in 2014.
It refreshed my perspective on how to manage myself and my energy levels a bit better, because prior to that I was a bit of a steam train.
I got hit by a car in 2014, which was just when I was getting into form.
It took out my left knee again; it was just a real 18 months of bad luck. From winning a World
“I laid my bike down, looked up at the sky and the mountains, and I promised to be a true to my one desire, to be a world class athlete”
Champs medal in 2012 to not having a team in 2014 was just sh*t.
My career was hanging by a thread at the beginning of 2015.
But I came second at the nationals and won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and then signed with Orica. Nothing is ever given to me on a plate. This is what it took for them to finally sign me.
It’s pretty obvious how important being surrounded by positive people is.
People who enjoy the process of working hard but also having fun. People who are professional, and driven to thrive and succeed on the same page as you. My new team manager Raymond asked me why I still want to do this. I’m 38 now, and I told him that I’m not done yet. I think for him to really trust me on that, you just have to have a feeling. Sometimes you have to take a risk on people, and that’s what he did. I’m grateful for that.
Coming sixth in the Tour of Norway was down to three parts.
My physical performance, which was undeterred for 18 months; the mental side, the hunger, the hurt that I have endured, and the feeling of relief now; and the third component is the team environment and the sports director saying go for it. My goal going into the race was just to assimilate into the team, back into the peloton, no pressure. To come away with a top 10 finish is definitely a combination of those three factors.
A lot of girls knew that I was stitched up into a project that failed and I couldn’t get out of.
Good on you for surviving, I guess. I hope that is the case anyway, and this little story is just one little link in the chain of my rollercoaster career. I hope it can be an example to the younger riders in how to overcome adversity and how to reframe challenges. It is really about controlling the controllables.
In an athletic life, you are not always in control, in fact very rarely are you in control, but it is about your mindset and how you respond to that.
You’ve got to have that unrelenting self belief.
But you have also got to have the focus and capability and the intellectual capacity, to pull it all together.