Champion cyclist Kimberley Wells on practising medicine, beating pneumonia and Lance Armstrong's fall from grace. By Richard Cooke.


Back in the saddle: Kimberley Wells, 29, cyclist

Balancing cycling and practising medicine isn’t easy. When I was at uni, I really wanted to have a crack at riding, but for a lot of reasons it wasn’t really feasible back then. I still have that same feeling and that same passion for it, even after I’ve been working for a few years. My then boyfriend – now husband – and I decided to take the leap of faith and see what I could do.

I’m not specialised at this stage with medicine. I’ve finished all my general years working, so a lot of my mates in the hospital are specialising. It’s too hard to specialise while I’m still riding at this level, because that in itself is 100 per cent commitment. I’m in a bit of a holding pattern medical career-wise, which is fine. But it’s definitely a hard balance.

It’s pretty weird jumping on the velodrome. Because you’re on a bike that’s fixed-gear and has no brakes. The flow of it is very different to being on a road bike with a free wheel. You’ve got to remember to keep pedalling. Everyone makes that mistake and jumps their back wheel. Learning how to control your speed when you’re in a bunch is really different on the track.

Rivalries might be more intense in track cycling. There are more specialist riders within a road race. You’ve got hill-climbers, time-triallers, sprinters. Everyone’s got their incentives. But if you look at the track, anyone doing endurance is going to be a more similar type of athlete. It’s the small things that you’ve got to try to use to beat them with. It’s a more level playing field in that sense. You can’t say, “The wind’s this …” or “The steeper bit of a climb is that …” You’re quite exposed on the track.

In road cycling there are still times when you can play tourist. If you look at the Tour de France, it’s this epic bike race with all this epic scenery, all around the country. Doing road tours you get to see all sorts of countryside, different towns, big towns, small towns that you never would have gone to if you weren’t racing like that. In America a big thing is host housing, the team staying with local families. That was actually the coolest way to experience different towns – from the local level.

I crashed three times in a week. I was just so skinned. It was really unpleasant being on my bike, and I just felt awful. I felt flat. I felt that I had nothing to give. I found something within myself during that race period, and we ended up, as a team, winning the race series. I don’t think there are many times when I have raced better than when I was in that situation. It was so surprising, given how beaten up I was.

Crashing the second time is worse, because you’re crashing on raw flesh rather than skin. It’s definitely worse the more times you do it consecutively.

Scheduling is a problem for the women’s tour. The pinnacle of the women’s road scene, in terms of tours, is the Giro in Italy. That happens concurrently with the Tour de France. Often the men’s media noise tends to drown out the women’s results.

It is what it is. I don’t know the historical context of it, but that’s the way it lines up every year. Pink and yellow jerseys competing.

I was a massive Lance Armstrong fan. For many years. When the whole scandal came out, it really rocked the foundation of what I believed in and aspired to achieve. I still don’t think I’ve rectified the whole drama in my head. I still have a poster of him on my wall. I’ll often finish a ride, I’ll come in, and I’ll look at it. I don’t know what to think. I used to think he was so cool, but it was such a lie.

Cycling is all about the team tactics. It’s just such an important facet of the sport, especially the higher up you go within the competition. You have to work together in order to achieve a result for one of your riders, and that involves people sacrificing their race, their energy for someone else. Everyone within a team finds each other within the peloton, talks about what’s going on, if they’re okay. The communication aspect within a team is so vital.

Pneumonia wasn’t life-threatening for me – but it was emotionally crippling. I actually caught it from the community, not from work, like everyone thought. It was really frustrating. I missed out on basically an entire Aussie summer of racing [last year]. I never got to defend my national crit title. I’d been selected to ride for Australia in Qatar. I didn’t get to go there. In the end, I had to stop paying attention to social media and stop watching the racing. I really wanted to be there and it just made me upset to think what could have been.

Now I’ve come back with a vengeance. I know what it is to go pretty low within the sport, and I still want to do it. I think that says a lot, and I can draw a lot from that in terms of mental strength, because that was really tough.

1 . This week’s highlights…

• NRL: Penrith Panthers v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Tomorrow, 4pm, Pepper Stadium, Penrith

• AFL: NAB Challenge – North Melbourne v Hawthorn

Tomorrow, 4.40pm, Deakin Reserve, Shepparton

• Cricket: ICC World Cup – Australia v Sri Lanka 

Tomorrow, 2.30pm, Sydney Cricket Ground

• Paratriathlon: ITU World Paratriathlon Event

Friday, Novotel Hotel Twin Waters Resort, Sunshine Coast

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2015 as "Back in the saddle".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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