Cycling

Australian cyclist Amanda Spratt had her best season yet in 2018 – but fell just short of the world title. Can she go one better this year? By Kieran Pender.

Amanda Spratt’s cycling hopes

Amanda Spratt in action during this year’s Giro Rosa in Italy won by her Dutch teammate Annemiek van Vleuten.
Credit: Luc Claessen / Getty Images

The elite road cycling calendar begins each January in Adelaide in the sweltering conditions of the Australian summer. The international peloton then heads to brisk northern Europe for a series of “Spring Classics”, before chasing the sun south to cycling’s heartland: Italy, France and Spain. After various detours to Asia and North America, the globe’s best male and female cyclists gather somewhere in the world for the season’s denouement: the road world championships.

The hills of Yorkshire, England, will next weekend determine the 2019 world champions. In Innsbruck, Austria, last September, Penrith’s Amanda Spratt came agonisingly close to the iconic rainbow winner’s jersey. But she was unable to chase down eventual winner Anna van der Breggen, and had to settle for the second level of the podium. While silver capped off a remarkable season for the Mitchelton-Scott rider, which included winning the Tour Down Under and a Giro Rosa stage, the near-miss left Spratt hungry for another attempt.

“I’m excited,” says the 32-year-old, as the Australian team prepares for their week-long campaign in northern England. Team and individual time trials and junior titles are decided in the coming days before the main event: elite women’s and men’s road races, next Saturday and Sunday respectively. “I have a big smile on my face just thinking about it,” says Spratt. “It is so special to race in the green and gold – it is not something that you get to do often. I am a really proud Aussie.”

Spratt test-rode the 2019 world championships course earlier this year and admits she was pleasantly surprised. “It was harder than I expected,” she offers. “There are narrow roads, twisting turns and a lot of up and down. It will be a real race of attrition – that suits me.”

Spratt is buoyed with confidence. “After coming second last year, I believe I can win the world title this year,” she declares. But both the rider and her long-time coach are philosophical about possible outcomes. “As a road cyclist you learn that sometimes things just happen – if I don’t improve on last year, I won’t be too disappointed.”

“The goal is to have a clear race plan and multiple strategies to achieve a result,” says Gene Bates, who until recently led the women’s program for Mitchelton-Scott. “Whether that is first or fifth – we don’t focus so much on the result itself; the process to get into a position to win the race is what we are interested in. Can she go one better? Yes. She could also go one worse – of course – and that would not necessarily be a failure. We go in with the best intentions and see what happens.”

Spratt’s status among the favourites in Yorkshire is evidence that she is now one of the best female riders in the peloton. The junior world title medals to her name might suggest it was always destined to be so. But her path to the top was not quite so straightforward.

After starting to race BMX bikes in the Blue Mountains aged just nine, Spratt began to excel on the track and road in her teenage years. International junior success led to a scholarship with the Australian Institute of Sport, and soon young Spratt was racing in Europe. “That really opened my eyes to what I could possibly achieve,” she says.

But in 2008, Spratt sustained a nerve injury and had to leave Europe midway through the season to have surgery. She spent more than 12 months living at the AIS in Canberra, undergoing extensive rehabilitation. “That was the biggest challenge I have had to overcome,” Spratt says. “People tell you maybe it is not worth it, maybe you should stop. That experience made me realise how much I want this. When I want something, I will keep chasing until I get it.”

Spratt had a slow return to the peloton, and it would take years for her to regain form. But she signed with Australian team Mitchelton-Scott upon its establishment in 2011, and the Gerry Ryan-backed team put long-term faith in one of their inaugural signings.

“We always saw the potential in Amanda,” says Bates. “Sometimes you have to persist with a slow burner and know that they are going to burn bright later on – not everyone just rocks up and starts winning. Spratty is a classic example of someone who has put in a lot of formative years and is now reaping the rewards, thanks to her work ethic and persistence.”

From Yorkshire, Spratt’s attention will turn to Tokyo 2020. “The Olympics are everything for next season,” she admits. With the demanding course on Tokyo’s outskirts including significant climbing metres, it is expected Spratt will lead Australia’s attempt at a medal. “Winning gold would be a dream come true,” she says. “I’m not kidding when I say I think about it every day. It is a huge focus. Ever since I was a child I have dreamt of winning the Olympics.”

If she is selected, Tokyo will be Spratt’s third Olympics. After middling results in London and Rio de Janeiro, the cyclist is hoping her maturity will help. “The first one I was just overwhelmed by the experience,” Spratt says. “Rio was better, but I feel that in the last couple of years I have really matured as an athlete. I have realised what it takes to win, and I am putting in the hard work. It would be amazing to win gold wearing the green and gold, knowing what it would do for women’s cycling in Australia.”

Cycling Australia is leaving nothing to chance. Earlier this year, they sent Spratt and several teammates to Tokyo to undertake course reconnaissance. She left with one primary impression: “It is really hot and humid.” This, Spratt hopes, might give the Australians the edge. “Our road national championships and Tour Down Under are usually very hot – the heat does not bother me,” she says. “The humidity will be a challenge, but I think the fact that us Australian riders are used to the extreme heat can be an advantage.”

If Spratt wins the world title next weekend, earning the right to race clad in rainbow stripes for the next 12 months, it would be a remarkable achievement; no Australian woman has ever emerged triumphant at the world championships. Victory in Tokyo next July would be a similarly momentous occasion – only Kathy Watt and Sara Carrigan have previously won gold in the Olympic women’s road race for Australia.

But for Spratt, the real achievement is her being here at all. And for that, she acknowledges a support network that has continually backed her. “I always believed I could get to this level, and a lot of people around me did too,” Spratt reflects. “There were doubters, but there were always supportive people around me.

“I think back to those days rehabbing at the AIS, and the number of hours that the physios and doctors spent with me. I am so grateful – I hope they can see where I am now. I am proud I didn’t give up – I kept pushing. I have reached this level, and I still hope to achieve more.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Climbs of passion". Subscribe here.

Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.