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‘Your mates become your family.’ How Australia’s pros look after each other in Europe

In our Aussie Week reporting, we heard stories of Australian riders looking out for one another in the cutthroat European racing scene.

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Amanda Spratt remembers the hand-me-down socks and free Australia Institute for Sport cycling jerseys given to her when she arrived in Bologna to start her pro career. For Lucy Kennedy, it was the advice on obtaining a travel Visa to Spain, and the heads up on which pizza parlor to visit in Girona that made an impact. Simon Gerrans recalls the donated couch from Bradly McGee and the loaner mattress from Stuart O’Grady.

“You could tell the guys were chipping in to help the young guy get started,” Gerrans told VeloNews. “Always a word of advice at a race — even if they’re on competing teams they’re still giving you a few pointers on the race. We’re really great at helping the young guys come through the system.”

In our reporting for our Aussie Week stories, a familiar theme emerged in our conversations with Australian pro riders about their early years in the European peloton. The diaspora of Australian cyclists living abroad in Europe takes an active role in nurturing the next generation of top riders, offering up everything from racing advice to free pieces of furniture and clothing.

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and there was one exception to the norm. But most Aussie racers had stories of how their countrymen and countrywomen helped them out during the early stages of their pro career, and likewise, how they have tried to help the up-and-coming Australian riders who are recent transplants to Europe.

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“It’s not a premeditated thing, but just sort of naturally happens I think,” said Mitchell Docker of EF Education – Nippo. “You understand what someone else is probably going through because you would have gone through it five or 10 years before.”

The importance of Australians’ generosity toward their compatriots cannot be underestimated. All Aussie pros must uproot their lives and move halfway across the world to Spain, Italy, or other European nations, and then assimilate quickly into the local cultures and customs. Then, they must navigate the cutthroat pro peloton, where generations-old alliances already exist between riders from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, among other countries.

It’s a similar dynamic that riders from the U.S., Colombia, and other global hotbeds must navigate. The Australians, it seems, may be having the most success. According to Prorcyclingstats.com there were 35 Australians competing in the WorldTour in 2020, the first country ranked behind cycling’s traditional powers (France, Italy, Belgium, Spain). That’s up from just eight riders in 1999 competing in pro cycling’s highest echelon.

During that same period, the United States went from 14 riders in 1999 to 22.

There are myriad reasons for Australia’s success, of course, from the national focus of the Team BikeExchange team to the efforts of AIS and other national cycling institutions. Somewhere in that mysterious recipe for success, however, is the Australian dedication to helping out compatriots.

Spratt made her first trip to Europe as a teenager with the Australian federation and took residence in a home shared by Australian riders in Italy. The immediate mentorship she received was acknowledgment from the women she’d looked up to in the peloton.

“For me, getting to go riding with them and being starstruck, yet they’re making the time for me and acknowledging what a big step it is to come over was important,” Spratt said. “So now when I see someone like [Neve] Bradbury coming over and getting a contract it makes me really excited. And if I can give her any advice or wisdom, I absolutely will.”

Kennedy, who made her WorldTour debut in 2018 said Spratt became a quick mentor when she joined Team Mitchelton-Scott just a few years into her racing career. Kennedy was 30 years old at the time — nearly the same age as Spratt — and she looked up to her peer for advice.

“Spratty was one of the most experienced women in the peloton and she became an incredible mentor to me,” Kennedy said. “I just do what she does — she’s the epitome of professionalism, really.”

Today, many Australian pro riders have moved to a handful of areas to be close to their compatriots — Girona, Spain, and Andorra are the two hotbeds.

In the early 2000s, the handful of Aussie riders were located in Southern France, near the cities of Toulouse and Nice. A handful of other Australian pros lived in Flanders, where they trained for the northern classics.

Gerrans moved to Europe in 2003 to compete on a small Spanish amateur team, and the following season he returned, this time racing for an amateur French squad. At the time it was O’Grady, Robbie McEwan, and Baden Cooke who were the top Australian riders in the peloton.

Gerrans couldn’t afford an apartment of his own, so for weeks he couch-surfed with countryman Mark Renshaw, who had inked a pro contract with French team Française des Jeux. During those first years, he became close friends with Renshaw, Matt Wilson, and Brad McGee.

“The group of guys that are your mates becomes your family and you really rely on each other,” Gerrans said. “They’re the ones who come to the hospital when you’re banged up.”

More than a decade later it was Gerrans who found himself in a new role. As winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Milano-Sanremo, Gerrans was one of the most successful Australians in the peloton. When a young sprinter named Caleb Ewan turned up in Monaco, looking to make his mark on the global stage, Gerrans saw an opportunity to pay forward the treatment he’d received years past.

“I helped [Ewan] settle in Monaco and really tried to help and some other guys out with racing programs, advice around training,” Gerrans said. “You’ve been through what they are going through at that point, if it’s being away from Australia and adapting to the racing scene and dealing with teams. You just automatically transition into that more experienced guy mode.”