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Cromwell Q&A: Gambling pays at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

After Orica rider Tiffany Cromwell won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the Aussie rider spoke with Rupert Guinness of The Sydney Morning Herald

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SYDNEY (VN) — After Orica-AIS rider Tiffany Cromwell won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in a two-up sprint ahead of U.S. national road champion Megan Guarnier (Rabobank Liv-Giant), the Aussie rider spoke with Rupert Guinness of The Sydney Morning Herald about her triumph and her career, looking backward and forward.

That story can be found here. Below is the full transcript of their conversation.

Rupert Guinness: How does this result rate for you personally? You have some good results, but this is the first big race of the year, and with that comes a lot of expectation, and speculation, as to who can win it. You won, and off the back of a well-oiled team effort. Is it your biggest win yet?
Tiffany Cromwell: For me personally this is a big result and a special win. There’s something about the Flandrian classics, the races are renowned for their difficulty, in both the technical aspect and the conditions we are generally faced with. Ever since racing [the Tour of] Flanders in 2010 for the first time, I’ve wanted to win one of these spring classics, so it’s fantastic to finally be able to achieve it with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

It certainly is one of the biggest wins of my career. It is my first big one-day classic win, and to open the European season this way it gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season. With the first big race of the year you never know exactly how you are going to be among the rest of the peloton. You know how your form is personally, but how that is compared to the other girls, it is always difficult to judge until you are out there racing.

Orica-AIS certainly went into the race as favorites, having two previous winners of the race with Loes Gunnewijk and Emma Johansson, and we had already shown in Qatar that we were working well as a team together and with some strong form. The best thing with our team is that any one of us could’ve won the race. The squad we had there are all strong classics riders and we showed that with four riders in the final break [Cromwell, Gunnewijk, Johansson and Australian Gracie Elvin] and we utilized that and worked hard with many attacks in the final 20km trying to get the right combination away where we were confident we could win.

It wasn’t until just over 5km to go when finally an attack got a good gap, which happened to be mine, with only Megan coming with me, and looked like it could be the winning move. I am notorious for doing too much work in races and not saving energy, but I think when I get that sniff of potential glory I want to make the most of it, as that is how I have always managed to win races. I took the gamble to really push the break, as I was thinking either Megan was playing poker face with me or she genuinely was suffering and didn’t have much left. Luckily it was the latter, but until I knew for sure it was going to be between us two for the win I kept pushing the pace.

Within the last 2km I had to start thinking about how I was to pull off the win, especially because I’m not a noted sprinter and I knew I am better at coming from behind in the sprint, so I forced her to the front and she stayed there until I opened my sprint with around 300 (meters) to go, I saw I had a gap and was able to enjoy the final few meters before crossing the finish line. I took the gamble, I buried myself, and I am so happy I could take the win and finish off the job of what was really a fantastic team effort.

RG: Orica-AIS sports director Dave McPartland spoke of how much you learned last year from Judith Arndt and Loes Gunnewijk. Can you elaborate more about what they taught you, or rather what your learned from them?
TC: As with many things in life you learn from experience, both your own and from others. Having the likes of Judith and Loes in the team, with so much experience and knowledge of everything from races to tactics to winning to team work… when they tell you to do something in a race you’re not going to second-question them, whereas if you’re trying to learn yourself, you might think about making that move but then decide not to because you’re intimidated by the stronger or more experienced riders.

A perfect example was in the World Cup in Plouay (France) last year. I was one of the last riders to hold the group that was going away over the climb with just over one lap to go and the only other rider we had there was Judith. I was on the rivet already and I made it to Judith and asked her what she wanted me to do. Her response was “attack.” So without even thinking about it, and how much I was suffering, off I went, and it ended up creating the race-winning break and me taking my first ever World Cup podium. Whereas, if I didn’t have that guidance or experience from the likes of Judith, I probably would’ve just tried to stay with that group and hope to go with the moves instead of creating those moves.

Loes is another fantastic one to have in the team, as she is a great leader. She isn’t afraid to tell us where we went wrong, but it is all constructive to help us learn and work on it for next time. Also, being a Dutchie, she has a lot of experience when it comes to riding in the wind and saving energy and everything else that comes with it. It’s all those little things that help save the energy throughout the race that will ultimately give you that extra bit in the finish when it comes to trying to win the race. You’ve seen it with all the Australian girls on the team, our performance has all stepped up a level since riding alongside the likes of Judith and Loes, you’re just so motivated to do the job right that you push yourself harder than you think is possible and every time you do that you’re getting a little bit stronger.

RG: With this win, how does that impact your season to come with regards to goals and ambitions? Has this win changed any planned goals where you otherwise may have been penciled in to help someone else?
TC: This season is all about stepping up and learning to win races. After the season I had last year, the team knows what I’m capable of, and they want to see me utilize that and be another card that they can rely on to get results. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was always a target for me personally, and going into the race the plan was to save Emma, Loes and myself for towards the end of the race. I think taking the win has given the team that added confidence that they can rely on me to perform towards the end of the race and take that bit of added pressure of being a protected rider at times.

It is a completely different mentality that you need when you have the pressure of working out how to win the race, as opposed to knowing that you just need to turn yourself inside out for a teammate during a part of the race as a domestique, when it doesn’t matter what your personal end result is. One of our biggest strengths as a team is our teamwork, and always backing each other if you’re in the race-winning move. That’s the thing I love about it though, you know that your time will come and you are happy to sacrifice yourself for others because you know they will do the same in return.

In terms of if this win will change things or impact things for the rest of the season… I don’t think it will change a huge amount. Taking the win just gives the added confidence, to both myself and the team, that I’m capable of winning big races and they can rely on me to finish off the job if the pressure is left to me to take the win for the team. Also with the win I may be given more leadership roles throughout the season, particularly in the hillier races, which is exciting and something I’m really looking forward to.

RG: Orica-AIS had you and two former race winners in the main break. Has the final result, and how the team rode, made Orica “the” team to mark this season? Or was it already the case last year?
TC: I think we were already a team to mark. If you looked at the start list for Het Nieuwsblad, on paper, we were probably the strongest team there. We were competitive all through the season last year and showed our strength many times and obviously with all the success we had we were never going to come into this season as an unmarked team. We also showed our cards in Qatar without taking a win at the race. But we had numbers in all the moves and created a lot of the carnage that split the race apart. So I have a feeling coming into Het Nieuwsblad we were never going to get away too easily and really have to fight for the win.

RG: How did you get in to cycling? You were a runner weren’t you? What drew you to it, to the point that you wanted to make a professional career in cycling?
TC: Actually the main sport I did before cycling was basketball, I played for about eight years, but my height always let me down to go any further then state level. As a kid growing up, I was into everything. I was always a strong runner in the school sports competitions. There was some ballet in there when I was younger, triathlon, the works.

I actually got into cycling through the talent search program with SASI [South Australian Sports Institute]. We started on the track and eventually moved to the road. To be honest, when I started cycling I actually didn’t enjoy it very much, I had gone from being in big baggy basket uniforms to this tight Lycra business, and on the track I was terrible. I was tiny when I started at 13, with no power whatsoever, and I still loved basketball.

Eventually, as we got onto the road I discovered I was a bit better, getting a bronze medal in my first ever state road champs, and from there I began enjoying cycling more and basketball less. Finally, I gave away basketball and focused just on cycling. When I was younger, I never traveled, and I think that was one of the major things that drew me to cycling. As I started climbing the ranks I began to travel further, all around Australia for the various junior competitions and then finally getting overseas with the junior world championships and beginning to see the world. I had finally found a sport that could take me places, and was something I really enjoyed and was very competitive with.

All of these things made me stick with cycling, I loved it, meeting so many people, being in the outdoors, traveling the world, and the feelings you get when all the hard work pays off and you finally get those results where you end up on the podium and in particular that top step. Everything just fell into place along the way, and though I have hit a few rough patches here and there, I have a problem with giving up. I’ve had times when things really weren’t enjoyable and I wanted to quit, but I could never bring myself to it, because to be able to say riding my bike around the world is my job, and living in some amazing countries, racing in front of big crowds at times is special. You take it for granted sometimes but it’s a beautiful sport that we are lucky to be able to have as a professional career as opposed to a “real” nine-to-five office job.

RG: [Jayco owner] Gerry Ryan has from the start been so supportive of the team. With women’s cycling, his support dates back to when he supported Kathy Watt before she won her 1992 Olympic Games road gold medal. How different, or greater, is his conviction to women’s cycling compared to those on other women’s teams? Or are those who support women’s teams just as committed?
TC: Gerry has been a fantastic supporter of all sport throughout Australia and it is so great to have someone so supportive, enthusiastic and generous being a part of women’s cycling and backing a women’s team to coincide with the men’s team [Orica-GreenEdge].

It’s hard to compare his support to other women’s teams on the circuit, as I haven’t been involved firsthand in many other teams. I just see from the outside. There certainly are a number of teams out there currently that seem to be well supported and run very professionally, similar to Orica-AIS; but then there is the other end of the spectrum where there are a number of teams that struggle for funding, and without a strong financial backer, ultimately they just can’t support the riders on that professional level.

The great thing with Gerry is he isn’t just someone in the background bankrolling the team. He gets involved, comes to races, wants to get to know the riders. On our training camp in Canberra in January, both Gerry and [Orica-GreenEDGE general manager] Shayne Bannan joined us there and took us out to a lovely dinner and spent the time chatting to us, getting to know us and just being involved and also making a big effort to promote the women’s team and increase our profile.

RG: What has been the hardest moment of your career where your faith in the sport has been questioned – that is, if there was one. And if there was, what convinced you to continue?
TC: That would have to be in 2011. It was probably the toughest year in my cycling career, more mentally than physically, and the closest I have ever come to wanting to quit the sport. Throughout my career I had been making a steady progress, getting some results here and there, and then finally in 2009 I had a great year on the bike and a few big results. At the end of 2009 I had signed with the former Nürnberger team, in its day the number-one team in the world, only for it to fold a month before the start of the 2010 season.

I was lucky that the national program stepped in and gave me a full race program in Europe. But for me I had finally made that step of signing with a professional team only to have it taken away, and then I was put back in the position to try and prove myself again and to try and get signed with another team. Throughout 2010 things didn’t click 100 percent, and I didn’t perform to the level that was expected of me. I was still young and still learning so much and I wasn’t ready for that leadership role I was being given with the national team to try and get more podiums in Europe.

So at the end of 2010 I signed with Lotto ladies team, a good team with a big racing program, but unfortunately only a small budget. To start with I was really motivated to make 2011 a good season, make the most of the opportunities to get results and hopefully find a bigger team. Early into the season I had some differences with the team and I really wasn’t enjoying it; as a result I didn’t race for around two months.

I struggled for motivation, everyone who knows me knows how much I love to ride my bike and during this period I really wasn’t enjoying it. I struggled to put together good training sessions and I lacked a lot of motivation. I had a fallout with a close friend from the whole situation, and things just wasn’t working. I was very close to either taking a break from the sport or just giving up completely and [former partner] Richie Porte was probably the biggest influence for me to not letting me throw it away. He was seeing firsthand what I was going through and he supported me 100 percent, backing my career and getting me back on track.

Also my dad and some close friends helped convince me to stick with it, and finally Karl Lima, who runs the Hitec Products team, who gave me an opportunity to transfer across to them and race with them in the second half of the season. Although I never got back to my best during the 2011 season, that team helped me enjoy racing again and being all a part of it.

RG: What are the ambitions of Orica-AIS this year — to wins stages and classics, like the men’s team, or are there general classification goals?
TC: Ultimately with the Orica-AIS team we want to win as many races as possible. We have a team that is very strong for the classics and World Cups. We have high ambitions there. It is going to be good having the track riders with the team a lot more this season with Mel Hoskins and Nettie Edmonson. They are both very strong bunch sprinters and that is something we lacked last season. We had Mel on board, but with the Olympics she spent most of the season with the track program.

As for GC goals, there will certainly be some tours that we can target, and have the team to chase GC glory, but we also have to be realistic, and for races such as the Giro where there can be some tough long climbs, we lost Judith and Linda Villumsen. They are both super strong GC riders so they will be big shoes to fill, but hopefully we will have some girls to step up and have a crack at riding for GC throughout the season. The other big goal for the team is the TTT at the world championships, something the team is very determined to target. We will work hard on having the right team to hopefully go one step higher this year and take the world title.

RG: What is your cycling dream — the ultimate success/moment that would tell you if nothing else came, that would be enough for you?
TC: There are a couple of things. Certainly a world title would be nice, or overall victory in the World Cup series. I would love to win either the Tour of Flanders, or Fléche Wallonne one day, as they would probably be our two biggest, most prestigious one-day races. An Olympic medal is certainly in there, too. I’m ambitious, but I still believe anything is possible if you put your mind to it.