Road

Lucy Kennedy eyes a tricky pathway to the 2021 Olympics

Lucy Kennedy's Olympic ambitions could be determined by the leadership dynamics at Team BikeExchange this year.

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Lucy Kennedy’s route to the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo may start or finish in the Ardennes.

Kennedy, a rising star on Team BikeExchange, is hoping to snag one of Australia’s four spots in the women’s road race for the Tokyo Games, and she believes that the hilly classics — Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — will determine whether she makes the cut, or watches the games from home.

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“I’m optimistic, but you know we only have four spots so there’s no guarantees,” Kennedy said. “No matter what happens it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Kennedy is one of several riders on the bubble to make Australia’s team for the 2021 games — the squad will be chosen in late May by a selection committee working for the Australian Olympic Committee. Per the committee’s website, the group will choose the team based on results at major international races starting with the 2018 UCI road world championships. After the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2020 Olympics and upended the 2020 season, the Australian committee extended the end of this performance window to May 3, 2021.

The extension of the window means Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the final WorldTour race that the committee will consider.

Kennedy won the inaugural women’s Clasica San Sebastien in 2019. Photo: Amaia Zabalo/Getty Images

The fight for Australia’s Olympic spots at these races could create a tricky dynamic for Kennedy and her teammates to navigate. Team BikeExchange enters 2021 with an egalitarian eye on leadership after four years spent riding for global star Annemiek van Vleuten, who departed in the offseason for Team Movistar. Van Vleuten’s departure has opened the door for other riders, Kennedy included, to step up. On paper, the squad is likely to back veteran Amanda Spratt, however Spratt acknowledged that 2021 will likely see other riders get chances to win races.

“I think our biggest strength is how we can all work together now and build each other up together as a unit and help to strengthen each other to be there in the finals together,” Spratt said. ” I think we will have a little bit more balance across the team and that’s something to be excited about this year.”

BikeExchange has five Australian riders on its roster — Jessica Allen, Grace Brown, Sarah Roy, Kennedy, and Spratt — and all of them would undoubtedly like to make the Olympic team. Roy was the highest-ranked Australian in the final UCI rankings for 2020 (18th), followed by Brown (19th), Spratt (22nd), and Chloe Hosking, who now races for Trek-Segafredo. Kennedy finished the season ranked 58th in the UCI standings.

Who will BikeExchange back in the big WorldTour races? The answer to this question could determine which riders snap up the Olympic spots.

Kennedy has ridden as a climbing domestique for much of the past two seasons. She believes the 2021 season could open the door for her to win more races.

“It’s certainly going to be a different dynamic without a clear favorite,” Kennedy said. “Spratty is our leader but I think it will be a little more spread out and more opportunities for different riders, and we have a lot of riders who can win races and we are committed to supporting each other for different goals. It will be a little bit liberating for more people to have opportunities, and to back each other throughout the year.”

BikeExchange’s leadership in the 2021 races could be determined by who has the legs and the ambition — and Olympic spots are on the line.

An Olympic berth would represent a milestone in Kennedy’s relatively short pro cycling career. Kennedy grew up playing tennis and then became a competitive runner in high school and earned a scholarship to run at Iowa State University. She was hampered by injuries and picked up cycling after her running career ended.

Kennedy showed early promise in local bike races and in 2015 was invited to attend the now-defunct Australian Women’s Cycling selection camp. The bootcamp-style selection camp earned headlines in Australia and abroad for its controversial methods for weeding out riders based on physical and psychological strength.

“I actually really enjoyed it — you’ve got to be a little bit sadistic to enjoy it — and it had its merits and its flaws as well,” Kennedy said. “The mental games were important because when you go race in Europe from Australia, it is very challenging being away from home and just being thrown into this world.”

Lucy Kennedy was pipped at the line by Marianne Vos on stage 3 of the 2019 Giro Rosa. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Kennedy emerged as a solid climber who still needed to improve her bike handling skills, and over the next two seasons, she blossomed into the top rider on the domestic circuit. She won the 2017 Oceania Continental championships in the individual time trial, before winning the Tour l’Ardeche in France with the Australian national team. Those results earned her a spot on Mitchelton-Scott for 2018 and beyond.

Kennedy has amassed impressive results in Europe, with wins at the Clasica San Sebastian and Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria in 2019, and several podium finishes at WorldTour events. In 2019 she nearly won a stage of the Giro Rosa from a long breakaway, only to be pipped at the line by Marianne Vos after she celebrated too early.

But Kennedy is still hunting for that marquee WorldTour victory. Whether or not she achieves it in 2021 could determine her Olympic ambitions.

“The Giro and then the Olympics are up there,” she said. “I’m hoping July is a big month for me.”