SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California (VN) — The Amgen Tour of California’s ‘most courageous’ prize may seem minor next to the yellow jersey or a stage win, but for a rider who nearly quit racing for good in 2016, it was an honor, a surprise, and a decisive return.
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With a solo attack far from the finish, Australian Lizzie Williams earned her first WorldTour jersey on Thursday in stage 1 of the Amgen Women’s Tour of California. It was a visible and personally significant homecoming to upper-echelon racing for a Williams, who rode for Orica-Scott in 2015 and 2016 before ending the latter season abruptly due to debilitating depression.
She wrote of the experience last fall, describing the abrupt fall from pro racing. “In April I was taking on the famous cobbled sections (or they were taking on me!) of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen,” she said. “A month later I was struggling to get out of bed, living at my parent’s house in Melbourne, my cycling future unknown.”
Williams struggled with depression twice before. But repetition made it no easier. It was a long road back to good health and eventually the peloton. “I didn’t even think I was going to come back,” she said, standing in the team hotel following Thursday’s stage. “It’s been tough, coming back from a mental illness is a little bit more complex than coming back from a physical illness.”
Recovering from her depression at home in Australia last summer and fall, Williams contemplated returning to teaching. Though she didn’t feel finished with pro cycling, there were no contracts on the table. Then she got an unexpected offer from Jono Coulter, sport director of the U.S.-based Hagens Berman-Supermint team. It was a smaller team with a more flexible race schedule. “That actually motivated me,” she said. “It made me believe that I can do cycling and have balance in my life and that’s what I wanted.”
After five months off the bike, Williams joined the team and has been thriving on its holistic approach to athletes. It’s a team that focuses on the riders’ well-being, not just results, Williams explained. Riders’ partners and families can travel along with the team to races, providing a supportive environment.
This relaxed attitude attracted an unusual mix of riders to the team. Williams has nicknamed the “the misfits.” Scotti Lechuga travels to races with her husband and two kids in an RV. Lindsay Bayer is a racer/manager. Fellow Australian Peta Mullen has her boyfriend along at most races. “It’s just very accepting and welcoming of all different types of racers,” Williams added.
Earning the courageous rider’s jersey on Thursday was a proud moment for Williams and her small team. “We need exposure and this is giving the team some great exposure and that was our goal,” she said. “We’re not going to win the race so we need to get exposure through other things.”
Williams made her move just as the peloton pulled in an earlier break. The bunch swelled for a moment, midway through the 117km stage, giving the experienced Aussie a chance to go free. “I was hoping a few people would follow,” she said. “I turned around and had a pretty big gap and no one was there.” Frustrated, Williams settled into time trial mode, committed to her solo move. “I was still able to enjoy some of the views [of Lake Tahoe] on the right-hand side,” she said, laughing. “I just want to have fun so that was good.”
Although she was caught in the final 20 kilometers, the race jury recognized her effort and awarded the special jersey for stage 2.
She’ll help lead her small Hagens Berman-Supermint team through another day of racing on Friday and then will take off the race jersey, handing it over to the next rider to make an ambitious move off the front. Like many things, improvement doesn’t always follow a linear path. Battling back from depression and finding peace with a sport she loves was no easy task. Confident about her progress on and off the bike, Williams smiled with relaxed pride, “I feel really proud of where I am today.”