That’s precisely how many “ergo sessions” that Sarah Gigante had in the bank before her second-place finish at the first-ever eSports world championships in early December. A week before when she won the opening time trial at the National Road Series, a nine-day event in New South Wales, it had been 266 days since she’d last raced outdoors.
Needless to say, although 2020 didn’t turn out the way the Australian time trial national champion expected it, it also didn’t turn out all that badly.
“Oh yes, I was so focused on that one eWorlds that I managed to sacrifice just eight months!” Gigante told me, with characteristic Australian snark.
“No, it was really hard at the time, but I’ve come out stronger mentally and physically,” she said.
Gigante, who debuted — in a 2020-sort of way — with Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank last year, was one of the professional cyclists who left Europe after the frantic coronavirus spike in March and never made it back. She was confined to a 5-kilometer radius from her home in Melbourne for 14 weeks and after that, subject to intense quarantine and travel restrictions that made it unrealistic to leave.
So the 20-year old rider who has “always just loved cycling so much that I wanted to do it as much as possible,” took to the trainer, where she logged all of those sessions on Zwift, emerging stronger than ever.
The point was proven when she returned to racing in November in the National Road Series.
“Other states hardly had any [coronavirus] restrictions, but at my first race back Victorians did really well,” she said. “I think the lockdown went one of two ways — the people who managed to stay sane and stay motivated came out really strong because of indoor cycling.”
Gigante, who is the first professional cyclist in her family, has never struggled with motivation. Her cycling origin story doesn’t stem from an injury or outgrowing another sport; she discovered a love of riding while in a trailer or on the back of a tandem with her mother, as the pair spent nine days each summer touring across Victoria during the Great Victorian Bike Ride.
“Apparently I told her, ‘I’m sick of looking at your backside, I want to be on my own bike,” Gigante said.
When she was eight, Gigante and her mother Googled ‘cycling clubs for kids,’ and discovered the Brunswick Cycling Club. They put her brother’s old mountain bike in the car and drove to the Melbourne suburb for a Saturday clinic. Gigante says that club volunteer Dave Morgan took one look at the mountain bike and handed her a different one, this one without brakes or gears.
“We got there at nine, the race started at nine, and I took one minute and 23-seconds to do a 30 second lap,” she said. “We had three races that day, and when the clinic finished I was still going around riding the velodrome. Dave looked at my mum and said ‘you’re going to have to pry that girl off the track with a crowbar.'”
From that day on, the young Gigante was hooked, and she raced both on the track and road throughout her junior career. She says she could never decide which was her favorite; in 2018 she went to junior track and road worlds. By then, she had a handful of junior and under-23 national titles in both disciplines, but in 2019 she decided to focus on the road before turning pro in 2020.
Gigante says that she always felt welcomed and included as an up-and-coming female bike racer in Australia. Although she is aware of some initiatives that specially target getting more young women on the bike, “it’s more like offering junior racing to everyone and then being as welcoming to anyone who shows up.” Gigante said there were always more boys than girls at the Brunswick club, but it never felt intimidating or off-putting. The intimidation arrived when she left Australia to compete abroad.
“It’s quite a shock when you to go Europe, just the size of the peloton,” she said.
Although Gigante doesn’t see her nationality as a detriment (“I love being Aussie!” she said), she does believe there are fewer hurdles to clear for European riders, namely the fact that during the race season they are never far from home. This was a concern to her before the onset of her first season with Tibco last year.
“Ignoring the pandemic, the plan was to leave in February and not come home until September,” she said. “It’s a big step for a 19-year old neo-pro. Whereas if I happened to be born in Spain, I’d be able to duck in [at] home throughout the season. Now with the pandemic too, we have hotel quarantine which costs 3,000 AUD. It’s hard to get [apartments], lots of people are. Having to pay for business-class tickets. So it’s definitely not easy to duck home mid-season with costs, time zones. Being Aussie is awesome but it would be handy if we were closer.”
Nevertheless, the inconveniences of geography aren’t enough to stop Gigante from pursuing her giant dream of winning races in the pro peloton. The pandemic has made her understandably cautious of putting too much hope into attending particular races this season, so she’s taking it step by step. She’s bubbling with excitement over the upcoming Australian national championship races, where she will compete on the Australian national team with the Olympic track squad and fellow roadies Loretta Hansen and Neve Bradbury.
Even though her rides on Zwift outnumber her races outside, Gigante should have no trouble contending for her second elite road title. She’s now used to bouncing between the bike both indoors and out, and the backdrop to her performance at esports worlds demonstrates just how comfortable she is in both environments.
“Before the National Road series race in November, I’d just done so much Zwifting, and I could finally get out so I went to this tour and I’m like, ‘Finally I don’t have to Zwift anymore,” she said. “Then I looked at the dates. This tour finished on the 6th and worlds was like at 2 a.m. on the 8th. Then I had 20 hours of driving. So I did this nine-day tour, I was so tired, Mum and I shared the drive home. We got home Tuesday night, and the drug testers were waiting for me. They must have been on the street or something. So that was a big night after that massive drive home. Then I think it started at 12:15AM and finished at two on Wednesday. I was pretty cooked by then.
“But it was really cool. It had a really cool environment even though it was online. With the Aussie team, we’d done some recons together, we had some tactic meetings, so even though it was really late and I was tired, it was really awesome.”