Masks, magpies and a silver medal: at the cycling worlds with Grace Brown

<span>Photograph: Con Chronis/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Con Chronis/Getty Images

Australian cyclist Grace Brown arrived in Wollongong a week and a half ago with medals on her on mind. The 30-year-old Victorian, a World Tour cyclist with FDJ Suez Futuroscope, was considered among the favourites for both the individual time trial and road race at the 2022 road world championships. Brown was Australia’s great hope on home soil.

Over the past week, Brown has given Guardian Australia exclusive insight into her campaign at the biggest cycling event on these shores in more than a decade. These are the world championships through Brown’s eyes.

Related: Mathieu van der Poel charged with assault before Road World Championship race

‘Maybe I can win it?’
Saturday – the day before the time trial

“Excited – and a bit nervous.” These are Brown’s emotions a few days after landing back in Australia, following a strong 2022 World Tour campaign. In the two months before the world championships, Brown had collected a time trial gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, victory in the La Périgord one-day race and a stage win at Challenge by La Vuelta. She has the form to win the rainbow jersey – but, equally, has to carry the weight of expectations. “There’s a lot more attention as an Australian athlete,” she says.

The world championships open on Sunday morning with the women’s time trial, a technical 34.2km course around the streets of Wollongong. “The course is dynamic, with all the corners,” says Brown. “The more I see it, the more I think it’s suited to me. But with a time trial, you can only do your fastest race – and then wait and see.”

Brown is one of the best time trialists in the peloton, finishing fourth at the Tokyo Olympics. A podium spot is likely, and gold might be within Brown’s grasp. “If I have a really good day, maybe I can win it,” she says – ending with an upwards inflection, a question mark left to linger in the air. In 24 hours we’ll find out.

The Australian is well prepared for the course: FulGaz, a virtual cycling platform that uses video to replicate real courses (unlike Zwift’s animated world), recreated the time trial course for the Europe-based Brown to test herself virtually from the other side of the world. AusCycling has also focused on the little details to minimise disruptions for the team, including booking one of the main hotels in central Wollongong, right near the finish line (accommodation in the south coast city is limited and many teams had to settle for hotels in Sydney – including the Dutch team, who saw their star rider arrested following a late-night altercation).

I’ve been swooped twice already since being here

AusCycling also adopted strict Covid-19 protocols, meaning Brown and her teammates are in an isolated bubble. Despite being in the same city as family and friends – for the first-time in months, or, in the case of some riders, years – the team are separated from their loved-ones. The emotional impact of these measures is compounded by other teams taking a relaxed approach, mingling freely.

Grace Brown during the time trial.
Grace Brown during the time trial. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

“It’s difficult, especially knowing that other nations are not taking it as seriously,” Brown admits. “I haven’t seen my family in months so it’s hard knowing they are nearby, but I can’t see them. But it’s another of those sacrifices you have to make. In the end, what’s another week.”

The Covid protocols meant that early plans for Guardian Australia to physically embed with the team, as at prior world championships on the track and road, were off the cards. These interviews were all conducted by phone, except one in-person interview following a press conference. The Australian team were masked-up at every public appearance; vigilance that suddenly seemed prudent when there was an infection in the peloton, with the Netherlands’ Demi Vollering withdrawing from competition.

The pandemic is not the only threat to these riders. The bird population of Wollongong is making international headlines, with magpies swooping riders unaccustomed to fending off the birds (and even sea gulls getting in on the action). “I’ve been swooped twice already since being here,” Brown says. “I get pretty scared by magpies.”

‘I knew it was going to be close’
Sunday – the day of the time trial

The day has arrived. Months of preparation have come to this – a race against the clock. The Australian is the 10th rider to roll down the ramp and onto the 34.2km course. Following a powerful and controlled effort, Brown clocks the fastest time, taking the hot seat – a physical seat on a raised platform near the finish-line – and settles in for a long, nervous wait.

My goal was to be on the podium and my dream was to win the race

“I expected to be in the hot-seat, because I was so early in the day,” she says. “I was happy with my pacing, my time, my power, but even when you’ve done a good ride it doesn’t mean you have it in the bag. I didn’t know how it would place me.”

With a field of 43 riders spread across three waves, it will be almost two hours until Brown knows whether her time is fastest enough to secure the world title. Fortunately, her family have gathered near the hot-seat, so Brown catches up with them – at a distance – while keeping an eye on the incoming results.

The tension in the air is palpable as the final riders roll out onto the course. Brown’s time compares favourably to Annemiek van Vleuten, a two-time time trial world champion, and the rainbow jersey seems within grasp. “Wow,” Brown recalls thinking at the time. “That’s a big difference. Either I’m on an absolute flyer, or she’s having a bad day.”

It turned out to be the latter. Van Vleuten’s compatriot, Ellen van Dijk, then clocks a faster time than Brown at the intermediate time check. It will come down to the final kilometres. The last rider on the course, van Dijk, in a battle against the clock and Brown in the hot seat. “I knew it was going to be close,” Brown says.

It’s an agonising wait. Then van Dijk blasts through to the finish, coming in 12 seconds faster than Brown. The Dutchwoman had slowed on the final section – if the course had been a kilometre longer, Brown might have been world champion. But it was not to be; the Australian bumped from the hot seat at the last, taking home the silver medal instead.

“I saw the rainbows as a possibility, sitting on the hot seat,” she says. “There was a little bit of disappointment, but it didn’t last long.” It is Brown’s first-ever medal at the world championships. “My goal was to be on the podium and my dream was to win the race,” she tells a subsequent press conference. “I achieved my goal and I can still aim towards that dream.” It’s a poetic line, one she has already used in the post-race broadcast interview. “I thought, yep, that really sums up how I’m feeling – so I’ll use it again.”

‘Anything could happen’
Tuesday – two days after the time trial, four days until the road race

In the 48 hours since the time trial, Brown has been reflecting on the race. She’s umm-ed and ahh-ed, replaying the race in her mind. The Australian had negative split in the second of two laps of a circuit around the city to end the race – could she have gone faster in the first lap? “You always look back and think ‘where could I have made up those seconds?’” she says. “If I’d paced the first lap the same way I’d paced the second, maybe I would have won? But you don’t know, if I’d gone harder on the first, would I have died coming into the finish?”

Related: Ellen van Dijk pips Grace Brown to win Road World Championships opener

Her silver medal offers reward and motivation. Brown came relatively late to the sport, picking up a bike for the first time in 2015 (she was previously a runner, but endured repeated injuries). She has progressed rapidly ever since, claiming her breakthrough domestic victory within 18 months and signing a professional contract ahead of the 2019 season. Having only been in the World Tour peloton for four years, Brown knows she has more growth to come.

“I know that every year I have more to gain, in aerodynamics, skill and power,” she says. “So it’s not like I’ve reached the ceiling. But I know that every other rider is making those advancements in their own toolbox, too.” Unlike road racing, where races can be determined by luck and happenstance, the race against the clock is pure. “You never win a time trial by fluke,” Brown says.

Attention now turns to the road race. Brown has been doing light sessions on the bike to keep the legs ticking over, and cheering on the Australian juniors in their own races. The silver medal provides a confidence boost – her form is clearly good. “I’m confident in what I’ve prepared,” she says. “I hope it can come together. But anything could happen.”

‘It’s smart for the team to have options’
Friday – the day before the road race

If there are nerves in the Australian team, it does not show as the eight-rider squad – Brown, Georgia Baker, Brodie Chapman, Sarah Roy, Alexandra Manly, Sarah Roy, Amanda Spratt, Josie Talbot – front a press conference in jovial spirits on Friday afternoon. Cyclists ride for multi-national trade teams throughout the season, only coming together in national colours once or twice a year. This means that harmony within a national squad is not always guaranteed (there have been notable bust-ups in other teams in the past), but the Australians have spent time over the past year consciously working on team cohesion. It shows. “As a team we win together and we lose together,” Roy tells the media.

I’m watching this post-apocalyptic show at the moment ... it’s been giving me nightmares

The Australians have two lead options in the road race – Brown and Manly. “Alex is a great sprinter at the end of a hard race, so she’ll be saving herself,” says Brown. “I’ll just be doing my thing, racing off my instincts and seeing how it plays out.” If the race finishes in a bunch sprint, Manly will be Australia’s choice; if it splits up and a small selection go away in the closing laps, they will want Brown to be involved. The division of duties alleviates some of the burden on Brown’s shoulders. “I find it stressful when you’re the sole leader, especially in a race like this when so many different scenarios can happen,” she adds. “It’s smart for the team to have options.” (The Australian men went all in on one rider, Michael Matthews, although it paid off when he won the bronze medal on Sunday).

After Brown’s press commitments wrap up, the team has one final briefing session to talk through plans for the race. Brown will then try to switch off; she says she plans to put on Netflix. “I’m watching this post-apocalyptic show at the moment, but it’s probably not the best to calm me down – it’s been giving me nightmares,” she laughs. “So I might pick something more light-hearted today.” (Guardian Australia recommends the remake of ‘Heartbreak High’).

Having already once stood on the world championships podium in front of her home crowd this week, Brown is hoping for a repeat on Saturday. “To do that again would be pretty epic,” she says. If she finds herself in a lead-group at the pointy end of the race, there’ll only be one thought in Brown’s mind: “I’ll be thinking – ‘how can I win?’”

‘My day done’
Saturday – the day of the road race

Wollongong wakes to overcast clouds and the threat of rain as the team begin their transfer to the start line in Helensburgh, just south of Sydney. It’s a leisurely morning – the junior women are racing first up, so the elite team are not rolling out until lunchtime. But it is hard to relax with a 164.3km road race ahead (the longest distance in the event’s six-decade history). On Instagram, Australian cyclist Peta Mullens posts a photo of a message sprayed on the road somewhere on the course: “Go Grace.” Brown is delighted. “My first road paint,” she adds.

Brown in action during the women’s elite road race on Saturday.
Brown in action during the women’s elite road race on Saturday. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The peloton rolls out and descends towards the coastal road. For now, the rain is staying away. The scenery is stunning, with glorious aerial shots of the Sea Cliff Bridge being beamed around the globe, one of the reasons why the state and federal government have part-funded this week-long championships.

The race heads up the major climb, Mount Keira, but there’s a surprising lack of action. Dutch star van Vleuten was expected to attack on the ascent but, having fractured her elbow in a crash on Wednesday, is remaining inconspicuous. It seems to throw the other team, who had built their race plans anticipating Dutch fireworks. “It was a lot more negative than we anticipated,” Brown reflects later on. “It didn’t go off on Keira at all.”

The downpour starts with 30km to go. The Australians decide to take the race to the peloton with three consecutive solo attacks through the rain, from Spratt, Brown and Roy. None of them stick. Australian efforts to control the race falter and as the final selection make their mark in the closing stages, none of the Australians can stick with them.

“I realised I wasn’t on for a good one mid-race,” Brown reflects. The attack was an attempt to shake things up. “Sometimes when you feel shit, you can shake it off – when you get off the front, you might feel better,” Brown says. “But nah, I went up the road and still felt shit.” When Brown was dropped on the penultimate climb of the day, it was, she admits, “my day done”. She ultimately finished 35th; the race was won by van Vleuten in a remarkable attack in the final kilometre, despite the fractured elbow.

‘When you don’t have the legs … ’
Sunday – the day after the road race

Related: Shocked Van Vleuten rides through pain to cap stellar year with road race gold

It was not to be. “I’m feeling a lot of things,” Brown says the following morning. “Yesterday was a weird race – it unfolded quite differently to what we expected.” She is still processing her disappointing end to the championships. “The team really believed in me and worked hard for me all day – as well as Alex Manly,” Brown continues. “You feel, I guess, accountability to perform. But when you don’t have the legs there’s not much you can do.”

Despite failing to perform in the road race, Brown is looking to the positives. Having the road world championships in Australia provided a rare opportunity to race in-front of a home crowd. “I think I need to put some of my disappointment behind me and focus on the exciting, special elements of the day,” she says. “Like going up the climb, having people cheering, yelling my name, running beside me. It filled me with energy.”

The campaign ended with team dinner on Saturday night at a local Italian restaurant, which posted a photo of the Australians on Instagram with a caption: “eat pasta, ride faster”. Thankfully for Brown, after a gruelling season, there is no longer any need to load up on carbohydrates. The road race brought her 2022 campaign to a close and a holiday awaits. “I’ll switch off for three weeks and just enjoy some down time,” she says from the airport.

The disappointment of Saturday, and being only seconds away from the world champion’s jersey in the time trial a week before, have added fuel to the fire of Brown’s motivation. The respective winners are both older than 30-year-old Brown – van Dijk is 35, van Vleuten is 39 – suggesting time is on her side. “It seems like the women’s peloton gets better with age,” she laughs. “It’s definitely not over yet.”

In addition to the major races on the World Tour calendar, the 2023 world championships and the 2024 Olympics are already in Brown’s sights. “For the time trial, I know I can really target a win,” she says. But that is work to come in the months ahead. First, a well-deserved holiday after a gruelling but successful week at her home road world championships.