Every sinew, shred of muscle fiber, every ounce of force available pushed into the pedals like your entire life depends upon it. The result of the last 134km of poker on wheels – the World Champion stripes and pride for 365 days lie on the other side of a white line. There isn’t time to feel the heart rate quicken or breath growing raspy. The only focus is on the line and reaching it first. A sprint finish is a thrill to watch, but for a rider it’s an art and on Saturday Chloe Hosking will attempt to act out the perfect conclusion at the UCI Road World Championships in Doha.
This year there were two giant peaks in the professional road cycling calendar: the Olympics in Rio and the World Championships in Qatar. The two prestigious races couldn’t be held on more dissimilar courses. Rio’s road race was a ride for the mountain queens, whilst the World Championships on Saturday is a sprinter’s paradise.
"I knew the course was going to be one that suited me, so it’s been on my radar for a long time"
Whilst the glow of the Olympics attracted most riders to chase selection, Australian Chloe Hosking decided to put her eggs in the basket of Doha – a course that will suit her natural abilities. Speaking just a week before the goal race, she told me: “I’ve known the Worlds would be in Qatar for the past three to four years. Obviously there were never going to be any massive hills. I knew the course was going to be one that suited me, so it’s been on my radar for a long time. The goal has always been to be in top shape for this Worlds."
She’s prepared well with a confidence inspiring season that saw her win stage three of La Route de France, stage four of the Tour of Qatar, stage two and the overall of the Tour of Chongming Island, stage three of the Giro Rosa and La Course in Paris. The win at La Course probably carried the highest profile, and the fast and furious finish shared similarities with what we’ll expect in Qatar (the Tour of Qatar of course even more so, of course). But it was the Giro win that Hosking holds as her proudest moment of the 2016 season so far – she says: “La Course was of course a fantastic event – but it’s quite a short race. If I really think about it my proudest win was probably the Giro. The stage was 120km long, it was a real road race. I’m really, really proud of my achievement there."
With a long-term goal at Qatar, I ask if the impending race and her own build to form for that target has contributed to her success this year. She tells me: “This year I have had some great results, partly that’s just because I’m older and getting better as a rider. But knowing the Worlds were coming and that it was a major goal for me has made me more focused and determined, and more disciplined with my training. It’s nice to see all of that pay off in my results."
"Yesterday I did one easy hour – training in the bathroom with the heaters on full gas"
Hosking is now well into her taper period for what will no doubt be a hot and humid 134.5km game of tactics. We've already seen images and videos of riders suffering in the heat at the Team Time Trial, and no one is expecting a dramatic shift in conditions in the coming days.
She says: “Yesterday I did one easy hour – training in the bathroom with the heaters on full gas. Tomorrow is my last long ride before the road race. I’m mainly resting, I’m tapering and have been all week. I’m alternating one day off, one day on and also trying to eat well, stretching – all the things you know you should do but sometimes don’t. The last three weeks have been all about trying to keep myself as fresh as possible."
What makes a sprinter?
I’m eternally curious about what it is that makes one rider a sprinter and another a climber or endurance specialist. What degree comes from pure DNA, and how much is trainable?
For Hosking, it seems her strength is an innate ability, that’s been highly trained. But though it’s sheer speed she needs to exhibit on Saturday, fast finishes aren’t all she wants from cycling. Hosking tells me: “I raced as a junior and I was always up there in the bunch sprint, I just had that mentality. And my dad was a sprinter. Actually, it’s a label I’ve been trying to shed – there’s nothing worse than being just a sprinter. I want to win in other ways as I get older too."
"I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubbles – but if you’re not fast it’s hard to get fast."
The 26-year-old Aussie might be keen to prove she can perform in other areas – but she’s equally aware that what she has is a gift. Asked if she believes the ability to recruit the fastest of fast twitch fibers when it matters is something anyone can learn with enough dedication, she says: “I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubbles – but if you’re not fast it’s hard to get fast. It’s not the same in all styles. If you want to be a better climber you can lose a little weight and there are things you can do. I’ll never be up there climbing with Mara Abbott [Wiggle High5's champion climber] but I could definitely become better. It doesn’t work so much the other way. But that’s at the very top, pro level."
I heave a sigh of relief as her final clause sinks in. I know most of us would look like we were riding backwards in a dual against a rider like Hosking herself, but for your average-ish club rider, is there still room to improve? “For a beginner rider wanting to improve, there are things you can do to become a better sprinter. The biggest improvement you can probably make is by working on your confidence and positioning. And making sure you save energy in the rest of the race."
In terms of training – she’s all for keeping it on the bike – saying: “I don’t think you really need to be in the gym unless you’re at a professional level. If you’re not following a proper plan, you’re probably not doing the right things anyway and there’s so much to be gained on the bike. It’s better to focus your time there."
Giving us a session outline, she says: “A simple session might be rolling accelerations. So start at a slow speed – like 15kph – then sprint flat out for 15 seconds to get up to top speed. Repeat that 5 to 10 times with short recoveries of about 2 minutes. It’s all about leaning to transfer power from your legs to the pedals."
Having raced from the junior ranks, turning pro in 2010, Hosking has had plenty of time to develop as a rider. For those early on in their journey, she has this advice: “Don’t expect to go straight into the biggest races. Start small, gradually build up. When I first came into the sport – some people around me wanted me to do really well straight away. Not everyone, but some. If you try to do too much too quickly you risk losing confidence."
Pay and the pro peloton
After the race this weekend, Hosking will be turning her attentions to the new season. Though 2017, she’ll be racing for Italian squad Alé-Cipollini Galassia, having transferred from Wiggle High5 where she’s been for two years.
The move was based upon allowing Hosking, who is newly engaged and studying a law degree, to train in Australia for most of the year. She says: “Moving to Alé-Cipollini is going to be a big culture change. But I’m really happy with the move – otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. I wanted more flexibility. It sounds like a massive contradiction, but I think that’ll give me more structure. A lot of my Australian friends have told me I better not screw it up! I’m a bit of a guinea pig for this sort of format. It’s rare, and quite something to ask a team to allow you to do when they're paying you."
I wanted to keep this chat 'all about Chloe' - but now she's mentioned salaries I can't help but take the conversation in the direction of women's cycling and its pay packets. We recently heard reports that three quarters of the pro women’s peloton isn’t paid – but the report notably didn’t quote any existing pro riders. So at the mention of money, I’ve got to ask if Hosking thinks this statistic is a fair evaluation. She doesn’t, and tells me: “In the top tier teams – most... no all – of the girls are being paid. Like Rabobank, Boels – they’ll all be paid. Some of the lower level teams, perhaps not. When we look at the fact not all teams are able to pay riders it makes me wonder what we do about classifying pro teams. Women’s cycling really needs a tier system – like the structure the men have with World Tour Teams, Professional Continental and Continental Teams [the tier the team belongs to dictates how much they pay to register, and what races the team takes part in] instead of lumping us all in together. It’s not really a level playing field."
It's not the first time we've heard similar sentiments. Currently, women's teams are either UCI Pro Women's World Tour teams or not - and some of the smaller squads are suffering financially and physically.
Speaking of the finances, Hosking adds: “I'm not sure this year’s World Tour programme was that much better than what we had with the World Cup. The longer races make it harder for small teams, with accommodation costs and so on." That picture was cruelly painted recently as Podium Ambition revealed that insufficient funds would prevent them registering as a UCI pro team for 2017, and though higher profile races are great for the top end of the peloton, they aren’t helping everyone.
It’s not just about money either – but about the riders and their progression: “Having such a wide gap in pro women’s cycling makes it hard for those small teams, and it’s not fair on the riders. It’d be better if just the top 8 teams raced events like the Women’s WorldTour, and the lower ranked teams had their own races where the riders could have a real impact."
Matrix Fitness team manager Stefan Wyman made similar comments back in March this year, after his team stepped back from UCI pro status to race in Europe - saying: “Riders [of lower ranked teams racing the very best] were dropped in the neutral zone. That’s pretty embarrassing for the sport when there’s crowds lined up, it looks very bad for sponsors, and VIP guests in team cars – but it’s absolutely soul destroying for those riders."
Though I'm not sure Hosking was dropped in the early stages of the races - she does know the feeling of plunging into too much, too soon, telling me: “I raced the Giro when I was 18-years-old, and looking back now it’s probably one of my biggest regrets. Sure, it was cool and exciting to say I’d done it, but it wasn’t good for me or my development."
She might have made the odd error of judgement along the way - but we know in the heat of the moment Chloe is pretty damn good at judging where she should be, and when. We'll be watching out for her in the final meters ahead of the finish line on Saturday.
The UCI Women's World Championship road race takes place on Saturday 15th October at 10:45am (British Summer Time). The race will be shown live from 10:45 to 14:20 on BBC Red Button with highlights from 14:30-16:30 on BBC One.