“There are no cyclists in my town. When I was growing up, did we ever see a bike on the road? Nope.”
Alison Jackson hasn’t had the most usual introduction to professional cycling. Raised on a ranch in Canada, she was a sporty child but didn’t start riding a bike properly until she moved to Vancouver for university and joined a club. “They said: you should try racing. I did and won some races so got connected with a team who took a chance because I had good running times,” she says. “When I had the opportunity, I won bike races in America and that’s how it progressed.”
It’s been fast-track to the top for Jackson since then, but not through luck or chance. Instead, it's been risk-taking, sacrifice and mental fortitude that has aided the Canadian national champion in her journey to the WorldTour. After two years racing for American team TWENTY16, Jackson first made the transition to Europe in 2017 when she joined Italian continental team BePink Cogeas. “That was the first time that I fully committed myself over here just to try to make it happen,” says Jackson. “I went from 32 race days to 65 days. I think that was really important for my development. I'm a mature athlete and super resilient, so I could handle being thrown into the deep end.”
Though she admits she wouldn’t necessarily recommend the sudden and drastic switch to European racing for a whole season to younger riders who aren’t quite ready for it, it’s clear that Jackson has a special type of mindset that helped her overcome the challenge. “I really live in the moment. I just try to find things that are good and focus on those and exploit those,” she says. “You need to find every corner of what those good things are and then with the bad things, you just learn how to manage.”
Jackson did a number of things to help her come to terms with the difficulties of being so far away from her home in Canada. “My suggestion to anyone is that, in the place that you're in or choose to set up, bring something that's extra that reminds you of home,” she says. “Maybe try to find a community, so find a place where they speak your language or where other athletes are. Invest yourself a little bit more in creating a community. We're social beings,” she explains.
After a season with BePink, Jackson joined Team Tibco-SVB for the following season. It's based in the United States but has an extensive European race calendar. Wins in the Women’s Tour of Scotland, 2nd in the Women’s WorldTour Race Tour of Guangxi and a top 10 in Amstel Gold Race made the 2019 season one of Jackson’s best, and turned the heads of many big teams who were keen to sign the 32-year-old.
It was Team Sunweb (now DSM) that Jackson went for in the end. The Dutch outfit is based in a town called Sittard, where most riders who are on the team live in houses provided by Team DSM. This makes it a favourable option for riders moving to Europe, Jackson explains that she was given her own flat and had all the facilities she needed when based in the Netherlands.
“It was really nice to have a home,” she says. “They have a big kitchen, they have meeting rooms, they have a training room. During COVID, you had your own gym, you could still go to that.”
But there were parts to team Sunweb that didn’t suit Jackson, a rider who is keen to blaze her own trail and have freedom to express herself. “Sunweb was more regimented in how they structure their team and also the professionalism side that they want to present. Maybe it wasn't quite the right mix for me.”
This year, Jackson has found a home in Liv Racing, she explains that the team is a perfect choice for her. “Liv Racing totally fits my personality, what they do is they really encourage and embrace the unique parts of me,” she explains. This sense of home within the team has helped Jackson to a hugely successful season, and one she’s proud and satisfied with so far.
It started with a 5th place in Belgian semi-Classic Dwars door Vlaanderen, where Jackson finished in impressive company at the head of the race. Despite this strong early season form, Jackson missed out on selection for the Canadian team for the Olympic Games initially, owing to the fact that the team choice had been made in 2019, before postponement of the Games.
“Two years, that's a long time. For me, I'm older but young in the sport. Canada needed to kind of relook at their qualifying because doing it two years out is quite a big stretch,” she explains. “In 2019, that was when I really grieved not going. I think then the benefit of that was there was no pressure. Sometimes when I look at some of the girls who went to the Olympics, they used it as their only motivation for a year and a half. Everyone goes to the Olympics with the best preparation to win but there can only be one winner. There are many more broken hearts than triumphs.”
It was when another nation pulled out of competing that Jackson got a late call-up to go to the Games, as Canada were allocated a third spot for the road race. “I think for me, and for the whole team, it was just exciting for everyone to have another teammate there. It's interesting that that was the start of my entry back into racing after I had some time off.”
Having been unaware she’d head to Tokyo, Jackson had planned her season to target the World Championships in Flanders that came afterwards. “I wasn't in peak form in Tokyo but knowing that I wasn't at my best, I was really pleasantly surprised with the race. I made it with the front group over the big climb and then tried to do something for the team.”
Such a strong ride at the Olympics seemed to give Jackson a boost of confidence, as her results only skyrocketed from then onwards. Her first WorldTour win came on the first stage of the Simac Ladies Tour in August, then she became Canadian national champion and topped things off with a 6th place at the World Championships, an impressive result that took some onlookers by surprise.
“I knew it was going to be a good day when we were in the Flandrian lap,” says Jackson about the Worlds. “We were going up these climbs and I was feeling like, it's not easy, but it's not hard.” Jackson came into the finish with a select group who were fighting for the rainbow jersey. “It's my first time being in that position. I had good confidence during the race but now it's just like learning how to do that in the very final moment.”
While big cycling nations like Italy and the Netherlands had full lead outs in the run into the line, Jackson was isolated at the Worlds as the only rider left representing Canada in the final. A teammate was something she missed. “When you don't have another teammate, you get a cloudy vision of what you need to do, but a teammate can just help you build that confidence and say ‘this is the moment now, you need a position here.’”
What does Jackson put this surge of late season form down to? “I think in the second half of the season, people can lose focus or get tired or want to go home,” she explains. “There's a lot of stress and pressure racing in the sport.”
“I still get so excited about racing, so I think when your head is in it or when you really want to push your body above and beyond, you can pull more out of it. You have to have good legs but your mental game and how you tackle a race is also super important.”
Her enthusiasm for racing and motivation for a results is why Jackson was so excited for the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes which was coming up just after our conversation. “I think when there's anything extreme, it gets me more excited. For me, I'm good on the cobbles,” she says. “I'm also good at positioning and so that's a big part of what this race calls for and I think, with this team, we're really looking for opportunities to be dynamic and bold.”
Jackson is unique in that, despite her late entry to racing and lack of experience in the European peloton, riding in the bunch is one of her strengths. “We can ask ourselves: what if I crash? But you could also ask yourself, what if this goes well? It's gonna be totally awesome,” she says.
“I think it really takes a special personality. For me, it was like, whatever aggression or extra chaos is in the race, I meet it with the same chaos. For sure, the first year when I was first over here, I crashed a lot.”
She tells me that she’s been watching previous men’s editions of Paris-Roubaix, trying to pick up tips on ways to win, learning that anything can happen in Roubaix and asserting that, no matter how many crashes she has, she’ll continue to keep riding. “I like to watch previous editions and figure out several ways of how I can win,” she says. “Then have them in the back of my mind so when I'm racing I don't have to think about when I'm going to go or what's going to happen, it's almost subconscious.”
In the end, Jackson finished Paris-Roubaix in a respectable 26th place. She spoke to me again at the finish, in the centre of the iconic Roubaix Velodrome, covered in mud with blood dripping down one knee. Crashes and drama had hampered her chances, but in her true style, she was positive and happy about the race. “I think I would have liked to have been on the podium or win of course,” she says. “I had two crashes but I just kept riding and caught other groups and I'm proud that I didn’t give up.”
She praised Lizzie Deignan’s bold move, and hinted that she’d be back to Roubaix for more, seeing herself specialising as a Classics rider as her career progresses. “Those are my favourite races,” she says. “They suit me well, but also I just love the crowds and the history. Honestly, I love all races, really.”