‘I’m a kid in a candy shop’ - Felicity Wilson-Haffenden’s whirlwind journey from discounted bikes to dreams of joining Lidl-Trek’s Roubaix honour roll

The Australian rider has gone from her first ever race to a rainbow jersey and WorldTour contract in just three years – the sky's the limit for Felicity Wilson-Haffenden

Four years ago, a 14-year-old Felicity Wilson-Haffenden was sitting at home in Hobart, Tasmania, when she came across a newspaper advertisement. It was a call out from the Tasmanian Institute of Sport who were running talent ID programmes in the state. As a sporty teenager who rode a bike once or twice a week (a hobby driven by boredom during the Covid-19 pandemic) Wilson-Haffenden read the article and came to the conclusion that she’d like to give it a go. She had no knowledge of racing, nor any kit to speak of, but, as she explains, she thought “why not?”

“We did a four and a six minute test and apparently I must have been okay,” Wilson-Haffenden reflects. “Most people who go to these things have done some sort of cycling. I rocked up in running shorts and sneakers and then they asked me to get changed. I was like, what in to? This is what I've got. They were a bit surprised.”

Despite her lack of equipment, Wilson-Haffenden’s numbers impressed the coaches and she was quickly asked to try riding on the track. She describes slipping down the banking while riding on the black line at the very bottom of the velodrome on her first session, a harsh introduction to more serious cycling. Still, the Australian rider was determined to progress in the sport, one which she had a feeling was right for her.

“I probably spent six months just literally learning how to ride a bike. It was so bad,” Wilson-Haffenden laughs. “But I think it obviously came quickly. I did my first race midway through 2021 and six months later I did my first race in Europe.”

As she speaks, Wilson-Haffenden has just finished her first ever professional stage race at the Tour Down Under and is dressed head to toe in Lidl-Trek casual wear, looking every bit the professional cyclist. It’s hard to imagine that just three years ago she was competing on the continent for the first time – to say her journey to the WorldTour has been a whirlwind would be an understatement. It’s clear that much of her lightning fast progress stems from the love that Wilson-Haffenden found for cycling as soon as she had a taste of it, despite having to overcome stumbling blocks early in her career.

“I remember when I did Nationals for the first time, I was the biggest hazard in the bunch, I had no clue what I was doing. Then when I went to Europe, it was the most terrifying experience of my life, but I loved it so much,” she says. “In Australia you get 25 riders maximum in a bunch, but the first race we did in Europe was a Nations Cup in France, which had 150 girls on the start line. I crashed so many times there but I think that was also the moment that I knew cycling was what I wanted to do. You either hate it or you love it when you go [to Europe]. But I actually really enjoyed the chaos of it.”

Felicity Wilson-Haffenden at the Tour Down Under Classic (Image: Andy Rogers)

Perhaps due to her late entry to competitive racing, Wilson-Haffenden immediately found she had a talent for time trialling, a discipline that is all about solo efforts with no navigating through the peloton to worry about. She competed in her first ever race against the clock as a junior rider at the Australian National Championships in 2020. Despite it only being her second time riding a time trial bike, Wilson-Haffenden finished the event in fourth place, just six seconds off the podium.

“I just fell in love with it. For me, being completely in control of what I'm doing is what I love. It’s just full gas, but if you mess up, it's on you,” she says.

January last year saw Wilson-Haffenden win the Australian Junior National Time Trial Championships by almost two minutes, just a few days after she’d won the road race too. Becoming double Australian national champion was a result of the previous two years in the peloton which had involved plenty of learning curves for the 18-year old. It also marked the beginning of what would be a life changing season for Wilson-Haffenden.

The big moment came on a warm day on the rolling hills of Stirling, Scotland. Wilson-Haffenden wasn’t tipped as a favourite to win the Junior World Time Trial Championships having barely raced in Europe that season, yet as she stormed over the Scottish roads, it quickly became clear that the Tasmanian rider was on a serious mission to secure a medal. She ended up taking the rainbow jersey by 17 seconds, making history for herself and her country. If people didn’t know her name before, everyone was suddenly talking about Felicity Wilson-Haffenden.

“I think it was mainly a shock. Inside me, I knew I could put out maybe a podium performance. But I’d crashed in the road race and I was just an absolute mess, so I remember I was asleep in the bus and I nearly missed my warm up,” Wilson-Haffenden smiles. “But the feeling of actually doing it – I still don't actually quite believe that I'm capable of doing that. It's crazy to think about.”Wilson-Haffenden at the 2023 Junior World Road Championships in Scotland (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

The result in Glasgow was even more impressive when considering Wilson-Haffenden’s approach to the event – she explains that she was on a bike she’d bought at discount from her local shop and hadn’t done any aerodynamic testing (something the majority of top junior riders now do.)

"I upgraded my bike to Di2 just for Worlds and I was like: this is a big step,” she laughs. “I didn't do much specific time trial work leading into it. I got on the bike about two weeks before Worlds and started doing some TTs. For me, my happy place is on that bike. If I'm having a bad day, I'll just take the TT bike and rip my legs off. It’s easy when you’re doing what you love.”

Wilson-Haffenden speaks about cycling in a refreshingly simple way – while today's generation of junior riders are largely focusing more and more on marginal gains and training load, she reiterates that she races out of pure passion and enjoyment for what she’s doing.

“It’s funny because the other Australian, the junior boy [Oscar Chamberlain who also won the junior men’s time trial at the World Championships last year], there’s a complete difference in the way we go about things. He is very fine line, loves all this aero stuff and gets everything perfect, whereas for me, I can't be like that,” she explains.

"I think I would lose my mind if I was so fixated on things. I just need it to be relaxed and I don't like thinking about the equipment and all that stuff. I prefer just to ride the race. We had a rough power plan before the Worlds but I remember with my DS in my ear saying that I needed to just hold 300 watts in this bit, not too much. I got back on the radio and said: "I'm doing 340 and I'm not slowing down!’”

The calls from WorldTour teams came quickly for Wilson-Haffenden after her World Championships campaign, but Lidl-Trek was highly recommended by her fellow Tasmanian cyclist, Richie Porte.

“Richie was so good at helping me figure out this team stuff. He ran a big fundraiser for me and another Tassie boy to help us get to Europe before, and he told Trek to have a look at me,” Wilson-Haffenden explains. “He just went out of his way to make this happen for me. He's literally organised my life for me and we've got to know each other a bit better. Having him back home in Tassie, it’s so cool, he’s such a good guy. He's just telling me to take my time and enjoy it. I think that's probably the most important thing while I'm young.”Felicity Wilson-Haffenden at the Tour Down Under Classic (Image: Andy Rogers)

Joining Lidl-Trek has already involved plenty of “pinch me” moments for Wilson-Haffenden – she explains that rooming with Elisa Longo-Borghini at the team’s camp in America a few weeks ago was both daunting and exciting. With her goals of improving her time trailing abilities and one day trying to win Paris-Roubaix, there Wilson-Haffenden couldn’t ask for a better team to develop in.

“They have all these big names and you expect them to have a bit of ego, but it's the complete opposite. It's crazy to me how much they actually want to help develop riders. They're so relaxed about it all, I think that's something that I need to work on. There's so much to learn from them” she explains. “When I arrived at Down Under I was like a kid in a candy shop. There was this whole suitcase full of kit – I've never owned as much kit in my life. A year ago, I had two jerseys and a gilet and that was good. It’s crazy.”

Wilson-Haffenden is part of Lidl-Trek’s new initiative for 2024 whereby they have committed to signing a number of young female riders in order to have a development structure within the Women’s WorldTour team. This means that the Tasmanian rider will take part in smaller races during her first season with the American squad, allowing her to learn the ropes of the WorldTour without too much expectation or pressure.

“For me, Trek was very human. I think sometimes a team can be a bit more of a factory but Trek was actually about the individual as a rider as a person,” Wilson-Haffenden explains. “I've got so much learning to do and I'm still very new at this, so it’s the perfect fit for me.”

While she is aware of her young age and the development she still has to come in order to reach the very top level of the sport, Wilson-Haffenden allows herself to dream about the future briefly. She talks about how she’s drawn to the cobbles of Northern France, and will be watching and learning everything she can from her teammates, former Roubaix winners Longo-Borghini and Lizzie Deignan. It’s true that Wilson-Haffenden might have a way to go until she can plan on lifting the cobblestone trophy, but her progression in the sport so far has already proven that she is a very fast learner.

“I love the style of riding on the cobbles – just the pure power, hard day kind of stuff,” Wilson-Haffenden smiles. “On the Australian junior team, we go and check out the Roubaix velodrome every year. I just try and imagine riding in there by myself one day, with my hands in the air.”

(Cover image: Andy Rogers)

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