'I’m not the type of rider who likes control' - Tiffany Cromwell: Free radical

 From playing an integral role in the Canyon-Sram Women’s WorldTour team, to designing Formula One helmets, to embracing the world of gravel racing, Tiffany Cromwell isn’t afraid to do things differently. We get to know more about the driven Australian who sees an open mind and new challenges as the key to success

This article was originally published in Rouleur Issue 115. Support our journalism by subscribing here.

Tiffany Cromwell gets bored easily. It’s not because she’s a boring person, or because she finds riding a bike boring. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s because she has something rare about her, a trait that’s seen in some of the world’s most successful athletes: she’s always striving for more.

It could be for this very reason that when I’m preparing to interview the Australian, I don’t really know where to start. Maybe with her newfound love of gravel racing? Or how she goes about designing the Formula One helmets that get so much attention when her partner, Valtteri Bottas, races in them? Or what about the couple’s newly-launched range of gin? Or the Tour de France Femmes earlier this season? Or perhaps I should mention her disappointment about missing selection for her home World Championships? Or should I begin on a brighter note and go further back in her career, with her victory in the 2013 edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad?

There’s a lot of ground to cover, and that’s because Cromwell does a lot of things. “To be fair, sometimes I take on too much,” she says. I’m speaking to her the day after she’s arrived home in Monaco from supporting Bottas at the Monza Grand Prix in Italy. “Sometimes I have to allow myself a bit of time to just breathe and space out.”

“But I always manage,” Cromwell adds quickly afterwards. “I need to be motivated and work towards something because as long as you have a goal and focus, then you can really push yourself.” Perhaps the biggest signifier of the Canyon-Sram rider’s constant search for ways to test her limits is the ambitious alternative calendar she’s taken on this year.

For most people, a full season in the Women’s WorldTour might have been enough to deal with, but, during our chat, it’s quickly becoming clear that Cromwell isn’t like most people. She began gravel racing alongside her road racing calendar at the famed 111-mile Belgian Waffle Ride in Kansas last year. In her debut appearance on the rough stuff, the Australian took a storming solo victory and she has been relishing the laid-back nature and fresh thinking that comes with the gravel scene ever since. She does it all with the full support of her pioneering Canyon-Sram team, who have never been afraid to think outside the box.

“Ronnie [Lauke, Canyon-Sram manager] had the idea for me to start gravel, actually, because there was a period when I just wanted to do something else. He realised I’d been doing road racing for such a long time; maybe I needed another stimulus.”

It has been more than a decade since Cromwell joined the professional peloton, starting out with her first UCI-ranked race in 2007 and then joining the Lotto Ladies Team in 2010, when she signed her first pro contract. A fresh-faced Aussie, Cromwell excited many who saw her race in Europe. She was an all-rounder: able to climb, sprint and even do a good time-trial. Cromwell was what teams wanted from an athlete – the smaller field sizes in the women’s peloton mean that those who can perform on all terrain are highly valued.

It was her 2013 win in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad that cemented Cromwell’s position as one of the best in the women’s peloton: she outsprinted her breakaway companions Megan Guarnier and Emma Johansson, who rounded out the podium, with none other than Annemiek van Vleuten in fourth place. But despite all the success she’s had, Cromwell is still driven and still wants to get better. Our conversation opens with her talking about the disappointment of her performances this season, and she explains that she wants nothing more than to be back on the podium of women’s WorldTour races again. Gravel racing, it seems, is going to help her get there.

“I’m not the type of rider who likes control, where they say, no, you have to be doing this. I’m someone who needs my freedom, I need to be able to say I want to go off, do my own thing,” explains Cromwell. “In gravel, it’s the one time I can go and actually do everything for myself, because I’m not there with team-mates, I’m only focused on myself, and I can go for the results. It’s nice to have that challenge again, to say, okay, I’m here to try to race for the win.”

Despite her experience in the professional road peloton, success in off-road races hasn’t come easily to Cromwell, mostly because of the mental aspect of the racing rather than physical. “I don’t like super-long races, so the distance in gravel races is the biggest challenge. You go through a lot. The first half usually goes really quickly, then you go through the period of really battling and you’re going through the mental games. When you get to the last 20 or 30 kilometres and you can see the finish line. It’s like, alright, I can do this.”

The physical demands of gravel racing have had a tangible impact on Cromwell’s results on the road, helping to build her engine for the ever-increasing distance of Women’s WorldTour races. The Australian needs a strong base, because she’s got an important role within her team, often being relied on as the road captain and leader.

“It’s a skill set that I had to learn over the years. I’ve always been confident in understanding bike racing, the tactical side of it, but I struggled to take on the leadership role for a long time. More recently, I’ve really embraced it,” she says.

“It’s nice to know that there is so much trust from my team-mates. There is pressure in a different way, not the same pressure that you have to deliver the result but the pressure to make sure in a critical time that you can make that decision straight away.”

As I expected from the highly-driven individual who sits in front of me, Cromwell’s role as a team captain doesn’t mean acceptance that she won’t go for her own results and take her chance when the opportunities arise. Paris-Roubaix is an event where the Australian has performed well on two occasions, and she still feels like she has unfinished business with the Hell of the North.

“I enjoy the cobbles and the Classics because of the tactical element,” she says. “There's a lot more that goes on with those races so you don’t really have a chance to get bored. You have to be ‘on’. It’s sector after sector and Paris-Roubaix, that’s the extreme of it. I think once you start the cobbles you get maximum, like, three or four kilometres between each sector, you really get no chance to be, like, okay, I can breathe.”

It’s clear that the 34-year-old enjoys things moving at a million miles per hour, hopping from one continent to another, from her road bike to her gravel bike, from racing as a team to individual events. Even our conversation feels like it’s darting from one part of her life to another, covering everything from the Tour to gravel to gin. There’s one subject, though, which makes Cromwell visibly relax when she talks about it.

“I always say I’m a hobby designer,” she smiles. “It’s a time when I’m not thinking about anything else, and gives me something fresh to work towards.” In a life which has seen Cromwell race everywhere and do everything, her creative side and passion for design has stayed constant. It begins with a fashion degree that she took on when she first finished school, and spirals into her creating her own cycling clothing collection, Tiffany Jane Designs, back in 2009.

“I went into trying to do cycling apparel because back then, there was really nothing for women. It was an old ‘shrink it and pink it’ setup. I tried a little bit of Tiffany Jane Design, my own range. You need a lot of time for that and as my cycling career was on the rise, it was always a little project and then kind of got pushed by the wayside,” she explains.

Previous partners of Canyon-Sram, such as clothing companies Velocio and Rapha, were key factors in keeping Cromwell’s creative flair alive, however, as she created capsule collections for both brands when they supported the team. In more recent years, the Australian has seen her designs hit an even bigger audience, as she has worked with her partner’s Formula One team to create innovative and eye-catching helmets for Bottas to race in.

“With drivers, their helmet is one thing they can do which is personalised,” explains Cromwell. “It was big pressure because I had zero experience in helmet designs and that’s the driver’s identity, so I wanted it to be good. I did a special edition for the race in Australia that never happened because of Covid-19 and now I’m doing them regularly. “I do his seasonal helmets and do them with special editions. I love it. I put pressure on myself because I want them to be cool, but I think because I don’t come from a motor racing background, I don’t go by the rules. Lots of people will just try to make it look fast, but when we do special editions, I’m always like, how can it be attached to the place where we’re racing?”

It only takes a glance at the helmets to see that Cromwell takes ideas from her surroundings when it comes to designs. In Monza, the helmet saw an Italian flag as homage to Alfa Romeo’s home race. In Miami, Cromwell did three different designs inspired by the city, taking inspiration from the art museums, pool parties and the retro vibe of the Miami strip. “I just enjoy it,” says Cromwell. “I’ve always been more creative in my headspace, from cooking to photos, anything. I just do it for enjoyment, I’m not trying to make anything out of it.” Cromwell’s outlook on life, where she constantly searches for new challenges and ways to do things differently, is why Canyon-Sram – a team notorious for its unique and funky kit designs – is such a good fit.

“We race hard, but at least we can put our kit on and it’s really fun. It makes you feel good when you wear it,” explains Cromwell. “You want to race but I think you al- ways feel so much better when everything looks sleek. When you leave the house when you’re wearing just trackies, you’re feeling, like, I just want to be lazy. “When you get dressed in something you like, you get different feelings from that. If you have a beautiful, creative kit it’s nice. We don’t want to just be billboards.”

It isn’t just Canyon-Sram’s quirky kit designs that have kept Cromwell with the team season after season, however. Their talent-spotting initiatives like the Zwift Academy and their new development squad, Canyon-Sram Generation, (which gives opportunities to riders from countries where cycling is less accessible) make the Australian proud to be part of the German setup.

“We like to do things differently,” she says. “It’s not just a run-of-the-mill team; they’re always looking to say, ‘How can we develop women’s cycling in a different way that’s not the norm?’” The development of her sport is something that Cromwell has kept a close eye on over the years and she’s positive about the future of women’s cycling. From salary increases to improved media coverage and races like the Tour de France Femmes, Cromwell sees that the women’s peloton is on a fast-moving upward trajectory.

For all the positives this comes with, it’s also making aspects of cycling tougher for those who compete in it. Growing strength and depth in the peloton makes selection for races like the World Championships tougher, and it’s something Cromwell has felt close to her heart this year, narrowly missing the Australian team for the Wollongong Worlds. “I knew it was always going to be tight selections at our home World Champion- ships,” she says. “Everybody wants to be in the team. I believe that I could have played a good role but you know, there are also others who could have. It’s a strong team, but for that course, is it our strongest team?

“I didn’t get any explanation of why I wasn’t in it. I also didn’t reach for one. I don’t want to deal with that. It comes and goes. That’s how it always is.” Cromwell’s ability to take this disappointment on the chin is something that impresses, and is a sign of the tenacity that has got her to this point in her life, from coming over to Europe to race as a young Australian, to building a name for herself as one of the most famous riders in the women’s peloton while also pursuing design work on one of the world’s biggest stages.

“I’ve always been mentally strong. I’ve had my moments of breaking, particularly around when I had the Olympic selections; they were the hardest ones,” she says. “Two times round I came so close, but didn’t quite get there and then you get a bit lost and you’re like, now what am I going to go for?

“Normally, I’ll just need a week or two to just go do something else. Then I will reassess everything, change my goals and focus on the next one. I think I’ve always been good at saying: all right, it didn’t go how I wanted and how do we fix this?” Cromwell is a person who can fix things, and it’s because she won’t allow herself to fail.

She might have had no experience designing helmets, but she embraced the challenge. She might be adjusting to the new racing style in the women’s peloton, but she’s motivated to get back to the top. She might not have raced gravel before, but she still won one of the biggest races on the calendar in her first attempt, because she believed she could do it.

It’s this attitude that makes Cromwell’s future an exciting one. Whether it’s on the bike or off it, her determination tells me that there’s going to be a lot more to come. “I could see myself going more into design, whether that’s in cycling or merchandising or being a professional helmet designer,” she says. “Or maybe working on events. There’s a lot of stuff I want to do, and who knows what it will be? My options are open, and I always think: never say no to anything.”