‘We were telling her to believe in herself’ - Sarah Gigante’s Tour Down Under victory is a lesson in perseverance

Years of setbacks led to an emotional and deserved win for the Australian rider

There was a moment, when the winds blew hard across the McLaren flats and the peloton splintered into pieces, that it looked like it was all over for Sarah Gigante on the final stage of the women’s Tour Down Under. It seemed as if record-breaking ascents of Willunga Hill, the heartbreaking Nationals ride and the 30 hour training weeks would amount to very little at all. All signs pointed to another year of Gigante just dreaming about throwing her arms in the air atop the fabled climb, rather than actually executing it. Fans shared their disappointment on social media while it was happening; the home favourite was out of position, the race was gone.

But Sarah Gigante is a rider who has overcome far worse than a small gap to close in a crosswind. There have been crashes, health scares, illnesses and disputes within her former team that have amounted to a testing couple of years for the Australian champion. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed as if that run of bad luck wasn’t coming to an end, either, when Gigante was unable to defend her Australian national time trial title after a mechanical forced her to complete the course on her road bike. By all accounts, cycling hadn’t been kind to the 23-year old during her two seasons in the Women’s WorldTour.

Yet still, Gigante believed. She trained hard and she spoke to media of her confidence ahead of the Tour Down Under, despite the last few years making many question if she would ever live up to the expectations she set for herself when she shocked the world by winning the Australian national road title as just a 19-year-old.  Those who doubted her when she was distanced from the peloton during the crosswinds in today’s stage should have known better than to count this plucky talent out of contention for the win. 

The belief that Gigante had in winning today came from two places. The first was herself, but the second was perhaps even more important: from her teammates. As she fought to get back to the peloton in that crucial moment of the stage and struggled to stay at the front of the bunch afterwards, they were there: supporting, advising and dreaming along with her.Image: Tour Down Under

“Sarah struggles a little bit in the crosswinds and in the bunch, but we knew that going into the race, so we had a plan just to look after her,” Gigante’s teammate, Ally Wollaston commented after the stage. “If she was in a spot of bother we would go back, pick her up, take her to the front and it was a little bit of a cycle like that. We had each other’s backs today.”

New Zealand National Champion, Wollaston (who won the opening stage of this year’s Tour Down Under) was crucial to ensuring that Gigante remained at the front of the peloton in the important run-in to Willunga Hill, keeping her in position despite knowing that the Australian rider struggles with confidence in hectic pelotons.

“We were mostly just telling her to believe in herself. A lot of it's mental, she hasn't ridden in pelotons in a long time because she had a big break from racing. We were reminding her that she's an amazing bike rider and that she can do it. A little bit of positive affirmation,” Wollaston explains.

Gigante’s emotion when she crossed the finish line in front of a cheering crowd atop Willunga Hill was understandable. Years of hard work made that moment for the Australian rider, who stressed the importance of her AG Insurance-Soudal teammate’s support today.

My whole team was incredible. Every single girl did so well just protecting me. They spent so much energy looking after me, and I can't thank them enough,” Gigante explained. “[Positioning] is clearly my weakness. I think I just need to race more. Even though I have been pro for a few years, I still believe I can improve a lot and that's what I'll aim to do. My whole career will be important for this, it's not over yet. I can already feel such a difference with my teammates helping me this weekend, positioning doesn't feel too hard.”

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

Gigante's sudden move from Movistar to AG Insurance-Soudal came as a late announcement just a few months before the 2024 season commenced. While neither the Australian rider nor her management confirmed the reasons for Gigante’s contract with the Spanish team terminating early, her lack of racing in 2023 was a sign that neither parties were particularly satisfied with their agreement. Just the three days of racing at the Tour Down Under have been a clear sign that Gigante has found a home at AG Insurance-Soudal, something that has been reflected both on and off the bike.

“This is just one big family, Servais and Natascha [Knaven, AG Insurance-Soudal founders] have created an environment where people want to be here and we want to fight for each other,” Wollaston explained. “It has just happened naturally, Sarah is supported and she knows that her teammates will trust her and have full faith in her. She even said at the end of the day today, I can't believe you guys have that much patience with me, but of course we're going to.”

A solid team environment and Gigante’s clearly incredible physical form are key ingredients for an extremely successful season for the 23-year-old, but she’s not yet ready to start looking ahead just yet. The tough times have only made the good ones sweeter for Gigante, and that’s something she wants to hold on to.

I've been proud of all my achievements, and sometimes just believing in myself was the best part. Last year, I only had one race the whole year but I just kept going. I was going out there every single day, I didn't miss a training session. I always believed in myself and I listened to the people that did. That's what I'm most proud of.”

Cover image: Getty/Brenton Edwards

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