'A new focus' – Bike Exchange-Jayco’s Alexandra Manly on how she went from track specialist to stage winner
The 26-year-old Aussie rider spent last year training for the Olympics with the national track team, her comeback to the road scene this year has been better than even she could have expected
Alexandra Manly is having the best season of her career so far. Perhaps her 12th place in the Amstel Gold Race or 10th in Brabantse Pijl at the start of the year gave us an inkling of what was to come from the Aussie puncheur, but few expected the dominance Manly showed at the 2.Pro Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour a few months later. She secured not one, not two, but four stage wins, plus the overall GC. The BikeExchange-Jayco talent backed this up a few weeks later at the Women’s Tour, finishing fourth overall after climbing with the best of the best on Black Mountain.
After not competing in one single UCI road race last year, how has this track specialist catapulted herself to the forefront of the Women’s WorldTour? How has she gone from an unknown quantity to one to watch for stage wins at the Tour de France Femmes this summer?
“When I took the pressure off myself, things just started happening,” Manly tells me over Zoom from her new base in Andorra. She’d arrived there a few hours earlier, having never visited the cycling hotspot before. “I’m just mapping out what I’m doing,” she laughs. “We’ve got an AirBnB here for a while, so I need to get to know the roads and stuff.”
She appears relaxed and stress-free, excited about being in new surroundings. This open-minded and calm attitude towards her racing this season is partly what Manly puts her success down to this year. “I just needed a new focus so I decided to do a full road season,” she explains. “I had good people around me to support me, there’s no way I would have got any results without the team I have. I'm fortunate that I got opportunities at the right time. I’m so happy with how it's gone.”
Manly riding in the Women's Tour 2022 (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Ridding herself of expectation to perform this year was, understandably, not an easy task for the 26-year-old. In order to have a full shot at a road season, Manly had to make the decision to move to Europe at the start of this season, putting her life Down Under on pause for the year.
“It's a big commitment for me to come here,” she says. “I've been here before when I was younger when I came out of juniors and joined GreenEdge, so I knew what I was stepping back into. I know the commitment it takes, it's a different world to Australia. If you're a European, you can still have your normal daily routine and your life after cycling can still be quite similar.”
Thanks to Covid-19 travel restrictions and a stringent track programme with the Australian track team preparing for the Olympics last year, Manly didn’t compete in a single road race in Europe. With the Australian team pursuit squad, she finished fifth in the Olympics – another result to add to an already glittering list of palmarès on the track (World Championship titles in the points race and team pursuit to name just a few.)
Manly’s sprinting ability that she exhibited as she stormed to her victories in the Lotto Thüringen Tour has, no doubt, been moulded by her years of training on the velodrome. The repeated accelerations required to perform in bunch races on the track has turned out to be an asset to the Australian on the road. “[At Thüringen] it was quite hard before the finish. I think that suits me, I'm good at kicking and then recovering quite quickly. I always like it when it's harder at the end,” she says.
The BikeExchange rider can’t give me a clear answer when I ask about which races she thinks she is best suited to: “I really like doing tours like that, but I do think I could see myself in races like Amstel,” she responds after some thinking. She explains that she’s still learning the type of rider she is, her lack of experience on the road, especially as a team leader, meaning she still sees lots of room for improvement.
“I've never really been in this position. I've never really got to be the person everyone rides for,” she says. “When you're working for someone else, you're not really sure if that course suits you because you kind of use all your energy before the finish. So I just hadn't experienced or figured out what worked for me.”
While it might not show when glancing over her results so far this season, Manly explains that there have been challenges this year as she’s rejoined the WorldTour peloton. “There's always things that are difficult but usually I find they're like what motivates me to get better,” she says.
“I think just learning the peloton again has been hard. But if you don't have a good day, instead of beating yourself up about it, I try to think: why wasn't it good? What can I learn from it? Then the next race is genuinely better and you take in the lesson you’ve learnt.”
Team BikeExchange at the Women's Tour 2022 (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Manly is quick to give credit to her team for helping her with her performances this year. She explains that being on an Australian team, she builds almost familial bonds with the other riders on the team in a similar position to her living away from home. “I live with my teammate and some of the girls who are from Europe ask me: how can you live with a teammate? They don’t get it, but it’s not like that, she’s like my family, we’re not just teammates,” explains Manly. “I feel like I have that bond with at least five of the girls on the team, so that’s really nice.”
It’s clear that, for Manly, teamwork is almost as important as her personal results. She explains that bonding with the newer riders on her team has been a priority this season. “I think we've really found our feet and we've learned how to communicate. We know a lot more about each other and I think now we'll start getting more and more results.”
When I ask her about her goals for the rest of this season, her answer focusses on growing the team around her: “I’m most looking forward to us having an aligned vision and pulling it off, that'd be really cool,” she says.
Personally, Manly’s dream is to win a World Championship title on the road, and there would be no better tine to do it than in her home country as the Worlds take place in Wollongong this year. It’s an ambitious aim, but self-belief is something that the Australian rider has in abundance.
“I'm confident in myself and I know I can do things. I wasn't expecting to do them yet but I do feel like I can do it,” she says.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Manly – and maybe the most concerning thing to those who are going to try and beat her – is the scope and desire she has to continue to do better. “I wasn't really expecting to be in the position I am now,” she says. “I’m so happy with how it’s gone, but I still want to improve.”
Cover image: Getty