Ally Wollaston is speaking to me over the phone just under two weeks from the scheduled start date of the 2023 Giro d’Italia Donne, but neither she, nor any of the other riders in the women’s peloton, feel confident that the race will even go ahead at all. There’s been meagre information about stage profiles and routes, as well as rumours swirling about conflicts between parties over giving the event live TV coverage (a stipulation for a Women’s WorldTour event). For the longest and one of the oldest stage races on the women’s side of the sport, it’s a worrying state of affairs.
Wollaston has things to say about it – perhaps unsurprisingly given the work she does with the Cyclists’ Alliance (a union for female riders) as a rider council representative. She thinks that the priorities are skewed when it comes to reforms that have been put in place in recent years by the UCI – prize money and minimum salaries clearly show progress but this is superficial when other, arguably more pressing issues, are being ignored. Wollaston references the recent cancellation of the Tour Féminin International des Pyrénées due to road safety issues as an example of this.
“It's so great to see that women's cycling has grown and the top girls are getting paid so much – it's liveable and sustainable. But then you cut it back to its simplest form, for example, in the Pyrénées the race was cancelled because of road safety issues, it's like, who comes first and who's prioritising what?” Wollaston says. “I think the safety of the riders should be at the forefront of everyone's mind. I would have thought it would be a top priority versus people getting a lot of prize money or even exposure.”
Wollaston goes on to mention that she believes the pace of change in the sport is a challenge for race organisers. “It is a shame to see races like the Lotto Belgium Tour being cancelled, there's been a few races on the calendar this year that have been a little bit on the fence and also there’s rumours about the Giro maybe not being on,” she explains.
“I think it's all well and good that the top girls are getting paid a lot but if we turn up to races, then our lives are at risk, that's not a sustainable way of being. I'd say that's probably one of the biggest issues at the moment. It is like the sport is growing too quickly for the organisers and events, or the race calendar even, to keep up with.”
Ally Wollaston after the 2023 Amstel Gold Race (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Despite her personal concerns over the pace of change in women’s cycling, Wollaston has flourished on a sporting level over the past few seasons. Her position as a rider representative at the Cyclists’ Alliance comes, in part, due to how respected Wollaston is in the peloton after her impressive string of results since coming to race on the continent. The Kiwi rider stormed onto the scene in 2021 when riding for NXTG Racing, securing top-5 finishes in UCI races in just her first season racing in Europe.
“Moving to NXTG in 2021 was a massive change, in my lifestyle and everything really. It was a pretty last minute decision for me to come overseas, I missed out on the selection for Tokyo and kind of was just thinking, well, what now?” Wollaston says. “I reached out to the team on their ‘contact us’ button on the website and sent them a blurb telling them I'd love to come and race. Within a week they said they would love to have me. I booked flights and a month later I was on my way to Europe on my own.”
The 22-year-old rider notes the big shift from competing in her native New Zealand to in Europe where the peloton sizes are bigger and the racing is known to be a lot more hectic. “Nothing really prepares you for racing a peloton with 20 girls to racing these crazy roads in Belgium, with a valley of death and 150 girls,” she says. “Halfway through the race I remember thinking, hey, what the hell am I doing here? I don’t even know if I’m enjoying this. But once I got a few under my belt and figured out how to race them it became a lot more fun.”
Since her first taste of road racing in Belgium, Wollaston’s progression in the sport has been meteoric. She took her first professional victory last year in the Grand Prix du Morbihan Féminin, beating Vittoria Guazzini and Grace Brown of FDJ-Suez in a sprint that few expected her to win. Wollaston describes it as “a real ‘holy shit’ moment.”
“It was crazy that I was on a pro podium, that just blew my mind. I think from then onwards, I had way more confidence going into racing and shifted a little bit from just being in Europe and learning to having that belief that I could actually perform,” she says.
Wollaston’s self-confidence is certainly reflected in her results over the past two seasons: she went on to win a stage of the Lotto Belgium Tour in 2022 and finished third on the general classification. This season, she opened with a win on the road in Australia at the Schwalbe Classic and backed that up with winning the New Zealand National Road Championship a few weeks later. In April, Wollaston won stage two of the Festival Elsy Jacobs in Holland and took the overall general classification, beating former-world champion Marta Bastianelli in a sprint to the line. It’s fair to say that Wollaston isn’t afraid to fight for her place in a race, even if she might be less experienced or decorated than some of her colleagues.
Wollaston wins the 2023 Schwable Classic Criterium (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
“I went into Elsy Jacobs without huge expectations, it was quite a last minute decision for me to race it,” Wollaston says. “I don't know if it is just a Kiwi thing but we are all just quite laid back. I love cycling and I love racing. Whether I'm racing against the best in the world versus a kermesse in Belgium, it's all reasonably similar to me. I’m just doing what I love.”
Wollaston is quick to give credit to her team, AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step, for creating an environment where she can thrive without any pressure to get results. “I always want to win. Whether that's realistic or not, is another question. I don’t feel an overwhelming amount of pressure but I think I'm also in a team that encourages going into races and having no fear. Just racing from the heart, not being afraid to lose and leaving it all out there.”
Alongside her campaign on the road, Wollaston is also a prolific winner on the track with multiple World Cup medals to her name. From the age of 15, she raced on the Auckland Olympic Park Velodrome, deciding to give track a go after being “horrific” at road cycling when she first started out. “I used to be so bad. Like, there were a few times I would start racing and would just drop in the neutral because I couldn't clip in fast enough,” Wollaston laughs.
Now with a WorldTour contract on the road and commitments with the New Zealand national team on the track, juggling both is a fine balance for the 22-year-old, but she says that she enjoys the variety of racing in two different disciplines. “I find it really refreshing to switch over to the track and change environments for a little bit, I find that a really healthy reset for me,” she says.
Wollaston competes in the Points Race at the Tissot UCI Track Nations Cup in Jakarta International Velodrome (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
And if racing on the road and track wasn’t enough, Wollaston also studies part-time for a law degree which she has been doing since she left school in 2020. She explains that she was encouraged by NXTG Racing to continue her academic career when she came over to Europe, a decision she is happy she made now three years on.
“Me and the team had the same philosophy around doing stuff like that on the side. I love school, and I love learning, the thought of not doing that was never really an option for me,” Wollaston says. “But when I left school I never thought that three years down the line I would be renting an apartment in Spain with some of my best friends as a professional cyclist. I just didn't think that that was going to happen. At the time when I was coming out of juniors, road cycling wasn't as big as it is now. The salaries were, maybe liveable, but it wasn't sustainable without doing something else on the side. So I just kept studying and I've done three years so I am definitely not going to stop now.”
Wollaston’s law degree is something that comes in useful in her work with the Cyclists’ Alliance and she hopes to combine these two passions even further in the future. The Kiwi rider speaks at length about the concerns she has for the funding cuts that recently hit the development pathways in New Zealand Cycling, saying that it has been “hard to watch” riders who come straight out of the junior ranks without a clear pathway to the elites.
“There’s not a lot of people turning up to the start line to race anymore in New Zealand. At the Criterium National Championships we had about eight girls on the start line which is probably the lowest number of entrants we’ve ever had. It’s been a real challenge for everyone involved with funding, sponsors, athletes and families as well. I hope it’s rebuilding now,” Wollaston says.
The AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step rider clearly has big goals for her own performances in her career – she notes that the 2023 Track World Championships in Glasgow are an important aim and that they will be the first time she has the chance to compete with British favourite, Katie Archibald for rainbow jerseys. “After winning the Jakarta and Cairo World Cup rounds, I'm feeling pretty confident going into the World Championships. I've never been in a position to race in the Omnium with those results on my back so that's really exciting for me,” she says.
However, it’s clear from my conversation with Wollaston that her ambitions in the sport span far wider than her personal achievements. In her law degree and work with the Cyclists’ Alliance, Wollaston is hoping to help implement real change in the sport.
“There's not many people that have the opportunity to have a say in how the sport operates. I feel like, as athletes, we have a very privileged position of having a voice and the ability to inspire younger girls. Making it better for people in the future has always been a really big driving factor in why I do what I do,” she explains.
“I know firsthand the impact that someone inspiring can have on a young rider and I think having that opportunity to inspire other people is really motivating for me. If I can leave this sport in a better place eventually then I think I would have done a pretty good job.”
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix