Suzuki Brumby’s leading by example at the top level of Australian cycling

Suzuki Brumby 2One of my personal mandates for this blog is to promote women’s cycling at all levels so this week it’s the top ends turn. Recently I caught up with Megan O’Neill Johnston who the Assistant Manager and Head Soigneur for the Canberra-based Suzuki Brumby’s women’s cycling team who had some very interesting insights into how a cycling team runs…..

Q: How long has the team been going?

Suzuki Brumby’s is a Canberra based team that started in 2008 and originally fielded both a men’s and women’s National Road Series (NRS) team, however in 2014 we are an all-female affair.

Q: How many members do you currently have?

We currently have 9 cyclists in the team; 7 who are based in Canberra, 1 in Victoria and 1 in NSW. We are all really close, not only as team mates, but as friends and I think this contributes significantly to the success and character of the team. There is a lot of comradeship and support for each other which I think is imperative in such a mentally tough sport.

Q: I read that you used to have a men’s and women’s team, but now just a women’s – how did that come about?

For the past few years we were the only team in the National Road Series (NRS) with both male and female cyclists. With a moderate budget, race support and team management this meant that we had to carefully choose which races to attend, so not to spread our resources too thinly across the season.

In 2013 I supported the men’s team as a Soigneur as my husband was racing, and on occasions I was fortunate enough to assist with the ladies while away on tours with both teams. I saw just how talented these ladies were and how encouraging and remarkable the culture of the team was and I wanted in… those who can’t do, manage right??

We decided that in 2014 instead of running two teams well, we would run one team exceptionally well. The women’s team came off a very strong 2013 season finishing as the second best ranked women’s team in the NRS, which gave the ladies a lot of motivation to improve their performance in 2014. Our sponsors were keen to nurture and develop the culture of the women’s team and were really proud to see it continue.

Liz Fitch came on as Team Manager and Directeur Sportif for 2014 and has done such a brilliant job developing the ladies to their full potential.

Do the team members all have other jobs beyond bike racing?

Cycling in Australia, for both men and women, is not a highly profitable sport, so all our ladies maintain employment in addition to training and racing. Both Liz and I have full time jobs so managing the Suzuki Brumby’s team is sometimes allocated to after work and on weekends, however I am certain this is similar for the management of most National cycling teams.

Cyclists don’t earn very much prize money in Australia and I don’t know of any women’s teams who are able to afford to pay their riders a wage. It is also moderately tight for the ladies in terms of how much time they can take off work as well as trying to manage their income and career progression.

In addition to that, 5 of our girls are currently completing University degrees so we have some very busy ladies!

A part of the Suzuki Brumby’s Team Objective is;

We combine achievements on and off the bike, rider development and community engagement as well as strive to develop young women cyclists and women’s cycling itself

so applying this principal, we encourage the ladies to work, study and actively contribute to the community as well as race their bikes. We are always understanding if a rider is unavailable for a race due to a work, family or University commitment.

What’s the average age of the team members?

We have one of the most diversely aged National teams with the youngest being just 18 and the oldest being 32 (I won’t tell you who that is, I think she would kill me).

Have any of your team members raced overseas?

Two of our team members Emily Roper and Rebecca Wiasak raced with the Australian National Road Team this year. The team is based in Gavirate in Italy but also travel to races in the Netherlands, France, the Czech Republic and China. It’s a fantastic way to see the world, but difficult to live out of a suitcase and spend months away from your loved ones. Our team has previously raced at the Tour of New Zealand and our team captain Laura Darlington has also raced in the USA. We miss having the girls riding for Suzuki Brumby’s when they’re away, but realise that these opportunities give them invaluable experience and racing knowledge that they can bring back to our team and share with their teammates.

Is it difficult to find sponsors (and keep them)?

We are very lucky to have some long term supporters such as equipment sponsors Trek and Bontrager and clothing sponsor Vie13 who back the team year after year. Not forgetting of course Suzuki who have been the main financial support of the team since inception.

It is very expensive to run a cycling team especially travelling to races such as the Tour of Mersey Valley in Tasmania when you are required to fly all your riders and support staff, road bikes, time trial bikes plus accommodating everyone and hiring cars and trailers. It is tight in terms of budgeting for every race and we have to run the team like a responsible business.

Like any sporting team or business you need to be savvy with your marketing and promotions and support your sponsors continually as they are the lifeblood of the team.

In 2014, Brumby’s Bakery and the ACT Government have contributed as major financial sponsors of the team, along with servicing and product support from Club Lime Gyms, Aussie Butt Cream and Bike Culture Bike Stores.

We are incredibly lucky in 2014 to be in such a financial position that we are able to compete in all the NRS races and support our ladies wholly along the way.

Women’s cycling gets way less media attention than men’s – what are you doing to combat this?

Suzuki Brumby’s has a significant social media presence on Facebook and Twitter and we energetically partake in any invitation for an interview, blog or article. All the ladies are encouraged to be active on social media and at our team training camp earlier in the year we were given some training on how to speak, write and present ourselves positively in the media. We have a relationship with a number of online and printed media outlets and try to promote both the team and women’s cycling as often as we can.

We find that by being active, updating often, promoting our riders and sponsors, broadcasting results and posting photos and video’s, people want to follow us and thus we get women’s cycling in the headlines.

Like most competitive sports in Australia; the greater the participants – the bigger the spectator pool – the more media coverage – the larger the funding – the greater the participants. Women are playing catch up to the men in most sports, so I believe that if we want to contribute to making women’s cycling bigger in Australia all we need to do is get on our bikes and encourage others to do the same.

There are a number of great women mentors in cycling such as Gracie Elvin, Katherine Bates and Tiffany Cromwell who are all active in getting the media’s attention for all the right reasons. At an international and national level women’s cycling is getting much more competitive and the level of rider is improving significantly each year. It’s so great to be part of that movement and I think the media in general is picking up on that positivity.

How do you think we can encourage more women to take up cycling, not just racing but recreationally as well?

I am lucky because when I met my now husband, he was already active in the Canberra cycling community and integrated me straight into a group of patient and encouraging cyclists. I completed a 12 week bicycle skills course (which I can’t recommend highly enough for all new cyclists) and 4 years on I am able to keep up with the best of them in the local Canberra bunch rides.

Canberra is a very special place for women who want to get into cycling. Not only do we have some amazing infrastructure but we also have the Females In Training (FIT) community group who encourage women of all ages and abilities to get on a bike. Every year FIT hold a women’s-only 24km ride called the Tour De Femme that doubles as both a race and a participation event, with over 350 women coming from all over ACT and NSW to participate in 2013!

This year the Suzuki Brumby’s team has a really big community focus and we are endeavouring to actively engage with our local cycling communities and get more women into cycling.

Earlier in the year we were honoured to be event ambassadors for Amy Gillett’s Big Canberra Bike Ride and there is no better cause for us than the Amy Gillett Foundation. Not only is our team passionate about safety for cyclists on the road, but we are also committed to advocacy, inspiring others to ride and to raising awareness that a metre matters, which is what the Amy Gillett Foundation is about.

For all the non-Canberran’s, nationally a program has just been released called ‘She Rides’ which is an introductory riding program focused on fitness, skills development and creating a social riding community of women. Over 8-weeks you’ll increase your fitness, develop your riding skills and have the chance to make friends with other women who want to ride too and can become regular riding partners when the course is finished. The spring program is now open for registration.

The National ‘Ride 2 Work’ day is a great initiative and is coming up on Wednesday, 15 October 2014. The Suzuki Brumby’s ladies have promised to encourage and accompany a friend, colleague or family member to commute to work that day.

Also very important is the National ‘Ride 2 School’ day, which is held in April each year. The Suzuki Brumby’s ladies were fortunate to be invited to a number of Canberra schools on Ride 2 School day to welcome the students riding to school, as well as speak to them at assembly about the benefits of riding to school, rider safety and keeping fit and healthy.

There is a lot of information out there for women wanting to take up cycling both recreationally and competitively. I would recommend jumping on the internet and searching for your local cycling club and asking to speak to the women’s cycling coordinator.

2014 Suzuki Brumby’s Team:

Riders: Maddy Marshall (ACT), Laura Darlington (ACT), Ailie McDonald (ACT), Chloe McIntosh (VIC), Alex Nicholls (ACT), Allison Rice (ACT), Emily Roper (NSW), Emma Viotto (ACT) and Rebecca Wiasak (ACT).

Team Manager and Directeur Sportif: Liz Fitch

Assistant Manager and Head Soigneur: Megan O’Neill Johnston

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