It’s been the best of years and worst of years for top road cyclist Georgia Williams – Commonwealth silver, three broken bones, and now another steep mountain to climb. Suzanne McFadden reports.
When Georgia Williams crashed off her bike last week, flying down a road in southern Netherlands, she had terrifying flashbacks of lying on a couch for three weeks watching movies.
While that may not be such an upsetting memory for some 25-year-olds, for Williams, those three weeks back in July were the worst in her cycling career.
“It really freaked me out,” Williams says of her latest fall in the final stage of the Holland Ladies Tour. “I wasn’t hurt, but I knew it could have been really bad news if I’d fallen on the wrong hip.”
In a year where Williams has been establishing herself not only as New Zealand’s top road rider, but second in the Commonwealth and one of the best on the women’s world tour, her confidence was sent hurtling in a more serious crash almost three months ago.
That first accident, while out on a training ride in the Spanish city of Girona, left Williams with three broken bones in her pelvis. It meant having to lie inactive for three weeks to allow the fractures to heal.
It also meant missing the most significant tour of the year, Italy’s Giro Rosa, and put her chances of riding for New Zealand at this month’s world road championships in serious doubt.
But Williams thrives on challenges. Five weeks after the crash, the plucky Aucklander was back on her road bike, gradually clocking up the miles again.
Last week she was fit enough to re-join her pro team in the Netherlands and, in a fortnight, the Commonwealth Games silver medallist will represent New Zealand again in the world championship road race in Austria.
“I was a little hesitant about starting at the worlds, but I’d probably have more regrets if I didn’t – wondering how I could have gone,” Williams says from her apartment in Spain. “But I’m just so glad to be back racing again.”
You can understand why 2018 has been the best of years, and the worst of years, for Williams.
The success started in Nelson in January when she became a double New Zealand road cycling champion, taking out both the road race and time trial titles for the first time. That’s allowed her to wear the black and white colours of her country in any race she starts this year.
Then she won a silver medal in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games road race – with a scintillating sprint finish she never knew she had. She became only the second Kiwi to step onto the road race podium since Suzy Pryde won silver 20 years before.
Williams, who’s been riding in Europe since she was 19, then returned for her second season with Australian pro team Mitchelton-Scott, competing on the Women’s World Tour. She notched up top-six finishes in three tours – clearly putting her among the leading road riders in the world.
But her fortunes changed when, out training, she took a corner too fast, hit gravel, and her tyres slid out from beneath her.
In a great deal of pain, Williams had x-rays and was told nothing was broken.
“So I was feeling quite positive. But a week went by and I was still in pain, so I asked for another x-ray. They still said ‘No, nothing’s broken’,” she recalls. “Then a day later, I knew something was actually seriously wrong. So I got an MRI scan and that’s when they told me I had three fractures.”
She had broken her left hip, her pubis bone and her sacrum. But the Rio Olympian was glad she trusted her instincts.
The next few weeks would be tough. “I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t walk. I was on the couch the whole time watching Netflix,” she says.
As she progressed, she was allowed to hobble down the street once a day to her local café, an outing that helped keep her sane. Girona is home to a gaggle of foreign professional riders, so catching up with cycling friends helped Williams survive her time off the bike.
“Until that point, everything seemed to be going really well. But I guess you’ve got to have the downs as well as the ups,” she says.
“I haven’t crashed this bad, ever. I’ve never broken any bones until now. But it’s all part of the sport.”
She returned to activity with some gentle spins on her home trainer, and swimming in the local pool with a pull buoy between her legs, so as not to aggravate her hip.
After five weeks, she was back on the road for easy rides for an hour, then two. Although she was in pain by the end of the ride, she’d be fine again the next day. It was a slow process.
She managed most of her rehabilitation herself, seeking help from Cycling NZ doctor Brendan O’Neill, who sent her strengthening exercises.
When she returned to racing last week, after 10 weeks away, Williams admits she felt a little fragile.
“It’s hard being back in the bunch again, just knowing that if I crashed I might have to go through all that again. But I just need to put that aside, and get through it,” she says.
And when she crashed on the last stage of the Holland Ladies Tour, she was terrified. “I definitely had flashbacks to the last accident, and not being able to ride or even walk. Luckily I landed on my right hip, and had just a little graze.”
She pulled out of the tour after her crash, but she’d done her duty, keeping Dutch team-mate Annemiek van Vleuten – No. 1 on the world tour rankings – in the leaders’ jersey throughout the tour.
Williams has another world tour event this weekend, the two-day La Madrid Challenge, to sharpen her race fitness before the demanding world championships start on September 24.
The picturesque, but mountainous, course in Innsbruk is being called one of the toughest world champs circuits in years. The 156km women’s road race includes 2143m of climbing. Williams has gone over the course map online, and will have almost a week to ride around it after finishing her team time trial event with her Mitchelton-Scott teammates.
“It’s going to be really hard; the longer climbs make it a race of attrition. Around the 80km mark will be quite a decisive point in the race,” she says.
Williams will be New Zealand’s strongest hope in the women’s road race. Two promising riders, 21-year-old Grace Anderson and Mikayla Harvey (19), have been named to join her.
But Sharlotte Lucas, who was fourth in the Commonwealth Games road race in April, won’t be there. Lucas successfully appealed her exclusion from the New Zealand squad, only to withdraw from the team, unable to meet the costs she was required to pay to get to the start-line.
Although she won’t be 100 percent race fit, Williams is keen to see what she can do on the hilly course. “There’s not too much pressure on me, and anything can happen,” she says.
On the horizon, she’s aiming to retain her national road title, sign up for another season with her pro team, and ride the time trial and the road race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But, first, she’s looking forward to returning home to Auckland next month, and being reunited with her Commonwealth silver medal. Her parents took it home with them after the race, while Williams flew straight to Europe.
“The glow wore off quite quickly because I didn’t get to come home and celebrate,” she says. “Maybe when I see my medal again, the glow will return.”