Olivia Ray wasn’t meant to win one of her early races in America. There was another young woman, who’d been competing for years and raced for Rally, one of the big teams in the United States. She was unstoppable. Until Ray arrived.
“I beat her a couple of times and everyone was thanking me for beating her. They said she’d been unbeatable for years, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know who she is’,” she says.
Only a few years later, the foot is on the other pedal. Ray has just signed for Rally herself, and thanks to her aggressive and fearless racing, has turned herself into a similar force to the one she came up against when she first arrived in the US.
That was back in 2017, after she decided to take up a full scholarship in Georgia. Once she arrived though, she found it hard to adjust.
“It was pretty awful. It’s so different over there,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have expected it because it’s America, they speak English, it’s all pretty relative. But the food, and the people and how people act, I think I had a bit of a culture shock.”
A trip home to see her family for Christmas helped her reset, and when she returned, everything was easier. She now calls it her second home.
On the bike, Ray developed her cycling skills in the furious world of criteriums. The short races involve several laps around a closed street circuit, with plenty of sprinting and shoulder-to-shoulder action thrown in. If you think of a whole bunch of stressed Christmas shoppers racing down an aisle at The Warehouse for the last toy, you’re not far off.
While the crit scene is quiet in New Zealand, with just a small handful of them every year, the stakes are much higher in America. A lot of the races are held in the afternoon or at night, with the streetlights beaming down and large crowds hanging over the barriers.
Ray didn’t put any pressure on herself as she came to grips with the frantic format, instead trying to soak everything in and learn as much as she could. After thriving and winning plenty of times throughout the US, she’s developed a style of racing that works.
“I’m aggressive. That looks like going from the back of the race and getting to the front in a quarter of a lap. It’s a combination of not letting anyone get in front of me if I don’t want them to, or throwing some elbows,” she says.
Her impressive performances meant she signed with a team called ButcherBox this year, but she only got a few races in before the coronavirus pandemic locked her down. With her studies for a marketing and advertising degree shifted online, she decided to head home to make the most of the summer and get some racing in the legs.
Ray’s first hit out was the national criterium championships in Christchurch last month, an event she’d always wanted to come back and win. While she admits she took it a bit too seriously and got quite stressed about it, she out-kicked her rivals to take the title and is still “coming off the high” of getting to wear the national champion’s jersey.
She then switched to the track, testing herself against the country’s leading riders at the Cambridge 3 Day Champs in the Avantidrome. In front of interested eyes from the national selectors, she won the elimination race and the tempo race.
Ray’s hoping to continue her success on the road and the boards, even though that has its challenges.
A road cycling sprinter like Ray normally does endurance events on the track, but she’s keen to stick with sprinting in the velodrome too. That means she’ll be coming up against athletes with a different build to her, who have trained specifically for that discipline. As Ray points out, what she’s trying to do is like if Usain Bolt decided to do the marathon as well as the 100 metres.
“People say that you can’t do it, but I hope I’ll be that rare person to be able to at least try to do both well,” she says.
It’s not the first time she’s been told that. Growing up, she was desperate to emulate her brother Alexander, who cycled at Auckland Grammar.
“My parents wouldn’t let me. They said I was going to crash and they’d have to drive me everywhere and all of this,” she laughs.
But after signing up in Year 10 at Diocesan School, she rented a bike and never looked back. The sport has always run strongly through her family, although not always with pleasant memories.
In 2018, her brother was hit by a car while out on a training ride in Auckland. He was placed in an induced coma, suffering collapsed lungs, 28 breaks in his ribs, a cracked pelvis and many more injuries. Stuck on the other side of the world, Ray found it difficult to comprehend how her parents were feeling and what it was like by his hospital bed.
“The crazy and amazing thing is that he’s 98 percent ok now. The only thing he struggles with sometimes is, like what I’m doing right now, figuring how to make a sentence work,” she explains.
After the crash, her relationship with her brother strengthened.
“He was a bit reserved before and now he talks to me. We ride together and we play-fight and we say, ‘oh I’m better than you’, so it’s a good little rivalry we’ve got going,” she says.
Ray’s got plenty to brag about now, after getting a call “out of the blue” from leading American team Rally. They compete on the women’s World Tour, with three-time New Zealand Olympian Joanne Kiesanowski one of their sports directors.
“When I first saw the message, I started crying…it’s completely random and absolutely amazing. I didn’t think it was happening at the time,” she says.
The team is planning to do a bunch of races in America, along with a few stints in Europe depending on the coronavirus situation.
Then it’s onwards to the Paris Olympics in 2024, although Ray is not quite sure how that’s going to look.
“I keep telling my parents and my coach, I’ll buy you tickets to Paris,” she laughs.
“I want to be the best and I want to show what I can do. Figuring out the best pathway to show that, to go to the Olympics or the world championships or World Cup, you really have to dial in what you want to do, and that’ll be the process I have to figure out in the next few months.”
When she’s quizzed about her sporting idols, she mentions the attributes of Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish.
But with her cycling future looking incredibly bright, it’s her brother who sums it up best.
“I’ve always said I want to be like him,” Ray says. “But he says, ‘why don’t you just be you’.”