15 Oct

Born to ride

Words by
Raelee Tuckerman
Pictures by
Leon Schoots

Her surname is synonymous with cycling in Bendigo, but this teen is on a fast track to forging her own identity as a future superstar of the sport.

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Alessia McCaig already knows what inscription will appear beneath her photo in her high school graduation yearbook: “Sorry I can’t come, I’m riding.”

Foregoing friends’ birthday parties and other festivities is just one of the sacrifices the 17-year-old is prepared to make as she chases her dream of cycling for Australia at the Olympic Games.

“Olympic gold is my ultimate ambition,” says Alessia, who is the fastest female track sprinter her age in the country, holding the national under-17 flying 200m and team sprint records as well as the under-19 Oceania championship team sprint benchmark.

“But my long-term goal is just to make the Olympic team, which would be an incredible experience.”

Cycling is in Alessia’s DNA. Her grandfather Alan McCaig and his brothers rode competitively. Alan was instrumental in establishing the Bendigo International Madison in 1970 and was inducted into the Victorian Cycling Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport. Brother Frank, a fellow Hall-of-Famer, was an accomplished rider and administrator whose name graces the Bendigo velodrome stand and whose sons also experienced success. Alessia’s dad Cameron recently joined the board of Cycling Victoria after years supporting the Bendigo and District Cycling Club and her brother Connor, a former Austral Wheelrace and Victorian Madison winner, is now a state team selector.

But Alessia’s early childhood activities centred around dancing and gymnastics, representing Victoria in sports aerobics.

“I learnt to ride a bike when I was five or six, but it wasn’t until I saw my brother racing when I was nine that I wanted to give it a go,” she says. “I spent three weeks in Bendigo’s J-cycle development program then moved into racing. One of my first races was an under-11 club championship and I ended up winning, which was amazing.

“Track bikes don’t have brakes and have fixed wheels, so you can’t stop pedalling or you go over the handlebars, which I’ve done! It’s pretty crazy, but people like Noel Sens, Rob Burns and Steve Flood really helped me along the way. Once you learn how to ride a track bike, you never forget.”

Alessia made her first junior state track team in 2017. “I went to nationals and had so much fun, achieving several 4th placings and returned determined to get on the podium next time. I worked hard and came away the following year with four golds, two silvers and the champion of champions title. I knew then this was my sport and decided to step back from gymnastics and pursue cycling.”

She backed up in 2019 with another four national titles, a bronze and two national records, earning a coveted Victorian Institute of Sport scholarship. A trip to New Zealand for the 2020 Oceania carnival followed, where she represented Australia for the first time in the team sprint, breaking the championship record on her way to a tally of two gold and two silver.

Mum Ree recalls the early days of her daughter’s career, when predicting her result was as easy as looking at her starting position. “Initially, she was too scared to have anyone ride near her, so if she rolled off the starting fence last, she’d go so slow she wouldn’t pass anyone and she’d finish last. But if she rolled off first, she’d always win because if anyone came near her, she’d pedal faster to get away from them. It was very funny: always first or last. Cam ended up taking her to the track to practise with Connor riding really close so she got used to it.”

No such problems today. Not only is Alessia fast (more than 60km/h at top speed), she can confidently squeeze through tight gaps in the field or round up her rivals from the outside. One memorable performance was the under-17 national kierin championship in 2018, where she came from last place, well behind the leader with one lap left, and passed everyone to claim the title.

“One of her biggest attributes is that she never gives up,” says Ree. “She’s one of the most determined people I know – yet she always rides with a big smile on her face.”

That particular race caught the attention of five-time Olympian and world champion track sprinter Shane Kelly, who saw a video of the ride, messaged the family to ask for Alessia’s final 200m split, and replied, “that’s a very slick time”. He is now her VIS coach, guiding her transition from junior ranks and teaching her crucial tactics for the flying 200m, time trial, kierin and team sprint.

COVID interruptions aside, Alessia travels to Melbourne for training every Wednesday and Saturday and spends time most other days on her bike or in the gym at home. Her sights are set on the national under-19 track championships in December and the world junior titles, possibly in Egypt or Israel next year, but these events depend on the coronavirus situation. “Fingers crossed they will go ahead,” she says, “but we’re still not sure whether they’ll let Victorians attend.”

She is also part of Cycling Australia’s “emerging athlete” talent identification program. Alessia hopes this pathway will lead to more opportunities to don the green and gold and follow in the footsteps of her idols, retired sprint queen Anna Meares and former endurance champion Amy Cure.

“There’s some very big shoes to fill,” says Alessia, who is grateful to her family, friends and the Bendigo cycling community for their ongoing support. “Cycling gives me a lot of freedom and joy. Winning races is cool and helped keep me in the sport when I was younger, but even if I wasn’t winning, I would’ve continued because of how excited I was and still am just to ride my bike.”