You just have to look at the success of football’s Women’s World Cup to see how, with the right funding, training and coverage, women’s sport can be just as exciting and lucrative as men’s. Women’s cycling is gaining ground too and it was good to hear Tour de France organisers, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), announcing last month how they now intend to run a women’s stage race. But there is still much work to do until we reach true equality in sport.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with someone who has been at the coalface of the women’s peloton for over a decade and has witnessed those changes first hand. Prominent sprinter and one-day racer, Barbara Guarischi (29), lives in Northern Italy, near Lake Como and currently races for Team Virtu. She has previously raced for SC Michela Fanini Rox, Forno D'Asolo Colavita, Ale Cipollini, Velocio-SRAM and Canyon-SRAM. Next season, following the closure of Team Virtu, she will join Movistar as their new on-road captain. Barbara is known as one of the most popular voices in the peloton and as the consummate team player. 2019 has been a challenging year. One that was blighted by injuries and crashes, yet kissed with success, as she helped fellow Italian Marta Bastianelli win some of the major races on the 2019 female calendar. I was keen to find out more about her and how she came to love this crazy sport.
You’ve been racing professionally for eleven seasons and are known as one of the most skilled and experienced cyclists in the peloton, can you tell us more about your journey into cycling and how you honed your skills before becoming a professional?
Yes, it’s a long time as a professional rider! I started riding a bike when I was young, but not super young, 12 years old, more or less. I started riding mainly because I tried every other sport (including basketball, soccer, swimming and running) and cycling was one of the last. I took to bike racing straight away, first on a closed track that was also used for roller-skating and later on the road, but often with a person behind us.
I believe I was very lucky to find the right people along the way. People like Trixi Worrack (five times world champion in team time trial) , who taught me about the inner workings of cycle racing, and at the same time, I was intelligent enough to make sure I learned as much as could from them. So that’s why sometimes I like to take a little moment for myself before a race (sometimes during the race) and think about how it might play out…and often everything goes exactly as I predicted! I think it is just nature – some people are super intelligent, but struggle with manual tasks and some people can build a house without study. You learn by doing and in my case I love to observe everything even if I don’t say or ask anything, so I learn by watching.
What sort of barriers did you encounter along the way?
When I was young it was hard. There was no youth development programme available for me to join. You had to really want to be a cyclist and motivate yourself to continue improving and developing, but you encounter people along the way who look after you and encourage you. There was a period I started thinking “ya, I’m a 16 year old and every Saturday when my friends head out to have fun (like normal teenagers), I’m in bed early because the I have to train or race the following day”. Fortunately, I was really lucky and found a really nice person who, completely voluntarily, looked after me and helped spur me on, and I am extremely thankful to them.
Everything is harder when you’re younger. Maybe in the first few years you struggle to even finish the race. It’s normal. But with constancy and commitment, if you really want it, something nice will come out of your experiences in the end. Like everything in life.
Travelling around the world and getting paid to ride your bike sounds like you’re ‘living the dream’! Can you give us some insight into the realities of life as a pro? What are some of the things we don’t see?
Ya, now you come across lots of different opinions. For sure, there are some who think that what we do is living the dream. Of course, it is a pleasure to earn money and do what you like (riding a bike), but it is frustrating when I hear “ya, you are really lucky, you do nothing and you travel around the world!” Ya of course we travel around the world, but often we see just one hotel room and maybe a coffee bar the day before the race. Maybe at home, yes, we are more free with time to ride our bike, but when it’s a holiday somewhere in Summer and your friends are on the beach to doing a BBQ and you are on the bike in 35° degrees, ya sometimes it is not fun! But it is our job and like every job you like some things and you don't like others.
Can you tell us a little about how you have seen women’s cycling evolve over the last few years?
Every year the female cycling community grows and steps up. That makes it harder, but that’s exactly what’s needed, because you cannot "sit on the sofa and win". Every year you put in more effort to follow your dream and the dream of the team. That starts with the lifestyle (nutrition, regular sleep patterns etc.). Every strong team now features some people that can win and some people that help others to gain the win; that’s a team, and the more that female cycling grows, the more this separation will become defined. It’s part of our job though, not everyone can win a world championship, but someone can be really helpful to make that world championship victory happen.
This year has been a challenging one for you. Where do you draw the strength and determination from to pick yourself up and carry on?
(A nasty crash in the OVO Women’s Tour that took out most of the peloton left Barbara in hospital as the team carried on racing. She made her own way back to Lake Como from a hospital in the UK. On her return to the peloton she took a win, before crashing once again and breaking her coccyx.)
Ya in the middle of the season I had 2 injuries in a row, but with the support of my staff of work (coach, gym coach and doctor) and of course, family and friends, I continued to believe in myself and in the end we managed really well. I believe that a happy person can do more than numbers on paper. I was lucky because everything happened in an ‘easy’ period of the season for me, when I was supposed to be having a breather from racing. So all in all, it hasn’t been so bad.
When it comes to racing, every year is different, because in the race you never know what’s going to happen. Even if you are extra cautious and you feel 100% prepared, sometimes you are pulled into a crash. Sometimes it’s nothing serious and with a small amount of time for recovery, you can come back. Sometimes though, you have to stay out for weeks or months. This kind of stopping and starting makes bike racing harder and your form harder to control. However, that's our job and you have to take the best out of the situation. There’s nothing you can do if you’ve broken a bone, but with a positive mind-set, the right attitude, the right people and a lot of heart, you can come back, sometimes even stronger.
What do you think prevents more women from contemplating a career in cycling?
I think it is not easy be a bike rider, cycling is a tough sport and you have to be professional on the bike and even more so in normal life. I think there’s nothing you cannot be if you really want to be it. There’s a lot of sacrifice that has to happen behind the scenes and of course, you have to be honest with yourself - make a goal of it. With a lot of sacrifice, you can achieve it or at least come close.
This season you were part of the highly successful women’s world tour team, Virtu Cycling; can you tell us what the season has been like?
In simple words the season went so well and is still going well in the last part of the season. I think it’s because we are a nice group of girls first, more than our abilities as riders. We laugh between each other and we have fun together. This part, I believe, is 100% more important than the numbers.
Without happiness you cannot have the "plus" that makes a difference in a race.
What are you most looking forward to about next season (with Movistar)?
It's a nice experience, first of all because I will have the opportunity to better learn another language , which can be helpful for the future and will help me gain a better understanding of the culture. Then, because they wanted me for a special project within the Team and I love a bet, so that was the real reason. I'm really happy and I can't wait to meet the all the girls and staff in October.