For Yana Belomoina and Anne Tauber the off season looks very different. Yana escapes the cold of Ukraine whilst Anne embraces the ice (skates). But when they come together to start the season, the feeling is the same: a genuine excitement to be back racing and back together in the fold of Bart Brentjens’ CST Sandd Bafang MTB Racing Team.
The team’s two women are strong, independent, competitive athletes, but in a team of three male riders and a largely male staff, the reliance on each other to provide emotional support, inspiration and friendship is crucial to their individual success.
For Yana, the lead into the season has not been an easy one. Having not raced since August, the race speed that is needed in your legs to perform well is not there yet. Talking of her results at the C1 stage race in Salamina, Greece, at the beginning of February, Yana reflected, “I hoped I was ready, but when I raced I missed some speed.”
The break in her hand that forced her to curtail last season was not the only injury the Ukrainian has suffered recently. She came late into the 2018 season following a crash during the winter in which she sustained a hip injury from a crash whilst training on the road. She explained that her body has been through a lot of trauma; the operations, medicine, hospital time all adding up to a physical stress that takes time to overcome.
Glimmers of the Yana we know from her 2017 World Cup overall victory shone through at the World Cup in Albstadt in 2018, a second place seemed to confirm she was back on track and ready to defend the white leader’s jersey that we had become accustomed to seeing her in.
“It was a great feeling in the race. I could not believe that I am back but afterwards I expected that everything is fine. But it was not. The body was ready for this race but not for another. In winter I Iost everything, I did not work in the gym and not for my power. My body was not really ready.”
And so for the second consecutive year, Yana has not come to Cyprus in the form she would hope for at this time of year. However, this year she could at least start the Afxentia stage race and in fact she raced to a strong 5th place on the final day and took 13th overall.
Last year, Yana decided not to take the start at either of the Sunshine Cup races. As a newcomer to the team, Anne’s first experiences with Yana were thus not quite what she expected but the learning process was still hugely valuable, and they laid the foundation for a great relationship.
“Of course, I knew how strong Yana was in the season before. As a newcomer in the team and in the Elite category I was really inspired by Yana. But you also know that this [injury] can happen sometimes. I have never experienced a big injury and I saw how difficult it was for Yana to try and come back. Not only to be healthy again, but to get the race rhythm back. It’s so hard to push your body to the limit and if you are not racing for so long, that’s difficult. It was also interesting for me to see how to work with an injury and what happens.”
For Yana, too, having Anne in the team was a really positive experience. Both riders explained the importance of having each other to talk to, emphasising that having a fellow female on the team helps a lot. “We have much more boys in the team. For me it’s easier when I have a woman with me in the team. When I want to speak I always have Anne”, explained Yana.
That’s certainly not to say that the team in a boys’ club. “It’s like my second family”, Yana said. “We are together almost since six years and I like to stay with this team. I had a really good season in 2017 but if something happens like it did to me, then mentally its really helpful [to have the support of your team].”
This is only Anne’s second year with the Brentjens team but she talks with great fondness of the atmosphere and the people. On what she missed about the team during winter, she said, “I think the team spirit. We are not always training together but you can talk about ways of training, or just have a nice chat aboutnothing really important. I think cycling is quite an adventure, travelling all around the world and it’s just nice to share this experience. It’s weird, I think we are living a quite extraordinary life. In the winter you train by yourself and you have no idea were you stand. So it’s good to be in the team together again.”
This team spirit and sense of family comes across instead of any sense of competitiveness. Does having two Elite Women in the same team create an environment to push each other? No, they say. It’s not about pushing but rather about supporting. Anne and Yana immediately reminisced about Albstadt World Cup 2018 when they both made the podium. At the finish line they were hugging and laughing and so full of happiness for each other; it was something that put a huge smile on the faces of anyone watching on. “That was something extra special”, Anne exclaimed with a huge smile across her face. “I think it’s good to race in the same category. I think it is more pressure if you are alone. Then you are the only one to get results”, she added with a laugh.
Perhaps the difference in age and experience helps to explain this apparent absence of competition between two elite athletes. Yana has been on the World Cup circuit since 2009 and is now in her 5th year as an Elite. Anne is still just 23 and has only been cycling seriously for three years, having concentrated on speed skating previously. Anne speaks with great admiration of Yana. “I was very amazed how she performed [in 2017], especially about her endurance. There was a big gap between Yana and the rest. I was inspired about the way she was cycling; she was such a good climber. I was only dreaming about the same results as Yana and I haven’t reached that level yet.”
The respect is mutual. “When Anne came onto the team I was proud when I heard about she was racing 200 kilometre speed skating races. I could not believe how it is possible to skate 200 kilometres! It was crazy, she is crazy!”, Yana turned to Anne and they both burst out laughing
Anne’s speed skating background and thus her late transition into cycling makes her success even more remarkable. “When I started speed skating, I didn’t cycle at all. My parents always said: if you ever reach a top level as an athlete you will be late - you are little, you are not that strong, relax and have fun then performance will come. When I started cycling I was not late at all, I was early in my promise”, she explained with a smile. So early, in fact, that her first U23 World Cup podium left her completely overwhelmed and struggling to process the situation. “I did not know what was happening! I went into the camper and my mother made a cup of coffee and cookies like she always did when I am sad,” Anne remembered with a chuckle. Anne was still skating seriously and the cycling was something new and unknown. She describes the feeling as confusion; an unexpected situation that brought with it a whole new complexity of expectation, emotional investment and, perhaps surprisingly, self-doubt. “I wasn’t sure if it was just for once or it was just a mistake or something strange happening to me”, she tried to explain. However, far from a negative, Anne is glad to have had this experience as a U23 and attributes the lessons she learnt there to her relaxed and happy demeanour when she stepped up onto the podium for the first time as an Elite in her first World Cup riding for the Brentjens team, in Stellenbosch last year.
Despite her early success, Anne appreciates there is still a lot to learn. Rather than racing here in Cyprus, she is instead joining the team for media duties and also using the island to train. Her speed skating is not a thing of the past, but now forms part of her ‘off-season’ training. Following a winter of skating in 2017/18 she transitioned quickly into bike racing mode in order to be ready for the opening World Cup in March. Of course, that podium in Stellenbosch was a huge achievement but, without a break between her winter and summer schedules, she faded towards the end of the season. “Now we are trying it a bit in a different way. We started with endurance training which I do in the skating season and focused a bit on power training. That allows me hopefully to grow into the season. Maybe I start with less good results but we will see how I do in Albstadt [the 1st 2019 World Cup].”
Changes to training and racing schedules and recovery from injury obviously play in important role in any athlete’s success, but it is the friendships and support structure that Yana and Anne always come back to. The team environment and mountain bike culture are woven into every answer that the ladies give.
For Yana, the presence of her husband, Maksym Gavrylenko, is central. She often to refers to her Grandma back home in Ukraine; she is evidently very important in Yana’s life and is a source of motivation, but it is Maksym – who is a mechanic for the Brentjens team - who is the pillar of strength, security and a sense of being settled wherever they are in the World.
“It would be hard without him”. Yana was not gushing or smug at all, it’s just a matter of fact for her. “For me it is important, it’s my life, he is my husband. At home my grandma is waiting for me, but for her is also important to have Maksym on my side. So she knows Yana is in good hands!”
For Anne, having Maksym in the team doesn’t change the dynamic or cause a split. She is very complimentary of his work and jokes about how when they arrive at a new race or training camp venue Yana and Maksym are usually already there which means the grocery shipping is done!
It is not just the friendships and support within the team that create such an attractive culture in the sport, however. It’s no secret that riders from across the different teams and nations train together, go to each other’s weddings and hook up for a coffee whenever they can, but what was surprising to hear was that they even cheer each other during the races!
“It’s great, I love it! Jolanda [Neff] is cheering you in the race…Some people do it, Gunn Rita [Dahle Flejsaa] always did”, said Anne with a laugh and still a slight sense of disbelief that her idols, competitors and friends are one and the same thing.
Of course, success breeds success:
Following her first Elite World Cup podium, Yana explained that her mind-set changed because she then really believed in herself and her power. After her first Elite World Cup victory, it switched up again. “It’s really cool to understand that you are the best”.
But support also breeds success:
“I came into the sport and I did not know how it works. Then you see how friendly it is and how they help you into the family. I felt like I had made the right decision to start cycling when you feel comfortable in the world you live.”
To see the friendship Anne and Yana have forged, to understand the support network from the team and the wider mountain bike community, and to have an insight into the human level of these world-class riders was a great privilege. Thank you ladies, and we wish you continuing support and success!
[Postscript: Yana went on to win the second round of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup, the stand-alone C1 XCO race in Amathus, the following weekend. We hope this is a sign of good things to come!]