The extreme methods and measures at the Australian women’s development team selection camp

It was freezing cold and drizzling in Canberra as I waited outside the Australian Institute of Sport residence hall. It’s something like a university college but more empty and austere. I’m waiting for Rochelle Gilmore, the woman behind Wiggle Honda and the High5 Dream Team. She’s in Canberra for her…

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It was freezing cold and drizzling in Canberra as I waited outside the Australian Institute of Sport residence hall. It’s something like a university college but more empty and austere. I’m waiting for Rochelle Gilmore, the woman behind Wiggle Honda and the High5 Dream Team. She’s in Canberra for her latest project, the Australian women’s European development program.

Gilmore emerges into the mist to greet me, ambassadorial in a suit and heels. I was meeting her to ask about what had revived this development pathway, which had been controversially cut earlier in the year. Partnering with Gilmore has allowed Cycling Australia to resuscitate the program.

Alongside her technical and logistical experience, Gilmore offers know-how in the business of commercialising women’s cycling, attracting financial partners and providing return on that investment. But what was going on at that AIS laboratory was a whole lot more interesting than just that.

I followed Gilmore through the facilities into an enormous laboratory where what seemed like the spin class from hell was in progress. Nine women were in full flight on stationary bikes arranged in a semi circle. Each bike was manned by what looked like a research assistant or an intern and various machines. The women were wearing race numbers. They were red-faced, breathing heavily and dripping with sweat. It looked like training, but they were racing. Their eyes told me that.

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They put together a program of how they are going to see the physical strengths and weaknesses and together with some psychologists and the special forces agents they’ve got together to work out how they are going to mentally and physically break these girls down and get them to their breaking point, and that’s pretty much what the camp wants to do. It wants to see these athletes – see how they respond to things under pressure, under really, really severe fatigue.

The CA women’s road panel will ultimately select the athletes based on reports, and there are very extensive reports being done every day by the expert staff. It wasn’t until about day three where I thought: ‘This actually works.’ It’s brutal and they’re going to feel like they’re in a living hell, but they’re going to get a lot out of the experience.

— Rochelle Gilmore

I counted maybe five scientist types observing. In front of the athletes was a whiteboard displaying the intervals. A man in an AIS polo shirt bellowed out instructions from a clipboard. The women’s power data was being recorded. I was told the other nine were doing time trials on the road. Beyond the brightly-lit lab, I looked out to dark grey clouds through streaks of rain on the glass windows.

Gilmore led me upstairs and down a corridor to a small boardroom. Along the main wall of the room were pinned about twenty portraits, mugshots of the young women I had seen downstairs. They held up race numbers below their faces like a line-up of suspects, except grinning exuberantly. In the boardroom I also encountered the program’s head coach Martin Barras and its head physiologist David Martin. Both men were enthusiastic about explaining everything that was going on.

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The traditional way we used to select was to just bring people here, and we’re very well equipped to measure engines. So then, we’d just take the biggest engines we could find and then send them to Europe. What we found with that is that the success rate is roughly about 50 percent. We spend money to prepare an athlete for Europe, to get them to Europe, and then we’ll find out usually within the first month whether they can cut it.

The change of culture, the fact that you suddenly have to look after yourself, the fact that your support network has been blown out of the water and the fact that you’re not in five star hotels, you’re travelling by cars for hours and hours on end and you get to a race and you’re tired and you have to go out and perform. It’s not glamorous. It’s not Hollywood. And there’s nothing in Australia that really prepares you for that. We’re aiming to test physical resilience and most importantly mental resilience. To find people who are adaptable, so even if they don’t have the skills, then, do they have the ability to learn the skills and learn them quick?

— Martin Barras

This is a selection camp where 20 of Australia’s most talented young female cyclists were invited to vie for four spots on the Australian team to race in Europe. The fifth spot will go to the rider awarded the Amy Gillet scholarship for developing female cyclists. The final spot will go to an experienced rider already racing in Europe.

“Wake up Number Seven,” a voice booms. “You have to get to the lab for your body composition scan at 6:00 am. Bring your urine sample with you.’

Imagine yourself one of the aspiring cyclists. This is your morning wake-up call. A machine is strapped to your left arm that monitors your activity and metabolic rate. Strapped to your right arm is another machine recording your sleep patterns. You are filmed and photographed. You are fitted with surveillance equipment – voice recorders and wearable video cameras.

You respond to ‘Number Seven’ because that’s the ID you were assigned for the duration of the camp. It corresponds to the paper number you display on yourself at all times. You were told in your induction lecture that you are being assessed 24 hours-a-day.

Sometimes you receive a schedule for the day. Sometimes the schedule you receive is intentionally false. The activities you participate in are unashamedly extreme, designed to push you to your physical, psychological and emotional limits.

At the camp’s halfway point, you are told to pack your bags ready to go home.

Eight participants have been asked to leave the room. You are amongst them. The remainder will be debriefed, told they have not made it to the next stage of selections. Photographs of this debrief are taken and posted publicly on twitter.

You are one of the successful eight participants who have made the first cut.

The activities don’t stop at morning skinfolds. One day you are given a map to the Brazilian embassy, along with a phrasebook and told you need to get there to fill out some paperwork and talk with important Brazilian dignitaries. You are in Italy, so you must direct your driver in Italian, whether you can speak it or not.

The next day you are dropped at a shopping centre with a set amount of cash and a time limit, instructed to source the most nutritious meal possible.

You sit written exams and complete assigned homework tasks, responding to complex hypothetical scenarios.

In another scenario, you are sent training on unfamiliar roads, with no idea of where or how long you must ride. As hail storms roll in and out, impromptu races are organised for you. Many of these are on dirt roads. You are riding your road bike.

Eventually you are stopped. You are told you are beginning an individual time trial. You ask for directions and you are told you’ll know when you cross the finish line and not before.

The time trial is a hilly 30km. The total ride is over six hours.

You and your fellow campers are split into groups. You have to race each other or play ‘games’ against each other. The winning team gets access to recovery facilities: plunge pools, compression equipment and massage. If you are in the losing group, you will wash everyone’s bikes and Rochelle’s car.

You are kept awake late into the night, every night, with meetings and emotionally draining debriefs and reflections. You are woken as early as 4:00 AM. At the most taxing stages of the camp, you are required to surrender your phone.

According to the staff and participants I spoke to, every scenario outlined above happened on the camp.

I’ve been told that a task for special forces military selection camps is to drop a team of soldiers into the middle of the ocean from a helicopter with nothing but the instructions ‘swim to that boat’. The boat slowly sails away from the swimmers. The participants are not told how long they will be left swimming in the ocean, but they would be allowed to reach the boat after six hours or so. They would not be given any encouragement nor any feedback on their performance.

If this sounds like the women’s selection camp, that’s because the methods I saw in Canberra borrow heavily from this model.

I got into contact with Paul Cale, a former commando who trains Australian special forces troops for combat and has worked with special forces in the USA. He collaborated with Barras and Martin to design the women’s cycling selection camp. He explained that the theory behind “silent running” – the process of not providing any positive or negative feedback to the athletes – is to teach and assess true determination and resilience. The women on the camp never got much as a thumbs up.

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This is not recruit training. What we’re looking for [in special forces] is tactical athletes. This is taking that methodology and making it relevant to the specific task of cycling in Europe. Other sports are starting to apply these methodologies to their specific needs, basketball and the combat sports in Australia. I would say cycling was the first.

— Paul Cale

If you think it sounds like a reality TV show, you’re not alone. That’s one avenue of commercialisation Rochelle Gilmore is pursuing. At the camp she had in a camera crew in tow, compiling a preview and pilot to potentially sell to TV networks. Television time is hard to come by in women’s cycling. This novel approach could conceivably break through that barrier.

The current funding model for the camp involves scientific research, being run in conjunction with the camp. The studies using the camp’s participants as subjects contribute to the running costs and make the enterprise viable.

If you think it sounds like a paternalistic torture camp, you’re not alone there either. There has been a swathe of criticism of the approach, generally focussing on the extreme nature of the methods used and differences between how men’s and women’s teams are selected.

I have found the loudest supporters of the camp to be the participants themselves, and not just the successful athletes but those who didn’t make it through. I decided to contact a number of the athletes, to find out about the challenges from the inside. However, with the nature of the selections that are still in process I decided to keep them anonymous. The anonymity was my decision. The riders were generally happy to be named.

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Some people [participating] think it’s a bit silly. I think if you go in with that mindset its harder. No other training or race is going to knock you down the way the camp does. It definitely makes you a lot stronger and you learn a lot about yourself and how you deal with different situations when you are tired. I think that they are improving it and making it more specific. I feel like if you make it through a camp like this you are ready to go over and try give Europe a crack.

— Participant, identity withheld.

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I was one of the only riders who the coaches didn’t know at all. It was my chance to prove myself without politics, preconceptions or luck, and I earned my scholarship fairly.

— Gracie Elvin, former camp selectee, now current Orcia-AIS rider, and two time Australian Road Race Champion.

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Change is always confronting. We have less inhibition in the women’s program because we have a less established culture. The sport is newer, it’s smaller, it’s still developing, so it’s like a big company and a small company. A small company can take the risks that a big company can’t. The same process would work equally well for men, absolutely. We didn’t invent it. We reshaped the methodology specifically for cycling, but we did not invent the concept of selection camp as it is. We borrowed it from special forces.
— Martin Barras

The details of the camp initially seem mysterious, but interviewing Gilmore, Barras, Martin and Cale, I learned there was no secrecy, only pride. On the issue of gender, Gilmore pointed out that for women their first time cycling in Europe means a lot of challenges that are not the same for men given the more established nature of the men’s professional cycling. Gilmore said the camp had to select the best team for the specific emotional and psychological challenges of the environment women face upon entering elite women’s racing in Europe.

Martin, who works with Australia’s best male cyclists too, suggested that the concept is unlikely to be adopted by men’s programs only because talented male athletes would simply walk out. He didn’t imagine they were likely to submit to a challenging program when there are plenty of other places they will be praised and pampered no matter what behaviour and attitude they display.

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You discover your own strengths and weaknesses. The coach gets incredible insight into the athletes and team. It is also a shared experience and that establishes a culture for the team to be effective when they go to Europe

— Paul Cale

With Martin I had the opportunity to go over the finer points of how the riders physiology and performance aspects are analyzed. Martin seems to be one of the real grandfathers of sports physiology worldwide. He stepped me through the approach to combining extensive lab testing with varied on-road performance parameters.

Martin and Barras are conducting controlled testing to score the riders power-to-weight outputs and then cross referencing those results with a number of on-road time trials, both flat and up-hill. The result is a sophisticated, multidimensional scoring that offers more detailed and reliable insight into each athlete’s abilities than any single physiological metric such as a Vo2 max test. All of that is before they even start looking at the mental attitude aspects, which they approach with a similar precision.

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Whenever you make a character assessment of a rider there’s an element of science to it. We do have grids and the grids are based on psychological studies that have been done so you say okay, this is how you frame the challenge and this is how you interpret the response to it. You try to remove the subjectivity as much possible, but it is never 100 percent. It’s taking that gut feeling out of it and trying to replace it as much as possible with certainty, that’s essentially what we’re doing here.
— Martin Barras

Despite my expectations, the camp was not a bunch of cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing gents putting the ladies through their paces. It’s a concept that has alarmed me for years now. From the outside, selection camp seemed founded on a philosophy informed by stereotypes of female athletes. It seemed too much like careless surveillance and oblivious torment of women for the purpose of weeding out potentially hysterical and insubordinate ones, like measuring “drama-per-hour” or “whingeing-per-kilometre” on top of watts-per-kilo.

That male cyclists only seem required to demonstrate racing performances whilst assessing women requires a contrived environment to assess their behaviour and decorum didn’t sit well with me. It unsettled me too that the domestic women’s teams and races were being considered such a basket case that the results of the National Road Series were being overlooked but a skills session around witches hats on a synthetic hockey field in Canberra was vital. I was disillusioned that a program of anointing a lucky few individuals with an artificial fast-track to the top of the sport was deemed more appropriate than resourcing grassroots teams to bridge the competitive divide themselves.

If I have gained anything from my all access tour of the facilities during selection camp, it is the knowledge that my suspicion and discomfort was valid but misdirected. The selection process for the Australian women’s development team is strange and extreme for sure, but I can see perfectly why it needs to be. Any Australian woman wanting to represent her country at the top level of international road cycling is faced with a cruel and brutal challenge. Camp aims to replicate the challenges these women will face.

I would still hope that as the camp process evolves the methodology will develop a greater sensitivity to the dehumanisation aspects and more effectively display the respect I could see its staff has for its athletes. The culture of the place was not one of cherry-picking the most docile bodies to mould into robots as I feared it could be. It was clear to me that what drove the whole thing was a mindset of scientific best-practice and a reverence for the exceptional toughness and determination to achieve in spite of adversity. After encountering the women tackling the camp themselves, it is also obvious to me that the selectors will find what they are looking for. I look forward to seeing the results.


About the author

Tom is a former pro cyclist, now Managing Pat’s Veg Cycling, a men’s development team. He also works for Drapac Professional Cycling, a men’s pro cycling team. Tom is passionate about women’s cycling and enjoys following and writing about women in the cycling world. He says “It’s weird that people think that’s weird.” Tom is based in Canberra where he is completing a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Sociology, Political Science, English and Anthropology at the Australian National University.

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