‘Commentary is a bit of closure for me’: Gracie Elvin on trading bike for mic
In switching from racing to commentating, the two-time Aussie champion has learned a lot about herself.
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The following story was written from an interview with Gracie Elvin that was recorded for the Freewheeling Podcast. We recommend you listen to the full interview at the bottom of this article.
At the end of 2020, two-time Australian champion Gracie Elvin hung up her wheels after a decade-long career as a professional cyclist. In the year or so that followed she took a much-needed step back from the sport and finished her university degree – a Bachelor of Applied Science – but now she’s back in cycling in a big way.
Since the start of 2022 the 33-year-old has been working as a cycling commentator, principally with Australia’s long-time cycling broadcaster, SBS. When we catch up on stage 5 of the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, she’s been on the road for around five weeks with an SBS crew of 10, travelling around France covering the men’s and women’s Tours.
She’s spent most of her time doing rider interviews that are dropped into SBS’s live coverage, plus live pieces-to-camera about the day’s racing. But as of yesterday’s stage 4 of the Tour de France Femmes, she’s now on live commentary duties, alongside Matt Keenan and former hour record holder Bridie O’Donnell.
After a few appearances for SBS through 2021, Elvin’s only really been doing live commentary since the Bay Crits in January 2022.
“That was a really nice way to warm up and for me to get rid of those pre-race nerves, do Nationals, and then I got to a lot of the Classics,” she says. “It’s just awesome to be able to commentate Tour of Flanders and [Paris-]Roubaix – it’s really fun. I get goosebumps. I get nervous watching the riders because I love that feeling of being in the race. Even if I’m just a couch peloton member, my heart rate goes up when I watch sprint finishes or exciting finales of races.
“I don’t know if it’s like an empathy thing. I just put myself in that moment and I want someone to do well or I just want to see how it unfolds. And when you’re in the commentary booth and you’re trying to keep a level voice and talk your way through it, that’s a whole new challenge for me.”
Elvin is glad she didn’t step right into commentary right after finishing her racing career. She needed time to process everything that had come before.
“I definitely would not have been ready to do the Classics as a commentator in 2021,” she says. “I didn’t completely remove myself from the sport and I never wanted to, but I can see why that is so tempting for a lot of riders that retire. You just need a break. You need to grieve.
“It’s a huge grieving process to finish something that was so intense in your life. I was an athlete for my whole adult life. That’s all I did was cycling and it was a huge transition. I’m really glad that I got to retire on my own terms, but there’s still so much you need to process.
“Watching Nationals for the first time and not being there was weird. And then watching Flanders was hard. I watched all the races, but there was a lot of emotion in doing that that it would not have come across well if I was in a commentary position.
“When I watched Roubaix, the emotion hit me really hard in 2021. And I think I went and had a cry in the shower that evening because I always wanted to do that race and I just didn’t quite get there because it got cancelled when I was supposed to do it. So I’m glad that I gave myself that time before putting pressure back on myself to perform again, because that’s what we’re doing. We’re also performing just in a different way.”
When Elvin did dive into race commentary, she realised quite quickly that she enjoyed it. Perhaps because of the significant parallels with bike racing.
“I got a bit of a buzz out of it and I realized I was missing that buzz because I just enjoy the pressure,” she explains. “I enjoyed the race nerves in some ways when I was a rider. And when you go from having race nerves 50 plus days a year and thriving off pressure more than 50 days a year, and then nothing, it’s a big drop off emotionally, probably chemically.
“I can completely understand why a lot of athletes of all sports go into a hole and into depression. And and for sure, I felt some symptoms of some mental health things to do with depression. And it’s not because I was sad – I was a little bit sad, but it’s chemical as well.
“I was addicted to adrenaline. I was addicted to pressure. I was addicted to progress. And when you’re not progressing anymore, you don’t have goals anymore and you’re not getting highs and your ego is not being stroked, I guess, because you’re not wearing a special jersey anymore, it’s a big drop off.”
Elvin says that working with SBS this year, commentating on the biggest races on the calendar, has been good for her ego.
“It was actually nice to feel a bit special again, be on TV, get to talk about racing and and realize, ‘Oh, I’m an expert and people want to know what my expert opinion is,’” she says. “I’m in the public eye again and I like that, but I also know that I need to make sure that that’s not something that I’m only chasing. I want to keep trying to stay grounded and have time away from the spotlight as well, because, it’s addictive, but it’s not so good for you. But I think if you manage it, then it can be a lot of fun.”
As a racer who was “addicted to progress”, stepping into the commentary booth offers plenty of opportunities to learn and improve.
“I’ve got some really great people helping me progress in this new role,” she says. “They’ve not overwhelmed me with everything I need to do well, they just kind of let me do what I’m doing naturally and then they’ll just give me a tip here or there every day or every time that I get the chance to commentate. And then I can work on that.
“I might go back and listen to what I did [on air] and see if I can pick up on anything and then ask for feedback from other people that have been doing this for a really long time. And they do know exactly what to pick up on and what to change. [I’m] just trying not to overwhelm myself, but really grateful that they’re not overwhelming me as well; that they’re letting me learn in my own time, but giving me some really great structured feedback that I can keep working on.”
One thing she’s working on is her confidence, reminding herself that she deserves to be in the role of expert commentator and that she is adding value to the broadcast.
“[I’ve been] having a few people over the last few months saying repetitively, ‘You’re the expert. People want to know what you think,’’ she says. “Having that confidence to be like, ‘OK, it’s true.’ Instead of feeling like, ‘I was just a female cyclist, not that well known. Why would anyone want to hear from me?’ to then being like, ‘Oh, I actually was one of the best in my sport for a really long time. And I’ve done all of these races bar the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix. I actually do have something to say.'”
Elvin says that she lost a lot of her confidence in the final years of her racing career.
“I don’t want to be too negative about this, but in some ways I felt a bit gaslit in my position on the team,” she says of the final phase of her career with the team now known as BikeExchange-Jayco. “Not at a huge level, but there were some feelings there that I just wasn’t happy about at the end of my career. And so I left with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth in that way, and it really decreased my confidence in myself because I thought that I was good tactically, and then I was always questioning ‘well, maybe I’m not’.
“Those thoughts happened to me quite a lot for a few years at the end of my career and to walk away from a very long career in women’s cycling and feel like ‘well, maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought physically or tactically’, it’s not a very nice way to finish. And so commentary in some ways is actually a little bit of closure for me because there’s a lot of people saying ‘I really enjoyed how you talked through that moment or that race’ and to have the producers here going ‘that was great’.
“So I’m getting all this confidence back in myself and my abilities that is helping me with the grieving process of not being an athlete anymore.”
Another thing Elvin is trying to work on is her delivery.
“I love listening to Matt and Bridie and Gerro [Simon Gerrans],” she says. “They’ve got so much passion in their voice. And I think I’m not so good at expressing my emotions so I’m really trying hard to work on my delivery and my enthusiasm and my passion. Because that’s how I feel, but maybe it just doesn’t come across as well as it could.
“So for me, it’s working on my very introverted nature to be a bit more outward, because I love racing and I want to bring that excitement to viewers and young women that are going to watch these races and hear our voices. And I’ve actually had a bit of voice coaching through SBS so that’s actually been really cool to work on certain things and energy and how I’m saying things. So that’s kind of fun.”
Before Elvin steps back into the commentary tribune to call stage 5 of the Tour de France Femmes for SBS, I’m keen for her thoughts on the race as a whole. She raced at a time of significant growth for women’s cycling, and that growth has only continued since she retired. So what does it mean to see that growth first-hand, as a member of the media at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes?
“I was actually really emotional on Sunday morning [before stage 1] and actually a couple of days before then it started to hit me,” she says. “The emotion and the gravity of it actually hit me personally because I knew I wasn’t going to be lining up.
“I got to go and watch the [final men’s] stage in Paris in 2013 and I was in the stands and it was this beautiful golden-light evening, much like the one this year. It was a great event and it just hit me, this wave of sadness and anger that I wasn’t on that side of the fence and I never would be able to just because of my gender. And it almost ruined that day for me.
“Literally one year later, I was lining up for La Course on that start line wearing my national champion’s jersey. And it’s come a long way since. It’s taken too long to get a Tour. But we’re here now and it’s amazing and getting to interview mostly the Aussies, but quite a few riders on the start line on Sunday, I was part of their excitement and I was so grateful to still be there even though I wasn’t racing.
“You can still hear some of the emotion in my voice but yeah, it’s just wonderful and it’s going to be a big turning point for women’s sport. I’m glad to still be a part of it in some of the storytelling now on this side of the fence.”