“There’s a saying in racing that has always stuck with me: even if you’re not riding well, as long as you look good then people will think you’re just having a bad day,” she says. “But if you look bad, and you’re riding badly, people will think you’re just bad.”
Welcome to the world of professional cycling, where immaculate kit and impassive facial expressions are all part of the mind games at play, men and women alike. In competition, everyone suffers, so racers look for any sign of weakness in their rivals to take strength for themselves. Cromwell, a charismatic Australian with a knack for the toughest races, the classics, knows that even the little things make the difference.
“It’s about making sure your socks are the right length, your helmet isn’t crooked, and so on. It’s like when you know you’re in shape, you’re trim so you go out there feeling more confident.”
So what happens if that confidence helps you make the podium for a champagne moment? Is there a pressure to look good, even if you’ve just given your all and that should be enough? “Yes! I’ll think: ‘Oh my god how am I going to not look so terrible?!’” she says. “I’ll give my face a quick wipe, maybe brush my hair… It’s always tricky to look good on the podium as the photographers shoot from below too which gives you a double chin.” Nobody said glory and glamour is easy.
Belgium is where Cromwell has earned her best results and she seems entirely at home here, gliding around the endless cycle paths in her distinctive low riding style. Her compatriots from the Orica-AIS women’s team are also sitting in the café (“it serves coffee as good as back home”) and ‘Tiff’ offers a friendly wave. She could easily be riding with them and feel very comfortable in an all-Australian setup, but is forging her own path with the multi-national CANYON//SRAM collective. She hopes it will help her stand out enough for Olympic selection.
Cycling is an individual sport that hinges on teamwork, and riders have to wear the kit provided by the team, but Cromwell catches the eye for the way she wears it. Whether complementing her Rapha outfit with a colourful or stripy scarf, ear rings, necklace (“Tiffany & Co, of course, my initials are the same – make me an ambassador!”) or multi-coloured nails, she’s a silk smooth rouleur all year round, even on Sunday spins to the café.
“Cycling is a hard sport, but it can be easy too. Ok, at the top level it’s going to be hard and fast but that’s different, a tough beauty. If you go for a nice ride with your friends, it’s no harder than going for a jog. One of the best days out for me is when I’m in Adelaide for example, when it’s beautiful and sunny and I can pick up my bike and ride out to a café.”
“It [dressing smartly] is a way of expressing yourself. I studied fashion and am quite a creative person so I try and bring some of that through to cycling. I’ve been trying for years and years to combine fashion with cycling. Imagine a Chanel cycling team – I’d retire if we had that!”
For now though, she’ll have to content herself with the Rapha + Liberty collaboration, which enters its second year with a new houndstooth print design on a range of performance kit. “It’s a really cool concept, because for a long time Rapha was always very classic, very understated, but for the women’s side this is more print-based and interesting. I’m a fan.”
The following morning, Cromwell takes to the demanding roads and cobbled climbs of Flanders, sprinting to an excellent third place at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race behind world champion and good friend Lizzie Armitstead. A quick fix of her hair and she’s up on the podium spraying the champagne. Confidence, strong legs, and the liberty of looking good – that’s Tiff.