Interview with Lisa Jacobs

It is a cold bright winter morning when I finally meet Lisa Jacobs, ‘LJ’ as she is commonly known, in a little cafe in Kew, Melbourne. We had arranged to meet early on a Friday morning before Lisa headed off to work as an in-house lawyer. Little did the other cyclist know, as they enjoyed their tea and toast, that they were sitting beside an extremely accomplished racer, somebody who has the best interests of the sport at heart, and an extremely determined individual.

This was the first time Lisa and I had really spoken. Yes, we’d exchanged pleasantries at cyclocross races across Australia. As she had won many of those elite women’s races, I had congratulated her on her victories, especially when she won both the 2013 and 2014 Elite Women’s category at the Australian Cyclocross National Championships. But we had never had a good chat. Having read the articles she had written, and having seen her interviewed on cycling-related television programmes in her guise as a Cycling Australia board member and Chair of Cycling Australia Athletes Commission I had a pretty good idea of her background, but I was intrigued as to what made her tick. What motivated Lisa? As a lawyer myself, I understand the pressures of work and how difficult it is to train for cycling around work but Lisa takes things to another level.

Lisa first appeared on the domestic women’s cycling scene in 2007 and has been in the top tier of domestic racing, both road and cyclocross, ever since. There have been highs and lows, victories and injuries, a rollercoaster of a ride. In that time, Lisa has represented Australia in road racing and cyclocross.

What got you into serious bike racing?
I was always sporty through school and uni and had a natural interest in cycling. I started my legal career in London. During that time I got into dualthon (bike/run/bike) and multi-sport events. I had a professional licence to race dualthon and competed in a world duathlon championship. In 2007, I came back to Australia and joined a national talent identification program for road cycling being run out of South Australia.

I found I had an aptitude for tour racing and multi-day stage racing. I’ve got pretty good recovery and I can climb pretty well. And I love the strategy of tour racing.

In 2010 you got selected for the Australian National Women’s Road Team.
Yes, that involved a season of racing in Europe with the Australian Institute of Sport including the women’s Giro D’Italia. When I went over there I went straight from a lifestyle where I mainly worked and fit in training around work, into a full time athlete’s schedule with three months of hard core European racing. It was a big adjustment for me and I went into it too hard too early. By the time I got to the Giro I was so over-raced that it was terrible, it was the hardest thing I have ever done.

You got injured around that time.
I’ve had a few long-term injuries over my career ranging from nine months to a year. I would have liked to have gone back over to Europe for another season but the injuries put paid to that. The first time you do anything like that European season it is pretty tough, the second time you have benefitted from the first.

You survived the Australian Institute of Sport selection ‘Survival’ Camp in 2011.
Yes. It was a pretty ground-breaking project for the AIS at the time. They designed the course in conjunction with the SAS and made it properly about survival of the toughest. By the final day I was literally curled up on the floor of a transit van vomiting. They threw everything they could at you over ten days. There was no feedback over the whole time. It was modified after our camp as it was a bit extreme.

I made it to the final five out of 16 starters, and it’s probably one of the things I’m proudest of. It was a good experience of me because I love that kind of stuff. It was the second hardest thing that I have ever done after the Giro. At least you know when at the AIS chances are you won’t die because it’s bad PR for them. It was a great thing to be part of, something quite amazing, and I came out of it with a renewed confidence in what I was capable of doing.

The 2012 Women’s National Road Series got you back into racing.
After an injury-plagued 2011 , in early 2012 I got a call from Donna Rae-Szalinski (my long-time coach) telling me that she didn’t care what form I was in but she needed me to start the Tour of Mersey Valley in Tasmania. If I didn’t start the team couldn’t compete as they needed three riders. So I started, thought I wouldn’t finish, but I won. That started me loving riding again. The Victorian Institute Sport crew is like my second family. We had a really good year. I ended up second in the National Road Series rankings that year to Ruth Corset.

Your first cyclocross race was in June 2012.
I was in the mood for something different as I was training for the mountain bike Tour de Timor at the time and needed to improve my dirt skills. I picked up my cross bike the night before the first national series race, an alloy Apollo that retailed for $1500. Practised a few dismounts and then raced. I won that race and the overall 2012 National Cyclo Cross Series.

Your victory in the 2013 Elite Women’s Cyclocross Nationals was somewhat of a surprise.
In early 2013 I got pretty run down. Tour de Timor the previous year ended for me in the back of an ambulance and my body didn’t really recover over Summer, then in May I went overseas for a family holiday. I came back, tried to race a National Road Seres tour a day later and got taught an absolute lesson. I am very goal focussed so I decided I needed a goal. And I get enjoyment dreaming about the future. I was in terrible form but it usually doesn’t take me too long to find it and my goal was just to have a good race, so that whoever wanted to win that National Championship race would have to earn the victory. I wasn’t going in thinking I could win it, I just wanted to make sure that it would be a hard race. With Donna’s help I put a lot of work into preparation. Coming from being quite unfit in June to being in good form in August takes quite a lot of effort.

What about the infamous bike build?
I got the bike on the Thursday night before the Saturday race, and I had two great mechanics over at my place helping me, Ryan Moody and John Groves. It’s wasn’t a straightforward build as the bike was a prototype and quite unique in design. It took ages. At 11pm we had tubeless wheels exploding with sealant everywhere! On the Friday morning, the day before the race, I rode it for the first time and the seat post kept slipping. A friend who owned a bike shop raided all his bikes for seat post clamps, but because of the sloping top tube design it was difficult to find a clamp that gripped properly. We eventually found one, put on a lot of carbon paste and then duct taped the seat post for good measure. On the day of the race I only had dry tyres and the course was quite muddy. Doing the course inspection I bumped into Paul Larkin who loaned me a set of wheels with great FMB muds on them. Paul also gave the bike the once over. The way I see it, I had four different guys who rescued me before that race and if it hadn’t been for them I’d have been running out the back.

And the victory was your first Australian National Championship.
There was so much stress attached to the days before the race that to come out and win was such a surprise. And I hadn’t really won anything all year. It was a beautiful moment. You did look pretty happy at the end I comment. I went nuts, I’ve never gone that nuts after a race. Usually I’m quite reserved. Although I started realising now that there may be fewer and fewer victories ahead of me so I’ve started celebrating more.

You have an interest in how cycling is governed.
Yes, there have been some good opportunities to get involved in sports governance. When you get to the end of the sports institute process you think about transitioning and you want to stay in the sport as its been part of your life and you want to contribute. A lot of people go into coaching but with my background as a lawyer I have skills in governance. I become Chair of the Cycling Australia Athletes Commission which for the past year came with a seat on the Board of Cycling Australia. I like that I can use my skills as a lawyer for a positive effect for the sport.

What are your racing plans for the next couple of months?
All currently cyclocross. Next week I am going to China for the Qiansen Trophy. This is the second running of China’s only cyclocross race and the second time that I have raced. Last year I had a bad crash and broke my wrist early in the race, but finished (in 14th) because Grover was yelling at me that there was prize money down to 15th! I only found out afterwards that it was broken. I will be racing against some of the top American and European women.

Then I am off to the USA. First to a race in Sacramento then to CrossVegas. It is a race that I am very much looking forward to. It is a course that suits my skills unlike the extremely technical European courses, so I looking forward to having a great battle with some of world’s top female cyclocross racers including multiple US-National Champion Katie Compton and British Champion Helen Wyman. These girls are amazing riders and it’s a big ask just to stay in the bunch at that level but hopefully given that the dry courses in the US are a bit more like Australian courses, I’ll be able to have a crack.

Before all the travel starts I will have to make sure my new bike is completed and working. I suggest to Lisa that she thrives on having bike build deadlines, for example the 2013 Nationals and now this trip. She laughs. It will be finished. Another LJ goal accomplished.

(A couple of weeks after the interview, Lisa came second in the Qiansen Trophy, a Category 2 UCI cross race held near Beijing. She then travelled to the US to compete in CrossVegas, finishing an excellent 17th from a field of 60, including some of the world’s best female cyclocross racers. Lisa was only two minutes off the pace in the forty-minute race in the Las Vegas heat, despite a slipped pedal at the start and  feeling under the weather. When I say the world’s best I mean seven of the top-20 ranked UCI riders, including Katie Compton and Helen Wyman).

Lisa Jacobs