Liz Tadich – Our First Rainbow Warrior

By Jamie Jowett

Spain is renowned for its bullfighting, which includes the notion that it is their valour which define the combatants. The bull endures a noble death at the hands of the matador, who in turn is made great only by the honour and pride of the bull. It is the combatants’ courage and spirit which makes the bullfight great.

In Spain in 1997, Liz Tadich became the first Australian woman to win a medal at the World Road Cycling Championships. In a race remembered for the way that she took it on again and again, Liz won the silver medal in a finish that required a photo to separate the first three placegetters. Liz not only emerged with both honour and a place in Australian cycling history, and paved the way for more Aussie women medallists to follow (and hopefully a couple more this October).

Prior to the 1997 Worlds, Liz Tadich’s racing year had started in Europe with impressive performances for a French team in races like the Tour l’Aude. Meeting up with the AIS team of Charlotte White, Lynn Nixon, Juanita Feldham and Kathy Watt, and coach James Victor, Liz raced the women’s Giro d’Italia Donne and Tour de (France) Feminin.

Set a programme of races and intense training focussed on shorter power efforts, Liz says “I was a rider that performed best at races that had power climbs of only 1-2 km’s and I also like hard races“. With basic honesty and without my own ‘the older I get, the better I was’ attitude, Liz says, “I couldn’t match the world’s best on the longer climbs or sprint with your champs like Ina Teutenberg. But I was respectable at both”.

As Coach and Director at the AIS, James Victor played a large part in the success of Australian women’s cycling, and they later became the number one ranked nation in 2003. He said, “we travel to the home of cycling in Europe, the hardest competition in the world, with no misunderstandings or misapprehensions and a clear direction and purpose. We don’t just hope that we might be successful”.

Liz gives James Victor plenty of credit, along with Andrew Logan before him. “James is fairly quiet and strong willed, and he really fought for the funding and support for the women’s programme, which was usually overshadowed by the men’s”, Liz says.

By race day Liz was in top mental shape as well, and she says, ”James believed that I was capable of doing well on this day and had said this. He made you believe”.

“My form in the lead up races was good. I was placing in races and able to go with the major moves. This had a huge effect on my self belief and even my coaches and support staff belief in my ability to do well at the Worlds. I think that is half the mission”, Liz says.

1999 Australian Womens World Champs road team (Liz in middle)

Race day was also her 21st birthday, and the San Sebastian course was looking like an ideal birthday present. After a flat start through town, each 20km lap climbed at about 1:20 into the hills and had a sharp power climb about 1½ km’s long, before descending back down.

Just as a bullfight is essentially a three act ritual, where in the first act mounted picadors stab at the bull with lances, the 108km 1997 Worlds race followed suit. The first 70 km’s progressed with the first twenty or so girls working over the main field, ensuring it would not survive. Liz’s Aussie team mates Juanita Feldham and Charlotte White worked hard early to make it her day.

The next act, the matador enters the bull ring, unarmed but accompanied by two men, whom he protects from sight with his cape while they hurl harpoons into the bull’s neck.

On the second last lap, with 35km’s to go, Liz attacked the field on a steady climb. She was shortly joined by two others, Anka Erlank of South Africa and Cindy Pieters of Belgium. Both strong riders in good form, they worked together and stayed away for several kilometres. “I gave them lots of encouragement, because I knew this was a genuine chance”, Liz says.

After a while three more riders joined them, Liz’s biggest threats – Alessandra Cappellotto of Italy, Catherine Marsal of France and Jolante Polikevicte of Lithuania. As expected, the pace cranked up another notch. Big strong turns were going on the front, and the screws tightened. Before long, the effort to stay away had cracked the original breakaway trio, and Liz and her two companions were out the back, dropping wheels. Refusing to let it go, Liz remembers shouting desperately at her two companions, “Come on! We’re out of the medals!”

This was a defining moment, and Liz had to dig deep. Someone was talking in Liz’s head, “you’re only a minute away from cracking, so you just need to hang on one minute more…”

She didn’t crack, she hung on. In fact, Liz lifted not only herself but the other two and they managed to get back on. The bunch of six looked at one other as each rolled turns on the front, knowing the winner was amongst them. Meanwhile the rain came, but the peloton would not.

With 3km’s to go, on a steep descent in the rain, Anka Erlank crashed. Liz just managed to stay upright, which was lucky because she agreed to go on dry tyres that she said “were fast and made me feel like I was floating”. Nerves were fraying as the pressure piled up.

In the third act of a bullfight, the matador re-enters alone, with a cape and sword and baits the bull to charge, again and again, until the animal is so weary that he bows his massive head, and the swordsman, elaborately, stabs him in the neck.

Cappellotto had stopped taking her turns on the front and it became a cat and mouse game.  “I ended up on the front, but was worried because I didn’t think we could afford to play this game”, Liz told me. “I stuck as far to the right as I could watching and waiting for the move”.

Liz didn’t have long to think about it, because Cappellotto dropped to the back of the bunch then hit them from behind with a withering sprint. “She got a few lengths before the bunch even knew”, Liz said.

Once more, Tadich dug deep and responded. Legs screaming, the young Aussie attacked Cappellotto. Behind her Marsal came hard as well.

The three hit the line in a blanket finish and the result was so tight that no one knew who had won. Aussie coach Dave Sanders grabbed Liz, hugging her in joy thinking she had won.

But just like in a bullfight, Cappellotto had put her opponents to the sword, plunging the escotada, which deals the bloodless death blow. Hers was the decisive move, and Alessandra Cappellotto won in 2 hours 44 minutes at an average of 39km’s/hr. All three placegetters were awarded the same time.

When asked about this year’s Women’s Worlds Road Race, Liz nominates Aussies Ruth Corset and Vicky Whitelaw as good chances.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of parallels to another young Aussie hopeful, who is about the same age as Liz was when she made history.

Tiffany Cromwell, our next Rainbow warrior?