A ruptured spleen and long COVID – Alyssa Polites’ neo-pro year was a doozy

The young Aussie is hoping for better luck in 2024 as she joins the Liv AlUla Jayco development team.

Polites (centre) after winning Australia’s U23 women’s road title in 2022.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 18.12.2023 Photography by
Con Chronis
More from Matt +

The 2023 season was Alyssa Polites’ first in the professional ranks. The now-20-year-old Australian leapt straight into the WorldTour with Jayco AlUla after an impressive few years spent excelling on both the road and track in the junior ranks.

In 2021 she won the U19 women’s road race and time trial at Aussie Road Nationals, the road race by nearly three minutes (in a 70 km race) and the time trial by a minute (over 19 km). In 2022, at just 18, she finished third in the combined U23/elite women’s road race at Aussie Road Nationals, taking out the U23 title. On the track, her impressive results at a national level earned her a spot in Australia’s team pursuit squad for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

Fast forward to 2023, and Polites’ first season as a road professional was a brutal introduction. First there was a bout of illness that took her many months to recover from, and then, when she got that sorted, she ruptured her spleen at the Tour de l’Avenir, ending her season early. 

This week Polites caught up with Escape from her home in Melbourne, where she spoke about the challenges of this year, what she learned along the way, and what she’s hoping for in 2024 with the Liv AlUla Jayco development team. Throughout our interview Polites exuded constant positivity, smiling throughout and laughing often, despite the challenges she’s faced in the past 18 months. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Matt de Neef: Your season finished early and you’ve been back in Australia for a while. What have you been up to since you got home?

Alyssa Polites: Yeah, I had an accident in Tour de l’Avenir and ruptured my spleen. I got told I was gonna have three months completely off the bike. So that would have been first of December but yeah, came back here and the specialist said “Nup, you’re ready to go. Get back on the bike and go full gas if you want.”

I’ve been training for nearly two and a half months now, just trying to get back into it. It’s been a bit of a rough year. So yeah, I kind of want a clean slate into next season.

I want to get back to that L’Avenir crash in a bit, but can you tell me what else has made 2023 a tough year for you?

I got COVID, like two weeks before Commonwealth Games last year [in July 2022. Despite being selected she wasn’t able to race – ed.] and just never really recovered from it. I really struggled with the health side of things. That kind of got all sorted maybe mid year this year.

I just wasn’t finishing races; in training I wasn’t adapting to anything. Only in l’Avenir was I actually finding my feet *laughs*. So yeah, it has been a bit of a tough year but that’s alright. I haven’t had many setbacks in my career. So it was about time I had one.

What were you hoping for coming into your first pro season?

First of all, just to finish races would have been nice *laughs*. But yeah, I didn’t really have many expectations, just due to the fact that, coming into the season, I wasn’t really feeling myself. So I didn’t really know how it was gonna play out. Obviously, deep down, I was hoping I’d find my feet a lot sooner and get a bit more comfy in the bunch and actually be able to do my job.

I think next season will be a good place for me to just find my feet again now that I’m in the Conti team. I really missed being in the pointy end of races. It would be nice to hopefully be there again.

How did you find the move to Europe, setting up in Girona and all that?

Last year, I moved out of home for the first time, to Adelaide, which really helped. And as you know, a lot of Aussies live in Girona. So actually getting settled there was probably the easiest part of this year. It felt like a home away from home.

The girls in the team were super supportive. The majority of them lived in Girona this year. I really enjoy Europe. I don’t want to live here [Australia] for the majority of the year. So if I can stay over there, that would be ideal. 

Were there people in the team that were particularly helpful or supportive this year, either in races or away from the racing?

Yeah, Jess Allen was a huge mentor. She’s retired this year and will be DSing our team next year which is really exciting. She was really helpful, through the injury as well. She was always by my bedside and just being such a loving, caring friend.

Nina Kessler, she’s moving teams next year, but she was a huge role model as well. She’s got so much experience just like Jess. We’d rock up to races and she’d be like, “Yep, done this race, what, 17 times. This is what’s gonna happen.” It was nice to follow their wheels and just kind of learn the ropes off them a bit.

And, yeah, obviously Ruby [Roseman-Gannon], Alex [Manly] and Georgia Baker, even Amber [Pate] and Georgie Howe – those two, this was our first year as pros. And yeah to have kind of the track squad there [Manly and Baker] kind of gave it a bit of familiarity in the team. So yeah, I think it was a really good team of girls and lots of role models there.

A screenshot of an Instagram post, with three cyclists standing side by side in the image and supportive comments to the right.
Polites (centre), flanked by Jess Allen (right), and Amber Pate (left) in a shot from Polites’ Instagram.

How are you going balancing road and track at the moment? Do you think you’ll keep doing both?

I’d love to keep the balance. Obviously, this year, things didn’t go my way. So hopefully I might try to do some track races next year. Obviously, it’s an Olympic year. I’ve already mentally and with the coaches as well, the squad, just said that I want to really focus on road just because I want to get some security and find my feet again. So Olympics is out of the picture for me, which was a little bit shattering at the time. But yeah, gotta move on – that’s professional sport.

Hopefully, there is a Comm Games here in Australia. I don’t know if that’s still going ahead *laughs*. But that would be my next goal, in terms of track.

Do you enjoy one discipline more than the other?

I really love both. I love the chaoticness and the pressure in track. That’s kind of where I thrive sometimes. With road, obviously there’s not a lot of predictability. And things aren’t timed, and you can’t really set goals in that sense. Whereas with track you can kind of set those individual goals.

Obviously, I’m pretty young, so I’ve got to kind of figure out how I am going to balance both in the future. But it’s definitely something I want to keep up with and pursue my goals and dreams in both.

What do you think you learned this year, either about racing or about yourself?

I called this year the character-building year. I consider myself a pretty resilient person and I hope I have a positive outlook, or seem to have.

I think I learned how to roll with the punches this year, how to pick myself up again and just keep trying to have a crack, what was working for me, what wasn’t working for me, how to read my body as well. I think it was good to get to know myself in the hardships. I’ve had a pretty cruisy junior career into my first year of elites mid last year. So it was about time I had a bit of a dip *laughs*.

Do you think you – and women’s racing generally – would benefit from a better bridge between the junior ranks and elite? Do you feel like more U23 racing would be a good thing?

Yeah, I mean, if you asked me early last year, I would be like, “Nah, I don’t need one. I’m swimming.” But now, yeah, to see like, “Ooh, this is really hard …”

Yeah, in hindsight, I wish there was a bridging step. Being thrown in the deep end as a WorldTour rider in your first professional season is a little bit challenging and kind of overwhelming.

But to be able to do l’Avenir, that’s probably my first-ever under 23 race, and probably the only one on the calendar for the road season for the women – that was really special. And it was really nice to see who I’m actually [against] in my age group, because I literally had no idea. You see riders that are on the start line for other all-inclusive races for the women’s elite, and you see them there at the U23 startline, and you’re like, “Oh, woah, like, you’re really good.” *laughing* “I thought you were elite. But no, you’re really young.”

I think there needs to be more under 23 racing. Just to see where you kind of sit in that age group is also nice. And yeah, just have a bit more depth in our age group.

Six female riders in Australian colours line up at the start of the women's Tour de l'Avenir.
Polites (third from left) at the 2023 Tour de l’Avenir with the Australian team. (Image: Instagram)

OK, do you mind if I ask about the Tour de L’Avenir crash? How did that happen and what was the recovery like from that?

It was stage three, we were on good old French roads, and we were about to enter into a town. And I had Neve Bradbury and all the other girls on my wheel, and I wanted to get her out of the chaos. It was kind of like the last opportunity to move up the bunch.

I kind of sent it on the outside, and all of a sudden, the road just kind of narrowed slightly, and these gutters showed up out of nowhere, and they’re like, squared off. So I came up right next to it. I was like, “I’ve just gotta keep it straight, and hopefully no one pushes into my wheel.” And unfortunately, that did happen.

My bike literally just stopped underneath me and I catapulted. There was this culvert ditch – it was grassy, luckily – but it was this curved culvert ditch and I just went bang, and I landed on my ribs. And at first I thought I just winded myself. I was like, “Ah, give me a couple of minutes. I’ll be fine to get back on.” And then the adrenaline started to wear off and I was like, “Oh, no, I’ve done something.”

At first I thought it was my ribs. I was like, “Oh, I’ve done my ribs.” No one was talking English so I was trying to tell the French doctors “Yep, done my ribs. No good. I think I have to be stretchered out of this ditch”, because it was literally the height of me, this ditch. And they wanted me to climb out. And I was like, “Oh no, I can’t. I can’t get out.” 

So I went off to hospital and then waited there for maybe three hours until I got my first lot of scans. Then I got my results, maybe two hours after, so five hours sitting in hospital, in the middle of nowhere. And they said, “Oh, you’ve fractured your spleen.” That was their Google translation. I was like, “Oh, pretty sure that’s an organ. I think you mean ruptured.”

At this point I wasn’t on any morphine. I was just kind of lying there in a lot of pain. They sent me into ICU and they kept coming in and out of the room. “You’ll only be here for two weeks and then you can go home to Australia, no worries.” And I was “OK, I can do that. That’s easy.” And then they came back in again. “Nope, five weeks you’ll have to stay in Europe.” “OK, I can do that. That’s like a month and a bit. Should go pretty quickly. Everyone’s not starting their offseason until the end of that. That’s fine.”  And then they came back to me again, and they’re like “Nup, you’ve got to stay here for three months.” And I was like “I can’t do that!”

Long story short, I was in France for two weeks, in ICU, then I was in Spain for another week in hospital. And then I finally got home [to Girona] two weeks after I was discharged. It was a bit of a wild ride. But anyway, I can tick riding in an ambulance and being hospitalised off my list.

You’re studying at the moment right? I think I read that you’re doing a double degree in Exercise and Sports Science and a Bachelor of Business in Sports Management? How do you manage to do that while racing and training?

Yeah, that’s at Deakin University. They’ve been really flexible and accommodating with studying abroad.

I try to kind of chip away at one to two subjects at a time. Deakin does trimesters, which is pretty handy. Especially when I had this injury, I didn’t really know how the recovery was going to be. So I picked up a subject during summer school. And yeah, that’s kept me busy.

It can get a little bit challenging at times, especially when you’ve got bigger race blocks, or even training blocks. I just try to work ahead and give myself a two-week buffer in content work and it seems to work for me.

There’s a few practical subjects. So I’ll have to probably defer when I’ve only got them left. I’ll probably have to wait to do that at home [in Australia]. So I’ll have to talk with the uni about that. But I reckon I’ve got another year or two of online subjects. 

So you mentioned you’re with the Liv AlUla Jayco Continental team next year. After such a difficult year this year, what are you hoping for next season?

There’s a few young girls … Mackenzie Coupland, one of the Aussies – it’ll be nice to have her as a teammate. She’s super strong. But yeah, I’m hoping to kind of play a bit of a mentorship role.

Coming from a bit of a hardship in my first year as a WorldTour rider, maybe I can shine some light and perspective with the girls. Obviously they want to get a WorldTour spot as well in the future. Also, personally to find my feet and be a racer again *laughs*. I really want to be there in the pointy end. So just trying to experiment, see what type of races actually suit me, and hopefully find some success somewhere would be nice.

It’s kind of a guinea pig team this year. So yeah, it should be exciting and a good, fresh start.

A side-on shot of Alyssa Polites at the Le Samyn one-day race.
Polites in action at Le Samyn earlier this year.

Do you have an idea of what your 2024 calendar will look like?

I just got my calendar and my first tour is Tour of Normandy [a four-stage UCI 2.1 race held in France in mid March – ed.] I think I’ve got 37 race days so that should be exciting. 

I assume you’d like to get back to the WorldTour team? 

Yeah, the purpose of this development team is to get you ready for the WorldTour team. So yeah, I definitely want to be there again. It was such a privilege to be there. So I obviously want to get back there again and prove my spot.

But like I said, I’ll try to find my feet again next season and slowly but surely, when the time is right, I’ll be there again.

Will we see you at the Aussie summer races over the next month or so?

Ah, no, I regretted doing Nationals this year. I don’t think I’m ready for Nationals next year. So yeah, I just kind of want a clean slate into next year, really kind of hustle with training. I’ve got my training camp in late January in the Netherlands so I kinda need to be in form for that. And yeah, go from there. Just really prioritise next season’s racing.

What did you think of this story?