A shadow over the summer of cycling

Melissa Hoskins will be farewelled today in her hometown of Perth.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 17.01.2024 Photography by
Matt de Neef & Cor Vos
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Georgie Howe is getting herself ready for stage 2 of the Santos Tour Down Under when a team staffer calls her over. Howe extends her left arm as her colleague cuts a piece of black electrical tape from the roll, then wraps it snugly around Howe’s bicep. By the time the stage starts in Glenelg, all of Howe’s Liv AlUla Jayco teammates are wearing black armbands as well. The Australian team will do the same for all stages of the women’s Tour Down Under.

As the summer of cycling has unfolded, the tragedy of Mel Hoskins’ death has lingered in the background. While bike racing has been the central focus, Hoskins’ passing has been the subject of countless hushed conversations. It’s come up in rider interviews, the mood changing drastically from the joy of success to the heartbreak of tragic loss. That shift was no more evident than at the Australian Road Nationals, less than a week after Hoskins’ death.

“It’s been a really dark week, I think. Really heavy,” Grace Brown said after winning the Australian time trial title. Brown had just spent several minutes telling reporters about the satisfaction of her fourth title, before a reporter’s question prompted her to shift gears abruptly and share her grief. “I think the cycling community is just struggling to comprehend it really. It was a nightmare incident.

“Personally, I’m just super sad for Mel and her family; [I’m] really thinking of them. And yeah, it’s just a shadow over the summer of cycling, to be honest.”

The grief was equally palpable after Luke Plapp’s win in the time trial later that same day. After answering questions about his victory, he too was asked for his reaction to Hoskins’ passing. Plapp responded by beckoning the nearby Jess Allen, recently retired pro turned Liv AlUla Jayco press officer. Allen stepped into the media huddle and said, simply, “Yeah, I think as a team, it’s a sensitive subject.”  

As the interview ended and Allen and Plapp walked away, Allen was in tears. Both Allen and Hoskins are from Perth and both combined track and road commitments during their time as professionals.

On the Sunday morning of Road Nationals, with the elite and U23 women’s race about to get underway, the peloton paused to remember Hoskins. Commentator Kate Bates offered the following, touching tribute:

“Mel was a beacon of strength, determination and bravery. Her vibrant spirit and resilience inspired everyone around her. She brought a unique light-heartedness to our lives, making our burdens feel a little lighter, and at times, literally dancing through the clouds to get to sunshine.

“Mel was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a very-much-loved friend, and beyond this she was an Olympian, a world-beater, and one of the best athletes Australian cycling has and will ever see. Her legacy will not fade as her name remains etched in our record books.

“As we stand here on the cusp of this race, let us take a moment of silence to remember Mel. Let her unyielding spirit inspire us to push forward, to strive for excellence, and to cherish every moment of this race and of our lives. Please join me in a minute of silence to honour the unforgettable Mel Hoskins.”

At that point on the Sunday morning of Nationals, with racing about to start, the main street of Buninyong would normally be abuzz with the sound of music, commentary, and excited fans. By contrast, the silence that followed Bates’ speech was eerie and near-absolute. 

Most of a week later, the feeling was much the same over in Hoskins’ adopted hometown of Adelaide, at the women’s Tour Down Under. With stage 1 about to begin in Hahndorf, venue announcer Dave McKenzie offered a short tribute to Hoskins and invited all those gathered to pay their respects.

Like in Buninyong, the frantic energy of the stage start gave way to near perfect silence. The only sound was that of a TV moto idling as its passenger filmed the riders on the startline ahead of the day’s action.

While the media’s approach to the tragedy has been mostly respectful and tasteful, it’s been uncomfortable to watch. If riders have been speaking to the press voluntarily about Hoskins, Escape hasn’t seen it. Instead, it’s only when prompted by journalists that they’ve offered their thoughts. 

The quotes have been short and sparing, and with good reason. Riders aren’t just being asked to comment on their latest race, or some other topic within the sport – they’re being asked to comment on the death of a fellow rider. In many cases, they’re being asked to comment on the death of a former teammate, and/or long-time friend.

Indeed, Hoskins’ death has served both as a reminder of the tight-knit nature of the Australian cycling community, and of the impact she had on so many. That will surely be reflected later today when Hoskins is farewelled at a funeral service in Fremantle, Western Australia.

At times, the media’s approach to Hoskins’ death has felt intrusive and ill-considered, not least at the pre-race press conference for the women’s Tour Down Under. That conference was marred by repeated questions from the mainstream press about Hoskins’ death and its impact on the riders in attendance. It was the subject of the first question of the afternoon, which assistant race director – and Hoskins’ former track and road teammate – Annette Edmondson answered with aplomb.

“It’s a extremely tragic event,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of people here that knew her; a lot of national riders, a lot of international riders. She lived here [in Adelaide], she trained here. And it’s a really, really sad few weeks for us as a cycling community.

“But we are going to spend that minute [of silence before the first stage] remembering her and yeah, we’re here for a race. And we have a lot of professional women out here who are here to do a job. We’re really looking forward to three big stages for our ladies.”

A follow-up question later in the press conference was directed towards Amanda Spratt, also a former teammate of Hoskins’.

“Yeah, I mean, I think it’s, it’s tragic what’s happened,” she said. “I was obviously teammates with Mel for a number of years. I’m glad that we get the minute to honour her before the race.”

When pushed on what the minute of silence would mean to her, Spratt was unable to answer through her tears. Instead it was Edmondson who answered, summing up the last few weeks perfectly.

“It’s a really, really hard situation for everyone to be in,” Edmondson said, coming to Spratt’s aid. “I think we just want to remember Mel for her amazing personality. She was a light and she shone it across so many people.”