‘Happy head, happy legs’ – Grace Brown’s holistic route to the Tour

A mid-season trip back home has left the Australian refreshed ahead of the biggest race of the year.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 22.07.2023 Photography by
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Grace Brown doesn’t mind doing things a little differently. At a time when more and more of the women’s peloton is embracing altitude training ahead of the biggest races, Brown has taken a different approach.

In the lead-up to this week’s Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, the 31-year-old FDJ-Suez rider didn’t seek out thinner air in Andorra or Livigno or Teide – instead, she left Europe behind entirely, and flew back home to Australia for a few weeks. It’s there that she finds it easiest to reset ahead of a big goal like the Tour.

“My home is still Australia and my support network is still there,” she told Escape Collective in an interview back in May. “That’s where I get my energy from so when I’m over here [in Europe] for a long period of time, yeah, I start to feel the toll.

“Last year I did the same thing – I came back to Australia and it was really nice re-joining the team and having good energy for the second part of the season.”

When we last spoke, after the Vuelta a Burgos in May, Brown seemed ready for a break. Speaking to her on Saturday in Clermont-Ferrand, on the eve of the Tour de France Femmes, she seems more relaxed.

“For me, being with my husband, being around the rest of my family and my friends just sort of brings a bit more like, mental lightness to me,” Brown says. “When I’m here [in Europe] I’m really just focused on my training each day and living the life that’s focused on cycling.

“It’s important to me to work on my whole human, rather than just Grace the cyclist.”

In an Instagram post after returning to Europe a week or so ago, Brown wrote that, for her, “a happy head makes for happy legs”. She believes that’s true even if things on the bike aren’t going as well as they might.

“Even if my training’s been a little bit interrupted, but I’ve been able to spend time with those people close to me, then I end up having good legs, even if the preparation hasn’t been perfect on paper,” she says. “We’ll see how we go here. I’ve done really hard training as well, so it’s not like I’ve dropped the ball [from] that perspective.”

Brown is very aware that she’s giving up some percentage of possible performance by skipping altitude training to head home to Australia instead, but that’s a calculation, and one that she’s made peace with.

“For me, it’s a bit of a balance thing … what’s more important?” she said back in May. “It’s a bit tricky. I think maybe I miss some of the benefits of training at altitude but I’ve decided to come back to Australia. I’ve done altitude in the past and my feeling is that I get similar benefit from a really hard training block, whether I’m at altitude or not. So I’m telling myself that anyway.”

There’s another theoretical downside to heading back to Australia in June and July. Training back in Melbourne, where it’s currently cold and wet, isn’t the ideal preparation for racing the Tour in the heat of a European summer (and a particularly warm one at that). But Brown has adapted her training accordingly.

“I was doing heat training while I was in Australia so I think that helped,” Brown says in Clermont-Ferrand. “And now it’s like, actually not that hot [in Europe], so it feels like I did all that in vain, sweating away in Melbourne winter!”

Brown arrives in Clermont-Ferrand feeling “excited and a bit nervous” for the eight days ahead. Her goal for the race is a stage win, either for herself or for someone else on FDJ-Suez. That’s something the team achieved last year with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s impressive victory on the tough uphill finish in Épernay.

“Last year felt like a really great Tour because of Cille’s win,” Brown says. “We had some crappy bits [Marta Cavalli crashed out in dramatic fashion and took many months to recover – ed.], but I think every team has some crappy bits, and coming away with a win is awesome. It really boosts the morale and it’s fun and exciting.

“I think that’s what a good week looks like [at the 2023 Tour]. But also if we just work together well as a team, and we have that spirit and go in each day fighting and putting everything out there, I think it can still be a success if there’s no result attached.”

Uttrup Ludwig’s stage win was a highlight of FDJ-Suez’s 2022 Tour.

In recent years Brown has become known for her dangerous, late, solo attacks. She won the 2020 Brabantse Pijl that way, likewise the 2021 Brugge-De Panne and this year’s GP du Morbihan. Chances are we’ll see her attempt something similar at times during the upcoming Tour. But it’s the final-stage individual time trial – a first for the Tour de France Femmes – that last year’s Worlds ITT silver medallist really has her eye on.

“That’s probably what I’ve specifically worked for the most,” Brown says. “It’s the most achievable goal for me of the week. [But] I would equally like to win a different stage. If I can win two, that’s fine!” she adds with a laugh.

A day out from the start of the Tour, Brown seems happy, relaxed, and refreshed, just as she drew it up. Now we wait and see whether that translates to the sort of Tour she’s after.

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