‘One of the hardest years I’ve ever had’ – 2023 has not been kind to Sarah Roy

A string of injuries made it a season to forget for the Australian.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 13.09.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
More from Matt +

In Sarah Roy’s own words, the 2023 season has been a “shitty” one for the 37-year-old Australian. An early bout of COVID set the tone, before a crash at the Tour de Normandie in March left her with a fractured sacrum. It wasn’t just the long rehab from that injury that was difficult; it was the fact Roy ended up missing her beloved Spring Classics as a result.

Roy returned to competition in late April, racing for her country in the team pursuit at the Track Nations Cup in Canada. She crashed there too, ending up with a nasty splinter in her thigh that was only partially removed on the first try.

The Sydneysider managed a consistent block of racing on the road from mid May through to August, and was part of Canyon-SRAM’s biggest victories in years: WorldTour stage wins for Chloe Dygert (RideLondon), Antonia Niedermaier (Giro Donne), and Ricarda Bauernfeind (Tour de France Femmes). But more misfortune would follow, with Roy crashing heavily at Road Worlds in Glasgow.

After again returning to competition, the former Australian road champ’s season came to an end at the Classic Lorient Agglomération – Trophée Ceratizit (GP de Plouay) at the start of September, with yet another crash. She was on a plane back to Australia a few days later, glad to be able to put the 2023 season behind her.

It was from Sydney that Roy spoke to Escape Collective earlier this week, reflecting on her tough year and what she learned from it. Despite the challenges she has faced, she was typically upbeat when we spoke, and optimistic about what comes next. The following interview has been lightly edited for fluency.


Matt de Neef: How are you feeling after your crash at Plouay?

Sarah Roy: I pulled up pretty much OK. But at the time, the way that I fell looked pretty bad on my leg. My leg reacted with this humongous bump that made it look pretty deformed. The team was a bit worried at first and so I didn’t finish the race, but yeah, I’m all good.

How would you describe your season?

It would have to be one of the worst I’ve ever had, to be honest. And I think it’s a bit of an accumulated effect as well, just with a couple of shitty years in a row. And then a lot of built-up expectations for this year and just falling so short makes it hurt a lot more. And the injuries that I had were pretty severe and tough to recover from, all alone. So yeah, mentally and physically it’s definitely one of the hardest years I’ve ever had.

So you had COVID to start with, then you fractured your sacrum and then there was the Road Worlds crash …. oh and you had that track crash with the splinter before Worlds too, right?

Yeah, that was such a freak crash on the track. It was this huge splinter in my quad so I had a three-centimetre muscle tear in my quad, and you need that for cycling! So it was pretty painful.

And they didn’t get it all out the first time, right?

Yeah, it was about three or four centimetres still in there for five days, with travel and everything. So yeah, it was pretty painful. But it was also just frustrating because I was telling the doctors “I think there’s something still in there!” And they’re like, “Nah.” And then I just took myself off to see someone and had an ultrasound.

Where are you at with your track goals these days? Do you reckon you’ll spend much time on the track in the year ahead?

Because I’ve come into the sport so late, my goals are only in the team pursuit and, really, my only opportunity lies in the team pursuit. And the individual pursuit but that’s not an Olympic event anymore.

So my goal is to make the team pursuit team for Paris [2024] but it is a bit of a long shot, which I understand. But I have a lot of support from AusCycling and some good opportunities there. And so Milton [the Nations Cup in Canada] this year was an opportunity for me. And yeah, I pretty much blew that; it couldn’t have gone any worse. It was an absolute disaster. But it’s better to do it now rather than in Paris!

I’m going to Adelaide this summer [AusCycling’s high performance program is based at Adelaide Super-Drome – ed.] It’s part of the reason I came home so early as well, to have this earlier break so that I can get back on the track sooner. I’ll be spending most of my time in Adelaide this summer and giving it a proper crack. And I have the opportunity with the coaches there. They’re giving me some extra time and will be helping me out with skills just to refine those a bit. And there’s a couple of camps over summer, that will lead into the Paris selection.

So yeah, that’s kind of my main focus. Not that it’s taking away from the road or anything,  because I did one summer of track a few years ago, and then I won the national road race off the back of that!

Sarah Roy in the green and gold of Australian road champion rides her Bianchi road bike in the mud beside some cobblestones at Paris-Roubaix.
Roy won the Aussie Road Nationals solo in 2021, earning her a season in the green and gold. Here she is at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

Can I ask you about your Glasgow Worlds crash? It looked like you were down for a long time. What do you remember of all that?

I was about top five wheels with Spratty [Amanda Spratt] and then there was a big crash, maybe 3 km before this crash, that took me out. And I had to unclip and go around that and the whole peloton was really strung out and basically every person was sort of scrambling to get back in. I wasn’t out of the race yet because it was one long line, and it was gonna chill eventually.

I just came around a corner and then it was kind of a fast section and about, I don’t know, four or five girls had just crashed in front of me, and then I just had nowhere to go. It was one of those crashes where I got around one or two little obstacles and was like, “Oh, my God, I’m gonna make it. Thank God.” And then one of the girls sort of slid and I ended up T-boning her head – I rode over the top of her head – and it just launched me off my bike and I did a bit of a flip.

I landed on my sacrum and it’s a real sensitive point at the moment. And I also hit my head on the back and the side pretty badly. And then I lay there and I just grabbed my butt and I felt the lump on my bum, which is exactly what happened when I broke it [in March at the Tour de Normandie – ed.] It’s just such a heavy bang. It’s kinda like when you kick your shin, and you just can’t put your foot down for like 30 seconds or something.

I just couldn’t get up by myself. If someone could have helped me get up then maybe I could have got back on my bike quicker but I mean, at the end of the day, I had five days off afterwards with concussion symptoms.

I came off totally fine in the end. But it just hurts. It was a hard, heavy crash. I got a few messages from the bystanders that saw it and helped me into the ambulance and they were like it was one of the worst crashes they’ve seen. It was just really high speed and just the sound of the carbon and everything.

I was really thankful when I left the medical centre with no broken bones because I was just like, I don’t have the energy to rehab another broken pelvis. It’s too much.

Yeah, it looked like the recovery from your fractured sacrum earlier in the year was a really tough one for you. Maybe one of the toughest you’ve had in your career?

Yeah, definitely. It doesn’t sound that bad and I know there’s a lot worse things. But rehabbing by yourself with no support … I was in Girona in my apartment alone, my housemate had gone back to Australia, everyone’s away racing the Classics, there’s no one in Girona. And your sacrum – it’s like literally, the centre of your body. I couldn’t sleep. You can’t lay on your side, your back, your stomach – it all hurts. And you can’t sit down all day, so you’re just standing up, tired.

There’s a lot worse things but bloody hell, it was just one of those periods of time that was really shit.

As you said it’s been a really rough year. What have you learned about yourself along the way? Or just learned in general?

I remember when I first started cycling, and I had some other injury, and someone said to me that injuries are a really personal and lonely journey. And I never forgot that. And I think every time I get injured, you can kind of get a little bit frustrated when people aren’t quite understanding how bad your situation is.

Sometimes you get comments from managers and DSs even, trying to be positive and they just throw around comments like, “Oh, it will be good to have you back. You’ll be mentally fresh since everyone else has been racing.” And you’re like, “Are you kidding me? This isn’t a frickin holiday being at home, rehabbing from a broken bone! No, I’m not mentally fresh, actually.”

The other thing that I learned is just how strong the WorldTour is now. Since I have had my own few injuries and stuff, and then people around me getting injured as well and trying to give them some advice, you have to recognise that, actually, it’s a lot harder now to jump back in the peloton and expect good things. If you look at the riders that are continuously getting good results – even in the men’s peloton – they’re generally the ones that haven’t had too much interruption throughout the year.

I think if you don’t have the luxury of coming back at your peak level, then yeah, it’s just such a battle. Often, you’re rehabbing and you get to a point where [the team is] like, “Oh, you’ve been on the bike two weeks. Alright, let’s throw you in a WorldTour six-day stage race.” And I was just like, “Oh god, OK. Well, I’ll finish, but yeah …” And then, you’ve really got to lower your expectations but then your teammates – they haven’t lowered their expectations, so it can get a bit stressful then. And then even for yourself, you might get excited about being back in a race again and you want things and then you just realise, actually, the peloton is way stronger than it used to be. You can’t just jump back in with two weeks training anymore. 

I definitely started racing too soon. And I’m paying for it now. So yeah, I had to end my season a bit earlier than I would have liked. Normally, I finish the season still getting stronger and stronger and stronger. But this year, I have just been hammered. So it’s a bit of a shame, but I did my best.

While it’s been a tough year for you, it’s been a great season for Canyon-SRAM. After no WorldTour win since 2019, the team has three in 2023, and you were part of all three of them. What’s changed this year, do you think?

I think the biggest change in the team has been recruiting Magnus Bäckstedt as head DS. We started working with him a little last year in a couple of races. He’s just totally awesome.

Last year was my first year on the team and so I don’t really know what was going on before that. But coming in last year, it just seemed a bit like, race-wise, tactically, the team kind of lost their way a bit there. The team plans were quite loose, and there was not a lot of guidance or leadership, perhaps, for the riders. But the riders themselves were all super talented and strong individually, but I guess it just all wasn’t really coming together in the races.

And then with Maggy, he’s really driven more of a tight ship on racing well together and guiding and giving really good leadership on how to achieve that. And in a nice, kinda gradual way so that the riders can all figure it out themselves as well. It’s not like he’s a drill sergeant. 

So full kudos to Maggy. I think I would pay it all to him really, and riders believing in the process as well. And I think some amazing talent has been recruited too in the young girls of Ricarda [Bauernfeind], and Antonia [Niedermaier] and also Maike [van der Duin]. And they’ve all shown what they’re made of already but far out, they’ve got so many years ahead of them to get better and better and more consistent as well. So it’s really exciting.

We talked about your plans for the track. What are you doing on the road next year?

I am mainly focusing on the track now. And I actually can’t really talk about my plans for next year [on the road], but I’m just really looking forward to a better year. So coming back to Australia now a little earlier than planned, having a break – probably a longer break than planned as well – and really just trying to switch off for a little bit and just refresh mentally and physically and just let the body relax a bit. I think the body’s just been super tense – I’ve asked a lot of my body all year, and my brain, so I just need to switch off and just refresh, and then go again for next year. 

So I’ve got three track camps coming up in the summer and then I want to be selected for a Track Nations Cup again, and have more of a successful team pursuit run there. And I want to be selected for the Paris team pursuit. 

It’s really shit actually – I’m pretty sure the schedule for the Olympics is like the road race, and then the very next day, the TP. So there’s a bit of a clash, because I think the road race is a good one for me, too. So if I have a good Classics season, which I want to have, because that fits in with the track stuff anyway …

One of the things I learned this year as well is, it’s not so great mentally to target something so strongly, kinda just having your eye on one real thing. I don’t think that went so well for me. It just felt like such a big loss then when I didn’t even make it to the startline. 

You’re talking about the Classics, right?

Yeah, the Classics, and Roubaix specifically. I think I’m really going to try to refresh now and then just get my body feeling really strong going into the Classics next year, but then just racing more freely, and just approaching life and cycling with a bit more joy and a bit less tension.

I just really want to enjoy racing for what it is and just enjoy being as strong and as fit as I can be and see what happens. I want to have a bit more of an “explore” attitude, rather than, you know, goals, goals, goals.

It definitely doesn’t sound like you’re done with road racing yet …

Yeah, I want to actually race the Classics! I don’t think I did a single race this year, and I kinda consider myself a Classics rider. I’m really looking forward to being back in Belgium and just being competitive. I want to be at the pointy end and just be playing the game, you know? I didn’t feel like I was amongst the racing at all this year. I mean, I did a lot of lead-outs for the team and I was really setting up my teammates in a lot of the races but then I wasn’t often at the end of the bike race.

I like the balance – I like being at the end of a bike race going for the win, and playing the game and stuff myself, as well as being a domestique. I don’t want to be a domestique all year long, which is kind of what happened this year.

Sarah Roy celebrates winning a stage of the Tour of Britain with two fists in the air after crossing the finish line. Behind her several riders can be seen.
Roy winning a stage of the 2018 Women’s Tour (of Britain).

Do you have any thoughts about how long you want to keep racing for? Or is that a problem for later on?

I’m definitely at the age now where, of course, that’s a discussion I need to have with myself and the people around me and the teams I’m working with. I wish, in a different life, I had started cycling earlier. It’s one of those sports that just takes a long time to develop in.

It’s funny – this is my 10th year pro, but would you really consider me being a pro in my first year on FDJ? Because I did a bit of cycling in Australia, and then I took myself to Europe, and I didn’t even know how to race at all. Some old man taught me how to race and then I was pro the next year.

I didn’t get paid any money and I was just living in a school, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner off a prison tray, in the dining hall, and no one spoke English to me, and I was just racing. The next four years, I was on GreenEdge [Orica-AIS / Orica-Scott / Mitchelton-Scott], but I was still developing and learning so much. I was just so raw when I started, but it’s like, I wasn’t a professional at what I did. At all. I had no idea what I was doing. I just jumped straight into the deep end.

So I’ve been around for ages and I’m getting older so on one hand, I wish I started earlier, but still, apart from a bunch of injuries I had this year, I still feel young, and I still love it, and I’m still driven and motivated. It’s more like other people suggesting, “You know, you’re at the age …” and it’s like, “Oh, I wish age didn’t really matter.” And it is a career now, it’s a viable career, and if you’re still enjoying it and getting paid well and making a living, then you don’t really need to stop.

But yeah, I haven’t made any clear decisions yet. But I think just a couple more years and not much more. But I’m trying not to think of the end yet. And like I said before, I’ll just sort of approach things more freely, go with the flow, and just enjoy riding a bit more and see what comes.

What did you think of this story?