Sydney Cyclist Rochelle Gilmore. Pictured for a profile by Fleta Page/Sun Herald. Photo: Peter Rae Tuesday 6 December 2011.

Gutsy … Rochelle Gilmore broke her pelvis, fractured her back and cracked her ribs in the Giro d'Italia. Photo: Peter Rae

Back in the saddle, a 'rebuilt' Rochelle Gilmore tells Fleta Page she's gunning for Olympic gold.


Five months ago, cyclist Rochelle Gilmore was lying on a couch in a Milan rehab centre, peeing in a bedpan and losing 11 kilograms of hard-earned muscle. She had multiple breaks in her pelvis, a fracture in her back and three cracked ribs.

 

The fact she has learnt to walk again, got back on her bike and intends to win next month's Jayco Bay Classic in Victoria is testament to the Commonwealth Games gold medallist's professionalism and determination.

 

The 29-year-old Sydneysider, who also lives in Italy and competes on the European professional cycling tour, has made her career out of travelling to a different country nearly every week for eight months of the year.

 

When she's finished in Europe, Gilmore comes home for another two months of racing in Australia.

''A lot of Europeans think [the Australian cyclists] are mad to race in our summer and then go and race all year again, but there are races here and if we don't do them we're not supporting our own country's racing,'' she says.

 

Gilmore is determined to improve the profile of women's professional cycling in Australia. ''I've won stages of the Tour de France - the yellow jersey, and Giro d'Italia stages, but no one hears about it back here.''

 

Many Australians don't even realise women compete in a Tour de France - the trademarked race has a different name for the women: La Route de France. It's a shame they're not called the same thing. ''It will in the future if I have anything to do with it,'' Gilmore says.

 

She has the experience to get it done, too. She owns the BikeExchange.com.au Dream Team for which she rides in Australia, and she started her European team, Team Honda, with the same successful business model and a driving ambition to improve the professionalism in women's cycling.

 

In the meantime, the women race the Giro d'Italia while the men are racing the Tour de France, an arrangement that sees European fans get one hour of TV coverage of women's cycling each day, immediately after the Tour de France coverage. That exposure has made the Giro the premier race on the women's circuit.

 

In July, on day five of the Giro, Gilmore was in a pack of sprinters racing for the finish. With 200 metres to go, one rider fell, creating a domino effect. Gilmore, travelling at nearly 70km/h, landed hard on her right hip.

 

''I got up and rode across the finish line and sat down after the race,'' she recalls.

 

She watched everyone else get changed, drank her protein shake and presumed she was OK. ''I stood up to walk to the car, which was two or three steps away, and I couldn't.''

 

The original diagnosis was possible broken ribs. Doctors told her nothing had shown up in the X-rays, and she should be able to walk again in a few days once all the swelling went down. Her mother flew to Italy from her home in Dubai to be with her. Six days later, still unable to walk, and having fought off concussion, dizziness, bouts of vomiting and a fear she was dying, Gilmore took a taxi to the hospital for an MRI.

 

''The lady who did it came out and said: 'I'm not a doctor or anything, but you've got some serious breaks in your pelvis.'''

 

As it turned out, there was also a small fracture in her back and three ribs were confirmed to be broken. The doctor told her it would be six months before she could walk again. She was also sold an expensive bone-healing device, which would prove fortuitous.

 

Back at home, she made a call to her insurance company to try to claim back the expense and ''they said we'll send someone up, take you to Milan and put you in rehabilitation clinic''. The clinic ordered Gilmore to not move beyond transferring from her bed to the couch and back.

 

Her mother became her full-time carer for the 20 days before she was ready to start on crutches, and the hard road back to racing began. Meanwhile, she had dropped from 60 kilograms to 49 kilograms.

Gilmore had to learn to walk again, starting in a pool to gain confidence. True to the saying, she still knew how to ride a bike - but required some help to get on. It was a slow process of recuperation, but she never had doubts about her recovery, ''not for a second''.

 

Gilmore doesn't seem to be one for negative thoughts. Nor distractions. Nor finishing second.

 

Last year, her goal was to win gold at the Commonwealth Games, having previously won two silvers. ''When I got to Delhi, I thought, 'Jesus, I'm not going to go home with a silver medal again' … silver medals really mean nothing, you may as well throw them in the bin.

 

''I got into this mode in my mind, I didn't touch my phone or computer in three days, which is amazing for me, I just lay on the bed in the little dorm room … I was just in this mood - all I wanted to do was one thing. That was my most satisfying win.''

 

Gilmore says she's almost back to where she was physically before the big crash five months ago - her finely tuned athlete's body well ahead of the initial prognosis.

 

In two weeks' time, she will rejoin her BikeExchange.com.au Dream Team in Geelong. They all fly in on New Year's Eve for a team dinner and an early night, ready to contend the Jayco Bay Classic the next day. ''We've won it the last three years and to be honest, if we don't win it this year, we'll be really disappointed,'' Gilmore says.

 

It's the first race in her long, colour-coded list of 2012 events, in which the Olympic Games stands out in red, bold and underlined type. Gilmore hasn't been to an Olympics yet - a more experienced rider beat her for a spot in 2000, injury ruled her out of Athens and the Beijing course was too hilly to suit her.

 

''As far as the Olympics go, this is my chance, I haven't had a chance like this where I'm in my strongest years, and the course really suits me … I'll treat this as my big chance and I'll give it everything.''