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  Maeve Plouffe continuing to learn as a junior as she focuses on long term development  
  July 4th 2017  
  Maeve Plouffe after winning team pursuit gold and bronze at the 2017 Australian Championships.  
  It has only been two years since Maeve Plouffe lined up for her first National Championships on the bike, though in that time she has fast become of Australia's rising stars. Having starting her athletic career with running, swimming and surf life saving Maeve Plouffe burst on to the cycling scene in 2015. That year she took silver in the under 17 individual pursuit, before claiming the under 17 time trial title on the road just months later. With the two results still considered her most cherished despite bigger success since.

Within a year the then 16-year-old Plouffe claimed her first elite Australian title in the team pursuit in her first year under 19, as well as taking top five finishes at the Oceania and Australian Championships on the road.

The last six months have seen the talented Australian go from strength to strength picking up the under 19 omnium title in December 2016, before adding the under 19 team pursuit title among a four medal haul at the Australian Championships in March. With Plouffe's all round talent and determination again on display a week later where she picked up the Oceania time trial title.

With a ticket booked to the UCI Junior World Championships in Montichiari, Italy in August Plouffe is looking forward to the opportunity but heads in looking to learn and gain experience at the top of the sport for juniors. Knowing that the championsips are a stepping stone in her career and not the end all of her career.

Your first major competition was the Junior Australian Track Championships in 2015, where you claimed silver in the Under 17 Individual Pursuit. Later in the year you added the Under 17 Time Trial Champion title on the road. Looking back, what do those results mean to you now?

It astounds me to think that it has been just two short years since I lined up for my first ever national competition on the bike. I like to think of that U17 IP silver as the starting point of this whole cycling journey for me, because although I was doing a bit of riding in the lead up to it, my primary focus was still on my swimming, running and surf. That first big achievement was ultimately the reason I fully committed to cycling, and opened up all the opportunities which have got me to where I am today.

I went into my first nationals knowing nothing about the sport or how to handle myself, just with the knowledge that I wanted to race my heart out and see how fast I could go. The excitement and disbelief of seeing my time on the scoreboard and stepping up on my first podium was overwhelming. I finally felt content with the knowledge that I had a result next to my name that actually reflected how hard I worked, especially after years of training so hard in my other sports without ever breaking onto that national podium. Soon after I was privileged enough to obtain a SASI scholarship, where my current coach (Brett Aitken) and the other SASI staff really took my motivation and ambition and gave me the guidance and training that I needed leading up to my first road nationals. I trained so hard and progressed quite rapidly that year, leading lots of people to chalk results up to purely natural talent or luck. But I think that really undermines how hard my coach, my parents and everyone around me worked to catch up years' worth of training in just one season. I had the fitness there already, it was a matter of translating that to the bike.

I think reflecting on those first two successes really teaches me that the value of an accomplishment is not based on how others may perceive it, but how much you personally value it. On paper, my little junior medals look pretty insignificant in the long scheme of things. Since then, I've put even more hours in, and I've been blessed with a couple more titles and medals around my neck as a result. Yet I can still quite honestly say that those two junior medals remain my most cherished and happiest on the bike. There's nothing better than going into a race as one of the lowest ranked riders and coming out on top, and knowing how hard you've worked for that. Of all my results, these probably remain my most valued, simply because at the time they were so both unexpected and brought me so much happiness at the time.

Australian Champion in the team pursuit in 2016 at your first Elite Track National Championships how did it feel pulling on the green and gold jersey for the first time?

It was pretty special. As a sixteen-year old girl with absolutely no race experience, pulling on the green and gold jersey with some of Australia's top team pursuit riders (Chloe Moran, Dani McKinnirey, and Alex Manly) in the elite category is probably about as good as it gets.

Heading into the Oceania Track Championships in December, what were your goals?

My goals were pretty simple: I wanted to ride a PB in the individual pursuit, and race to the best of my ability in the other races. Personally, Oceanias wasn't as high of a priority in comparison to nationals, so leading into the event I was still doing some heavy road kilometres and strength work in the gym. However, being a selection event for Junior Worlds, I knew I had to pull out a really ride in the TP and do reasonably well in the bunch races if I were to get a look in.

Claimed silver in the team pursuit and top five in the IP, points and omnium a good start to the 2017 season?

My results weren't bad… a PB in the IP, a solid ride in the TP and some top 5 positions in the bunch races. However, despite achieving my goals, I just wasn't content with the results. I felt like I was physically capable of riding a far better IP time, and the following week all I could think about all the mistakes and poor tactical decisions I made in the bunch races.

When your performance doesn't match your personal expectations, there are two mindsets you can take: you can choose to accept it and keep doing what you were doing before, or you can identify what you did wrong and work to improve it. In my case, I knew that the limiting factor to my performance in the omnium at Oceanias wasn't a case of my legs, but rather my tactics and racing approach. In the rest week between Oceanias and Omnium Nationals, I sat down and wrote out a (very long) list of every mistake I made during the Omnium at Oceanias. I didn't tell anyone, but it was my little goal to tick off as many things on this list as possible at Omnium Nats the next week. So, although Oceanias wasn't "good" in the sense that I didn't achieve my goals, I certainly found good in the experience of it by using it as a motivator and opportunity for improvement.

Quick turnaround from Oceania Championships to Omnium Nationals. You won the scratch race, tempo and elimination race, but Alex Martin Wallace finished second in all three and was only six points behind. Jade Haines was also right there…. what was your plan for the points race and how did it play out?

Going into that final points race, I found myself in a completely new position – I was so used to being the underdog that I had no experience in “defending” a gold medal! I was telling myself to feel confident after my last three wins, but deep down I was nervous, because the new format omnium makes the points race incredibly easy to gain lot of points in. I didn't have a strict race plan; however, I knew I would have to shift my racing style from my typical aggressive approach to one that was a bit more calculated and defensive. Jade and Alex are both outstanding points racers as they both share the lethal combination of a fast sprint and good fitness, therefore I had to pick what sprints I contested wisely.

The first half of the race was a matter of conserving energy, and building a bit of a buffer up between myself and Alex by winning some early points. The race really didn't take off until about 40 laps in, when some of the lower ranked riders launched attacks in the hopes of gaining points. Since my position wasn't threatened I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could stay back. However, at one point Alex took a dangerous attack, making me put in a massive effort to get her back because I knew I couldn't let her get away! Just as Alex and I were brought back by the pack, Alice Culling and Morgan Gilling, two incredibly strong riders, launched a well-timed counter-attack.

The race came down to pure tactics in the end. The pack looked to Jade, Alex and myself to chase, but us three girls were already thinking about saving our legs for that all important double points sprint. With less than 10 laps to go, the break was threatening to lap the field, causing chaos as everyone in the bunch realised they would move down the ranks if these girls would to gain another 20 points each! However, the race for gold was between myself and Alex in the double points sprint. I realised that if the break stayed 50-100m ahead and took all the points for that sprint, neither Alex nor Jade could gain any points on me. I took a risk and immediately went to the front, controlling the pace to my liking so that the break wouldn't lap the field but stayed far enough ahead to win. It worked!

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What does it mean to be the Australian Junior Omnium champion?

I've always admired the omnium. When I first began cycling, the elite omnium riders were the riders I looked up to the most and enjoyed watching, because I was drawn to the toughness of the race and the way that they possessed both the speed and smarts vital for success.

I always excelled more at the TT type events, so I dismissed wishful thinking that I could potentially ride well in the omnium. Going into nationals, I had no expectation of success. I just made a couple of small changes to my tactics and got some big results. That's really exciting for me, because it showed that I'm quickly discovering and improving my racing style! I hope that this win can be a bit of a catalyst for further opportunities to ride the omnium at bigger events. It's still a long way off but I'd love to race it at junior worlds. Nevertheless, I can't wait to race it as a senior next year.

Set a new PB in the IP at South Australian Championships did that give you a bit of confidence for Track Nationals?

It certainly did! We didn't bother tapering for that race, leaving me was absolutely exhausted on the day of it. Somehow actually managed to PB twice – in the heat and then again in the final 30 minutes later -- so as you can imagine, I was pretty shocked! It made me really confident that I could shave another 2 seconds off between States and Nationals, especially with a proper taper. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, but at least I still have a solid time recorded in the books.

Claimed the under 19 team pursuit title and bronze in the elite category on the opening day, becoming just the second person to have won Australian under 19 and elite women's TP titles.

I wasn't actually aware that I was only the second person to have done so! That knowledge makes me so grateful for the outstanding women's riders we are fortunate enough of having in SA. There's certainly a shortage of female track endurance riders, so it's a massive compliment to the Cycling SA / SASI program to have enough high-calibre riders to fill not only an elite women's TP team, but also an U19 team.

Maeve Plouffe leads South Australia to under 19 team pursuit title. Photo: John Veage

Gold and three bronze medals in a successful nationals for you, even earning you selection in the long team for Junior Worlds. Happy with how it went?

I certainly came away from Nationals with a lot of improvements to make, but that's okay! As I reiterated in the first question, I've only been riding for a bit over two years so I'm learning to see the bigger picture. When you're 17 and just want to win, it can be hard to go into an event that you've trained so hard for and come out disappointed with yourself. But in reality, I'd rather learn my lessons now than as a first-year elite!

I know that I trained as hard as I could in the lead up to nationals, and that's all I could do. I think I really showed that I had the legs at Oceanias the week later, and it was just a matter of execution on the track. All that training is still there, and being a little disappointed will only make me work harder!

A week later you were on the road and claimed the Under 19 Oceania time trial title. Just off the track did you expect it? What does it mean to be the Oceania Champion?

This is probably my favourite achievement to date, not necessarily due to the end result but rather because of how events unfolded in the lead up to and during the race. I credit the win to mindset entirely. I was disappointed with myself at track nationals, because I felt like my results didn't reflect how hard I trained and where my capabilities truly lay. With no specific road TT training in the legs (just a whole lot of lactate post track nationals!), there were no expectations for success placed on me by myself or by anyone around me.

After a week post track nationals of feeling pretty down in regards to my results, I concluded that I would use this TT as an opportunity to prove to myself where my true limit lay and how much pain I could tolerate. On that start line, I wasn't even nervous. I had already accepted that I was going to empty the tank, and it was going to hurt a whole lot. The minute I started turning those pedals, I was fully focused and completely in the moment. It wasn't until about the half-way mark when I properly looked at my Garmin, which displayed an average speed of 55kmph and heart rate of 205bpm to match. I'd usually take that as a sign to dial down the effort a notch, but without the expectation to perform I figured it didn't matter if I blew up… I was here to find my limit, not win the race. That last hill was a killer, but for some reason I knew if I held that pace I would win and I wouldn't forgive myself if I gave up at that point.

In reflection, my mentality going into that race was really the perfect brew of a powerful personal motivator combined with no expectation other than my own decision to give it my all. Obviously, such conditions are hard to emulate, so its near impossible to apply this every time I race – but now I know what I'm capable of and what a 'good race' feels like. Although I'm focusing on track at the moment, I really hope that some of these road results can set me up for a team, or some opportunities to race a higher level on the road in the next few years.

Maeve Plouffe on her way to the 2017 Oceania Under 19 time trial title. Photo: Adrian Marshall/Oceania Cycling Confederation

Looking ahead to the rest of 2017 Junior Track Worlds your main focus?

To some degree. Going to Junior Track Worlds will be an amazing learning experience, but after discussion with my coach, I've realised that selection and success at Junior Worlds isn't my biggest goal in the long term, it's just a stepping stone along the way. More than anything I want to be a successful elite rider, and to become one I'm going to need to take that next step up sooner rather than later. I'd like to use Junior Worlds as an opportunity to learn how to race and improve my skills, rather than just focusing on the end result. I don't want to be the athlete who doesn't reach their Junior Worlds goal and then comes home unmotivated, or the athlete who succeeds and becomes complacent. This next season is going to be incredibly important for me and I don't want to hinder any progress, therefore I think the best approach is to keep training my hardest. I have to remain focussed on the bigger picture and take any success as a bonus, not as the end all and be all for my career.

You are also racing on the road. How do you find combining the two?

Obviously, my racing 'focus' is on the track leading into Junior Worlds selection, but I really love both disciplines so I couldn't imagine giving one up entirely. While I love the rush of the track, the freedom and joy that I get being outdoors on the road bike is what really motivates me to wake up in the morning and is the reason I fell in love with the sport initially. It's important to do what you love and stay in your happy place; therefore, I'll certainly be keeping up the road riding leading up to track worlds. My coach has my long-term development in mind, so I am confident that all the road kilometres and efforts in my program will develop a really strong fitness base for when I move up into seniors, regardless which discipline I choose to pursue. I feel as though being encouraged to develop on both the track and road puts me at a massive advantage because the skills I learn compliment and transfer nicely across the disciplines – for example, riding the track has given me a solid road sprint, whilst riding the road has given me an edge of toughness needed for long track races like the Madison. At the end of the day, I'm still really young – so rather than specialising and limiting myself, I think I'm just going to keep doing what I love, training my hardest and see where it all takes me.
 © 2016