Done at 21 - but cyclist is now a top Kiwi coach
In the middle of the velodrome, Alex Greenfield knows she stands out. In her chosen profession she’s not just a rarity, but positively unique – a female coach in elite cycling, who’s also under the age of 30.
Two big decisions - one made as a young international rider who lost “the will to win” - have landed Greenfield an exclusive place within Cycling New Zealand.
The 28-year old from the Welsh town of Barry, just outside Cardiff, is eight months into her role as assistant coach of our national women’s track endurance squad.
Under the guidance of Greenfield and head of the women’s programme, Ross Machejefski, the women’s team pursuit have twice lowered the national record and won gold at the recent UCI Track World Cup in Cambridge.
A chain of events led Greenfield here. A top-level rider who enjoyed an excellent junior career, she’d been elevated to the Great Britain team at World Cup events, and had competed for Wales at the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010. It was there she came to a stark realisation: the will to win just wasn’t there.
“Welsh people are very patriotic, so to throw on that Welsh jersey for me was my proudest moment for sure. I absolutely loved being there, but in races I thought ‘I’m not sure I actually want to win this’,” Greenfield says.
The decision to stop racing wasn’t immediate. “It took time - going to races and kind of feeling really guilty in myself that I didn’t want to be competitive and almost faking it to myself,” Greenfield recalls.
By the age of 21 she was done; a retired cyclist but one who still had a deep passion.
“I stopped racing when I still loved the sport, so I went and did my degree in sport science, and started coaching. I think I was always meant to coach,” she says.
It sounds simple. But the reality for any woman in any sport to make their way to top level in coaching is far from simple.
Cycling is no exception; the world of the pro peloton is cut-throat and the women’s competition, on the road at least, is the poor cousin to their male counterparts.
"If we can get younger people into the sport, male or female, we’ll see a change in the future of coaches,"
- Alex Greenfield.
Greenfield initially spent three years with Welsh Cycling, first as a volunteer coach. But she wanted to put herself in an environment where she was effectively on the back foot; somewhere she says, “where I didn’t know everything and I needed to go in and learn”.
She found that place on the roads of Europe. Landing a volunteer job as manager of the Wiggle Hi5 team (then a British professional team based in Belgium) for the top women’s race Giro d’Italia, the usually dynamic and confident Greenfield concedes she was “absolutely shitting myself”.
From there, she progressed to an assistant Directeur Sportif (team director) until deciding in February 2018 to move on. But she had nowhere to go to.
On the recommendation of a mutual friend, Cycling NZ high performance boss Martin Barras touched base with Greenfield to gauge her interest in a role with the women’s endurance team.
A bit of internet research, a quick visit and a couple of months of talking over the phone to Barras, convinced Greenfield that a move to Cambridge was the right one. And she hasn’t looked back.
At the World Cup in Cambridge, Greenfield was one of perhaps two or three women in senior coaching positions among the 38 competing nations.
While gender is one thing, Greenfield is more aware of her age when she surveys the coaching contingent at the velodrome. She hopes developing younger coaches will help break down other barriers.
"If we talk about sexism as a whole... to the younger generation in any industry, it doesn't really matter if it's a man or a woman [in a role]," she says.
"So if we can get younger people into the sport, male or female, we’ll see a change in the future of coaches,” Greenfield says.
She believes one factor for the lack of women in top coaching roles is that many jobs are word-of-mouth.
“It’s generally been men within a system, so how do you get known to come into it?” she asks.
Another issue, Greenfield says, is having the confidence to go for it in the first place. “I think a lot of guys at a young age will put their hand up and say ‘I can do that’, even if they’re not quite sure, and I think women need the confidence to do that.”
However her youth and gender have also helped foster a different kind of relationship with the athletes she’s working with.
Greenfield says while she’s careful to have boundaries as a coach and mentor, she can also talk about the latest Netflix series with the women’s team. And the riders don’t have to explain when “they’re feeling really bloated, or when they don’t want to be there, or just start crying for no reason”, she says.
Greenfield admits she and head coach Machejefski clashed a little early in the tenure, but have built a respect where they’re both happy to challenge each other. They’ve fostered an environment where they work hard but have fun on the drive towards Tokyo 2020.
“At the moment we can see we’re within the top five teams, but where we fall in that, no one really knows. If we leave training every day thinking about what’s the one thing we can improve on and off the bike, then we’ll go to that start-line in the Olympics knowing we’ve done everything we can. Whatever the result, we’re proud of ourselves,” she says.
Regardless of what happens in 18 months’ time, Greenfield says she’s in it for the long haul.
“In my head, if I go somewhere, I want to do it properly and you need that time to create and build something. So I’m committed to this team until Paris 2024.”
Hardly what her tight-knit family in Wales want to hear, but another significant decision taken by an energetic young coach, looking to influence a promising generation of Kiwi riders.