A rare cycling talent sprints for Tokyo
Music, mind games and speed - teenage cyclist Ellesse Andrews excels at everything she puts her mind to, which could make her the Kiwi bolter at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Ellesse Andrews may not realise it yet, but she’s already overtaken her Olympian dad on a bike.
The 19-year-old track cyclist has two world titles - and a world record - on her résumé. And her father, Jon Andrews, has two Commonwealth Games medals and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics on his.
But it’s her strength on a bike - a rare combination of explosive speed and endurance - that has pushed Andrews beyond her father's talents. And that’s according to the Olympian himself.
“I could never do what Ellesse can do,” he says. “I was really good at sprint events, but I could never do endurance events as well.
“She’s a sprinter with phenomenal endurance - and you don’t usually see that. She’s surpassed me already.”
While the explosive sprinting genes may have come from Dad, who won bronze in both the sprint and kilo at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, her endurance genes must come from her mother, Angela Mote-Andrews, who was a successful multi-sport athlete and mountain biker.
Now it's the teenage Andrews' time in the spotlight, as she becomes a real prospect to sprint for New Zealand at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
What’s so amazing is not that she’ll only be 20 years old, but that just seven months ago, she switched from an endurance cyclist to a sprinter.
“It’s all been a bit of a blur,” the Cambridge-based rider says. “Transitioning from endurance to sprinting is still very fresh, but I’ve really loved exploring it.”
Two years ago, Andrews became a world champion in the junior women's 2000m individual pursuit; her searing world record time set at those championships in Italy remains unbeaten. Her promise was recognised with the Halberg Emerging Talent award in 2018.
Andrews imagined that was where her future in elite cycling lay, in the longer track races. And she appeared to confirm that when, at 18, she finished sixth in the individual pursuit at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games - her very first time racing the senior 3000m distance. She then collected the Oceania women’s individual pursuit title in Adelaide.
But there was something gnawing away at the teen, who had always been curious about how well she might go as a sprinter.
She’d already had a taste of success in the sprint - she won the world junior title in the team sprint with Emma Cumming at her first world championships in 2016. But she wanted more.
So, with the help of New Zealand’s new head sprint coach, German Olympic gold medallist Rene Wolff, Andrews transferred her power and speed across to the sprint. It's proved a smart move.
“I was really lucky to have knowledgeable coaches to help me with the decision. I’m grateful they welcomed and encouraged me to pursue different areas on the bike,” she says.
But Andrews admits it hasn’t been as simple as racing shorter.
“It’s quite a big adjustment. There was an interesting period for a while not knowing what a warm-up looked like for a sprinter. I’d have to sit down with my coach and go through it all,” she says. “And then not knowing how to race some races, and the tactics behind them.
"Now seven months into it, I think I’ve got the hang of it. There’s always lots to learn, but I’m confident in what I’m doing, and I’m able to put everything I’ve got out on the track.”
She did so, in dramatic fashion, at the Oceania track championships in Invercargill last month.
Andrews claimed the scalps of the current team sprint world champions, Australians Steph Morton and Kaarle McCulloch, to win the keirin (the motor-paced sprint). She and New Zealand team-mate Olivia Podmore also came within 0.1 seconds of the national record in the team sprint.
Now she’s determined to prove herself further on the world stage - at the World Cup in Hong Kong this weekend, and the World Cup in her hometown of Cambridge next week. It's all part of the quest to secure ranking points and qualify the New Zealand women's sprint team for the 2020 Olympics.
With just two women in the team sprint event, there's a strong and healthy competition between three women in the New Zealand squad - Andrews, Podmore and two-time Olympian Natasha Hansen.
The fierce determination Andrews shows on the track was obvious to her parents when she was a young kid. She was a promising musician and dancer, but it was “sport where it came out most”, says her dad.
“She played a lot of sports well, but it wasn’t until she was 14 and started cycling that it all clicked,” Jon Andrews says. “Her individual competitive nature came out, and she’d go as hard as she could. She has a really great talent you can’t train.”
He gives the example of Ellesse’s first year at the junior worlds, where she qualified for the individual pursuit finals in fourth spot. In the race-off for bronze, she decided to ride as hard as she could “even if she blew up”, he says. “And she never stopped - she almost broke the world record.” She brought home that bronze.
But all of that is tempered by Andrews’ desire to enjoy what she’s doing - a message hammered home by her dad, the former national junior track coach, and her coach until she joined the New Zealand elite squad last year.
“He’s always pushed having a good time riding, always steered me in the direction of loving what I’m doing,” she says.
And she also knows she has time on her side to build a professional cycling career.
“Yes, the Olympics are a big goal I want to reach at some point in my career - hopefully multiple times,” she says. “But there’s still a lot of time for me; I’m just so young.
“Going to the Tokyo Olympics would be absolutely amazing; it would be great to get our sprint team there. But if I don’t get there personally, it’s just going to make me strive for 2024 even more.”
She doesn’t recall talking a lot about the Olympics growing up - in Christchurch, Wanaka and Cambridge - with younger sister Zoe. “But we knew our dad was an Olympian. We talked more about the Commonwealth Games, because he had medals that we could physically touch - which made it an easier concept to explain to a little kid," Andrews says.
Since the rest of her family moved back to Christchurch, Andrews now flats with a house of elite athletes who also harbour Olympic dreams - rower Kelsi Walters, javelin thrower Ben Langton-Burnell and canoeist Kurtis Imrie. It’s good, she says, to be around like-minded people.
Off the bike, Andrews has been studying at the University of Waikato towards a bachelor of social sciences majoring in psychology. She also has a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship to help her with leadership training and personal development.
Andrews is fascinated by psychology, and how the brain works. Her studies could pay off richly in her sprinting career, where mind games often come into play.
But she admits its been difficult balancing her studies with cycling: “Especially trying to muster the energy to do it all really well. But I love study - it’s nice to have something structured, that takes you away.”
Her other escape is music. Warming up in the heart of the velodrome, she wears earphones, “listening to music to pump me up and distract me from the sounds of racing before I get into the zone”. She often travels to races with her guitar.
Andrews is also an accomplished musician - another passion inherited from her mum, who’s a composer and music teacher.
“Music is a really big part of my life,” Andrews says. “I started singing lessons when I was three years old; when I was eight, I started the trumpet and piano; then guitar at 12 and singing again at 16,” she says.
“It’s something I really enjoy and want to get back into. At high school my life was all sport, I didn’t have time to play in the school jazz band or sing in the choir.
“But it’s something that will always be really close to me, and that I can always escape to.”
For now, the guitar will take the back seat; the track bike, the front.
“I’m in a really positive space with sport,” she says. “I have some great team-mates around me and some cool goals we’re working towards. It makes you want to fight each day to be better and to better each other.”
* Sky Sport will broadcast the World Cup in Hong Kong this weekend - Saturday 12.30am on SS8, and 10pm on SS4; and Sunday 9pm on SS4.