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RED-S syndrome knocked Kiwi cyclist off-track

Commonwealth Games cycling silver medallist Georgia Williams is on the comeback road, after taking time out to let her body recover from RED-S syndrome. * WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE *

At the prime of her road cycling career, Georgia Williams was burned out – she wasn’t getting enough fuel for her body, and her bones were becoming more and more brittle.

The outstanding Kiwi road cyclist had no idea why, and was completely unaware of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), the syndrome affecting athletes all over the world.

“It’s a crazy thing. You don’t think that not eating enough during training can shut down the hormone production and the bone production. I just totally did not think that was even possible,” the Commonwealth Games silver medallist says.

The RED-S syndrome had built up over the last few years for Auckland-born Williams, who’d been riding for Australian professional team Mitchelton-Scott. Her low hormone levels led to a scary discovery.

“Without having the oestrogen to help strengthen the bones, your bone density can decrease, and unfortunately mine has,” the 26-year-old says. “My lower spine’s quite bad; it’s like osteoporosis density.”

After being diagnosed with RED-S, Williams took a break from the sport at the start of last season. She knew she had to get better before re-entering the risky world of cycling.

“My team was really good, they were super supportive and they believed in me and backed me. They told me, ‘No Georgia, take your rest and recover, and then we can rethink the rest of the season’,” she says.

A change in plans for the year was matched by a change in Williams’ approach to nutrition.

“I was just totally unaware of how little I was eating, and how much you do need to eat when you’re doing four to five hour rides,” says Williams, who noticed an immediate difference after working with the team’s nutritionist.

“The most important thing is carbs before, during and after training. I’ve found myself with so much more energy, and I recover better now.”

Her blood levels have improved as well, and she’s feeling stronger.

“I’m on the mend now and hopefully my bones are starting to get better, and the situation is monitorable,” last year’s national time trial champion says.

At first “hesitant” to share her story, finding it hard to discuss, Williams – who won road race silver in the 2018 Commonwealth Games - is now happy to open up about RED-S.

“It’s actually more common than people think and it’s being talked about a lot more now which is really good,” she says.

After speaking to other female cyclists, Williams realised there were many others in a similar situation. 

“I’m happy to talk to other girls and I’ve had lots contact me. It makes me happy if I can help them a little bit because I would hate for them to be in the situation I’ve been in the last year,” she says.

Georgia Williams hopes to win back the national road race jersey this week. Photo: Getty Images

Williams’ time off the bike was exacerbated by an uncertain future with Mitchelton-Scott. She was in the final year of her contract and had reduced opportunities to impress.

“I was a bit stressed about it…obviously stress is not good for recovery. They were like ‘No Georgia, don’t worry about it, we believe in you and we know what you can do’.”

She was offered a one-year extension, and is already making her mark for the Australian World Tour team. Williams rode the Tour Down Under earlier this month, fulfilling her usual role as an influential and dependable support rider, while also coming close to a podium spot on the final stage.

It’s the top step she’s targeting at the elite road cycling nationals in Cambridge this week. She’s back in New Zealand earlier than expected, after hitting her head hard in a big crash at the recent Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race across the Tasman.

While it’s far from the ideal build-up, with Williams crossing her fingers she’ll have fully recovered in time, the change in date has helped. Nationals used to be held in early January before being shifted to mid-February this year, meaning she’s had an extra month-and-a half of training under her belt. 

“I had the national champs jersey in 2018, but not last year, so I’d really like it back for this year,” she laughs.

The Giro Rosa in Italy is also a big goal. One of the biggest races of the international season, Williams has missed the last two through a crash and her illness.

“The Giro’s always a huge goal for the team and it’s always super hard and fun. I’m really looking forward to that and I want to play a key role there,” she says.

Unfortunately, the Tokyo Olympics in July don’t feature on her wall planner. While women’s road cycling is on the rise, it’s hard for the country to gain crucial qualifying points. Williams’ truncated season didn’t help the cause, and New Zealand couldn’t do enough to get anyone on the start line in either the time trial or the road race.

“Yeah it’s really frustrating. Obviously, it’s been a goal for years so it’s quite hard to have that shut down,” she says.  “It is what it is I guess…there’s plenty more races to come, maybe another Olympics in four years, we’ll see.”

Reinvigorated and wiser, Williams is hoping her experience with RED-S can help others in the sport and fuel her own cycling ambitions. Known for supporting her own team-mates, she’s now looking out for the rest of the peloton as well.

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