Rachel Heal is leader of the pack
The directeur sportif of a cycling team serves as both manager and coach, following the race in a team car and communicating with riders. As the leader of the Colavita/Forno d'Asolo Pro Cycling Team, former Olympian Rachel Heal is one of the few female directeurs sportif in the world. She talked to espnW about pursuing her dream, the importance of teamwork in cycling and how being an engineer helps her as part of our Power Players series highlighting women in sports business.
espnW: You started cycling while studying chemical engineering at Birmingham University in England, as a means of transportation to and from class. Do you think you would've ever become immersed in the sport had you not needed a bike for transportation during your studies?
Rachel Heal: Probably not. My commute was only 2 miles or so to class, so I had to do a lot more cycling to really get into the sport, but my commute is what introduced me to cycling.
espnW: In 2001, you left your job as a product engineer at Cadbury to become a full-time cyclist on the Great Britain national team. Was it scary to leave such a stable job behind to pursue a career that has no financial guarantee? And was it difficult to leave the chocolate behind?
RH: I had a little bit of a safety net in that my boss said he'd leave my job open for me for a year. I don't think I could've possibly imagined how long I'd end up cycling for. I thought it'd be one to two years, but it was a dream. That far outweighed leaving a job behind. I had a degree in engineering, so I figured if cycling didn't work out, I'd be able to find a job since I had my degree.
I think I'll always be a chocoholic, but it wasn't something that I couldn't buy in the store. It's probably better that I wasn't surrounded by it eight hours a day.
espnW: After racing for a couple of professional teams in the U.K., you made the jump across the pond in 2006 to race in the U.S. Why'd you decide to make the move?
RH: I was racing for Team SATS in 2005, and at the Giro D'Italia race, my team manager informed me that the team was out of money and wouldn't be doing any more racing that year. I happened to be rooming with an American girl who knew the manager of Victory Brewing. The manager let me know that there was a spot open on the team. I came over and did a few races that season, and I really enjoyed it.
espnW: The position of directeur sportif is a job almost exclusively held by men. Do you ever encounter any skeptics who question whether a woman can hold your position?
RH: I was probably someone skeptical myself, but I've been in a male-dominated environment my whole life, being an engineer, so I wasn't intimated by a job that's mostly held by men.
espnW: Your current team, Colavita/Forno D'Asolo, is one of the top 10 teams in the world. What's the secret to your team's success, and are there any cyclists on your team who have a good chance of coming home from the 2012 London Games with a medal?
RH: The secret is anything but a secret. We race 100 percent of the time as a team. To people who aren't involved, cycling can be a little confusing. It's raced as a team sport but the results are individual. The team we have now is 100 percent committed, and they don't care who wins as long as it is one of us.
Rushlee Mae Buchanan is a New Zealander. She has a good chance to medal. Theresa Cliff-Ryan is one the best sprinters in the U.S., so she has a good shot as well, and Catherine Cheatley is the current New Zealander road champion, so she's another one who could possibly medal.
espnW: How were you able to secure the directeur sportif position on such a high-caliber team?
RH: My last season, I rode for the team. The DS at the time knew she was leaving at the end of the year so she was looking for someone to take over. My boyfriend was doing some work for the team as a mechanic. He's been a cyclist for 20 years. She saw that between the two of us, the partnership would work really well for the team.
espnW: What's the funniest thing that's happened during your tenure as DS of the team?
RH: We were driving somewhere at some point, and when I reverse the trailer, I roll down the window and stick my head out to look back, instead of using the mirrors. Well, one time I didn't realize the window was up, and I smacked my head. It made the girls laugh.
espnW: During your own cycling career, you made it to the Olympics, competing in the road race at the 2004 Athens Games and coming in 22nd. What was that experience like for you? Were you satisfied with your finish?
RH: It was an amazing experience to go to the Games back in the birthplace of the Olympics. The course itself was amazing. Definitely different than anything I'd ever experienced.
As for my finish, this is one of the reasons I feel anyone who rides on our team has to be 100 percent committed to the team. My finish was a little bit misleading. People misunderstood why I was there. Nicole Cooke and I rode on the British national team together. At the Olympics, my job was to help Nicole finish as high as she could. I was working for her.
espnW: How'd she do?
RH: She came in fifth, which was a disappointment for her, but she went on to win gold in Beijing in 2008.
espnW: What kind of training regimen was required in order to qualify for the Olympics?
RH: An average training week is about 25 hours. That's just the time actually on the bike. You spend more hours stretching and doing core exercises.
espnW: How much progress has women's cycling made in terms of gaining popularity, and what still needs to be done to help grow the sport?
RH: It's definitely gaining popularity. The public perception is better, but it's still a long way behind the men.
There are a lot of races that will hold the women's race in conjunction with the men. The more that happens, the more the sport will continue to grow.