Caroline prepping the team bikes. Photo: Warren Davies
There have been plenty of articles written about the riders within the elite peloton but not enough exposure, in our view, has been given to those people within the teams who make bike racing possible.
In this new series on the Gear Changer, we want to direct the spotlight on women who are performing key roles within men's and women's elite cycling teams and inspiring a new generation of young girls and women to see the opportunities the sport offers.
Caroline Stewart is a Mechanic and Assistant DS for Bianchi Dama, an elite development cycling team formed back in 2015 as part of Exeter University's performance programme. The team has since developed into one of the best female cycling squads in the UK, with a race calendar based around the National Road Series as well as UCI races in Northern Europe.
Although Caroline joined the team in 2017, her involvement in the sport has covered a 20 year period. Alongside her role with Bianchi Dama she runs her own coaching business, CSCycle Coaching, enabling high end leisure and sportive riders to achieve their goals. Previous to this, Caroline was an avionics systems engineer with the Royal Navy and even ran her own historical martial arts school teaching workshops around the world.
Caroline's commitment, attention to detail and passion for the sport shines through in this interview and we hope it will illustrate the fundamental role women play within the sport.
TGC: Caroline, you perform the roles of Race Mechanic and Assistant DS at Bianchi Dama. Can you tell us more about what those roles entail both during training and race blocks?
CS: My role as mechanic with the team involves building the team race and training bikes to give to our riders, as well as liaising with partners and suppliers on material choices and some testing. At races, the role involves checking and preparing the bikes and spares (bikes and wheels) for the race, and then providing direct mechanical support from the team car during the race.
On stage races there is then the post-race clean and recheck and repair for the next day so I’ve seen a lot of hotel car parks across the UK and Europe.
As Assistant DS, I help the Team Manager and Lead DS in planning and preparation for races, and, as needed, will act as DS for the team in race situations. I have also worked as a DS for other teams in the past.
TGC: How did you first become associated with the team?
CS: I had previously worked with the Matrix Pro Cycling team in 2015 and 2016. With 2016 being an Olympic year, and a number of the team being GB Olympic Athletes or Paralympic Athletes, I was responsible as DS for most UK races the rest of the team took part in, with the Team Manager, Stef Wyman, overseeing all the main European races and any links with the Olympic preparation of the other riders, although I did look after the team on a Kermesse racing block in Belgium in the summer.
We spoke a lot about how teams were being run and had very similar ideas and outlooks on team organisation and outlook.
I was introduced to David Walters, running what was then Bikeshed Bianchi, at the 3 Days of Bedford and then again when we were both in the feed zone for the Lincoln GP a few weeks later. Neither of us putting a car into the convoy on that day. We spoke a lot about how teams were being run and had very similar ideas and outlooks on team organisation and outlook as well as music and movies, and I offered to help him out on the mechanical side if and when he needed it as the team didn’t have a full-time mechanic attached.
The Bianchi Dama team cars prepped for a stage of the 2018 Lotto Belgium Tour. Photo: Caroline Stewart
We met up at the Banbury Star RR a week later and again, spent the race in the feed zone (and in the car during torrential downpours) discussing what went into running successful and productive teams. With Matrix reducing its programme extensively in 2017, I agreed to come on board with the renamed Bianchi Dama squad from the start of 2017 with my first event being a women’s race day organised by them in Exeter. This coincided with Bianchi UK coming on board as lead sponsor and being a huge support to us to this day.
I’ve occasionally come across some sexist attitudes with customers when I was working in bike shops over the years, but I’ve never really encountered any true barriers. I am lucky and am continually thankful for this.
TGC: Have you ever encountered any barriers to working within cycling as a woman? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?
CS: On the whole, I’ve been pretty lucky. I seem to have a reasonable reputation now as a mechanic from riders, with whom I’ve worked or helped, saying good things, so I’ve not felt I’ve needed to break any barriers there, despite there being very few women in the role worldwide. I’ve occasionally come across some sexist attitudes with customers when I was working in bike shops over the years, but I’ve never really encountered any true barriers. I am lucky and am continually thankful for this.
TGC: Your experience within cycling is extensive and covers a 20 year period. How did you initially become involved in the sport?
CS: I started cycling in my mid-teens in the 1980’s. I didn’t enjoy or get involved in team sports and I enjoyed riding far and wide across Central Scotland, North of Glasgow, where I grew up. As I was showing an interest, my Grandfather, who had been an avid time trialist in his younger days, supported me by getting my first proper race bike to replace the heavy thing I’d bought from the classifieds in the local paper with my own savings. It was a beautiful, celeste coloured Bianchi Sprint, and no, the serendipity of that isn’t lost on me.
My father went to school with Billy Bilsland, an ex-professional racer and Olympian, who ran a bike shop in Glasgow and Billy was a huge help with advice and guidance to me too.
My father went to school with Billy Bilsland, an ex-professional racer and Olympian, who ran a bike shop in Glasgow (which is still there, run by his sons) and Billy was a huge help with advice and guidance to me too. I followed the televised Tour coverage on Channel 4 and the Kellogg’s City Centre series, getting to the race itself when it came to Glasgow and became a huge fan of cycling as a sport. I continued riding and racing whilst I served in the Royal Navy. After that, injury and family commitments meant I drifted away from the sport until 2011 when I started riding again, and then obtained formal mechanics qualifications and started working in bike shops, leaving a pretty stressful IT career behind.
TGC: In addition to your roles with the Bianchi Dama team you also have your own cycling coaching business. Tell us more about how you set that up together with the levels of rider you work with?
CS: I was heavily involved in historical martial arts (historical fencing), setting up and teaching at my own fencing school, working on translation of 17th century technical treatises and teaching workshops across the world. I also was heavily involved with instructor training and assessment, and the school was hugely successful in competitions across Europe. After many years, I took more of a back seat, handing the teaching over to my senior students, and spent more time cycling and enjoying that.
Caroline checking everything is just right. Photo: Warren Davies
I got involved with the British Cycling Breeze programme and was asked by some local Breeze Leaders if I could teach them some road skills as I was the more experienced rider. I wasn’t keen to do that without some training, so, I went down the road of securing my British Cycling coaching qualifications to back me up in doing so. I was providing skills and then performance coaching on an informal basis as and when the opportunities arose, but it made sense to formalise it and I set up CSCycle Coaching, which I still run. I also sub contract for other coaching companies, taking on clients for them. I mainly work with high end leisure/sportive riders, taking on challenges such as the Etape Du Tour, Mallorca 312 and Maratona Dolomites, and club level racers in the UK. On the skills front I work with any individual or club/group looking to improve its riding ability and skill set.
I was an avionics systems engineer, and the technical skills of systematic approach, logical problem diagnosis and some solid working practices have definitely been transferable to the role of race mechanic.
TGC: I read you are an ex-serving member of the Royal Navy. What was your role within the service and what skills and experiences have you found to be transferable into cycling?
CS: Without going into much detail, I was an avionics systems engineer, and the technical skills of systematic approach, logical problem diagnosis and some solid working practices have definitely been transferable to the role of race mechanic. The ability to work under pressured conditions, in some pretty bad weather and long hours is also a pretty useful set of skills to have gained.
It is an honour to spend time and effort to help those who may otherwise not be able to race at this level.
TGC: How would you sell the benefits of working within elite level cycling to other women or young girls who might be reading this?
CS: Working in sport is rewarding, seeing athletes perform and succeed. Working hard in an under represented sport (women’s cycling) is doubly so. As we don’t have the exposure and budgets of the men’s sport, across all levels, it is an honour to spend time and effort to help those who may otherwise not be able to race at this level.
If you look across the UK National Women’s Series (the top level of UK women’s racing) paddock, for example, we all know each other and there is a genuine drive, in most cases, to make sure everyone gets a fair chance to race. So, whilst it’s great to beat our rivals on the road, you will find that we help each other out across teams a lot. This is even more true when I’ve worked with youth and junior riders at regional and club level for British Cycling or the club.
There needs to be more women working as mechanics and sporting directors, and the trend is in that direction.
TGC: What more do you think can be done to attract more women to work in similar roles within men’s and women’s cycling?
CS: Representation. The current phrase being “if you can see it, you can be it”…There needs to be more women working as mechanics and sporting directors, and the trend is in that direction. The UCI introduced a scholarship for women for the formal Sports Director course, which runs once a year in Aigle, a qualification that was required for getting a team up to UCI level to compete.
Caroline behind the wheel at the 2018 Youth Tour of Scotland. Photo: Zoe Backstedt
I was fortunate enough to qualify for this in 2018 and was successful in attaining the qualification, though it is worth noting that for the 6 women on the English language version of the course, there were 18 men.
It was great to see Cherie Pridham take on a DS role at UCI men’s World Tour level, but she is the only one. There are women DSs at Women’s World Tour Teams, such as Ina Yoko Teutenberg and Giorgia Bronzin at Trek, but again, it will be great when there are more.
Increased TV coverage also means hearing more women’s voices talking extensively about the sport, in calm and knowledgeable terms. All of this representation counts.
The GC would like to thank Caroline for taking the time to talk about her life and career in cycling.
We wish her and the Bianchi Dama team every success for the season.
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