When Tiffany Cromwell answers the phone days before the second edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes she’s in Finland.
Pro cyclists are habitual creatures and during the season when they’re not competing at races there’s typically a handful of towns in which they base themselves and congregate.
Monaco, Andorra and Girona, where it’s close to impossible to walk down the main street in the old town without seeing a rider, are among those. Finland, for all its natural majesty, clean air, pristine lakes, reindeer, is not one of them. In April the snow is still clearing from the roadside.
“There’s so much nature, just quiet,” Cromwell says.
The seasoned road captain is with her boyfriend, Valtteri Bottas, the F1 driver who was recently in her native Australia to compete for Alfa Romeo at the Australian Grand Prix.
He is Finnish.
The glamourous couple are based in Monaco but escape to the Nordic country a few times a year when their respective schedules allow.
“Helsinki [the capital] is a nice city but he’s from about an hour north of there and it’s a place where you can properly relax,” Cromwell continues. “There’s still some snow around but at least on the roads now it’s drying out, so you can actually ride your bike.”
The landscape and serenity are a complete juxtaposition to the thick, choking dust, dry, bone-shaking cobbles and cacophony of manufactured sound that awaits her in northern France.
Cromwell has competed as a professional cyclist for more than a decade and during that time has also run her own creative enterprise as a fashion designer. For a time, she had an eponymous cycling kit line. The demands of the road, which have become more intense with the increased professionalism of and interest in women’s cycling, means the business has become more of a hobby. However, Bottas arrived in Melbourne brandishing an F1 helmet that she designed. It was signature Cromwell — bright, beautiful colours that in this instance paid homage to her homeland, awash with sky blue, sand and sunset yellow, and featuring vibrant beach boxes, kangaroos, and a great white shark.
“I’ve now become more my boyfriend’s personal designer, which I enjoy, and yes, I do a few of his kits. He also rides for training, and I’ve done a few kits for him, and I’m doing the [F1] helmets as well, which has been a fun little project,” she says.
I tell Cromwell that I had wondered if I’d see her in Melbourne at the Grand Prix given her latest design project.
“Nah,” she says. “We had Amstel that weekend, so I was a little bit busy.”
Cromwell has adopted a measured approach to what has and stands to be another huge and historic campaign for the 33-year-old, who has rediscovered her passion for road cycling partly thanks to another venture into gravel racing.
She competed in her career second Paris-Roubaix on Saturday, finishing 16th — 2 minutes and 54 seconds behind winner Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), having earlier supported Canyon-SRAM teammate Elise Chabbey to fourth place.
Cromwell is also set to compete at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in July — that is, the first women’s Tour de France in 30-odd years.
“I want to be part of the first one,” she says. “Like every team, they’re going to have their final team selected right before because everyone knows how important it is. I know I need to be in the right shape for it as well if I expect to have that spot on the team.”
And all signs so far this season, which has comprised a full spring classics campaign, suggest she will indeed have the right shape.
Cromwell, following a few years of lacklustre performances and soul-searching, has started to feel like her old self again in racing.
“I had periods where I could perform and other times when I just was in the grupetto every race and it wasn’t enjoyable,” she says. “It was a whole range of factors. I was a little bit lost in my head, not knowing exactly what I wanted in life in general, I guess. You know, I’ve done the sport for so long, so you go through those periods where it becomes a bit stale and just same, same. You rock up at the same race, and you try and do the right training, but then things don’t work so you don’t necessarily have the confidence in yourself and then if you don’t have that you don’t have the motivation because you’re always getting dropped and are not part of the action.”
If she has a chance to compete for the win herself, Cromwell will take it, but she’s predominately forged a path as a road captain and super domestique. The pressure isn’t necessarily on her to win. However, she holds herself to the same exacting standard as that of champions.
“You can be a support rider and be there until the finale and it’s exciting but if you’re a support rider and getting dropped as soon as it gets hard it’s not good for you and it’s also not beneficial for the team,” she says.
“I had a period where that’s where I was at, and it was just kind of searching for myself and looking for ways to mix it up or change things,” she says. “Step by step it gradually happened. I obviously got more stability in my life, personal life, and stuff, and that made me more calm, less stressed, and everything else just followed.”
Cromwell opened her 2022 campaign at Strade Bianche and got stuck into the spring classics from there, competing at the Three Days of De Panne, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race and Roubaix.
In Roubaix especially the revived Cromwell accomplished what she had been striving for — riding deep into the final of a race in support of a teammate. Chabbey finished in the first group behind solo victor Longo Borghini, with Cromwell crossing the line in the third select group.
It was in a race, no less, that the Olympian, at the outset of the rain-soaked inaugural edition last October, didn’t initially think was for her, before she finished 29th behind winner Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), and at the end of a season disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Somehow, I managed to dodge all the recons throughout the time because whenever it came time to do my recon the racing got cancelled so I never actually rode the cobbles until, like, three days before,” Cromwell recalls.
“And as people who have ridden will tell you, Roubaix cobbles are very different to the Belgium cobbles. So, my first impression was, okay, yeah, I’ll get through this, tick this race off, say I’ve done it, and probably not want to do it again because my first [impression] was yeah, these cobbles aren’t fun, they’re hard and I’m a smaller rider so technically I’m not the right build.”
“Fast forward to the race,” Cromwell continues, “and I did quite OK. I was able to use my technical craft to get far enough.”
“We got given the hardest of conditions for the very first edition to really say this is Roubaix in all its glory, with the rain and the mud, but I dodged all the early crashes,” she says. “I was in that first front group chasing Lizzie and it was only that I got caught behind one crash at one point that I lost it from the front. After that I was like, actually, maybe it could be one when I’m a bit fresh, because it was obviously the last race of the season, for me, so you’re mentally fatigued, I was like maybe I could have another crack at this and see what we can do when you’re a bit fresher.”
The performance has played into this season. Cromwell regained confidence and her entry into gravel racing, which she will focus on in May, competing in America at events including the Belgian Waffle Ride and Grinduro, before returning to Europe, has also helped to alleviate the stress of the Women’s WorldTour, as well as with physical conditioning.
“It was seeing progression,” she says. “I think that’s what it was. I started seeing progression so then you get more confident that you can go that bit further and then everything just rolls on and next thing you are the one there in the finals doing the attacks with your teammates, doing the lead-outs. And that’s why we race, because we want to be part of fighting to the finish line.”