Sport / Cycling

Brunswick trio chase Olympic glory in Tokyo

Three 20-year-olds who came of age cycling together at the Brunswick Velodrome will be competing at the Tokyo Olympics this month

Catalina Soto, Luke Plapp and Sarah Gigante. Photo: supplied.

Mark Phillips
Monday, July 12, 2021

WHEN the Tokyo Olympics women’s road race is held on July 25, members of the Brunswick Cycling Club will be cheering for not only Australia, but for Chile.

Competing in the 137km race will be two Brunswick alumni: for Australia, Sarah Gigante, and for Chile, Catalina Soto. Meanwhile, a third cyclist who came up through the ranks at Brunswick, Luke Plapp, is also set for his Olympic debut as a member of the Australian men’s track team.

All three are aged 20 and are close friends from bonds formed as junior cyclists — in the case of Gigante and Plapp almost a decade ago. But now they have swapped the Brunswick Velodrome for the professional road racing circuit in Europe.

Sarah Gigante and Luke Plapp riding as juniors at the Brunswick Velodrome.

The selection of three cyclists from Brunswick for the Olympics is a continuation of a tradition going back to Rome in 1960, when the 105-year-old club had two representatives for the first time. Illustrious names to have gone through the club’s junior clinic over the years including four times World Champion and five times Olympian Shane Kelly who won medals at the 1992 and 2000 Olympics.

No-one could be prouder of the trio of Gigante, Plapp and Soto than Brunswick Cycling Club president Tony Maughan. He said the three cyclists had shared some of their greatest achievements to date, such as competing together at the junior world championships, and pushed each other to do better.

“They’re all great mates and have come through [the club] from the very early days as little tackers,” he said.

“We’re really proud of all three of them. They’re really well-balanced young adults who train and work hard but have fun as well and have put the time back into the club that nurtured them,” he said.

“They’re always there with smiles and putting back into the juniors when they can.”

Maughan said the trio’s success was also a testament to the club’s youth program led by coaches Dave Morgan, Cam Mcfarlane and the late Alf Walker.

Gigante said it was “simply surreal” to be going to Tokyo with two close friends from the same club.

“We have all had such different journeys and cycling lives, and yet we’ve all found our way to Tokyo, which is amazing to think about,” she told Brunswick Voice recently via email from Europe, where she was training for the Olympics.

“It doesn’t seem too long ago that Luke and I were neck and neck racing each other in Woodend for the Junior C Grade 3 Day Tour title as 11-year-olds, and it certainly feels like only yesterday that Catalina and I would ride with our other junior friends to Mt Pleasant each Sunday morning.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Soto, who arrived at Brunswick in 2015 after migrating with her family from Chile.

“When I realised that Sarah and Luke were going to be in Tokyo as well, it brought me some lovely memories from our Junior World Championships debut in 2018,” she said by email. “We were so excited to represent our countries in such awesome events both on the track and the road, and I am sure if you told us the three of us were going to be in Tokyo, we would’ve had a laugh and kept that as a dream when now is a reality.

“With Sarah we used to ride together so much along Yarra Boulevard. I remember we would train our time trials or race up Yarra Street with our friends. We had awesome fun and it’s so cool to see her doing so well nationally and internationally, and I’m sure when we are back we will go for a Tour de Burbs ride to keep the competitive spirit!

“I am so stoked to go to my first Olympics and be part of the Brunswick Family there. I know we will be cheering for each other and when back in Australia we will be able to share our experience!”

Gigante was the first competitive cyclist in a family that was always active and loved the outdoors.

From the age of five she participated in the nine-day Great Victorian Bike Ride on a trailer bike with her mother and then on a tandem from the age of seven.

“Then I told her that I was ‘sick of looking at her backside!’ and I wanted to do it on my own bike.

“650km is a long way for an eight-year-old though, with days of over 100km long, so my mum googled ‘cycling clubs for kids’ and Brunswick came up. It wasn’t the closest club to us — we lived in Diamond Creek — but it had a reputation of being the most family-friendly.

“From the moment I started, I knew I’d fallen completely in love with the sport. I never really made a decision to compete at the elite level — instead, I’ve just always kept doing what I love and trying to be the best I can be, and slowly worked my way up through the ranks this way.”

Despite her tiny frame (she now weighs just 50kg), Gigante was identified early as a special talent and at Tokyo she will compete in both the road race on July 25 and the individual time trial on July 28.

Plapp began competitive cycling a few years later at about 12 as an extra form of exercise to support his cricket and football. He came of age in 2018 when he won two individual gold and one team bronze medal at the Junior World Track Championships, stepping up when a team mate broke a collarbone during training.

“He was the first in his family to give it a go and started off in the junior clinic at Brunswick on Sunday afternoons and took to road and track in the very early days,” Maughan said.

“He was also a fantastic cricketer and a naturally gifted sportsperson who turned his focus to cycling in high school and was very focused on building a career from it.”

Plapp is part of the 14 rider track team for Tokyo and will compete in the team pursuit beginning on August 2.

Catalina Soto’s path to the Olympics was a completely different one to that of Gigante and Plapp. Born in Santiago, the capital of Chile, she began competitive cycling against grown men at the age of 13, and came to Australia in her mid-teens with her mother and his partner who were pursuing studies and employment opportunities here.

“It’s amazing to see their hard work paying off, and the really important thing is they’re three really well rounded, genuine young adults pursuing their passion who have a really strong connection to their roots at the same time.”

“We first heard of the Brunswick Cycling Club when the staff from Saint Cloud bike shop told us that it was the cycling club in the area to join,” she said by email.

“When we showed up, they were super welcoming, telling us all about the training and races on Tuesday night and the clinic on Sundays. I liked it because bike riding was the only thing that reminded me and made me feel like I was home [in Chile]. I didn’t want to be in Australia at the time because I missed my friends and family, but soon enough the community at Brunswick became friends and family.”

At Tokyo, Soto will be competing against Gigante in the women’s road race. Unlike Australia, which has an illustrious history in both road and track cycling, Chile is a relative minnow on the world stage.

Gigante, who achieved a perfect ATAR score in year 12 in 2018 and is studying remotely at the University of Melbourne, where she is majoring in linguistics and geography, said she just hoped to enjoy herself at her first Olympics and any medals would be a bonus.

“I didn’t at all expect, or even dare to hope, of going to the Olympics at only 20 years old, so my main goals are to have fun and really soak up the experience! I don’t have any outcome-based goals and I will instead focus on making the most of the opportunities presented to me and will do my best to help my team and make Australia proud.”

Soto equally is just excited about being at an Olympic Games and is looking forward to cheering on her Aussie mates.

“I have personally dreamed about going to the Olympic Games representing Chile since I knew the games existed. I never thought I would do it at 20 years old!” she said.

“I thought Paris or L.A. would’ve been a more realistic goal, but now the reality is Tokyo, and this makes me super excited and I can’t wait to tackle this experience … It will be an exciting race with a challenging course, I can only do my best. I am hoping it all goes well and I suffer no incidents and we will see what the outcome is!”

Maughan said the three cyclists were great ambassadors for the club, and credit had to go to the coaches who had spotted and developed their potential from a young age.

“It’s amazing to see their hard work paying off, and the really important thing is they’re three really well rounded, genuine young adults pursuing their passion who have a really strong connection to their roots at the same time.”

Gigante echoes those sentiments, telling Brunswick Voice that she hopes to continue the legacy of her three mentors at the club.

“Brunswick Cycling Club has played, and still does play to this day, a huge role in my development as both a cyclist and as a person.

“Dave Morgan, Cam Mcfarlane and Alf Walker were some of the key individuals at the club who must have volunteered thousands of hours throughout my junior career alone, always turning up for training sessions whether it be rain, hail or shine.

“They, and the whole club family, are also responsible for my “just have fun” approach to cycling, which has helped my longevity in the sport and made the whole journey so much more enjoyable.”

Soto also made special mention of Morgan, Mcfarlane and Paul Stewart from the club.

“David Morgan or Mister Pink, was so so important for me to keep riding. I would be lonely and sad at times because I missed home, and he was there to give me a hug and get me up to ride on my bike. He has always been there and I have learned that first I need to enjoy it, which is something I keep remembering every single day,” she said.

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