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How Gillian and Nigel Ellsay Keep Cycling in the Family

By Molly Hurford | April 12, 2018 | Rally Health

Pro athlete siblings aren’t uncommon. The Williams sisters spring to mind, and in cycling, the Sagan brothers conquered the pro peloton. But what’s less common is seeing a brother and a sister not only push their way into the pro ranks, but also land on the same team.

Enter the Ellsay siblings, 20-year-old Gillian and 23-year-old Nigel. At the beginning of what, by all accounts, will be long careers for both of them, they’re both new members of Rally CyclingSM, riding together for the first time since Gillian was 10.

Gillian is newer to the racing scene and has few big results, aside from a junior time trial national championship win in 2015. Nigel, on the other hand, has been a rising star for the last few years. He spent his developmental years racing in North America and Europe, and took second in the prestigious Joe Martin Stage Race in 2016.

Gillian might be younger, but she was the first to sign with Rally Cycling for this season, after sending her resume. She guest-rode for them a few seasons ago, and after falling in love with the team’s energy and the riders on the roster, it became her top pick.

“Luckily, they were interested!” she says.

Nigel followed shortly after, though he had been on director Jonas Carney’s radar in recent years. His consistent top 10s in big US stage races most likely cemented his spot on the Rally Cycling team. The men’s and women’s teams are run by different directors, so it wasn’t one person purposely picking the siblings. Instead, it was a happy coincidence.

“We are two sides of the same program, and it just so happens each of them independently filled the needs of each program,” says Women's Team Director Zach Bell.

Time Trial Experts

Still, Gillian and Nigel are both talented time trialists, according to Carney.

“They have the mental strength to push through the pain barrier that so many others fail on,” he says.

"They’re not aggressive. They watch what’s happening in a race and work with it."

Both teams needed racers with plenty of power, time trial expertise, and the ability to keep a level head even in the face of intense racing moments. In that, the Ellsays are ideal: Neither rider is showy or a big risk taker. Instead, they’re steady and cautious. In fact, their dad thinks that their greatest strength is probably also their greatest weakness when it comes to bike racing.

“They’re not aggressive,” says their father, Richard Ellsay. “They both played hockey and soccer and frustrated me with their lack of aggression! Nigel is quite calculating, he won’t take off on wild attacks. Gillian won’t either. They watch what’s happening in a race and work with it.”

That’s why time-trialing is their area of expertise: It’s a calculated amount of wattage sustained over a certain distance, versus the aggression and unknowns of racing in a pack.

In fact, time trialists are often the riders with the best wattages on the team, since tactics and technique don’t factor into performance as much as they do in pack racing. A decade of riding in some of the best terrain and climate for excelling in cycling helped the Ellsays both develop their strong legs.

Starting Young

The two grew up near Courtenay, British Columbia, the same town that Canadian mountain biking legend Geoff Kabush hails from — about 155 miles north of Victoria. Their father is a local prosecutor, while their mother teaches elementary school and serves as the school’s vice principal. Their house was around eight miles from town and with no kids their age nearby, they were essentially forced to be friends, and later, riding buddies.

“Our dad rode bikes, so we started riding with him,” says Nigel. “He enjoyed racing, and as we got older, it was a good piece of physical activity to do as a family.

“It’s a sport you can do with other people, and not necessarily at the same fitness level,” Nigel says — meaning that despite their age and strength differences, he and his sister could ride together. According to one study, sibling support is associated with lower loneliness and depression and with higher self-esteem and life satisfaction, and that seems to be the case for the Ellsays.

But that’s not exactly how Gillian saw things, apparently.

“I can recall hearing complaints from Gillian about rides with Nigel where Nigel would just go and keep going,” their father says. “She would be annoyed that he wouldn’t slow down.”

“I wouldn’t say either of us is a phenom. We’re good at putting in the work, good at recovering, and good at working on our weaknesses.”

Still, she stuck on his wheel when she could, and admits that the push probably made her the cyclist she is now. Siblings typically share about 50 percent of the same DNA (unless they are twins), so any similarities or differences can prompt plenty of scientific debate over nature versus nurture, or genetics versus environment. Gillian and Nigel both point to “nurture” over nature.

“I wouldn’t say either of us is a phenom. We both had to work hard at it. You have to have a certain amount of skill, but we’re both good adapters,” says Nigel. “We’re good at putting in the work, good at recovering, and good at working on our weaknesses.”

Sibling Rivalry?

Still, it’s not easy when a big brother and little sister start riding bikes at the same time. Physiological differences between men and women mean that Gillian never has been able to directly compete with her brother; she can only hope to hold onto his wheel in training rides. While that might get frustrating for some people — and Gillian admits to throwing the occasional fit when she’s been unceremoniously dropped during intervals — the Ellsays remain remarkably close.

“It drove me crazy,” she says. “But it did make me faster.”

Over the years, they have shared everything, from a time-trial bike that was a bit too small for Nigel and a bit too big for Gillian, to the same coach, Richard Wooles. Wooles works with their schedules as best he can, creating rides that allow them to start together but do workouts separately, and planning their easy spins for the same days. But not everything that works for Nigel will work for Gillian.

“I asked our coach to give me these no-breakfast rides that Nigel had been doing, (because) I wanted to see if I should do it,” Gillian says. “It turns out you have to be really careful with those.” (Women have a harder time balancing hormones when doing fasts or fasted-state training.)

Sharing a coach also leads to another issue: Too much information gets leaked — like if Gillian eats that second cookie. Still, having a big brother/spy around can be a good motivator.

“For me, it’s hard to get out the door when it’s six degrees (celsius) and raining, so when Nigel goes out, it forces me to do the same,” she says.

Of course, it’s easy to urge each other on since they’ll never be directly competing, but what if the two had both been boys, or girls? Would they still be close?

“I feel like if I was a boy, we would,” Gillian says. “We’d be able to put it aside. But if Nigel was a girl, we’d hate each other for a while after every race and it wouldn’t work. It would definitely be passive aggressive competition.”

Nigel just laughs at this — but he doesn’t deny it, either. But luckily, the two seemingly operate as a solid, unified duo, even sneaking out for coffee together while at training camp. Their father says that they’ve always been close — even when pressed, he’s unable to recount a single knock-down, drag-out fight.

Seeing It From Both Sides

Since his sister rides professionally, Nigel has been put in an interesting position: He’s a pro male cyclist who has an intimate perspective on women’s cycling. Male riders can be dismissive of the women’s side of the sport, partly because sponsorship dollars are already stretched thin, so the bigger women’s cycling grows, the less money there is for men’s cycling.

Plus, the times are slower and distances are shorter in women’s racing compared with men’s racing. Equal prize money for men and women sounds obvious to most, but can be controversial in the cycling world.

So, while Gillian may have found earlier success than her brother by landing on a top-tier team at such a young age, her opportunities for advancement are few and far between and she’s already near the top of that glass ceiling. As a result, Nigel has become a bit of a feminist ally.

“I find myself arguing for women’s cycling. It’s pretty polarizing in the men’s van or at the dinner table talking about it. It’s depressing, I’d say,” he says. “It definitely changes things, having Gillian racing and seeing her side.”

Of course, Nigel doesn’t often get a firsthand view of women’s racing, since men’s and women’s racing schedules rarely align.

The Road Ahead

Being on the same team may seem like a family’s dream come true, but the two actually won’t spend much time together. This year, Gillian will race mostly in North America while Nigel heads to Europe. As a result, they will overlap for only one race in the coming season —Tour of the Gila in April. But hopefully, as the two move forward in the sport, they’ll overlap at more races, like the Olympic Games.

While both dream of the Olympics, they’re more focused on eventually racing in Europe — Gillian on the women’s World Tour, and Nigel in — naturally — the Tour de France. Both love the travel and the excitement of racing, even when they’re racing across the globe from each other.

For this season, both are focused on working as hard as they can for the team, whether that means excelling in time trials during stage races, or helping propel teammates to victories in road races or criteriums. Gillian helped teammate Sara Bergen into second place overall at the Valley of the Sun stage race in Phoenix earlier this year, taking 10th place for herself. Nigel finds his place in the pack in Europe in races like the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol.

The two seem to have a long career ahead of them, but if one leaves the sport, will the other continue? Both seem stumped.

“It would change my perspective on the sport if Gillian stopped racing,” Nigel finally says. “I don’t know exactly what it would change for me, but it would change something.”

Molly Hurford is the author of “Fuel Your Ride,” “Saddle, Sore,” and the upcoming “Shred Girls” series. She also writes for Bicycling magazine, and co-hosts “The Consummate Athlete” podcast.

Molly Hurford
Rally Health

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