By Helen Bridgman
Growing up in a small town in Alberta, Canada, with a population of around 4,000, a career in professional cycling wasn’t exactly what a young Alison Jackson dreamed of. Born and raised on a grain farm and bison ranch with her two siblings, being a farmer would have been more of a natural first choice for Jackson. It wasn’t until leaving the family home that her dreams of being an Olympian and a professional athlete really came to the fore.
For Jackson, a slightly goofy, energetic, dynamic, fun-loving, family-orientated joker, the Women’s WorldTour is certainly a far cry from home. But it’s a home from home, one where she’s thriving, and somewhere that she is already making her mark. So who is the person behind those infamous TikToks and where does her confidence and boundless energy come from?
“I grew up on a farm and so we always had a lot of outdoor farm chores and ‘work stuff’ as kids,” said Jackson, “and I had a lot of outdoor energy. I loved playing with the animals and being outside. I think when we got into school and then had sports and activities to get into, then I shifted all my outdoor energy into that.
“Growing up in a small town meant that if you were sporty, you got to play all the sports so that we actually had a sports team,” joked Jackson.
A middle child (she has an older sister and a younger brother), Jackson’s the only one in the family who cycles. In fact, her family knew very little about cycling before she became a professional, but they’ve gone on a journey of discovery with her and taken a real interest. “For my family, it’s been really cool just to see how they have championed me and the sport,” she said. “They’ve done so much learning themselves to become fans of it.”
She recognises that her career choice is rather unique in her hometown of Vermilion, where there are few other cyclists. There’s also a relatively limited racing scene in Canada. With the exception of BC Superweek, which features nine pro bike races in ten days, you really have to head to the US or Europe if you want to get to the top level.
With no obvious cycling role model, where did Jackson’s love of the sport come from? A relatively late bloomer in cycling terms, Jackson, now 32, began riding at 19, when she started training for a triathlon. She competed in a lot of triathlons, including Amateur World Championships in 2012 and 2014, which led to her getting a running scholarship to Trinity Western University in British Columbia. After graduating from there with a Bachelor of Human Kinetics, the North American equivalent of sports science, Jackson chose cycling as a profession.
“When I was graduating,” she said, “I just wanted to be a professional athlete and whether that was triathlon, or just cycling or just running I didn’t mind. But I also had this Olympic dream which then kind of narrowed it down for me to either running or cycling. So in my last year there I just tried a lot of different events.” Jackson modestly added, “I won some bike races, got a walk on spot with an American team and then went from there.”
You hear of a lot of triathletes transitioning to cycling, and that often lends itself to a few jokes about bike handling, which is something Jackson has proactively worked on over the years. Although she wasn’t really a pure triathlete from the start. “When I trained for a triathlon,” said Jackson, “I never trained with triathletes. I swam with a swim team, I cycled with the cycling club and ran with the university running team. As an older athlete, getting on a bike at 19, you don’t have the same kind of oneness with the bike that you do if you grew up on a bike as a kid. But I think a talent of mine is that I adapt really well.”
She definitely adapted well to racing in Europe, jumping straight into it in her first year as a pro in 2015. “The style is a lot different,” Jackson said of European racing. “I just love the chaos and the stress of it, and the fact it’s hard to win. I think that challenge really motivated me and drove me. Just being a part of the peloton has helped me learn. Year by year, race by race, that experience has really worked for me.”
Jackson may come across as a bit of a joker off the bike, but when it comes to sports and games, there’s no doubt she’s a competitor. In part that comes from her parents, “I love to win,” she said. “My dad is very driven. He’s got big goals and he’s worked really hard to achieve that, and I see a lot of that in me. My mom is the one that’s more competitive.” She also gets her drive from her own achievements and loves that sense of winning and being good at something, “I had a lot of different moments of success, and it’s a great feeling.”
The more serious side to Jackson definitely comes out when she talks about racing. “I love pushing the body and seeing what’s possible. But what really drew me to cycling was this mental game. You know, it’s not like triathlon and running where it’s basically this time trial and it’s how hard and how far can you push your body in that consistent way. In bike racing, it’s the tactics. You don’t have to be the strongest rider to win the race, you have to be smart in where you use your energy. Choosing when to make your attack. Do you wait or do you risk it? Be bold or play the game? And that to me is the best part about cycling and what makes how every race is played out so different and dynamic, even though we go to the same course year after year.”
Whilst she’s taught herself bike handling skills, Jackson clearly has good natural racing instincts and you can’t teach that. Fearless when she first started racing, she says she was also “clueless”. Not knowing who anyone was, and those in the women’s peloton not knowing who she was worked in her favour early on. Sadly that doesn’t work once your rivals get to know you, so Jackson takes a somewhat different approach these days, “Now that I have a few years under my belt of being in the WorldTour I like to be a student of bike racing. I pay more attention to watching bike races, noticing how team tactics play out. I guess just trying to add to my repertoire of options. I think that before I’d just roll up and try things and relied on instinct and now I’m trying to maybe be a little bit more scholastic about it.”
2021 has been a good season already for Jackson. She kicked off the classics with her new team, Liv Racing, at Le Samyn des Dames in March. Back in Canada since racing Flèche Wallonne in April, Jackson reflected on those early races, “I had a lot of fun doing Dwars door Vlaanderen. I was fifth there so it was a good race for me but also I learned a lot of things about myself, just being a very dynamic racer and also making it to the final selection. It’s that confidence to believe what’s possible.”
“The Tour of Flanders was also a good race for the team – minus the worst possible mechanical on the Kwarement with three of us stuck together,” she continued. “But it’s also in moments like that that you really build confidence with your team that ‘we’re in this together’, you know. I still took away a lot of good feelings from that race.”
Joining Liv Racing this year was a great move for Jackson and the vibe on the team very much fits with her personality and her upbringing. “They are a family run team and I like that feel with the programme,” she enthused. “I love that Liv is such a big supporter of the team. They have such a great community globally with the brand and with getting women on bikes and the whole company is run by women for women. I thought that was really cool to be part of.”
Covid restrictions prevented Jackson from joining the rest of the riders for their first team camp, but she’d already begun to get to know her teammates. “Over the winter I started a group chat with the riders on the team,” she said, “and we’d share memes and it was just like this super fun group chat. I think you can do a lot of things that bond the team together without being at a team camp.”
Virtual bonding clearly helped Jackson and the whole squad feel connected, “When we got into that first race and we won Le Samyn (with Lotte Kopecky sprinting to victory), that whole race we just controlled the race. It felt like we had been riding together for a long time and just the feel within the team immediately was just really good.”
Jackson clearly loves racing the classics and thrives in one day races, so it may come as a surprise to know that The Women’s Tour is one of her favourite races, although perhaps not when she explains why. “I love it because it’s run so professionally and it just honours us as athletes. So I always feel so special being there. I also love how the community is involved in every race and every place we go to there’s people lining the streets. There’s so many families with their kids that come around to the team buses and these kids that just look at you with these wide eyes. I just really appreciate the whole atmosphere. Plus the race itself is really dynamic and it’s a hard race.”
Being a classics rider, Jackson is of course eagerly awaiting the first ever women’s edition of Paris-Roubaix later this year (hopefully). “It’s going to be really special just being there, being in the atmosphere,” she said enthusiastically. “Being in the very first edition. I think it’s such a marker for the growing movement of women’s cycling, so it will be really exciting to be a part of that. Then to finish in that velodrome! What a special and iconic race.”
“I think that life is about story collecting,” Jackson continued, “and in bike racing, we just collect all these stories. I think that coming out of Paris-Roubaix there are going to be so many stories. We’re just going to talk about it over and over, and share it at dinner tables, or with teammates. So I’m just looking for that rich experience.” If that leaves you in any doubt as to whether Jackson’s looking forward to Paris-Roubaix, check out her video for Voxwomen about her preparations for the race!
Jackson is also really excited about the recently announced Tour de France Femmes 2022. She commented, “I’m looking forward to the organisation of that because ASO is very professional in how they put on a bike race. And we also have Liv and Zwift supporting it, and they’re both really about equality. I have a lot of hope that the race and the organisation is going to be well done and I’m excited.”
Juxtaposed with the high spirited competitor, Jackson also has a quieter, more reflective side. One that likes to live in the moment and take the opportunities that present themselves. It’s that positivity that helped her stay grounded during 2020 when her world (and everyone else’s) was thrown up in the air by the pandemic.
“My choice during that whole time was to make the most of what we have right now,” she reflected. “A lot of times, you don’t have this space to experiment or try something new, because you always need to perform at the next race. So I thought that 2020 was actually an interesting year, to have this space to just try some new things and see what would happen out of it.”
Experimenting on the bike wasn’t the only thing Jackson discovered. She laughed as she recalled, “And then, oh, boy, I got into making all these TikToks! I spent so much time by myself and realised that I needed a laugh. So I was then making myself laugh by doing these videos, and then sharing that with everyone else.” It’s definitely an outlet that allows Jackson’s creative side to flourish. She admits to sometimes spending hours choreographing, practising, filming and editing her videos.
If you’ve seen some of Jackson’s TikToks (if you haven’t, where have you been?) then it won’t surprise you to know that she was a bit of a class clown and an entertainer growing up. She loved being around people and making them laugh. It also won’t come as a surprise that she took dance classes in her late teens. What you might not know though is that it was her dance teacher, Ryan Wilson, who she cites as one of her biggest inspirations growing up. “Coming from a small town, we often believe that our opportunities are less,” Jackson said. “My dance teacher also grew up in a small town, but she was so passionate about dance, and she basically lived with no limits. Coming from a small town didn’t matter to her. You dream big and you have a good attitude and you work hard. She was just such an inspiration to me to see all that she accomplished and what she made happen for herself. She also helped me expand what I thought was possible.”
So what are Jackson’s dreams for the future? There’s one that’s long been top of the list. “A big goal for me is to get to the Olympics,” she said. “The last two cycles, I’ve been the alternate. Just missing out on the team. So as much as you can consider that as an honour, it’s still missing out – always being the bridesmaid and not the bride.”
Sometimes, if you dare to dream big, dreams do come true though. Just last week it was announced that Canada had another spot on the road team for Tokyo 2020. Jackson was given the call up and has already made her way to Japan to join teammates Karol-Ann Canuel and Leah Kirchmann. She of course celebrated the news in her own inimitable style, beaming from ear to ear in a TikTok in her national team kit. No longer the Olympic “bridesmaid”, whatever the result of the road race, you can be sure that Jackson will enjoy every moment of living her dream and that she’ll give it 110%.