As the Ballarat sun blazes overhead, Alana Forster finds a patch of shade behind the podium stage. Relaxed, she jokes with her fellow cyclists as they await their medal ceremony.
Around are some of Australia’s most successful athletes. Over there on the grass in her wheelchair, that’s tricyclist Carol Cooke, a triple Paralympic gold medallist. And here’s Darren Hicks, a Paralympic champion with only one leg.
For the first time, Forster can celebrate in such distinguished company. That’s because she’s just become a para-cycling national champion herself.
Her race ended in a one-vs-one sprint against Meg Lemon (yet another Paralympic medallist): Forster against the left-hand barriers, Lemon on the other side. It came down to a bike throw, but after checking the photo finish, officials gave Forster the win.
This was her first attempt at the para-cycling national titles. In fact, this was the first time she’d been eligible to race.
Last year, Forster had raced the elite races alongside Grace Brown, Ruby Roseman-Gannon and other WorldTour stars. That was mere weeks before her horrific car crash.
“I was actually driving to a bike race with my bike in the car … and I got T-boned by another car. I got airlifted to The Alfred, spent a week in ICU, a week on the ward, had all surgeries, had pelvic fixation, femur, patella, forearm, ribs, and then spent three months in a rehab hospital,” Forster says.
Before her crash, Forster had been a keen domestic and Continental rider, juggling her cycling with a career as a medical doctor. She’d done a stint in Europe, raced the Dubai Women’s Tour, and earned top-10 results in Oceania and national time trial championships.
She didn’t just make up the numbers, either. She swept the 2020 Masters National Championships, and, during the 2021 National Road Series, built a reputation as an attacking rider – earning two ‘most competitive’ awards at the Santos Festival of Cycling.
In 2022, Forster had just begun another NRS season with the Butterfields Racing Team. That’s when the emergency doctor became the patient.
“Mum and dad came down the day after my accident and they visited me every day in hospital,” she recalls. “It's hard being a medic, because you understand what it's like.”
Rehabilitation would take a long, long time – nobody knew that better than Forster herself. But quietly, she was motivated by the goal of getting back on the bike.
“I didn't tell a lot of people. I told on a need-to-know basis, and I didn't really need the sympathy, because it's hard.
“Yes, it was a bit traumatic because you go from being a full-time bike rider to not being able to bend your leg, not being able to walk.
“I think the reason I didn't tell a lot of people is that everyone kept going, ‘Oh, when are you back on the bike?’ And I said, well, you know, I can't walk yet.
“And they're like, ‘Oh, you're walking now, when can you race?’ And you're like, well, I'm not back riding a bike. And I know too much, you know?
“So, having a goal, like getting back on the bike or getting back to racing or whatnot, is the best thing you could do because, you know, in physio you're like, what is your aim? And you can tell them, ‘I want to bend my knee again.’”
Taking it step by step – sometimes literally – Forster was eventually able to hop back on the bike. But the incident left her with an ongoing disability, and she’s been classified in the C4 para-cycling category for riders with lower limb impairments.
“All the surgery fixed all of the bone injuries, but, unfortunately they pranged a nerve during surgery. So, I've been left with a foot drop.
“I've got essentially a weak leg, loss of sensation, and that's probably been the hardest thing to overcome.”
Despite the setbacks, Forster’s love of cycling cannot be dampened. She hasn’t yet returned to the elite peloton, but she’s stayed close to the action by becoming an official through AusCycling’s fast-track program for young commissaires.
She’s already officiated at huge events such as the World Championships in Wollongong, the Melbourne to Warrnambool, and even at RoadNats (between her own races).
Her journey has been difficult, but she credits the support of her family, her community, and Ballarat Sebastopol Cycling Club for getting her back into what she loves.
“It's a hard pill to swallow when you've been racing elites for a while.
“But you've got to move forward, you can’t change it. I'm incredibly lucky to be riding a bike and having a supportive community. And lived to tell the tale.”
The Ballarat local tackled her first para-cycling nationals on home roads, enjoying the support of the likes of Sarah Gigante, who stood on Mount Buninyong during the para-cycling road races.
“Being a local and having the locals cheer you on, and even the girls in the elites I used to race with; they've been pretty phenomenal.
“That's what's so great about the bike community, isn't it?
Her rehab is ongoing – Forster hasn’t returned to work yet – but racing a national title, let alone winning it, is a sign of good things to come.
“People go, ‘you’re so unlucky to be hit,’ but I'm lucky to be alive,” Forster says.
“It was a tough year, but I love riding my bike, and when I couldn't, it was pretty hard.
“So, to get back to it, to feel like a bike racer again, is probably one of the best feelings in the world.”
Feature photo: Josh Chadwick