When Letti Melbz started as a soigneur in the early 1990s, the cycling industry was overwhelmingly male.
“They weren’t massively used to females rocking up and getting stuck into ‘men’s roles’ – and doing them well,” she says. “I had a passion for the sport and the role.”
It wasn’t long before a man told her she wouldn’t succeed, which just made her more determined to stick with it! So she continued for more than 30 years, proving that a woman could thrive in the industry.
“I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to work worldwide with a huge variety of teams in both the women’s and men’s disciplines in road and track cycling,” she says. “So many amazing athletes have come through, and to play the tiniest part in their success is soul food for me.”
“Soigneur” means “healer” in French. Professional soigneurs attend to the needs of professional cyclists at races, making sure they get where they need to go, giving them food and drink to fuel them, and providing massage therapy to help with recovery.
At the start of her career, Melbz began going out on rides with the athletes she was helping. She was mainly a runner at the time, but soon cycling became her passion.
Then, 6 years ago, she began using Zwift.
“From the moment I did my first ride, I was hooked,” says Melbz. “I was gobsmacked that I could ride for real, on real-like roads, with people all over the world.”
Now, she leads social rides for the QueenBee Ladies, a group she co-founded with three other women. She also loves to race with the QueenBees team, especially in team time trials.
The QueenBees are helping to lead some of Zwift’s Women’s Celebration Rides in the month of March. Check out the Women’s History Month schedule here.
Progress Toward Equality
Melbz has worked as a soigneur, coach, personal trainer, and muscular therapist. After working with Cycling Australia for the London 2012 Olympics, she decided to try a new career path. She is now an officer with the South Australia Police and still sometimes fills the other roles when she can.
Throughout her career, Melbz has noticed disparities between how men and women are treated in cycling. Race accommodations, prize money, travel arrangements, and more all favored the men. But she says things have improved for women in the sport since she started, and she wants to see this encouraging trend continue.
“It is so good to now see the change occur and women receiving what they truly deserve, equality in the sport,” Melbz says.
She wants to see more focus on women’s cycling events, along with more media and education specific to women.
“Make women’s cycling about women, not an extension of men’s,” she says.
A Stinging Setback
Even after she stepped back from the cycling industry in her career, Melbz continued to ride her bike frequently.
Then, in 2021, she severely ruptured her hamstring at work.
“I tried to stand up and had nothing, no control,” says Melbz. “At this time I was competing in Virtual Ironman and a series of Zwift competitions and was feeling probably the fittest I had been for quite a while. That all got wiped away in that moment. I was devastated.”
She was off the bike for a couple of months and had to relearn how to walk properly. When she could finally get in the saddle again, it was only to move her injured leg around. To really pedal the bike, she had to rely on the force from her healthy leg.
“It felt so alien,” she says. “I was used to jumping on and going for it, but I could barely turn the pedals.”
She fondly remembers another woman dropping everything to ride with her on Zwift that day, so she wouldn’t have to ride alone. The community support Melbz receives has meant the world to her.
“The QueenBees have been incredibly supportive both on the bike and giving me mental encouragement all the way through,” she says. “Even now, I’m not 100%, but they work with me, understand, and allow me to race or ride to my current abilities.”
A Hive of Friendship
Melbz founded the QueenBee Ladies with three friends she met through Zwift – Naomi Feder, Hayley Lambourn, and Bella Dutton. The group spun off of Cycling Mums Australia as an international group for all women.
“For us QueenBee founders it is about giving women the space, encouragement, support and friendship to try and be whatever they want in sport but also wider than that, in life in general,” she says.
The group includes social rides, a race team, and an online space on Facebook where members can get to know each other and ask questions.
“It is such a buzz – pun intended – to lead a ride and share my passions internationally,” she says. “Each rider is represented by someone in each corner of the world, so many things to learn and people to interact with while you ride in the comfort of your home.”
The connection among the QueenBees reaches beyond Zwift into real life. Two teams of women who met on Zwift participated in Revolve 24, a 24-hour team relay race in Adelaide, Australia.
“It was incredible!” she says.
Revolve 24 was Melbz’ first event since her injury. Another woman had only recently gotten back on the bike after a crash, and a third was well along in a pregnancy. They spurred each other on to overcome these challenges together, and the two teams finished in 3rd and 4th place!
“It’s crazy to think that individuals you meet online can become such significant people in your life,” says Melbz. “Some of our deepest friendships and support have come through QueenBee, which is amazingly heartwarming.”
New women continue to join Zwift and the QueenBees, and Melbz cheers them on wherever they are in their cycling journeys.
“Don’t be hard on yourself and don’t compare yourself to everyone else,” she says. “Each of us has something unique to offer, particularly in the world of Zwift. Be consistent, set small goals, find your people, and keep pedaling!”