Saturday, 7 December 2019

Book review: Where There's A Will - Emily Chappell

Following the success of her debut autobiographical account of life as a cycle messenger, What Goes Around, Emily Chappell's sequel Where There's A Will transitions into the next phase of her cycling life - the slightly more arduous world of ultra-distance cycle racing.

Emily's second book
The story centres around Emily's experiences riding the Transcontinental Cycle race. This cycling challenge starts in Geraadsbergen, Belgium, and sees riders racing around 4,000km to reach a given town in Turkey or Greece.

I can only give an approximate distance because riders don't follow a waymarked route, but plot their own itinerary to get across the various countries between Flanders and The Balkans as quickly as possible.

As the timer is constantly running, riders have to be extremely measured about how many sleep breaks they take, and they can't receive any outside support in advance - meaning that they can't book accommodation or restaurants in advance.

So riders end up carrying all their provisions and food with them, and sleeping in bivouacs in church doorways if they're lucky - otherwise more usually in fields under the stars.

In the early part of the book Emily describes quite vividly how she wills herself along when climbing over Mont Ventoux, in Southern France, after dark in order to reach check-point one, 1000km into the route.

We get an insight into her mind as she battles up this testing iconic 21-km route that is no stranger to crowds of cycling fans cheering on riders in the Tour de France, or riding the route themselves by day. On this occasion, though the route is completely desolate, save for an overeager German journalist who runs alongside Emily for a few minutes, trying to interview her in the pitch black.

Although Emily describes how privileged she felt to have gained this experience she soon describes the deflated, drained feeling of wanting to give up, and how all she can do is cry.

Eventually, after crossing the French Alps, and reaching the second check point in Sestriere, Italy then going down crossing northern Italy, Emily is compelled to pull out of the race in Slovenia after developing chest pain. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop the Cambridge graduate from entering the Transcontinental race in subsequent years and being the first female finisher in 2016.

Emily at the London Bike Show
Throughout the book you get a real sense of goodwill from others along the way - whether it is from other riders from the world of ultra-distance cycling, strangers in the different towns and countries she traverses, or social media messages of support from the thousands of  "dot watchers" who follow her progress from her GPS tracker.

As Emily details her adventures in other races and her subsequent visits to the Transcontinental race you really want to will her along and hope that she makes it through the event and you live her emotions with her - be they the anxiety of another competitor about to catch her, the elation of winning, the nagging pains in different parts of her body from riding 300km in a day, and the grief following the death of her friend and Transcontinental founder, Mike Hall in 2017.

I enjoyed reading this book, which gives you an insight into the minds of the various characters such as Juliana Buhring, Mike Hall, and Kristof Allegaert, who seemingly won't get out of bed to ride a bike for less than 4,000km.

The story goes a little bit forwards and backwards in terms of its chronology of events and at times I did get a little confused about what year was being referred to, but don't let that stop you from understanding and enjoying this niche world of ultra-distance cycle racing.

Although I am not especially tempted to get into this cycling discipline, which appears to be gaining traction among keen cyclists, I do take from the book the analogies with life and dealing with the challenges that get thrown at you. And that makes Where There's A Will a worthwhile read.

From the book, it's not clear to me what drives Emily to repeatedly do these two-week long bike rides where you survive on whatever food you can grab from a local shop, or occasionally leftovers of someone's meal in bar when in a one-horse village in Montenegro, then getting soaked and sleeping in a cemetery, wearing the same clothes for a few days on the trot without getting a wash, and sometimes having a cry here and there.

When I asked Emily about her drive, during her book launch at the Look Mum No Hands cycle cafe, she said it was really down to the wish to push herself to the ultimate limits, seeing how far she can go, and learning to cope with those situations. I have a lot of admiration for that.

In parts of the book Emily also refers to a lost love. I can't confirm exactly who is referred to at these moments, but I do think about the part in What Goes Around in which Emily breaks up with a girlfriend, and says "I don't think I ever cried over our break-up. I just kept riding."

Emily (top right) at the book launch with cycling journalists and writers (credit: Look Mum No Hands)
Could it be that these biking exploits may be a de facto way of dealing with those down moments in life such as break-ups and grief?

Whatever your thoughts are on bike riding or ultra-distance cycle racing I would recommend Where There's A Will. It is an engrossing read, and I would say it's an analogy for life with all its up and downs, albeit over a 4,000km-bike ride between here and Turkey.

Where There's A Will, Emily Chappell. 2019 (Publisher: Profile Books Ltd.)

A few words from the author

I posed Emily Chappell a few questions around Where There's A Will:

When thinking about your biking adventure and recalling it in the book how has this changed you as a person?

You could say that racing has changed me, or you could say that it simply removed some of the impediments that were preventing me from being my full self. Hurling myself across Europe, and having to deal with anything that came up, meant that I got very good at looking after myself, at keeping a clear head and thinking my way through any tight spots I got into. I’m now more confident, more capable, and far less likely to be held back by fear or self-doubt.

When writing the book was your intention to inspire people, help them if they're coping with a difficult situation, or was it just a straightforward tale of your cycling adventures?

I didn’t set out to write a self-help book, though I know, given some of the topics I’ve touched on, that some people will find it inspiring or comforting. My main motivation, I think, was to make sense of the experiences I’d had, to find ways of explaining them to myself, and to create a cycling narrative that was different from the others I’d read.

Emily's first book
How does this writing process, and where you were emotionally compare with "What Goes Around"?

The writing process was similar in some ways. Because I’d been through the highs and lows of book-writing once before, it wasn’t necessarily easier, but I knew what to expect, and that I’d get through the times where it felt like the end of the world. (There are such strong parallels with an ultra-distance bike race.) 

The main difference was that I was writing about an emotional journey that was still ongoing. My friend Mike, who features in the book, died when I was in the early stages of writing it, and the grieving process and the writing process became entwined together.

What similarities would you say there are between the world of cycle couriers and that of ultra distance cyclists? They both seem to be quite particular activities that involve testing situations from what I can see.

The main similarity – and the way in which I think my years as a courier best prepared me for ultra-racing – is that you become accustomed to getting up every day and getting on the bike, no matter how tired, unhappy, injured or reluctant you are, and no matter what the weather’s doing. You don’t consider whether or not it’s a good idea – you just do it. And both couriering and ultra-racing have a strong community around them, with a wonderful diversity of people. It’s one of the best bits.

And on that note, would you say you just enjoy the trials and tribulations of cycling? 

I do. All the good bits, and all the bad bits too. I can’t imagine my life without bikes.

Emily on the Radio
Emily on Robert Elms Show, BBC Radio London 15th November 2019

Emily on Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4, 7th Decembver 2019 (~45 minutes into the show)

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Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Women's road race at Tokyo Olympics - strength and depth

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently published the number of places available for each nation and the size of the field in the road races for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Olympic Games rings which represent five participating continents
In the men's road race there are 130 places available, while in the women's race there are 67 places.

Once again this has been followed by the customary outcry and accusations of sexism on the part of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

In an article by cycling campaigner and former professional road racer, Kathryn Bertine she went so far as to suggest that the UCI and the IOC had a policy of "corrupt inequity" that is holding back future Olympians.

I must say that I am not really minded to join the chorus with Katryn Bertine and the numerous other women on this matter. When taking into account the entry criteria for the race, what the Olympics represents, the lack of strength and depth of women's racing compared with men's racing, and the intention to stage a rounded competition, I find it understandable that the field would be the size it is. I cannot see how a women's field of 130 would make for a good quality race in this event, one of the highest levels of women's international cycle racing.

One of the aims of the Olympic movement is to blend sport and culture, and promote sport to everyone across all five continents.

A women's cycle race featured in the Olympics for the first time in 1984 in Los Angeles. At that time the field had only 45 women from 16 nations, most which were in Europe. There wasn't much depth given that outside the top 20 finishers the time gaps over the 79.2km race were huge, with the last placed rider finishing almost 40 minutes behind the winner, Connie Carpenter of the USA.

Bear in mind too, that this event took place within a few weeks of the inaugural women's Tour de France. As funds were not available for women to compete in both sets of races on either side of the Atlantic, riders would have had to choose one or the other, particularly as they will have self-funded their competitions.

Thirty-five years on, the depth of women's racing has increased and many nations have access to funds to allow women to contest the Olympics. Also, riders from more continents are also entering the competition. In Tokyo there will be 42 nations represented in the women's road race, with more nations from Africa than ever before. We could therefore extrapolate that to mean a bigger field.

Indeed the size of the field has increased to almost 70. It is still a lot fewer than the men's field, and the figure has not increased significantly since the Athens Olympics in 2004. (Bear in mind that the men's field for Tokyo will be smaller than the field in Rio 2016.)
The size of the field for the women needs to be considered within the context of the depth of abilities from the different nations, and the question then is, what composition of race is needed when increasing the size of the women's field?

The depth of racing has strengthened, but this is the case when you look at specific continents rather than globally. When comparing the development of cycling between continents there is a vast disparity, meaning that the strength and depth in racing has been driven more from some continents than others - notably Europe, which includes countries like the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany which are churning out very strong riders.

So, if the number of riders in the Tokyo Olympic Women's Road Race is to be increased the result will be a field with a lot more riders from across Europe, plus USA and Australia.

That won't be so much of an Olympic competition tending towards the values and representation of the five contents of the Olympics movement, but more like just another Women's World Tour race.

The top riders, including Britain's Emma Pooley force the pace on Box Hill
So, the Olympic Road Cycling events need to find a way to include riders from the rest of North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and the rest of Australasia while maintaining a high level of competition.

Some nations may well be fielding their best riders, but they may still not be quite at UCI Women's World Tour level.

So it is only fair that the allotted quota of riders from the top nations be capped to a low number, so that those smaller nations that only have one or two riders can still take part in a more harmonised competition than if the field were dominated by nations sending teams with five or six high-ranking UCI Women's World Tour riders.

The qualification criteria for the Tokyo Olympics road race are:
  • Nations in the top 15 UCI country rankings
  • Highly-ranked individual riders in UCI rankings who represent nations outside of the top 15
  • One highly-ranked rider from continental championships (Pan-American, Pan-African Pan-Asian)
  • Highly-ranked riders in the 2019 World Road Race Championships, representing nations outside of the top 15
  • Host nation (Japan) gets automatic qualification
This has given the opportunity for as many countries as possible to field riders so that a maximum spread of continents are involved in the Olympic Road Race.

When quotas for individual countries are examined, smaller nations may only have space for one or two riders, and these smaller nations are unlikely to have more than one rider who can mix it with the top racers.

So, to those who decry the apparent small field for the women's race and who are calling for a field size comparable to the men's race, I would be interested to know how they propose to increase the field, and how this would be composed.

Being a Londoner, I had the opportunity to watch the women's road race during the 2012 Olympics. What was shown on television and transmitted across the world were the attacks at the front of the 35-strong peloton by the likes of Ellen van Dijk, Kristin, Armstrong, Shelly Olds, Emma Pooley, and other highly-ranked riders. The race looked very exciting.

What those of us who spectated at the side of the road saw, and wasn't shown on TV were the 25 or so riders who couldn't handle the pace and were so far behind the front-runners and the main peloton. Each time the race scaled Box Hill, the gap to the gruppetto (the group of backmarkers) steadily increased, to the point that the last placed riders were easily 10 minutes behind Vos, Armitstead, and Zabelinskaya - the medallists.

These slower riders were mainly from Central American, South American, and Asian nations. They probably did the race of their lives and will definitely have a tale or two for their grand children, even though they were pulled out of the race for being outside of the time limit. But is this really the sort of competition they would have felt happy doing - given that they were probably used to being at the head of the pack in their home nations?

So having a larger field would mean either increasing the number of riders from the stronger nations - which would mean an even larger time gap between the front of the race and the back markers, with them being dropped even before reaching the Doushi Road climb, at KM60. Alternatively the number of riders from the smaller nations could be increased, which will mean far more than 25 riders being shelled off the back on the very testing roads near Mount Fuji, and the majority of them may end up not being allowed to complete the 137km-race.

Furthermore, that scenario would prove costly for those national delegations who may not even have the funds to take so many riders to Tokyo, and this could end up being a waste of money for sports governing bodies, commercial organisations and even the athletes themselves.

In my opinion neither of these scenarios would be a good advert for women's cycle racing.

Mt Fuji and Lake Yamanakako - the setting for the Tokyo Olympics road race
So, before people start calling "foul" to the UCI or the IOC for not having a larger women's field, it is worth bearing in mind the wider implications of simply increasing the number of women racers to equal the men's race men.

It is worth considering the global strength and depth of women's cycling compared to men's cycling, rather than just nominally replicating the size of the men's field.

Hopefully, on Sunday 26th July 2020 the 67-strong field will have the optimal mix of racers that will provide not only a high quality women's competition on the Doushi Road and the Kagosaka Pass, but also enough of a peloton left to see an exciting finale around the  Fuji International Speedway circuit.

UCI document on cycle events in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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Monday, 25 November 2019

General Election manifestos - What the politicians pledge for cycling

Here we go, another General Election is on the horizon - just two years after the last one. It's ironic how a specific Fixed Term Parliament Act was passed in 2011, in which general elections would take place every five years. Yet we are now having the second general election within three years. When you add in the EU Referendum of 2016, the local council elections, European elections, and even the London Mayoral elections it seems like we are in a constant state of voting!

I must admit, it just doesn't feel great having a general election right before Christmas. It's going to be tough work for the councils and returning officers. I can't say I feel sorry for the politicians. They brought it on themselves!

Most parties have released party manifestos for the occasion. Having skimmed through the ones for the major political parties I can state that they are all pretty much about blue sky thinking around their fundamental stance on Brexit. All are a bit vague, with a few figures thrown in for good measure. But any politician who says that their policies have been "fully costed" is having a laugh.

It's hard to believe they have had the time to put together something fully coherent in such a short space of time. That also explains why a couple of the parties are still trying pull something together.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I have pulled out the points they make that are associated with cycling and cycling businesses - environment, transport, trade, sport/wellbeing.

Conservative Party 

Get Brexit Done - Unleash Britain's Potential

"And to ensure children are getting an active start to life, we will invest in primary school PE teaching and ensure that it is being properly delivered. We want to do more to help schools make good use of their sports facilities and to promote physical literacy and competitive sport."

"We will launch the biggest ever pothole-filling programme as part of our National Infrastructure Strategy – and our major investment in roads will ensure new potholes are much less likely to appear in the future.

"We will support commuter cycling routes, so that more people can cycle safely to work and more families can go out together. We will create a new £350 million Cycling Infrastructure Fund with mandatory design standards for new routes. We will extend Bikeability – cycling proficiency training – to every child. And we will work with the NHS to promote cycling for healthier living."

"The Green Belt. We will protect and enhance the Green Belt. We will improve poor quality land, increase biodiversity and make our beautiful countryside more accessible for local community use. In order to safeguard our green spaces, we will continue to prioritise brownfield development, particularly for the regeneration of our cities and towns."

"We will help SMEs to become exporters, so that they can seize the opportunities that will become available once we get Brexit done.

"Good regulation is essential to successful businesses: we will strive to achieve the right regulatory balance between supporting excellent business practice and protecting workers, consumers and the environment. Through our Red Tape Challenge, we will ensure that regulation is sensible and proportionate, and that we always consider the needs of small businesses when devising new rules, using our new freedom after Brexit to ensure that British rules work for British companies."

"We welcome the Glover Review and will create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as well as making our most loved landscapes greener, happier, healthier and open to all. We will make the coast to coast path across the most beautiful areas of the North a National Trail.

"We will increase penalties for fly-tipping, make those on community sentences clean up their parks and streets, and introduce a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass."

Britain's Standing in the World
"We will build on our fantastic track record of delivering major international sporting events – including supporting the upcoming Commonwealth Games, UEFA European Women’s Championships and Rugby League World Cup – and we would back a potential UK and Ireland bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup."

Climate Change
"We will support clean transport to ensure clean air, as well as setting strict new laws on air quality. We will consult on the earliest date by which we can phase out the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars."

"We will also redouble our efforts to promote British business and UK exports and dismantle barriers to trade and retake our seat at the World Trade Organisation."

Labour Party

It's Time for Real Change

"We will increase the funding available for cycling and walking. We will bring together transport and land-use planning to create towns and cities in which walking and cycling are the best choice: safe, accessible, healthy, efficient, economical and pollution-free. We will help children’s health and well-being by ensuring street designs provide freedom for physically active outdoor play and by introducing measures to ensure the zones around our schools are safer, with cleaner air.

"Our transport programme is focused on creating better, publicly accessible local transport systems. By improving public transport, Labour will help people to become less reliant on their cars, for our better health, for a cleaner environment and to improve quality of life in our towns and cities. The Conservatives have committed to ending new sales of combustion engine vehicles by 2040. Labour will aim for 2030.

"We will position the UK at the forefront of the development and manufacture of ultra-low emission vehicles and will support their sale. We will invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and in electric community car clubs. We will accelerate the transition of our public sector car fleets and our public buses to zero-emissions vehicles."

"We will adopt an ambitious Vision Zero approach to UK road safety, striving for zero deaths and serious injuries. Labour will invest to make our neglected local roads, pavements and cycleways safer for the everyday journeys of both drivers and vulnerable road users. We will review all tolled crossings."

"Labour will introduce a new Clean Air Act, with a vehicle scrappage scheme and clean air zones, complying with World Health Organisation limits for fine particles and nitrous oxides."
"We will create new National Parks alongside a revised system of other protected area designations, which will guard existing wildlife sites and join up important habitats, while also ensuring more people can enjoy living closer to nature."

Labour will secure a new Brexit deal – one that protects jobs, rights and the environment, avoids a hard border in Northern Ireland and protects the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. We will also ensure that there is no change in the status or sovereignty of Gibraltar.

Our deal will be based on the principles we have set out over the last two years.

It will include:
A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union, which is vital to protect our manufacturing industry and allows the UK to benefit from joint UK-EU trade deals, and is backed by businesses and trade unions.
Close alignment with the Single Market – ensuring we have a strong future economic relationship with the EU that can support UK businesses.

Liberal Democrats Party
Only a Liberal Democrat government will put the wellbeing of people and the planet first.

We will:
Introduce a wellbeing budget, following the example of New Zealand – basing decisions on what will improve wellbeing as well as on economic and fiscal indicators.

Ensure that the environment is protected for future generations with clean air to breathe and urgent action to tackle the climate emergency.

Climate Action Now
We will set a new legally binding target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045 at the latest, and implement a comprehensive climate action plan, cutting emissions across all sectors.

Saving nature and the countryside
We will protect the natural environment and reverse biodiversity loss at the same time as combating climate change. We will support farmers to protect and restore the natural environment alongside their critical roles in producing food, providing employment and promoting tourism, leisure and health and wellbeing.

We will significantly increase the amount of accessible green space, including protecting up to a million acres, completing the coastal path, exploring a ‘right to roam’ for waterways and creating a new designation of National Nature Parks.

Improving transport
Liberal Democrats will meet this challenge by:
Investing in public transport, buses, trams and railways to enable people to travel more easily while reducing their impact on the environment.
Placing a far higher priority on encouraging walking and cycling – the healthiest forms of transport.

Reducing the need for car travel
Liberal Democrats will invest in public transport, improving its reliability and affordability, reform the planning systems to reduce the need to travel and promote cycling and walking.

We will:
Introduce a nationwide strategy to promote walking and cycling, including the creation of dedicated safe cycling lanes, increasing spending per head five-fold to reach 10 per cent of the transport budget.

Build on the successful Local Sustainable Transport Fund established by the Liberal Democrats when in government, and workplace travel plans, to reduce the number of cars – particularly single-occupancy cars – used for commuting, and encourage the development of car-sharing schemes and car clubs and autonomous vehicles for public use.

Amend planning rules to promote sustainable transport and land use.

Our plan for the future is built on championing liberal and international values, ending poverty and promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals both in the UK and abroad. 

We will work through international bodies for better regulation and scrutiny of international trade and investment treaties to ensure they do not worsen inequalities or undermine human rights or developing countries’ ability to regulate the environmental and social impacts of businesses.

The Brexit Party

Contract With The People - A Clean-break Brexit

We pledge to:
  • Invest in the Environment: in addition to planting millions of trees to capture CO2 we will promote a global initiative at the UN.
  • To free up small businesses, the most dynamic part of the economy, to do what they do best – creating new jobs – we will exempt from Corporation Tax those 1 million companies with profit before tax of under £50,000.
  • Maintain subsidies and grants paid by the EU to UK businesses such as farmers, fisheries, universities and research bodies: this is our money anyway, recycled by the EU.
  • Overhaul financial services regulation, cut red tape, increase competition and boost lending to Small and Medium Enterprises.

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Sunday, 17 November 2019

52 Cycling Voices - 26: Janet Birkmyre

Jan Birkmyre has been racing and winning for almost 20 years. With an impressively long list of victories on the road and on track - notably three Elite National titles (Scratch race 2012; Derny-paced race 2008 and 2015), 38 World Masters titles, 28 European titles and 61 National Masters titles all at the velodrome.

I got to know Jan in the days when she was a regular at the women's road races and she was racing for Twickenham Cycling Club. She was always the one to beat whether it at the circuit races at Hillingdon, or the National Series races, or at the velodrome. These days we see less of her on the road racing circuit as she races mainly in the velodrome masters circuit.

In fact, while amateur racers are battling out at the various local leagues and elite racers are garnering glory at international championships, Janet and her team mates at TORQ Performance track cycling team have been consistently racing and collecting titles on masters circuit. This has somewhat gone under the radar, as sadly British Cycling don't seem to give much coverage to this thriving side of cycling.

At the recent World Masters Track Cycling Championships in Manchester, Jan won gold at Team Pursuit and a collection of silver medals too. These impressive accolades show how as a veteran cyclist you can still shoot for cycling glory. And if Janet did come back and race on the national and elite road circuits I am sure she will still be giving the youngsters a run for their money!

Jan Birkmyre, aged 53

From: Worcestershire

Lives: Worcestershire (after spending 20 years in London)

Occupation: Marketing Consultant in FMCG and transport

Back in 2000 at the age of 34, I had been working a ski season in Chamonix, France, as a guide for the Ski Club of Great Britain after an early mid-life crisis. A group of members came to my office every day, pestering me for very detailed weather reports because they were going to climb Mont Blanc.  Over a few evenings and more beers than would be considered healthy, I discovered they were all mountain bikers, and after returning to England, I dated one of the group for a couple of years.

He lived in Manchester and we would go mountain biking every weekend. I absolutely loved it and joined the Twickenham CC in 2001 because I needed to keep fit to go mountain biking. I never really thought about racing, but they are a racing club and it was inevitable that I would be drawn into that.

I was very lucky that Twickenham CC was on my door step and they were very welcoming.  I very much enjoyed the club spirit and the Twickenham encouraged me to race some local time trials and crits at Hillingdon.  

After a few weeks riding out with Twickenham CC and hearing the reverence with which they described some of the hard roadmen in the club, I realised I wanted to be respected as a bike rider by my peers there.

I had no cardio-vascular sporting background, having done nothing athletic since school.  I played a bit of squash at university, but I don’t think that counts because there was a fair amount of alcohol consumed during the recovery period!
Jan with husband David

My first sport had been horse riding, though that has a very different fitness requirement to cycling.

I loved that and continued to compete in dressage as well as one and two day events until I graduated and got my first job, so that got put on the backburner.

However, I have always had a fiercely competitive streak and that has stood me in good stead!

I got my first taste of track cycling with Twickenham and it clearly played to my strengths. Then I met David, my husband, and I found myself at the National Champs in 2004. I did not even own a track bike but he entered me into the championships. Incredibly, I just missed out on a medal.  Coming 4th was the biggest motivation I could possibly have had. It got me out of bed early to get to the gym or onto my turbo in a freezing garage, all through the winter.

When I first started racing, I was commuting to and from St Albans every day and working 12-hour days.  I would try to get a gym session in at lunch time twice a week and then would come home and get straight on the turbo.  Weekends were all about training and essentially, that was all I did; get up, work, train, eat and sleep.  There was no social life, no holidays and no energy for anything outside cycling.

Hillingdon provided the opportunity to try circuit racing, while the league at Palmer Park, Reading had been my introduction to track, and for over a decade the National Omnium Series was my school room for all things track specific … and it was a very steep learning curve.  I can still remember the points race in my first omnium, where I was sprinting for all the wrong laps, yes really!

Although my training was track specific but I loved crit races, and courses like Hillingdon, Darley Moor, Thruxton and Goodwood proved good for me.

Planet X gave me the opportunity to race as a team and the Women’s Team Series was a great way to step up a level with road racing; we did some of the National Road Series too.  Planet X were very generous with track frames and wheels.  Elmy Cycles kindly supported me with a stunning Orbea road bike and lots of lycra, while TORQ fitness helped out with nutrition. I even raced a couple of mountain bike races before settling on track.

L-R: Jan, Maddy, Jen, Jen George, Mel
Eventually, after using TORQ nutrition products for years I had the chance to race for them. I jumped at the opportunity, and have never looked back. Matt, the owner is a great guy. He is incredibly generous and one of the very few who treat women and men equally.

The TORQ Track Cycling team is made up of the most amazing women, for whom I have so much respect and who are truly amazing friends on and off the bike - and one man, who is sufficiently in touch with his feminine side to fit right in!

In the order that the women joined the team, so as not to show favouritism (although Lou knows she is my favourite!), we have:

Lou Haston who won two silver medals piloting a tandem at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland.  She also has a bucket full of Masters National, European and World Masters medals and titles.  She is known as “Nails” Haston because she raced and won with an oedema on the brain. She was suffering horrendous headaches and being physically sick between races but still she carried on!

Mel Sneddon was a nationally ranked time triallist, but she has converted to the track and just keeps on getting better and better.  We know her as the Silent Assassin because she is so strong that by the time you realise she is on the attack it’s too late!  At the recent World Masters Championships she took three gold medals, plus one silver.  She juggles training with duties as a mum, which means she is often training late at night, after dinner and honestly I don’t know how she does it.

Maddy Moore is relatively new to cycling, having started in 2012 but she is so naturally gifted as an athlete that she has set World Masters records in the individual pursuit and the 500m time trial.  She is a Happiness Superhero with a beautiful and infectious smile, as well as a wicked sense of humour.  This year she defied the odds and competed at the World Masters just five and a half months after an emergency caesarean.  She was breast feeding baby Theo between warming up and racing but still helped secure gold in the team pursuit, as well as taking gold in the 500m time trial. After all that she then joined me to race in the Team Sprint and we got silver.

Jen Allum joined the team this year having already shown real class in Derny Paced racing, where she has a number of elite medals.  Jen “2 stroke sniffer” (as we nickname her) won her first National Masters title in black and orange this year, and her dedication to the team pursuit was incredible.  She has a huge job as a Senior Civil Servant, and her training has been horribly disrupted by Brexit but she never complains and for her to ride with the team and win at the World Masters was quite inspirational.

Phil Brown is the newest member of the TORQ Track Cycling Team and it is a compliment to him (I think) that he fits right in!   He was instrumental in the delivery of the Olympic Park for the London Games and it was the new velodrome which inspired him to get back on his bike.  Phil “Brownie” – he is especially partial to brownies – mixes track racing with time trialling. Also he is no stranger to longer distances, having pulled together a 4-man team for the Race Across America (RAAM).  They brought home the best British performance, despite Phil racing the event with a broken wrist, ribs and concussion having been knocked off his bike on the day before the start!

The team members are based all over the UK - Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Newbury and Worcestershire - so we rarely train together.  But Mel seems to manage to persuade us to do some random stuff like riding the Team Time Trial Championships (32 miles of pain) or 10-mile time trials in the middle of nowhere. So we are more likely to get together at these events and track meetings than we are to get together to train.

It was never a stated objective for TORQ to be a masters team. When I was given the opportunity to pull together a team I wanted it to be bound by friendship and common goals before anything else.  It then seemed obvious to ride the Team Pursuit at the World Masters, so yes it has become a masters team but that has been the happy bi-product of slowly gathering the right people together, rather than the overriding goal.

My training is really varied and includes road rides for endurance, recovery or specific efforts working to power. I have places where I can do anything from standing starts, 500 metre or 2km efforts and of course the turbo trainer is my constant companion.  In addition to this, strength and conditioning has become more important to my regime over the past couple of years because while we might naturally lose souplesse as we get older, strength can be maintained or even be increased.
Getting in training at Newport velodrome in between a busy work schedule

Although my Instagram account is full of images of me at the Newport velodrome I honestly don't spend so much time there.

If my work allows me to get there once a week it is a miracle.

In the run up to a big event I try to make the time to get to the velodrome because there is no substitute for training on the track. I am lucky to run my own business, so I can work over the weekends to make up the lost time.

Sadly I travel quite a lot with my work, so the reality is that most of my training is done in the garage in the evenings or on the road at weekends.

Since we moved from Twickenham to Worcestershire I have fewer racing opportunities on the doorstep. Nowadays I will try to race just one or two of the National Omnium Series per season. I also do the LVRC omnium and track champs, some road time trials and one or two open meetings to prepare for the National Masters and World Masters Track Champs. I race less than I used to and I miss it.

The atmosphere at the World Masters Track Championships is wonderful. while the racing on the track is fierce and unforgiving, track centre is a friendly and supportive environment. I love it!

It is truly a wonderful mix of people, and David has a reputation for helping anyone and everyone, so we have a constant stream of people from all over the world visiting our pits for help, advice, to borrow a tool or to ask David to hold them before a race. Most of the women are so mutually supportive of each other and respectful that it is something that I am very grateful to be able to be a part of. 

David and I always enjoyed spending time with riders from overseas, so much so that Axel and Anna from Holland are now such good friends that they stay with us before and after the World Masters and I have an ongoing “Nutella Challenge” based on the individual pursuit with a lovely Danish gentleman, Steffen. I keep in touch with a some of the Aussies throughout the year, and David is quite close to a number of the Americans, plus there are many other riders that we look forward to catching up with. I often joke that getting out of the velodrome during the World Masters is like trying to get across the room at your own wedding – it takes ages because there are so many people to talk to or congratulate.

[In response to a question on whether the entry criteria for transgender athletes competing in women's competitions should be revised, and whether more research is needed:] 

This is such a hot topic just now. My view is that we live in a society where we should be allowed an opinion, and personally I love a healthy debate. We must be able to agree to disagree in a respectful way. For my part, I have been really disappointed at the abuse that has been directed at individual transgender athletes and I certainly don’t want to fan those flames. On the other hand I am shocked by just how reluctant women are of talking about this as a result of the abuse that has been directed at them; it is a sad situation.

I am also aware that I do not have any medical qualifications and I am no expert on sports ethics either.  But you have asked for my opinion, so let me start by saying that the rules allow transgender athletes to race, so if anyone disagrees with that they need to take issue with the rules and not the individuals.

Added to that, I think we can all agree that we do not live in a world that is black and white. There are many shades of grey in areas where decades ago we perhaps did not acknowledge them. Gender is one of those.

For me, sport should be all about fair play and it is difficult for me to understand how a person born male, who has grown up, developed and gone through puberty as a man, can compete fairly against a naturally born woman.

I am aware of the rules about testosterone levels that apply to transgender athletes however this does not, in my opinion, address the potential for them to be at an advantage, because they have spent their formative years with a mix of male hormones, typically developing greater height, strength, stamina, muscle mass, blood volume and lung capacity than the average naturally born female.

If it were up to me, I would like to see categories based on sex not gender.  The practice of sport is (according to the International Olympic Committee philosophy) a human right but I feel that we need to be mindful of how we exercise that right and be sure we do not do so at the expense of someone else’s human rights.

So if we agree that transgender athletes are not and cannot ever become anatomically, biologically and physically identical to naturally born women – and since fairness is in my opinion the underlying principle of sport – then the right of biological women to fair competition is sacrificed by allowing transgender athletes to compete against them.

I was not aware of any additional media presence on account of Dr Rachel McKinnon. I think all of the coverage must have been put together remotely and if I am honest, I think it is really sad that the only media coverage of the World Masters Championships was based around Rachel McKinnon, when there were so many truly inspirational performances. I know that is naive of me, though controversy sells news and Rachel McKinnon is certainly very controversial.

The saying is that “there is no such thing as bad news” but in this case I believe there is because the debate is so vitriolic that the coverage around transgender athletes is not encouraging to women of any age group.  Actually quite the opposite, there are women who are choosing not to start races where they know they will compete against transgender athletes and I can understand this choice.

Stories about older athletes, on the other hand, are really inspiring and I love to read about those. So while British Cycling sadly has no interest in masters cycling, the sheer numbers of people riding in their later years is testament to the importance of this group to our wonderful sport.

500m TT, L-R: Jayne Paine, Jan, Lynney Biddulph
My biggest achievements recently have been my three Elite National Titles,  the last one of which came in 2015 at the Derny Champs. I had been working with Graham Bristow, my pacer, in advance of the race and on the day we lapped the field.

Knowing the time he had given up to help me, as well as just how hard he made me work during the training sessions, gave that victory a very special feel. Racing with Graham was always such a privilege and I loved every moment of it. 

This season I rode a new World Masters Record over 500m and am quite proud of that.  My time of 37.026 was a new personal best and took 0.4 seconds off the old record.  I love the idea that we can continue to get faster as we get older. Since we had not specifically targeted this event, I can’t help but feel that there is more to come.

Thanks to Ivor Reid who previously coached me, I am still working towards setting a new World Masters Record for the individual pursuit in my age group (50-54).  During a long ride in Mallorca, he persuaded me that it was a good idea, but it is proving elusive.  I have learned that Jayne Paine’s record, which she lowered again this year to 1:31.111, is not to be taken on lightly. I have always set very specific goals but more recently it has become harder to make those fresh and motivating.  The individual pursuit record has really got grip on me though, and I only wish I could have achieved it while I was working with Ivor. [Ivor Reid died in June 2018]

I have been so lucky with the help I have received in making progress with my cycling and I would really like to acknowledge the people who have supported me. Number one on the list is of course my husband, without whom, I almost certainly would never have raced.  He made me believe I could race, and then did everything to help me be the best that I could be - from tactical advice to technical set up.  He still works tirelessly to help me improve.

Then there is Graham Bristow, who has paced me to two elite national titles and helped me prepare for the win at the National Scratch title too.  I met him at my first Masters Nationals in 2005 and following that he called me out of the blue to offer me some derny paced training.  He taught me to suffer in a way that I had never suffered before, which meant that I found some new limits and we have had great fun along the way.

David has always supported Jan
More recently Ivor Reid breathed new life into my desire to train and race.  His offer to coach me came at a time when my health was not good.  I had been struggling on and off the bike for a number of months and was unable to train properly over the 2016/2017 winter and well into the spring.

That’s when Ivor Reid stepped up.  We had known each other for years and we would meet up in Mallorca to train together.  He had so many amazing stories and we would talk for hours – what was said on the bike stayed on the bike obviously – but I just loved those rides, his company, his humour and his ability to make me feel like a proper cyclist.

Since Ivor passed I have started working with Steve Cronshaw, who again I have known for years and have huge respect for.  His approach to my training is quite different to anything I have done before and he is challenging what I do and how I do it, I am really enjoying working with him.  He is very similar to Ivor in temperament and incredibly patient with me. He also realises how important David is to my success and I really feel like we are a team and that is important to me.

My favourite place to go cycling on a mountain bike is in New Zealand. It is out of this world. My husband grew up there and we have visited his family on a number of occasions, always with our mountain bikes and it is just amazing.  There are so many trails to explore, many of which are accessible just outside of town in places like Wellington and Rotorua for example, but if you want a serious adventure then a boat ride to get to the start of Queen Charlotte Track is well worth the time.

In Mallorca
On a road bike it is hard to beat Mallorca.  I was lucky enough to spend many many hours riding around the island with Ivor Reid. It is a special place, with a wonderful climate and there is a respect for cyclists that we sadly do not have in the UK.

I never go out cycling without a goal. This is not as onerous as you might think because the goals range from “soul ride” - where the purpose is simply to reconnect with a love of cycling, ignoring heart rate or power and just enjoying being on the bike - to recovery, endurance or specific intervals.  

I still do horseriding, though these days I have to get my equine fix by helping a friend who has a young 17-hand Warmblood which is quite a handful. I am also a keen skier, having been lucky enough to start at a young age. When I was working for the Ski Club of Great Britain I found that day touring was my thing. I loved the exercise involved and the isolation of skinning up for the opportunity to ski untracked powder.

To those aged over 35 who would like to take up cycling, I would suggest they just give it a try.  There are taster sessions at most of the tracks and I think the outdoor tracks are a little less intimidating.  There are a good number of track leagues now and plenty of opportunities to race and train in women only groups.  I’m a firm believer that once someone has felt the buzz of track cycling they will never look back and in my experience, it is one of the most friendly of all the cycling disciplines.

Team mates and friends. L-R: Lou Haston, Maddy Moore, Mel Sneddon, Jan

Twitter: @janbirkmyre
Instagram: @janetbirkmyre_torq_track_cycling

Other Cycling Voices
Geraldine Glowinski

Peggy Crome

Judith Worrall

Rebecca Charlton

Hannah Bussey

Carolyn Hewett-Maessen

Maria David

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Cyclist of New York

Last week I spent a few days in New York to take part in its world famous marathon. Being a runner, (as well as a cyclist) New York City Marathon is a must-do race in my opinion. It was a great experience which I highly recommend - provided you train properly to run 26.2 hilly miles!

As a bike rider it would have been remiss of me to not cycle around the city, so I managed to get in a few bike rides.
Initially I had hoped to use a Citibike, an equivalent to the Santander Transport for London Bikes (aka Boris Bikes) that you find here. But a quick look at review sites did not fill me with confidence.

Folks talked about being ripped off, having difficulties finding stations to rack their bikes after usage because of the inefficient app, and being charged twice on their credit cards.

I can imagine how being ripped off comes into it, given that after an initial 30 minutes free of charge the rate then goes up to $4 per 15 minutes. So that would work out as $16 per hour, including the displeasure of knowing you are being shafted for up to $8 worth of time as you look for an available space to dock your bike!

In light of this, I quickly concluded that it would be a more pleasurable and cost-effective experience to do a traditional bike hire from one of the many bike rental shops around New York City.

Bike Friday in Mid-Town Manhattan

On a Friday afternoon a hired a Trek hybrid bike from Bike Rental Central Park on 6th Avenue close to West 54th Street, near where I was staying.

Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (photo: Lori Richmond)
It was $9 per hour plus $3 for insurance, and they gave me a bonus half-hour. A helmet and lock were included in the cost.

My first trip was to use the bike to do a recon of the route of the New York Marathon. So I joined the traffic on 6th Avenue, to turn right onto 59th Street  and rode to Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

From the junction with the bridge there was a network of cycle paths to get me onto the bridge, so I rode over it to get into Queens. At the end of the bridge, in Queens Plaza I then turned around to ride back over it to be in the direction of the marathon route.

The segregated two-way cycle path runs alongside the traffic (on the right-hand side of the bridge going towards Manhattan) and I felt completely safe. It's main feature is the hilliness of this bridge, making it necessary to take it steady. A couple of riders - perhaps unaccustomed to hills or without low enough gears - even stopped to wheel their bike on the steepest section.

Once over the top, a sign warns riders to moderate their speed, as the path descends fast, and curves sharply at the end of the bridge. Furthermore, as this is a shared use path with walkers and joggers potentially on the blind corner, this complicates matters further, though I didn't see any collisions. There'd definitely be a case for having a bike bell.

Harlem shuffle

Once back in Mid-Town Manhattan I crossed a couple of streets to get onto 1st Avenue. This is a very long straight, one-way road (like most streets in Mid-Town) that is crossed by loads of streets - starting from 60th Street, going all the way up to 126th Street to eventually cross the Harlem River. There was a segregated two-way cycle lane to the left of the carriageway which was all nicely ordered in Manhattan, but then got gradually less ordered - peppered with road works and loading vehicles - as you got further north, towards Harlem.

At 125th Street I should have crossed the river via the Willis Avenue Bridge to go into the Bronx, as per the marathon route. There was a cycle path that would have allowed me to do this, however it was late afternoon and I was worried that a) it would get dark and I had no lights and b) I was in danger of missing the 6pm deadline for getting back to the shop. So at this point I turned left along 125th Street, also known as Dr Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard.

The thing that I always find strange about New York - something I also noted when in Buenos Aires last year, is how a road can be so long and straight, keeping the same name and crossing many neighbourhoods. 1st Avenue started from Manhattan Bridge, where there was that central New York feel with tall buildings, lots of yellow taxis, and a certain level of affluence on the Upper East Side.

A mile or so after I joined 1st Avenue, the scenery changed. The buildings were not quite so tall, not as neat, the cars looked a bit old and beat up, plus there were not many white people. Loud music was blaring from the houses and from the cars. I realised I was in Harlem - it kind of reminded me of what Peckham (South London) was like a few years ago. I would have liked to come back there and go to a hairdressers shop, and chat to a few of the locals. But there was no time for that on this occasion.

In terms of the cyclist experience there were quite a few of us around, using the segregated cycle path along 1st Avenue, though not as many as you would see on a cycle superhighway path in London at an equivalent time of day.

Also, I still had to keep my eyes peeled when going straight on past left hand turns, when cyclists and vehicles both had right of way. Certainly in London, there have been a lot of accidents as a result of turning vehicles. On this day in New York, the motorists seemed quite amenable and gave way to me, so that was reassuring to see.

Cross-town traffic

Dr Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard did not have a segregated cycle path, so I just freestyled through the traffic to reach 5th Avenue and rejoin the marathon route that would take me back into Mid-Town Manhattan.

Traffic was getting busy, and a few times we had to give way to blue lights. That is definitely something that I noticed more in New York than in London - emergency vehicles and sirens seem to be going off almost constantly. There probably was a cycling-friendly route to get from Harlem back to Mid-Town, but I didn't have time to look for it. Years of London driving and cycling have taught me how to handle myself in traffic, so I didn't feel particularly unsafe just weaving my way through the rush hour traffic. I will admit that it's not necessarily for a faint-hearted commuter cyclist though.

A few youths on mountain bikes came by, zipping between the vehicles along 5th Avenue, in between pulling the odd wheelie, so I followed them, as they seemed adept at picking the clearest lines. (I couldn't pull a wheelie though.) Nevertheless, they were a bit bemused when they looked behind at the lights and saw this 50-year-old woman in civvies right on their tail. Or who knows, maybe they were impressed!

Very soon, we were riding along Central Park, which was the sign that this was the closing part of the marathon route. I tried to enter the park to follow the blue line that indicated the marathon route, but the problem I had, as with other parks in NYC is that cyclists are obliged to go around the park in one direction only - anticlockwise. That wasn't helpful for me, as the marathon route through the park was going clockwise, so I was forced to stay on the road in the traffic if I wanted to simulate the route.

By this time I had lost my erstwhile cycling companions so I continued along the undulating avenue alone, scooting past the yellow taxis and the buses of the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) - the New York equivalent of Transport for London.

It was now sunset, so I became conscious of the need to push on as hard as I could in order to be back at the bike shop in time, and be off the road before it was properly dark. I didn't mind not riding the last section of the marathon route in Central Park, as I had planned to run that part the following day.

So instead I carried on down 5th Avenue until I was level with the bike shop and then I could cut across via 55th Street to touch base on 6th Avenue. I actually felt somewhat star-struck as I passed places that I had only previously seen on TV or read about - Mount Sinai Hospital, Guggenheim Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, not to mention a square with all the biggest names in fashion plastered everywhere - Burberry, Dolce and Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren etc.

Eventually, I reached Bike Rental Central Park a few minutes after 6pm, at nightfall. The woman in the shop was relieved to see me. She said that folks normally just hire bikes to do little group rides around Central Park, so she was quite surprised that I had ventured into Queens and Harlem.

As a first outing on two wheels around New York City, it had been a pleasant ride, and I was looking forward to getting out in the city again.

Recovery ride along the Hudson river

Given that I was in New York for barely five days and some days were taken up with resting up prior to the marathon and doing the marathon, I ended up only riding on two of the days.

Hudson Greenway passing nusiness district of Lower Manhattan
The second outing on my bike came on the day after the marathon, when I hired a bike from Waterfront Bicycle Shop on the edge of the River Hudson near West Village. This was a Marin commuter bike that I hired at a cost of $12 for two hours, including helmet, lock and basket on the front.

I did a ride along the Hudson Greenway, a path that starts at George Washington Bridge and goes all the way round Manhattan Island. Given how pushed for time I was, I could only manage a spin that went North up past Hell's Kitchen, and then back on myself to Battery Park.

Spin was all I could do as my legs were shot from the previous day's efforts. Mind you, it was still better for me to do an activity that involved sitting down.

The path went parallel to Tribeca, and the business district of Lower Manhattan from where there were good views of the financial institutions of Wall Street, as well as the World Trade Centre.

The 9/11 Memorial was in that area too, though time didn't allow me to stop there. At Battery Park I got clear views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Brooklyn Bridge was nearby too, and it was probably a crime against tourism on my part that I didn't ride across this iconic landmark.

To be honest, my legs were pretty sore, and I had had my fill of bridges around New York since the previous day! My priority was to just spin an easy gear and not do anything that remotely involved riding up a gradient. I was happy to stay on the pan flat riverside, traffic-free ride. Brooklyn Bridge could wait until another day.

My five-day introductory trip to New York had been as pleasant as it was energy taxing, and I saw enough to know that it will be worth my while to return there before long.

Related posts
One month till New York Marathon

Paris Velib - the love affair is over

Festive 500 - Traffic-free in London

London's Cycle Superhighway - friend or foe?

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Sport after a life-changing injury

Recently two elite athletes were badly injured in cycling accidents. The circumstances of the incidents were slightly different, but the outcomes will have been equally traumatic.

Edo Maas
On 6 October 19-year old Edo Maas was hit by a car that strayed onto the course while he was competing in the Mini Tour of Lombardy (Il Piccolo Lombardia) Under-23 cycle race.

As he was coming down from the Madonna del Ghisallo climb between Asso and Canzo a car whose driver had ignored the "stop" signs that there was a race, drove onto the course.

Edo, who was travelling at 70kph (38mph) per hour had nowhere to go and couldn't brake in time collided with the vehicle and crashed to the ground leaving him unconscious with a broken back and neck, plus lesions to his face.

A prompt emergency response saw the Dutch youngster air-lifted and operated on at Niguarda Hospital in Milan and doctors were able to save his life. However, the doctors were unable to repair the damage to key nerves in his back, and they said that it is unlikely that Edo will ever regain the use of his legs.

The woman driving the car is now being investigated for causing serious injuries by dangerous driving.

Team Sunweb, the team that Edo races for made the emotional announcement two weeks ago, and they, along with the Maas family have urged the UCI to give higher priority to rider safety during cycle races.

Last week, we then learned of the news that Claire Danson, a European Triathlon Champion at the 30-34 Age group championships, and sister of Team GB Hockey player Alex Danson has been permanently paralysed.
Claire Danson

In a post she wrote on her Instagram account Claire revealed that on 28 August she suffered multiple fractures and punctured lungs following a collision with a tractor while riding her bike.

Claire's injuries are healing, except for the injury to her spinal cord at the T9 vertebra, which has left her paralysed from the waist down.

These incidences occurred just over a year after the German World Keirin Track Cycling Champion Kristina Vogel lost the use of her legs after a high-speed collision with another rider while training at the Cottbus Velodrome near Berlin in June 2018. The then 27-year old severed her spinal cord a the T7 vertebra leaving her permanently confined to a wheelchair.

I feel so sorry to hear these pieces of news. All of these athletes were in their prime, at the top of their game, and sport was a central part in their lives. Then to suddenly suffer these traumatic injuries must be so heart-breaking.

Kristina Vogel
Kristina gave a heart-rendering interview to the BBC last year a few weeks after her injury.

Naturally, Kristina had cried a lot and had to come to terms with her new situation but the quote that stood out for me was when she said: "I still love my life. So nothing changed, really. Just how I move. I'm going to do a lot of things in my wheelchair. It's different, but it's still my life, so why not be happy."

I, and many people were so impressed and inspired by her strength, courage, and positive attitude in the wake of this life-changing injury.

This takes me back to when another athlete who suffered paralysis after an accident. In 2001 in the days when I did triathlon, Paula Craig, an age-group triathlete was the woman to beat in my age-group. The detective sergeant who was part of the Metropolitan Police triathlon team, was doing one of her last bike rides the week before doing the Bournemouth Triathlon World Age Group Championships qualifier race when she was hit by a car on a country road. The car, travelling at 60 miles per hour was driven by an 84-year old man who admitted he was not wearing his glasses.

From one moment to the next Paula went from being a triathlete to a para-triathlete when she was confined to a wheelchair.

Paula Craig MBE (with Dame Cressida Dick,
Metropolitan Police Commissioner)
This was quite shocking for all of us in what was quite a close-knit community. Paula spent five months in hospital, and during that time she bought herself a handcycle and slowly began to do light exercises as part of her recovery.

A year after her accident Paula competed in the wheelchair race at the London Marathon and is the first person to have competed as an athlete and a para-athlete in that event. (As an able-bodied athlete she had done 2h 57 in the London marathon.) She also competed in the World Para-Triathlon Championships and won that.

As well as keeping her job at the Metropolitan Police which saw her promoted to Detective Inspector at the Homicide Squad and the Terrorism Squad, Paula became a motivational speaker, and in 2005 she was awarded an MBE for services to the police.

Paula's story goes to show how she has made something positive out of a life-changing situation and I feel inspired by her. I hope that I can have the same attitude as she does in very difficult life-changing circumstances. I also wish Kristina, Claire, and Edo all the best.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

52 Cycling Voices - 25: Monica and Paola Santini

Meet the women behind one of the biggest brands in cycle wear - Monica and Paola Santini. They took over from the business their father, Pietro set up in 1965. Originally a wool factory set up by Pietro's sister in Bergamo, Signor Santini wanted to develop a business that combined the family clothing business with his passion for cycling. Since 2009 the day-to-day running of the company is managed by Monica and Paola, but Pietro still keeps his daily ritual of walking around the factory and catching up on cycling news in Gazzetta dello Sport.

I met Monica and Paola last year at the Rouleur Classic and they were quite enthusiastic about the launch of their latest kit for Trek-Segafredo, and celebrating 30 years of producing the rainbow World Champion's jersey - something we lesser mortals can even buy now. One thing that was quite apparent when speaking to the sisters is their passion for what they do, and particularly their wish to continue the family heritage of producing innovative designs for men and women. Look out for them at Rouleur Classic.

Monica (L) and Paola     (photo: Beardy MCBeard)

Monica Santini

From: Bergamo, Italy

Occupation: CEO, SMS Santini

Paola Santini

From: Bergamo, Italy

Occupation: Marketing Manager, SMS Santini


Growing up in a family like ours meant that we were immersed in cycling from a very early age as our dad used to explain all the race techniques and strategies to us. That really got me involved in cycling and I fell in love with it. 

My dad owned a team called Rossi-Santini when I was a teenager and always used to take me to see them racing.  
The first World Championships I went to were in Colorado Springs in 1986 -  Moreno Argentin won. I remember it well: I was just a teenager and my father took me along because he couldn’t speak English and needed me as his interpreter.

I was never a competitive cyclist, partly because when I was young, very few girls cycled. Nowadays I cycle at amateur level because I like it and it makes me feel good.

As a small girl I worked in the factory when I was in high school, doing little jobs like helping to lay out the fabrics. Then, when I was at university, I worked in the administration offices. I was there a lot from an early age: at everything from team presentations to official UCI dinners and meetings with sponsors. 

After I graduated, I went abroad for a while to get some experience in other fields, and after that I decided to join for good. That was in 2000 and I started out in administration. Then from 2002 to 2004, I essentially digitalised the company which didn’t had a computer system for the production side. After that I focused on developing our foreign markets and have now been CEO for 10 years. 
Monica with Pietro (L) and Alessandro Petacchi (photo: Santini)
We are an Italian company and, as such, we are very focused on design, fashion and beauty

In terms of the production process, I have always worked very actively with the production managers, trying to learn as much as I could from them. I love working with those very professional people.  

I remember Santini making wool jerseys very well because I have been involved in the company since I was a little girl. It was an unusual technique as the wool had to be woven and embroidered. 

Santini has been a partner of the UCI since when they approached us about making the World Champion's jersey over 30 years. We started in 1988, with the victory of Maurizio Fondriest. 

The fact that a body as important as the UCI had chosen us to make the World Champion's showed their faith in our skills. We were able to guarantee quality clothing and fast delivery times.  The first jerseys we made were wool and we had to have wool in all the - quite unusual - rainbow colours in stock.

When people talk about the World Championships, they are normally only thinking in terms of road cycling but there are many others championships: from mountain bike to lesser known ones such as cycle-ball or artistic cycling, etc. All those World Championships have their own jersey designs. For example, cycle-cross and mountain-bike champion jerseys are often cut very differently.

In terms of size, we don’t just make one jersey but the same jersey in a choice of sizes that have to reflect the size of the athletes that will win and wear them on the podium. They won’t be worn in competition so we don’t have to worry about fitting.

Although we had transitioned from wool to Lycra and polyester by the time I joined the company in 2000, the other changes in the interim have been significant too; from the fit, which has become more body-hugging, to the addition of different materials to boost stretch, for instance.  In the last few years in particular, we have been doing more and more research into treatments and fabrics: it is an ongoing process because we never want to stop innovating.  

We have been producing women-specific products for at least 20 years, and in that time have focused on driving forward with our projects with women's pro teams and athletes. Our goal since the outset has been to give women the same standard of products that we make for men, so we have never produced less technical clothing or used lower performance fabrics for women. 

Lizze by Santini and Trek-Segafredo kit
We applied the research and development processes  we use for our men’s products to our women’s clothing: we chose more body-hugging cuts designed for women’s body shapes, perhaps adding in a bit more colour and playing around a bit more with the graphics to make them more attractive to female tastes.  

What was definitely different, however, was the quantity of products: while there were a lot of men’s collections, the selection of women’s products was limited, at first. But that too has changed t in recent years. In fact, our women’s collections now mirror our men’s very accurately in both quality and quantity.

We work with the top women’s pro teams like Boels Dolmans, and pro athletes like Lizzie Deignan. Working with sports people of that level has helped us realise what we needed to do differently to suit women’s bodies and needs. In the past, we also worked with the Australian Cycling Federation in providing kit for women cyclists. 

We always organise fitting sessions with our athletes and we get them to test out all the materials they will be wearing to see if they are fine as they are or if we need to adapt them to the competitors’ bodies. 

We have been working with Lizzie Deignan in creating the Lizzie for Santini collection. I spoke to Lizzie early last year about clothes and she said she really likes Santini clothing, even before she was asked to design it. 

She was riding for Boels Dolmans at that time and we were already sponsoring the team. We liked Lizzie a lot and with everything that she does and what she represents for women’s cycling, so we approached to see if she had ever thought about doing something in the industry. She like the idea of the work that we had done previously for another big rider, Anna Meares, on her Anna collection. So we started creating the Lizzie for Santini collection.

It has been hugely important for us to work with an athlete of Lizzie’s calibre. She is very focused on detail and is very determined.  That striving for perfection is something we share and so we’re absolutely on the same wavelength.  Being able to craft our collection around the needs of an athlete of her level has been a very positive experience for us – as was the case with Anna Meares a few years ago. 

In the past, we were met with some confusion and reluctance: “What you are you doing that for?” and “Why are you making women’s products? They are no use to anyone, no one wants them. It’s a waste of time”, etc., etc. But time proved us right: now there are more and more women’s collections and products and that is because more and more women are becoming involved in this sport.   

Based on my own experience, I would say that women are able to embrace that marvellous crossover between sport and fashion in addition to being able to create groups in a less vertical way and more as a team. 

My transition to managing the company and being part of the cycling industry wasn’t so rapid that people ended up saying: “What just happened?” I worked with dad for a very long time and it was a very easy, natural transition between him and his daughters, in-house.  

After several years, he just said to us: “It is time to pass the baton”.  My father still comes to the factory every day.  The outside world didn’t immediately accept the fact that the company was being managed by two women. But despite a few difficulties, we have built up excellent business relationships. 

It is true that this is a male-dominated sector with a very low percentage of women. But I have never looked on myself as a women when I am at work. I see myself as a professional with goals and even when people reacted oddly, I never thought they were doing so because I was a woman but because they thought I was young or a bit green. The important thing is never to give in to the sceptics

Inside the Santini factory (photo: Beardy MCBeard)
Being a woman has never been a problem for me or limited me in anyway. In fact, it has been a plus, an advantage. 

The fact that we still have such a solid relationship with the UCI after 30 years is down to the fact that we do what we do well and with passion, and we are fast and flexible. Those are things our dad taught us and which we teach in the company.   

We have our own in-house version of the Ten Commandments written by our collaborators and listing our values and our guidelines. The first Commandment is: quality before everything. That means there is a philosophy shared by the whole company.  

I, together with my sister, Paola, manage the company and the worksforce is 97% female; it’s actually strange to say that in an industry which is male-dominated. We are rooting for women’s cycling to grow more and more and we are all bike riders ourselves. So of course it is natural to think that we want to create something that we like, and if we like it, hopefully other women will like it too. 


Dad used to take me to local races during summer. He started doing that when I was two. I liked going to watch the track racing with dad; the six-day races were my favourites as I could see the whole race and it was so much fun.

Natatlina, Pietro's sister at the original
Santini wool clothing workshop (photo: Santini)
Cycling has always been part of my life but I never raced when I was little as my dad was afraid I might get hurt. He thought swimming was a much safer sport for a girl. Now I am an amateur triathlete. I discovered triathlon six years ago and fell in love with it.

I quite literally grew up in the factory as at the time, we lived in an apartment on the top floor of the building! Dad always let us walk around the production floor and watch what all the different staff were doing. What happens here is magical for a small child. I see it now with my own kids. They think we create dreams out of colours and fabric!

As I grew up, I used to do small jobs in the office and help out whenever I could after school or during summer holidays.

I learned about the design and production process by watching and asking our designers and technicians thousands of questions. I used to ask thousands of questions when I was a child, and I still do today!

I started working in the family business in April 2009 after six years' working in London in the marketing and PR office of a fashion brand.

When we work with Lizzie Deignan she is involved in the earliest stage of the process, from when we brainstorm ideas for the design and the models in the collection. Then she receives all the photos of the developments of the prototypes and tests some of them too. Her feedback is invaluable and she loves being around fabrics and colours when we create the collection. I think she has a lot of fun.

It is very important to have women involved in the management of a clothing company. Women have a lot to give to this sport, especially in the clothing business. My father has always thought that women are very quick to understand fabrics and design. In my opinion, a woman’s life is like an endurance sport, like cycling. So we are kind of used to dealing with endurance and with the complexity that managing a company like ours involves every day.
Santini President, Pietro with Monica (L) and Paola
Dad is still our president and the symbol of our company. He comes to work every day and loves to walk around the factory to see what’s going on. He doesn’t make all the decisions anymore, but we like to get him involved and ask for his opinion.

The cycling industry has changed a lot through the years. We are no longer the only women in the business. There are still relatively few of us but our numbers are growing. I remember that at the first trade shows I did, people were looking at me and thinking “She is blonde, young and female.  What does she know about cycling?” But I have always proved them wrong and made them change their mind!

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