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

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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 in London. 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 I 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 bike 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 delivery 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 for one reason or another. There probably was a cycle-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 young lads in cycling gear 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 New York marathon. 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, or at least the gradient.

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 an exciting 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 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, South to Battery Park.

Spin was all I could do as my legs were totally 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. 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 11am 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 a bit of a whirlwind encounter - a couple of bike rides around Manhattan, a run around Prospect Park in Brooklyn, a mini run around Central Park, a 26.2-mile run across the five NYC boroughs, a couple of yoga classes, experiencing a New York Halloween, and visiting the famous touristic sites. I saw enough to know that it will be worthwhile to go back in the not-distant future, and spend more time there.

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