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

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