Emma Pooley, the once crowned UCI TT World Champion, Olympic and Commonwealth medallist talks about making the transition back to road cycling.
Guest post by Hannah Troop: The women’s peloton is growing and each spring we see it blossom. With fiercer competition and new teams rising, it’s an intimidating environment to re-enter after a two-year hiatus. Especially shouldering a glittering palmarès like Emma Pooley’s. Her return back to the pro-peloton from long distance triathlon and duathlon is a bid to secure selection on the women’s Olympic squad in Rio. Can she regain her old racing form?
Emma chatted to us this week about transitioning between cycling and multi-discipline sport, the road to Rio, Aviva Women’s Tour and the guilty pleasure of clocking up QOMs.
How did you find moving over to the triathlon / duathlon world after being in cycling for so long? What’s different?
When I was doing triathlon before I was racing age group, not pro, I guess the scene is very different from cycling. Much more independent, there isn’t so much of a divide between pro and amateur. You get “fun” amateur bike races out there, but they’re very separate from the pro races.
The thing I like most about triathlon is you all do the same race, normally on the same day or even at the same time.
You see people of all different levels and you get to chat to them and it makes the race environment. It’s not just spectators standing behind barriers cheering, they’re doing the same race with you on the same day, albeit mostly a bit slower. It’s a different relationship with people in the sport. It’s not necessarily more relaxed but it just reminds you of why you do it. I prefer the vibe at a triathlon in all honesty.
How have you felt about coming back from triathlon into cycling? Cyclists can sometimes have a slight superiority complex over triathletes, can’t they?
Yeah, tribalism I think is what they call it. I don’t really know what other people think about it and I’m not really interested to be honest. I have enough to worry about without taking on what other people are thinking. Personally how I feel about it—once I got the idea that I could do road racing again, there was a little bit of fear. I was never really confident riding in the bunch. I was always quite a nervous racer. There are things I miss about cycling—the teams and the camaraderie.
What I hated about it to be honest was being stuck in the peloton, it stressed me out.
On the other hand, it’s so hard physically when you have to stay on somebody’s wheel or cover an attack. You put a lot of big efforts down in a road race and it’s very hard to mimic that in training – so road racing was always good for my fitness, I think.
There’s a lot to do to get form back, I’m doing the Aviva Women’s Tour and probably the Giro. If at the end of that I’m still not selected for Rio, obviously I’ll be disappointed (with myself, for not being good enough), but I also know that the process will have been really good training for triathlon. Road racing is bloody hard but it has advantages! And anyway, I don’t want to be selected for the time trial in Rio if I’m not on form to potentially do well.
Riders within the peloton talk about how the level has improved over the last couple of years, what do you think? Did you find that at the Tour of Yorkshire?
I’ve heard the same about women’s cycling, I think what has changed is the base level has improved. People at the top are always very good. I think what has happened is the medium and lower percentiles have improved.
I think it was impossible for me to tell in Yorkshire, because it was a one off race. My feeling of how hard the race was, is totally coloured by my current level compared to the others. I hadn’t done a bike race for nearly two years. I’d done a half Ironman the weekend before and had quite a lot of travel and very little sleep—so to be honest it was always going to really tough, and it was! So I don’t know whether that’s because the level has improved or whether that’s because I’m just a bit rubbish! Quite possibly a combination of both.
How easy is it to make a living in triathlon compared to cycling?
It’s similar in that the people at the top do quite well and you don’t have to go much further down to find people who are struggling. Obviously the prize money is at the top and the sponsorship as well, I’m a bit ignorant on this, I don’t know what the top women in cycling or triathlon are earning.
I can just about make ends meet in triathlon like I did in cycling, and I’m really lucky that I can concentrate on sport full time. But I’m not going to get rich off it unless I get a lot better at triathlon. But that’s ok because I like the racing, I like to push myself and (occasionally) win. I think the difference with triathlon is you have to find your own sponsorship and your own deals and that’s actually quite time consuming.
If you’re on a cycling team you like, but don’t like the bike or the saddle it’s difficult to reconcile that. At least now I have sponsors whose equipment I believe in wholly and I’m passionate about and I want to represent them. And yes of course that means there’s some equipment I simply buy, because either I’m not at a level where it would be worthwhile for a sponsor to support me (swimming for example, I’m just rubbish), or I’m quite particular about the kit I want to use. But that’s fine, obviously!
I can’t imagine anything much worse than having to ride for hours on a saddle that isn’t comfortable…
One year I had to—in the end I cut the leather off, cut it to the shape I wanted and then stuck the leather back down. People actually said to me “Oh wow where did you get your saddle from” I had to tell them it was home made
How have you found the gender balance between cycling and triathlon? Are there any lessons to be learnt from one to the other?
Well, I’m trying to get less cross about it, because it doesn’t seem to help. I mean, when I say cross I think I got a reputation for being outspoken in cycling, just because I pointed out what I thought could be improved. There isn’t equal media coverage and the races are very different. Many people who’ve grown up with cycling just think that’s fine, because it’s always been that way. But as an outsider who came from running, it just seemed mad to me that the scene was so different for men and women, and I just said what I thought. I’m not the only person who speaks up about it.
There’s so much potential to grow women’s cycling, that I think could be better encouraged.
Maybe that’s why I feel a bit more relaxed in triathlon because (for example) I’ll get asked to attend the press conferences, and the questions they ask are about my race, what my tactics are, how I was feeling before the race, how I was feeling after… Rather than: “How do you feel about men versus women?” I got fed up of being asked that in cycling – the question totally misses the point anyway. Gender parity is not so much of an issue in triathlon, because the sport is mostly very egalitarian, and that’s just normal and seen as one of the strengths of the sport.
What’s your aim for the Aviva Women’s Tour?
Ok, this is very important…my aim is to race really hard and suffer, which I’m quite sure is going to happen.
I know it takes a few weeks of hard, back to back racing to get that top level again. There’s no way I could get that from triathlon training, especially with the running. I don’t think I’m expected to get a result. The Great Britain team are not taking me there to win a stage, they know I’m there to get race fitness back and so I’m trying to look at it with no pressure, just to race it hard.
On the other hand it’s a home race and the first stage is Norwich, and it would be nice to win but I don’t think I’ll be winning any stages. I’m looking forward to the process and racing in the UK again.
Are you looking forward to the Peak District stage?
Yeah I guess it will suit my riding better, but we’ll see, they’re so unpredictable, but who knows I might be out the back in the Peak District as well. It would be madness to think I could be up there after not racing really for two years.
With the data side of the sport and community how do you find communities like Strava?
It took a lot of persuading to get me on Strava at all, I’m not really a techno, I do a bit of social media. I’d rather see friends face to face and social media is time consuming. But on the other hand I live a long way away from my friends and away from my boyfriend and so it can be useful.
I didn’t want everything in my life to be documented, I wanted to leave my training to be free from outside observation. I was worried it was going to feel a bit like being stalked, but I’ve actually found it really positive. There are certain things I wanted to keep private, I didn’t want people to see, for example I’d been to Rio to recce the course or how fast up the hill I went, but you just leave it private, it’s easy.
I find you get loads of positive feedback from people and ok, maybe I’m worried I care a little bit too much about QOMs. But it can be a really useful tool. Especially if I get a QOM on a hill I ride a lot: then I know I’m going well. Although one day it might be really depressing to think I might not get another QOM because I won’t be training full time and it will be harder. But I like the community, a bit like triathlon, it’s a much more genuine interaction with real cyclists who ride their bikes. People can see where I’ve ridden and where I’ve stopped for coffee—which happens quite a lot!