Garmin-Cervélo rider Sharon Laws is one of those riders who cycling fans love to love. She’s a killer mountain domestique – for the past two years, you know it’s a hard race when you read about how Laws was in an early break, forcing the peloton to chase her down… ready for Emma Pooley to attack just as they’re relaxing over neutralising the threat – she always seems like a team player, ready to kill herself for her team-mates, regardless of if it’s her kind of terrain or not. And given her chance, she can contest for the GC in her own right – coming second (winning a stage) in the Tour de l’Ardèche 2010, and sixth in the 2008 Tour de l’Aude where she helped Nicole Cooke to her fourth place (she also supported Cooke in her World and Olympic double win in 2008). Plus when it goes uphill, she’s a pretty mean Time Triallist, fourth in the 2010 GP de Suisse and taking the British TT Champion title in 2008.
But formidable as her cycling abilities are, there are many other reasons to add her to your list of favourite riders. She has probably the most interesting "how I got into pro cycling" stories I’ve ever seen. At 36, she’s still only in her third year of pro cycling – and like Marijn de Vries and Evelyn Stevens, she’s one of the riders who left a high-powered job – in Laws’ case, working on prestigious environmental projects all around the world – for the risky and insecure life of the women’s peloton.
I interviewed Sharon as she moved into her new home in Girona, over the Skype-phone and by email. In between Ikea-construction sessions and working out the relocation issues, she told me more of her story – including exactly how many times she’s ended a race in hospital, what she thinks of 2011’s Giro Donne, and the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to her on the bike...
My huge thanks to Sharon’s mum, Joy Laws, for the photos. You can read an interview with Joy on Sharon from 2008 here!
Sharon Laws started riding adventure races and the kind of completely insane mountain bike races in Africa and South America that make me shake my head in awe at what people put themselves through. All this for fun – it was only when she was working in Australia and won the Tour of Bright at the end of 2007 and came second in the Australian National Road Race Championships in 2008, at 33 years old, that she even thought about turning pro.
It can’t be easy, coming into racing relatively late on – what are the disadvantages?
"I guess the disadvantage is having less experience and bunch skills than the girls who have been cycling from a young age, especially those who have done track. I was spoilt in my previous job, when I also travelled a lot but I flew business class and had my own room in a hotel so it was much more luxurious! And of course, financially…" I ask whether being older gives her a more heightened sense of fear of the physical dangers "Yes, I don’t have as much race experience, I’m much more nervous than the girls who have been racing since they were young."
But I haven’t talked to Laws for five minutes before I realise she’s the type who only describes the negatives with a laugh. Of course, she focuses on the advantages:
"You know you want it! At every race there are some girls who go to the race, ride their bikes and go home; they’re doing the job without passion for it. They did it as a junior, were picked up, and everything is provided on a plate. Every race I go to, I go because I really want to be there, to do the best I can – even if it’s just improving my positioning in the bunch"
"It’s not all roses, nearly every week I go through the thing of ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this’ – but that’s the same in an office job. I’m taking the opportunities as they come. I’ve always done that."
Laws was born in Kenya to British parents, and moved to England as a child, where she grew up in the beautiful Gloucestershire Cotswolds. After her biology degree at Nottingham University, she went out to Zimbabwe with Schools Partnership Worldwide – now Restless Development. After she had completed a placement with the charity, she worked for them in Uganda, setting up environmental programmes. She returned to the UK, and a Masters degree in Conservation at University College London, and went on to work for the British Government's Department for International Development for a year and a half. This lead to a secondment to the United Nations, working on environmental projects in Southern Africa.
Laws always seems to have taken opportunities with her career, and she changed direction and took a job with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, outside London. She hadn’t been sure about returning to the UK, "but it was such a special opportunity, to work in a place that’s so prestigious scientifically".
At Kew, She managed a partnership with the Rio Tinto mining company which involved working on projects and travelling in South America and Africa. In 2006, she moved to Australia (where she still lives in the "off" season) to work with the company, and that’s where her bike racing career really took off.
Laws had always loved riding her bike, and before Australia had focused on mountain biking, riding long enduro races and adventure races, in spectacular landscapes in Africa, including National Parks in Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. It was in one of these races where she had the most ridiculous experience she’s had on a bike:
"During an adventure race in South Africa something went wrong with my team-mate’s bottom bracket on a mountain bike. I had to ride it, as I was the lightest, spinning backwards whilst being pushed (it wouldn’t pedal forwards) and then once it had reached a limit, I could pedal forwards for a limited time, before it seized up again, and then I had to pedal backwards again. We repeated this palavar for the next three hours until we got back to the transition zone ... and then we set off in kayaks for the next stage!"
("Another ridiculous thing I was when I cycled the South Downs there and back in a day with no sleep – with a friend who was training for a 24 hour race. It took us just over a day and I thought I saw a haggis running in the countryside at 2am!")
In 2004 she raced and won the Cape Epic with Hanlie Booyens (a race they won again in 2009). She had raced whenever she could, the Trans-Alps, La Ruta (a three-day mountain bike race in Costa Rica) and riding an off-road duathlon, and although she didn’t get much of a chance to race while she was at Kew, she still was getting up early and riding the North Downs before work.
But in Australia she moved to the road. She has said elsewhere that she started riding road as much for the social side as anything else, but then she entered the hilly Tour of Bright in 2007. Still working every day before the race, she rode it on her "really old Giant road bike" – and won! This lead to a coach and a proper bike, and three weeks later, she came second in the Australian National Road Race Championships, beating Olympic gold medallist Sara Carrigan among others. She was contacted by British Cycling, and David Brailsford invited her onto his short-lived Halfords Bikehut team for 2008, riding in support of Nicole Cooke. Laws accepted, taking a sabbatical from her job to enter this new life. Was it hard to give up what sounds like a career people would dream of, for all this?
"I don’t know, it’s not like I was on my way to being a CEO. I’ve done quite a varied amount of stuff – I was just ready for a change, work-wise. And I was getting up at 5am to train, doing a full day’s work, then swimming in the evening. I had no free time at all, it was completely timetabled"
If she hadn’t given it all up for cycling, what would she be doing?
"I’m pretty sure I would still be doing international conservation work. I was just getting a bit tired off all the long-haul travel and never being at home ... I travel all the time now and am never at home, but at least I get to ride my bike rather than sit in meetings!"
Laws couldn’t have chosen a better time to be spotted by British Cycling than 2008 – this was the Olympic year, where the track team destroyed the opposition, and on the road, Nicole Cooke became the first woman ever to win both the World Championship and the Olympic gold in the road race.
She had shot herself from nowhere to a key place in the Beijing Olympic team – but fate had a horrible trick in store for her. The BBC featured her in one of their pre-Olympic clips explaining cycling…. and caused her to crash, breaking her fibula. This was a huge blow for Laws – she’d given up everything to race at the highest levels, and although she was back on her bike in time for the Olympics, she hadn’t had the best preparation, and in the horrible conditions of the Olympic road race, crashed again.
"Mentally, it was quote hard to keep it together", she says of this period of her life. "I was going from being in a full-time job six months previously, being selected for the Olympics (which was mind boggling), then thinking I couldn’t go, then finding out I could still go and then achieving nothing – all in a matter of a few weeks. It was especially hard as the crash was something out of my control."
At this dark time, Cervélo had offered her a contract for 2009, but she’d turned it down, as British Cycling offered her a place on their mountain bike squad. Although she had raced so much in the adventure racing "I’d never done much Cross Country", she says. "And then I fell downstairs at home and dislocated my shoulder - it was the most painful thing I have ever done, required surgery and a long rehab process. I never really regained my confidence on the mountain bike after that."
She returned to the road for the 2009 Worlds, where she came 28th, but it looks back with some regret. "I wasn’t really race fit for the Worlds which probably suited me most, I wasn’t great".
She had done a little bit of road riding in for Team GB again in 2009, coming 21st in the Trophée d'Or and 7th in the Tour de l’Ardèche – and Cervélo had been watching. Once more, they asked her to ride for them, for the 2010 season, and this time she said yes, playing a crucial support role in Emma Pooley’s spectacular April and May, when Pooley won the Flèche Wallonne, GP de Suisse ITT and GP Elsy Jacobs, following it up by winning the Grand Tour equivalent, Tour de l’Aude. Laws played a crucial role here, and was on track for another top ten finish in the Tour de l’Aude, until she punctured on the penultimate stage and lost time.
Her next goal was the Giro Donne, which, with it’s Alpine and penultimate Stelvio stages, seemed made for the Laws-Pooley combination. Laws was definitely ready for this one… but then, on the second stage, was caught up behind a crash, breaking her collarbone and having to leave the race before it had really begun. This was another huge blow for her.
"I’d been to recce the route with Emma – it was a real disappointment not to be able to ride it, it was such a great route… Normally I’m not at that position in the bunch – but I was up there and wanted to help Kirsten [Wild] and so …"
She did come back for the Tour de l’Ardèche, where she won the first stage. But then there was the time trial. "They changed the TT route! It was hideous, really short, there were loads of rocks on the descent – they’d just had flooding, so the road was covered in dirt and stuff, and there were speedbumps right at the end. We didn’t even ride TT bikes!" She lost the leader’s jersey to eventual winner Vicki Whitelaw - but from the smile in her voice, she’s not complaining about it. She laughs about what could be - "Now, if it had been the TT they had in all the previous years – eight kilometres uphill…!"
This year, she’s already shown her worth, particularly in the first round of the Road World Cup, the Trofeo Binda, where she went out on another killer early attack. She was caught, and then, as you might guess, Emma Pooley attacked.
"No one wants to let Emma go! But she’s so fast, sometimes they can’t help it!" I ask about what happened, because from the video we’ve seen, it seemed like other riders didn’t chase as Pooley made her escape attempt "I really don’t know!" she laughs, "She snuck out, by herself" – and there’s a certain glee in her voice, that her team-mate could do so well, that makes me grin.
So what are her goals this season?
"My main goals are to improve all-round as a rider –not just as a climber. I have never completed a full road season, so have raced relatively little – this year I did a lot of the classics and feel I have made some improvements in the flat races and was able to help Lizzie [Armitstead] - for example in Borsele when I made the initial front group. As a team, we would like to win the Giro and Thüringen, and I think I can help my team mates achieve these goals – and there may well be opportunities for me in certain stages. It’s not so easy to target specific races as we have a lot of options in the team depending on how the race maps out. It’s more about being ready and able to make the most of a particular situation."
Of course the Giro Donne has to be a goal, with the Motirolo stage… I’m interested in how Laws sees the route this year.
"I don’t know all the areas of the Giro, but did ride up the Motirolo with Emma and her coach, Tim, last year. We went up the way the race route comes down – which is a pity – I think I’d rather climb up it that way than come down it! I think the race looks good and there is probably more of a mix of bumpy days than last year – which I think was either flat or mountains – but given that I only did two stages and have never done the Giro before, I haven’t got much to compare it to."
And as a 2008 Olympian, what does she think of the 2012 Olympics? It’s been a bit of a hobby, imagining the route the Road Race could take, for maximum British success – what does Laws think?
"To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the Olympics to be hilly – I think Beijing was an exception. I know the roads in Surrey and they could have made it a lot hillier – there is a 21% gradient in Cranleigh! I’m disappointed that the girls only go up Box Hill twice – again it is a bit like Beijing – there is a long trek out to somewhere and then a short section of good racing. Although I haven’t ridden the route yet, from my memory of living in London, I think the narrow, twisty roads will play a part in the race and I think it could well end up being harder than people first initially think (kind of like Worlds in Geelong)."
To clear up something I’ve always wondered, given her reputation – exactly HOW many times has she ended up in hospital after a race?
"Ah - it’s not that many really! Adventure racing is pretty hard on your body – when you’ve been racing for days with no sleep. I think I only had a drip twice though. Mainly due to dehydration and cellulitis (your cells fill up with fluid as you’ve been on your feet so long). I did end up in ICU after doing a ultra distance triathlon in South Africa (it’s longer than a half iron man but not quite as long as a full iron man) as my potassium levels crashed – I felt quite peculiar near the finish but still managed to overtake the girl just in front of me – and then collapsed!"
"Up until I started as pro I’d never broken anything, and the last three years have not been so much fun – and only one was race related! I broke my fibular in 2008, in 2009 I dislocated my shoulder, and in 2010 I broke my collar bone in a pile up near the end of the 2nd stage of the Giro. The only consolation was that at least I felt this was a valid break!"
After cycling, where does she see herself?
"Working again in international conservation and development. I enjoyed feeling that the work I was doing made a positive difference to the environment and local people. One day I’d love to run my own eco-tourism project – if I could combine that with leading cycling tours it could be perfect!"
So, having made this huge change to her life, what’s the best thing about the cycling life for Laws?
"Being outside! I really love training, meeting the people you get to meet when you ride. Being really fit and seeing what you can push yourself to achieve at an age when most people are worrying about kids and mortgages! Seeing what you can push yourself to achieve!"
When I ask what’s been the best moment in her cycling, there’s no easy answer for her, there have been so many.
"One was probably doing a mountain bike recce for trans Pyrenees trip with some friends. We had someone following us in a van, and rode in some amazingly remote places. We camped each night, cooked fresh caught trout on the camp fire and drank red wine. It wasn’t all fun as we carried our bikes up some unrideable hills and I fell into a huge mass of stinging nettles one day, but it was great training for the Trans Alps."
"Another was a road trip in South Africa, a similar set up but we stayed in cottages and rode from the mountains to the sea. Again the company was great and the scenery amazing. This was training for the Cape Epic. Some weekend rides are just as fun, though, hard training, great company and with good weather and coffee, you can’t ask for much else!"
And it’s not just the personal benefits for her – it’s what the individuals achieve together: "Teamwork, pushing yourself, getting to experience something like the Giro and the Tour de l’Aude as a group"
"We ride in such amazing places – I think it’s important to make sure you have at least a quick glance – even if you don’t appreciate it at the time. In mountain bike races you tend to get a lot more time as you’re climbing such steep stuff for so long. I think the scenery in the TransAlps and Cape Epic are some of the best views I’ve ever seen ... well except for an Adventure race I did in Greenland... but that’s another story…!"
Here’s to a great season for Sharon – injury-free, making those attacks in the mountains and bringing home results in her own right. Whatever happens next, you just know she’ll be taking all the opportunities that come her way, and thriving on the chances – and whatever happens next, she’ll have the same smile on her face and laugh in her voice, and I’m sure more success will follow.
Interview: Sarah Connolly;
All photos courtesy of & used with permission of Joy Laws; except initial portrait, by Sarah Connolly