I've been a fan of Stefan Wyman's women's teams for years, and he's one of those people I've "met" on the internet, and become a real friend. He took me to the Luxembourg races and Thüringen Rundfahrt in 2011, and, less glamourously, to Stoke on Trent, so when he asked if I'd like to be involved in the 2013 Matrix Fitness Racing Academy, I jumped at the chance. I may get a bit more hyperbolic than usual, in this, so I won't mind if you skip to the photos!
I knew it was going to be a bit more than the usual "stand on the stage and talk a lot", but I hadn't realised how much fun it would be. From the moment we were discussing the plans the night before, and I was in stitches so many times, I knew this was going to be something different. The launch was co-organised by Nick Hussey and Jools Walker of the Vulpine bike clothing range, and I apologise if I sound like I'm turning into an advertorial, but I have fallen head over heels in love with this company! You might know of Jools from her Vélo-City-Girl blog, and if you're in the UK, her appearances on The Cycle Show on ITV4, and she's even more entertaining and fun in real life, and Nick is so interesting, really passionate about supporting all kinds of cycling, and coming up with inventive ways to support the sport.
At Vulpine, it was the more "formal" photoshoots, and everyone getting to know each other. There were five of the Matrix riders there - Corrine Hall (current national Points Race champion), Harriet Owen (2nd in the Junior World Track Championships Scratch race in 2010 and won a round of the Tour series last year), Jo Tindley, Hannah Walker (who you might have seen in the recent adidas #mygirls advert) and Jessie Walker - with European Cyclocross Champion and Kona rider Helen Wyman there for moral support, teasing and tea-making - and the plan was they'd be paired with a different photographer and writer/blogger for the afternoon, each with a different speciality - so Hannah went for a makeover with Adele Mitchell, a beauty editor, Jo went out with Lois Addy, a graphic designer who also blogs about her own cycling - and Harriet came out with me - but more on that later....
Jessie Walker and Hannah Walker
It was a fun morning - everyone getting to know each other, LOTS of beautiful merino wool being drooled over, people recognising each other from twitter, and a LOT of photography! Guy Collier was the photographer for the morning shots, and he's put up some photos and his take on the day already - but everyone was taking photos of everything all the time, and it was all being posted to twitter, under the hashtag #MatrixLaunch.
Photos, then lunch in a nearby pub, with sponsors and friend of the team, and lots more laughing, and then we scattered. It had been up to the riders and the photographers to decide where they went, so I thought, why not take Harriet to the Zoo....
Harriet was a fantastic person to trail round London with. She's only 19, but she's been through a lot in her cycling career so far - the highs of winning silver at the Junior Worlds - and only being beaten by Australian Amy Cure, who won three golds, and broke a World Record that year - to the lows of being dropped by British Cycling after her junior career, and having to regroup, refocus and rebuild. She's philosophical about all of this - "Going through that", she says, "there's always that little bit in the the back of your mind, you know you can pick yourself up again", and she's looking forward to racing in Europe. She won the Peterborough stage of the British Johnson's HealthTech Grand Prix Series (the women's races at the Tour Series) last year, but she's under no illusions about how much harder the racing she's planning to do in Belgium and the Netherlands will be.
"Because I’m very small, I could probably ride under [most racers'] armpits most of the time, but I mean you’ve just got to get used to it. They will move out of the way if you give them what they give, but it’s definitely daunting, when you’re on the startline, looking across and they’re twice the size of you. Racing out there, it will make you or break you. I enjoy big bunches, being able to muscle my way in the middle of a bunch, but if you’re not confident in a bunch, it will just send you crazy, put you into panic mode."
Harriet demonstrates her sprint technique
Harriet's been involved in cycling since she was a little girl, going along to watch her dad race Cat 2 and 3 races, and starting in the children's races that ran alongside them. She quickly got picked up by the British Cycling Talent Team, and things ran from there. Reading between the lines, it's not been easy for a young trackie based in Oxford - the two UK velodromes are too far for her to race indoors, so she rides and trains on outdoor tracks, which in the British weather, is not always fun - but she loves it, and is completely passionate about racing. She works for the Trek Concept Store in Milton Keynes, and says if she couldn't ride, she'd definitely want to work in the bike industry. Her plans are to race in the UK, focusing on Crits for her own results, while working for the team elsewhere until the National Championships, and then head out to Europe for the Crit racing. She's excited about the opportunities to build on last year's results and see what she's capable of: "It’s nice, no pressure on yourself. I’ve learnt that’s probably the best way – previously I’ve put too much pressure on myself, and ended up riding worse than I was in the first place."
She's also probably the best person you can go to the Zoo with, willing to interact with every statue, climb through every tunnel, and enjoying everything. Most of the animals were hiding from the cold, and we couldn't carry out our many plans to surreptitiously bring home a spider monkey, a penguin ("It could live in the bath!") and pretty much everything else we saw. In fact the only thing she wouldn't do was go into the insect house to hold the spiders. We took a ton of photos, talked cycling, then headed across rainy London for the last part of the Launch, the pub!
This was the culmination of the day, and Stef had this great idea that it shouldn't just be the team launch, it should be open to all parts of the women's cycling community, taking over London's cycling café, Look Mum No Hands!. As well as Matrix, there was the launch of the London Women's Cycle Racing league, and the Bonito Squadra Corsa racing team - and that's one of the things I love about Stef, how he's working not just for his own team, but for British women's cycling everywhere.
But it was also a chance to meet and get together with all kinds of people who love women's racing - and for online friends to meet each other in real life. I met people from Podium Café, from twitter, people who listen to omne's and my podcast, or have heard me on the Velocast podcast, journalists from various websites, people from the Fan-Backed Women's Cycling project, old friends and new friends, and pretty much every time I turned round, I found someone I "knew" but was meeting for the first time. The Café was jam-packed, there were Belgian beers all round, and it really felt like we were all part of something exciting.
This is how team launches should be done - celebrating everything that makes up the team, from the riders and staff and sponsors, to race organisers, bloggers and journalists who cover the racing, and above all, the fans. I'm still smiling at every part of the day, and I can't wait for what comes next for the team. Keep an eye on the team website, and if you ever get the chance to go to something they organise, grab it with both hands!
Photography: Sarah Connolly. You can see more of my photos from the day on my flickr - and come back to the comments for the other photography and blogs from the launch.