Today Sarah Storey made her debut ride for England in the Commonwealth Games Individual Pursuit. This shouldn't really be a surprise - after all, she WAS the British national IP Champion in 2008 and 2009 - but for Storey, it means a lot more than to the average rider. It's not just that she's the first disabled cyclist ever to compete for England at the Commonwealths - it's part of her masterplan for 2012, to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics in the same year. It'll be a tough journey, as British Cycling has some of the best riders in the world, including Road World and Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke and gold Olympic medallist Rebecca Romero also having thrown their hat in the ring to ride in the same events – but Sarah's a very talented rider too. Her journey to the Olympics started at 6 years old, took her to Barcelona at age 14, where she won the first of her 5 Paralympic golds (she also has taken 8 silvers & 3 bronzes over the four Games she swam in) before endless ear infections forced her out of the Pool in 2005, and she was quickly snapped up by British Cycling. She was back at the Paralympics in Beijing, where she won gold in her categories in the Time Trial and in the Individual Pursuit, where her time would have put in her in the top 8 of the able-bodied competition. She's won pretty much everything the World Para-Cycling Championships have thrown at her - this year she won double rainbows for the second year in the row, winning the Road World Para-Cycling Road Race and Time Trial, and as well as burning up the UK able-bodied domestic scene, rode her first European pro races with Horizon Fitness.... I've read about her for years, so you can imagine, when I got the chance to meet her, I jumped at it with both feet.
Follow me below the jump for part one of my interview with her – talking challenges, gossip, the UCI, what she thinks of the top male riders, and how she won the 2007 Para-Cycling World Champs with a new World Record and a broken collarbone....
Won the Worlds with a broken collarbone? I've just hitched a ride around the Welsh countryside by a Cycling Weekly journalist, making Sarah and her Horizon team-mate Hannah Rich cycle up photogenic hills, & ride back & forth for the perfect shot, and I'm trying not to fangirl TOO much as I'm walking across the Newport velodrome car park with Sarah and S2_art, looking for lunch, when she drops it into conversation. Is this a new definition of HTFU? Later, she tells us a bit more about it.
"It was alright once I got my arm onto the tri-bar, but the officials were on my left-hand side, at the start, and they kept touching it and it was agony. All the other athletes were there around the inside of the track, because they'd all seen me coming in with the sling, and they knew what was going on. But I won, and broke the World Record - the only problem was, I couldn't celebrate, because I couldn't move out of position!" She's laughing at the memory – our whole conversation is punctuated by laughter, occasional rants, what feels like a very characteristic Storey grin, and an ongoing tease-by-text with her parents (she's ordered them a wide-screen television for their wedding anniversary, and told them to stay in, as she's getting a horse delivered to their house). Not only an amazing athlete, but very friendly and extremely down-to-earth...
So how did she get here, I wonder? She was born with a weakened left arm and an under-developed hand that leaves her with no useable fingers, or ability to grip on the left - but it's clear that this has never even been thought of as an excuse, and from a very early age she was nothing if not ambitious.
"When I was 6 years old, I was watching the Olympics, and I said I wanted to go when I was 14. I knew they were 4 years apart, and I'd worked out that in 1992 I'd be 14. We didn't even know where it would be and I'd never even heard of the Paralympics but I knew I wanted to go, and get gold. My idol was Sarah Hardcastle, she’d gone at 15, and won a silver and a bronze, and I was called Sarah too, and I wanted to be just like her - but I wanted to go one better. I'd wanted to go a year earlier, and get gold. And I did!"
She grew up playing all kinds of sports - cricket with the boys, netball and cross-country running at country level, she was county table tennis champion, all alongside swimming. At the age of 10 she'd completed all her badges - the different levels British swimming has for school-children - and started to train seriously. It's clear that she could have chosen any of these sports - but she'd always loved watching, practising and competing in swimming, and it was the first sport she got to the national level in, and she didn't look back. British culture doesn't particulalry encourage girls to take part in sports, so what spurred her on?
"My mum and dad wanted us to be the best we could be", she says "and my primary school was VERY sporty". She's passionate about the importance of school sports, and clearly frustrated with the fact that in the UK school sports have become "about fitness, about taking part", and "competition" has almost become a bad word. "But in life you HAVE to compete - and you can teach that through sport, teach it through having fun. And if someone's not good at sport, they'll be good at something else, and school can teach that too".
It hasn't always been an easy journey for her to get here - in 1994, while she was doing her GCSEs she got Glandular Fever, and she never really shook it off - in 1998 the fever moved into her muscles, and turned to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. "I was told I'd have to stop training, or I'd end up with a heart condition. It took me four years to get back to normal, and in that time I won 2 silvers in the [Sydney] Olympics. People said I was over, that I'd lost it - but they didn't know I was ill."
It must have been very hard to get back from that - there must have been a worry that she'd never get to compete again - and this must have been repeated when she had to stop swimming - but if there's one thing Storey doesn't do, it's self-pity. "Don't call me brave", she says, "I hate the patronising mentality". She says she hasn't had to overcome more, it's all relative - "everyone's had to overcome something to get here". Able-bodied and disabled athletes face different challenges: "they have more people to beat, to be able to race - we've got a smaller population and have to overcome our disabilities, people's attitudes, whatever". She laughs that she can sound harsh, or non-PC at times - and she's uncompromising in her beliefs in equity, believing that if women tennis players are paid the same as men, they should be playing the number of sets, otherwise it's not equality - "Life's NOT fair! Deal with it!" - and she says she's lucky, because she has the best of both worlds, getting to ride in both Para-Cycling and able-bodied racing, having twice the opportunities. There are times she has to choose - this year the British National ITT Championships were in Wales, on the same day as the National Para-Cycling Championships, on the other side of Britain in Kent. And in the Rudy Project series of national Time Trial competitions, there were only Storey and one other woman in her disabled class - "so I may as well ride against the able-bodied riders and win!", she grins.
She's proud of the fact she's only pulled out of one race, a men's race in Wales. She recounts a time she crashed in Bilbao, breaking her collarbone, with relish: "I crashed, put my bike back together and had to ride downhill, over speedbumps, over cobbles, everything you can think of - over the finish line and straight into the ambulance!" - and when I ask her which of the cyclists she'd like to be compared to, it's Cancellara for the Time Trial ability, and Jens Voigt "because I'll work myself into the ground". In terms of track, even when she was a swimmer, she admired Leontien Van Moorsel – but she says it’s hard to have heroes in the current cycling world, because of all the drugs issues. It affects her personally, because of the perception of the sport, but also because of the impact on the women’s racing. If the men’s side gets worse, she says, there’s a real risk that road cycling will be taken out of the Olympics – and that affects the women far more than it does the men. The Olympics and the Worlds are huge prizes in women's cycling, and it's clear she's frustrated that the men don't take it so seriously, with riders like Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck not bothering with them. She's pleased Cadel Evans has brought the attention back to the World Championships, making it important again.
Of course, as multiple World Champion, she does have a vested interest in the Worlds keeping as much prestige as possible. It's a frustration to her that as Para-Cyclist, she doesn't get to wear her rainbows - "there's nowhere to wear them, just the Worlds, once a year" - and she tells me about how she's currently in a dispute with the UCI, trying to get them to let her wear them when she rides on the roads with Horizon. Her vision is that all Road World Champions should be able to wear their rainbows in races - the Junior, Para-Cycling and able-bodied World Champions. All you'd have to do is add the context onto the shoulder and chest, so it would be easy to see who was who. It would be great for races, and for the riders, and add an extra "hook" for the media. It's an attractive vision - I can picture a race with 3 champions grinning at the camera in the pre-race publicity - and Sarah knows first-hand all about that publicity. Riding at the Tour of Limousin with Horizon, she'd been just another rider in the peloton, until she pulled on her rainbows when she was warming up for the ITT, and the race organisers got very excited, getting her up on the podium, having her interviewed (in French!) by the media.... and giving Horizon automatic entry for 2011. I laugh at this, and suggest she does it at every race - but she has a great story, and anything that helps get positive attention for the women's racing is great, in my book.
It also made a difference in how she was treated in the peloton. It must be strange for her, to come from the Para-Cycling world, where she's threat number 1, and from the British domestic scene, where Horizon have had a great year, dominating races like the Bedford Two-Day (racing hard from the start, they lapped two thirds of the field in one of the races - on a 15km circuit!), and Sarah's rightly recognised as a force to be reckoned with. She agrees. "There's a difference when the peloton know who you are. People respect that you're stronger, and let you through". After she was recognised at Limousin, it was much easier for her. This year, getting to ride in Europe, has been a huge learning curve for her - getting used to the size of the peloton for one thing - a field of 172 riders is huge compared to the Para-Cycling - and it's a totally different set of tactics than she's been used to riding so far. When swimming, riding the Individual Pursuit, and riding the Para-Cycling races, she's used to being an individual, riding her own race - and although she doesn't say it, being at the top of the pack. "It's things like the way you carry yourself, that you don't realise. And I'm not so comfortable following wheels - I feel like a wheel-sucker! But I need to learn, and I know there's a difference when you're doing it to get to a point, and then putting the effort in". She talks about how much she has learnt from Horizon team-mate and Cyclo-Crosser Helen Wyman, how she moves in the peloton - and how she feels like she's got more to learn....
Follow the link to part two, where I'll tell what else she thinks she has to learn, the changes she'd make to women's racing and the Olympics, and most importantly of all, her favourite kinds of cheese and cake!
All photographs copyright Sarah Connolly