In Part 1 of my interview with multiple Paralympic/Para-Cycling Champion Sarah Storey, we'd talked about how she had got to the place she is. Below the jump the interview continues, with more on her thoughts on how she found her first European races, changes she'd make to improve the world of women's cycling, the shock club cyclists feel when they are beaten by a Paralympian woman - and most importantly of all, all those questions about the strangest things she's won on the podium, and what her favourite cheese is! Read on, you know you want to!
I'm interested in how she found her first European pro races, and what she's learnt from it. How was riding in Limousin?
"I've learnt to ride on the left - it's better for elbows!", she grins, "Although I still ended up in a ditch" (when a rider crashed in front of her) "And I need to work on my descending. I'm trying to get to the top first so I can start the descent first, so I'll start in the front, end up in the back, and keep in touch that way". And seeing the way different cyclists rode the ITT in Limousin have made her want to try new things. After her own ITT she was waiting by the side of the road, when the Australian team car pulled up to chat, and she blagged a lift, getting to follow Ruth Corset and Shara Gillow as they raced the course. "It's interesting, I've always gone to the little ring to climb, but the top Time Triallers are out of the saddle, in the big ring".
The numbers of riders was a shock to her, though, and the fact there was such a range of riders there - from top Pros to people who were riding their first big race - and invariably that causes problems. She says the difference between the men's and women's races is that although the men's peloton is the same size, they're riding on big, wide roads, whereas the women had 170 riders on single-track roads, leading to mayhem at times. She's a big believer in adding a Pro-Conti division to women's racing, so women could step up into the sport from domestic level, without getting overawed, or inadvertently making mistakes that hurt other riders - which is something that makes perfect sense to me. But would there be enough races, I ask? Her solution is have them share the races - run two 60-rider peloton in races like Limousin, riding the same course, but on a staggered start - and make it harder for the non-Pro teams to get invites to the Pro Tour races. She talks about the strange situation where at Limousin the national teams got preference over the smaller teams, for example, in terms of team car position - so it was UCI teams, then national teams, then the smaller teams. Which makes sense with (eg) Australia, as they were so strong, but Team Scotland's car being given third spot in the line doesn't make sense. If it was up to Sarah, she'd ban all national teams from the pro races. Isn't that a bit unfair on teams like Australia and USA, I ask, and their riders? She smiles and shrugs, replying that it might force people to get more pro teams set up. This seems so characteristic of her - she has her eye on the long-term, and doesn't believe in half-measures to get there.
It's not just at the Pro level that she thinks races would benefit from having a smaller field - and she's enthusiastic about the work her team, Horizon, and their DS, Stef Wyman, have been doing to try to improve British women's racing (including getting a women's race added to the Halfords Series, for the first time, which was actually televised. In enlightened countries like the Netherlands, this probably seems like nothing, but for the UK it's huge). One of the issues is that there's only one category for women on the domestic circuit, even though there are more than enough riders to have a separate division for the Cat 1 & 2 riders, and another from Cat 3 & 4. Proof that the numbers are there comes from the UK Team Series, where riders were turned away due to so much demand, which meant Sarah and her Horizon team-mates had to miss some of the races. (It seems insane that in a Team Series, teams can't register at the start and get an automatic number of places at races - otherwise why call it a Team Series?). The men's side runs with different races for different categories, so why not the women's?
"That would be good for everyone. You have these riders who've never even raced before, this is why we speed up from the start, to drop them, because it's dangerous. At Bedford we strung it out and dropped 80 riders - but then, so many of them will never come back". She talks about the dual problem of being one of the favourites, who doesn't want to be knocked off her bike and injured because someone's not used to riding in the pack, but at the same time, providing a racing environment that is as welcoming as possible to enable riders who could be future stars learn how to race.
It's great, all the work Horizon are doing in the UK, and the way they're working to make it more professional - but there's always more than could be done to improve the women's sport, starting at the top. I tell her my personal theory about how I think we should have a coup, and take over the UCI, installing Marianne Vos as UCI president whether she likes it or not, given that Vos has ridden most cycling disciplines. But seeing as Storey has ridden on the track and the road, in Para-Cycling and able-bodied races, if Vos isn't available to take over, and we installed her instead, what would she change? "I'd rather run the IOC!" she says, but she's straight into the changes she'd make.
"I'd get rid of the waste - I'd be ruthless with money, and I'd spend it on the riders. No one's coming forward to put on the Para Champs, so I'd sort that out. I'd cut "participation" - this should be about elite riding. I'd get rid of this 1 rider per country thing [in the track Worlds events] - I'd keep the same number of riders, but at the moment 5 of the top 10 riders aren't allowed to ride!". She's very passionate about the continued lack of parity for the women on the track - "there are still fewer medals for the women than for the men!" She'd make the distances the same for the women as for the men on the track, and she'd increase the numbers of riders in the team sprint to three, like the men. "There's real skill needed with the 3rd men, each rider has a specific role - but with only 2 riders.... Anna Meares is faster on her own than she is in the team sprint!!"
And then there's what she'd do about the problems in Para-Cycling... I've read in the past that one of the things that prompted her to make the move to able-bodied racing was the lack of opportunities to compete in the Paras.
"There used to be a combined track and road Para-Cycling World Champs, but it's hard getting countries to host it. Last year, Spain offered to host a combined event but then the recession hit, and they pulled out, and Italy offered to take the roads, and Manchester took the track. This year, Colombia said they'd take a combined track and road competition - but then there was a change in staff, and the new staff cancelled everything that had been planned - so Canada offered to take the Road Race, and there won't be any track". This makes it very hard for riders who are dependent on results for funding - and to get to ride in the future. "This year, there's only 1 [track] World Cup for the men, and it's crucial, as this is the only way to get places in next year's Worlds. At least the UCI will be obliged to have a Road Champs, because of the qualification for London 2012". It feels very hard for athletes - especially for those with more severe conditions, who wouldn't be able to move to able-bodied riding, like Storey can. Her solution would be to include disabled riders in able-bodied events, and extrapolate the results.
She's definitely on a roll here, and has thought a LOT about this - so if she WAS given control of the IOC for the day, what would she do? As a pursuit specialist, clearly she'd add the IP back in, but what next? There's no hesitation. "I'd drop events like boxing, football and tennis, where the Olympics aren't the pinnacle of the sport. And I'd drop all the walking races", she laughs. "If I had to, and I'm speaking as a swimmer here, I'd reduce the number of swimming events, to make room for more events elsewhere. And athletics - why do they have the heptathlon AND the field events? I'd drop their categories, and I'd add more sports - like netball and squash"
It's not surprising she's thought a lot about the Olympics - she's competed in 5 Paralympics, and is aiming to ride in both the Parallel and able-bodied Olympics for 2012. I can't imagine what it must have been like, competing in Barcelona at just 14. Her face lights up when she's talking about it - about how it felt to compete, and just to be part of it. I'm laughing at the things that hit her 14-year-old self "Everything was free! Free coke! Free Magnums! Free hairdressser! Free bowling.... we got banned from that, though.." Banned? I'm imagining teenage riots, but it turns out it was because they were playing far too much, and risking their shoulder muscles!
So what are her plans to get to her 6th Paralympics, and hopefully to the Olympics as well? I've been theorising for months that British Cycling aren't keen for her to make the transition, given that she hasn't been selected for the Team Pursuit team so far - but it turns out it's far from the case - they want her, but only if she focuses on it, and drops her other racing.... which she's not going to do! Her plan for 2011 is to target stage races with ITTs that suit her style, and then ride a reduced programme in 2012. It's clear that her 6th placing in the National Time Trial Championships still rankles, no matter how much we point out that it was just after her amazing rides in the Para-Cycling Championships, where she triumphed, bringing home the double rainbows from the road race and ITT - as well as having her biggest season ever, riding with Horizon, and taking part in the Deloitte Ride Across Britain, a group ride of over 1,000 miles, from the top of Scotland down to the furthest tip of Cornwall, which she rode to raise funds and awareness for the British Paralympic team. I'm surprised when she says that if possible, this is something she'll try to do every year, if she can.
"It was a different kind of training, the lead-out motorbike made me work really hard - and it was riding on closed roads, so I never had to stop. If the weather is good, the end-to-end is perfect. There's a support vehicle, it's a fascinating drive, and you start between 7 and 8, so you can be done by 2, and have time to recover before the next day". She's laughing while she describes it, and it sounds like a lot of fun. "All the guys were racing me - they thought that 'cos I never stopped at the official pit stops, I never stopped at all. Of course I stopped to go to the loo! I just would rather find a field than use the minging portaloos! And I stopped for ten minutes to chat with a friend who'd come out to see us... There was this one guy who couldn't believe I beat him. At the end I found him typing my number into the computer, checking my times. There are these male club cyclists that assume they're better than any elite woman. They assume they'll beat us, they just don't see us as "elite" like the men are, so it's good they get to see that they can't beat us. And I'm a Paralympian AND a woman, so that's even worse!" Her grin is huge, and I can picture her rubbing it in in all sorts of ways, enjoying every minute of it
She's come such a long way since she starting riding for the first time ("I rode my first Road race in the Euros in 2005 on a 'Cross bike. Everyone laughed at me - I rode the TTs with clip-ons, but I won the sprint, and came third!"). At that time she was riding a bike with home-made adaptations, with both cables fudged together into one lever, risking the brakes jamming. These days she has custom systems tailored to the fact she can't grip on the left that makes everything much easier - even on a bike she's had to borrow for her time in Wales.
By this time, we've been talking for over two hours, and I can't believe she's taken so much time to talk to me. She should probably be off practising on the track, for the Track Nationals by now, but she still gives me time for some quick-fire questions (although she was a little bemused by some of them....)
What's the strangest thing she's won as a prize? "I once got cheese on the podium, at the European Championships, in Alkmaar. Oh, bedsheets! It was the Swedish [swimming] Open in 1993. I was 15. Why bedsheets? Mind you, in Limousin, the girls won Tupperware.... Oh and in the Tour of Bilbao I won a beret!"
Best prize? "In Bordeaux - lots of wine!"
Which was her favourite win? "My first gold, in Barcelona, when I broke the World Record for the first time... and then when I successfully defended it in Atlanta, because it was harder, I was coming in as champion... and winning the 100 free in the 2002 World Championships, because no one thought I could... and Beijing.." She catches herself, and laughs, because clearly this one could go on for hours
What's her favourite Cheese? "Chedder. Or Monteray Jack"
How did she meet Barney, her husband, "mechanic, soigneur and team manager", who also cycles in the Paras as a tandem pilot for blind & visually impaired riders? "I was on a swim training camp in Cyprus, training for Athens, and it was a multi-training camp, that cycling used as well. That was in April 2004, and we were just friends until the next March, when he dumped his girlfriend, and later on asked me out."
Can we call Barney "Mr Sarah Storey" to go with Mr Vicki Whitelaw and Mr Ashleigh Moolman? "Sure! Maybe he should be Mr Sarah Bailey?"
Favourite cake? "Anything my mum makes. She made me my 4-tier wedding cake, it was great!"
Favourite trick when riding? "I like to accelerate in the saddle and cause damage - nice and smooth."
What would annoy her? "People telling me I can't do something. Inconsistency. Dishonesty. Moving goalposts. Taking away my bikes!"
What would make her happy? "First class flights to the beach!"
Are there any races she doesn't like riding? "Anything with cobbles - I might as well be riding over broken glass". We can forgive her this one - because she can't grip with her left hand, she had to be tied to the bike when she rode GP Dottignies, or she wouldn't have been able to stay upright.
What are her tips for surviving stage races? "Take your own pillows. And towels - and cereal - and ear plugs. And a lot of patience! You start at one end at 7.30am, riding the nationals, at other races you're not riding until well after lunch"
Finally, I make a huge fool of myself by asking a question about wattage, something I know nothing about, and she's lovely, humouring my complete ignorance - but I know some of you like these things, I had to ask! If the answers make no sense, that's down to my notes.... Her maximum minute power is 409 (apparently not many women get above 400) - and when she took an efficiency test, she scored 92%, which classes her as "super elite" - the lab said they'd only tested 1 person who scored higher than she had, marathon star Paula Radcliffe... I have no idea what this means - but I'm grateful to her for not just laughing at my ignorance!
All in all, talking to her was a great experience - and as I leave, I'm thinking of something she said earlier on in the conversation - "you have to learn to have humble success, and take compliments, without being smug". Here's someone who's had all this huge success, and who's working towards even more, and she's taken time out to talk to a random fan for a website. It's been such an interesting journey for her, and I know I'll be crossing my fingers that she gets all the good luck she deserves, and we get to see her burning up the Olympic track in London in 2012.
Huge thanks to Sarah for her time, and for S2_art for setting it all up for me.
Interview and all photographs Sarah Connolly