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Pretty Awesome: An Interview with Emma Pooley of Cervélo TestTeam

Emma PooleyIn just over a week, British climber Emma Pooley of Cervélo TestTeam won three races in three starts. First, she conquered the Mur de Huy for her first Flèche Wallonne victory. Then, in rapid succession she won the Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs with an attack from 20 kilometers out, and the GP de Suisse, a 23.4 kilometer time trial. Pooley is best known for her long breakaways. "They’re my trademark," she says, and in her typically self-deprecating style adds, "I really don’t have a sprint."

During the 2009 season, Pooley’s attacking style netted her four world cup wins. She also won two stages and the overall at the Grand Boucle Féminine Internationale and the British national championship in the time trial. With her strength against the watch and climbing talents, the 27 year old Pooley is made for the hilly stage races, and she finished fourth at the 2009 Giro Donne, while supporting Cervélo team-mate Claudia Häusler who won the general classification. "In women’s cycling we don’t really get paid much, we do it for the love of the sport. You have to really want to help your team-mates," said Pooley of the team dynamic at Cervélo.

Below the fold, Emma Pooley talks about winning Flèche Wallonne, about long breakaways and why they sometimes succeed, and about what it’s like to ride for one of the biggest teams in women’s cycling. After Flèche Wallonne, what comes next? Let’s find out.

Though Pooley is best known for her solo breakaways, her victory at Flèche Wallonne came after a day of hard work by her Cervélo team-mates. "It wasn’t really my work. The team did an awesome job," she said. The narrow winding roads on the way to the Mur de Huy invite the attackers to try their fortunes. "Cervélo made sure no one got away," explained Pooley. Her team also made sure that Pooley had a safe ride near the front of the bunch. In 2009, the British rider crashed early in the race and never Emma Pooleymade the finish. As the finale approached, Cervélo switched their tactic and went on the offensive. "Cervélo attacked in the final 30 kilometers one after the other to tire out the other teams," she explained. By the final climb, the lead group numbered sixteen riders.

The team delivered Pooley safely to the bottom of the decisive climb. "The climb is so hard, you aren’t sure what will happen," she said of the Mur de Huy, which lasts about four minutes. Flèche Wallonne is won and lost on this climb, of course, and Pooley admitted that she felt "a lot of pressure." Once she reached the Mur de Huy, Pooley attacked close to the bottom of the climb and quickly opened up a gap on second-placed Nicole Cooke and the rest of the field. "My team-mates made the others really tired," she recalled. "It’s never easy, but it was easier," she added. Pooley said she trained plenty of hills in preparation and plainly, it worked. What did she think of winning Flèche Wallonne? "It was pretty awesome, really," she said laughing.

Though Pooley is happy to have won a "famous race" at Flèche Wallonne, her favorite memory of her career so far came in 2008. Riding for the British national team, she finished second in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics. "It was an amazing feeling to stand on the podium at the Olympics," she recalled. Pooley hadn’t expected a medal in Beijing, which made the experience all the more exciting. "You are the most happy, if it’s less expected," she explained. Most of the media attention focused on better-known British star Nicole Cooke, who won the road race. Pooley enjoyed the chance to race without pressure.

Like many top woman riders, Pooley came to cycling relatively late. "It was just an accident, really," she said of her turn to cycling. She competed as a runner at university until repeated injury led her to swimming and to the bike. At age 20, she started riding mountain bikes for cross-training. The mountain bike led to a foray into adventure racing. Then, a road bike and triathlon followed. While training for triathlon, Pooley felt drawn to cycling. She also noticed she had fewer injuries. "I enjoyed it," she said of discovering the bike. A good result at the British national road race reinforced her inclinations. "I did a road race and it went quite Emma Pooleywell and I did the nationals and it went quite well," she said rather matter-of-factly of her rapid progress in the sport.

Built for the climbs and with a talent for time trialing, Pooley is well-suited to the hilly world cups and the stage races. "Things just happen in races," she said explaining how the solo breakway became her trademark tactic. "At first, no one knew who I was," which helped her sneak up the road. Now, of course, it’s more difficult for Pooley to escape. But still, "you have to try something, there’s nothing to lose," she explained of her mentality. She won the World Cup race at Montréal last year by attacking nearly from the gun, and her victory at GP Plouay came after a long day out in the wind. "I think it was only 40 kilometers, it was pretty short" she said, again with the deprecating humor. If the move doesn’t work out, "at least you get some good training."

Pooley thrives in hard racing, and with Cervélo she has found a team that suits her well. In a post-race comment after the Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs she said, "Our tactic today was to make the race really hard and that worked very well. I must say I’m really proud of this team.... every rider is really strong." At the Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs, Pooley dropped last year’s World Cup runner-up Emma Johansson and rode alone to the finish. At Flèche Wallonne, Cervélo had a majority in the final group and dictated the race. "My team is really strong," Pooley said in a characteristic understatement.

Being on a big team brings responsibility, but also its share of rewards. Pooley calls racing with Cervélo "really fun." The team works well together and trades off leadership responsibilities. "What comes around goes around," is how she describes the dynamic among her team-mates. Strong team support "makes you feel special," she said. When the time comes to take on a supporting role, "you think about what you owe them." "It makes it much more fun, it’s much more fun when you know how much you owe someone for how they worked for you," she emphasized. "You have someone to talk to in the break, and the race is a lot happier." The British rider’s talent for solo breakaways has melded well with the team, allowing Pooley’s team-mates an easy ride in the bunch while their opponents chase. "I’d attack and the idea would be another team would have to chase. Even if they catch me, then my team can attack later." Certainly, Cervélo has accumulated a string of successes to show for their efforts.

Of course, there are advantages to racing for a sponsor who also fields a top level men’s team. For one thing, "we get really really nice bikes," said Pooley with a laugh. "Very nice, indeed." The bikes, kits, and support, they’re "second to none, the best in the world." "With the men’s team, they can afford to be demanding. Carlos Sastre is not going to ride on something that’s second best," she added. The women’s Cervélo also receives support from the men’s team mechanics and Pooley feels that they also receive more publicity. "We get a lot more media attention, which is nice," she said. Laughing, Pooley added, "it’s a little stressful, but it’s good." Compared to her previous teams, the team organization runs more smoothly and there is quite simply more support for the women riders than at a smaller team. "My old team, the guys were great and did a lot of work, but they had real jobs along side it," which meant that some details got missed. Pooley said that the women feel a connection to the men’s team, though they don’t spend much time together. "It’s a feeling, you’re involved in the Tour de France, even though we’re not there," she explained. "They really try to make it all one team."

Though they have the support of Cervélo’s resources, the women are not entirely insulated from the difficulties that women’s cycling faces. Three races Emma Pooley won last year have disappeared from the calendar. "I think they are canceling all the races I won," she said of the loss of GP Bern-West and the Montréal Women’s Cycling Emma PooleyWorld Cup. In fact, she won’t race another World Cup race this season until the GP Plouay in late August. The Grand Boucle Féminine Internationale also failed to find enough sponsorship support to run this year.

"The best thing for us would be running a women’s race with every major men’s race," asserted Pooley. She suggested a women’s Paris-Roubaix run on the cobbles on the same day as the men’s race or a women’s race paired with the Amstel Gold Race. "Otherwise, people dismiss women’s racing because they don’t see it," she explained. "They think it’s boring. Actually, it’s not boring, it’s quite exciting." To grow women’s cycling, more people have to see it. Pooley called women’s cycling "more exciting, because it’s less controlled." The teams are smaller than in the men’s field. "There is more uncertainty, and you have chances you wouldn’t otherwise," she explained. Pooley’s trademark solo move is more difficult in men’s cycling, because the teams are stronger and more able to control the races. The UCI limits the length of women’s races, and generally, the women have more fitness than the race requires. Said Pooley, "we race the whole race."

Looking ahead, Cervélo is currently preparing for the Tour de l’Aude and the Giro Donne. The Tour de l’Aude runs ten days beginning on 14 May, and is among the more prestigious races on the women’s calendar. Pooley is hoping for a good result at the Tour de l’Aude and wants to show her talents in the stage races, where she shares team leadership with Claudia Häusler. Last year at the Giro Donne, Pooley finished fourth, while Häusler won. There seems to be no rivalry between Pooley and Häusler, and while Pooley would clearly love a big result at one of these races, she confirmed that she is happy to support her team-mate.

In July, Cervélo heads to Italy for the Giro Donne. "I’m really looking forward to it, the whole team is," said Pooley of the Italian race. This year’s edition includes a stage finish on the Stelvio. "It’s going to be really hard. I’ve got to get fit for it, but I’m looking forward to it very much." The 52 switchbacks of the Stelvio won’t forgive any weaknesses. Pooley has ridden up one side of the Stelvio, but not the side that the Giro will race. "I’m going to have a look at it in June," she said. It’s just a short trip from her base Switzerland, and Pooley enjoys training in the mountains.

Unfortunately, the women’s Giro overlaps with the men’s Tour de France, a coincidence that frustrates Pooley. "No one ever pays attention," she laments. "Hey! Hello! It’s quite exciting." It’s one of the most important races on the women’s calendar. Last year, the team had a "really good race" with Häussler winning the overall and Pooley just off the podium. "Everyone from the team, it’s the men, the men, the men, they had this big support staff. We’re six of us in the van, and we’re like, well, here we are," Pooley recalled of last year’s race. The story underscores the difficulty of raising the profile of women’s races and the limited resources of even the biggest teams. "The Tour kind of dwarfs our Giro," Pooley concluded.

In her free time, Pooley is also pursuing a Ph.D. in civil engineering. She dismissed any suggestion that this project was anything out of the ordinary. "I’m quite dumb actually," she said laughing. The degree is a long-term project. "It’s going very slowly, because I spend the whole year racing," she explained. "There’s always something I’d rather do than stare at a boring graph." Pooley lives in Switzerland which she describes as "awesome for training." "I like training," she Emma Pooleyadds. "Switzerland is such a beautiful place, though I’m never here. I have all these friends here that I never see," she said ruefully. She isn’t entirely enamored with the migratory life of professional cycling. She admitted, "I find the travel stressful."

Unsurprisingly for a student in the sciences, Pooley isn’t especially superstitious. "I found a four-leaf clover once, and I was thinking wow, you know, maybe it’ll bring me luck," she recounted. "But it didn’t make a difference. My coach always says you make your own luck anyway." Pooley does have one essential ritual for the big races. The Swiss make a small pastry filled with nuts called Biberli. "I really like them," said Pooley with obvious relish. "I always take one for the night before the races. In my bag, I always have a small pocket for the biberli." It’s true that in bike racing, as in life, you have to make your own luck. But often it’s the little things — a friend in the break, a nice bike, an unexpected win, or your favorite pastry the night before a big race — that make all the difference.


Story by Jen See. All photos copyright Patrick Verhoest, except Beijing Olympics photo which is copyright Stu Forster, Getty Images Sport. Thank you Patrick! Emma Pooley post-race comments, Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs courtesy Cervélo TestTeam.