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Pain and positivity - an interview with Sharon Laws

One of the great things about the women’s peloton is the range of personalities and backgrounds, and riders with interesting stories - and Sharon Laws personifies this. After gaining an MSc in Conservation, and having worked for charities, the British Government, the United Nations and mining companies, she got to her 30s and swapped her career in environmental issues for the life of a cyclist. The current British National Champion started cycling racing Mountain Bike when she was living and working in Africa, especially the difficult (and dangerous) adventure races. She and her racing partner Hanlie Booyens were the winning women’s pair in the first ever Cape Epic in 2004, and again in 2009. By 2007 she had moved to Australia, and at age 33, decided to try road racing over the Aussie 2007/8 season. She won the 2007 Tour of Bright and came second in the 2008 Australian National Championships, and was picked up by British Cycling to race in Europe in David Brailsford's Halfords Bikehut team, supporting Nicole Cooke’s stellar year. Since then, Laws has been a tireless mountain domestique, known for her endless work for team-mates like Emma Pooley, and her own results in the hard, hilly races – but cycling hasn’t always been easy for her, and she’s ridden through some tough times too. After the disappointment of not being picked to ride in the Olympic Games (a controversial decision that surprised a lot of cycling fans), she signed for Lotto Belisol for 2013, and had a clear plan – race the 10th anniversary of the Cape Epic with Booyens, then come back to Europe to seen what she could do…. And then, in March, a truly horrific crash de-railed these plans. I caught up with Sharon as she was just returning to the peloton for the first time since the crash, for the Basque races – Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, and the hilly stage race, the Emakumeen Bira. She told me all about the accident and recovery, 2012, and more.

Sharon Laws wins the 2012 British National Championships
Sharon Laws wins the 2012 British National Championships
Bryn Lennon

Podium Café: I imagine it might have been tempting to give up racing, after the frustrating 2012, and when AA folded, but what kept you going to race again this year?

Sharon: I always thought I would finish at the end of 2012 but although it was a disappointing season without Olympic selection it was also perhaps the best season of my career; National Champion, bronze medal at the Worlds TTT and six UCI podium places. It’s taken four to five years to get a stable set up that works for me; a good winter training location, a home in Girona in the season and it seemed silly to stop when finally everything had fallen into place and when I’d had a good season of results.

Roy Gershow from Momentum Toyota and Dany Schoonbaert approached me with an opportunity to race with Momentum Toyota in South Africa during the winter and with Lotto Belisol during the summer. It seemed a great chance to continue racing and hopefully enjoy a season without the pressure of Olympic qualification.

PdC: Before your crash, you were having an amazing winter season in South Africa - why did you choose to spend the winter there, and what's the cycling scene like?

Sharon: I went to South Africa at the end of 2011 and found it worked really well for me. The weather is great for training, there was a league series of road races with the men which was perfect preparation for the European season and I started with a coach, Ian Rodgers, based in Cape Town.

I had previously lived in South Africa for two and a half years from 2001-2004 and have very good friends there. It’s nice to be able to do some fun stuff with friends amongst the training.

This winter I raced with Momentum Toyota in women’s races around the country. The racing scene is quite small in terms of numbers but the coverage for women’s racing and the prize money, ironically, exceeds Europe. When I won the 94.7 road race I was on breakfast TV the next morning and Super Cycling on the sports channel the following evening. The attention was much greater than winning Nationals in the UK! Sport is huge in South Africa and everyone is so enthusiastic.

I also did some mountain biking - which is probably even more popular. There are some incredible trails and races and I was looking forward to racing the Cape Epic with Hanlie Booyens, my previous partner from 2004 and 2009. It was to be the tenth anniversary of the event and an opportunity for us to celebrate 10 years of riding and friendship and a chance for me to undertake a significant training block for the European season. Evolution Cycles sponsored us with Volcan Bikes and Pragma with the race entry and we also had a number of product sponsors. Unfortunately the Epic took place the week after the Cape Argus, where I crashed, so another long term cycling dream was ruined.

PdC: That crash.... can you describe what you can remember about it? What were the injuries?

Sharon: It was in the Cape Argus – one of biggest mass participation events in the World where they have elite starts for men and women. There were 35,000 starters – it was an amazing atmosphere. The elite women raced with the over 30 age group men. I think we started with a group of about 180 riders.

We were 1.5km from the finish. On the final climb I had attacked and my team-mate Ashleigh Moolman came with me. Although the group was now much, much smaller we were soon caught by the remaining men in the lead group but by now there were only 6 girls left in the group. About 3km from the finish 2 guys attacked and were just ahead of our group.

Apparently one of them looked back and caught the wheel of the guy in front and came down. We were lined out and I was 6th wheel - but behind a big guy so had not seen the crash. At the last moment the guy in front of me swerved but it was too late for me to do anything. No one shouted any warning and I went over the guy who was on the floor, did a somersault and landed very hard on my back.

As I was flying in the air I just remember thinking "where on earth did he come from?" We were going about 55kph according to my Garmin. I had hardly any road rash as I literally land like a stone. Helmet was smashed and clothes ripped. I was in absolute agony. I never realised you could hurt so much. I felt like someone had smacked me with a very large baseball bat. I had to wait over 30 minutes for an ambulance and it was one of the most horrible experiences in my life.

I fractured the L2 vertebrae (T8 and T9 were also found to be fractured but they thought these were old injuries!), broke four ribs – one in two places, six necks of the ribs, six transverse processes of thoracic vertebrae, had a comminuted fracture of the collar bone, lung haemo-pneumothorax, mild pulmonary oedema and a secondary infection in my lung.

My collar bone was plated. I was in ICU for six days on morphine and oxygen (as I couldn’t breathe very well) and in hospital in a normal ward for a further 8 days. I wasn’t able to move at all for the first five days and could only lie in one position. I had a catheter and had to be fed by someone which was not very pleasant. When they were confident the L2 fracture was stable I was able to sit up in bed and after five days I tried to stand. I was able to walk a tiny bit after seven days. I think spending two weeks inside was one of the worst things for such an outdoor person. During this time I was taking 25 tablets and having two injections daily.

PdC: Following your recovery on twitter, it seemed very hard and painful, but you seemed to have a lot of support - the tweets about Hanlie feeding you yoghurt (when she could have been out training) for example - did that help with the recovery?

Sharon: I was really lucky with the support I had from friends, family and my coach. My coach, Ian Rodgers, was amazing. Luckily he lives in Cape Town and came to visit me nearly every day. Hanlie, my planned-to-be Cape Epic partner, did an amazing job of finding a replacement and organising a lot of logistics. She also arrived at the hospital with all my favourite foods – which was great as I didn’t really feel like eating much especially when I had to be fed.

I have a very good friend in Pretoria, Adrienne, who is a Doctor and called everyday and really helped significantly on the medical aspects as well as ordering me supermarket online shopping with my favourite foods. I really couldn’t have managed without her. A number of friends were amazingly supportive when I came out of hospital giving me a place to stay (Brit and Gavin), walking with me (Leana and Sarah) and of course I couldn’t have managed without my Mum giving constant support and encouragement from the UK and then coming to Girona to help me when I was able to return to Europe.

Roy Gershow from Momentum Toyota was also very supportive and helped my recovery by not putting any pressure upon me. This names only a few but there were so many others who emailed constantly or called me and I really felt especially loved and incredibly fortunate to have such good friends. It was one of the positive aspects of the accident and I really found out who my friends were!

PdC: You're back in Girona now - a lot of your team seem to be based there - how is that? Do you feel like you're part of Lotto? How does it feel, looking at the great results of team-mates like Ash Moolman, Jolien d’Hoore and Marijn de Vries?

Sharon: Carlee Taylor lives in Girona and Ashleigh lives about 25km outside the town but there are also a fair few other female cyclists. It’s nice to link up for rides when training programmes allow. I love Girona – I moved there in 2011 and it has a wonderful mix of good training roads, culture, history, good weather, wonderful food markets and is a great place to live. I’ve joined the team for Durango and Bira and have been really welcomed. It’s a nice relaxed atmosphere and the staff and other girls are lovely. I feel like I have slotted in well and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

It has been great to watch the girls performing so well – although of course I was envious to not be part of the action particularly when I thought I was going to hit Europe fit and in good form. The morale in the team is very high from all the good results which provides for a great atmosphere as the newcomer.

PdC: How does it feel, coming back to the peloton after a crash like that? How have you been preparing for it?

Sharon: I was a bit intimidated in my first race about riding in the peloton again. The speed and the fear of crashing is a bit disconcerting but I also know that you have to start somewhere to get over it and it’s not something you can practice in training as racing is so different. I have done some motor pacing sessions, which help a bit with the speed. I tried to get mobile as soon as possible after the accident by doing some pool running and lots of walking as I think that is the best way of recovering quickly. A lot of tears were shed when even simple things, like having a shower or dressing, were so painful.

I went on a trainer after three weeks but I could literally only turn my feet round and had to hold on to a bike that was hanging on the roof of the garage as it hurt my ribs and back. I only went on the road again when I returned to Girona – six weeks after the accident. I started with some shorter rides and gradually built up the distance and intensity.

When I was in hospital I wasn’t really sure I would be able to race again. It was very tempting to stop but I didn’t want to end my cycling career on such a negative note. My career has not always been easy and, apart from not being selected for the Olympics, last year had been, in many ways, one of the best so I wanted to continue now I have everything in place (winter training venue, nice place to live in the season etc).

I also didn't know how I would feel racing after the accident and didn't want to make any decisions about stopping without even trying to come back. I thought if I just stopped immediately I would always regret it.

PdC: I want to ask a question about British Cycling. I know it was very hard when you weren’t picked for the Olympics – have they been in touch since the accident, or given you any indication of what you’d need to be picked for Worlds this year?

Sharon: Not being selected for the Olympics in London was obviously devastating particularly in my best season. I had worked really hard to address weaknesses or aspects of my cycling that BC had outlined and believe I had really stepped up another level. I was told that they had selected the team based on meeting certain race scenarios and that didn’t mean taking the strongest riders.

I completely understood the rationale but it was frustrating that no one from BC had been at races prior to the selection and I think they underestimated the impact Box Hill would have on the women’s peloton and the abilities of some of the riders. Having other riders such as Marianne Vos, Ina Teutenburg and Judith Ardnt say to me that they couldn’t understand the selection was good in some respects but also made me feel more disappointed.

It had been a big dream – an Olympics and a home Olympics at that - and based on my performances (six UCI podiums before the event and winning nationals) I really felt like I deserved to go. I wished in a way I was a swimmer or a runner and it was based on performance. It’s very hard to explain the impact that it had on me and will always be a black cloud in my cycle career. If I hadn’t have had the form and it had been in the season of 2009-2011 I would not have been so disappointed as I understood my performances were not significantly better than other riders. Unfortunately so many people said to me that I would have to be selected with my results that I begun to think I really had a chance.

I didn’t sit and watch the race – I went hiking in the Pyrenees well away from TV’s and mobile signals. Just me, my tent and a book!

I haven’t heard from British Cycling since my accident (except a letter to say I had been removed from WADA) and haven’t been provided with any support to get me back on my bike. I haven’t had any funding from BC since 2009 and have had to make my own way since then.

I haven’t heard anything about Worlds selection – the criteria indicates it is performance-based for the season. I’m not sure how my recovery and return to fitness is going to go so I guess I will just have to wait and see. Last year was a big disappointment for me. I didn’t race very well and it was the first Worlds when I felt I hadn’t been able to give my best. Some comments made to me before the event made me question my abilities and I was not feeling very confident going into the race.

PdC: Are you a full-time bike racer now, or are you still working in the environmental field? I know you were doing a lot of environmental work in previous off-seasons - how did you manage combining the two?

Sharon: This is the first off-season that I haven’t worked. I have always tried to get work during the off-season as it is financially necessary. This year I was racing every weekend from mid-January and travelling most weekends so, although one company indicated they had no work, I didn’t try others as it would have been difficult to have done a good job. It made my time in South Africa a bit more enjoyable as I was able to spend time with friends but will make this season a bit tight money wise. I managed to combine the two previously by sleeping less and not having any free time which isn’t great for recovery!

PdC: What are your goals for the year and the future? Will you be back for the Cape Epic next year?

Sharon: At this stage it is difficult to make cycling goals as I really don’t know how my recovery is going to go. Before the accident I wanted to enjoy the season, play a significant team role in support of Ashleigh Moolman and take my own opportunities where possible. I guess this hasn’t really changed but I’m obviously not as strong as I was and this will have a lot of impact on what I can do. Now I suppose the goal is to get as strong as possible as quickly as possible.

For the future I’m also unclear. I did have some goals and plans but I think the accident has impacted those. I’m not sure about the Epic. I really would like to do it but I’m not sure about the opportunities next year.

PdC: Finally, can you tell me a little bit about the races in the Basque Country?

Sharon: I like them - for me it’s a good start, slightly smaller bunch, some good hard days but not really long climbs like the Giro. I'm hoping it will be a nice stepping-stone before the Giro. Obviously mentally it's quite challenging after being in such good shape last year - 8th in Durango but Emma was up the road and won and then 4th on the last stage of Bira and 5th overall. I'm going to be a way off that but hoping that I can do something to help Ashleigh and become more comfortable with racing again. It's also necessary to race to get fit and strong as you can't simulate the effort and the stress so well in training.

It’s good to race here as it’s a stunning area scenery-wise, long climbs but not mountain passes, good hard tour. I love Spain too.

The disadvantage is waiting so late to race in the day and then having to eat at 8.30-9pm and trying to fit in massages etc. Typical Spanish lifestyle of late nights. The weather is also often bad as it rains so much in the Basque country - which is why it is so pretty. Last year the last stage was one of my scariest on a road bike. It was complete carnage on one descent it was so wet and slippery. Roads in Spain are often lethal in the wet.

At the moment the weather is amazing though ... not sure if it will continue!


You can follow Sharon's journey on her twitter, @SharonNLaws - and to find out more about how she got into cycling, read my 2011 interview with her, and her profile on the Lotto team page.

For more information on the Emakumeen Bira, there are previews on Les Déesses de la Route (more narrative), on Velofocus (more stats and video based) and on Velorooms; by Amanda Spratt and another one on the ORICA-AIS website; and a preview in Spanish on Cobbles & Hill.

Saul from Cobbles & Hills will be tweeting from the race over the weekend, in English as well as Spanish. You can follow him at @kapelmuur29 – and of course, Boels-Dolmans mechanic Richie Steege and Hitec Products UCK manager Karl Lima should be tweeting live updates throughout the race. Check back here on the Café after the race for a race report, links and any photos.