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Emma Pooley interview: Part 1 - life off the bike

Emma Pooley is one of the most interesting riders in the peloton, the 2010 World Time Trial Champion and 2008 Olympic ITT silver medallist, who's won some of the biggest races in the women's calendar, including the Tour de l'Aude Grand Tour, and World Cups including the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Flèche Wallonne and the GP de Plouay, combining climbing skills with suicide attacks. In part 1 of our interview she tells us all about what she was doing in her "reduced season", including surviving finishing her PhD, running marathons in snowstorms, campaigning for women's cycling, Amnesty International, and much more.

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Dany Schoonbaert

This interview will be available in two formats - you can listen to it in full as a podcast on my blog, or read the transcript in two parts - part 1 below, and part 2 here.


PdC: You're just about to start your 2014 cycling season

Emma: A little bit later than most people!

PdC: Well, you can miss out the cobbles

Emma: Exactly, I think that was my plan. I have actually done a few little races - I was out training in Australia, and there's always a race to do, so I have raced, but nothing on the UCI scene.

PdC: Well, putting mountain goats on the cobbles is always an interesting thing

Emma: I was always told it was good for me, that I was going to learn - but all I learned was that I really hate cobbles!  It helped when I had a mechanic who made sure I had the right tyre pressure and the rights tyres, so one time Flanders wasn't that bad, but I think the key thing is I'm on a Belgian team, and there's better riders on my team for those races, and they don't want me, just getting in the way, and whinging afterwards about how shit it was - and they're trying to win, they've got a good team of good riders who can race those races, and I don't want to take up a space from someone who's better than me.

PdC: They've had a really nice time - Jolien d'Hoore and Liesbet de Vocht have been everywhere

Emma: Yeah, they're really strong, it's really nice.  I wasn't too sure about being on a Belgian team, because like I said, the cobbles aren't my favourite - but it's a really positive atmosphere, and the team's results so far speak for themselves, it's really good.

PdC: So what have you been up to this past year, when you've been away from the road races?

Emma: Everyone keeps asking me about my "comeback", and I didn't deliberately take a break - I would say I had a reduced year last year, because I was on a non-UCI team, I was racing with Bigla, which is a local team in Switzerland, where I live, and we did do UCI races, just not the World Cups and not the Giro, but I did plenty of racing, I even won a few races - we won the Tour of Languedoc, which was really, really cool, and a bit of a surprise.  It was partly because they cancelled the race and restarted it, so there weren't so many people there, and I was kind of lucky.

But I didn't race the second half of the season, from August, because I got really snowed under with study and work, and looking back, really, really stressed, and quite down about stuff in general, and I couldn't cope with my "free time", which was bike racing, being also really stressful, so I wasn't in any shape, and stepped back a bit.  So I haven't raced really properly since July-August last year, so it is a long time to be away from it.  But it's nice to be back - that's why I've come back, just because I've missed it.

PdC: I get a bit hyperbolic about the other things you were doing - the Alpine triathlon, for example

Emma: Last year, the reason for me taking a reduced year was that I wanted to finish my PhD [in geo-technical engineering], and that takes concentrated effort, you can't just do it on a Saturday afternoon.  I had to sit down and have nothing else that I was allowed to do, before I could do it, because even cleaning the toilet is more fun than writing your thesis!  But there were all these races that I've been wanting to do for a long time, because I used to be a runner and a triathlete, and I live in Switzerland, which is the home of awesome mountain races, so I thought I'd do a bit of running, and it didn't seem to be too much of a problem with cycling, and my team were pretty understanding last year.

And I'm glad, because I did some really cool running and triathlon races, and it's the kind of thing I miss when I'm cycling, because we don't have so many races in the mountains, and it's kind of been on my…  I hate the term, "bucket list", but I have all these friends who do all these crazy triathlon things, and I've always been envious, but I can never do them, because I've got a race coming up - so it was really nice to do them last year.

I did three marathons in a year, and one of them was the Jungfrau Marathon, which has quite a lot of uphill in it!  And I did the Swissman triathlon, which was just awesome,  it's an Ironman that involves three mountain passes, and you run up to under the north face of the Eiger at the end, so it's got 5,000 metres of climb in it.  And that was really cool, my best friend and my mum were helping me out - my poor mum, she was scared witless of me descending in the mountains, she had to drive round behind me.  But it was just a really cool experience, and I did get to do some other stuff, which was really nice.

It's hard to do that when you're racing a full programme of bike races all year - running a marathon…  I love running, but it does leave you a little bit tired, you don't get over it as quickly as you get over a stage race, let's put it that way!  The muscle fatigue lasts a while!  I did my first marathon at the end of the 2012 season, at Lucerne, and there was a snowstorm, and that was a bit crazy.

PdC: Did you win that?

Emma: No, I was second, and I was quite pleased, because I always said I wouldn't do a marathon until I could do it in under 3 hours, and I did 2:55.

PdC: And was that your first marathon?

Emma: Yes, I'd run the distance, but never in a race - and I did another one last year, In October, the Lausanne marathon, and I did win that one, and that was pretty cool, and I got a time I was pretty happy with, so I can't do another one now until I can run quicker than that!  2:44, that'll take a lot of training!

PdC: You started off as a cross-country runner, before you were a cyclist

Emma: But I was never that quick, I always got injured before I got fast, if you see what I mean.  And now I get a load of fitness from the bike season, and I'm definitely healthier cross-training, doing a bit of biking and a bit of running than just running, or even just cycling, I think.

PdC: I did cross country at school, and to me it was the mental thing, to me the mental discipline was almost harder than the physical stuff.

Emma: I don't know, I find it easier, running races, because there's no crashing risk.  I know in really high-level races there are tactics, but to me, the only thing that worried me before a race was the knowledge that it's going to hurt like hell, and that's kind of ok, that's kind of the point, and if you don't want it to hurt like hell, you just run a bit slower.

Bike races are much more unpredictable - which is why they are interesting to watch, but it also makes them much more stressful as a participant, because you don't know what's going to happen.  It's not just putting the best effort in you can and then seeing what happens, unless it's a time trial.  Running races I find easier - and running training, when the weather's shit, you just put on trainers and out you go, and if you do a two hour run that's your training, and it doesn't take up so much of your day.

So when I was busy with work last year, and really stressed, and in a massive hole mentally, and really, really stressed and down, and all I wanted was to eat chocolate and drink coffee, and I was sleeping on the office floor and in the library, the best thing I could do was go out for a run at lunch time, or early in the morning, and get out into the fresh air - and I live in a really beautiful area, so the running's gorgeous, and it cheered me up so much - it's the best stress relief and antidepressant I know.

PdC: And can I ask, are you Dr Pooley now?

Emma: I am, yes!  I handed in the thesis in November, which was months later than I'd planned, but that's how it happens.  I had my viva in December, and that was all ok, and I did my corrections in a couple of days, and that was ok, handed it in, and while I was in Australia I had to send in all the paperwork…  and then in February I got the letter saying yes, you are Frau Doctor Pooley!  And I had the graduation ceremony just over a week ago, and my parents came out for it, and it was really, really nice.  I'm not that into ceremonies, but I'm really glad I went - it's a quarter of my life I've spent doing this, on or off!

PdC: Everyone I know who's done a PhD gets to the point where they find themselves within a couple of months finding themselves thinking about doing another degree, or another MA or something.

Emma: Yes, I know, it's crazy, my brother started a PhD a couple of years after me, and I was "No!  Don't do it!"  But I'm not doing another PhD, I'm quite sure of that!

PdC: Have you got to the point where you can feel all that weight of it in the background isn't there any more?

Emma: Initially it was the most wonderful feeling of relief, but then I just forgot about it, because it's just a thing I had to do.  But when I think about it, I can feel the weight off my shoulders.  But it's kind of silly, because I'm not going to stay in academia, so it was just that I felt I couldn't let my supervisor down.  But also I'd put a lot of work into it, so you don't just abandon it.  I'm really really pleased I've finished it - but looking back, it's like a race, you kind of forget how much it hurt, and it was just shit!  It was horrible!  My poor friends, whose shoulders I cried on, they had very, very soggy shoulders!  And my poor mum, she was particularly glad to come to the ceremony, because she was so relieved I hadn't topped myself halfway through!

PdC: I've got some friends in the middle of one who will listen to this and think "oh god, she's right, why did I start?"

Emma: Once you've started, I kept telling myself  "I'm not a quitter!  I'm not a quitter", and my dad kept saying "you don't have to finish it" and I was "Yes I DO!".  And my mum is now quietly saying "If you've finished your PhD, do you have time for a boyfriend now?" - "No!  I'm busy bike racing!"

PdC: That's hilarious!

Emma: Not for my mum it's not!

PdC: It must be quite an interesting thing - parents bring up their daughters to be independent and strong, and to go out and do things, and there must be a point where they're regretting it, and wishing they'd brought them up to be cowed, and a homebody!

Emma: My mum's a bit upset, because she's got three kids, and my sister's a doctor and my brother's doing a PhD, and none of us have proper jobs, none of us have produced grandchildren for her, and she's "why did I pay for them to go to university at all?  They could have settled down and had kids!"

PdC: It serves her right, she shouldn't have encouraged you to be academic all those years ago!

Emma: She set a wonderful example as an independent working mother, and I'm very proud of her, and I want to be the same.

PdC: So when you were away, did you follow the bike races you weren't riding in, like the Giro Rosa?

Emma: This is going to sound terrible - sort of, off and on.  I'd look up the results, but I really find, when I'm away from cycling, I don't look at Cyclingnews every day because I don't wanted to be living in it, or haunted by it every day.  And also, when I couldn't be at the Giro, it was a bit galling not being there, because it's one of my favourite races, and so I didn't want to know really.  Obviously I looked up the results, and I watched the World Championships.  Not day-to-day, but I followed the general flow of results, because I wanted to know.

PdC: For Emma-fans, watching last years' Giro last year being won in the mountains, it was like "Oh God!"

Emma: Yeah… but I wouldn't say it's always won in the mountains, but the mountains are the decider… I've not won it a lot of times when it was won in the mountains when I was there, so it wasn't like I looked at it and thought "damn, I would have won it", because I absolutely don't think I would have done.  Mara [Abbott] is an incredible rider, she's well and truly beaten me in the Giro several times, so I certainly didn't watch it and think "damn, that was a race for me", I just wished I was there.

PdC: But you'll be there this year!  In typical Giro style, we've got no clue about the course

Emma: It's probably going to be totally flat this year!

PdC: While you were "away",  you were doing a ton of stuff around cycling, and being involved in work behind the scenes, and I really enjoyed that.  You were doing Le Tour Entier [campaign for a women's Tour de France]  and some stuff with the UCI - can you tell us a bit about that?

Emma: Well, it was sort of a bit accidental.  There's this awesome documentary coming out, which I'm sure you've heard about, Half The Road.  I still having managed to see it, because we arranged a screening in Perth, but it's after I left, in May, so I'm going to try to get a screening in Zürich.

It's this documentary by Kathryn Bertine, and I only met her at the Valkenberg World Championships, when she wanted to film an interview for it, and I said "oh right, ok, another media interview", and I got talking to her after, and it wasn't "just another media interview", it was someone who was passionate about women's cycling, and we got on really well, and I remember saying to her after the interview, the one thing that would really make a difference to women's cycling was if we had a women's Tour de France, at the men's Tour de France, with the men.

There's a lot that's fantastic about women's cycling, but there's a real gap between the men and women in terms of investment.  And it's not just about the money, it's about the coverage - we don't have the same races and coverage as the men, so the sport can't grow in the way that it should.  And it's a vicious circle, with lack of media attention, and therefore lack of investment, and therefore lack of quality in what teams can offer their riders, and whether riders have to work or not, and that obviously affects the quality of the peloton, the strength and depth, and it's basically a vicious circle.

So I thought, the one place to intervene would be for one high profile men's race to put on a women's race at the same time, and the Tour is the obvious one, because it's crazy, people who never give a damn about cycling watch the Tour de France.  And it almost makes me angry, watching all these crazy people at the side of the road, they'll stand out there in the heat for hours, or in the rain for hours, just to watch some people they don't know to whizz past on a bike, and I just thought why can't they women as well?  They wouldn't care!  They'd love to see a second race, they only see it for a few seconds, why not a second one?  And it would make such a difference to the sport!

Sometimes it seems that people at the top of the sport are deliberately ignoring women's cycling - I don't think it's the case, but it feels like that, sometimes, and that's why I said to Kathryn something like "we should petition them", and then she got back in touch with me just before the Tour de France started, and said the one time we should do a petition is while the Tour is on, because we'll get noticed.  And because she'd interviewed so many people for her documentary - which I would urge everyone to go and see, because it is apparently really good, and there's lots of cool people in it like Marianne Vos, and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, and Chrissie Wellington - and apparently it's even quite funny!

Anyway she got Marianne and Chrissie Wellington on side as well, because they're all so passionate about it, and people like them, they really get people to notice you.  It was just my silly suggestion, I didn't really do much work - there were a lot of emailing about it, but I wouldn't attribute any success our campaign had to me, especially!

So that's how we started this petition, and it got noticed by ASO, and they didn't really like it - but the result of it is that they're putting on a race at the Tour de France on the final day - La Course by Le Tour de France.  And it's not what I dreamed of, a full Tour, but of course they can't organise that in a year!  I'm not crazy, it has to be sustainable, both financially and logistically, and I still think what they're doing is fantastic, and a really good start - and what I'm hoping is that the race is so successful and the feedback from people watching, the fans, is "we want to see more of this", and some day there will be a women's Tour de France, and a women's Paris-Roubaix, and a women's Amstel Gold, and Milan-Sanremo, and everything, a women's Dauphiné…

I just think there's so much potential out there, because to me it seems like an obvious thing to put on a women's race alongside a men's race on the same day.  Maybe, because there's stupid rules about race length, with shortened stages - it doesn't matter, because the important thing is the entertainment value.  I don't even give a monkey's about the prize money - it's massively unfair, the way it is with money in the sport, but that's not the point, the point is to have the races.  And the logistics are there with the big races.  They have to close the roads an hour earlier, but the roads are closed all day anyway for those big races, and the people are out there watching anyway - and you can't honestly tell me that the fans wouldn't be happy to have a second race!

PdC: This is the thing about Flèche on Wednesday - I went last year with Hitec, which was amazing, but people will want to watch anyone race up the Mur de Huy!

Emma: Yes!  And Flanders is the same, fans love it!  They're so drunk, most of them, they couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman riding a bike anyway!  I'm joking, but the point is, our bike races are exciting.

And people who say to me, "oh, well, women are shit, because you only go at 38 k an hour instead of 40 - it doesn't make any difference, the point is the interaction!  And our races are really exciting.  The problem is, it's very hard to persuade a tv channel to pay for the rights to film it.  And obviously filming any race, making a television package out of it, is extremely expensive, because you need motorbikes, and helicopters, in theory - I think they could do it with little drone-y things, there are ways to do it on the cheap - but it's basically a huge outlay, and you've got to find someone who's willing to take that risk and say we'll film the whole lot, and put it on tv, and that's hard to do.

And I think that's where the UCI comes in, and they've been really good, especially because it had to become part of the UCI election campaign trail, because we were so arsey about it -  women started standing up for themselves!  So it became part of Brian Cookson's campaign, that he would try to help women's road cycling.

And I think the Women's Commission, is moving, step by step, on the way, and they've got a tv package from every Road World Cup - it would be great if maybe next year it could be shown alongside the men's coverage of Flanders, or Flèche Wallonne.  But it is more complicated than just putting it on tv - I'm a bit dumb about things because I don't watch tv, but obviously, if the UCI does a deal with one particular broadcaster to show all the World Cups, they have to show all the World Cups on that, they can't then say whoever's showing Flèche Wallonne for the men can have that footage too.  So it's kind of complicated because of all the money and rights involved, but they're definitely going in the right direction.

When it comes down to it, the more people who get to see women's bike racing, the more people will want to watch it, because it's really exiting!    The thing that really got me going about tv rights and tv coverage was after the Olympics, when unusually, millions and millions of people did actually watch women's bike racing

PdC: Three times the number of people watched the women than the men, on the BBC Peak Viewing Figure!

Emma: Yeah, it's partly because our race was shorter, and more exciting.  It doesn't have to be about men versus women - the point is, lots of people watched it and it's not women's racing over men's racing, it's just bike racing, with a different gender.

PdC: It's a different kind of sport, with different tactics - I'm really into the shorter distance that makes it more exciting, and the smaller team numbers.  Sometimes I want to watch an endless grind up the Alpe d'Huez or something, but I'm not really into the Tour de France sprint stages, where they ride tempo for 250k, then sprint at the end - I like the last 20 kilometres, but…

Emma: Well, I can't say anything against the Tour de France, because it's blasphemous, but the thing is, women's racing is less predictable, because of smaller teams, and it's just different style of racing and the the shorter distances, which, to be honest, make it much more exciting.  And you do hear people murmuring, now, "maybe the men's races should be shorter", because the first few hundred k is a bit dull sometimes.  I'm not saying always, but sometimes - please don't string me up from the nearest lamp-post!

And our races aren't always exciting, but they are exciting often, and the point about the Olympics was that all these millions of people watched a women's bike race, and millions of people were impressed at the skill and excitement and basically the entertainment value, because at the end of the day, like any sport that's professional and shown on television, it's largely about entertainment - and people were entertained!

And I just had all these friends and family saying "wow, I had no idea what you did - can I watch some more, it's really exciting" - and I was, not really, you can look up a few clips on youtube, but not really, to be honest, and that got me thinking, why doesn't this happen all the time?

And the other thing is, the men's sport has these incredible fans - Cancellara fans, or Cavendish fans, or Wiggins fans or Froome fans, and because they follow all these races, you see a story unfold throughout the year, and you get this following for the sport and the riders in it - and women's cycling really struggles with that, because there isn't consistent coverage.  Obviously Marianne, and the ones people have heard of, they do have that - and there are some awesome fans of women's cycling, and they're very dedicated and we really appreciate it - but it doesn't have the widespread coverage that the men's sport get, and people don't know the stories behind the races - and I think that's why consistent coverage of the World Cups will help.

PdC: And I think also telling the stories about the riders too, because that's what got me into the sport, looking up people and seeing that Evie Stevens used to work on Wall Street and gave it up to cycle - you're doing your PhD, and have really comedy interviews…. What I loved last year, when you were working on Le Tour Entier, all of you, the difference between Kathryn's interviews, your interviews and Marianne interviews - that was perfect!  There was a rider for whatever you felt like!

Emma: I eschew my own media stuff!  I'd like to see that film, but I don't read my own interviews, that's a bit like navel-gazing, so I don't know.  All I know is that I swear a lot in interviews, and sometimes I offend people high up in cycling, and it doesn't go down very well!

PdC: I think there's room for that, there's room for everyone - and as a fan, that makes it much more interesting.

Emma: But it's really really stressful when you get called at midnight by Jonathan Vaughters' lawyer telling you you've said something wrong!

PdC: When Nicole Cooke retired, her retirement statement - oh my god!

Emma: Blistering, eh?  Brilliant!  But it had to be said!

PdC: You've always been doing things off the bike - I always really, really loved your work for Amnesty - it feels like you've always got your eye on something bigger.

Emma: So the Amnesty stuff - I felt like, after a few years of cycling….  it's very exciting, the chance of going to the Olympics, going to the Olympics, being a professional cyclist… after a few years, I started thinking "what's the point?"  and I looked around at the people I admired when I was a kid, when I was a runner, people like Chrissie Wellington, or Paula Radcliffe, they do more with their fame than just be famous and make a lot of money out out it - they use it to do something, and to promote a cause that's going to make a difference.  And that sounds horribly trite, but that is something useful, and I thought, ok, I'm going to at least try.

And I'm not really famous, and I struggle to find the time to really do much,but the charity I really care about, and have always supported since I was a kid is Amnesty International, and I just thought I'd try to promote their cause.  And I got in touch with them, and they were really helpful, but I feel like such a fool, because I do this silly thing of riding around in circles, and they're trying to save people's lives, and stop human rights abuses.  And I've tried to publicise it, but I'm not really famous enough to really make that much of a difference, so I'm going to start organising AmnesTea Tea Parties, which is one of their fundraising things where you organise a tea party, and make donations, and write letters, and I'm good at tea parties, I can bake cake, and I like tea, so I might do that!

It also is funny, because the UCI, and Le Tour Entier, and the women's cycling thing - it is basically an equality thing, because it's where, say, running used to be in the '50s, where women weren't allowed to run more than 2k because they thought your uterus would fall out or something.  And at the heart of it, it's the same thing, that our sport is really quite sexist at the top.  And yeah, it's changing, but it will take time, and it's something I care about.  But I look at the work  Amnesty is doing, to protect, say, human rights in Afghanistan, and that's a whole other level, and it makes my "campaigning" about women's cycling just feel so petty and pointless, because there's women dying to get an education, or to help others get an education, or standing up for their basic, basic human rights, and the difference is galling, because I wish I could do more really.  So all I do is try to publicise it, because if people knew about the incredible value of the work that Amnesty International is doing, then they'd be more keen to support it.

So with the Sochi Olympics, that was cool, because normally when you sign up to maybe go to the Olympics, you have to sign a massive long disclaimer that you won't make any political comments, so I couldn't say anything about the Beijing Olympics - but with the Sochi Olympics, I could criticise all I liked, because I wasn't going.

PdC: But that's another thing about the women's peloton - a lot of you really believe in passionately in other things as well.  It's easy to like riders who are campaigning for human rights, or raising money to get bikes for kids in inner-city areas, or something.

Emma: I think most female cyclists have had to have another job, or an education of the side, because most people don't make enough money to survive on it, so there's a lot of other interests around the peloton, for sure.


In part 2, Emma talks about Flèche Wallonne, the Friends Life Women's Tour, descending and pack skills - or listen to the whole thing as a podcast now!

Follow Emma through her season on her twitter, and through Lotto-Belisol's twitter and website.

There's another recent interview with her on the BBC website, where she talks about her future in triathlon, and you should definitely read it!

More about the Le Tour Entier campaign and manifesto - and about Half the Road, including details of how you can get to see it.

Amnesty International has portals for different countries - go in through their main international page, and see how you can help them.  It's not just about giving money - signing their petitions and writing letters really helps them out.  Have a look at their activism centre (that's the international one - this is the British one - and here's more information about their AmnesTea campaign).

Flèche Wallonne is on Wednesday 23rd April.  We'll have a live thread for the women's race here on the Café, and my guide to following it as it happens is on my blog.