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The big Emma Pooley post-Giro Rosa interview

Lotto-Belisol's climbing star Dr Emma Pooley had the most amazing underdog story in the 2014 Giro Rosa - going from a horrible nosebleed & asthma attack in Stage 1 that dashed her GC hopes to winning 3 mountain stages in different, exciting ways, and taking home the Mountains jersey. She told us all about all that, team-work, learning to love descending & much more.

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Emma Pooley celebrates after winning Stage 6 of the 2014 Giro Rosa
Emma Pooley celebrates after winning Stage 6 of the 2014 Giro Rosa

This is a transcript of a podcast interview - if you'd rather listen to it instead, head over to my blog


PdC: You had a pretty terrible start to the race – what happened in Stage One?

Emma: Everything happened! It was just terrible.  I wasn’t feeling great at the start of the race, to be honest – I had a bit of a cold after Nationals and I was doubting my legs, because I hadn’t really had a result for a while, so I wasn’t full of confidence, let’s put it that way!

The prologue was not much fun, in that I was one of the last one off – I started at 24 minutes past ten at night, in Naples on some cobbles in the dark.  Short prologues aren’t really my thing anyway, it didn’t go that well, but it wasn’t the end of the world.  But it was pretty stressful, and I had a nosebleed before the start of the prologue, and that’s just a bit annoying.  It’s a real pain when you have a nice new white skinsuit that you’re really proud of, and you have a nosebleed down it!

But that was OK, and then on the first proper stage, I had a massive nosebleed in the race, I think because I’d been coughing and blowing my nose so much because of the cold.  And so my nose was blocked, and I was coughing, and I think I had an asthma attack, I just couldn’t breathe, and felt terrible, so I got dropped.  It eased off, and I chased back and got back into the front group, and then had a mechanical and got my chain jammed, and got dropped from the front group again.  So I lost a bit of time on the first stage, which is pretty annoying, because I know from racing the Giro several times that if you lose time once you’re shooting yourself in the foot.  It’s hard enough to beat someone like Marianne Vos anyway, because she can win sprint stages, she can get bonus seconds – and with no Individual Time Trial, I couldn’t see how I was ever going to get that time back.

So I was a bit upset, because I’m a GC rider, and that’s what my team was there for. We were a bit down, and had a bit of a chat about it and we decided that OK, maybe GC’s not going to work out, so let’s go for stages instead – and that worked out much better in the end!

PdC: I really liked Stage 4, when your team-mate Jolien D’Hoore was fifth in the bunch sprint

Emma: That’s the thing, we had other options and that was really nice.  In some ways I’ve always ridden the Giro for a team-mate or myself in the General Classification, and that’s really stressful, every day you have to really concentrate, and it was really nice this year to say, on the stages that clearly would be sprints "OK, I don’t give a monkey’s about my own position, I’m going to do what I can for Jolien".  She’s a very, very good sprinter, and it’s really nice to give something back to a team-mate who works her backside off for you in stages you’re going for.

She had a good result in that stage, but she’s a very talented sprinter, she could do even better than that, and I felt a bit bad, because she doesn’t have much help in the sprint, because we didn’t have anyone there to protect her, and she gets pushed around by the other teams.  She’s got a lot of potential, I think with a bit more experience of international bunch sprints like that, she could do really well, she could definitely win stages – and she did very well.

PdC: And it was her first Giro – I asked her a couple of questions before the Giro, as one of the first-time racers, she said she’s never ridden a big hilly stage race anyway –  she likes the Dutch racing and the Belgian racing, and obviously she’s a trackie, too – so for her to come 5th on what was the fifth day of the race, and there had been some big hills already on Stage 1 and Stage 3 – I thought that was even more impressive.

Emma: Exactly – and she’s very young, and hasn’t got that much experience of a stage race that long, and she got through the hilly stages fine. She worked her backside off to get me into position for the climbs in Stages 6, 8 and 9, and she did a great job, she’s very calm, she’s sort of older than her years.  I think she’s got a lot of potential in road racing, but understandably I think she’s trying to concentrate on track at the moment and you can’t do everything – but I would watch that space, I think she’s going to go a long way.  And I think she’s absolutely fine on hills, she says she can’t go up hills, but she was absolutely fine, she’ll be good!

PdC: So after that, on Stage 6, you did that classic Emma Pooley early attack on that 20% climb, didn’t you?

Emma: The nice thing was, we had nothing to lose, so…. It seemed a bit crazy – and the problem with the Giro is, you never know from the profiles if that’s what’s actually going to happen in the race, they’re often a bit misleading.  But someone who’d seen that course said to me "you’ve got to go on that hill, because after that it’s all up and down, and you could stay away".  So I went on that hill – and I had the perfect support from my team - Jolien and Liesbet de Vocht, who’s super-experienced and very calm and strong – they basically did a two-up time trial to get me to the base of the climb in second wheel and I got round that corner and just went.

I didn’t have any confidence in my climbing any more, because I’ve felt crap all year, and so I thought "it won’t work, but I might as well try", so I did, and I got a gap.  I think most other teams thought "it’s too early, I won’t bother chasing yet".  It wasn’t really that hilly for quite a few k, and I was out solo for about 20-25k, and then a chasing group caught me, and I thought it was all over, but it wasn’t actually Vos and co., it was a group of non-GC riders, and they rode with me, and that was pretty cool.  In fact I don’t think I’d have won the stage without that, because it was quite a long way in the wind.

And then there was the long climb, about 13 kilometres, not particularly steep, and then a 12k descent and a bit of undulation to the finish, and I went away on the climb again.  I wouldn’t say I was confident I could get away, but I thought it would be definitely easier to get away from that group than it would be from the peloton.  It was definitely better than being in a group without Vos, and Mara Abbott, and Evelyn Stevens and the scary ones!


Pooley climbing solo, Giro Rosa Stage 6 - photo from Velofocus' stage gallery

It was the kind of thing that was worth trying, because if you’ve got nothing to lose on GC you might as well give it a go, even if you get caught, it’s good training.  And then it got to the end of the descent, and I hadn’t lost that much time, and then it got onto the flat section towards the end and I realised that someone behind was chasing, because the gap went from 1:20 to 50, to 40, to 30, to 25, to 19…. When you do that kind of thing you have to be prepared for it not to work, because for all the times when it’s reported and it works brilliantly, there are ten times when it didn’t work….  But I really didn’t want to lose it with 500 to go, because it would have been such a hard day!  I only just held them off, and it was quite emotional, because it had been a hard day, and it’s a long time since I’ve had a result like that at an international race where I could say that shows that I’m on form…. Yeah, I wept at the end!

PdC: I think I had tears in my eyes too!  As a fan, it’s like some kind of Roman circus, it’s a brutal spectator sport, but when you’re watching it and it goes down to 15 kilometres and 45 seconds, then 12 kilometres and 30 seconds, or whatever it was, and down to 17 seconds, 13 seconds, you’re sitting on the sofa going "Go, Emma!  Go, Emma!"

Emma: Yes!  And when you’re in front on your own, you don’t know who’s chasing!  I could guess, but I was like "Why are they chasing me?  I’m minutes and minutes and minutes down on GC, they don’t need this stage as well, do they?".  And it was a small group, and sometimes small groups don’t work – and in this case I think the other riders in the group [Mara Abbott and Elisa Longo Borghini] worked because they were scared if they didn’t, Rabobank would attack them.  So I was a bit unlucky – but then again I was lucky, because it did work, and it’s nice when you win a stage and it’s not because no one could be bothered to chase, they were chasing, and I still won it, so that was nice.  And it was good training!

PdC: They weren’t just chasing, it was three Rabos time trialling – Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Anna van der Breggen and Vos – and Longo Borghini and Abbott!

Emma: And Longo Borghini and Abbott were also working!

PdC: It’s quite an interesting testament to you, because although you were about six minutes down, you have in the past gone away on solo breaks and won by stupid amounts of time, so I don’t think you’re a rider I’d let go if I was a GC rider.

Emma: I agree, they’re not stupid enough to let me go nowadays – but, on the other hand, they could have kept it to a minute fairly easily.  But I think Rabobank are so strong, they wanted to win every stage…

PdC: And that was the Vos tactic – she made up around a minute from the bonifications she got from sprint wins, so when she was a minute and a half away from Abbott, three quarters of that was from bonis, and some of that was from Abbott losing just 10 seconds here and 5 seconds there.

Emma: Just a gap in a bunch sprint, exactly, that’s the problem.  Mara Abbott is much better than me in sprint finishes - I’m basically scared in the bunch sprints, so I hang back, and if there’s a gap where you lose twenty seconds…. Even in a Giro with an individual time trial, that’s hard to make up.  It’s the kind of thing that I’ve spent years working on, and I have got better at it, but I can tell you, it was a huge relief when we decided not to go for GC, that on the bunch sprint stages, I could do my absolute best for Jolien, normally a lot earlier in the stage, and then just sit up, and be like "Yeah, you guys go off and sprint, and I’ll just pootle into the finish"….  chatting to a team-mate, eating an oatcake…

And you also save a lot of energy, and it’s mental energy, stress, but you also save a lot of physical energy, not sprinting at the end of a stage - because for me that’s the hardest thing, because I’m not a sprinter.  It’s mentally a lot easier, but it really does help you target the stages you want to do.  It’s not so much that they let me go because I was low on GC, but it’s more that I had more energy, because I wasn’t going for GC that I was able to win a stage.

And I think once I won one, I had a lot more confidence to try it again – and having no pressure to go for GC, my team were super, especially Dany, my Director, about "No pressure, just do your best", and that’s a tactic that works better for me than "You must win!"

PdC: I was going to ask you, and I hope you don’t mind the question, but you seem to be someone who’s affected by your nerves – when I read interviews with you, or see you on tv, you seem to put a lot of pressure on yourself, so I was wondering, once that pressure was off from GC, was it a weight off you, or were you kicking yourself about things you could have done differently in Stage 1?

Emma: It was a huge weight off my shoulders, actually – and it’s not that anyone else puts pressure on me particularly, it’s just that I feel a lot of responsibility for being a team leader – I guess I’m just a bit of an angsty person, and I always have been.

And I’ve raced the Giro twice to try to win it, and I’ve come second twice, and raced it a couple of times for team-mates – and I have to say, racing for Claudia [Lichtenberg] in 2009 and she won, it was absolutely wonderful and I really enjoyed that.  It’s not that I just want to win it for myself, but I have to say racing for yourself with a whole team supporting you and not winning it is not pretty….  I wasn’t happy with second place.  Marianne Vos is a very respectable person to be beaten by, but I really felt that I’d not done well enough.

So maybe not going for GC, OK, that pressure’s gone, and going for stage wins is the opposite of going for GC - every day’s a new day, if you mess it up one day, you try again another day.  Whereas GC, if you mess it up one day, it’s all gone.

PdC: And you won your stages in three different ways - Stage 8 was that classic duel in the mountains with Abbott, going up in that group of different riders, and each of your attacks pushing off more and more of them – and then you caught Van der Breggen and she was dropped with just 1 kilometre to go – and you seemed to up your speed in ways Mara couldn’t keep up with – that was interesting to watch because it was so different to Stage 6.  And then Stage 9 was a classic mountains solo and different again.

Emma: I think Stage 8 was…I was really surprised.  I went into the stage with the knowledge that maybe if it worked out well, I could maybe try to win it, but I didn’t believe I could beat Mara in a climb ever again, after the Giro of 2010, when she quite conclusively trounced me on the Stelvio…. I tend to remember the defeats, which isn’t very good, psychologically, I’m sure I should work on that!

And it’s hard, when you don’t have much self-confidence any more, to believe you can do it – so I was really just hanging on.  And what we said was "We’ll defend the green mountains jersey, we’ve won a stage, it’s all good" – which sounds ridiculous, because what’s defending the green jersey against defending the pink? but you take what you can get when you’re riding against Rabobank!

So all I wanted to do was hang on, on that final climb on Stage 8, until people like Pauline and Van der Breggen were dropped – or make sure Scandolara wasn’t there, so I could not worry too much about the jersey… And it didn’t really feel that hard, so I kept hanging on, I just quite enjoyed it really, watching them play cat-and-mouse about GC, and Rabobank obviously having three riders in our group, so they were in a very strong position, but I said "It’s not my business to interfere with GC!"

And personally I’d have quite liked to see Elisa Longo Borghini win that stage, because she had so much support, and she’s such a talented young rider.  If it had stayed as a group to the finish, and she’d have won in the sprint, that would have been awesome, but it didn’t work out that way, and the group got whittled down.  And it was me against Mara in a comical riding-next-to-each-other-sprint.  And I’m always the idiot that goes too early, and I thought "she’s just going to sit on my wheel and ride past me easily", so I dug in a bit at about 50 to go? 100 to go? I can’t really remember!  It sort of stretched out in a slow-motion uphill sprint, and I was sure she was on my wheel and going to come past, but I think I gapped her, so I could have put my hands in the air, but I was too worried, so I didn’t!


Pooley winning Stage 8 - from Velofocus' great Stage gallery

PdC: And then Stage 9, that was such gorgeous riding – watching the start of the climb, and you guys attacking each other – and riders like Evie Stevens trying, those last ditch Do or Die attempts, and then when you went, that was a really interesting thing.  For me, the moment when Pauline was chasing you and she was chasing on the "wrong" side of the road and saying to Mara "if you want the win, you chase her" – but it didn’t feel they let you go because you were low on GC, it felt like someone would have had to make a huge effort to catch you – and you seemed to notice that and just shoot off in those seconds of indecision.

Emma: I think I was just thinking I had to take any opportunity, because what Vos and Pauline and Van der Breggen are all good at is changing pace.  I’m getting less and less good at that, I feel, so if I’ve got a gap I’ve got to go for it, and just take the opportunities.  And again, I said I’d love to win this stage, it would be absolutely magical, but it doesn’t matter if not.  So I thought I’d try a bit of an attack, but I felt like it was a totally rubbish attack, to be honest!

I’d felt terrible at the bottom of the climb, I was far too far back.  There were some tunnel sections, just before the lake, and I’m not good in tunnels, and I got scared, and I dropped back and I was right at the back of the peloton.  And it was all lined out, because Liv-Shimano were on the front drilling it, and I was totally in the wrong place.  My poor team had to do a massive time trial effort up the side of the road to get me back to the front again, and I only just made it back to the front group before we hit the climb, so I think I was in the red before we got to the climb.

And I suspected that Mara would hit the climb hard, because for GC she had to try to get a minute and a half, so I thought Mara’s going to smack it on the front and I’m just going to get dropped, so I thought I’d hang around as much as possible.

I think I noticed that Pauline and Anna van der Breggen were riding on the front when there were five of us left – the three Rabobanks, Mara and myself - and I worked out that they weren’t doing it because they were feeling great and they wanted to set the pace, they were doing it because they were scared of Mara and me, and they didn’t want us to set the pace.  And that’s when I thought right, I’ll try, because if they’re scared, that’s a good sign, and I just sort of went a bit faster up the side of the road, it was a crap attack!

And I do think that they were more worried about Mara than about me, they knew that if I won the stage it wasn’t the end of the world, but if Mara got away she could make a minute and a half.  I think it’s a compliment to her that they rode so aggressively in their defence, I’d say – having seen the footage, they did box her in a bit, and it’s a compliment, because she’s so strong, they didn’t want her to get away at all, whereas for me, they didn’t to waste energy – to chase me, and then be put at risk of being attacked by Mara, and then she’d go and they’d lose the GC.

I did benefit from the tactics amongst other people, and of course there’s a flat section and a downhill section in the middle of that climb where you can make a lot of time if you’re really riding and the group behind you is dithering a bit.

It’s magic when you get away, when you know you’ve got 50 seconds going into the final k, and something would have to go really badly wrong to lose it – you could pretty much puncture and run to the finish and still make it!  That was really nice, and there were hundreds of people there, and I had friends who’d come from Switzerland to cheer me on, and it was absolutely magical, really nice.


Emma Pooley wins Stage 9 - photo from Velofocus' great stage gallery

PdC: What I thought was most interesting was that we used to joke about you descending like Wiggins, or like a Schleck or something - and watching you in both Stage 6 and Stage 9, when you hit those descents you didn’t lose too much time over the Vos group on that long Stage 6, or not enough to make any difference.

Pooley: Twenty seconds, yeah.  I have to say, I was really pleased that people commented on that, because it was obviously something that I had to work on, because it was a real weakness, and it’s an embarrassing weakness as a professional cyclist when you descend like a sack of potatoes and you’re scared.  And also it’s just not fun when you spend the whole race dreading the descent, so I’ve spent a lot of years working on it.  And my coach before, Tim Williams, is a really good descending coach, and we went to Majorca and spent a week just riding up and down hills, and I liked the riding up and he liked the riding down, and by the end of a few weeks of training like that, I liked the riding down, too!

And now I enjoy descending, and it’s a thrill just like it is for most people.  I’m never going to be as good as Marianne Vos or Trixi Worrack, or someone, but I’m good enough, especially if I’m on my own and am not scared of people around me crashing, that it’s not a big weakness any more.  And I enjoy it, which is a wonderful thing, because it’s a lovely part of riding a bike, especially if you like mountains – what goes up must come down!

I was glad that I didn’t lose too much time there, because I felt, especially on Stage 6, I was descending very cautiously, because the road was wet, and I don’t really like falling off, and I thought I was being pathetic, and they were going to catch me, and this was going to be another of those embarrassing "Pooley gets caught on the descent" things!

PdC: The thing that was really impressive for me was when you were going up those switchbacks and hairpins, and you could hear on the tv the bells getting louder and louder, and you’d start off with a couple of people on a corner, and then with each corner there were more people – and then people on the road, and people running alongside you cheering, and you had this complete look of focus, you looked like you were in a perfect zone.  And as you ascended, everything getting louder and louder, and it seemed kind of magical – what was it like to ride?

Emma: In retrospect magical, but at the time it was just quite painful!  It’s wonderfully encouraging, especially when you know you’re basically winning, there isn’t really a much better feeling in the world.  I heard a lot of people shouting "Emma!" which is really nice, but you don’t really look, especially when you’re in a group because you’re busy watching riders around you, but even on my own… I spotted one friend, because I was looking out for him, I knew he was going to be there, watching – and then a lot of people shout "Emma!" but you don’t know if you know them or not.  It would be terrible to overly enjoy the last kilometre, and get caught because you were faffing around soaking up the appreciation of the crowd, so I wanted to be focused and win the thing.

It’s a very special place to win a stage of the Giro as well, the Madonna del Ghisallo climb, obviously it’s got a lot of significance for cyclists, and I had a terrible stage there four years ago, so it was nice to get revenge!

PdC: So how’s the confidence now?  How do you feel now about cycling?

Emma: Yeah, much more positive, I have to say!  Although a bit sad because that’s the only race like that all year.  A lot of people have said "Where’s the Tour de l’Aude?  Where are the hills that used to be in the Giro del Trentino?" and that sort if thing.  I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad I hung on in there through the crap days to make it to the mountain stages.  But as a climber it’s a bit sad – as a woman, when do we race like that apart from in the Giro?  And some years even the Giro isn’t that tough.

It makes me wish we had more races with the men – wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a Critérium du Dauphiné, or Lombardia - there’s plenty to name – and what people love watching the men do, they could also watch the women do on tv.  It just makes me wonder how much better it could be, if there were more races like that for us.

And it also makes me appreciate how great the Giro is, and that there is RAI Sport 2 coverage, and the highlights  somehow get onto Youtube.  All my friends on facebook really appreciate it, and I have to say, my mum loves it – and a lot of my friends know I race bikes, but they never get to see it, the Olympics are the only thing, and then maybe Nationals.  And after the Nationals they were saying "I watched your race, you were fantastic" and I was like "No!  That was nothing compared to what we do in the Giro!",  so it was great.

PdC: Seeing you go up Ghisallo, which is a climb people know – it’s evocative, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing – and also having that really luxury of being able to see the entire climb - and on Stage 6, they showed the last half hour from half-way up the final climb – that’s a real privilege for me.  I was asking people on twitter "what was the highlight of your Giro?", because I always do, and pretty much everyone said "Emma Pooley in the mountains!"

Emma: Oh!  That’s really nice, I very much appreciate it, thankyou!  Because it’s been very positive for me in terms of encouragement, and feeling like I wasn’t letting my team down so much any more - "Maybe I am a cyclist after all" – I’ve been doubting that for a while!

PdC: I asked on twitter, does anyone have any questions for Emma Pooley, and I got a lot of "Tell her she’s an inspiration", "Tell her she’s mega" – and the person who was watching with her five-year-old daughter, who wants to ride like that!  And I also think you had that perfect underdog story, starting terribly, pictures of you covered in blood...

Emma: It looked good, didn’t it?

PdC: Especially with the red Lotto-Belisol kit, congratulations, that was a good touch! We’ve got to let you go, but quickly, what’s next for you – Commonwealths, obviously?

Emma: I’m home just for a day, and on a training camp from tomorrow, because the Commonwealth Games is coming up, and it’s pretty important, I’m really looking forward to that, it’s almost a home Commonwealth Games!

And just before the Commonwealths is going to be La Course in Paris, which is going to be fantastic, and I’m really looking forward to racing for Jolien, because I owe her one after last week, so that’s going to be pretty cool, I hope!


Follow Pooley through the rest of her season on her twitter - and on the Lotto-Belisol website and twitter.

You can read my interview from before the race, and the Q&As with her after Stage 6 and after Stage 8 - and to find out what she was doing in the eight months before the season started, listen to my interview with her from April on my blog - or read Part 1 and Part 2 here.  And all the Podium Café coverage of the Giro Rosa is in the Storystream, with lots of videos from each stage in the race reports.

All photos used with very kind permission of Velofocus - head over and look at all his pictures on his excellent website.