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Full Circle, by Joanna Rowsell Shand

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Joanna Rowsell Shand (Commonwealth Games, Glasgow)
Joanna Rowsell Shand (Commonwealth Games, Glasgow)
Getty Images

Title: Full Circle – My Story
Author: Joanna Rowsell Shand (with Natasha Devon)
Publisher: John Blake
Year: 2017
Pages: 336
Order: John Blake
What it is: The autobiography of Joanna Rowsell Shand
Strengths: The name of the cover
Weaknesses: You’re not the intended audience

We wanted to be the SAS of the Olympic world.
~ Dave Brailsford

In one way at least, Dave Brailsford's attempts to turn British Cycling into the SAS of the Olympic world have been successful: never in the course of British sporting history have so many written so much about so few. The books about British Cycling's heroics are legion, ranging from the well written to the who-dares-wins fan-boy fantasies of wannabe Action Men. Bradley Wiggins (six volumes of autobiography), Mark Cavendish (a modest two), and David Millar (two efforts) are clearly the Andy McNab, Chris Ryan and Bear Grylls of the sport in the UK (with Wiggins's autobiographies increasingly looking like Bravo Two Zero). Steve Peters, Rod Ellingworth, Sean Yates, Rob Hayles, Jason Kenny, Geraint Thomas, Charly Wegelius, Chris Froome, Chris Boardman, Chris Hoy, Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Deignan, Laura Kenny, they've all added to the mountain of insider-stories, while we still await Brailsford's own, long-promised, autobiography (What it Takes) and Shane Sutton's autobiography gets stuck on pause.

The latest contribution to the heap comes from Joanna Rowsell Shand, the now retired Olympian who quit the sport with two Olympic gold medals – as a member of the London and Rio team pursuit squads – along with five rainbow jerseys.

The book’s worth can just about be summed up in a short paragraph a couple of dozen pages from the end:

“Mark Cavendish was also on Sunday Brunch and gave a really funny interview about how appalling the Olympic Village in Rio was. During this rant, he kept turning to me as if for confirmation and, whilst I nodded and smiled, I did wonder whether we should technically be criticising the Village so publicly. Eventually, I put it to the back of my mind. I figured everything he was saying was out there in the pubic domain, anyway, and it was good that he was being honest.”

Licensed by Cavendish, and with gripes about the Village already out there, Rowsell Shand offers up a couple of her own. There's that time her and Laura Kenny's laundry bags went missing and they had to search through the laundry room looking for them. And there's a story about being unable to get her agent, Jess Henig, past Village security as Henig didn't have accreditation. Rowsell Shand did have a gold medal and that did the trick:

“I remember feeling very surprised – a gold medal shouldn't have granted me any special privileges in terms of security at all. In retrospect, I would have preferred to have lost that debate, or at least to have had a guard escort us both, safe in the knowledge that correct security procedures were being followed.”

Coming as it does in the wake of the Fancy Bears TUE leaks, the Shane Sutton bullying investigation, and the problems caused when news of Lizzie Deignan's successful secret CAS appeal leaked, you're probably wondering just how candid Rowsell Shand is on the issues that actually matter. Well, to give her the credit she deserves, she doesn't wuss out of the problem like Laura and Jason Kenny did by pretending none of these things happened. It would be hard to. For starters, she's besties with Deignan:

“I felt desperately sorry for Lizzie. The media were treating her as though she was guilty, when actually what had happened had been an administrative error. Many athletes find themselves receiving strikes which no one ever hears about. I'm sure many more have made mistakes but got lucky as no one was looking to test them on that specific day and therefore they have not got a strike.”

That's alright then - forget how at odds with British Cycling's famed attention to detail and vows of transparency the whole thing was and just build a bridge and, like, get over it.

And Sutton? Well, on the one hand she missed Sutton, who was “one of the best motivators in the world” and on the other hand she had sympathy for Jess Varnish and “couldn't disagree that the timing of her removal from the programme was odd.” But, with a wonderful bit of shade, Rowsell Shand nails her own colours firmly to the mast:

“It's human nature to want to blame someone else when things aren't going your way, but I've learnt to put my hands up and take blame when I haven't performed at my best. I believe the best athletes always can.”

Not many would have put money on Rowsell Shand being the one to follow Lizzie Deignan, Laura Kenny, Victoria Pendleton and Nicole Cooke into the world of cycling autobiography. Me, I would have guessed that someone like Shanaze Reade or Emma Pooley would get a book deal first. Yes, she's got those two Olympic gold medals, but they were won alongside Laura Kenny and Dani King in 2012 and Kenny, Katie Archibald, and Elinor Barker in 2016. And the team pursuit doesn't exactly lend itself to gripping depictions of racing. But Rowsell Shand does have one thing that puts her head and shoulders above her peers: alopecia. And that plays a more important role in Fill Circle than cycling does.

Ghosted by former child tsar Natasha Devon (she served briefly as mental health champion for schools) and with 45 chapters breaking up Full Circle's 317 pages – making an anaemic seven pages per chapter – this is not what you could call a particularly demanding read. Isn't that the secret with self-help books, that they demand little of you, but promise much? And, helpful to a T, Rowsell Shand wraps the book up with an 'executive summary' of all the key help she’s given you:

“Reader, thank you so much for reading my story, one of a life which is equal parts completely normal and total (sic) extraordinary. I hope you enjoyed it. I don't know about you, but when I read an autobiography, I always like to reflect on what I can learn from a person's life. In that spirit, her are a few takeaway pieces of wisdom I've picked up on my journey. I hope they serve you well.”

The listicle of life lessons that then follows includes:

- Nice Girls DON'T Finish Last! (“I've learned that you don't have to have the stereotypical 'thick skin' to succeed.”)

- Grab Opportunities (“In cycling terms, last is better than DNF (did not finish), which is better than DNS (did not start). Don't let opportunities pass you by and be open-minded enough to just see what happens.”)

- Sexism (“Never settle for inequality, keep questioning the status quo.”)

- Teamwork (“create an environment where everyone feels they can speak up without judgement.”)

These lessons – and more – are also buried throughout the book, like house bricks in the mud, waiting for you to stub your toes on them as you stumble your way through a world in which every drama is turned into a crisis (“At some point I noticed I had a sore throat and thought, Oh God, not again!, but mercifully it never developed beyond a sniffle.”). Subtlety is not something you expect to find in self-help books.

This being a cycling book, you might expect to find a lot of cycling in it. Well, here's how Rowsell Shand describes how she won her first Olympic gold medal:

“It was during the final that we obtained our sixth world record in a row that year. Laura, Dani and I were on the form of our lives, achieving a time of three minutes and fourteen seconds exactly and beating our rivals, America, by a clear six seconds. Considering how unobtainable three minutes and fifteen seconds had seemed to us just a few short months ago, this was a stupendous result. I'd say this was the near-perfect ride, with all of us on great form and all pulling our turns, as planned.

“We were ahead of the Americans from the very start of the race. Each lap the gap between us got bigger. In retrospect, I always think this must have made the final a pretty boring race to watch.”

And to recount, apparently...

More important than the racing seems to be Rowsell Shand's health and the many illnesses she has had during her career. The time lost ahead of London with glandular fever, the time lost ahead of Rio with an unnamed lurgi, whatever bug's doing the rounds, really. Somehow, no matter what's thrown at her, she bounces back, stronger and faster than before.

Most of what you're really getting is just juvenile nonsense from a kidult who spent a decade and more living inside the bubble of British Cycling and hasn’t been out long enough to properly smell the roses:

“They were holding the test event in the form of a World Cup, which struck me as a strange decision. Why invite the rest of the world to have a test run on the new velodrome, the very same one we would be competing on for Olympic medals in just a few months' time? But perhaps that is an unfair judgement on my part. We Brits are, after all, all about fair play, and in that context it was a fitting gesture.”

None of this, though, really matters, not in a book that keeps coming back to the fact that Rowsell Shand was the one with alopecia and that how she dealt with that childhood trauma can provide lessons for other children facing demons of their own today:

“I want to let people know there is no reason to let an inhibition hold you back. I had to dive straight into cycling at a time when I was too shy to even speak to new people, but I have now blossomed into a confident young woman, unashamed of my alopecia, keen to raise awareness and eager to help people recognise the power of sport.”

Full Circle, by Joanna Rowsell Shand
Full Circle, by Joanna Rowsell Shand
John Blake