I was 27 when I bought my first road bike. It was during my first weekend in South Africa where I’d moved to work. I had to ask where the brakes were. Needless to say I was not one of those girls that competed from the age of six and was born to race a bike. During my first road stage race in Australia in 2007, I had to ask someone what the QOM (Queen of the Mountain) was. So when I finished second at the Australian National Road Race Championships in January 2008 (it was open to all nationalities) aged 32, I’m not sure who was more surprised. My first coach of three weeks, Donna Rae Szalinski (now DS for Wiggle-High Five), one of my friends who nearly fell off a ladder listening to the race on the national radio station whilst painting a house – or myself.
Following my performance in Australia, British Cycling asked me to take a sabbatical from work. I was thrown into the deep end with my first European race being the Flèche Wallonne World Cup, quickly followed by 10 days of racing at the Tour de l’Aude, where I finished sixth on the General Classification. Three months later I was lining up at the Beijing Olympics. It would have been a fairytale start had I not broken my fibular six weeks before leaving for China filming with the BBC.
Nothing in my cycling career seemed to be plain sailing.
In 2009, British Cycling suggested that I tried cross-country mountain biking. A random fall down the stairs at home left me with a complicated dislocated shoulder. Needless to say it was not the best start and decided to return to the road with the British National Team for the end of the season. Unfortunately British Cycling lost interest in me at this stage and I was left to find my own feet in the cycling world. Fortunately a seventh place in the Tour of Ardeche at the end of that season meant I was offered my first proper pro contract for 2010. For the next three years I raced alongside fellow Brits, Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) and Emma Pooley – and with some of the most successful teams at that time; Cervelo Test Team, Garmin Cervelo and AA Drinks. My best moments during 2010-11 included supporting Emma Pooley to win the very last Tour de l’Aude in 2010, winning a stage and finishing second on General Classification at the Tour of Ardeche, and second on a stage at the Giro Donne.
2012 was another successful year where I achieved six UCI podium places and won the British National Road Race title. However it was bitter sweet, as I was not selected for the London Olympic Games road race because I ‘didn’t fit the race scenario’. I was devastated and this disappointment will remain with me for the rest of my life. Hard work didn’t seem to pay off. The season did, however, end on a high with a bronze medal at the Team Trial World Championships – a moment I will always cherish.
2013 looked a little more uncertain due to the folding of AA Drinks, so I decided to take the opportunity to combine a race season in South Africa with one in Europe, with Lotto Belisol. Luck wasn’t on my side again as I was involved in a horrific crash at the Argus Road Race in South Africa in March 2013, which left me in ICU for 8 days and hospital for a further week. I suffered multiple fractures to my ribs, transverse processes, vertebrae and collarbone. I wondered if I would race again.
But I did. Not wanting to finish my career on such a low point and having recovered, I was thrilled when United HealthCare Pro-Cycling (UHC) offered me a contract on their new women’s team for 2014. This was a chance to race in the U.S., South America and a few races in Europe with the ‘Blue Train’. I had a great year with the team and learnt so much at such a late stage thanks to Director, Rachel Heal and talented teammates. This season was one of the highlights of my career, just simply racing with the team but also with podium places in the Vuelta a El Salvador, the mountain jersey at the Redlands Cycling Classic and the Women’s Tour in the UK.
I will always regret not re-signing with UHC but I missed my life in Girona and an offer with Bigla Pro-cycling in 2015 meant I could return to racing in Europe and with some riders I had great respect for. It was an unsuccessful year for many reasons, including a broken collarbone, and by the end of the season I was ready to hang up my bike and move on. An unexpected offer from Podium Ambition persuaded me to ride for ‘one more year’, to wrap up my career in 2016 with a British team, working as a mentor to some younger riders and the chance to combine road racing with some mountain bike marathon stage races. I was extremely happy to finish the season with a win at the British Mountain Bike Marathon Championships and podium places at two UCI mountain bike marathon stage races.
Over the last few months, whilst undergoing treatment for cancer, I’ve had time to reflect on my career, the decisions I made and the experiences I had. I rode with some of the most successful teams in the Women’s peloton, those combined with Men’s Pro Tour Teams, first year UCI teams, teams with big budgets and teams with small budgets. Without any federation support I supplemented my salary by undertaking consultancy work most years. Unfortunately for women cyclists it is still difficult for the majority to earn enough to pay the bills. I’ve seen the loss of great races such as the Tour de l’Aude, the introduction of new exciting races like the Tour of California and the Women’s Tour, the replacement of the World Cup Series with the Women’s World Tour, the growth in professionalism amongst the top women’s teams, faster races, an increase in depth in the peloton and better media coverage and public support for women’s racing. Things are changing and, although at times it sometimes seems to be two steps forwards and one step back, I do believe the overall trajectory is positive and I wish I was 20 years younger and starting my career now.
In some ways I wish I had ‘retired’ much earlier but decisions are made based on the options available at that time. Continuing to ride my bike always seemed a better option than going back to an office job. I may not have gone out on a high but I probably learnt more about others and myself in the more challenging years at the end of my career, than the more successful ones. Knowing my body was fighting cancer for my last season, and most likely 2015, makes me feel slightly better about my lack of performance on the road these last two years. I didn’t achieve as much in cycling as I always hoped I would. I doubt anyone will remember me for my results but I hope I will be remembered as a good teammate and a friend, which is far more important in the long term.
I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received since my diagnosis from teammates, staff and people I have met purely because of cycling. I have crossed paths with some incredible people, visited some amazing places, experienced a lifestyle that many would love to try but won’t get the opportunity to do so. From my perspective it certainly wasn’t ‘living the dream’, financially rewarding or glamorous (as someone suggested in a job interview I had) but it certainly was different and a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.
Over the next few months I’m hoping to draw upon on my experiences and relationships to bring you some regular blogs, from my perspective, of various aspects of the 2017 season, race previews, interviews and news about the Women’s World Tour. I’m looking forward to working with Voxwomen and I hope you’ll enjoy reading the posts