Dame Sarah Storey, Cycling Plus, March 2013
Having just become one of the most successful Paralympians of all time, I was invited to ride with Dame Sarah Storey on the Deloitte Ride Across Britain, a long distance sportive that she has twice done in support of the British Paralympic Association. Below you’ll find an extract of my interview that appeared in the March 2013 edition of Cycling Plus.
BIONIC LEGS OF STEEL
As we wound our way through the rolling hills of the Peak District, 52 miles into Stage 5 of the Deloitte Ride Across Britain (RAB), all I could do was stare at the “bionic” set of legs in front of me. Around and around I watched them gracefully turn the pedals, as if they were powerful steam pistons with some kind of built-in metronome. Although I realised it was more likely to be thanks to a watt meter or cadence sensor, her pedal stroke was text book stuff and I was utterly mesmerized. And in awe.
After all, these legs belong to a woman who has such a plethora of palmarés and titles to her name, that it’s a challenge to say them all in one breath: 11 Gold, 8 Silver and 3 Bronze medals across six Paralympic Games, in two sports; 20 World Championship titles; 7 World Cup titles, 21 European titles; over 140 National titles; and 72 World Records.
Indeed, unless you’ve been trapped in an Afghan cave for the past couple of months, it’s almost impossible that you’ve not come across Sarah Storey. After winning four golds at London 2012, she’s been splashed across the front pages of just about every national newspaper, firmly establishing herself in the history books as Great Britain’s most successful Paralympian.
So when the opportunity to ride with her came along just two days after the Paralympics had finished, I jumped at the chance; even if it meant I’d be clinging onto her wheel for 104 miles, like a poor version of Bradley Wiggins following Chris Froome up La Toussuire in Stage 11 of this year’s Tour de France.
Earlier that morning, I began talking with Sarah at breakfast. How does this amazing woman fit in all the things she does? Over the past few weeks, besides obviously winning four gold medals in four separate cycle events, she’s conducted dozens of media interviews, carried the flag at the Paralympic Closing Ceremony and been cheered through the streets of London on the Team Parade before being interviewed on national television in front of Buckingham Palace, alongside the legendary Sir Chris Hoy.
And that’s before she’s fed her celebrated cat, watered the plants and spent some quality time with her devoted husband and fellow cyclist, Barney.
“The time after the Games has been a whirlwind of events,” she tells me in between mouthfuls of a tasty looking bacon-butty. “I can get to 3 or 4 events a day if I’m really organised.”
Proof of this high calibre organisation was that later that day, after the ride, she and Barney would be heading up to Manchester Metropolitan University for an award ceremony. “If you look in my diary, there are only a few days when I’ve got nothing going on,” she says.
Right! So what does she do on the quiet days? “Oh, that’s when I might do some girly shopping or something a bit different,” she tells me, “but everything is about keeping the momentum – it really helps.”
This is clearly a woman who never stops challenging herself. I wondered what the next one might be.
“Today!” she said, finishing the last of her bacon butty. “I haven’t ridden 100 miles since the last time I did the Deloitte Ride Across Britain.”
This did little to console me, bearing in mind I’d need to keep up with her if I was to get a decent impression of who she was.
IMPORTANCE OF DELOITTE RAB
The Deloitte RAB, devised and delivered by Threshold Sports, the company co-founded by Olympic-rowing-legend-cum-adventurer, James Cracknell, first took place in 2010 and has become an annual mass participation cycle event between the iconic hotspots of Land’s End and John O’Groats. Over the course of nine days, approximately 700 riders cover a hefty 100 plus miles a day, being able to tick off from their bucket list what is arguably the UK’s premier long distance cycling event.
When I arrived at Haydock Park Racecourse, near Wigan – the staging post between Stages 4 and Stage 5 – I was gobsmacked. Where normally there would have been horses, jockeys and spectators, there was now a small village of tents and cycles. The paddock area was a hive of concurrent activity as weary cyclists showered before dinner whilst others were having sports massages, eating, tinkering with their bike, etc. But they all had on thing in common. Everyone was smiling.
That’s probably because Threshold Sports take care of everything for you, from food and accommodation through to online training plans and massages at the end of the day. Nick Tuppen, Head of Events at Threshold, later explained to me “There’s no lugging heavy kit, no need for complex route planning and no worry about where you will sleep each night. We have a crew of over 160 who ensure that when your bike, body or stomach begin to grumble we’re there with exactly what you need when you need it.”
It sounds too good to be true. But it isn’t and Sarah can testify to that, in her capacity as a Deloitte RAB Ambassador. “Besides being an incredible challenge”, she says, “it’s one that allows me as a Paralympic athlete to get closer to those that are supporting us to raise the funds.”
A year ahead of schedule, the event has so far raised a mind boggling £1 million for the British Paralympics Association, which greatly helped the British Paralympians at this year’s games.
“It has played a major part in my training…and in my psyche over the last few years. And to be able to come right off the back of such a successful games and straight here is something that’s a real privilege. Last night was the first group of people I’ve talked to since the Games.” She was referring to the previous evening when she and Barney spoke to the 500 weary but happy cyclists during the daily rider briefing, after which she received a standing ovation amidst roars of support.
“That’s obviously apart from the people on the Mall where I spoke with Sir Chris Hoy,” she modestly added, failing to hide a wry smile. .
THE HEAVENS OPENED
Sarah had another interview to give that morning before she headed out. So I arranged to meet her at first checkpoint, some 30 odd miles into our 104-mile ride north to Penrith and our next resting place, Hutton-in-the-Forest. A ride that, by the looks of things, was going to be very wet.
An element I particularly liked in this event was the provision of expert chaperone guides for all the groups of riders. For many, this was not only their first multi-stage event, but their first long distance cycle ride, so the chaperones played a crucial role in giving support to some of the more weary cyclists.
So I wouldn’t be on my todd, I was assigned to Brian Jenkins, a former soldier from the Royal Engineers. Having served myself for six years in the Royal Artillery, we quickly fell into a conversation about our army days before chatting about the event and his role in it.
Brian explained how many of the cyclists by this stage, had formed into chain gangs comprised of riders of a similar ability. His job was to make sure they finished. In words that sounded like something out of a Vietnam War movie, he told me that his ‘only rule is that no one gets left behind’.
As if by magic, an hour or so into into the ride we came across about a dozen riders huddled on the side of the road, shaking in the cold rain whilst they hugged cups of tea brought out by a kindly resident. Their chaperone, we discovered, had fallen foul of a mechanical issue.
In a very soldier-like fashion, Brian quickly gathered them up, instructing them to put foil blankets under their jackets in order to keep in the warmth, before appointing me as ‘tail man charlie’. In other words, I was to bring up the rear. I agreed, rather begrudgingly, as I realised that our average speed was about to drop from a balmy 20 mp/h down to heart stopping 11 or 12mp/h.
However, cold began to bite into my legs and I desperately needed to crack on at a faster speed, so after an hour or so, I said farewell in order to catch up with Sarah at the first checkpoint – our prearranged rendezvous point.
As we settled into the ride, I was curious to know if there was any competition between Sarah and her award winning husband, Barney who was one of the world’s best sprint tandem pilots. He had picked up a Gold and Silver as Neil Fachie’s pilot in the London Games, to add to his existing tally of two other Golds from the Beijing Olympics. .
“I think neither of us have anything to prove to each other, so in a sense, there is no element of competition, other than the usual friendly banter and jokiness you get on any team.”
“The number of times that he’s been with me at a road time trial, faffed with my position, helped me with my bike, given me a setup that I feel completely happy with and able to ride like you wouldn’t know that I was handling the bike with a hoop and brakes on one side.”
*****explain hoop. Having been born without a hand, Sarah has a customised bike that allows her to handel it. although this has never stopped her from winning a staggering array of titles, many of them able bodied.
Moments later, as if on cue, Barney who was following us in their car, drove up level with Sarah, anticipating that she wasn’t happy with something on her bike. She was distractedly looking at her chain set, having trouble with her gears.
“He’s the practical bike man” she explained after we’d stopped at side of the road whilst he efficiently assessed the problem with her bike. “I’m the business person. I run the day to day stuff on Team Storey Sport – the motivational speaking, the finance side of things. So he knows that if he’s gone out and bought something for my bike, I’ll pay the bill at some point.”
With a smile and a glint in his eye, Barney gave her wheel a customary spin before handing the bike back to her. “And I know that my bike will be working,” she says beaming with pleasure, “so we have this partnership.” And it’s clearly a good one, at that!
Although Sarah was born without a fully functioning left hand that had become entangled in the umbilical cord whilst in the womb, her staggering array of titles proves that she has never let this get in her way.
“Nutrition and sleep are absolutely key” she explained to me as I thought back to some of the less experienced riders out with us. “It’s no different to any elite athlete having to look after themselves. As the training and fatigue accumulates, so does the loss of judgement and concentration – and on a bike that’s incredibly dangerous.”
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