Seven years ago, I first brought a group of junior riders out to Belgium. My aim was not just get them to race but also to inspire them. They got to wear leaders & QOM jerseys at the stage race they raced but we also rode all the famous cobbled climbs & went to the Flanders Cycling Museum. As we walked round the museum & watched videos of famous riders making the break up the Paterberg I never for one second imagined that could be me.
On Saturday as we turned into the Paterberg I was fifth wheel; I gave a kick to get around two riders & dived into the gutter. I turned around and there were just three of us left. Riding up at 450w all I thought was ‘wow this is amazing!’.
Ok it wasn’t Flanders, but it was a UCI race, Leiedel Koerse which is effectively the Women’s version of E3.
I finished 4th. I was gutted to be honest. Which is ridiculous. It was a fantastic ride against World Tour opposition but its always tough when you are millimetres away from the podium. I have spent over a decade working in a sporting system where 4th is a disaster. It could literally cost you millions of pounds. But I think back to how annoyed I would get when a junior rider placed 4th at their first major championship with a PB and the staff were downbeat. I was always insistent we had to celebrate a PB performance and for me Saturday was that.
Now from that group of riders I brought over one is racing for a World Tour team, a couple at Continental teams but at least half are in other jobs or walks of life now. I’m proud of the young people they have turned into but the irony of me being the one racing now did get me thinking.
Often cycling teams are desperate to sign the next big thing. But as a coach sometimes you see that fear of missing out means they overlook weaknesses and then develop unrealistic expectations of a rider.
The older rider is an undervalued commodity these days.
I first spoke to Simon Howes our DS at DAS-Handsling about joining the team in 2020. We had been in lockdown with only time trials up and running in the UK. I knew my numbers were getting good and I solidified this with third at the National Hill Climb Championships. But I could see he wasn’t interested in signing me for the UCI team. The potential of younger riders was more exciting...the next Remco or at least the female equivalent. I must add that he did offer me a spot on his development team but I had some conflicts of interest that meant that didn't work at the time. Now I joke to him…” imagine if we’d started back then”. I wouldn’t change it as I got to coach at the Olympics instead which was amazing, but I still like to wind him up!
To me the Bernal, Pogacar, Remco stories of the youngster coming in and winning straight away have been done. When we go to the cinema, we also love to watch films where the old ‘has been’ returns with success like Top Gun Maverick. Indeed, the highest grossing Rocky film wasn’t Rocky it was Rocky IV. What makes these films good is that success feels more unlikely so when it comes it feels even better.
I’ve recently found that listening to rap musical works for me pre-race. I have one track which is an American Football motivational track and one of the phrases is ‘I’m like a fine wine, I get better with age’. When I look back many of my sporting influences were older athletes who achieved their peaks later in the sport.
My brother & I followed Manchester United passionately as children through the golden Triple era where they won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the ’99 season. I idolised Teddy Sheringham. He was 32 at the time but I thought he was amazing. He wasn’t the fastest striker and he was certainly a player who peaked later in his career. He was super smart and he could come on as a substitute and change a game in seconds. When it came to England duty I wasn’t half as excited watching the young speed of Michael Owen. I was just sat waiting for Teddy to get on the pitch and surprise everyone. Teddy holds the record for the oldest goal scorer in the premier league as it turns out aged 40 years 8 months and 24 days while Michael Owen retired at 34.
Maybe it’s not just these type of influences that have inspired me to race as an older rider. Maybe its genetic. My brother was recently called up for the North of England Over 35s Hockey team so perhaps we are like Teddy, we peak a little later. My brother was a massive sporting inspiration to me as a youngster mainly because he beat me at everything! But its interesting to see is it nature or is it nurture and are we just bouncing off each other again as we did as kids.
As an older rider, let’s say over 30 if you are racing, you know your why as I referenced in my first blog The Last Chance Saloon. You are potentially making big life changes or holding off having a family, so you are going to commit 100%. Cycling isn’t football, it’s not like you can sell a rider on for millions of pounds. Most teams get a couple of years out of a rider so why does age matter? Surely it should be on merit not just potential.
In the last few years British Cycling developed something called Elite Development Status for British teams. This I think was intended to recognise the best teams to develop with as a rider. Last year I was within a team who had more riders over 30 and I was disappointed to see part of the criteria was that 50% of the team had to be under 28 to have this status. Encouraging teams to have U23 riders is vital, we need young riders being developed well in good teams but 28 cannot be regarded as a young rider. It simply penalises older riders and seems to me an arbitrary age plucked out of thin air. It is hard enough to find a team as an older rider, never mind with rules like this in place. We should be welcoming those who have come to the sport later, having had a break or from other sports or platforms like Zwift.
As I was in the break on Saturday there were four riders from the same World Tour team in our group of nine. As one of them tried to tell me I needed to do more work she said “we all started out like you, we know what its like”. I just smiled to myself, if only she knew! By comparison another girl in the break said “hey, I know you from the track!”…I just responded with “that was much easier than this!”. And in reality, I may be older but I’m in good working order, using a stopwatch doesn’t take that much toll on the body!
One of our Soigneurs with GB (My favourite 😉) always said you need hunger. The motivational speech “are you hungry?…do you want it?!” often heard as he joked but I don’t think was always joking! You can have no hunger at 21 and you can have lots of hunger at 41. Being young doesn’t mean you have more drive, from what I have seen some of my oldest teammates in the past have had the most drive.
Last week I spent four days coaching World Master’s riders out in Portugal and it was so motivating to see their desire and drive but also made me realise age really is no barrier. One guy had come back to cycling aiming to target the 75-80 category and learning to ride the track for the first time at 78. I mean by comparison early thirties is a whipper snapper!
I recently gave a talk to a group of athletes from Cambridge University and one woman asked what advice I would give to someone over 30 starting to race properly against all these younger riders. My response was that she would have more strength than she knew. You may not have youth, but you know your why and can pull from life experience, you get SO much mentally stronger. I am so much stronger as a person than I was in my early twenties. I wouldn’t want that angst & self-doubt again.
My pitch with this blog is that teams look at the potential bonuses of having older riders on the team just as I’m glad Simon did when we spoke again. Age is a number which makes it easy to compare rider to rider but what we should be doing is comparing the power numbers, the bunch positioning, the bike handling and what riders bring to the team. Momentum is what your looking for and that can come at any age. In a sport where there are no multi-million-pound transfers and where the danger is high from crashes no career is guaranteed to last years or be with the same team. Let’s not penalise riders for age. Let’s value that mental strength and that life experience because I have a sneaking suspicion Simon had as much fun behind the break on Saturday as he would have done if it was a young rider, in fact maybe more because neither him nor me expected to be there.
Many a former pro cyclist make the transition from rider to coach or DS but I can’t think of seeing many who go from coach back to rider but that is my current journey within the sport. As such I feel like I’m harnessing the energy of Benjamin Button, the character played by Brad Pitt who famously starts life an old man & ages in reverse getting younger by the day. Sadly, in my case the latter is not true, but I am operating in reverse order here.
Now there is a good reason why not many coaches do this, the most prominent probably being cake or beer. However, it is an entertaining experiment. Six weeks in & I’m getting a bit more dialled that at the start of the race I need to get on the bike rather than in the team car! For those of you who are familiar with ‘The Peter Crouch Podcast’ however, I am most certainly ‘parched’! (Check it out if you haven’t already).
Both rider & DS roles have their perks but I’m still working out which is more fun. In the rider corner is the thrill of the race for sure but with this comes significantly more in-race stress. While your battling crosswinds, climbs & fighting for position in driving rain the biggest stress your DS is going through is trying to wait until 12pm to eat the delicious sandwich the Swanny made which is calling at them from the musette hung around the back of their nice warm chair.
I mean being a DS is pretty fantastic, basically when your too old or slow to race you get to do the race but in a car, I mean whoever thought of this is a genius. Poor old Gareth Southgate is just stood on the touchline in a suit meanwhile your DS is eating gourmet sandwiches & imitating Colin McRae Rally on PlayStation One in real life in a four door family estate car. And yes, PS 1 is the only one I’m familiar with I’m that old.
Now the DS or Coach role is not without its challenges too. The main one being you don’t just have one person’s problems to contend with, you have the whole teams. Now these range from your standard rider turning up with a broken bike for example let’s say having no chainring bolts to more elaborate sagas such as riders breaking a drinking glass in the accommodation, dropping in the bin unwrapped & then your team leader slicing their leg open on the last stage of a stage race on the bin bag in question. Obviously, these are purely fictious examples 😉. This stress does slightly detract from the experience.
Riders generally have habits…one is forgetful, one is late, one cries a lot etc etc. I did once threaten to run an entire race trip mimicking the worst traits of every rider. I.e. ‘oh I must have forgotten to pick up the mechanic?!’ but I just couldn’t follow through with it.
Over the past six weeks I’ve ridden two UCI races in Spain, the latter Setmana Valenciana was a mix of joy & devastation. One day being in shock at 200m to go being on Elisa Balsamo’s wheel thinking "s*** I’m going to win" (spoiler…I didn’t win!) followed by 2 days later doing what I can only describe as a 20min uphill power test & then continuing for another three hours whilst in a world of pain to make the time cut. It’s been amazing to see all the things you notice as a coach from a distance up close. The strengths are even more impressive.
We have also had a couple of weekends of racing in the UK, always a delight in March! I somehow climbed to 4th on General Classification at the Peaks 2 day which incidentally if you mention this race to any DS or coach of a certain age, they will almost certainly start regaling stories of ‘Tour of the Peak’ back in the day. My husband being one of these. This weekend the British National Series kicked off with CiCLE Classic where I took 2nd from being in the day’s breakaway in what was probably more MTB race than road race in parts... I knew that XC NPS bronze medal at Drumlanrig Castle in 2006 would shine through at some point!
My research into which role is superior continues but what I can already confidently conclude is the best experience of all is getting the chance to do both, whether in the traditional Rider-Coach/DS style or in the somewhat rarer Benjamin Button format.
The Last cHANCE sALOON
On Saturday I rode my first UCI race at 33 years old. It was an action-packed debut. Every rider in a race has a different experience & the results never tell you the whole story.
For me on Saturday it involved multiple bike changes after a shunt from behind bent my rear mech early doors. I thought it was game over after 40km. There were points where we as a team had identified we wanted to be at the front (which we nailed!), there was wind…most of it in front of us but also some lined out cross wind sections thrown into the mix. At 30km to go we get the call from the team car that I’m to sprint today. Its early in our season so it’s a tough call, it’s not like I’m the proven quickest sprinter. No pressure. I start to get focused for the finish & the next thing I’m on the floor at 12km to go. I avoided the crash but sadly there was someone who wanted to join the party next to me so I’m on the floor. I pick my bike up, get my chain on & just keep moving up to the finish. Let me tell you it’s not reassuring to know your too far back & the whole Movistar team is driving the pace on the front. I cross the line 20th. It’s not a sensation or one to write a postcard home about but to me those 3 UCI points meant something.
I don’t need to be here. There is something quite liberating in that. I’m not trying to “make it”, I have no monkey on my back questioning will I be good enough. I have what I have & as we describe it in the Greenwood household, I’m in the last chance saloon.
As someone recently said to me every rider has their own journey. I think mine is quite unique. I raced as a junior, decent but not outstanding. My highlight was a bronze medal at the National Junior Road Race which also happened to be my first ever road race where I didn’t even know you could sprint on both sides of the road in the finish! I spent a few years crippled by self-doubt or dabbling trying to work & ride most of the time just exhausted. At 20 I stopped. I realised I didn’t have the financial backing, the coaching knowledge or the support structure around me to succeed so I wanted to succeed at something else.
As it turned out that was to be coaching & I’ve spent the last 12 years building the knowledge so that I can be that support that I didn’t have to someone else. To my surprise this culminated in one of the top jobs in cycling, Women’s Podium Endurance Coach for the GB Team. Leading the squad at the Tokyo Olympics to Gold in the Madison & Silver in the Team Pursuit will always be one of the proudest moments of my life.
I didn’t need to race a bike again. Quite frankly there’s probably more chance of losing reputation rather than gaining it. It makes no logical or financial sense. But the 15yo me wanted to race her bike more than I’ve ever wanted to do anything so I’m doing this now for her.
I love to commit to something. An ex-partner once said to me “you can never just dabble at something, it’s all in or nothing with you”. I’m not sure it was a compliment, but I think that’s true. I love to commit & to do the coaching job with GB as I wanted this year, I knew I would need to stop racing and even riding at all. I was getting up at 6am most mornings and skipping down to the turbo which told me everything I needed to know, I wasn’t ready to put the bike down. There were other factors, but it was one for sure. So, I did what I like to do, I changed my circumstances so I could commit. I’m still coaching riders, doing what I love but I can ride consistently & not spend half my life on the road without a bike. I think you should try to do everything you want in life & by some bizarre set of circumstances the opportunity came back like a boomerang.
Next week the level goes up another level. We race Setmana Ciclista in Valencia which will be highly populated by World Tour Teams. The parcours is hilly & in the words of my gym coach I’ve “got a good frame for bodybuilding” which I don’t think that makes a good climber!
It’s a strange sensation going from being DS or Coach back to rider. It feels a bit strange which I will share more about another time. I will simply try my best & I will embrace another drink in the last chance saloon.