Emma Pooley interview part 1: “A PhD all winter isn’t going to make me ride well in the spring”
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Monday, November 12, 2012

Emma Pooley interview part 1: “A PhD all winter isn’t going to make me ride well in the spring”

by Ben Atkins at 2:15 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
Former World time trial champion talks about her reasons for signing with Bigla as she looks back at 2012

emma pooleyEmma Pooley has been one of the top riders in the women’s peloton for several years but, as news broke that her AA Drink-Leontien.nl team was set to fold at the end of this year, there seemed to be a real possibility that she was about to walk away from the sport. With a PhD in geotechnical engineering to complete this winter, the 30-year-old recently signed with small Swiss team Bigla; VeloNation caught up with Pooley during one of her study breaks to discuss her reasons.

“I think there was a lot in the media because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do this year,” she explained. “I didn’t read all of the articles but I think it was interpreted as ‘Pooley’s going to quit’, but that wasn’t exactly my decision; I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do next year.”

Although 2012 was not Pooley’s best year so far, in terms of results - slipping from seventh to 12th in the UCI ranking - she was obviously going to be a rider in demand. Her winter commitment to finishing the PhD that has been put off since she first entered the professional women’s peloton meant that she felt unable to take up one of the many offers, however.

“I had lots of calls from teams that were maybe wanting someone who wasn’t riding a full programme, a lot of the smaller teams,” Pooley said. “It was really nice: it made me feel like someone was interested in me, but it took a while to work out what I wanted to do really; what would work with my study, and cycling, doing both at the right level.

“I didn’t want to commit myself to doing too much early on next year; I know I won’t be fit really early. It’s horrible; I hate admitting that I’m not going to be in good shape, but working on a PhD all winter isn’t going to make me ride well in the spring.”

The small Bigla team, which is looking to steadily improve in the coming years as its crop of young Swiss riders develops, turns out to be a good fit for the British rider.

“I think so,” she agreed. “That’s why I’ve signed with them. I think - especially because they’re local; a Swiss team; I live in Switzerland; it makes life so much easier. It’s a small team in some ways, but they’ve got a lot of... they’ve got a proper history; it’s been a major team in the past; they know about international racing; they know about dealing with prima donnas like me [laughs] and they want to step up a bit.

“So for me it’s a perfect combination; so I step down a bit, and the young team steps up a bit,” she continued. “I’ll do a combination of international races and some Swiss races, and nearby races in Germany and Italy. I think it means I can do a good race programme without being committed early on to doing World Cups that I’ll just get dropped in.

“I think it’s a perfect combination, and I’m really grateful to them for offering me the opportunity, because they’re a Swiss team - and it’s been a Swiss development team for a few years - and they don’t need to offer a place to some foreign rider [laughs].

More than being Swiss, the entire team organisation is based in the German speaking area, close to Pooley’s home in the city of Zurich. Even bike sponsor BMC is in the region, although this proximity isn’t such an issue in such a small country.

“Switzerland’s tiny, you can get anywhere on the train in two hours!” Pooley laughed.

A new team means a different bike for the first time in four years

emma pooleyThe move to BMC bikes will see Pooley move away from the Cervélo that she has been riding since 2009; as one of the smallest riders in the peloton, the Briton has always ridden the smallest full-size wheeled road frame available, but has used a 650c-wheeled time trial bike where commonality of wheel size is less of an issue.

BMC doesn’t currently make a 650c version of its time trial frames, but Pooley is confident that this won’t be an issue.

“I’m sure they’ll find a way to make a bike fit me,” she said. “They wouldn’t be sponsoring the team if they didn’t want to make it work; I think BMC are pretty keen to demonstrate that their bikes are good…

“I always find it difficult changing bikes because you get used to a frame and you know how it works, and how to set it up, but it’s part of the job and I’m confident that BMC can make their time trial bikes fit me,” she added.

“It’ll be a lot less of a pain in the arse in some ways, not having a 650, I always have to worry about taking my own tubes on rides and things…”

With the step down in teams will also come a step down in the level of races that Pooley will be able to ride in 2013. The highest-level races that non-UCI registered teams like Bigla can ride are 1.2 or 2.2, which means that she will have to sit out the Giro Donne - where she has finished second in the last two years - and all of the World Cups.

This will not be a problem in the spring, where Pooley is expecting to be out of shape after a winter of studying, but in August she might find herself casting envious glances at the bigger teams as they travel to places like Plouay, where she has won twice.

“Maybe,” she agreed. “Maybe, but that would be a good thing. I think I might get to the middle of the season and wish I was doing World Cups.

“That might be a good thing I think, because I definitely want to have a year that’s held back a bit… I think I want to carry on through and try and race in Rio [2016 Olympics - ed], and I think a year [that’s] a bit easier, with - in inverted commas - a bit less pressure; it might be good, and then come back with new enthusiasm to do World Cups and things again.

“It’s not like I did very many of them this year... three or four… finished two… I don’t know.”

2012 doesn’t look so bad with the benefit of hindsight

emma pooleyMuch of the speculation that Pooley was set to quit the sport seemed to stem from the fact that she seemed to end the 2012 season with such low morale. For a rider with six World Cup victories to her credit, the season was a little lighter - in terms of wins - that usual, but it can surely not be regarded as unsuccessful.

“Looking back it wasn’t disastrous,” she conceded. “I think I did feel the pressure of looking forward to the Olympics. It’s such a long build up, and it’s on your mind for so long, that I think it made the season a bit harder in some ways.

“It sounds really wussy,” she laughed. “I don’t want to sound pathetic, but it was undeniably the focus of the season and I didn’t do as well in Beijing in terms of actual ranking - I think it was a better ride in some ways…

“At the World championships I just felt like I’d had a really shit season, and I was really ready to just go on holiday, which I did!”

Pooley’s main problem seemed to be that, in virtually every race she was aiming at, she was to come across an almost unstoppable Marianne Vos.

“Looking back, it wasn’t that bad,” said Pooley. “I mean, I came second in the Giro again, and that was without really targeting the Giro, so it can’t have been that bad. The year before, the Giro had been the aim of the year and I’d only come second… I think you need a bit of luck, and it was just lacking.

“I think I spent a lot of the season worrying that I wasn’t in the right shape, and maybe I was, but just worrying about it is enough to make you obsessed, and unhappy and miserable.”

Bad luck in some of the season’s early races knocked Pooley’s confidence, which had a knock on effect in some of those that followed.

“I think, especially after Flèche Wallonne, I should have been in great shape…” she explained. “I had two crashes and that kind of screwed the race up. Some people say you make your own luck, and I shouldn’t have crashed twice [laughs], but it wasn’t really my fault - either of them - but that should have been a chance to show that I was in good shape and when you don’t have the race results to show it then you begin to doubt your own form; even if it’s not through lack of ability…”

Those two Flèche crashes saw both of Pooley’s race bikes broken; the second as it was run over by a race moto.

“By the time I’d crashed out of Flèche Wallonne I was seriously stressed, and convinced I was shit!

“That worry was always there,” she explained. “I think I should have been training with a power meter; that would have made life a lot better and then I could have maybe seen the numbers.”

Team success, but no personal success, at London 2012

While the London Olympic Games were a huge source of stress for much of the peloton, for Great Britain’s women the road race went almost as well as it had done in Beijing four years earlier. Pooley’s role was a similar one once again, as she wore down the peloton on behalf of her team leader with a succession of attacks.

In Beijing Nicole Cooke took gold, while London saw Lizzie Armitstead narrowly beaten into silver by an unstoppable Vos.

Pooley herself punctured close to the finish, preventing her from taking any personal result from the race, but hers was one of the biggest smiles as she rode down the Mall in the knowledge that Armitstead had taken her medal.

“To be honest [the puncture] didn’t make a lot of difference,” she admitted. “Where am I going to come in to a bunch sprint at the end of a race where I’d already done a lot of work..? I really wasn’t fussed then, because I knew the break would stay away; no one was going to bring it back then, because all the teams had stopped chasing. I’d done my job, and I really didn’t care about the puncture at the end.

“I cared about the puncture at the start, but it wasn’t a disaster…”

Conditions in the race - coincidentally so similar to those of Beijing - meant that she was in a hurry to get going again in many ways, however.

“I was frozen!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t really care about the wheel, I just wanted my jacket! ‘It’s in the team car! I want to carry on, but my jacket’s just there! Please’

“Bloody freezing, it was!

“Always seems to happen. Olympic road races: miserable weather!”

For Pooley, the experience in London was very different to that of Beijing, and not only because of the fact that it was her home games.

“The road race was remarkably similar actually,” she said. “In both races I was really pleased because I felt that, one: good result - I mean, you could say that we should have won the road race, but look at Vos; it’s hard to deny that she deserved it - she won just about everything. ‘Only silver’ is a bit like gold if you ignore Vos!

“I think we, as a team did a great job in both races, and it’s always nice - when you get a team result - to feel that you’ve done your job well. So in both of them I was really pleased.

“In terms of the whole experience, it was very different,” Pooley explained, “because at Beijing I was just delighted to be selected, it was a new experience and not much expectation, and did relatively well, given my level of experience. Then in London, I think there was definitely more expectation, for myself as well as generally, which was unavoidable; we’d trained for four years and there was lots more experience, so I should be a better rider…

“So you kind of expect the result to be better - I’m talking about the time trial here - and it wasn’t. You could blame the course, but that’s kind of a bit lame; in terms of expectations and performance, it was the other way round! It was much less fun, but I knew what to expect, because I knew what the course was like, but that doesn’t make it any better…”

Sixth place was widely regarded as a disappointment for Pooley, having taken the silver medal in Beijing. The course had not suited her, but then neither had the World championship course in Copenhagen in 2011, where she had taken bronze.

“Yeah, in Copenhagen it was really flat!” she laughed. “I think the thing about the Copenhagen course was that it had a lot of corners, and it was wet; you had to slow down for every corner and then accelerate, and basic mechanics and physics teaches you that acceleration’s much easier if you weigh less. So, any course with hills, or lots of corners where you have to slow down suits me.

“The London course had four corners, and you didn’t have to slow down for any of them.

“But I hate whinging like a loser,” she added. “I didn’t ride quick enough; lots of people were quicker; the Worlds course was bumpy and still I didn’t get a medal, so, you know…”

Click here for part two of our exclusive interview with Emma Pooley, where she talks about World championship disappointment, the state of the women’s sport, and running her debut marathon faster than Lance Armstrong’s.


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