Words by Abigail Cramp
We caught up with female Olympic Gold medallist and World Champion, Dani King, for a glimpse into the life of a professional cyclist to find out just what it takes to be the best.
For many of us, the dream of riding away with an Olympic Gold medal will be nothing more than just that, a dream. Becoming the 2011 World Champion and taking home the gold from the 2012 Summer Olympics, twenty-six-year-old Dani King has achieved an incredible amount during her cycling career.
Currently riding for Cylance Pro Cycle team, Dani's 2017 season has been a mixed bag of juggling her race schedule and focusing on her coaching company, Rowe and King, which she runs with her fiancé, Matthew Rowe and soon to be brother in law, Luke Rowe. I was intrigued to get her insights and advice using her personal experiences on what makes a professional cyclist and how someone with natural talent and drive could follow in her footsteps or, more specifically, her cadence.
Putting all of her eggs in one basket
"Cycling was never a hobby for me" - Dani King
I unknowingly began my interview seeking a simple answer to the question, could anyone become a pro? Could there be an elite formula us mere mortals are not privy to and with the right answers, would you suddenly wake up in the morning with your destiny forever changed?
I will admit, after we began speaking, I very quickly realised that for Dani, there was no lightbulb moment when she began cycling. She admitted it had been a gradual process since first being tested by British Cycling when she was just 14 years old and progressing through each stage. Her love of sport stems from her upbringing with particular influence from her family (which includes her winter bi-athlete father) who inspired her from an early age. “We did loads of different clubs, activities and sports and without them driving us there is no way that I would have been influenced into the sport in the first place". Having always enjoyed cycling and having a competitive nature, Dani put all her eggs into one basket and went for it admitting there was never a backup plan or a Plan B.
Training and fitness
For many of us who sit at a desk or have full-time obligations, we often find ourselves asking; what do you need to put in to achieve big? Dani has always been active and is no stranger to a high-intensity workout, so she didn’t have to increase training too much after she finished her A-levels and began her training full time at the age of 18.
Racing at a lower level she admitted, had never been an option. “I just wanted to go out and win everything and become the best that I could be." Today, her 6 times a week training schedule is demanding although she allows herself on one complete day’s rest although, to begin with, it was a maximum of 4 hours' training in one day. When she began track cycling, it was more of a mix between double sessions and specific turbo sessions which she has altered and changed as her career has evolved.
No more “junk miles"
“Stop being scared to push yourself outside of your comfort zone." - Dani King
For many of us amateur athletes, it is difficult to know how best to climb up onto the next rung on the ladder, particularly if there is a natural physical ability already in place. As each person is different, Dani bases it all on personal circumstances; how much time you have to train, what your goals are and where you want to get to within cycling.
“I think the best advice I can give would be that a good cycling coach can bring a lot out in someone. So, make sure you have a good coach that knows what they are talking about in terms of what training you are doing because just going out and riding your bike isn’t going to be enough to get the most out of yourself. You need to train specifically for what the event demands that you want to do well in. Don’t be afraid to get out with your local cycling club, even if it is male dominated. I did a lot of training with the guys and they really brought me on. I found there weren't many girls that rode or at least rode around where I lived so I just got stuck in with the men which were helpful to me. They are a bit stronger which is better because I was always chasing or trying to hang on to them"
Disappointingly, it doesn’t seem like the most expensive bike, food, supplements or gear can help you fake it to the top either. It’s all about knowing yourself and finding out how to mould yourself into an athlete...
“I think it’s everything really. British cycling used to focus on marginal gains so a bit of everything can really make a difference. It’s not having the best gels or the best nutrition or the best bike, it’s a collective of all the small things. You can do a lot without having to spend much on a bike, people can have great nutrition with normal foods. I guess it’s just doing the research with what you can do to help yourself. Our coaching company, Rowe and King, found that working with a lot of amateurs who want to improve, is that people are stuck in their ways of “more is better" or “junk miles" as we say".
You are what you eat
Before seeking nutritional advice, the first question you will need to ask yourself is are you cycling on the track or the road? Remember, weight on the road is a lot more important than on the track, as Dani has learnt in the last couple of years as her road bike career has progressed. If you are committed to road cycling, you will need to adjust your diet and nutrition as the power to weight ratio becomes crucial on the road. On the track, however, you can get away with carrying a bit more weight for additional power.
Diet can have a huge impact on performance and a medical professional or a registered nutritionist can help you get on the right path that best aligns with your goals. “Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love my food and treating myself every now and again and I think that is really important as you can get really obsessed with it. I think it can and has been a problem in women’s cycling before; just trying to focus on being as light as you can be and I don’t think that’s healthy either. It’s all about fuelling properly in order to train and recover effectively. While I would say it's a big part of my life, at the same time I do let myself have what I want every now and again."
Embrace the pain
What makes athletes who they are? According to Dani, it's all about embracing the pain and the feeling of pushing harder and further every day. She is not superstitious, there are no pre-race traditions, no mantras or words of wisdom to help her out of the pain cave. “Weirdly I just love the pain. If I picture myself, especially during training, you are inflicting it on yourself whereas in a race other people are inflicting the pain on you in some way."
Downtime is important
When Dani isn’t training, racing or coaching she focuses her attention on activities outside of cycling to keep her mind healthy. Despite not ever having a backup if her career didn’t work out, she has always focused a great deal on making sure she completed her education and is currently studying an Open University Degree. Having her friends around to help her switch off is equally vital as her food-loving nature would suggest, they generally end up with an activity around a meal. She has also recently taken up HotPod yoga to unwind with best friend and fellow Olympian, Becky James.
Now is the time for women’s cycling, so get involved!
There may be a long way to go for gender equality in cycling but in Dani’s opinion, the sport is only getting stronger. “I feel like there is a massive difference, the industry has definitely got better since I started. More women are being paid, there are more races now that are being run parallel to the men’s which I think is the way forward personally- all the infrastructure is there. For example, this year we had a Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Le Samyn de Dames the Amstel Gold Women’s Race and they work really well because we have all the crowds and the coverage out already for the men. This ultimately is the future of women’s cycling."
“We ride pretty quick. It’s quite good actually, I think the last stage of the women’s tour was the same as the men and I think it was only a couple of km/hour slower which proves how strong we are. It’s always good to see."
In summary, we may not have what it takes to make it to Tokyo 2020 or even into anything more than just the local cycling team. However, I think it’s safe to say that Dani King is living proof that dedication and hard work will get you where you want to be, and definitely not to think small.
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