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Riding with Claire Steels: Novice to World Champion in Ten Months

We went for a ride with Claire to hear all about her incredible journey

Picture this: you take up cycling whilst searching for a new hobby (breaking your hand in a hockey match early on in the new love affair with the bike), enter a couple of Duathlon races (once the hand is healed, obviously). You qualify for the World Championships in the spring and you’re a World Champion by October. And then you do it all again the next year.

That’s how it all happened for Claire Steels, a self-employed personal trainer from Stamford in Lincolnshire who represents Great Britain as an Age Group Duathlete (that’s the run, bike, run one).

A Whistle Stop Guide to Your First Triathlon

Claire in her GBR skinsuit. She's an ambassador for Sundried Premium Athletic Wear
Claire in her GBR skinsuit. Image: Sundried Premium Activewear
  • Age-Group Duathleltes and Triathletes are amateur athletes who race at European and World Championships, competing against others in their age category. Senior Categories start at 20-24 and go up to 80+
  • Claire Steels’ results:
  • 1st 25-29 Duathlon World Championships an Adelaide, Australia in October 2015
  • 2nd 30-34 European Duathlon Championships in Kalkar, Germany in April 2016
  • 1st 30-34 World Championships in Avilés, Spain in June 2016

Claire – who is an ambassador for Sundried activewear – has a background in hockey and running. Cycling represented an entirely new challenge for her when she walked into a bike shop and bought a Specialized Dolce before her first races in 2015.

Travelling up to the flat (but incredibly windy, it seems) lands of Stamford to ride with Claire and her coach Mark Griffin last week, one of the first things she says to me as we clip in is “I still don’t know that much about bikes!” Clearly she’s pretty good at riding them, I comment as we zoom off up the first gentle incline and my heart starts beating far too hard for easy conversation.

Cycling turned out to be a sport where Claire was naturally talented, but still had plenty of room for improvement. That represented a clear carrot for the goal driven athlete who tells me herself: “I’m in a very different category mentally [to most people]! I’m very competitive, but with myself as well. I have to know that I’ve done my best in every situation.”

In what way a ‘different category’, I ask?

Well – firstly she did race so hard at one event that she was actually sick. I’ve always considered that a bit of a mental line that you see Olympians cross, whilst most of us just settle with ‘felt sick’ during an event or interval. But she’s also in a ‘different category’ in a way I reckon most female cyclists or athletes will identify with: “My friends will often say ‘you need to make time for yourself – not training’! There’s that feeling of your relaxing time should be you sat in a spa, someone painting your nails – to me that isn’t relaxing. I’d find smashing myself on a 3 hour ride a lot more relaxing. Mentally it would help me a lot more to work all the stress out on the bike. See a hill and try to drive up it, that’s rewarding for me.”

TWC goes riding with Claire Steels on the roads around Stamford in Lincolnshire

Elaborating on the ‘don’t know much about bikes’ comment, Claire explains that coming into cycling, the gear and tech side of the conversation was what she found most difficult (as well as getting her head around 3 to 4 hour rides, eating on the bike and coffee stops). She comments: “The knowledge side of things is still quite intimidating. There’s that feeling in cycling that you cant go on a group ride unless you’re Castelli head to toe, on a £5k bike – it’s almost like you get judged on your kit rather than what your legs can do.”

“When I went to my first race… I’ve never felt so out of place. But only really because of the opinion I was putting on myself. Everyone was very friendly and very encouraging.”

Of course, the degree to which you feel that in cycling will vary depending on how lucky you get with your first cycling club – but Duathlon never felt exclusive to Claire. Even as a two time World Champion, she still holds the community of her sport above all else, commenting: “Duathlon is probably the friendliest sport in the entire world. When I went to my first race… I’ve never felt so out of place. But only really because of the opinion I was putting on myself. I didn’t really know what I was doing but everyone was very friendly and very encouraging. People showed me how to rack my bike, where to register, and just told me to do my best.”

Why is the Gender Balance in Triathlon so Much More Equal?

Participants at races all over the UK vary dramatically. Claire comments: “[In Duathlon and Triathlon] for a lot of people it’s about taking part. Like when people cross the finish line, you’ll see 60, 70, 80 year olds doing these races, that’s so inspiring and incredible. Even at World Champs, there’s a really big feeling of ‘it’s amazing to just be here, and to have qualified’. There’s still an element of people are there to win and do well but there’s not that elitism that you might expect.”

Qualifying for the World Championships (and beyond)

Claire is also an ambassador for SealSkinz - watch her incredible video journey here
Claire is also an ambassador for SealSkinz – watch her incredible video journey here

Claire qualified for the World Championships after placing well at her second race. That’s got to be both massively exhilarating, but also absolutely terrifying, right? Claire tells me: “When I qualified I emailed Mark like ‘erm, you’ll never guess what’s happened! We’ve got A LOT of work to do!’ – and there’s that need to reassure yourself that it wasn’t just a fluke as well. That was in the back of my mind all the time from when I qualified – that it was only because someone else punctured, was injured or had a bad day.”

Of course, that wasn’t the case – Claire won. Then she qualified again for the 2016 World Championships, and won her age group there, too.

Having done so much, in such a short space of time has to give way to the question: ‘what’s next’?

For Claire, as an experienced runner, improving on her 10k and 5k times would involve a lot of work for small gains in time, whilst she knows the same amount of dedication and time put into her cycling could pay greater dividends. Having come just outside of the top 20 in the 25 Mile National Time Trial Championship, she’d consider putting a focus on the solo cycling sport, saying: “Sometimes I love running, but other times I find myself favouring cycling. And the good thing about the bike is you can go out for 3 to 4 hours and go so far and see so much. It’s freedom, alone time. If I were to race just on the bike… I might try a few road races but I find being in a bunch nerve racking, whilst I really enjoy Time Trials – I’d rather sit there for an hour at threshold than do lots of little sprints.”

Long distance Duathlon, where the run portion typically becomes a marathon in total, is another option, but that requires a leap of faith – Claire says: “I am really tempted by the long distance, but I’d have to mentally separate the two races. If I wanted to go into a race like that and do well I’d have to target training to that distance, and I’d still want to go to a standard distance and be quick… you cant have best of both worlds.”

How does a Personal Trainer Train for their own events?

Claire and her coach, Mark
Claire and her coach, Mark

Claire is pretty much always moving. Working as a PT, she’ll often be in the gym from 6am, then with longer ‘free time’ slots in the middle of the day before clients begin to rock up around 5pm after their work day is done. That means she’s got some nice gaps for training time in the middle of the day, but often doesn’t finish until 9pm, just in time to get home and do it all again.

With a knowledge of the physiology and psychology of an athlete she understands the benefits of having a coach with an objective view set her training. She’s been coached by Mark Griffin right from the very beginning (they took a short break when she broke her hand soon after buying her first bike, to resume training soon after). She explains: “Resting is last thing I want to do. I’ll squeeze extra session in, or do extra miles. So I have to hand all my training over to Mark. [If I was self coached] I’d injure myself or do too much, and I have to remember it’s quality over quantity. I’d say the same to my clients, but it’s hard when it’s yourself.”

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Mark coaches four athletes, giving each personalised training plans. He knows there are a lot of coaches with many more athletes on the books, and comments: “[There are some online coaches] where you give someone £100 a month for training and you get a cut and paste plan. I’ve got two athletes who have come from that sort of training structure [but it doesn’t work as well]. You can give four people that you think are the same the same training schedule, and everyone will tackle it differently, approach it mentally differently. The personal side of it is so much bigger than the training side.”

Asked for his tips for aspiring athletes – either multisport or cyclists – he gives me some key principles:

Use your time wisely

“[People often think] that you have to be out for 15 to 16 hours a week to be good. But it’s all about making the most of the time you’ve got. If you only have 4 hours a week to get better then you need to train differently – at a higher intensity. If you go out and ride seven hours a week at a steady pace, you’ll become very good at riding seven hours a week at a steady pace. You’ll turn yourself into a really effective tortoise. Then you want to go faster and you wont be able to because your body becomes used to that training. The longer you do that the harder it is to pull yourself out of it. Even this time of year I have athletes doing interval sessions, and if you don’t have a coach there are loads of great sessions online – check out Sufferfest or Trainer Road.”

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Be honest and realistic

“You’ve got to be honest with yourself about how much time you have to train a week. You might think you’ve got 10 hours, but then two weeks in [to your plan] when your partner wants to cut your head off and you haven’t seen your kids for a week ‘cos you’re in the garage all the time [you’ll realise you don’t]. You have to be honest about time you have, and what you can expect to do with that.”

How to Actually Plan Training and Stick to It

“Probably one of the biggest mistakes amateur sports people make is when they have a bad day, going harder the next day. As a coach I know what they need to do tomorrow is stay in bed! You’re better to miss one day tomorrow than whole of next week. People talk a lot about the benefits of rest and recovery – but still ignore it.”

Next up for Claire will be the European Duathlon Championships, and then she’ll work towards the World Duathlon Championships in Canada, taking place in August 2017. We wish her all the best!

Claire is an ambassador for Sundried Activewear – check out their range here.

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