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Interview: Dame Sarah Storey, GB’s most decorated female Paralympian

That terrible word ‘radiant’ is the greatest cliché of pregnancy, but Dame Sarah Storey really does look glowing and healthy when we sit down to chat in the very posh AldwychOne hotel.

Sarah meets Total Women’s Cycling!

We’re here because Dame Sarah has recently signed up as an ambassador for Cycle to Work Scheme provider Cyclescheme but first we kick off with a few questions from Total Women’s Cycling Facebook fans.

Getting started

I started out in sport as a child, I was 4 when I learnt to swim. I started in cycling as a way of keeping fit when I had ear infections and I couldn’t swim. It was a way of getting from A to B. I started using it as a way of commuting to training when I got back into swimming. It was very utilitarian really, it wasn’t specific training, just a way to stay fit, and then I got the bug as many people do with cycling.

Staying motivated

Motivation is easy when you are competing at the highest level and you’ve got lots of people to challenge you all the time. I’ve always loved sport and being motivated has never been a problem.

Even now I’m training as much as I possibly can do because I know that’s going to support both me and the baby now and afterwards.

Training and pregnancy

I have no plans at the moment to either stop before the birth or start afterwards, it’s all going to be about how my body is. Most athletes I’ve spoken to have trained right up to the birth. Some have even trained the day of the birth, depending on what time the baby decided to arrive.

For me, it’s just going to be continue with the routine I’ve got around the tiredness and fatigue that apparently sets in, and afterwards wait for the baby to be ready and for my body to be ready.

I’ve not had any cravings at all, I’ve not had any sickness, I don’t feel any different other than the fact that I’ve got a big belly. No banana pizza!

Family life

My family is essential to everything. Without my family I couldn’t do what I do. My husband Barney is a cyclist who won a gold medal in London as well, piloting the tandem and won two gold medals in Beijing.

Sarah with her husband Barney being interviewed at the London Paralympics. Image by David Jones, via Flickr.

Both our families, my parents and Barney’s parents are there every step of the way. We come back from an evening time trial on Wednesday night and mum and dad have made tea so we roll in the door at 9 o’clock and dinner’s on the table. They travel the world together watching us race.

We know that when baby Storey arrives we’ve got that support network that will more than happily push a pram while we race.

Two gold medals at Beijing; four in London

Every medal has it’s own great backstory. In Beijing, it was winning the first one just to get myself back up and running as it were. I’d won silver medals in 2004 and 2000 so I was 12 years not a paralympic gold medalist till I won in Beijing. It was very special to get that first one. There was a factor system employed because there were different disabilities going for the same gold medal, so it was not an easy thing to calculate. I ended up winning by only 23/100 second.

A couple of days later, out on the road was the first road time trial I’d done in a couple of years at that level. It was amazing to be part of that double gold medallist club. The team was just so successful in Beijing with 17 gold medals.

In Sarah’s eyes, the London Paralympics can never be beaten. Image by DancesWithLight’s, via Flickr.

In London, the crowd was just the most incredible crowd you could have ever imagined. Being able to compete in such a wide range of events from 500m through to the road race just showed us what was possible if we prepared as thoroughly as we had done through the previous few years. The focus we’d had for those four events was hard at times, but it was so rewarding when we got to the end and realised it was mission complete.

No-one will ever top London. We don’t need to concentrate on topping London now, we just need to try and win medals. London was an experience that will never be bettered.

Coming back after childbirth

Baroness Grey-Thomson did the London Marathon 10 weeks after giving birth. It’s baby permitting really, they are the priority, to make sure that they are sleeping well and feeding well. I’ve got no expectations, I’ll just take it as it comes. I’ll start again when my body is ready as well. There’s all sorts of complications  I could have. If i have a C-section it might take longer to recover, if I have stitches it might take longer. I’ve got to be able to sit on a saddle again!

Favourite food

Anything my mum’s made! My mum’s a great cook. If we’re having a birthday we always request a chocolate hedgehog cake which is chocolate cake with buttercream and chocolate buttons on. It’s awesome. When you’re training as hard as we do a treat like that is allowed.

Moving across to cycling

By the time i’d recovered from the ear infections I was already a world record holder on a bike. During the summer of 2005 I was trying to get myself fit for the Commonwealth Games swimming trials. There were two trials before Melbourne in August and December 2005. I eventually had to get a ‘sick note’ as it were from the first one, and hope I’d be fit for the second.

The weekend of the first trials was the European cycling championships. British Cycling were curious to see how I’d go over 3000m because I was down at the track just riding public taster sessions, just batting round with anyone who was there – it was great fun. They put me over 12 laps and I was a second outside the then world record. They said: “That’s all right considering the kit you ride and the preparation you’ve not had. Three weeks later  they selected me for the Europeans and I won the 3000m and broke the world record.

So I had a bit of a pedigree to make a decision. Both swimming and cycling teams wanted me on the program for the following year and it was my decision to switch.

Road to Rio

The serious campaign for Rio starts when you start the points qualification process, which is yet to be finalised by the UCI and the IPC. Once we know the qualification process, then we can put together a plan to pick up the points you need to get a place.

Tanni Grey-Thompson, one of the legendary female British athletes that came back stronger post pregnancy. Image by Photop.nl, via Flickr.

From an athlete’s point of view you’re always looking to make improvements. I’m not riding as fast at the moment, but my body is going through some physiological changes that could be quite useful. There is some good research to gest that women come back stronger from pregnancy so as well as my personal ambition to have a family it’s an exciting time looking forward to Rio.

We’ve got some great athletes who’ve had children and come back, Baroness Grey-Thompson, Paula Radcliffe, Liz McColgan and Nyree Kindredn who’s a swimmer who won silver in london, and now I’m pregnant, and Anna Watkins from the rowing team is pregnant. There’s another generation of mums to come on to the team.

Being a Cyclescheme ambassador

Storey has recently become an ambassador for Cyclescheme, the UK’s largest provider of bikes under the Cycle to Work Scheme.

For me it fits because if there’s more people riding bikes, there’s more people supporting us as athletes and understanding what we do and the healthier people will be, and we want people to be healthier.

There’s a personal connection because this is how I started in cycling, using the bike to get from A to B. So people can use the bike to get to work and then they’ll get the bug. We find the people who’ve got the bike through Cycle to Work and Cyclescheme start going out at the weekends and getting involved in cycling a little bit more.

For me it’s very exciting that we have this opportunity to use the Games and the excitement people have taken from that. Anyone can get on a bike and ride. It really doesn’t matter how fit you don’t think you are, anyone can get out and do that short commute.

I can be a figurehead to support people to do that. If we can get more people riding, whether it be from home to the station or the station to work at the other end, then it means we’ve got more people active.

It helps toward that 150 minutes a week – it’s not that many minutes – that the government recommends. If you’re riding at a reasonable pace you can burn up to 500 calories an hour and it can fit into your daily routine a lot more easily than trying to get to the gym or the swimming pool.

Once you’ve got that bug it’s something the whole family can do together at the weekend, and that’s something that’s been really exciting since the Games we’ve seen more families going out together on bike rides, just enjoying themselves.

Other goals

There’s a huge women’s professional road circuit and for me getting into that is really important. There’s only so many laps of the track you can ride, so it’s all about the road and getting into a professional road team and maybe I’ll gain selection for the Commonwealth games on the road next year.

Sarah sees herself as a “power athlete”, more than capable of crossing the disciplines of cycling. Image by Peprice, via Flick.

I’ve competed in a few stage races in the last few years. I’d love to go back to the German race [Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen] that’s one of the longest, and there’s a women’s Giro d’Italia as well. The Tour of Limousin’s a favourite. It’s only over four days but the terrain there is brutal. Any opportunity to race a stage race is great fun and completely exhausting. Put my name down!

I’m kind of a breakaway rider and the sort of rider who can sit on the front of a bunch for a long time, I’m a bit of a Jens Voigt in some ways. I can also get away in a break and do some damage and the time trial stages are my forte, I can get myself back up on GC there.

I’ve worked both as a leader and a super-domestique. Attacking on long, big-ring climbs is good for me. The short, steeper stuff riders like Emma Pooley get away because she’s smaller and much lighter, but I’m sort of the power athlete.

Role models

Vos is 10 years younger than Storey, but that doesn’t stop her being Sarah’s role model. Image by HaroldinhoNL via Flickr.

Marianne Vos is the rider I most admire of the current top women. She’s just so dominant. Just the other day she dominated a mountain bike race. She just puts minutes into people. I rode with her in the Tour of Limousin last year. I was third in the final stage and she won the stage. We were away in a break together and she’s just incredible.

The British girls are incredible too. Lizzie Armitstead who won the silver medal to Marianne in the Olympic road race is an amazing athlete and if I got to work for her at the Commonwealths that’d make me really happy.

In some ways the women’s race at the Olympics was far more exciting than the mens because it was shorter so the women went from the gun. There were completely unknown riders from Brazil attacking, just taking the chance to see if they could get away.

I’ve had the good fortune to ride for Hanka Kupfernagel, who’s a five-time world champion in cyclo-cross and the time trial and she’s taught me a huge amount within the pro peloton.

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