One of the great things about the women’s peloton is the range of personalities and backgrounds the riders come to the sport with - Sharon Laws personifies this.
After gaining an MSc in Conservation, and having worked for charities, the British Government, the United Nations and mining companies, Sharon got to her 30s and swapped her career in environmental issues for the life of a professional cyclist.
The current British National Champion started cycling, racing mountain bikes when she lived and worked in Africa, focusing on the difficult and at times dangerous, adventure races.
Laws and her racing partner Hanlie Booyens were the winning women’s pair in the first ever Cape Epic (mountain bike stage race) in 2004, and again in 2009.
By 2007, after a move to Australia, and at age 33, Sharon decided to try road racing during the Aussie 2007/8 season. She won the 2007 Tour of Bright and came second in the 2008 Australian National Championships, during which she was picked up by British Cycling to race in Europe with David Brailsford's Halfords Bikehut team, supporting Nicole Cooke’s stellar year.
Since then, Laws has been a tireless mountain domestique, known for her endless work for team-mates like Emma Pooley, and her own results in the hard, hilly races – but cycling hasn’t always been easy for her, and she’s ridden through some tough times too.
After the disappointment of not being picked to ride in the Olympic Games, a controversial decision that surprised a lot of cycling fans, she signed for Lotto Belisol for 2013, and had a clear plan – race the 10th anniversary of the Cape Epic with Booyens, then come back to Europe to seen what she could do. Catastrophically, in March, a truly horrific crash de-railed these plans.
Pro-women’s commentator Sarah Connolly, caught up with Sharon as she was just returning to the peloton for the first time since the crash, for the Basque races – Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, and the hilly stage race, the Emakumeen Bira.
Sarah Connolly: I imagine it might have been tempting to give up racing, after the frustrating 2012, and when AA Drink-Leontien.nl folded, but what kept you going to race again this year?
Sharon Laws: I always thought I would finish at the end of 2012 but although it was a disappointing season without Olympic selection it was also perhaps the best season of my career; National Champion, bronze medal at the Worlds Team Time Trial and six UCI podium places.
It’s taken four to five years to get a stable set up that works for me; a good winter training location, a home in Girona in the season and it seemed silly to stop when finally everything had fallen into place and when I’d had a good season of results. Roy Gershow from Momentum Toyota and Dany Schoonbaert approached me with an opportunity to race with Momentum Toyota in South Africa during the winter and with Lotto Belisol during the summer. It seemed a great chance to continue racing and hopefully enjoy a season without the pressure of Olympic qualification.
Sarah: Before your crash, you were having an amazing winter season in South Africa. Why did you choose to spend the winter there, and what's the cycling scene like?
Sharon: I went to South Africa at the end of 2011 and found it worked really well for me. The weather is great for training, there was a league series of road races with the men, which was perfect preparation for the European season and I started with a coach, Ian Rodgers, based in Cape Town.
I had previously lived in South Africa for two and a half years from 2001-2004 and have very good friends there. It’s nice to be able to do some fun stuff with friends among all the training.
This winter I raced with Momentum Toyota in women’s races around South Africa. The racing scene is quite small in terms of numbers but the coverage for women’s racing and the prize money, ironically, exceeds Europe.
The attention was much greater than winning Nationals in the UK! Sport is huge in South Africa and everyone is so enthusiastic.
I also did some mountain biking - which is probably even more popular. There are some incredible trails and races and I was looking forward to racing the Cape Epic with Hanlie Booyens, my previous partner from 2004 and 2009. It was to be the tenth anniversary of the event and an opportunity for us to celebrate 10 years of riding and friendship and a chance for me to undertake a significant training block for the European season.
Unfortunately the Epic took place the week after the Cape Argus, where I crashed, so another long term cycling dream was ruined.
Sarah: That crash.... Can you describe what you can remember about it? What were the injuries?
Sharon: It was in the Cape Argus – one of biggest mass participation events in the world where they have elite starts for men and women. There were 35,000 starters – it was an amazing atmosphere. The elite women raced with the over 30s age group men. I think we started with a group of about 180 riders. We were 1.5km from the finish.
About 3km from the finish, 2 guys attacked and were just ahead of our group. Apparently, one of them looked back and caught the wheel of the guy in front and came down. We were lined out and I was 6th wheel - behind a big guy, so had not seen the crash.
At the last moment the guy in front of me swerved but it was too late for me to do anything. No one shouted any warning and I went over the guy who was on the floor, did a somersault and landed very hard on my back.
As I was flying in the air I just remember thinking "where on earth did he come from?" We were going about 55kph according to my Garmin. I had hardly any road rash as I literally land like a stone.
Helmet was smashed and clothes ripped. I was in absolute agony. I never realised you could hurt so much. I felt like someone had smacked me with a very large baseball bat.
I had to wait over 30 minutes for an ambulance and it was one of the most horrible experiences in my life.
I fractured the L2 vertebrae (T8 and T9 were also found to be fractured but they thought these were old injuries!), broke four ribs – one in two places, six necks of the ribs, six transverse processes of thoracic vertebrae, had a comminuted fracture of the collar bone, lung haemo-pneumothorax, mild pulmonary oedema and a secondary infection in my lung.
My collarbone was plated. I was in ICU for six days on morphine and oxygen, as I couldn’t breathe very well, then in a normal hospital ward for a further 8 days. I wasn’t able to move at all for the first five days and could only lie in one position. I had a catheter and had to be fed by someone, which was not very pleasant.
When they were confident the L2 fracture was stable I was able to sit up in bed and after five days I tried to stand. I was able to walk a tiny bit after seven days.
I think spending two weeks inside was one of the worst things for such an outdoor person. During this time I was taking 25 tablets and having two injections daily.
Sarah: Following your recovery on twitter, it seemed very hard and painful, but you seemed to have a lot of support - the tweets about Hanlie feeding you yoghurt (when she could have been out training) for example - did that help with the recovery?
Sharon: I was really lucky with the support I had from friends, family and my coach. My coach, Ian Rodgers, was amazing. Luckily he lives in Cape Town and came to visit me nearly every day. Hanlie, my planned-to-be Cape Epic partner, did an amazing job of finding a replacement and organising a lot of logistics. She also arrived at the hospital with all my favourite foods – which was great, as I didn’t really feel like eating much especially when I had to be fed.
Sarah: You're back in Girona now - a lot of your team seem to be based there - how is that? Do you feel like you're part of Lotto? How does it feel, looking at the great results of team-mates like Ash Moolman, Jolien d’Hoore and Marijn de Vries?
Sharon: Carlee Taylor lives in Girona and Ashleigh lives about 25km outside the town but there are also a fair few other female cyclists. It’s nice to link up for rides when training programmes allow. I love Girona – I moved there in 2011 and it has a wonderful mix of good training roads, culture, history, good weather, wonderful food markets and is a great place to live.
I’ve joined the team for Durango and Bira and have been really welcomed. It’s a nice relaxed atmosphere and the staff and other girls are lovely. I feel like I have slotted in well and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.
It has been great to watch the girls performing so well – although of course I was envious to not be part of the action particularly when I thought I was going to hit Europe fit and in good form.
The morale in the team is very high from all the good results which provides for a great atmosphere as the newcomer.
Sarah: How does it feel, coming back to the peloton after a crash like that? How have you been preparing for it?
Sharon: I was a bit intimidated in my first race about riding in the peloton again. The speed and the fear of crashing is a bit disconcerting but I also know that you have to start somewhere to get over it and it’s not something you can practice in training as racing is so different. I have done some motor pacing sessions, which help a bit with the speed.
I tried to get mobile as soon as possible after the accident by doing some pool running and lots of walking as I think that is the best way of recovering quickly.
A lot of tears were shed when even simple things, like having a shower or dressing, were so painful.
I went on a trainer after three weeks but I could literally only turn my feet round and had to hold on to a bike that was hanging on the roof of the garage as it hurt my ribs and back.
I only went on the road again when I returned to Girona – six weeks after the accident. I started with some shorter rides and gradually built up the distance and intensity. When I was in hospital I wasn’t really sure I would be able to race again. It was very tempting to stop but I didn’t want to end my cycling career on such a negative note.
My career has not always been easy and, apart from not being selected for the Olympics, last year had been, in many ways, one of the best so I wanted to continue now I have everything in place (winter training venue, nice place to live in the season etc). I also didn't know how I would feel racing after the accident and didn't want to make any decisions about stopping without even trying to come back. I thought if I just stopped immediately I would always regret it.
Sarah: What are your goals for the year and the future? Will you be back for the Cape Epic next year?
Sharon: At this stage it is difficult to make cycling goals as I really don’t know how my recovery is going to go. Before the accident I wanted to enjoy the season, play a significant team role in support of Ashleigh Moolman and take my own opportunities where possible.
I guess this hasn’t really changed but I’m obviously not as strong as I was and this will have a lot of impact on what I can do.
Now I suppose the goal is to get as strong as possible as quickly as possible. For the future I’m also unclear. I did have some goals and plans but I think the accident has impacted those. I’m not sure about the Epic. I really would like to do it but I’m not sure about the opportunities next year.
Headline image by Brendan A Ryan, via Flickr.
This interview was first published on Podium Cafe, the website of choice for pro-cycling fans worldwide!