It’s easy to look at Olympic champions and believe they were born with medals around their necks – but that’s certainly not the case. In fact, double Olympic champion Joanna Rowsell Shand finished last in her first race (despite the rest of the field crashing) and tells us she was initially scared of the gearless contraptions ridden on the track.
With perseverance, she went on to become an elite rider and eventually to claim gold medals in the Team Pursuit in London 2012 and Rio 2016 as well as five World Championship titles. An accomplished motivational speaker, Rowsell Shand is keen to see more people achieve more than they ever dreamed possible on the bike, and she's teamed up with Sustrans to promote the ‘Big Pedal’ which encourages young people to cycle or scoot to school this March.
We caught up with Rowsell Shand to hear about her own progression in cycling, and to get tips for cyclists at various different points in their own development.
"I was given cycling shoes and clipless pedals, and immediately fell off because I couldn’t unclip."
Rowsell herself was picked up by British Cycling talent spotters, when she was fifteen years old. Coaches brought mountain bikes to her school, and a six lap circuit of the school field was enough to spark their interest. Then, she was invited back for more testing and enrolled on to the South East Regional talent squad. She explains: “I was one of the eldest. They did a monthly training camp, each one covered a weekend and looked at a different discipline. The very first one was mountain biking. I knew nothing about it. I turned up in a tracksuit and trainers. I was given cycling shorts, and told not to wear underwear underneath which surprised me. I was given leg warmers and cycling shoes and clipless pedals, and immediately fell off because I couldn’t unclip. I was completely clueless, I had no idea what I was getting myself into at all. But I persevered."
The first race wasn’t much smoother, either – Rowsell Shand tells me: “It was a BMX race on one of these camps. We had three heats. I came last in each heat. In the final, I was at the back as usual. There was a massive crash, everybody fell off – I went past them - but they all managed to get up and finish before me!"
It didn't all suddenly get easier when the young apprentice got onto a road bike, either: “My first circuit race was quite embarrassing too. I understood the science behind drafting. But I didn’t understand it in a race environment. I basically spent the whole ten laps on the front, thinking I was doing really well – and everyone behind was obviously sitting on my wheel laughing at me. They all sprinted past me at the end. That was quite a steep learning curve –both the skills and tactics of bike racing."
Of course, now the 28-year-old is a decorated Olympian. So how did she gather the courage to keep going through all of this? Mental strength had a lot to do with it – she tells me: “I think I was just quite determined to improve. I think it helped that I was part of a squad of other talented youth riders. Initially, my aim was not to come last. When I got to not last, it was then an aim of coming third from last. Then I progressed to coming second woman in a cyclocross race. Then I wanted to be first. So it progressed from not wanting to be last to winning. I guess it was taking each race one at a time, trying to improve, and that determination to be better."
It’s easy to feel helpless when you’re far away from your goal – be that winning a race when you’re currently in last position, or getting to the point where you can ride ten miles if currently one is a struggle. However, with determination – and a little know how – you can get there. We asked Jo for her tips to help riders progress at each level of development….
Work out the route you’re be going to use if you’re pedalling to school or work. So beforehand, look at the cycle paths available – do a bit of research in that area.
[If you’re worried about cycling to school with children] I think [the concerns] vary depending upon where you live, and what the journey is like to the school. I don’t want to generalise because I don’t know what each situation is. But look at the bike paths, and the pavements that might be shared. Often the route that you might drive isn’t ideal, there are backways that might be more bike friendly – cut-throughs that you’ve not seen before. The Sustrans site has lots of traffic free routes – I found some in my area that I never knew about.
How would you advise someone who hasn’t exercised for a long time, and just wants to get fit?
Cycling is a great way to get fit. I like the way that there are different disciplines, so there’s something for everybody. You can do indoor cycling, or go on a track if there’s one local.
Cycling is a very sociable sport – and sometimes it’s hard to get active and follow a training plan on your own, so use the sociable side to your advantage. If you’ve arranged to meet up with friends to go for a bike ride, you have a commitment to go and meet them.
I think quite often people are afraid of protein. They don’t want to get big and muscley. But often my aim in cycling is to put on muscle mass – it’s actually quite difficult to do! Eating protein will help you to lean up, rather than your body just sort of eating its own muscle.
I think if people want to lose weight it’s about having the correct nutrition and not just trying to cut back massively on calories. Still eat a balanced diet, still have breakfast before you go out – I’m not a fan of fasted training. Let the exercise be what creates the calorie deficit.
"Let the exercise be what makes the calorie deficit."
What advice would you give to someone who wants to join a cycling club, but is nervous?
Look for clubs that have either a women’s section, or that say they have different ability rides – such as beginner, intermediate and fast groups each Saturday.
Most clubs are really friendly. I think my biggest fear when I started cycling with a club was that I’d go for a ride and get a puncture, and no one would wait for me. This was the days before having Google maps on your phone, so I had visions of being lost in the Surrey lanes with a puncture and no idea how to get home. Of course, that never happens – people always wait for you. Research your clubs, look for one that will suit you and your ability.
If a rider is starting to think about entering sportives or training for longer rides, what would be your key advice for them?
I’d say build up your mileage gradually. Look at the time you have available, and try to use that wisely. You can get a really good session done in an hour or less with high intensity interval training. Maximise the time you have available. It’s not just about getting the miles in.
Also – it’s important to plan in rest. A lot of people don’t factor rest into training – they try to use every available bit of time they have - turbo training after work and riding on the weekend. Try to get some rest days in there – that’s just as important as training.
How about a rider who is looking to enter competitive events and races, but doesn’t know where to start?
Try a bit of everything. I’ve raced them all – cyclocross, even BMX, road, track, time trials. I never dreamed I’d be a track rider – it seemed so alien from the outside – the no brakes, the bikes and everything scared me. But that’s what I found I’ve been best at. I think the different disciplines complement each other – so look at what local clubs are promoting – circuit races, evening ten mile time trials, track league - get along to everything. There’s loads of really accessible races. Cyclocross is really accessible, you get people on mountain and cyclocross bikes.
Do you think amateur riders should be spending much time in the gym?
When I was racing at an amateur level, I didn’t do any gym work at all. It’s only when I became an elite track rider that I was really aiming to spend more time in the gym, to produce peak power. I think gym time can be good for injury prevention, and core work can help address imbalances. I probably do about two a week, and that’s as an elite track rider – some people do more but I think once a week at an amateur level is enough.
Having taken three and a half months off the bike to enjoy a belated honeymoon and some much needed rest and recovery following the Olympics, Rowsell Shand was back on the bike in December. Now, she’s focusing on training, keeping race goals in the future. She says: “It was the first time I’d had that sort of break in my whole career, so it’s been interesting to see how I’ve responded to training since and what’s felt harder and easier." Somehow, we reckon it’s highly unlikely the entire field was able to crash in front of her and finish ahead.