“Maybe the UK can become the new Belgium” – Huw Williams interviews Dame Sarah Storey

Huw Williams talks to Dame Sarah Storey

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Essex Giro podium, Nikola Juniper, Sarah Storey and Laura Massey (image © Huw Williams)

The latest round of the 2014 British Cycling Women’s Road Series has just finished and everyone is wandering around shell-shocked. The race we’ve just witnessed, 75 miles on an open road whose surface was devastated by overnight rain, was a war of attrition and the riders are all caked in road grime. The last time I saw this many dirty women in an Essex car park there certainly wasn’t a road-race going on – it was a mountain bike race before anyone gets the wrong idea, and the similarity in appearance of the riders is testament to the severity of today’s early conditions. Bikes are being dismantled and loaded into cars, plastic containers of food are being not so much eaten as osmosed into shattered bodies desperate for recovery and grey-shirted British Cycling officials scurry hither and thither cross-checking results sheets and working out accumulative times following two days of hard, humid road racing.

I need some calm in this chaos and wander down to the far end of the car park where triple Olympic gold medalist Barney Storey MBE is so consummately solving the puzzle of how to get so many bikes and kitbags into the back of a team van that you wonder as to its possible future re-sale value as some kind of four-wheeled Tardis. How do they get that much stuff in those things?

On the periphery of all this is Mrs (Dame Sarah) Storey who has (literally) been left holding the baby. She’s just the won the two-day stage race having dominated Day 1 with two wins and comfortably marshaled her team’s tactics to ensure overall victory after Day 2’s challenging road stage in which she punctured several times but somehow never managed to look threatened.

She completes the formalities of telling me about her race, the tactics, the results; but that’s just the story of a bike race. Without prompting she naturally drifts onto the more general topic of her sport, and on this subject she speaks with a passion that engages. I let the tape machine run and we have less an interview, more a conversation about the current state of UK women’s racing…

HW: From a fan’s point of view the National Series has taken a step forward this year.

SS: Yes I think so, more so in some races than others though. I think if you look at everyone involved, from the organisers to the marshals to the motorbike riders, everyone’s really doing their best to make things better, and it really has been. There’s one thing we could do with though, more consistency on the road stages, they’ve been pretty varied this year.

HW: The accredited marshals have made such a difference that in a way it’s highlighted the problems in races that don’t have them for whatever reason.

SS: Exactly, maybe we need some kind of standard in order for a race on an open road to be ranked as a National Series race. Everyone is really trying their hardest, but if this is the top level, there has to be a solution to make all races of a similar standard.

HW: A lot of people commented on that picture of you from Lap 1 at Surf ‘n’ Turf where the entire peloton was shoe-horned inside the line on an extremely narrow road with your team on the front. Impressive, but it would have been better if you weren’t forced into staying in the left lane, that’s when crashes can happen as riders are forced to get back over the line because of oncoming traffic.

SS: Several times this season, despite the best intentions of the marshals and motorbike escorts there have been cars coming at us so fast it’s been difficult. But then at some races, like parts of that same course at Surf ‘n’ Turf and the Tour of Reservoir and Cheshire Classic it’s been fantastic to have accredited marshals and we know we can use the whole road.

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Storey winning the TT at Essex Giro (image © Huw Williams)

HW: I guess what we’re after is reaching a point where in a race at this level, in the briefing or managers’ meeting, nobody feels the need to ask the question ‘where can we cross the line and where can’t we?’ because it’s always safe to do so.

SS: Exactly. I get the idea that the inconsistency we’re seeing in the Women’s Series wouldn’t be allowed to take place in men’s racing at this level.

HW: And we are talking about the highest level in UK women’s racing now aren’t we? It’s been so good to see the increased number of the top riders in more of the National Series races this season. Yourself and Katie (Archibald) battling it out with other world and Olympic champions like Laura and Dani [Trott and King respectively, of Wiggle-Honda – HW.] on the roads of the UK, it’s been amazing to watch. That’s the kind of thing we want to see in a National Series race, it’s got to inspire and raise the standard for all the other riders. Look at what Nikola Juniper [Series leader at the time – HW.] has done this year?

SS: Since my time out (for the birth of the aforementioned Louisa) the UK scene has moved on, definitely. I’ve heard rumours that a lot of Olympic contenders for the 2016 Games are going to race the National Series in Britain because the racing is getting so hard…

HW: …that’s obviously been helped by the positive experience everyone took from the Women’s Tour…

SS: …so if we can start regularly attracting girls at that level then we’ll start attracting girls from northern Europe and who knows, maybe the UK can become the new Belgium in the future. It’s always been cool to go racing in Belgium and France, there’s no reason why it can’t become cool for those girls to come racing in the UK providing we can offer a positive experience and attractive races.

HW: There’s a lot of negative publicity generated when organisers publicly announce that they can’t find enough riders to support their events, which is frustrating because we know the number of women racing is on the rise, and we know the standard is increasing. It’s a slow process and the longer we take trying to do things right, the more sustainable the growth will be. Those organisers have made an effort to provide those races and I can understand why they feel let down. But as long as we have a small hardcore number of riders attempting (and in some organisers’ eyes ‘expected’) to support all the events, this is clearly unrealistic. There are riders out there racing regularly, twice, sometimes three times in a week, feeling guilty when they don’t enter a new race that appears on the calendar. Crazy.

SS: It is, there’s a lot of competition suddenly between races. Lots of those girls are working full time and can’t get to midweek races as well as race at the weekend. We need to find a balance and a way that more riders can be financially supported to attend the growing number of races. Unlike in the men’s races a lot of what happens in the women’s scene is done on a voluntary basis, we’re run and supported by volunteers, again, everyone is really trying their best, but that means if organisers add more and more races then riders are going to be more and more selective.

HW: What would you like to see in the events themselves – should the National Road Series be road races only, which is something I’ve heard from some riders and team managers this season?

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Half the road. Would be better with all of it. (image © Huw Williams)

SS: I think there’s an appetite for a separate circuit series, if you separated the circuit races out of this series and used those as a new national circuit series that might make sense. We [Sarah’s Pearl Izumi-Sports Tours International team – HW.] have had riders on the podium at every round of the National Series so far this year and that’s great but if there was a separate circuit series we could support that as well as our Tour Series riders for more than just that 5-week block alone. Maybe that’s a way of not putting so much pressure on all the same riders to do all the races and they can choose to do one series or the other or still do both if they so wished. More than that I’d like to see a way in which racing as teams was supported, encouraged and rewarded. It seems to be something you don’t see as much in the UK as you do in European races. In the UK a lot of the riders are on a ‘team’ but ride as individuals, so I think if there was some way we could incentivise riding as teams in more races that would improve things.

 

By this point, Barney has finished loading up the van and off the team go, heading to the coast and the Women’s Tour of Brittany. Can the UK be the new Belgium in terms of women’s road racing? You get the idea that if Sarah Storey believes it can happen, then it really might.

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