It’s been an incredible few weeks for Emma Pooley, first winning three stages in the Giro Rosa to demonstrate that she’s the best climber in the women’s peloton, then lining up for La Course – a race she helped to make happen – on the Champs-Elysées. So, it may come as a surprise to hear that she will retire after the Commonwealth Games road race on Sunday.
“You have to go sometime,” she says. “I considered retiring after the London Olympics, but I didn’t feel like I was ready. I’ve been mulling it over, and came to the conclusion that the Commonwealth Games is the perfect opportunity – it’s a big event, it’s almost at home, and I want to go out properly, when I’ve planned it and have no regrets.
“I’m very lucky in that I can make that decision. For a lot of people, the choice is made for them, either by injury or team dynamics. It’s a positive choice. After the first Giro stage win, there was a little bit of me that thought about carrying on until Rio 2016, but the decision was made. Maybe I had a good Giro because the weight was off my shoulders, maybe it was the last chance saloon.”
If she’d announced halfway through the Giro that she was stopping, no one would have blamed her. Pooley started the hilly first road stage with a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop, which prevented her from breathing properly. She finished five minutes back, out of the competition for GC before the race had properly started.
She bounced back on the first mountain test, stage six to San Fior. It was a nail-biter: she attacked on the first 20 per cent climb, raced solo for 25 kilometres, was caught by a group and dropped them on the big climb of the day, before being chased to the finish by an elite group of contenders, including eventual race winner Marianne Vos, to win by 15 seconds.
“I’ve never felt so emotional after a race before. It was a hard stage to win, a real battle. I hadn’t believed I could win a race like that again, so to do it – and to do it the hard way – I felt like I’d proved something to myself. I cried quite hard after that.”
She went on to win the queen stage atop San Domenico di Varzo, then dropped the Giro overall contenders on the famous Madonna del Ghisallo climb on the final day, taking the Mountains jersey.
It’s hard to think of Emma Pooley as lacking confidence in herself – she’s come second in the Giro twice, and has an incredible palmarès. It’s all the more remarkable given that she came to cycling late.
Pooley only started riding at 22, after an injury halted her long distance running. She moved into triathlon and then road racing, with a natural talent for climbing and time-trialling. In 2008, after helping Nicole Cooke to win road race gold at the Beijing Olympics, she went on to claim time-trial silver. Two years later in Geelong, she was time-trial World Champion. She’s won all kinds of top races, including road World Cups, like the Flèche Wallonne and Trofeo Binda, thrilling fans with crazy solo attacks that should never have worked.
“Looking back, there are so many highlights,” Pooley says. “I’ve been so lucky to have this opportunity. It sounds silly, but winning races is awesome, and it makes you feel so good, whether it’s for yourself or helping a team-mate win. Some of my best memories are helping Claudia Lichtenberg win the Giro and Tour de l’Aude, or helping Kirsten Wild win at the Tour de Montréal. When we won the Vårgårda TTT World Cup, it was such a feeling of achievement.”
However, cycling hasn’t come easy to Pooley. She was famous for descending “like a sack of potatoes,” as she puts it, and when she talks about the good memories, it’s not just wins but moments in her early races, like the time she had to be physically lifted onto her bike by her mechanic after crashing on a descent during the Costa Etrusca, because she was shaking with fear, or racing the Grande Boucle for the first time.
“My coach, Tim [Williams], found some footage: I look like a frightened rabbit in headlights on the descent of the Tourmalet. That side is steep and exposed and I had a bit of vertigo, it’s painful to watch! Nicole Cooke came past me, and my three minute lead at the top of the climb was gone in five kilometres of descending. It was embarrassing, and the commentators were asking: ‘What is wrong with her?’”
Pooley can laugh about it now because she went away and worked on her weaknesses, to the point that during her first Giro stage win this year, she only lost a handful of seconds being chased down a long downhill by ace descenders Marianne Vos, Elisa Longo Borghini and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot.
It’s this drive to improve that characterised Pooley’s racing, and also explains why she’s moving on. Last year she took a deliberate decision to race with a small team, Bigla, eschewing the big races in favour of finishing a PhD in Geotechnical Engineering that she’d been working on alongside her cycling career. In her spare time, she raced marathons and competed in triathlons.
Running has always been her stress relief, and talking about it, it’s clearly her joy too. “It can be almost meditative when it’s going well, whether you’re racing someone or not,” she says.
Her plans for the future are to see how good she can get in long course triathlon and mountain running. After the Commonwealth Games, she’ll ride the Trois Étapes sportive and the Haute Route, where she came 4th overall in the men’s field in 2012. Then she’s got her sights set on the long course Duathlon World Championships in September and racing triathlons in Thailand, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
“I’m super lucky to have been a pro cyclist, but there are other things I dream of doing as well. I’m 31, which is a good age for endurance sports, and I’m sure I can do better in triathlon if I focus on it. I’m so excited about running through mountains!”
As Pooley talks about the chance to race triathlons around the world and travel at her own pace, while still seeing how much she can improve, it seems the logical next step, especially as she wouldn’t have many opportunities to improve in road cycling.
The women’s calendar is a lonely place for a climber and time-trial star. It’s lost a lot of races in recent years, including two of its three Grand Tours – the Tour de l’Aude, and the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France, the Grande Boucle.
While new races have sprung up in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium, mountains can’t be added to the Low Countries. Then there are the restrictions imposed by the UCI. Women’s races have to average 100km per stage, and factoring in suitable roads, as well as places that will support a start and finish, means it’s not surprising that race organisers often stick to easier terrain.
As for time-trials, Pooley says she only had the chance to wear her World Champion skinsuit three or four times in 2011; it’s a complaint the current champion Ellen van Dijk has made too.
While Pooley has been outspoken about her issues with the sport, she’s not leaving because she’s bitter – far from it.
“It’s a positive time for the sport. I’m really happy to see it improving. La Course is the start of something great, and I hope it will grow next year; I’d love to see a longer women’s stage race in France.
“It would be quite easy to be bitter – but I don’t want to be. I’m so lucky to have had the chance I’ve had. I could never have done what I’ve done in the sport without the support of British Cycling. When I got a result they noticed it, and supported me to get to the World Championships and the Olympics, they built me a bike and took me wind tunnel testing – and I’m hugely grateful that I’ve got to work with such talented people.
“Do I think they could maybe do some things better? Of course! I think there’s a lack of a coherent women’s road programme, and that’s sad because it’s a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t change the fact I’m really grateful to how they helped me.
“It’s a really exciting time in cycling because it’s a growth sport, especially women’s cycling. There’s so much potential because it’s not been so well covered in the past. I started cycling because I thought I might win the odd local race, but I didn’t take it up to be on TV or to be an inspiration, and then I started getting letters from people whose daughters ride bikes or who started cycling.
“It’s only a small thing, compared to the reach the men have, but that is the point of elite sport: for people to see it and be entertained, or inspired, or start cycling, even if it is just riding around the block.
“It does make a difference knowing it’s improving. In some ways it’s a pretty dumb time to be leaving, because women’s cycling is on the up, and in a few years’ time there’ll be more races on TV – and rightly so, not because the cyclists want it, but because the audience wants to see it.”
It’s been a season with some real highs, like getting to race the Friends Life Women’s Tour in England and La Course in Paris, enjoying the huge crowds and knowing her friends and family could watch.
“I wanted a season of cycling without my PhD hanging over me, and I really enjoyed it, but it didn’t stop me being the angsty person I am. One of the regrets I do have is that I’m an anxious person and I don’t handle that well. Sometimes I think my fears have held me back – but I am the person I am, and I’m getting better. Counting your blessings is a good motto for life, I’m grateful for the opportunities I have, the people I know; the friends I’ve got and the family that supports me.”
When asked how she thinks she’ll be remembered, it’s for the comedy moments, like the time she fell over in front of an entire Giro end-of-race party, Or maybe for the baking she’d bring her team-mates: chocolate brownies, scones, and fat-free chickpea and peanut butter cookies. She jokes about an ambition to get onto Celebrity Bake Off and her plan to write a “healthy cake” cookbook, with anecdotes and stories, “although it took me nine years to write my PhD thesis, so don’t get your hopes up!”
Above all, she wants to be remembered fondly or as a good loser. Although being Emma Pooley, what if the right challenging mountain stage race turns up and she can get a guest ride? She laughs and says she wants to be remembered “with fear – I might come back!”