Breaking in to one of the sporting world’s most dominant teams is never easy, but Elinor Barker’s rapid rise from junior sensation to staple of Great Britain’s women’s team pursuit squad has been a seamless affair.
The new girl, deputising for Joanna Rowsell at the Glasgow round of the Track World Cup a little less than three years ago, has become an integral part of an expanded line-up that routinely sweeps all before it.
A former world junior time-trial champion on the road, Barker added rainbow jerseys to her wardrobe at Minsk in 2013 and in Cali a year later, and now, to bring the story entirely up to date, claimed a third European title in October, when riding with Laura Trott, Katie Archibald and Joanna Rowsell, lapping the Russian quartet to claim another title.
Of greater significance, however, is the fact that this most recent victory comes with the Olympic cycle now in its final phase. Rio is less than a year away. Does it play on Barker’s mind?
“I think, gradually, ‘It’s getting closer, it’s getting closer,’ and it does become everything you think about. In a few months time, it will be every decision I make: ‘Is this going to get me to Rio?’ At the moment, I’m a little bit more relaxed about it, because it’s a year away and you can’t be stressed out for an entire year, can you?”
Pressure is unlikely to effect Barker’s efforts. She has handled things well to this point, riding a fast track to world titles in two different disciplines, with her senior career less than three years old.
It almost goes without saying that Barker is Welsh, such is the conveyor belt of cycling talent at work in the principality these days; not only Welsh, but a Maindy Flyer, no less – the club that spawned Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe.
Barker did not choose cycling from any deep-rooted desire to ride a bike, but as an escape route from Saturday morning swimming sessions in Maindy Centre with her younger sister, Megan. Observing that cycling sessions were held outside the centre at the same time as swimming lessons, Megan spotted a two-wheeled avenue for escape.
“I wasn’t sure,” Barker says, laughing at the memory. “I didn’t think it was really my thing, and, well, yeah, here we are.”
Cycling success came easily, but Barker rejects the notion of epiphany. Instead, she has worked steadily at a succession of goals, achieving them more often than not, and developing her talent to its current state, where she can legitimately be described as a world-class athlete.
She is similarly level-headed about the explosion of Welsh talent. In her case, the proximity of Maindy track, an outdoor, concrete oval just ten minutes from her home, and Newport, the 250m wood-surface velodrome, no more than half-an-hour away, have played their part.
“I’m pretty lucky with the facilities. I think that breeds clubs that attracts kids who want to get involved. Every day of the week, there was something different that you could do; people you could go out with; sessions you could join.
“If it was raining, there were group turbo sessions you could do, which I think gets kids involved and then continues the involvement, because they’re having a good time with their friends and going out doing something fun. I think a lot of it is in the facilities.”
The world road race championship is another magnitude from a club ride, of course, and for Barker, the talented junior about to realise her potential, of still greater significance. Having won the world time-trial title for her age group, she promptly led out team-mate Lucy Garner in the junior women’s road race, delivering the defending champion to her second consecutive world title.
“To be honest, I think she could have done it without me,” Barker says, modestly. “It was a hectic race with a lot of crashes. As defending champion, she was definitely our best chance of winning. The whole team wanted to keep her safe. I was just the one who was there at the end.”
Of equal if not greater significance to Barker was her immersion in the atmosphere of the World Championships; specifically, the inclusion of the juniors in what she describes, accurately, as a “multi-age event”. Witnessing the world’s best up close has an effect.
“I was there the year before when Mark Cavendish had won [Copenhagen, 2011]. It’s huge that it’s a multi-age event. It’s massive for juniors that you can be there when it’s happening.
“You can see what the riders are having for dinner and that kind of thing – all the little things that they’re doing behind the scenes – rather than just watching it on TV. It’s not just how your race pans out. It’s all the other things as well."
It was with some pedigree then, both as a winner in her own right and a valuable team player, that Barker arrived at the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome in November 2012 as the third rider in the home nation’s women team pursuit trio. Bear in mind that her two team-mates had recently been crowned Olympic champions.
“It was a massive challenge,” Barker reflects. “They’d just won the Olympics and the first race I did with them and was their first race after the Olympics, and on their home track as well, and I was still a junior.
“I don’t think anyone could have laid any more pressure on me if they’d tried. I think it was harder mentally more than anything else. My legs were going okay and I managed to keep up , which was what mattered in the end.”
Performance is one thing. The team dynamic off the bike is another. Success is a binding force. How to break in to a unit whose success had resulted not only from physical prowess, but also from an emotional pledge to push as hard for each other possible? These things take time.
“I was made welcome, but it was quite a gradual process before I really felt like I was really a part of the team, because I was coming up for the odd week or so, and then I’d go back home and do my A-Levels, and come back again a few months later.
“It was quite gradual before I felt, ‘Yeah, this is where I belong, and I know these people really well.’ You don’t just do one team pursuit and feel that you really know each other. It takes months, years; that type of thing.”
Days might be a greater challenge. To the wider sporting public, the life of a Team GB cyclist is an endless round of podium ceremonies and television appearances, but the reality of everyday life for any athlete is, of course, entirely different, characterised chiefly by dietary concerns and the fear of illness or injury; worries unlikely to be shared by the average 21-year-old.
"Some days, if things go wrong, you think, ‘If I was a normal person, this wouldn’t matter, but I’ve got a cold and it’s going to ruin this race.’ Sometimes, you get to be a bit of a drama queen over little situations, but most of the time you focus on your training, you go and rest, you focus, you rest, and it’s quite straight forward.”
Balance is key, Barker continues. A rail trip with friends this summer to Prague, Vienna and Budapest might have offered a dose of normality, even if, for the world champion in the party, the expedition was approached with the mentality of “an athlete on holiday,” rather than as a holidaymaker.
Rio is calling this girl from Cardiff, but in a team so competitive (Katie Archibald and Ciara Horne won European gold and bronze respectively in the women’s individual pursuit in Switzerland), nothing is a foregone conclusion.
Barker – bright, breezy, focused and already a triple world champion – will not be pushed aside easily, however. Rio is a long way from Maindy, but prior accomplishments suggest she will thrive in the atmosphere of the world’s largest sporting competition. Just don’t ask her to visit the swimming events.