Joanna Rowsell pauses to consider for a moment the sort of delicious conundrum that most athletes can only dream of.
Which, Rouleur wonders, would she describe as her best season: 2012, in which she became world and Olympic champion in the team pursuit, or the season that has just ended, when, in the individual pursuit, she became world and Commonwealth champion?
“I’d say this might be my best season,” she answers, after a short period of reflection. “It’s different winning an individual event.
Joanna Rowsell has enjoyed her best season this year, winning a gold medal in the women's individual pursuit at the Commonwealth Games and at the world championships, as well as claiming British, European, and world titles in the women's team pursuit. pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
“For me personally, the events that I have won this year, and knowing what I’ve gone through to win each of these things - the individual titles [contested] often off the back of team pursuit training, so often not being able to specifically target it - were absolutely huge for me; something I’ll never forget. I think 2014 might edge it in that sense.”
If all of this gives the impression that Rowsell is no longer a team pursuit rider, it is perhaps worth noting that her other accomplishments this season include adding British, European, and world titles to the Olympic gold medal claimed two years ago. At 25, she has the complete set.
After such success, isn’t it more than a little disappointing not to be shortlisted for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award? Shane Sutton believes so, and has made his feelings on the matter public. Rowsell is more sanguine. Success for Britain’s elite track riders is now expected, she reasons: world titles have become the norm, and those won in February are often forgotten by the mainstream media’s agenda setters come December. She offers Becky James’s success last year as a recent example – another track rider whose two world titles failed to impress the SPOTY panel sufficiently even for a place on the shortlist.
Rowsell shows off the rainbow stripes of individual pursuit world champion. She won the title by beating the vaunted and vastly experienced American, Sarah Hammer. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
It is when Rowsell speaks as a bike rider, however, that she is most convincing. “As an athlete, most things you do are controllable. You can control your performance, you can do your hard training, but you can’t control whether someone nominates you for an award or not. It’s not really something I ever think about at the start of the year as something to target, because it’s not something I can target.”
Such level headed analysis might be considered merely to be putting a brave face on an uncomfortable situation, were it not just another example of the approach that brought her such success in the first place. The key phrase might be “something I can target”. Sutton praised Rowsell’s ability and willingness to chase new goals in his outburst at the SPOTY snub, and it lies at the heart of her approach to competition. This, as might be expected, involves considerably more than consulting the calendar and drawing up a wish list.
The Commonwealth Games was one of the few events where Rowsell was able to train specifically for the individual pursuit. “I really enjoyed getting my teeth into that…planning the phases of training and tapering, and targeting to be my best on that day, which I think I’m pretty good at. I enjoy that side of it.”
Rowsell and team-mate Laura Trott receive bouquets from Dame Sarah Storey's daughter. Rowsell is looking forward to racing on the road for Storey's Pearl Izumi-Sports Tours International team next season. pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
For a rider already crowned world champion in the individual pursuit (a convincing victory over all-time great, Sarah Hammer) fighting for the Commonwealth title might have seemed a minor consideration. Not for Rowsell, who adopted the view that arriving at any contest as world champion creates additional pressure to beat the field. “In my head, I could not lose as world champion,” she says. “I had to win this to prove that I was the best in the world, but I knew that I’d be really, really up against it.
“It’s a tough one: which is the better victory - the worlds or the Commonwealths? At the worlds, I beat Sarah Hammer, which is massive, but at the Commonwealths, I felt a lot more pressure, like, ‘Yes, I do deserve this world title. That wasn’t a fluke. I am the best in the world.’” It is here that modesty takes over and Rowsell laughs a little. “I’m not quite sure which is the best victory, but they’re both pretty good,” she concludes, with typically English understatement.
Rowsell will return to the London Olympic Velodrome today to turn her wheels in anger on its boards for the first time since she, Laura Trott and Dani King provided one of the most electrifying moments of the entire Games, by winning gold in yet another world record time. (Your correspondent once challenged a physiologist with the English Institute of Sport to identify a moment when atmosphere had impressed him more than numbers. He described the moment when the trio took to the track for the first time at the London Games, and the roar of the crowd made the hairs on his neck stand to attention).
The Supremes have become the Fab Four. Rowsell has pursued successful solo projects without leaving the 'band'. pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
The women’s team pursuit is now contested by teams of four riders over 4km, in parity with the men’s event, but for the Great Britain squad, it is a question of the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Supremes have become the Fab Four. No one is expecting difficult second album syndrome in Rio, and while Rowsell has been busy with solo projects, she hasn’t had to leave the band to pursue them. There is competition for places, such is the talent of Katie Archibald and Elinor Barker, but if Rowsell maintains her present form, her place will not be in question.
With Rio on her mind, she has changed road teams, leaving Wiggle Honda to join the Pearl Izumi-Sports Tours International squad run by close friend, Sarah Storey, and her husband, Barney, both Paralympic champions. “It feels a bit like coming home,” she confides, “being among friends. I’m looking forward to it for a number of reasons”.
Rowsell is now “full gas for Rio”, but first there is this weekend’s business at the London Olympic Velodrome to take care of. She will roll out in rainbow stripes with her team pursuit colleagues in a venue that changed her career. “It will always be special, definitely,” she agrees. “First Olympic Games and all that; first Olympic gold medal.” Each home event resonates, however. Manchester, for so long a fixture of the World Cup, is also special for her.
The interminable week before competition draws to a close today. It is the seven days that Rowsell enjoys the least. How do the legs really feel? Good one day, bad the next. “You think, ‘oh, I want my legs to feel good for race day’ but it changes all the time. We’ll feel our way through it, and what happens is what happens, really.” What happens tends to be winning. After such a season, any other result in London this weekend would be a surprise.
Joanna Rowsell is an ambassador for Wattbike, an indoor training bike designed with British Cycling to measure power, cadence, and pedaling dynamics