Interview: 14 Paralympic gold medals, but Dame Sarah Storey’s not done yet
Britain's most successful female Paralympian leads the fight for change in para cycling and women's cycling as she looks to Tokyo 2020
After seven Paralympic Games, competing as first a swimmer and then a cyclist, and 25 medals – 14 of which have been gold – you could forgive Dame Sarah Storey for being happy to call time on her sporting career.
But as the Eccles-born superstar, who became Britain’s most successful ever female Paralympian when she won three golds at Rio 2016, prepares to make the short trip to Manchester’s National Cycling Centre to return to action, the 39-year-old insists she has no plans to stop just yet.
Storey will ride for her Podium Ambition team in Manchester on Friday and Saturday, as the Revolution Series resumes with the inaugural edition of the Revolution Champions League.
The track racing there, and in London a week later, will mark the end of the road for the team she set up with husband Barney in 2014, after they were unable to get sufficient sponsorship to continue competing as a UCI pro team.
But for Storey, as one door closes, she is already looking towards the future – both in her role on the bike, and the challenges faced off it.
“I know that I want to continue racing and make a bid on Tokyo, but the exact format of that is still being worked out,” she says of her plans for the future, admitting the benefit of experience means she knows she has time on her side.
It’s just brilliant [to be Britain’s most successful Paralympian] and I hope it allows me to use the opportunity to inspire more people and push women’s sport and para sport further forward – Dame Sarah Storey
“I don’t need to rush back, and that’s one of the things that experience gives you – that confidence to know you can take your time.
“I know I’ll be fit and healthy and in good racing condition, and I won’t be panicking about the fact I’m not going to be racing WorldTour races next year.
“I can still race, I can do time trials and we can continue to help develop riders in the UK. We’ve got lots of opportunities and we’ve got time.
“That’s the key. I’m excited to work on that new plan to Tokyo 2020. By the time we start points scoring [to qualify for Tokyo], we’ll have that mapped out.”
Storey’s name was already synonymous with para sport before the Rio Games – that’s what happens when you’re a 27-time World Champion, 21-time European champion and multiple world record holder across two sports, including setting the C5 Paralympic Class Hour Record in 2015.
Her three gold medals in Brazil – C5 individual pursuit, C5 time trial and C4-5 road race – only served to further her standing, as she overtook Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson as Britain’s most successful female Paralympian.
But the increased recognition, and the ambassadorial role that brings, is not something Storey is shy to embrace, calling it ‘an incredible opportunity’ as she continues to lead the rallying cry for change in both para cycling and women’s cycling.
“It’s just brilliant [to be Britain’s most successful Paralympian]”, she admits, “and I hope it allows me to use the opportunity to inspire more people and push women’s sport and para sport further forward in the minds of the people who have the power to change it.
“It’s like being told you’re a role model – it’s not a job you apply for, it just comes along as you progress through your sporting career.
“These are the sort of things that creep up as part of that journey and it’s a huge honour. You’re not prepared for it, but you try to do your best as it comes to you and now we have the incredible opportunity to try and push para sport.”
Appetite for change
And the appetite for change has only increased after another successful Paralympic Games for Britain’s cyclists returned the likes of Storey and Jody Cundy to the limelight, and introduced new stars like Megan Giglia and Kadeena Cox.
For Storey, it is not the Paralympic Games that are the issue, however, rather it’s the four years between Games where more needs to be done by cycling’s governing body.
She cites the example of Jozef Metelka, the British-based Slovakian amputee cyclist currently trying to qualify for the UCI Track World Championships.
Metelka won C4 individual pursuit gold in Rio, and away from para cycling has competed on the road at the Beaumont Trophy in Britain and finished fourth, 5’15” behind Peter Sagan, in the Slovakian National Time Trial Championship in 2015.
But while the 30-year-old, who uses a prosthetic leg after a motorbike accident in Oxford in 2009, can raise his profile – as Storey can too – by racing alongside able-bodied riders, cyclists with more serious impairments are not afforded that luxury.
“[Jozef Metelka] went sub-4’30” to win the gold medal in Rio, and para cyclists are looking at able-bodied cycling all the time to find more opportunities,” Storey says.
“But that’s the only place where they will find coverage opportunities as well, which ultimately is a real shame because there’s lots of para cyclists who have much greater impairments who can’t achieve the speeds required to compete in non-para sport.
“There’s a cyclist from Spain called Juan Mendez, in the C1 category, and he’s been cycling for donkey’s years. He’s got one arm and one leg but the way he handles the bike on the road is just immense.
“He’s a real hero when he’s photographed on social media, with the word ‘inspiration’ above him but the coverage of his events is just zero and the majority of cyclists don’t know who Juan Mendez is, and they should because he’s an incredible character.”
It’s not just exposure needed, Storey says, but more competition, more funding and professionalism too.
Storey sits on the UCI Commission – “I’m not sitting here whinging and doing nothing about it.” – but cycling’s governing body have much to do to increase recognition of para cycling.
“We’ve not seen a drastic improvement in provisions for para cycling over the last ten years since the UCI came in,” Storey says. “We’ve seen some improvement, but there’s a huge amount of potential for that to improve further.
Para cycling is weighted towards the road, rather than the track but while racing opportunities are more for roadies, vast changes are still needed.
“Even where there is that strong calendar, there is no prize money at all in para cycling,” Storey rues, also bemoaning the fact there is no professional registration for para cycling, adding to the problems some find with attracting sponsors.
And then there is the issue of coverage, with even the Track World Championships struggling for attention.
“We get no coverage at all. Zero. TV coverage is… zero. Unfortunately, there’s no way to dress that up and that has to change,” Storey says bluntly. “Other sports are getting coverage – it’s not great, and it needs improving – but we don’t have any.”
She adds: “Ultimately para cycling means parallel cycling – running alongside it – so really, para cycling should be the equivalent of the Olympics/Paralympics. We should see the same kind of interest as we see at the Paralympics and that’s ultimately the UCI’s job.
“I’m working hard to make suggestions to say we need to put this out there, we need to make changes, we need to take a chance on this idea working.
“We need to do something and see the response from the world of para cycling and then I’ll ultimately try and bring that interest in with sponsorship.
“But it’s like with women’s cycling. It’s that catch 22 – if you haven’t got the coverage, you can’t get the sponsorship, and if you haven’t got the sponsorship you can’t get the competitions in order to get the coverage.
“If you think about where women’s cycling is [and the problems they are facing] and multiply it by about 1,000, you have para cycling.”
What women want
The effect of the lack of sponsorship is something still fresh in Storey’s mind, after Podium Ambition were unable to field a team in the team time trial at the UCI Road World Championships after being unable to attract enough funding.
And theirs is not an isolated case, with even the hugely successful Rabo Liv Women team, who last season counted Marianne Vos, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Anna van de Breggen in their number – coming close to folding before finding new sponsorship at the last moment.
“When you’ve got one of the top three teams in the world struggling for sponsorship it seems really harsh,” Storey states. “It is a mixture of things, and it’s something being addressed by the UCI.
“I’m not an expert, as we were working towards that level, but as everyone’s been saying for a number of years we need more sponsorship across the board.
“If you take a snapshot of any newspaper or magazine, the key headlines are focussed on men’s sport.
“If you talk about cycling it should be both, but we always end up talking about ‘cycling’ and ‘women’s cycling’. We need to start to, I guess, normalise women’s cycling. Just make it cycling.
“If you are referring to a world champion, it could be Peter Sagan or Amalie Dideriksen. It’s just a world champion [i.e. not ‘women’s world champion’]. It’s the same with football, and it’s the same with other sports as well.”
One blueprint to follow then might be Revolution, who this year added the Elite Women’s Championship to the billing, having added women’s racing to the programme a number of years ago.
Storey will ride for a Podium Ambition team currently leading the way, with only the weekends in Manchester and London to come, while Dideriksen is among the other star names on show.
“Revolution and the [organisers] Face Partnership – with the London Nocturne as well – are doing an incredible job,” she admits.
“It takes a huge number of different people to make it change, and the Revolution has the Elite Women’s Championship now, which is a big step forward.
“Live coverage of women’s track cycling is absolutely brilliant and I think you can look at what we’ve achieved on the track through the Revolution Series, and the coverage of the girls – specifically Neah, Katie and Monica through the first part of the Championships – is just incredible.
“Revolution didn’t always have women’s events in there, but now they’ve realised. They’ve put it on for the last couple of years and it’s really been incredibly popular. Certainly this year the Elite Championship has been very popular.
“It’s a really good event, and I’m glad I’ve found an opportunity to race in it, especially in the new format. I didn’t expect Rio to be my final event [of the year].
“I was targeting the World Championships in Qatar. I’m delighted I’ve been able to train sufficiently to get on the boards again this weekend.”
It means a homecoming for Storey, returning to the Manchester boards on which she took her first tentative pedal strokes on the way to the second instalment of her incredible sporting career.
The exact nature of what the future holds is yet to be revealed, though Storey says a number of Podium Ambition’s equipment partners are keen to stay on board.
With the qualification process for Tokyo 2020 not yet started, however, there is – as Storey has said – time on her hands and an opportunity to enjoy her racing.
“Manchester is always superb, it’s a fantastic crowd,” she says. “After Athens, in 2004, it was after the Paralympics I came across to take those first scary steps around the banking and work out what track cycling was all about.
“I still remember it very vividly – it was about this time in 2004, so 12 years ago – so it’s brilliant, and it’s always great to be at home and race, and I’m just delighted to get back on the track for a final race in the Podium Ambition colours as well.”
While one chapter closes, however, a relaxed Storey is already looking ahead to the next one. A legend on the bike, and an iconic ambassador at the forefront of change off it, there’s plenty more to come from Britain’s most successful female Paralympian yet…
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