Interview: Drops Cycling's Becky Womersley on women's cycling, Yorkshire and cracking the Classics
"I turned around at one point and Marianne Vos was behind me. I thought, ‘What do I do? This isn’t right.’"
Rain is grist to the mill of any Yorkshire cyclist, as Becky Womersley will tell you. But sometimes even the most dedicated rider has to draw the line.
When RCUK calls, Womersley reports that conditions in England’s largest county are torrential, and had prompted a late substitution of road bike for WattBike. It is another day in the life of a rider with the commitments of a professional cyclist, but without the salary.
Womersley is a rider with Drops, whose intriguing strapline - to be “the most professional women’s amateur team in the world" - means that while she and her team-mates have enjoyed competitive opportunities, equipment and success beyond their peers, she must still hold down a job (cycling being a small world, Womersely works for nutrition brand OTE in Leeds).
It’s a scenario that Drops’ irrepressible team owner Bob Varney is working hard to change by seeking a big league sponsor that will propel them to still greater heights, and, crucially, salaries for the riders. Until a heavyweight backer is found, however, Womersley will continue to fit her training commitments around a work schedule that fills her time from from Monday to Thursday, morning to mid-afternoon.
“It’s as professional as it can be without the riders being paid," Womersley says of the setup at Drops. “Everyone makes a lot of sacrifices; not just the riders, but the staff who’ve volunteered. They’ve taken holiday or unpaid leave from work to help us. We can never thank them enough."
She helps to justify the sacrifices of others by training and racing as hard as she can. Still, Womersley is aware that she is at a disadvantage to those who are paid to ride, and who train when they like.
“There are a lot of people who ride full-time here," she says of Yorkshire’s sizable pro contingent. “They go out at 9am and they’ve done their training by the time I leave work."
“You have to really want it and have a lot of motivation," she says of her own position. “Today, it was raining so hard, when I got back home that I went on the WattBike instead. There’s no point getting ill."
Womersley cannot pretend to have gone into such a tough game with her eyes shut. Cycling is in some ways the family business of the Womersleys, and, lest we forget, the Robinsons. Becky is the brother of promising ‘cross racer Tom, the niece of Olympian Louise Robinson, and, most significantly, the grand-daughter of Brian Robinson, the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France (in 1958), and the first in 1961 to claim overall victory at the Dauphiné.
"Everyone makes a lot of sacrifices; not just the riders, but the staff who’ve volunteered"
Despite such impressive heritage, Womersley insists she was under no pressure to become a cyclist, and was a ballet dancer before the bike held sway; another tough calling, where suppleness and core strength are requisite, and bone-crunching injury is routine, though she laughs at the comparison (“I stopped before I got to that point"). Her cycling career began aged 17 with an unlikely epiphany in a field in Bradford, watching her brother and aunt compete in a round of the National Trophy Series.
Her 2016 campaign was delayed as she finished her university studies and she admits to playing “catch up" with team-mates who had experienced the larger pelotons of European racing by the time she made raced overseas for the first time in July.
“I turned around at one point and Marianne Vos was behind me. I thought, ‘What do I do? This isn’t right.’ But you just get on with it. We’re there to do these races as much as she and her team-mates are."
Racing abroad is a highlight, she says, but there’s no place like home. She rejects the grim-up-north tag frequently applied to her home county.
“When the weather’s nice, riding in Yorkshire is quite spectacular. I love riding abroad, but when I’m climbing Holme Moss, I just look and think, ‘This is a great place to ride a bike.’"
Yorkshire is very obviously a part of her identity, and the visit of the Tour de France in 2014 struck her as “surreal" - her local training loops closed to traffic; the pilgrimage of thousands to Holme Moss, a climb she often has to herself. In 2019, Yorkshire will play host to the UCI Road World Championships, but Womersley is not allowing herself to think that far ahead.
She has enjoyed the full-time rider’s traditional end-of-season break (her last race was towards the end of September) and after three or four weeks off the bike is now training again with serious intent. The annual Dave Rayner Fund dinner, held recently in Leeds, was her “last big blow out" and she is again watching her diet closely, as befits one who works for a nutrition company.
"I love riding abroad, but when I’m climbing Holme Moss, I just look and think, ‘This is a great place to ride a bike'"
Reassuringly, Womersley admits to that same “I’ll never get back to the level I had" feeling familiar even to the hobby cyclist who takes a break from training, but after easing herself back into her riding routine with café spins, she is now filling her training miles with “efforts", and reports that her form has come flooding back.
“I’m training for the Classics," she reveals. “I’d love to get a ride in the Tour of Flanders, but there are quite a few riders on our team who are aiming for that race, and only six places."
Het Nieuwsblad Féminin will be Womersley’s first race of spring; a brutal, early-season test for which a winter in Yorkshire is likely to stand her in good stead. She is due a break from the unforgiving climate of northern Britain, however. soon, she will head to the Costa Blanca; Calpe, to be precise, off-season mecca of some of the biggest teams in cycling, including Astana and BMC Racing; Etixx-QuickStep and Katusha. There at least she can be certain that rain will not stop play.