Paralympian Sarah Bailey talks to RCUK - Road Cycling UK

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Paralympian Sarah Bailey talks to RCUK

World Champion

As if from no where, Sarah Bailey MBE made her cycling debut in 2005 impressing crowds with her huge strength on the bike accross a range of disciplines. But what many didn’t know is that this remarkable athlete had already secured a number of World titles and in excess of 27 gold medals in the pool as a Paralympic swimmer.

Plagued by ear infections in the pool, Sarah took to the bike and soon continued her success on the track and road. She went on to re-write the history books when she became the first disabled women to break the 4 minute barrier in the 3km pursuit and she today rides for Great Britain.

Sarah marks her greatest honour as receiving the MBE from Her Majesty The Queen in the 1998 New Years Honours List and seeing this woman in action is pretty impressive. We caught up with the current World Champ to ask just how she’s finding her new success on the track.

Sarah Bailey

How did you find the National Championships having just come from the Worlds?

It’s nice for me, it gives a chance for me to get amongst the able bodied women, have another good ride and race on this track, then that’s it. We have a couple of weeks off after.

So how long would you be aiming to taper for an event like the Nationals/World Champs?

Only a few days really. Before the World Championships I rode the British TT Championships on the 2nd September and then I started racing the following Monday. So I rode really hard at the TT Championships and that kind of marked the end of my hard training. So during those nine days you start to really concentrate on the preparation. You don’t need too long. Being very endurance based, I do the sprints just because I can, it doesn’t really hurt it’s just two laps. And then that just sharpens me up gives me a springboard for the pursuit later in the week.

Sarah Bailey

So considering the 500mTT is something you enjoy secondary to your main event (Pursuit), you must be pretty happy with your performance? (Left)

I am really, really delighted. I was 13th last year and I know 13 girls didn’t enter this year but I jumped up to 7th. I rode a 41.6 last year so nearly a two second improvement. A lot that has come off my start and then I have just looked through the results and seen that I had one of the fastest second laps. So my start has improved by almost a second but then my second lap is quite considerably quicker than a lot of the girls who are even above me.

So this gives me a lot of confidence that although I haven’t had a chance to do specific endurance training we are kind of experimenting on the track with different gears and different techniques. We’ve not done any solid pursuit training, we’re just keeping it going, just trying to get the momentum going.

Is there a lot of Core preparation for stability on the bike?

Not really, I think a lot of that comes naturally from my swimming days. I already had a lot of core stability because that’s the only solid thing you’ve got in your body when you are going through the water. So, my core strength has always been a very naturally strong part and I have had a lot of physio back up throughout my swimming. I haven’t actually been in the gym since July and I wondered how that was going to effect me. However, we have done a lot of track specific stuff and I have worked pretty hard all three days. I think if in doubt I just work hard. I’ve been quite good at doing lots of hours and working quite hard so if in doubt I work quite hard then have a big sleep and I am usually alright.

So you have obviously achieved in your swimming, how do you keep motivation going?

Just the whole sport world you know, to have a place and have carved the place I have carved and continue to achieve, to train and do all the things I love about sport, without trying to say fetch me a bucket, it is an honour, it really genuinely is.

“I’m trying to play catch up. I spent the first 28 years of my life not racing bikes and now I am racing bikes so there’s a lot of things to learn.”

And I really enjoy training, and there are days where I can’t be bothered like anyone can’t be bothered with a job but I really enjoy it and it’s like I got a chance to do it in another sport. I’ve always done lots of sports at school and that’s all I ever wanted to do. Play sports and be a sports girl and do sport and even before ‘A’ level P.E. was invented I was doing ‘A’ level P.E. and everything was about sport. I’ve always just been an anorak when it comes to sport. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else and I think you don’t need to think about how that motivates you because that’s always what you’ve wanted to do. We’re re-doing our kitchen at home so I spent a lot of the day cleaning stuff up but as soon as I arrive at the track then that’s it. I know what I am doing, I’m focused and it’s quite nice to have that exuberance from swimming. I don’t have to panic anymore, my psychology is quite strong I think. I might be quite different when it comes to the pursuit but it’s a nice start to the week and I can enjoy seeing others riding now, watching the men’s kilo and catching up with people I haven’t seen for ages and that kind of stuff.

Do you think competing at a top level in swimming has made it easier for you to compete at a high level of cycling?

I think so yes, and I think there are a lot of similarities in how you prepare yourself mentally from one sport to another. And although it’s different events it’s a similar process you go through and the nice thing for me is that I am actually competing at a much higher level in able bodied cycling then I ever did in able bodied swimming. I don’t know, it doesn’t phase me, it doesn’t make me too nervous because it’s something I never expected so I just enjoy the fact that it something I would’ve never had in swimming so it’s really, really cool.

Why did you chose cycling and not another sport?

Well my ear infection triggered me to start cycling. Basically I did sport science at Uni and whenever I had a problem and I couldn’t swim I have always looked at a way of cross-training to stay fit. So when I couldn’t swim because of my ears I looked at the different cross-training options. I could’ve done some running because I used to run at school but then an impact sport is not necessarily a good idea. OK falling off your bike and breaking your collar bone but then you know… I weighed up the options and I thought that cycling was going to be the best option at that point so I came down here and got on the track. British Cycling loaned me a road bike and I did a couple of races, road races, and a track race here and I was given an indefinite amount of time that I had to be down at the pool. We weren’t sure and that meant I was going to miss the Commonwealth swimming trials so in the same weekend as the Commonwealth swimming trials there was also the disability European cycling champs so that’s when I decided to that competition instead. Otherwise I would’ve been sitting pool side watching everyone swim thinking, I want to be in the pool.

I could see things I could do on the bike that I could mimic from the pool and it was quite a good choice of cross-training once I got back in the pool. I raced internationally a couple of times in-between when my ears were good, so it was a good choice for cross-training and then it lead to something new and exciting.

“I apparently committed the cardinal sin in road racing and took a sprinter to the finish with me so we got beaten and we got beaten on the line. But there are loads of things to learn eventually.”

Are you now focusing 100% on the cycling?

Oh I am, I am, I’m not swimming at all. I am on the performance plan or the podium programme funding as a cyclist. I literally came out this swimming programme, slotted into cycling and it’s all cycling. So I’ve not done any swimming. I did my retirement competition and announced my retirement last October so this time last year I was still a bit of both but now I am purely cycling. A lot of my improvement is down to a solid winter on the bike with the exception of being knocked off by a car and breaking my right hand and then getting knocked of in a race and breaking my collar bone. I have had a fairly eventful and good year, really, lots of experience and just with different disciplines, road racing and time trialling and that kind of thing. Now it’s just matter of trying to build that up that experience because I’m trying to play catch up. I spent the first 28 years of my life not racing bikes and now I am racing bikes so there’s a lot of things to learn. Like the road race at World Championships. I apparently committed the cardinal sin in road racing and took a sprinter to the finish with me so we got beaten and we got beaten on the line. But there are loads of things to learn eventually. The Tour of Spain, the Tour De France, any bike race on telly Barney who pilots the tandem is my fiancé and he parks me in front of the telly and says; ‘watch this, learn this, this is what you are supposed to do’ so yeah a huge learning curve. For Christmas and my birthday last year I got loads of text books about cycle racing and physiology of cycling and all sorts of books…

Have you read them all?

Mmm no, they looking at me at my desk at home I do dip into them every now and then when I come across something I am not sure about.

Do you do a lot of weight training, because the resistance of the water is different to the gears you are pushing, did you have to work on your legs a lot?

I always had big strong legs I probably should’ve used my kick in the pool and I never used my legs as much as I should’ve done so they were quite fresh when I started pedalling I guess? Yeah it’s strange, I’ve always been very solidly built and when I first arrived at the track they assumed I was going to be a sprinter because of my size. But I said to them no, no I’m definitely not a sprinter. I couldn’t sprint for toffee in the pool I mean I’m sprinting reasonably well on the bike now but I’ve just pushed big gears up hills – we’ve got a few hills between here and Huddersfield so it’s big chain ring and off we go…

“I don’t know what’s worse – getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning when it’s dark to go swim training in a freezing cold pool or going out in the rain and the snow with the potential of a truck cutting you off, it’s like mmm not sure?”

What sort of gear are you riding?

For the 500m TT I ride 53/15 and then I’m experimenting. I rode a 49/14 for the pursuit at the Worlds. We’re just trying to look at all the women like Sarah Ulmer who won the Olympics. To look at the sort of gears she pushed because that’s where we need to be. I’m just always trying to push my boundaries, to find out where that is. Then obviously you work at that in training, so it’s going to be good and then in the winter it’ll be out on the road and hopefully they’ll be no psycho motorists!

Avoid, avoid!

Avoid them absolutely, so back to the old puncture season. I mean I don’t know what’s worse – getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning when it’s dark to go swim training in a freezing cold pool or going out in the rain and the snow with the potential of a truck cutting you off, it’s like mmm not sure? So can I provide some amusing stories? Yeah, yeah…



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