Chemical Sisters

Words: David Evans Photos: Andy Jones

Sarah King met me at 5pm on a Monday, shortly after her astrophysics lecture. We were meeting because she is a rider for Node4 Pro Cycling – a modern mainstay of professional British riding, known through various combinations of Motorpoint/CandiTV/Marshalls Pasta over the last four years – and I was about to start an internship at Rouleur and needed to write about something, anything. That one of England’s top U23 cyclists was willing to stop for a chat counted as a turn up for the books.

Apart form being 19 and a racing cyclist, Sarah is a first year Chemistry student at the University of Warwick. (I asked, a cursory knowledge of astrophysics is necessary for degree level Chemistry, apparently). Over a coffee in the University’s theatre, Sarah gave me a short seminar on how to become a supported rider in the women’s peloton. My notes amount to: be really strong and ask for little in the way of rewards. A national level swimmer who had reached a plateau in training and competing, Sarah tried a triathlon (her first and last) at a friend’s prompting. She came second despite being “a god awful runner”, thanks to blistering swim and bike legs. A familiar story follows: a place on the Talent Team, British Cycling’s well-organised incubator, before being thrust on to the track. Her first race on the boards? “Nationals, which was a nice way to start things off.”

This set the tone for the next two years, which saw Sarah off to Belgium for one crowded Kermesse, followed up 3rd in the U18 national road race, 3rd in the 10 mile time trial bettered by 2nd in the 25 (“I don’t even like 25s, I get bored”). Oh, and 7th in the senior circuit race championships, all during her first year of A levels. I imagine that this kind of precociousness was matched by a natural maturity, bike racing wisdom beyond her years. Apparently not. “I knew nothing. I was strong but I didn’t know how to keep a wheel.” Instead of coddling and coaching, I’m told the way to do well is “just follow a girl who is really good”. So, what did she learn? What secrets were gleaned on the wheels of good riders? “A lot of racing is just looking after yourself. Never do anything, unless you have to.”

No action unless absolutely necessary – I tell her that this has been my approach to studying for some time, if only I had been told it works for bike racing too. The realities of education shape Sarah’s training – ‘labs’, the bane of all BSc students, take up all of Thursday and Friday, and lectures fill up the front end of the week. Still, Sarah is out five or six times a week on the bike, with core work on Wednesday evening and the odd swim thrown in. It’s worth noting that this without the guidance of a professional coach, or any help from the Olympic Development program, which maximises its pounds-per-medal ratio by focusing on track riders.

The chemistry degree makes sense when remembering Nicole Cooke (then World Road Race Champion) suffering through her team folding mid-season. The sudden disappearance of Garmin-Cervelo’s and HTC-Highroad’s squads left riders like Lizzie Armistead and Emma Pooley casting around for rides as late as January. The women’s peloton may be getting more organised and better publicised, but even the semblance of ‘job security’ is still some ways off. Node4, however, is Sarah’s idea of fun. The women’s team is built around phenom Lucy Garner, whose name is mentioned with equal parts reverence and teasing familiarity. The squad, men and women, met up for a team launch and “posh dinner”, 25 cyclists shivering in summer jerseys under winter sunshine for press photos. The new kit was shared out, and jerseys signed by the team for framing on sponsors’ walls. The men’s team dispatched their duties like practiced pros, squiggling neat signatures in permanent marker. Sarah, on the other hand, took a couple of attempts to leave the mark she intended, but I have a feeling that she’ll have the chances to hone this skill over the next few seasons.

I got to see the new kit, mostly a fetching shade of euro-fluro-orange, on a spin the following week in Warwickshire’s countryside. We talked plans for the season and markers laid down in seasons past. After shrugging off a short 23 minute 10 mile TT (“it was very flat” – yes, but you were 17 years old), training camps in Majorca were mentioned, as was the Jersey Crit Week, ITV’s Tour Series and maybe a race or two in Belgium. The uncertainty isn’t unexpected: it all depends on race invites, exams and money. As we soft pedalled through some villages outside of Leamington Spa I realised that the rewards for Sarah’s efforts – the team’s atmosphere, kit and support, the odd bit of travel – amounted to a really good excuse to ride a bike. For all the talk of ‘epic rides’ and the roadie ideal of ‘suffering’ that suffuses most talk around cycling, the sharp end of the women’s peloton is full of riders who are there purely to ride bikes quickly. Money, glory, or the idolisation of carbon fibre barely comes into it – contrast this to any reasonable level men’s amateur race.

The posh dinner and team launch were expected to grace the pages of Cycling Weekly. Will her Mum and Dad keep a clipping for the fridge? Much eye-rolling ensues. “Well, I’d hope so.”

Women’s team For Viored-Brookvex will appear in Rouleur issue 30, coming soon.

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