Singletrack Magazine Issue 118: Staying Ahead, Being Last

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Rachel Sokal spends a day with the British cross-country queen to talk all things Olympics, baggies, cake, and why if you’re not riding cross-country, you’re missing out on the fun. 

Words rachel sokal Photography olly townsend

When I first arranged to meet Annie, we planned to go for a bit of a ride for some fresh air and photos before heading to a café for a chat. As our meeting date neared, I began to question the sanity of this plan – a quick spin with the fourth best female cross-country rider in the world was going to seriously humble me and my out of condition diesel engine, even if it was going to involve regular stops for Olly to take photos. So when Annie contacted me a couple of weeks beforehand to say she couldn’t ride because she was injured, I do confess to experiencing a little schadenfreude.

When we do meet, it’s an exceptionally wet and windy February Monday morning in Hope in the Peak District and I’m even more pleased we’re not riding. Annie seems to be equally happy too. She’s just returned from South Africa where she spent most of her winter warm weather training and so her tolerance of the British winter is even lower than it used to be. 

“During December and January in South Africa I have to finish training by 8am because it’s too hot. But 8am here it’s still dark and then just completely grey through the day. It’s not the cold or the rain, it’s the sheer lack of daylight that’s hard when I’m training in the UK. Of course, it’s great to have the good weather out there too. The first time I went out training in South Africa I had my waterproof in my pocket and the others were ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I told them ‘you need to be prepared, you never know’, and they just laughed. I don’t bother carrying a waterproof out there anymore.”

At a glance, her injury seems to be rather understated. She has a neat, clean dressing on her left middle finger – the kind of thing that if one of your mates used as an excuse not to ride you’d berate them for weeks, but photos tell a different story. An innocuous over-the-bars moment on the road while spinning on her mountain bike ended up with her finger crushed between the road and the bars, causing a fair amount of damage (there was much blood and flesh on show). And the extent of the damage? “Well, I still have my finger.” Fortunately she seems to have avoided any major long-term damage and is now back on the bike, but not risking off-road until it’s all nicely healed. 

Gore over, where’s the coffee?

So, gory details out of the way and coffee and cake ordered, we get down to proper chatting. In 2017 she had her most successful year since turning pro, with a World Cup win, second in the World Championships, another British title to her name and ending the season fourth in the UCI rankings. Not only a good year for Annie personally, but the first British female World Cup winner since 1997 and first-ever medallist in the World Champs. “Last year was brilliant so this year is about doing more of the same and improving where I can.” 

But there are lots of changes for someone who plans to do ‘more of the same’. After two years with the British team OMX she has joined the French outfit, Team KMC EKOÏ SR Suntour, as well as re-establishing links with British Cycling after a gap of three years. There’s also the issue of an extended season to deal with, the first World Cup race is in March rather than the usual May, and the Commonwealth Games is in Australia in early April. Is there a risk of competing demands from different ends and difficulty coordinating the whole thing? 

“Not really. Mainly I work with my coach to plan the year ahead and what I need to do when. Working with British Cycling gives me access to loads of support, like lab testing and an expert medical team if I should need it. Support at races – like mechanics, physio and everything else – comes from the team. My new team has such a brilliant set-up so I’m really looking forward to racing this year.”

While from a results point of view there was a lot different in 2017, Annie personally changed little from the seasons before with an emphasis on gradual improvement rather than wholesale changes. Now in her ninth year of elite racing she has a lot of experience she can build on. She refers a lot to the need to ensure that she is happy and enjoying what she’s doing, and you get the impression that this comes from past experience of pushing herself and doing the ‘right things’ to the extent that she went too far. She talks a lot about being flexible with herself, getting a good balance and there’s certainly a lot of talk of cake. We spend a good 20 minutes comparing notes on cafés in the Peak and she show us pictures of the creations at her favourite local cake shop which specialises in iced doughnuts of such gargantuan dimensions to the extent that my teeth ache just looking at the photos. 

Cake or pie?

All of this discussion begs the question: which is her favourite – cake or pie? “Hmm, food questions are really tough. Are we talking about sweet pies or savoury? Because if savoury comes into it, it’s different. If it was just sweet I’d go cake. But if you had savoury in there and had a steak and ale pie or a Victoria sponge… If we were including savoury in there I think I’d go for pie. It’s like cheese or chocolate. I love chocolate, but if I never had chocolate cake again I’d be OK – but if I could never have cheese and crackers or cheese on my pizza or pasta then that would be different.” And to go with – tea or coffee? “I love a really good coffee, but a cup of tea, it’s not just about drinking it, is it? Sometimes it’s about the ritual of sitting with your hands round a warm mug.” 

Singletrack last spoke to Annie all the way back in issue 72, which was prior to the 2012 Olympics, so there’s a lot of catching up to be done. We start off with racing at her home Olympics and then missing out for Rio in 2016 when GB didn’t gain enough points to earn any places in the race. “Riding at London was brilliant; the atmosphere was amazing. I wasn’t really in with a chance of doing well but it’s different from World Cups, you can take more chances. I went out really hard [Annie was leading on the first lap] and eventually finished up eighth. I could have ridden more tactically and maybe come a place or two higher but the Olympics isn’t really about where you finish in the top ten, it’s whether you make it onto the podium.” 

Although Annie doesn’t use the exact words, you get the impression that Team GB’s failure to qualify a place in 2016 was a bit of a blessing in disguise for her. She spent a lot of the year struggling for form, something that contributed to Britain’s failure to gain sufficient points through the season. Not qualifying meant she didn’t have the pressure of racing and possibly coming away with another disappointing result. As for working towards Tokyo in 2020, there are a couple of seasons and a Commonwealth Games this year to come first. 

What is it about the Olympics?

Annie talks with such enthusiasm about the Olympics, I’m intrigued as to how it compares to racing and success in the UCI World Cup and Championships. “The Olympics is different from every other event. It’s the one platform when sport isn’t just your sport, it’s a sport for the public. Not everyone likes football or swimming, but maybe there’s another sport out there – canoeing, shooting – that people aren’t aware of, but if they’re shared more, then people might find they love that, and that’s amazing. It’s about people getting involved and not just watching other people. The more that a range of sports are featured in the Olympics, the more that people will see different sports and have a chance to see them and get involved. In that way, cross-country racing is a way that mountain biking crosses over into the mainstream.” 

Thanks to the Olympics, the general public may be more aware of cross-country racing but, in the UK at least, its​ popularity is waning among actual riders. The demand for cross country bikes has decreased to such a degree that some bike shops no longer hold stock on their shop floors. As fewer people ride cross-country bikes and race cross-country races, the perception that it’s all about being a Lycra-clad race-whippet risks going unchallenged. 

“In the UK it’s almost like it’s not seen as mountain biking, it’s like it’s a separate thing. Not many people have cross-country bikes in the UK, it’s not what’s done. But when you’re in Europe or South Africa it’s a much bigger sport, but in the UK it’s definitely perceived differently.

“The Peak District [where Annie was brought up and still lives] has really nice riding and trails, but realistically they’re more fun on a cross-country bike as you have to work more when you’re riding them. If you’re on a trail bike, firstly it’s horrible uphill and then you miss out on some of the fun of it as your bike just goes over the top of everything without you having to ride it. There are definitely bits where you do have more fun on a bigger bike but there are a lot of places where the trails aren’t built to be anything specifically technical, they’re just bridleways. On a big bike you don’t notice the fun in them, but you do on a smaller bike.

“If I go out for a ride, I’m not wearing Lycra, I’ll wear baggies and a jacket because that’s what you need to wear in the UK. If I’ve got particular hill efforts, I’ll wear Lycra or something well-fitting so I can get the power out and not feel like my clothes are dragging around. But cross-country isn’t about wearing Lycra, it’s about going for a bike ride.” 

Singletrack Nominated

Given the lower profile of cross-country in the UK, how did she feel about being nominated for the 2017 Singletrack Reader Awards Personality of the Year? 

“It was really amazing to have that recognition and nomination. It’s really nice to know that people are interested in cross-country and my achievements; that was really cool. Downhill and enduro aren’t my discipline but I love watching them and seeing what people can achieve in them. The more you cross over and the more people appreciate different things, the better for the sport as a whole and it helps it develop.”

Anyone who has ridden at Hadleigh Park will tell you the perceptions that ‘cross-country isn’t technical’ and it’s ‘all about fitness’ are rather misplaced. Just like enduro, cross-country courses are becoming more and more technical and demanding, pushing riders to excel in all areas of their riding and not just being quick up hills. Race bikes are reflecting this change too, with full suss bikes and dropper posts starting to feature as their advantages on increasingly technical terrain start to outweigh the disadvantage of the extra weight. 

“When I started in Elite in 2009 you would have a 25-minute lap with technical sections in it but they were not actually that difficult and everyone back then rode a 26in hardtail. Now you get a 15-minute lap with lots more technical parts condensed into them… In terms of its technical difficulty Hadleigh is pretty standard. You’ve got courses that are naturally technical with a few features or something very man-made which has a lot of bigger features with several built-in lines. For the man-made courses you work out which one you’re going to take, practise it and nail it and there might only be a one-second difference between lines. Then on the more natural courses there might be ten different lines and they might be different every lap, especially if it’s wet and so the fastest line is going to change. It’s on that technical stuff that you can make the most gains. Some people have the mental and technical ability to see those lines that are right on the edge that others aren’t riding, that’s where the gains can be and what makes it really cool to watch.

What tyres for winning?

“The majority of the time all of the elite men’s field are on 29in full sussers. As they are slightly heavier, you don’t see as many in the women’s races as for the smaller, lighter female riders that slight bit more weight affects the power to weight ratio to a greater degree. Also for the women the race still is usually won on the climbing – the men’s is more across the whole of the course – so in a women’s race if you are in the field and behind several women who climb really fast but not so quick on the descent then you just get stuck behind them. Dropper seatposts are changing things too. You’ll see people on a hard tail with a dropper which can make a real difference on the technical sections. It’s all course-dependent though.”

Do more technical courses mean that training is changing to keep up with racing demands? 

“For me technically in the women’s field I’m up there.” (To put this into context, Annie comfortably won the Elite category at last year’s Hopetech Women’s Enduro on her 100mm cross-country race bike.) “I definitely work on it a lot but I grew up riding around the muddy Peak District, so from a young age it’s just something that I’ve done. I know for me on a course, the bit that I need to work on is going fast up the hill so that’s what I prioritise in my training. But it’s important to be able to put it all together, like be technically good when you’re absolutely nailed and can’t see properly, you have to be able to get down the descent fast, recover from it and not mess it up. So the more efficient you are at it, the faster you can do all those things. If you can carry speed, even if you ride a section in the same time, you can save a little bit of energy for next time. That’s the thing I love about mountain biking, there are so many aspects to it. It’s not just about going fast down the hill or up the hill, it’s about linking it all together. I think in mountain biking we’re really lucky because there is so much diversity it makes training really interesting. If all you did was ride your bike on the road or swim in a pool, you wouldn’t get to see all the interesting places that you get to do on a mountain bike. I’m really lucky that my sport allows me to do that.”

Bill, please!

By this point we’d chatted for so long the rain had finally abated and Olly was keen to get outside to make the most of the slightest smidge of decent light and get some photos. But first we opted for lunch and cake to prepare ourselves for the cold and our quick look at the map for a convenient photo spot soon turns into an extended discussion about the best local trails. Eventually we head into the cold where Annie proves that despite her warm weather training, she’s a Peak District girl at heart and happily stands around in her race kit in the freezing wind while Olly and I cower in our coats and hats behind the camera. As she cautiously and yet so effortlessly spins her bike back to the car park, her injured finger protruding beyond the brake levers, I’m again relieved, if now not rather disappointed, I didn’t get to ride with her. Maybe after Tokyo 2020. 

Thanks to Café Adventure, Hope, for hosting us and providing us with the most excellent coffee, cake and lunch.

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