It was a Friday afternoon, business was slow and I was staring out of the window of my home office counting down the hours to a time when it was socially acceptable to crack open a beer. Suddenly I heard the ping of my email and saw an incoming message from my editor Michelle at Total Women’s Cycling. I scanned over it, pausing only on the key words that leapt out at me:
“Women’s pro cycling team | Majorca | Monday morning flight?”
Before I’d read the paragraphs that linked these words together, I fired back an email to Michelle to tell her that I could most definitely make it.
So there I was, three days later on a wet, cold Monday morning en route to London Gatwick to board a flight to Majorca to interview and ride with the women’s professional cycling team, Wiggle High5. As I sat on the plane, having just lost a silent battle with the man next to me for space on the arm rest, I suddenly realised how big a deal this was.
The thing about the job I do as a sports journalist is that it’s not just about being able to interview people and write well, you also have to ask your body to perform on a level that is often several leagues out of your comfort zone for the sake of a good story. This was precisely one of those jobs and I was little bit apprehensive about the prospect of keeping up with Olympic Gold medallist, Dani King and her team mates.
Wiggle High5: Image Steve Jackson
The plane touched down in Palma and I blinked my way into the Majorcan sunshine towards a Wiggle High5 team car (like the ones you see on Eurosport) which was waiting for me outside.
My first encounter with the team was that evening at dinner. I edged my way into the private dining room and nervously sat down with my plate full of food like a kid at a new school hoping to be accepted. As I looked around the room I saw familiar faces that I recognised and admired from watching them win races. I’d reported on these women and their performances and here I was sitting next to them at dinner. Of course the team were lovely and we got chatting about life, training and the season ahead.
The next morning I shovelled some breakfast into my mouth still wondering how I was going to try and keep up with this team of pro athletes and still have any wits left in the afternoon to deliver three interviews with Swedish national champion Emma Johansson, former World Champion Giorgia Bronzini and Oympic Gold medallist, Dani King. Expressing my anxiety to Australian rider Chloe Hoskins she reassured me that today would be a pleasant ride and I had nothing to worry about. I was still unconvinced.
We journalists were given Eastway bikes to ride which yet again made me nervous about riding a new bike in an environment where I was already very much an underdog. Thankfully the bike was a good fit and light enough to give me every help I would need whilst chasing down these fiercely fit women in chrome, orange and black.
The media team
My worries eased off slightly when I saw these professional cyclists performing the same rituals that my friends and I have before our rides. There was a familiar sense of faffing around; last minute dashes to the loo, stocking up with gels and bars and giggling whilst leaning on their frames. Without the matching kit, bikes, soigneur and the convoy of Wiggle High5 vehicles in the background, this could have been the start of a Sunday morning ride with my mates.
The plan was to ride 60 miles with 3,000 ft of climbing up to the Lluc Monastry. We all wheeled out and I made a beeline for the middle of the pack. I might not be very experienced or particularly quick but I bloody well know where to sit in the bunch to make my life as easy as possible.
Protected by the other riders and sitting two abreast, I rode alongside Australian, 2x world champion, Annette Edmonson who told me she was taking the ride ‘easy’ after a recent collision with a car a few days earlier that had left her with an astronomical bruise down her leg. You would have had no idea she was in any pain at all as she chatted cheerfully to me about how much she was enjoying spending time with her team here in Majorca. She whipped out a Go Pro and took a few snaps explaining that racing internationally meant that she relied on sending photos to her family in Oz to keep them updated on this incredible career path she was on. Thanks to her friendliness, I started to relax, realising that as long as I was protected by these girls, I could just follow their line and sit comfortably. It was a relief to know I wasn’t expected to pull my weight at the front!
My pack mentally soon went to water at the foot of the first hill. Whilst I could perfect the illusion of keeping up on the flat, tightly nestled in their slip stream, the hills completely obliterated my ruse and very quickly I was passed by everyone.
Panicking slightly that I would be dropped for good, my spirits rose when Italian sprinter and 2x women’s road champion, Giorgia Bronzini popped up from behind, placed her hand on my back and gave me a well needed nudge up the hill. What a hero. I was back on track and managed to catch the team and secure my position in the middle again.
Safe for the time being as we made our way to the biggest climb of the day, I started to observe how the team interacted with each other and some of their habits whilst in the saddle. Most strikingly, their bike handling skills are mind blowing. I watched in awe as they sat up with ease and started to take off layers and pass them to the car that was travelling next to them, tighten their ponytails and peel a banana, all whilst travelling at about 20 mph. At this stage all I could manage was a nervous one-handed grapple at my bottle cage.
Secondly there was there subtle art of communication. So used to travelling in a tightly packed molecular group, they all seemed to know each other’s next move and if not, all it took was a gentle nudge to tell them where they were. At no point did they seem concerned about touching wheels. I on the other hand was watching the wheel in front like a hawk. The thought of taking out an entire professional women’s cycling team mere months before the Olympics was very unsettling indeed.
Soon we approached the foot of the climb up to the Lluc Monastry. Predictably by the first switch back the chrome, orange and black started to slip out of sight. Desperate not to get picked up by the media car I pushed on to the top. Slowly I started to find my rhythm and soon I had clicked into a consistent pace which, although nothing to write home about, was comfortable enough to maintain and quick enough to keep the car at bay. By this stage I wasn’t at all bothered that the dust from the team’s back wheel had longed since settled. I was having a great climb and at last the realisation that I had escaped grey London for a lucky gig in Majorca had sunk in. This job may see me eating bread and butter most months but I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
As I approached the last switch back I spotted team manager Rochelle Gilmore ahead who had kindly slowed down for me. As I passed her, like Giorgia, she gave me a push that was so strong it saw me flying to the top, falsely looking as though I had done the whole thing at that speed. Team Wiggle High5 were all there waiting and as I rode in beaming like a maniac, French rider Audrey Cordon-Ragot said I’d done really well. I cracked what my boyfriend calls my ‘melon smile’ – the one I bring out when I am especially happy (and which looks like a slice of melon).
Chloe Hoskins, me, Rochelle Gilmore and Audrey Cordon-Ragot
But, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. There was still a steep descent to survive and, if it’s possible, I am even worse at going down hills than I am going up them. Just as I caught my breath I saw the team gliding off like a flight of swallows as I nervously brought up the rear. Once again, it wasn’t long before they flew completely out of sight and I was left with a white knuckled ride to get down the mountain as quickly and as safely as I could.
Not daring to look down at the speedometer to see what break neck speeds I was doing, I held my breath on every corner and with each one I passed, let out a withering sigh of relief. After what felt like a decade I was finally at the bottom and thankfully saw the team ahead who had taken the pace off to allow me to catch up. With my head down and my hands on the drops I busted a gut so as not to keep this incredible group of women waiting for a knackered journalist.
Spot the odd one out
The endorphins when I rolled into the hotel after what I can only describe as three hours of riding by the seat of my pants, were bubbling out of me. Partly from the sunshine and the fantastic company and partly from relief that I didn’t have a heart attack en route. I survived my ride with Team Wiggle High5 and managed to keep the adrenaline going long enough afterwards to conduct three coherent interviews with the riders. More poignantly, I can now say that I have ridden with a professional cycling team which speaks directly to the fan girl within me.
Sheet white but ecstatic. Captured by Steve Jackson
That evening Guardian journalist Helen Pidd and I gladly ordered a couple of glasses of red wine to honour our efforts and were also very excited to see Giorgia Bronzini partaking too.
Needless to say, that evening I slept like a baby and the next morning I squeezed in 30 miles with the team before I turned around and cycled back along the stunning Majorcan coastline to catch my flight back to London.
Not a bad day in the office and an experience that opened my eyes to life behind the scenes of professional female cycling. Thanks to Wiggle High5 for making me feel so welcome and for waiting for me at the top!