It’s fair to say that British Cycling has never endured a period as difficult as this one, with allegations of sexism, discrimination, bullying, illegitimate online auctions of kit and a positive anti-doping test for a leading rider all combining to bring the ship crashing into a series of icebergs. Thankfully, Emma Pooley is here, and she’s brought enough lifejackets for everyone. Well, almost everyone.
We meet in lobby of the Great Britain team hotel on the outskirts of Leeds and when Pooley arrives she has just had her final pre-race meeting ahead of the Women’s Tour of Yorkshire. It’s late, she’s tired and not to mention a little nervous about her return to racing but there’s decaffeinated tea on tap and the chance to air her thoughts fully after selected quotes from a Guardian interview were picked up during last week’s frenzy.
“Obviously the allegations against British Cycling are extremely serious and they need to be investigated but I’ve never experienced direct sexism at British Cycling. What I spoke out about, and have made no secret about, is that there should have been investment in a Team Sky women’s team,” Pooley tells Cyclingnews.
“There are also a lot of people at British Cycling who are brilliant at what they do, and really nice. They’re not sexist and they’re the ones suffering under all the stress of it all. I just hope it all gets cleared up.”
That ‘clearing up’ has already started with an independent inquiry launched and Shane Sutton resigning from his role as Performance Director amid a series of allegations. Of course, there’s still a huge amount of work to do if the ‘opportunity’ for change, as many, including Chris Boardman have called it, is used to its full potential.
“The allegations are serious and they need to be investigated,” Pooley stresses once more, before adding: “I had really good support from BC so my only quibble about the organisation is about the top level direction and the global direction on Team Sky. I’ve never experienced sexism and I’ve got the impression that all they’ve cared about is medals and performance. That’s the way it should be because that’s what their funding is there for.”
Pooley’s opinions on Team Sky have been reported extensively but in a nutshell they boil down to one element : if it is feasible to run a men’s WorldTour team on a budget of millions then it could and should been possible to run a women’s team in conjunction on a fraction of the cost. It’s that simple.
“The argument of the manager of the Sky team was that they weren’t ready. Was he wrong? I don’t know. He’s the one who talked to Sky. What I do know is that it wouldn’t have cost them much extra, a fraction of the salary of one of their main riders, to put a women’s team on. I’m not the only one who thought that was a bit unfair. Not unfair because it’s a commercial organisation but that they could have done more. If they’re leaders, they should have shown leadership in that.”
Pooley admits that she has not been part of the British Cycling bubble for some time, and therefore isn’t aware of every complexity raised in recent weeks. However she has worked with Sutton in the past.
“I just think that Shane was undoubtedly, sometimes, a difficult person to work with and he definitely upset me a few times, but he was good at what he did; he got results. He’s clearly a bit flawed, but I was never in the squad all the time, so I don’t know what he’s like to work with on a day-to-day basis. He sometimes scared me but for some people that’s how they coach. Sometimes he was also really nice to me. He was just a bit moody as far as I can see.”
A change of landscape
The last time Pooley sat down with the cycling media was roughly 20 months ago, when she competed for England in the Commonwealth Games.
Since then she has conquered the world of long-distance triathlon; women’s cycling has made incremental improvements and Great Britain have a female world champion on the road in the form of Lizzie Armitstead. In a time of heightened media scrutiny, allegations and inquiries it’s easily forgotten that there’s still a lot for women’s cycling to be proud of.
Perhaps one of the best indications of the strides forward that the women’s peloton has made is in the fact that Pooley is no longer seen as the only ‘go-to’ athlete within women’s cycling for intelligent reaction and analysis. Now there are voices all over the peloton, and it’s a peloton packed with ever-improving depth and talent. The fight for greater equality is being won.
“The racing and the coverage has seen a lot of positives,” she points out. “You can’t overnight just up the distance, the prize money and the coverage. It’s a slow circle of improvement but from what I’ve heard the peloton has become a lot stronger.”
“The biggest improvement though has been around media coverage. There’s no point to racing if no one covers it. Plenty of people race at amateur level but the point to elite sport is that you can be an inspiration to others. If you want a sport to be professional then you need media coverage so the more people that see women’s cycling then the more demand that there is for coverage. That’s what has really pleased me.”
However, like the current arguments over sexism and discrimination in British Cycling, women’s cycling and its improvements are never cut and dry, never black and white.
“One angle of the whole story has been over-promoted and become very black and white. I would like to see more nuance coverage of sexism in cycling because at the top level it’s the structure of the sport that I’d like to see addressed.”
The road to Rio
What also needs to be addressed is Pooley’s path the Rio Olympics and per personal pursuit of a medal.
Pooley 2.0 will – should she be selected – see her compete in the road race and the time trial. The time trial will be her main objective, while in the road race she has the quality and experience to ride as either a contender or as a foil for Armitstead’s chances.
In order to peak for August she will ease down on the triathlon programme – in particular running and swimming – and pick up where she left off in 2014 with her road bike.
It has been reported that a contract has been signed with the Lotto women’s team but that has yet to be finalised. However, all being well she will race the Giro d’Italia in July in Lotto colours as a warm-up to Rio. In fact, she has been inundated from teams for her services in the last few months.
“I’ve had offers to come back and it’s been nice, and quite flattering really. I had offers last October when I rocked up at a random time trial when I raced for Great Britain but I’ve not agreed to anything yet as I don’t want to disappoint a team if I’m not selected. Basically if I’m selected for Rio then I’m compromising my triathlon career for two months so it’s a bit of a compromise.
“I know from two years ago that going from triathlon to road racing it’s bloody hard and the first few races are bloody miserable as you’re fitness just isn’t the same. I have to start somewhere and this is a good one start with,” she says, explaining why she is in Yorkshire to begin with.
“It’s also a pretty awesome opportunity race in the UK. I love the fact that it’s on the same course as the men and in my day you didn’t get the chance to race that much in the UK. So this is a good one to do. It’s just a shame that I’m not that fit for cycling.”
Fitness will undoubtedly come and with it a spot on the women’s team for the Olympic Games, where she will bring an air of calmness and maturity to the team before returning to triathlon.
In a recent interview with Cyclingnews, Armitstead went on record to say that Pooley would remain a competitive athlete until the day she dies. She has the qualities and the knowledge that British Cycling so desperately need.