Smiles have been hard to come by in the Great Britain camp so far at the Track World Championships, but Becky James cut a beaming figure as she basked in a hugely uplifting and wholly unanticipated bronze medal in the keirin on Thursday night.
The 24-year-old, whose mere presence at these championships – never mind in the semi-final or final – was a victory in itself, took a giant leap towards consigning a torrid two-year period of illness and injury to the past. Amid talk of a crisis emerging in the ranks of the home nation, with sub-par performances and internal discord, James’ performance provided the feel-good factor that had been so sorely lacking on the first day and a half.
At the 2013 World Championships in Minsk, the world seemed at James’ feet; the then 21-year-old had taken the keirin title along with two bronze medals in the course of a glittering week. However, just over a year later she had to have an operation after a smear test revealed cell abnormalities that had a ‘severe’ risk of developing into cervical cancer.
An injury to her left knee soon followed and after months of trying to manage it and failing to recover adequately, James was eventually forced into a four-month period away from the bike. She has described the injury as career threatening and her recovery has been a protracted process, returning to the bike in early 2015, to the track in the spring, and to competitive racing in late summer.
The World Cup events over the winter were a key test but to be back at this level – the best, James says, she’s been since before the injury – and winning medals was above and beyond her expectations.
“It’s just absolutely amazing – I can’t believe it,” James said after collecting her medal from the podium.
“For me, to be back at my first Worlds, everything was a bonus after that, and to get a bronze medal is unbelievable. I can’t get my head around it.”
James pointed to the fervent home support inside the Lee Valley Velodrome, fired up moments before by Laura Trott’s scratch race gold, as a key factor behind her performance. In the crowd were family members, including boyfriend and Wales rugby international George North, and she paid tribute to them, as well as the staff at British Cycling, in enabling her to realise this comeback.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve had my whole family, my parents, my grandparents and George. It’s amazing, at a home Worlds, it’s not very often they can come to watch me, so I’m a very happy girl right now.
“Having the support from everyone in British Cycling, all the coaches, medical staff, all my family as well, just saying they 100 per cent believe in me – that really got me through. It’s what got me through the last few weeks and it’s just so nice to see improvement finally.”
James was keen to distance herself from the malaise that had engulfed the British camp over the first day and a half.
Most pertinently for her, the women’s sprint duo of Jess Varnish and Katy Marchant failed to secure a spot for the event at the Olympics, while the men’s sprint team also flopped and the women’s pursuit quartet fell apart in qualifying on Thursday.
“This was my new beginning,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy the experience and not feel down about anything.
“We can’t change what happened yesterday, however disappointed, upset and frustrated everyone feels. It’s one of those things you have to move on and forget about. That’s why I just wanted to go out and push as hard as I could today, get everything out of my legs, just to prove myself back in the team.”
This may seem like the culmination in a long road from illness and injury to full fitness, but for James it feels more like a new chapter. She described how she saw “really, really slow steady improvements” over the winter before seeing “rapid improvements” over the last month, and with expectations suddenly heightened ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio, she can’t wait to write the following pages.
“I just don’t want to stop now. Because I had so much time off I don’t want to take a break – I’m just ready to push on and train hard for the next five months,” she said.
“There’s definitely more to come, there’s a good few more months of hard work to come. I’m just really excited to start training again, I’ve got my plan going, we’ve got camps coming up. I still think I’ve got a good amount of room for improvement.
“From my point of view my winter was pretty rubbish from a racing perspective – I’ve not really done any good racing since nationals – so for me this is like the beginning.”