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Emma Pooley: Bikes, brains and the Cambridge Blues

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Emma Pooley (Great Britain)

Emma Pooley (Great Britain) (Image credit: AFP)
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Emma Pooley took over the maglia rosa.

Emma Pooley took over the maglia rosa. (Image credit: Giro Donne)
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Emma Pooley (Cervelo TestTeam) on the podium after winning the ninth round of the Women's World Cup in Plouay, France.

Emma Pooley (Cervelo TestTeam) on the podium after winning the ninth round of the Women's World Cup in Plouay, France. (Image credit: AFP)
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Emma Pooley (Cervelo TestTeam) during her solo break, which lasted over 50 kilometres.

Emma Pooley (Cervelo TestTeam) during her solo break, which lasted over 50 kilometres. (Image credit: CJ Farquharson)

Emma Pooley's rapid rise to the top echelon of women's professional cycling has been impressive. The British rider is noted for her superb climbing skills and time trialling ability but also a naivety which was cruelly exposed at this year's World Championship road race in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

Her determined, albeit modest, character, combined with academic and natural athletic ability has made Pooley an outstanding success story, on and off the bike.

Emma Pooley's journey from an unknown to a multi-World Cup road race winner started when she was a student at Cambridge University. "I was really into running but then got injured, which is when I took up cycling and triathlon," she begins.

She took her first Cambridge Blue (a highly-coveted prize earned by sportsmen and women at Cambridge University when competing against Oxford University) in triathlon; her all-round sporting talents also led her to represent Great Britain at the World Triathlon Championships in 2003 and win her age group at the World Duathlon Championships in 2004.

"I thought I was quite good at the time but I was never that good to be brutally honest," explains Pooley. "I was as good as I aspired to be and I didn't aspire beyond age group triathlon."

In 2005 Pooley graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in engineering and headed to Zurich to commence her PhD. On the bike she finished an impressive fourth at the British national championships, a remarkable ride in what was her fourth-ever road race. Her reward was selection for the world championship road race in Madrid.

Fresh face, seasoned talent

Pooley's big breakthrough on the international cycling scene came in 2007 when she won the third stage of the Thüringen-Rundfahrt in Germany. It was the first time she successfully implemented her now trademark solo break and she finished nearly five minutes ahead of the bunch after spending 80km alone. "That was the first time I was drug tested and I was well chuffed," she says, implying that the testing was a sign she had made it at international level.

Top-10 rides in the time trial and road race at that season's world championships in Stuttgart followed, although it was the following year that Pooley really exploded on the international stage. She took her first World Cup win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy with an individual effort and won the Tour de Bretagne Féminin, her first stage race win.

At the Beijing Olympics she took silver in the women's individual time trial before helping Nicole Cooke win the women's road race, the one title missing from Cooke's collection. "It was a privilege to have been able to help her win that medal," says Pooley. The 27-year-old rates that time trial as her best performance to date.

This year Pooley joined the newly-formed Cervélo Test Team and had a hugely successful season with six wins, including two World Cup races and the time trial title at the British championships. "It's been great; I like the other riders, the way we race and the tactics," she says.

"The great thing about my team is there are lots of strong riders which means we have multi-leader tactics. We all get a chance and I'm very happy to work for someone else if that is the tactic of the day; it's equally as satisfying and very good training too," she adds.

"My team works in a similar fashion to how Astana rode at the Tour de France, with lots of riders high up overall, except we don't fight. It makes it a lot more difficult for other teams to control stage races."

Pooley also won the Grande Boucle Féminine, dubbed the 'Women's Tour de France'. "It's definitely not comparable to the men's race and didn't have all the top teams there - Marianne Vos was really my main challenger - but I'm still very pleased to have won it," says Pooley.

Winning the big races

The most prestigious women's race in Pooley's eyes is the Giro Donne, the women's Giro d'Italia, where she took the lead on the third stage, wore the leader's pink jersey for three days (pictured above) and eventually finished fourth overall. "I was thrilled to be in the pink jersey but it was not one of my personal goals for the season," says Pooley.

"Claudia Häusler, my team mate who won overall, had targeted the race. As it was I lost the lead inadvertently when I was dropped on a descent. I struggle after about day six in the longer stage races. The Giro would have been great to win but I was never planning on hanging onto the lead and Claudia's a much more dependable rider than me."

Pooley's modesty is evident throughout the discussion, but when questioned on the subject she adds, "I wouldn't be cycling for a living if I didn't think I was good enough to do it so I'm not completely humble." So what was Pooley's personal highlight of the 2009 racing season? "It's hard to compare wins but on paper it is my World Cup win in Montreal," she says. "It was just after the Tour de l'Aude and I was worried about my form. I felt that I wasn't riding very well as I was tired, so to win a race straight afterward was very pleasing and boosted my morale."

Pooley attacked the top-quality Montreal field in the first kilometre and rode solo to victory. "It was almost like a 'shock and awe' tactic as no one in their right mind would attack 400m after the start and try to stay away, so I felt as if I was tricking the others. It's pretty special to lead a race from start to finish and there were so many people shouting my name. Maybe I was just too tired at the end of it to appear to be that happy," recalls Pooley.

"I think I looked more pleased with my World Cup win at the Grand Prix de Plouay where the crowds were just amazing. The only thing I can compare it to is the World Championships as we [women] just don't get that many spectators at our races. It was crazy; I didn't realise how big cycling is in the west of France.

"We implemented some good team work that day but I had to keep trying to get away which is what everyone thought I was going to try to do. Although they were trying to stop me I still managed it." Revealing an air of confidence Pooley adds, "Plouay was the first time that I was happy with my victory salute!"

Mendrisio calling...

The World Championships was Pooley's main target for the second half of 2009. In the past it would appear that the diminutive climber had lived in Nicole Cooke's shadow by helping her compatriot win world and Olympic titles. This year Cooke's form was questionable, giving Pooley a fantastic chance to shine on the tough Mendrisio circuit.

Rather than sit back and jump her opponents on the climbs, Pooley appeared to sit on the front of the lead group in an attempt to ride her opponents off her wheel, a tactic which ultimately failed when she finished 14th in the road race.

"I was disappointed with how I rode at the World Championships this year," admits Pooley. "If I wasn't then what would be the point in carrying on. I do feel strongly that I missed an opportunity and I could have done really well on a course that suited me but then it is only a bike race.

"I was one of the favourites so everyone watched my every move but I also put more pressure on myself and didn't race very smartly because of that. For various reasons I wasn't having a very good day physically," she adds.

The fact that it was the biggest race of the year and the only women's race that is televised internationally made her even more annoyed with her own performance. "The viewing public in the UK only see the world championships and when I went back there on holiday the week after every cyclist I met said, 'oh you're so stupid, you should have won'. They think I'm an idiot because they only saw me in that one race... I don't always ride like that and people have not seen the races where I was smart, which makes it frustrating," Pooley explains.

Looking ahead to the 2010 racing season Pooley isn't afraid to admit that she wants to win either the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de l'Aude. "I wasn't really good enough to win either of those this year and when you are on a strong team you have to improve enough to show the team why they should help you win."

The thought of racing at the 2012 London Olympics also inspires Pooley. "I'd love to race in our home Olympics but it's such a long way off and there are lots of good youngsters coming through so I cannot guarantee that I will be selected. At the time of the Athens Olympics [2004] I wasn't even a cyclist and then I was selected for Beijing just four years later, so you just don't know what is going to happen or who is going to step-up to international racing," she says.

Off the bike Pooley continues to work towards her PhD in soil engineering. "I have to study in the autumn and winter; racing means I just don't have the time with all the travelling," she explains. "The university authorities are fine with me putting my studies on hold during the racing season. My [PhD] boss is President of the British Triathlon Association so she understands."

There is also the possibility that her sporting focus could turn full-circle back to multi-sport based events. "If I were to go back to triathlon I would like to do long course and half-ironman events, it's something I'm considering for when I stop cycling competitively. I like the self-challenge that triathlon gives you. I know I'm not that good so there will be no pressure on me and I can just do it for fun," she says, although you get the feeling that Pooley is having a little too much fun to give up the bike just yet.