Laura Trott: The Inside Track
In an exclusive extract from Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s biography, we get a captivating glimpse of the passion, psychology, tension and tactics driving Laura to succeed…
LAURA: All the races I do, all the medals I’ve won, and I’m defined by the devil.
The elimination race.
Every two laps, the rider at the very back of the field is removed. The devil takes the hindmost. I won it in London and I won it in Rio. I’ve won it in Australia and Belarus, from Paris, France to Cali, Colombia.
I’ve not always been good at beating the devil. The first few I did, I was terrible. Then it just clicked. Everyone had been telling me that the safest place to ride was second wheel – tucked in behind the leader, no danger, no worries. They forgot that there were eighteen other riders all trying to do the same thing all the time. You sit in second wheel, everyone comes over you. You’re stuck. You’re in the worst possible position. No getting out of there. And then it hit me one day: my strength is my speed. If I stay at the back, all the way round, I can line up the last woman, get out and get round her. When the numbers are big, ride the bunch a little, make it easy for myself. Hide in the middle and don’t get caught out. Tick them off, girl after girl. When it gets down to seven of us left – well, seven’s my favourite number – I’m not being beaten from here.
Six riders left, it becomes less cat and mouse and more like a sprint. Watch everyone else a little bit more. I know my rivals. I know what they fancy. I know that none of them has ever tried to take a long one on me, blasted off the front and tried to hang on for the entire 500 metres. Even if they did I’d try to catch them anyway.
My eyes are constantly tracking. Who’s doing what? Where are they? Who’s travelling, and who’s boxed in? Some riders will try to pretend they’re not bothered about me. If I swing up the track and drop in at the back, the woman whose back wheel I’m on won’t even look at me. That makes sense if that rider knows they can outsprint the woman in her slipstream. Just leave them there. With me, that’s suicide. I’m coming round you.
If they take me to the top of the track, that’s fine. I just don’t let them trap me up there. If I drop down, I make sure they can’t drop down on my outside. Then I’m boxed in. And remember: it doesn’t matter if you’re at the back for 499 of those 500 metres that make up each two-lap showdown. As long as you go round one rider in the metre that matters, on you go.
You have to get up to speed fast. Some people are terrified by the calculations. The constant pressure. At my first senior World Championships, Apeldoorn in the Netherlands in 2011, I ended up as nineteen, same as my age, the fifth rider to be hooked of the twenty-three girls who started. It was so fast compared to anything I had ever raced before. I didn’t want to go over the top of everyone by smashing it really hard, because that seemed a lot of hard work, and at nineteen you don’t have that much hard work in you. I hadn’t worked out that you make that one big effort and you’re on the front and you’re safe for at least two lots of two laps. Then you’re going your speed, rather than someone else’s. The bunch tends to follow you and let you dictate.
The other girls might want to watch me. To use me as a pilot, to steer them through the traffic and the chaos. I’ll mess with their minds by mixing it up. One race I might do most of it from the front. If I’ve got good enough form I can race it like an individual pursuit – three kilometres hard hard hard. I know that I can ride at what we call zone 3, somewhere between 84 and 94 per cent of my maximum heart rate, for an hour. I can do threshold – harder still, not quite flat out – for twenty minutes. Work any harder than that and I’m going into the red, and in a multi-event race like the omnium, that will mess you up for the tests to come. That gives me a fallback: ride at threshold pace at the front for the whole race, which is generally under eleven minutes. In my head I’m safe there. But do that all the time and my rivals will read me like a comic. So sometimes I’ll go to the back and do it solely from there.
None of it is preordained. All the time you’re resetting. If you don’t make the decision in the first half-lap you’re screwed: a lap and a half isn’t long enough to sort yourself out. I let my instinct make those constant calculations for me. No two of my races are ever the same. You can’t read me, not with the weapons I’ve got, not when I hate to be overtaken like nothing else.
The devil follows me away from the track. When I’m in the car I don’t like letting other cars out. I hate it if another driver comes up the inside of me; I refuse to let them pull out. On the road I can see it all unfolding ahead of me long seconds before anyone else because of my experience. I can pre-empt it all. Reflexes, mental maps, confidence in the tightest of squeezes.
The bike and I are part of the same machine. Yet there are times when the strains of constant competition can show. I remember after the Olympics in 2012 being really upset over nothing, not quite feeling like I didn’t want to do it any more, but not really knowing why I was doing it. It wasn’t that I’d fallen out of love with it, but I was going out to ride my bike because I felt like I had to. There was no racing coming up. I was going out to ride because I didn’t know any different.
That lasted a week. That was it. Never a doubt since, never a fling anywhere else.
But I get nervous. I always have and probably always will. Legs going up and down. The sound of my cleats tapping: an attempt to ease my nerves, if an annoyance for my teammates. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach doing a scratch race. I get on my bike and it’s gone. It’s gone, like a switch being hit. I can feel it running out of my legs.
When I get taken to photo-shoots, standing there in the big white studios, all tripods and make-up and mirrors and glamour, I say give me my helmet. I only feel natural when my helmet is on – it’s me, it’s part of me. It would be like somebody else bleaching their hair or getting their nose redone. They would look in the mirror and see a stranger staring back.
My sister Emma always loved riding the roads. I’m a track girl, through and through. All the things that terrify road riders about the track scare me in reverse on the roads. When I’m riding the boards, there are no brakes, no gears. Some idiot cannot just slam on in front of me.
In 2012, I’m out on the roads in a weaving bunch. I look up and I can see a massive crash happen ahead of me. I stop. I’m at the back of the main group, because that’s safest in my head, riding round and not wanting to be there. Someone who is chasing to get back on to the peloton smashes into me and sends me over the handlebars. Into the tarmac, chin all mashed up. I feel like my earrings have been ripped out. I think my ear has fallen off. Blood everywhere, no idea what my team manager’s name is, running up to her all cut up and messed, and saying, ‘Do I still have my ear?’ ‘Okay, get in the car, you need to go to hospital.’ Getting into the hottest ambulance in the world, passing out, waking up in a ward with bright lights and dried blood with both my ears still on.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always seen road racing as second to the track. I’m only doing it to benefit my track work, so if I crash out on the road, I’ve crashed out in something I don’t enjoy, which isn’t even the event that I’m practising for. Despite winning the National Road Race Championships in 2014, when I outsprinted Lizzie Armitstead to claim the title, you couldn’t have convinced me to do road World Championships. It was bad enough that I had to do the Commonwealth Games road race. Right girl in the wrong event.
On the track I love that close proximity. I barge people out of the way. In the elimination race I like going through small gaps. Mark Cavendish always says to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ But that’s my fun. There’s no way you’d get me going as fast as he does around a corner. I wouldn’t do it.
It’s not the injuries I fear. Had I fallen off in the points race at the Rio Olympics, the last of the six events in my omnium, I would have got back on. I would have finished that thing, even with a broken arm, even with a broken pelvis. Some competitions, I’ve been in points races and looked up to see I’ve got sixty laps to go, thinking, I’ve got a stitch, I’m not going to finish this race. Then at the Olympics it all just felt like fun, and I simply rode round.
You react and you hold on to control when your form is there. When you’re going well, a rival will throw something in and you’ll think, ‘All right then, bring it on, let’s have it.’ You know how you have to respond and you do it. When you’re going badly and someone does something sudden, it’s, ‘Oh my God, no ...’ When you’re struggling, you think you know what you have to do but you’re not sure if you can do it. By the time you’ve thought about it, the moment has passed and you’ve lost the race.
Sportspeople talk about being in the zone. Being in the zone for me is being on my bike, on the track, and it all feeling effortless. The riding, the tactics, the timing, the big moves. All of it without thinking, all of it without consciously trying.
This inspirational autobiography explores the world of two of the UK’s most successful athletes, how they were inspired to take up cycling, the highs and lows of competing, and what it is like being cycling’s golden couple. Laura Trott and Jason Kenny: The Inside Track by Laura Trott and Jason Kenny is out now, hardback, £20 (Michael O’Mara Books).
Photo Credit: Dan Rouse