Over the last four years, one of the major regrets that I have had is the sport’s inability to retain female riders.  I’ve seen some really promising talent appear for half a season, never to be seen again, some have been around for even less than that.  Many find the sport hard, or just want to have a go to try it out only to disappear a week later.  But if we want women’s cycling to grow, everybody has to stick at it, so with that in mind, I thought I would share my reasons for competing with you, in the hope that if somebody like me can do it, maybe you can too.

A bit of background

It’s been four years since I started competing again.  Back then, I was working restricted hours, suffering from chronic fatigue, which meant that I had no energy to train after work and, even after the 45 minute circuit race, I fell asleep on the way home as I was so tired.

A Woman’s Guide to Racing (Part 1)

Time trialling on V718 in 2012

Following the 2011 season, I swapped medication under the guidance of my consultant neurologist.  I have epilepsy, which is controlled, but my new consultant wouldn’t let me come off medication whilst I wanted to ride my bike and do all the things that most people take for granted.  After being on sodium valproate for 15 years, I swapped to levetiracetam, which was a relatively new drug.

By March 2012, I had lost over two and half stone and for the first time in longer than I care remember, I could think much more clearly.  I was still tired (I had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue in December 2010) but the cognitive behaviour therapy that I had had to undergo as the treatment for the chronic fatigue had helped me to manage things much more effectively.

A slow start

The first few races I did in 2012, I got dropped the first time, had a woman shout at me because she didn’t think I knew what I was doing (I did, I was just shattered), and all I could physically manage to do was ride in 9 events, three of which were men’s road races, with the rest being closed circuit races.

A Woman’s Guide to Racing (Part 3): What training should I do?

Racing at Salt Ayre in 2012

One of the problems, I came to realise, with losing 20% of my own bodyweight, was the loss in power and strength that came with it.  We went to Majorca in September 2012, and we had to change the chainring to a 36 because I wasn’t strong enough to use the 39. The longest ride I could manage was about 60 miles, which was to and from Sa Calobra, not only because I wasn’t particularly fit, but also because of the remnants of the chronic fatigue.  Looking back at it now, that holiday helped my recovery as it kick started my winter training block, and reminded me that I could actually ride a bike!

Development, development, development

One of the good things about being involved in cycling in years gone by is that it meant that turning up to races, you knew what you were talking about.  However, I soon found that if it hadn’t happened on Facebook and Twitter, it hadn’t happened.  At this point, I was only a third category rider, so if I suggested something to anybody else, I always got the response “what do you know?” which got on my nerves no end.  So, I paid my entrance fee and qualified as a coach through the Association of British Cycling Coaches, as I couldn’t afford the pathway through British Cycling and there was no funding available for me as I live in a region where there’s a plethora of BC coaches.

By the end of 2012, we were getting a women’s road race league set up for 2013 as well as a development team for women in the North West, both of which are different stories, but it became obvious that the development pathway in women’s cycling was missing, and is something which we have hopefully started to build on now for the rest of the UK.

Coaching with Huw and Carley

Coaching with Huw and Carley

National Series and National Championships

In 2013, I took part in a few National Series races, but it became increasingly obvious to me that there were limits to what I was physically capable of achieving.  I was working over 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday, and with the additional work that I was doing trying to develop women’s cycling in the evenings (mainly articles, meetings and phone calls about the best way to improve the women’s scene with various people) and the odd bit of coaching and mentoring, it meant that I was doing probably around 60 hours a week, including my day job.  I still struggled to do any mid week training and racing in the evenings was an absolute no-go, so I was basically stuck with a small amount of time, which meant that I couldn’t do enough quality training to keep up with the better riders.

In 2014, there seemed to be a change in start times too, which saw many of the events with a 9:30 am start time.  One of the problems with epilepsy is that seizures occur as a result of triggers.  One of my triggers is tiredness and I find it extremely difficult to get up early to go and ride my bike (not even racing) as it takes my brain longer to wake up than most.  So it came to pass that I couldn’t afford to do all of the National Series events, for three reasons – I couldn’t afford it financially (I am self-funded and therefore it becomes expensive staying over before each event), I couldn’t afford the time off work (I only have a finite amount of holidays available) and I couldn’t afford it physically (in the event that the worst happened and I had a bad reaction to the early start), which is also a massive mental obstacle for me to get over.

But it isn’t only road race events that this affects – I can’t enter any time trials on Sundays because they all start too early, which also means that (on the whole), I can’t enter National Championship events either, or the RTTC Classic events.

(c) Ellen Isherwood

(c) Ellen Isherwood

What training do I do?

My training is pretty limited, as I have to keep an eye on my energy levels.  I don’t get home until six o’clock and I generally have admin to do with regards to the Racing Chance Foundation (from sorting the management accounts, to writing/updating the website, to trying to organise races), so mid week it’s generally limited to 40 minutes, three or four evenings a week.  At the weekend, if I’m racing, I’ll generally do a two hour ride on the Saturday (if I’m racing on the Sunday) or a three hour ride on Sunday (if I’m racing on a Saturday).  If I get to do more than 120 miles or 8 hours in a week, that’s a big week for me.  During winter, I tend to aim for 150 miles a week, but again that’s based on the majority of my riding being at the weekend (usually about 7 hours a weekend).

Racing at Tameside 2015

Racing at Tameside 2015

Why do I race?

It has since become apparent that the chronic fatigue that I suffered from between 2006 and 2012 was a side effect of taking sodium valproate.  After coming off that drug, I was like a different person, mentally and physically.  That being said, that drug was 40 years old and we knew what the majority of the side effects were (which is why I don’t have any children of my own).  The new drug only came into existence about 10 to 15 years ago, so it’s relatively new in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t know what the long term side effects of this drug are, but I intend to remain as fit as possible in order to keep any horrible side effects at bay (one side effect of taking anti-convulsants is a tendency for depression) and, unfortunately, I don’t know what I’ll be able to do when I get older as I don’t know what the long term effects will be on my kidneys and liver.

But in the meantime, I intend to support, help and persuade as many women as possible to take up competitive cycling as it not only keeps you fit, it gives you the self confidence you need to be assertive in every day life, which is where the Racing Chance Foundation comes in.

Every time I get on a start line, it’s an achievement.  I’m not bothered about points – I know that I’m never going to be a world beater because I don’t want to be, I just enjoy taking part.  I do know that it keeps me fit – since 2011, my resting heart rate has dropped my around 30 bpm, which I choose to take as my heart showing me that it’s fitter.  Unfortunately, I need something to keep me motivated and the racing fills that gap, even if a lot of the racing I do is actually training!

If you want to find out more about how to take the next steps in competitive cycling, visit the Racing Chance Foundation for some handy information and help make a difference to women’s cycling.

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