Interview: Sharon Laws

Late blossomer who has succeeded on both tarmac and dirt

“Do you want the good or the bad news?” asks Sharon Laws, British Olympic road racer, elite mountain biker and recently signed up member of the powerful Cervelo Test Team.

We’ve only ridden about 30, admittedly hilly, miles through some of the most picturesque countryside the Cotswolds have to offer, but a combination of lack of breakfast and, okay, lack of fitness have rendered me dangerously close to hitting the bonk.

I ask for the good news. It’s only a mile to the coffee shop where we’re due to stop for a chat. And the bad? It’s all uphill.

It’s clear that Sharon is as unused to riding with donkey-slow journos as I am to keeping pace with thoroughbred pros, but 10 minutes later there’s no trace of impatience in her voice as she loops back round to encourage me up the last few metres into Stow-on-the-Wold. 

Her reward for such forbearance is to be obliged to recount her life story in minute detail, no doubt for the umpteenth time, in exchange for nothing more than a cappuccino and a chocolate brownie. But it really is a story worth telling, involving a remarkable talent that was only truly uncovered at a point when most athletes are winding down their careers.

Early years

Born in Kenya in 1974, Sharon moved to the UK with her parents as a small child. The family intended to move back to Africa, but the death of her father when she was six put paid to those plans. Sharon grew up as an only child in the idyllic Cotswolds town of Bourton-on-the-Water.

A sporty kid, she played hockey to county standard and enjoyed a spot of middle distance running but when it came to cycling, she had no concept of a bike as anything other than a cheap mode of transport.

“I know it sounds silly, but growing up I didn’t realise cycling existed as a sport,” she admits. “I never saw it on TV and remember seeing people in Lycra for the first time and laughing at them!”

Growing up, Sharon saw bikes merely as a cheap mode of transport

After school she completed a degree in biology at NottinghamUniversity before the irresistible lure of Africa took her first to Zimbabwe and then on to Uganda, where she worked as a volunteer, setting up programmes to help train locals to live more sustainably.

Her only exercise at this time was to run every day, often with the local people. This being East Africa, their standards of fitness were sky high even if their standard of kit was not. “I remember running with this guy who was wearing Wellington boots and he was still incredible,” she says.

Catching the cycling bug

In 1999 Sharon came back to the UK to do a master's degree in conservation at University College London, after which she was offered a placement with the Civil Service as an environmental advisor. In 2001, aged 27, she tried mountain biking for the first time and immediately became hooked on the sport.

Work then took her to South Africa where she began to ride a lot more, participating in team multi-sport adventure competitions and winning the first mountain bike race she entered, the Pilgrim’s Rest. A few road races followed but these mainly served as training for the gruelling multi-day adventure races.

In her accounts of these races, which typically included running, cycling, kayaking and rope work, the phrase “I ended up on a drip after that one” seems to crop up with alarming regularity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of pushing yourself to this kind of extreme, a high pain threshold and a bull-headed determination to finish is never a bad thing if you want to be a world class road racer, particularly one who excels in the mountains.

Medical interventions aside, Sharon was building up a level of fitness and stamina that would see her and a riding partner win the women’s competition in the inaugural CapeEpic mountain bike race in 2004, beating some established names.

A job with Kew Botanical Gardens brought her back to the UK later that year and in 2005 she had some mountain bike success in Europe in the TransAlp team event and, more significantly, as a solo rider in the ultra-hardcore single day Christalp race.

Big break Down Under

Living in London and having a job that involved a good deal of long-haul travel conspired against Sharon’s progress as a competitive cyclist and it was not until another major work-related move, this time to Australia, that things began to fall into place.

Late 2006 saw her setting up home in Melbourne and discovering a huge road cycling scene that meant there was no shortage of opportunities to ride both socially and competitively. Regular tough, hilly group rides allowed her to build up enough form to secure a podium spot in the two-day Tour of Coleraine before she went on to win the Tour of Bright in early December 2007.

Her success prompted Sharon to buy a decent bike, hook up with a coach and enter the Australian nationals in January 2008. This was to be the race that catapulted her from obscurity to Olympic hopeful in a single bound, and even now there remains an element of disbelief in her voice as she recounts how events unfolded.

Sharon in the '08 Australian Open Road Championships

“I can remember phoning a friend and reading out the start list,” she says. “I was asking ‘Can this one climb? Can that one climb?’ and they said ‘Sharon, they’ve all raced in Europe, of course they can climb!’”

In fact, so new was she to the elite racing scene that, unable to recognise her potential rivals, come race day she resorted to writing their race numbers on her arm. “The trouble was, I ran out of arm,” she says.

To have an unknown rider beat their reigning Olympic champion Sara Carrigan into third place was a minor sporting sensation Down Under, and Sharon reckons her second place garnered as much publicity as Oenone Wood’s win.

Pursuing the Olympic dream

Things moved quickly from this point and the offer of a contract to ride with pro-national Team Halfords in preparation for a possible Olympic road race slot meant moving back to the UK again. Fortunately her employers, Rio Tinto, were supportive and she was able to take a sabbatical to pursue the Olympic dream.

Good performances in the Fleche Wallone and especially in the Tour de L’Aude effectively sealed her place on the plane to Beijing alongside Emma Pooley and eventual champion Nicole Cooke. But after the fairytale build-up, there was to be literally and metaphorically a major bump in the road along the way.

Having been all but handed her plane ticket after winning the National 25 Time Trial in June, Sharon was invited to do some filming for the BBC’s interactive guide to the Games. Shooting took place near her base in Abergavenny, South Wales and the scenario called for Sharon to chase down a simulated attack, giving a running commentary while being filmed from a handlebar camera and a camera car.

It ended in disaster when, forced to chase hard to catch an over-enthusiastic ‘breakaway’ in wet, gusty conditions while concentrating on describing the action, she hit a pothole, lost control of the bike and crashed heavily.

The result was a badly gashed knee and what seemed initially like just a sore ankle. Three hours later, with the knee still bleeding and the ankle ballooning, a visit to A&E revealed a broken fibula. And this just six weeks before the Games began.

Describing the aftermath of the incident, an expression that conveys a mixture of regret, frustration and deep disappointment flickers across Laws’ face. “Even though it was amazing to go to the Olympics, that accident really ruined the whole experience for me,” she says.

“I couldn’t go to the kit fitting because I couldn’t stand up for that length of time and had to use the Cryocuff for three hours a day [think high-tech strapping attached to a portable fridge] so with all the rehab exercises it was mentally and physically draining.

"British Cycling were amazing though, and everybody rallied round. I was okay for the first couple of weeks because there was so much to do but by the third week I cracked."

Sharon Laws, Emma Pooley and Nicole Cooke during practice for the 2008 Olympic Games

It can’t have helped that while the BBC made full use of the crash footage in their Olympic coverage, they failed to send even a 'get well' card to the stricken athlete. After an initial few days in plaster, an operation to insert a plate and six screws into her leg was followed by a period of intense rehabilitation in Manchester during which time she and the Cryocuff got well acquainted.

Just three weeks after suffering the break, Sharon made her first tentative move to get back in the saddle but admits to feeling terrified on that first ride and in particular at the prospect of clipping out, given the strain it put on her injury. Gradually she was able to intensify the training and eventually used a tough Welsh sportive, the Tour of the Black Mountains, as a final stamina test just before the team flew to Beijing.

With a couple of training rides under her belt in China, having prepared for racing in sunshine, heat and humidity, conditions on the day of the race – a deluge of biblical proportions – could hardly have been farther from those anticipated.

“My heart sank when I opened the curtains because it had been wet when I crashed in Wales and I’m just not a big fan of riding in the rain,” says Sharon. “It was horrific. I’d never done anything like it before – there were rivers of water running down the road. On the first lap a Korean girl crashed and I got taken off. I managed to get back to the peloton but it did shake me up."

On the descents she was touching speeds of 70km/h and with so much water around another crash for someone was inevitable. Unfortunately for Sharon that someone was a Canadian rider just in front of her, and after braking hard the British athlete skidded and hit rain-soaked Cantonese tarmac for a second time.

This was just at the point when the pace was ramped up, and despite remounting once again, as riders attacked and team cars got in among the peloton, there was no chance of catching the medal contenders.

Without the crashes could she have been in among them at the death, fighting for glory? Modesty and a gift for understatement conspire to prevent Sharon from articulating what, reading between the lines, is a clear belief that she was capable of achieving a lot more than her still respectable finishing position. Scratch the surface and it’s evident that her disappointment is still intense, though it generally remains well hidden behind a positive mindset and sunny disposition.

With the Olympics behind her, a further test of her resolve came in the 2008 World Championships. In the road race she was clipped from behind, breaking three spokes, resulting in a wheel change and a long chase to get back on terms with the peloton. It was yet another misfortune that blew any chance of success in the race that saw Nicole Cooke add the Worlds to her Olympic title.

Team GB, including Sharon on the far right, at the 2008 UCI Road World Championships

With a disappointing end to a season that promised so much, British Cycling threw Sharon a 2012 Olympic lifeline by suggesting she give mountain biking a go as a possible route to the London Games.

After spending the winter in Australia, during which time she came fifth in the Australian nationals, she returned to Britain but not before claiming victory in the women’s pairs at the 2009 CapeEpic with her 2004 partner Hanlie Booyens.

Mentally refreshed by her time in Australia, evidently back to full fitness and by now relieved of the metalwork in her leg, everything look set for Sharon’s first professional season as a mountain biker with the Halfords team.

But by her own admission 2009 proved something of a disaster. In what was supposed to be a hybrid road/mountain bike season, after completing only a handful of events on the cross-country circuit she suffered yet another serious out-of-competition injury.

It was in April that she fell down the stairs at her base in the Peak District, dislocating a shoulder and badly tearing the cartilage. The injury was bad enough to require that, once more, she go under the surgeon’s knife.

“It turned out that this injury was worse than the broken leg,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to do anything at all for two weeks and then it was a case of sitting on the turbo trainer, doing rehab exercises and travelling to Manchester three days a week for physiotherapy for the next two months.”

In retrospect she feels that her comeback race towards the end of June was too early, given that she had only got back on a mountain bike a week beforehand. Perhaps inevitably, crashes followed and a loss of confidence on the bike was the net result.

The situation was compounded during a training camp in Morzine, France during which her technical skills reached a particularly low ebb. Climbing wasn’t the problem, she says, but when it came to the descents the fear of falling off and damaging recently healed wounds held her back.

Still, for many riders, third place in the UK National Cross-country Championships would have been construed as a success. Laws, knowing what she should be capable of, dismisses the result as simply “not good enough”.

So, halfway through the season the suggestion was made that she abandon fat tyres, mud and regular crashes to make the switch back to road racing. She agreed and in August moved to Belgium and remained based there with the British Cycling academy girls for the next two months until after the World Championships.

2009 World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland

But it took time took regain her fitness for road riding. Sharon explains that while cross-country mountain biking involves constantly repeated short bursts of uphill effort and high level technical skills on descents – especially during a wet season like the one she endured this year – road racing demands a wholly different set of mental and physical skills.

It is more cerebral, she says, requiring an ability to concentrate on your immediate road positioning while simultaneously monitoring events in the rest of the peloton. This takes place during sustained high level physical effort that must be controlled if enough is to be kept in reserve to hit the 'top end; when needed.

So, having tasted elite competition in both disciplines, Sharon feels that despite starting her career on dirt, her physical and mental attributes make her more suited to tarmac racing. She clearly excels in less technical multi-day cross-country events, but it is her ability to climb that makes her a valuable asset to any road team.

It was therefore perhaps no surprise when, during the Tour of Ardeche in which she finished seventh, Cervelo came knocking with the offer of a year’s contract that was gratefully accepted. Having rounded off the year finishing  28th  in the Worlds in Mendrisio, by the time of our interview, Sharon was looking forward to heading back to Australia for the winter. 

As for 2010, she is clearly excited at the prospect of riding with British team-mates Emma Pooley and the fast-developing Lizzie Armistead as part of the Swiss-based Cervelo Test Team. With the option of taking the mountain bike route to the 2012 Olympics receding, Sharon says she is praying for an injury-free road season that will allow her to ride to her full potential.

Staying healthy and racing regularly will provide opportunities to hone tactical skills and further develop an already strong time trialling technique, and after that, who knows? For someone whose elite road racing career had a fairytale beginning there’s no reason why it can’t have a similar ending. But if the 35-year-old harbours any specific sporting dreams, she’s also seen how quickly things can change for better and for worse and chooses not to divulge them. 

The coffee shop interview over, we cycle back to her mum’s flat in a Beijing-style cloudburst. Could I return the infamous Cryocuff to the physiotherapy department at the Welsh Institute of Sport on my way home, she asks? It’s practically on my doorstep and I’m happy to help her dispense with an item that can only serve as a reminder of some dark, days when luck was in short supply.

Conventional wisdom has it that over the course of a sporting career luck always evens itself out. As I take my leave, I can’t help but think that if there’s any truth in the theory, Sharon Laws is in line for an awesome season.

Sharon celebrates with riding partner Hanlie Booyens after winning the '09 Absa Cape Epic

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