Interview: Emma Pooley

By Shane Stokes | Saturday, June 27, 2009 7.00am

Britain’s Emma Pooley has had an impressive season to date, winning the Grand Prix Costa d'Etrusca early on, taking the Montreal round of the UCI World Cup and then netting two stages plus the overall classification in the Grande Boucle Feminine last weekend.

This weekend, the in-form rider will be contending for the British road championship title in Abergavenny, Wales, where she'll be up against Olympic and world champion Nicole Cooke.

BikeRadar spoke to Emma about her wins, her Olympic silver medal at Beijing plus her remaining goals for the season.

Prior to the start of the Grande Boucle Feminine Internationale  –   known as the women's Tour de France –  Emma Pooley told BikeRadar she thought the four day race might be too short for her, but that she would target the opening time trial. Things turned out quite a bit better than expected: she dominated that opening race against the clock, netting the first yellow jersey of the event, then continued in the same vein for the rest of the women’s Tour.

Pooley’s team-mate Christiane Soeder took over at the top on day two but it was just a temporary interruption to the Briton’s stint in yellow. She claimed it back when she soloed to victory on day three, then she and the rest of the Cervélo Test Team successfully defended it to the finish on Sunday’s final stage.

"I'm very happy," she told BikeRadar, then added modestly: “We had a really good team there and I think half the team could have won it, but I was lucky.

“I was surprised how things went – I did better in the time trial than I expected, as it was so technical and seemed to have more downhill sections than uphill ones. My team-mate [Soeder] took over the lead on the second day but then I got it back when I won the third stage. It was flat and it was a case of repeated attacking until someone from the team got away.”

A rising star 

This victory is the biggest stage race success Emma’s had so far, and maintained a strong tradition for the Cervélo squad. “The race used to be the women’s Tour de France and while it is a bit smaller than it used to be, winning it was important,” she said. “The team have taken several consecutive victories in it and it is great to continue that run. Winning it gives me more confidence for the nationals, although it will be a very different contest as I don’t have a team there.”

Pooley has been racing for less than five years but is fast amassing a very decent palmares. In March 2008 she soloed clear 40 kilometres from the line to win the Trofeo Alfredo Binda World Cup race, then under five months later she took silver in the Olympic time trial behind Kristin Armstrong in Beijing.

This season’s performance has confirmed her ability. In March she won the Grand Prix Costa d'Etrusca, then at the end of May she netted her second World Cup round win when she won the Montreal leg of the competition. The Grande Boucle success adds to that, marking the biggest stage race win of her career so far.

Montreal magic

Montreal was arguably her most impressive victory of the season. The 26-year-old broke away in the first minute of racing and remained clear for the entirety of the 110km contest. She eventually came home 1 minute 14 seconds ahead of a small group led by Swedish rider Emma Johansson, having dominated the day’s racing.

“When I went clear alone in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda last year it was unintentional; I thought someone else would come with me, but I found myself alone and kept going,” Emma told BikeRadar. “This time round it was deliberate, although the tactic in Montreal wasn’t my idea. Our directeur sportif said that I should try to go alone and go early, because it is a course that is really hard to chase anyone down on due to the hills.

“The question was would they let me go early, and the next question was whether I could last the distance. I was lucky because they didn’t chase straight away – I think they thought it was just crazy – and I did last. So it worked out okay in the end.”

As Pooley explains it, attacking and getting a good lead put the onus on other teams to chase, thus guaranteeing an easier ride for her own team-mates and making it possible for them to counter should she be caught. That recapture never happened, highlighting her strength on climbs and against the clock.

Elite athlete

Emma pooley in time trial mode:

Emma in time trial mode

Being clear for practically the whole race was a big exploit, a bigger athletic achievement than the solo ride which netted her first World Cup round win. Human nature being what it is, though, her win in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda was more satisfying for Emma. Yet it’s an even earlier performance which she says gave her a bigger buzz at the time.

“I think the first time is always the best, as with so many things,” she said, when asked which of the two World Cup wins was most satisfying. “Yet I think actually my first UCI point ever was probably the sweetest moment in a race.”

That said, the Montreal victory reflected a greater self-assurance, as well as further confirmation that she is now firmly positioned in the Elite rank of the women’s peloton.

“It was different in that it was planned, not a fluke,” she said. “I didn’t go into the race, thinking ‘if I am lucky, I will come top 20’. I went into the race thinking that I had a chance of winning. So it was very satisfying – I felt like I had earned it after 110 kilometres in front.”

From triathlon to road

Pooley started out as a runner and triathlete, turning to cycling in 2005. She was still doing some triathlons in 2006 and the season was, in her own words, a ‘real struggle’. Things picked up in 2007, however; she came second and third on stages of the Grande Boucle and finished third overall, as well as taking other good results including a stage win in the 2.1 Thüringen-Rundfahrt der Frauen. Pooley ended the year with a strong ride in the women’s world championships in Stuttgart, finishing eighth in the time trial and ninth in the road race.

“In 2007 I spent two months training in Australia in the winter and had a much higher fitness level,” Emma explained. “I had a few flukey good results in international races, and it got to the point where I had at least an outside chance of going to the Olympics. Once I had that goal it was a really good motivator. That was that year when things started coming together in terms of being an international competitor.”

Philosophy of success

Pooley with olympic road race gold medalist nicole cooke:

With Nicole Cooke after the pair won gold and silver in the 2008 Olympic Games

Pooley says she tried to avoid thinking about a specific result going to the Olympics last summer. Her reasoning – and one which is shared by many sports psychologists – is that obsessing about a particular outcome brings more stress and less chance of success than simply focusing on getting the very best performance out of yourself on the day.

“I tried not to have any expectation of a result,” Emma told us, speaking about the time trial. “Obviously I wanted to win, but I concentrated on riding the perfect race.

“In the end I was absolutely overjoyed about getting a medal. I was also really pleased that I was comfortably clear of third place. Looking back, I don’t think it could have been any better. It was the main highlight of the year, standing on the podium there.”

Swiss switchover

Emma pooley in her cervelo test team kit:

Emma Pooley in her Cervelo TestTeam kit

Pooley soon joined Kristin Armstrong on the Cervélo Test Team, moving from her 2007/2008 squad Specialized to the Swiss team at the end of last season. She was already living in Zurich, doing a PhD in geotechnical engineering there, so the location is ideal.

There are many strong riders on the team, and in January she told BikeRadar she was looking forward to the chance to learn from them and improve.

“I can see a lot of weaknesses that I can improve on,” she said then. “It encourages me – I was really pleased with how last year went, but not satisfied. In road racing, I need to learn things such as consistency, tactics plus technical stuff such as riding in a bunch.”

“ I did improve last year and my then-team helped a lot. What is really good is riding in support of other people on a team; it teaches you that you have to be in the right place at the right time, otherwise you are not doing your job properly.”

A team player

It is a sign of Pooley’s team instincts that she includes other people’s victories among her highlights of the season. Winning the Grande Boucle and the Montreal World Cup round were big boosts to her, obviously, but the other high points she emphasises are as a team player rather than as a winner.

“Apart from Montreal, I think that the Berne World Cup was pretty cool as well,” she said. “Kristin [Armstrong] won there, and it was our first World Cup win as a team this year. There have been quite a few highlights – the Tour de l’Aude was good because Claudia [Hausler] won. And I really enjoyed the Tour of Montreal because I felt that I was helping a lot – it really was satisfying.”

Kirsten Wild won the latter, adding to the strong list of victories that the Cervélo riders have amassed this year. Success breeds success, with expectations and confidence being ratcheted higher with each team win.

Emma commented: “It is good because it makes everyone raise their standards. You don’t sit back and think that training is going all right – you want to keep looking at how you can improve to keep up and keep being part of it, really.”

Season goals

This weekend, Emma will target the national road race championships in Abergavenny and try to turn last year’s silver medal behind Nicole Cooke into gold. Then on 3 July she will begin the 20th edition of the Giro Donne, her first participation in the women’s Tour of Italy.

She should fare well in the 10-day race, but she feels it is more likely that she will end up riding for a team-mate. “I wouldn’t say I am targeting the Giro because I have never done it before,” she stated prior to the Grande Boucle. “I think you have got to be strong to just ride the Giro. I am not aiming for a result there for myself.

“Right now, there is no designated team leader. We tend to ride several people strong – we are quite well balanced as a team and tend to do well with that. For example, we won the Tour de l’Aude by having three very strong riders, Regina Bruins, Claudia Hausler – who ended up winning – and Kristin Armstrong. Anyone could have won it really, so that meant the other teams were really on the back foot.”

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After the Giro Emma will have a break then build back up for her debut in the Plouay World Cup plus the World Championships. Having netted an Olympic silver last year, she seems motivated to go one step higher this time.

“Obviously I would like to win,” she said. “I was really disappointed at the Worlds last year because after getting second in the Olympics it seemed like a bit of a failure to come eighth.

“The chances will depend on the course and also where my form is at the end of September. I peaked just right for the Olympics last year but by the time the Worlds came around, I wasn’t at my peak any more. I am hoping to go a bit better this time round.”

Judging by Emma’s form so far this season, we reckon she’s in with a pretty good chance.

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