The last time we spoke to Sharon Laws she was looking forward to her first full year as a professional road cyclist with the Cervélo TestTeam. After two campaigns blighted by accidents and injuries, she was hoping for an incident-free season during which she could perform to her full potential.
Unfortunately for Sharon, the bad luck that has dogged her short but stellar career struck again in the women’s Giro d’Italia. The crash which broke her collar bone came shortly after she was placed fourth at the controversial British National Road Race Championships. There, Nicole Cooke accused Sharon and her team-mates Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead of riding as a team against her, contrary to competition rules.
We spoke to Sharon about that controversy as well as her season so far, including the crash in Italy, and her hopes of salvaging some individual success from the remainder of the year.
How has your first year with the Cervélo TestTeam gone so far?
The season has gone okay, but I’ve been disappointed with the two races I was focussing on: the Tour de l’Aude and the Giro. In Tour de l’Aude, I worked really hard for the team and we got a great result with Emma winning. Much of the time gap was gained on a windy day when, as a team, we managed to drop the other climbers. But then on the second-to-last day I punctured on a descent and couldn’t get back to the group. I went from 8th to 15th position, which was really disappointing. I'd done my team role well, but my personal goal was top 10 and that would have happened without the puncture.
What about the women’s Giro d’Italia?
I’ve wanted to do the race since 2008 and this year it had a stage top finish on the Stelvio, even higher than the men went in their Giro earlier this year. I had been to look at some of the stages with Emma Pooley and the mountains were massive. It all ended in a huge pile-up coming towards the sprint finish on Day 2. There were bodies all over the place and all I remember is hitting someone, flying off the bike and hitting my head hard, taking skin off my left arm and feeling very frustrated. I asked for a new wheel and then rolled in for the last 1km to finish the stage.
Only when I was back on the bike did I realise that something wasn't feeling quite right and I thought my left collar bone was probably broken. A nasty Italian doctor raised my hopes by prodding me and announcing it wasn't broken. But by this point – about three hours later – it was really sore. I was horrified as I thought that if I was in that much pain and it wasn't broken I must be a real wuss! However, the X-ray proved the doctor wrong and a few days later on my birthday back in Switzerland I had an operation. They inserted a titanium plate and seven screws, which wasn’t my best ever birthday present, but I was out three days later and back on the turbo trainer the day after that.
How much of a disappointment was it to miss the bulk of the Giro?
I was gutted. I wanted to help both Emma and Claudia [Hausler] in the mountains and was hoping for a top 10 finish too. I haven’t done the Giro before and it's really the only race on the calendar that is comparable to some of the races that the men do in terms of terrain. I just hope they still do a really hard one next year as the time gaps were pretty big this year – even among the top 10.
The crash meant that I missed out on the main race I wanted to do this season as well as on a holiday in the Pyrenees and a chance to see some of the Tour de France. Instead I had to get back on the turbo trainer and into rehab. It was a lesson that in my new career I should just give up trying to plan anything! I'm really hoping that this is the third piece of bad luck over with and that now the good luck will come. I suppose the only consolation is that it at least happened in a proper bike race this time!
How is the rehabilitation going, and what is your goal for returning to racing?
My goal is to be fit for the World Cup in Plouay. I've been working really hard and, as I said, I was on the turbo trainer four days after the operation and was able to manage an easy road ride a few days after that. But the first week was mainly spent on the turbo, doing double sessions most days with harder sessions in the morning and then high speed/low load workouts in the afternoon.
In the second week I progressed to some long, slow road rides and some turbo stuff before stepping up to doing some longer rides by the third week. I’m back in the UK now, and the plan is to do some chain gang rides in Cheltenham, some local TTs and maybe a few sportives to prepare me for Plouay and the rest of the season. I don’t want to race in Europe too early because last year after I dislocated my shoulder I raced too soon and it was detrimental mentally. I didn’t do very well and lost a lot of confidence. I think it’s important to use lessons like that and learn from them.
How do you react to Nicole Cooke’s claim that you and your team worked together to deprive her of a win at the National Road Race Championships?
I think it's important to recognise that we ride for a professional team which has high expectations. All three of us wanted the national jersey to be in Cervélo’s hands and, while obviously we all wanted personally to win it, to Cervelo it didn’t matter who won. Our directeur sportif has taught us all season that we are stronger if we stay together as it gives each of us more options to win. For Emma and I, it's easier to potentially get away and win as Nicole will be worried about Lizzie in the sprint, and for Lizzie it's better for us to be together because Nicole will follow the moves Emma and I make.
Eventual national champ Emma Pooley attacks but Sharon, left, and Nicole Cooke respond
Emma proved that staying as a group was the best way for her to win when she couldn’t drop Nicole on the climb. Emma didn’t want a silver medal so she wasn’t going to ride away with Nicole when they had a gap after the climb of the fourth lap as she knew Nicole could beat her in the sprint and the same would apply for me. For Emma and I, if we couldn’t drop Nicole on the climb, it was in our personal interest to stay together as a group and then try to attack in the hope we could get away and win. For Lizzie the best option was to track Nicole as she was confident she could beat her in the sprint – if we'd come together as a group of four at the finish then Lizzie would probably have won.
So the way we rode was actually in our personal interests in terms of winning the jersey anyway. Yes, Emma and I could have potentially ridden with Nicole on the third lap after the climb and Lizzie might not have come back, though given how well she descends and how strong she is on the flat it's very likely she would have. In that scenario it's possible that Emma and I would have got silver and bronze, which wasn’t what we wanted.
Nicole was incredibly strong and everyone commented on how well she rode. Emma and I couldn't get away from her on the climb and she followed all the attacks that were made. I've watched the footage from the last lap and I think she showed what an amazing rider she is – anyone else would have been dropped and we would have got a 1-2-3 result.
I think Nicole should take it as a compliment that we felt we had to stay together because none of us was confident that alone we could beat her. In 2009 when I did the Australian Nationals, Carla Ryan rode away from a group of four, two of whom were also from Queensland. They wouldn't work with me to chase and then they beat me in the sprint. That’s how cycling works. If you read the reports from other national championships around the world there are similar stories. There were no complaints in the men’s race when Sky dominated and got a 1-2-3 and I don’t see the difference between their race and ours.
I hope that everyone will see the race in a more positive light and consider what a strong team we have for the World Championships. It would have been interesting to have seen the reports if Nicole had won. We would have come under severe criticism and the comments would have been about Nicole beating three riders ‘from the same team’. As professional athletes, in that scenario, I don’t think our directeur sportif would have been too impressed with us either!
For me personally it wasn’t a great race as I wasn’t feeling that good physically. After the Tour de l’Aude I was quite sick and had been on antibiotics. I'd just about recovered for Trentino but then got sick again, and the day after the Nationals I was back on antibiotics. I didn’t feel strong and struggled a lot more on the hills than I was expecting to. The shortening of the race didn't suit me at all – I don’t think 48km is constitutes a proper road race, it was more like a crit. I think it's really disappointing that, yet again, women’s racing is compromised purely so the men’s race can start on time and have sufficient TV coverage. That’s not a great way to promote women’s sport!
Do you still feel you can have individual success this season?
I haven't felt like I've reached really good form but have been working really hard for the team, so I’ve normally ended up just feeling shattered before the end of the race. But the team results – or rather Emma’s in the races I've done! – have been really good, so it is worthwhile. After Plouay at the end of August it’s the National TT champspionships and Tour of Ardeche at the beginning of September. By then I'll hopefully know about selection for the Worlds and Commonwealth Games.
Sharon, right, with Cervélo team-mates Lizzie Armitstead, left, and Emma Pooley