After earning 17 Paralympic gold medals across both cycling and swimming, it’s fair to say Dame Sarah Storey is accustomed to success.
Now, Britain’s most decorated Paralympian is imparting the wisdom she has gained during an illustrious career onto a new generation of female cyclists.
Storey is the Principal of the ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy, set up to support aspiring female cyclists and address the gender imbalance in the sport.
The year-long programme gives riders aged 18 to 24 the chance to experience the life of a professional rider. This all takes place under the tutelage of Storey, who gives advice on racing, training, and career progression beyond the Academy.
Each year, the Academy takes on more riders, and GiveMeSport Women caught up with Storey as she put a number of aspiring cyclists through their paces on a gruelling recruitment day.
Under the watchful eye of Storey, riders took part in a peak power test, a three-minute maximal test and a 12-minute steady state challenge, before heading outside to have their bike handling skills and straight-line speed assessed.
“We’re looking for a mixture of physical attributes, and then how they’ve been able to apply themselves, and be able to stay calm under pressure,” Storey explained. “That’s also really important.
“We have to draw a line somewhere. We could take every single girl we’ve tested today and make a real difference to their career. But unfortunately, there are only three places.”
Storey described her mentoring role as a “perfect fit”, citing a desire to support younger athletes. She also revealed she was hoping to put an end to the “disadvantages” suffered by girls in cycling.
“A lot of girls who start at an early age find they are doing less racing than the boys,” Storey said. “They might be in the same races, but they’re not doing the same distances.
“As soon as they get into junior age, they find that they’ve got fewer events, they’ve got less prize money, if there’s prize money at all, and fewer opportunities to join teams.
“Then there is a significant stage race opportunity for the men at the Under-23 level, right the way through to the international ranks, but women are leaving the junior ranks as 18 year olds and going straight into a senior peloton.
“Not everyone develops as a young talent that quickly, so the Academy is filling a gap and providing a space for female riders to develop at a slightly slower pace if needed.”
One cyclist recruited by the Academy is Maddi Aldam-Gates, who was successful at last year’s trials. The 19-year-old was initially a swimmer, but turned to cycling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just thought, ‘I need something else to do, I need to keep my fitness up somehow’,” she explained. “So I started going on bike rides with my Dad, which is how a lot of girls tend to get into cycling.
“I progressed, and then I started going out with a club. From there, it just moved really quickly.
“Once I got selected for the Academy, everything sort of fast forwarded, and I’ve done my first time trial, my first road race, all since being selected.”
It was not too much of a surprise for Storey to see talented riders emerge from other sports, despite little experience in cycling, but she emphasised the need to ensure there was an adequate pathway for such a transition.
“There’s a lot of incredibly strong riders who are able to utilise their experience from other sports, in terms of being able to perform well in tests, and they will need guidance and support to become more technically proficient outside on the road.
“They come to the sport and there’s no real guidance for them. Clubs have really struggled during the pandemic, and many have disappeared.
“Trying to find a pathway that makes sense to them as individuals that perhaps exists in other sports, such as an environment where it’s women only, can be a real challenge for some to find.
“So it’s really exciting to see that you’ve got this raw talent. There’s not been that many opportunities so you can guide them towards those opportunities.
“They start to feel like they’ve got to grips with the new sport that they’ve discovered that they really love doing, and they can then forge that pathway themselves.”
An athlete as successful and experienced as Storey is sure to be a fountain of knowledge, and Aldam-Gates has been fortunate enough to be at the receiving end of this.
“Generally her advice at big events tends to be a lot about preparation,” the young star disclosed. “Preparing for your events, knowing your routine, knowing the routes.
“She very much promotes being organised, and making the most of your team around you. So it was really good when we had team events and we all arrived together, did a recce together, and made the most of the opportunity.”
Storey agreed that her best advice for aspiring cyclists would be to ”focus on what you can control.”
“What success looks like is different to every individual and we shouldn’t define success only by the outcome,” she said.
“We should also look at how successful you are at following processes, how successful you are at making a plan and sticking to it, or making good decisions to adjust that plan.”
Storey has now overseen a number of riders through the ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy, with many moving onto elite cycling teams. Does she hope to see any of her protégées at a major sporting competition in the future?
“It would be amazing to think this was the start of a journey that led to an international event,” she smiled.
“But I think the best thing that can happen is they stay in the sport, and they continue to enjoy the sport and excel for themselves at the right level, and continue to keep improving.”
Dame Sarah Storey is the Principal of the ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy. For more information visit www.skoda.co.uk/discover/cycling-academy