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'The coaches just didn't have the heart to tell me to go home' - The once-unfancied Irish athlete set for the Olympics

It’s been a week to remember for track cyclist Lydia Gurley and her team-mate Lydia Boylan, following their success at the World Championships.

Lydia Gurley (right).
Lydia Gurley (right).
Image: PA

FIVE YEARS AFTER taking up track cycling, Lydia Gurley realised a long-time dream last weekend.

Along with team-mate Lydia Boylan, she qualified two slots in the Women’s Madison and one slot in the Women’s Omnium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, owing to an accomplished performance at the World Championships.

The pair finished 11th in the Women’s Madison, surviving a brutal race that saw multiple crashes, with Boylan hitting the deck at one point.

“I just felt like I was in a dream really,” Gurley tells The42. “I thought of that moment every day for three years, and it finally arrived.

“Before the race, I would have felt that pressure of finishing the job off. Not just myself but for the team. You know if something goes wrong, it’s everyone’s hopes and dreams down the tube.

“It was quite a crazy race. You had many teams fighting for positions and riders fighting for the opportunity to ride for their country at the Olympic Games. It was full-on.

“Unfortunately, we had an incident with my team-mate Lydia Boylan. Another rider went into the back of her. It’s just one of those things she had no control over.

“I was in the race and I wasn’t really aware that it happened, because we’d just done a change. I could see green jerseys running over to another point.

“I think there were one or two crashes that literally happened right beside me and I wasn’t really aware.

“When you’re in Madison, you just have to focus on what you’re doing. If there’s crashes around you, you just have to keep looking forward.”

And hopefully Boylan wasn’t too seriously injured?

I’d say some normal cuts and scratches and burns that you get from a track race. Whenever you go down, it takes you a little bit [of time] to get the body moving again. You’re going to bash something up when you hit the ground at high speed. So it’s never a positive thing for yourself or your team-mate to go down.”

Not that Gurley focuses too much on the considerable risk in what she does, though. “In a Madison, because it does tend to be so crazy and hectic, I try not to think so much of things that can go wrong, because you kind of put your mind in a negative place. I generally just try to think of myself with everything that’s in my control.”

Boylan and Gurley reaching the Olympics represents a major boost for what is a minority sport in this country, and one which doesn’t tend to be provided with ample funds or top-class facilities.

“We repeat it again and again that we don’t even have a Velodrome. For a small nation, not just a solo rider, but to have a team in the Madison for the first time it’s been held at the Olympic Games, it’s a massive achievement for all the riders and staff. I’m proud of the part I played in it and my team-mates.

“It’s been a challenge in the whole two-year qualification process. Many times we’ve been down and out, but we’ve come through it, so we should be really proud of what we achieved.”

uci-track-cycling-world-championships-2020-berlinday-4 Lydia Gurley and Lydia Boylan pictured during the World Championships. Source: Guy Swarbrick

And could their success actually pave the way for a Velodrome to finally be built in Ireland?

“We continuously hear things: ‘It’s going to start next year.’ It’s such a shame that it hasn’t already happened. To watch track racing live is the best thing. I might be slightly biased, but you really only get an appreciation for the speed and the accuracy, the technique and the skill involved when you watch it live.

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“That’s something if we had a Velodrome in Ireland, younger people could start [participating], and cycling’s popularity is growing massively in Ireland. It’s something you could do during the winter, it doesn’t matter how the weather is, you go to the Velodrome and get some training done. I think it would be massive and I really hope what this team has achieved in the last four years will contribute to that finally happening.”

The achievement is particularly remarkable given that Gurley was relatively late in taking up the sport. Born in Galway, she spent time in Brunei and Canada as a child. Around the age of 11, she moved back to her native Athenry. She re-located once again to Canada for university and it was in 2010 aged 25 that she started cycling, initially taking part in triathlons, before trying out for the Irish team pursuit in the summer of 2015.

To be honest, I wasn’t good enough at the time to make the team. I stuck around Majorca [where the Irish team are based]. I think the coaches just didn’t have the heart to tell me to go home. I just hung around, trained with the team and worked at it. Then in 2016, it was really just myself and Lydia left. A lot of riders had retired at the time. Almost by default, we became the Madison team. We raced together in the first Madison Race, the European champs. So we’ve been racing together since then.”

Despite coming from Ireland, Gurley by her own admission has “a bit of a Canadian accent”. And it was in North America where she first discovered her love of cycling.

“I just wanted to get on the bike and I enjoyed it so much. The speed. Going up mountains and into valleys. The immense sense of freedom and peace that you get on the bike. But it’s slightly more intense on a track bike.” 

Gurley’s passion for the sport ultimately convinced her to make a life-altering decision. She abruptly cut short her time spent in Birmingham doing a PhD in renewable energy in favour of, as she puts it, “cycling round in circles”. Success soon followed though. In 2017, she won a bronze medal in the scratch race at the Track Cycling World Cup event in Cali, Colombia. And last weekend’s feat at the worlds is further validation for her somewhat risky decision in taking up cycling full-time.

“I guess it worked out in the end, but at the time, from a professional point of view, it was probably not the best thing to do. But I can look back now, I can feel like that was the right decision to make. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent your country and potentially compete at the Olympic Games. I’m grateful that my family provided the necessary support at the time and a lot of the financial support. I trained for a good year and a half without any payment, so I certainly needed the help.

“There was an element of right place, right time. But I’d also improved massively in the year of training with the squad. Ultimately, to be part of certain programmes, you have to be able to take the good and the bad. There are aspects of that life that are difficult, but I was willing to accept those in order to [reap the benefits of] the potential outcome.” 

majorca-beach Gurley and the rest of the Irish team are based in Majorca. Source: DPA/PA Images

While it’s better known as a holiday destination, Gurley and the rest of the Irish team are currently based out in Majorca, given that their own country simply cannot provide them with the necessary facilities.

“The roads are great for training. A lot of people have been there on holiday and it is a special place, but it is a different life when you live there. You have to try to make a life in a separate community where you don’t speak the language.

“As an athlete lifestyle, it’s different. I’ve never been to Magaluf. I don’t participate in that side of it. It’s not what people know Majorca for. It’s a somewhat monkish existence. It’s literally train, sleep, eat, repeat. That’s what it takes.

“We live in this little town called Alaró, so even if you’re not living with other riders, you see cyclists a lot of the time. You go out for a coffee and you’re likely to meet with them as well. That has its benefits and its negatives. It makes your whole existence about cycling. It’s not like a normal job where you can just switch off at the end of the day and go home. You tend to constantly think about it, because it’s all-consuming, especially leading up to the big competitions. 

It’s an amazing feeling when everything’s going right. But I’m sure it’s the same with every athlete — if you’re injured, or things aren’t going your way, and you don’t understand why, then it’s the worst feeling. It can be a massive roller-coaster, spending a great deal of time away from home and a lot of time around the same environment, making it difficult to escape from it.”

And as well as the inevitable psychological pain, in terms of the physical demands put on athletes, it is up there with the toughest sports. 

“My body is covered in the marks of being a track cyclist,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate not to have any serious injuries, but I have had injuries.

“Track racing is a pretty brutal sport. It’s no holds barred. It’s hard. But crashing is a part of the race, which I try not to think about too much. You crash and the first thing you think about is getting back on the bike, especially in something like the Madison. You know your team-mate is in there. So you have to get back on the bike and finish the job.

“You almost don’t feel it so much then, you might feel it more so the next day — whiplash, hitting your head and this kind of thing. I try not to focus on it too much. But pain is part of it. If you can’t accept you’re going to be in pain sometimes, you need to pick a different sport.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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