Olympic cyclist Joanna Rowsell on why there’s no better place to train than Surrey

Jo Rowsell celebrating gold with her teammates

Jo Rowsell celebrating gold with her teammates - Credit: Archant

Surrey cyclist Joanna Rowsell won the hearts of the nation when she and her teammates pedalled to victory in the velodrome at London 2012 – but then disaster struck on the recent RideLondon-Surrey 100 when she was involved in a serious crash. Here, she talks to Surrey Life about her comeback – and why there’s no better place to train than the leafy lanes of our beautiful county

This summer, a year ago to the day after her breathtaking victory at the London Olympics, cyclist Joanna Rowsell found herself at another starting line in the capital, dreaming once again of gold.

The event, the RideLondon-Surrey 100, had been arranged as part of the London 2012 legacy and involved an elite women’s circuit race followed the next day by a mass participation 100-mile ride from the Olympic Park, out into the Surrey lanes, and then back for a nail-biting finish along the Mall.

“As a Surrey girl myself, I was really looking forward to the weekend, and the event on Sunday felt like a home event because it was going to take us through Cobham, Woking, down towards Shere, over Leith Hill, back through Abinger Hammer and over to Dorking ,” says Joanna, 24, who grew up in Cheam. But it was not to be.

With just half a lap to go during the circuit race, a rider in front crashed, and although Joanna slammed on the brakes, she went over the handlebars, landing heavily on her head and left shoulder. Later, she discovered the worst. She had broken her collarbone and displaced some bones, and would need an operation to have a plate and six screws inserted into her clavicle.

As she lay in her hospital bed in excruciating pain she feared her hopes for the coming season had been shattered. “I was supposed to be doing a hard training block in August for the start of the track season in September, but I knew that wouldn’t be possible,” she says when we chat just a few weeks after her operation.

“This year really hasn’t been much fun. First, I was knocked off my bike in April, then I suffered several bouts of tonsillitis, followed by a painful operation to have my tonsils removed. And I wasn’t even at full fitness when I had this crash in London. That’s three bad things, so I’m hoping my bad luck is finally out of the way!

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“But there have also been plenty of highs, too, and the best was winning the British National Time Trial title in Glasgow in June. I’m now hoping to compete in this event, as well as the track events, at the Commonwealth Games next summer.”


A need for speed

With the National and World Champion-ships just around the corner, Joanna hasn’t had much chance for recuperation, but four weeks after her operation she was back in the saddle, competing in the individual pursuit at the International Belgian Open in Ghent. “This was much sooner than my surgeon would have liked, but I needed to race to qualify for the World Championships this winter,” she says. “I wasn’t at my best, but I was surprised and very happy to win by a huge six seconds and couldn’t have asked for a better comeback.”

Perhaps her victory brought back golden memories of the Olympics when, as part of Super Saturday’s spectacular medal haul, Joanna and her teammates, Laura Trott and Dani King, beat the United States in the 3,000m pursuit final by no less than four seconds to take home gold in front of an ecstatic velodrome crowd. They also smashed the world record in the process.

“I was over the moon to win and, as the crowd went crazy, I just tried to soak up the atmosphere,” says Joanna. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity: a home games, a gold medal and a world record. The crowd and their support definitely spurred us on.”

But despite the heady atmosphere in the Velodrome, nothing prepared her for the wider public reaction. “A few days after winning gold, we decided to go shopping near the Olympic Park, and it was recommended that we had a police escort. When we asked why, they said: ‘You’ll see.’ And sure enough, as we walked around in our Team GB outfits we were mobbed by people taking photos and asking for autographs.”


A worldwide audience

But Joanna also attracted attention for a very different reason. After roaring to Olympic victory, she removed her helmet to reveal she is almost totally bald – the result of the alopecia she has suffered for 14 years – and chose to ascend the Olympic podium, watched by a worldwide audience of 17 million, without her wig.

Overnight she was heralded as an inspirational role model and her website was inundated with messages from fellow sufferers thanking her for making such a positive statement. The moment was all the sweeter because the race fell on International Alopecia Day.

“I had tweets and e-mails from all over the world telling me how much it had helped, particularly from girls who had been bullied at school,” she says. “They said that since I’d stepped onto the podium, the bullying had stopped, and I feel quite proud that I’ve been able to make such an impact.”

Joanna knew she would be making a statement without her wig, but has resisted becoming a poster girl for the condition. “People seem to remember me more for standing on the podium than for the fact we broke the world record three times in a row, which can be frustrating,” she says. “But I understand that there were so many gold medals in the Velodrome that people like something a bit different.

“After the Games, I was frequently asked how alopecia affected my daily life, but the fact is, it doesn’t. Everyone else does their hair in the morning, I put on a wig. It’s no different. I’ve always had the attitude that I didn’t want the condition to hold me back.”


Life-long record breaker

Perhaps Joanna’s healthy attitude can in part be ascribed to her sound schooling at Nonsuch High School for Girls in Sutton, where she was neither bullied nor teased. In fact, she became something of a star pupil, when, in 2004, her raw skill was spotted by British Cycling’s talent team. “I did my sprints, laps and static bike tests, and apparently had the highest output for a girl my age that they’d ever seen, though they only told me much later,” she grins.

When she joined the British Cycling Academy in Manchester at 18, she intended taking a year out of studying to try becoming a full-time cyclist. But within nine months she had won her first title and knew she had made the right choice.

No one could ever doubt her commitment. She trains six days a week, spending up to five hours a day on her bike, and can often be spotted whizzing along Surrey’s roads. “I’ve been all over the world, and much as I like Lanzarote and Majorca, Surrey is undoubtedly my favourite place to train,” she says.

On her rare time off, she is often to be found with her boyfriend, Dan, who lives in Redhill. “He used to be a cyclist too. In fact, that’s how we met – he was a friend of Olympic cyclist Lizzie Armitstead’s boyfriend – and we’ve been together for nearly four years. He works as a primary schoolteacher in Croydon now so joins me at weekends or during the school holidays.”

So what does the future hold for this brightest of cycling stars, who received an MBE for services to cycling in the New Year honours? “Well, next year we’ve got the Commonwealth Games, which is a big target because that will comprise individual events rather than the team event we ride in the Olympics,” she says. “And then I’ll be aiming for Rio. But one thing at a time. You never know how many bones I might break before then.”


My Favourite Surrey...

Restaurant: Crostini, an Italian restaurant in Cheam. They don’t just serve your typical pizza and pasta, but really good traditional Italian dishes.

Shop: A new fashion boutique in Banstead called RBYG (named after the colours red, blue, yellow and green). I attended their launch party a year ago and really like their designer ranges.

View: From the top of Box Hill. After I’ve climbed to the top, which I do every day to get home after a training session, I love drinking in the stunning view and relishing my achievement.

Place to relax: Abinger Hammer. I ride through it on my training sessions and there’s a really pretty picnic area on the village green, where I’m often tempted to stop!

Places to visit: Shere is such a quaint and picturesque village, and Cranleigh has some lovely shops. I often stop for a cuppa in the local café.