Olympic mountain bike rider Annie Last

Racing in the Derby Forest World Cup

Racing in the Derby Forest World Cup - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Sports Personality of the Year and Patron of this month’s Peak District Cycling Festival, Annie Last talks to Derbyshire Life from her parents’ home in Great Longstone. Penny Baddeley reports

During team training in Austin, Texas

During team training in Austin, Texas - Credit: Archant

‘Every day is a training day for me,’ says Annie Last, who is just back from the gym, flushed with good health and dressed in what appears to be her official Olympic sweatshirt.

Red, white and blue... Annie in British Cycling Squad kit

Red, white and blue... Annie in British Cycling Squad kit - Credit: Archant

I have tracked her down to her parents’ home, in the beautiful village of Great Longstone, from where Britain’s best female mountain biker first jumped on a hand-me-down cycle to explore the rich network of local bridleways, trails and country roads.

Receiving her Derbyshire Sports Personality of the Year Award from University of Derby Vice-Chancellor Professor John Coyne

Receiving her Derbyshire Sports Personality of the Year Award from University of Derby Vice-Chancellor Professor John Coyne - Credit: Archant

Annie aged 22, represented Great Britain in mountain biking in the 2012 Olympics, where she came 8th, and when I visit her is gearing up to compete in the world mountain bike racing championships at the end of August in South Africa, before flying to Norway to compete in the last world cup race of the season.

Her training schedule sounds punishing but then she is a world medallist – two weeks before the Olympics she finished third in the last world cup race of 2012.

‘As a full-time athlete, I pretty much live, sleep and eat it!’ she admits.

The current Derbyshire Sports Personality of the Year, Annie comes from a competitive family, which takes full advantage of the stunning local countryside by embracing the outdoor life. She said: ‘I wasn’t from a cycling family but we are really an outdoors family. Mum and dad have done everything from mountaineering to walking, rock climbing to water sports.’

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Annie’s older brother Tom was responsible for getting his sister hooked on cycling. At weekends Annie would return from horse riding on her pet pony, to see Tom glowing from his local league cyclo-cross races.

‘He’d come home sweaty, muddy and I’d be like, what have you been doing?’

At the age of ten she tried it for herself and competed in her first under 12s race, delighted with the goodie bag and chocolate gift she received after the race. ‘I thought, I’ll do another one of these!’

Over the next few years she experimented with different disciplines: road racing, velodrome track, and mountain bike racing. For Annie mountain biking was the ideal option, easily accessible and relatively safe.

‘Growing up here made it so easy for me to get into mountain biking because you can leave the doorstep and be in the most amazing countryside. You are not out on the road with cars and fumes. And you don’t have to worry about traffic or laps round a track. You get the opportunity to go to some amazing places and see really cool things and it’s such a social thing too. You can chat with others on a ride.’

But from the age of fifteen Annie made a decision to train hard. She explained: ‘It went from being just something I was happy to turn up to, to being something I wanted to achieve in. I wanted to win. We are a competitive family. That’s kind of how we were brought up.’

Most evenings and at weekends the Lady Manners school pupil would undertake training rides to improve fitness for racing, often accompanied by her dad, Adge Last, who manages Thornbridge Outdoors. He found it difficult to keep up with his daughter.

Annie, who was also an active participant in school athletics, hockey, netball and running, as well as pony club eventing, soon began to get noticed in cycling circles by coaches impressed by her race results.

At the age of seventeen she got onto the British Cycling Olympic Development Programme. It was a busy few years for this modest and unassuming sports personality. She was also studying for A levels and had managed to gain a place at Sheffield University to study medicine – a course she has since deferred.

Annie preferred to take up her place on the Olympic Academy Programme, which she has followed up by undertaking the Olympic Podium Programme for elite riders. It meant a three year move to Manchester, where the Olympic Academy Programme runs its full time training camp for its athletes from the British Cycling Base.

‘Being an athlete isn’t something you can go back to in later life... At the minute I love what I do so it was not a difficult choice.’

Her everyday routine would begin with stretching and strengthening exercises, a training session in the gym, on the road or off-road mountain biking, plus technical training. Then there would be scientific ‘lab’ work – usually involving training on static bikes. Afternoons were spent on bike maintenance followed by more exercise.

‘The best bit about being an athlete,’ she said, ‘is the afternoon nap after lunch.’

Annie was instrumental in qualifying Britain to compete in the Olympic mountain bike racing event in 2012. In the two year period leading up to the Olympics she raced in world events to single-handedly build up the required points to qualify the country for entry, as there was no automatic home slot to compete.

The 2012 Olympic mountain bike cross country race course was specially built in the grounds of Hadleigh Castle, near Leigh-on-Sea on the Essex coast. The four kilometre loop course combined a physically and technically challenging course of both short and steep and longer climbs, with rock descents, around which the competitors raced for an hour and a half jostling for the best line and position in the race. Seeded fifth, Annie was on the front row of the massed start.

‘On the start line you can feel the crowd and atmosphere but you are in a little bubble, in your own world of competition. You have to be fully focused on what you are doing. It is not until you cross the finish line that you see and appreciate what’s going on around you. When I finished I looked up, and it was like, wow!

She added: ‘There’s a lot of emotion. And it’s physically pretty tiring. You have one and a half hours pushing your body to its absolute limit. I absolutely did my best in the race and to be able to compete at the home games was an incredible once in a lifetime experience.’

Annie was deeply touched that her local pub in Great Longstone, The Crispin, set up a big television screen so that locals could watch the race together. ‘It was so nice to know that people support you and are excited about what you are doing and achieving. The home support felt amazing.’

Immediate family, including mum Jane and dad Adge, were at the big event. Brother Tom showed his support by turning out in a skintight red, white and blue lycra outfit.

Professional support for Annie, who now largely implements her own training programme, includes a raft of sports scientists, nutritionists, psychologists, a physiotherapist and doctor as well as the British Cycling Coach Phil Dixon. Annie’s target is to become an Olympic champion and with females tending to peak at the sport in their late twenties to early thirties, she is a prospect for the Rio Olympics and beyond.

‘I’m still young and see myself as a developing athlete, so I’d like to think the best is yet to come. I’d like to think I’m in with a real chance at Rio.’

As an athlete in full time training and competing, Annie is keen to support local projects which promote the sport and get people into cycling. As patron of the first ever Peak District Cycling Festival, Annie is the face fronting a nine day celebration, taking place in September which will include a huge spectrum of events and activities for cyclists of all ages and abilities.

She said: ‘I’m just a voice to encourage really. The festival is not about top end racing and training, it’s about people who maybe haven’t ridden a bike for a long time, or kids who have never ridden bikes getting a taster of the sport. There will also be rides and workshops for people who are more experienced who maybe want to attend a workshop on bike maintenance or bike skills, or who want to try longer bike rides in an organised group. There really will be something for everyone and for every level. It is for families and anyone who just wants to ride a bike.’

The cycling festival, which runs from 7th to 15th September, takes place against a backdrop of 65 miles of traffic-free routes and amid the specially-protected landscapes of the National Park and is part of the tourist board’s aim to position the Peak District as the UK’s capital of cycling.

One of the highlights of the festival will be the Thornbridge Bike Fest, Great Longstone, 13th-15th September, organised by Annie’s dad Adge who has planned a residential weekend, during which guests can enjoy a range of workshops, demonstrations, self-led and organised rides, skills sessions and a challenge course.

Annie said: ‘The Thornbridge weekend will be about encouraging and making available to all cycling as a hobby, as a sport, a means of travel, health and fitness and socialising. It’s such a great opportunity to spend a weekend as a family, with friends, or even as an individual who wants to spend time with people who have like interests.’

Visitors can also drop in during part of the weekend on a non-accommodation basis to soak up the festival atmosphere of entertainment, music, locally sourced food and stalls provided by local retailers.

Annie concluded: ‘I really hope the cycling festival will become an annual event because there is so much on offer here. I’ve been so lucky to grow up here and now as a professional cyclist I just love to return to train amid our wonderful countryside in between international events. It’s good for both the head and the heart.’

For full details of the Peak District Cycling Festival please visit www.visitpeakdistrict.com/pdcf. For details for the Thornbridge Bike Fest visit www.thornbridgeoutdoors.co.uk. n

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