Going the Distance with Imogen Cotter

By Imogen Cotter

A look back at my life in the saddle to date

Irish professional cyclist and Škoda ambassador Imogen Cotter introduces us to her exclusive monthly column for We Love Cycling, ‘Going the Distance’..

Hello everyone and welcome to the first instalment of ‘Going the Distance’, my new monthly column for We Love Cycling. As some of you may know, I am a professional cyclist from Ireland chasing my dream of riding at World Tour level. ‘Going the Distance’ aims to bring you along this crazy and unimaginable cycling journey with me. Over the next few months, I’ll be delving into a behind the scenes sneak peek into what I get up to this year; how I prepare for races, race recaps, the pro-peloton, and answer any questions you have along the way!

But before I get into all that, let me introduce myself properly! My name is Imogen Cotter, and I am a professional cyclist for the Belgian team Fenix-Deceuninck. I am 29 years old, from County Clare, in the west of Ireland. I began cycling in 2017 through a talent identification initiative with Cycling Ireland. They were looking for athletes to introduce into their track cycling programme. At the time, I was living in London after graduating from university with a BSc in Sports and Exercise Sciences, and I was doing a lot of running which I really enjoyed. To be honest, at the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life or what I wanted to do career-wise, so this opportunity came at the perfect time! I tried it out and after five months of various tests and training camps, I made it through to the final four riders – which meant I was onto the track programme!

Like I’ve said, I was living in London at the time – which unfortunately doesn’t lend itself very well to cycling! We don’t currently have a velodrome in Ireland, so Cycling Ireland has its training hub in Mallorca. At the beginning of 2018 my commitment to the national team stepped up, so I made the decision to move out there. It was an easy decision – who wouldn’t want to live in the sun!? However, it was entirely self-funded and the shine wore off pretty quickly when I was scraping pennies together to afford anything. At the end of 2018, I decided to visit Belgium and I did my first block of road racing at age 25 – 3 weeks of kermesse racing in the European mecca of cycling. This was the eye-opening experience I needed to motivate me to leave the national programme and I moved from Mallorca to Belgium in the winter of 2018.

I found a club team to race with in 2019 and things heated up pretty quickly. Racing in Belgium is wild! I had barely any experience of road racing, yet here I was lining up at races shoulder to shoulder with World Tour professionals. It was an amazing experience and the best way I could cut my teeth – throwing myself in at the deep end and trying to learn as much as I could. I have no regrets. I lived in Belgium until the end of 2021, and during this period, I worked in several different jobs alongside my racing. At the time, I didn’t speak any Dutch, so I just got stuck into whatever work I could get. I worked in a bakery factory, placing thousands of cakes onto a conveyor belt and packaging hundreds of loaves of bread each day for 8 hours. I was also a postwoman, which meant a 3:45am wake-up each day to get the newspapers delivered on time, before heading out with the packages and letters to finish up by 1pm. Then I would head home to train – if I didn’t fall asleep! I also worked as a cycling coach, finally putting my degree to good use!

Of course, this period of amazing opportunities and races didn’t come without its downfalls. In 2019, I fractured my sternum in a crash, and a couple of months later, I fractured my radius in another crash! In 2020, racing was all but cancelled for the year (although I did manage to sneak in my first Belgian victory in this time). 2021 brought a lot of challenges – mentally, I really struggled at the start of the season to overcome my fear of crashing, but everything began to pick up towards the end of the season. I managed to get a few good results and aggressive races under my belt, and in my final race of the season, I was crowned the Irish National Champion – a memory I will NEVER forget! My hard work was noticed by the Belgian UCI team, Plantur Pura (now Fenix Deceuninck), and I signed my first professional contract at the end of 2021. I would finally be able to focus all of my energy on racing, training and recovering, and I would finally accomplish my dream of becoming a professional athlete.

It all sounds pretty rosy at this point, doesn’t it? My career was going in the right direction, and I was so excited for 2022 to start. Girona had always been on my radar as a place to live, so on the first day of 2022, I packed up once more and moved to northern Spain. I was really living my dream and couldn’t wait to start racing.

On the 26th of January 2022, I was on a normal training ride. I had done some power testing that week and my numbers were the best they had ever been. I was 10 minutes from my new home, when a driver speeding on the wrong side of the road hit me head-on. I remember seeing the van coming towards me and thinking I was about to die. I hit the windscreen, and the next thing I remember is waking up on the road. The first thing I said was: I can’t believe I am alive. Then I began reciting my family’s names in my head: Grania, Fintan, Phoebe, Muireann. I was immediately terrified I would have a brain injury and reciting their names seemed to calm me in that moment.

40 minutes and a WHOLE lot of pain later, the ambulance arrived. I had burst my knee open, completely rupturing my qaudriceps tendon, damaging my patellar tendon, shattering my patella, and fracturing a chunk of bone off my femoral condyle. I had cuts and scrapes all over my body, and shattered bones in my right wrist. The year that followed was a nightmare at times, and so different from how I had envisaged my first year as a professional to be. I had five surgeries, I spent hundreds of hours with physio and become obsessed with researching recovery aids. Against the odds, I still managed to ride my first race as a professional cyclist in the September of 2022.

Now here I am, in 2023 with another chance at a pro season, thanks to Fenix Deceuninck. They have supported me since the start of this ordeal, and I am so grateful for their belief in me. I am looking forward to sharing more of this comeback journey with you throughout the year. I still have huge goals and I believe I haven’t reached anywhere near my potential yet. So, bring on 2023 and let’s see what we can achieve!