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Interview with Hayley Simmonds: Lost 45kg and Became National Champ

By Jessica Lamb

If you told UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling rider Hayley Simmonds she could be a pro cyclist and never ride in a road race, once upon a time she’d have bitten your hand off.

Now the British National Time Trial Champion is embarking upon her first Classics seasons as a professional, with the Olympics on her mind, and plans to return to the race that changed her mind at the end of this month. These are mind-blowing goals for a cyclist who only began racing in 2013 and we’re keen to find out what drives Simmonds on.

“I don’t like losing, I’m a very bad loser, as my family would surely tell you,” she says, and we guess that’s a motivation in itself.

“If I do badly in something, I feel disappointed in myself, and I also feel embarrassed. It sounds ridiculous, but I almost feel that people are looking at that result and thinking, ‘she’s a bit useless’, and I really don’t like that. I don’t like to look weak.”

She adds: “That was a big motivator for me when I started in cycling, I didn’t like coming 10th or 15th, I wanted to be on the podium.”

Time-trialling was the Cambridge student’s door into cycling back in 2011 and she began dabbling in road racing two years later. It wasn’t a smooth rolling.

“To be honest, I hated road racing,” she says. “Even by the end of 2014, after two years of racing in the UK, I wasn’t enjoying it.”

“If you could have told me that I could be a pro cyclist just time-trialling I would have said ‘yes please, thank you very much’. But last year at Gent Wevelgem something kind of clicked. It was really attritional, the conditions were awful, and I felt being a strong rider really helped there. It is tough, but it was more like a power riders race. I guess it was the confidence that race gave me, and ever since then I’ve gotten better and better.”

So good in fact that she was selected to ride for Britain at the World Championships in the US in September – and that is where her Olympics dream was put into motion. Taking a crucial stint on the front for Armitstead, Simmonds became the only other British rider to finish, coming home in 79th behind the new World Champion, Armitstead.

“I loved the World Championships road race,” she beams. “I just wanted to do the best job I could for Lizzie [Armitstead], and because I didn’t have any pressure on myself to get a specific result, and I knew that at the end of the day it didn’t even matter if I finished, I put my all into doing what I could. The atmosphere was incredible and I loved the course – there were cobbled climbs in that, like in Gent Wevelgem. I actually ended up finishing as well, which was unexpected.”

If you told UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling rider Hayley Simmonds she could be a pro cyclist and never ride in a road race, once upon a time she’d have bitten your hand off.

That performance put her on British Cycling’s map and raised eyebrows of the Olympic selection committee; making Rio 2016 now doesn’t seem so impossible for the girl who has only been a professional cyclist for one month.

“My heart is set on getting there,” she says, explaining: “You can’t do the time trial without doing the road race; it’s one of the stipulations, so my aim for the early races is to prove I’m in form and can perform on a course like Rio, and I have already proved that I could be useful to help and support Lizzie, in a race in which she won the World Championships.”

“Of course we don’t actually know until the end of May, whether we have three or four spots for the road; it could be Lizzie plus two or Lizzie plus three. Secondary to that is showing that, if they do take me a part of the road team, then I should also be selected for the time trial. That’s harder.”

“I need to think about how I could show that if Emma Pooley and I are, for example, both selected for the road squad, I should get a time trial spot ahead of her.”

With the likes of US team mate Coryn [Rivera] also going for Rio 2016 places, UnitedHealthcare’s sporting director Rachel Heal has shuffled schedules to allow the team to work for the riders in Olympic contention wherever necessary. Simmonds’s task is harder than others as she does not have clear-cut criteria to match, but Heal has helped formulate a plan.

“Rachel and I, between us, have quite a good idea of which races I could do with having a good showing in, so she’ll be supportive of me in them to allow me to do what I need to do,” she says. “There’s actually a time trial in Canada when I’m in America that I might try to get an entry to. Rachel has already said she would try to fit that into my calendar and take me and a car and help up to that race.”

By the end of June, they will know if the plan has worked. If it hasn’t, Simmonds will move onto the next goal.

“It’s a lot easier to go through the hard training sessions in the miserable, cold British weather if you’ve got some kind of aim,” she explains. “When I started I wanted to get a full blue, which is very specific to the Oxford and Cambridge rivalry, but that’s what I wanted, so I trained specifically for that. I’m constantly upping my expectations and upping the training to match them. So far, I seem to have been able to hit all the goals I have aimed for, which is a bit worrying because at some point there’s going to be something I can’t quite do.”

Tentatively, she adds: “Hopefully winning the World Championships will be a goal at some point. I’ve already had a look at the courses that have been announced for the next three years, Qatar, Norway and Austria, potentially the last one, at Innsbruck, could be a pretty good course for me in 2018. That’s thinking quite far ahead. But that’s a back-of-the-mind goal.”

Good luck, Hayley!