The Daily Telegraph
‘How few people get to do this after giving birth?’
Tom Cary speaks to Elinor Barker about return to cycling after becoming mum to son Nico and why all roads now lead to Paris 2024
Elinor Barker apologises after trailing off mid-sentence to attend to something burbling away just out of vision. “Sorry, where was I?” asks the 2016 Olympic team pursuit champion after a short pause. “I’m always doing this now. It’s very embarrassing.”
Barker has nothing to be embarrassed about. It is 11.30am and she is talking about her comeback to elite road racing in an interview via Whatsapp video, while bouncing a six-month old baby on her lap, having already attended two appointments this morning. She laughs. “Yeah, it’s been pretty mad the last 12 months. But also pretty amazing. It’s all the cliches you can think of…”
Barker certainly looks happy. Twelve months ago, her head was, by her own admission, “spinning” after she returned from the Tokyo Olympics clutching a positive – and totally unexpected – pregnancy test. Having suffered with endometriosis, a condition about which Barker spoke extensively in 2019, the Welsh rider was not sure she could even get pregnant, let alone that she would find out in the middle of the biggest competition of her life.
But she was thrilled, resolving with her partner Casper – a former track rider who also works in cycling, notably with Denmark’s team pursuit squad – to embrace the news and to prepare themselves for a busy life juggling elite sport and parenthood.
One year on, it seems to be going as well as could be hoped.
Barker, who is focusing primarily on the road now, although still based in Manchester for easy access to the national velodrome, made her competitive return at the National Road Race Championships in Castle Douglas in June, just three months after giving birth to Nico. She then rode for Wales at the Commonwealth Games last month, an experience she describes as “incredibly special”, even if her performance was “nothing to write home about if you didn’t know I’d just had a baby”.
“I actually really wish the Commies were coming up now,” she adds. “It was just a bit too soon. I’d only just got back to normal training. I’m much stronger now.”
How strong only time will tell. Barker is not setting herself any great targets for next season. She has a contract with Norwegian team Uno X up until the end of 2023 and says she needs to be “realistic”.
But she has no problem admitting what her long-term goal is: the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Ideally, she says, she would like to ride either the omnium or the Madison, while also making herself available for the road squad.
“That’s the goal,” she says. “But road will be coming first now. I want to discover what I’m capable of on the road. Previously, I’ve been a track rider that’s kind of done a bit of road around that but never been able to prepare properly for it. Whereas now I’ve done so much track, I’ve got all that experience, I can be a road rider who does track around that. And by track, I really mean bunch races. I’d love some opportunities in the Madison, maybe the omnium. And then yeah, at world and European level, I would love a points race.”
Whatever she does, she is not going to put too much pressure on herself. If she makes Paris, it will be a bonus. But she no longer wants to be defined by her results.
“It’s going to be pretty full-on trying to do both [ride a bike professionally and be a mum],” she says. “The fatigue, the constant juggling. What I really don’t want to do is to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Oh, it will all be worth it if I win this, or if I win that’. “Because if I didn’t then [win], it would be horrible to look back and think that I’ve kind of wasted the first couple years of Nico’s life.
“I need to figure out what makes it worth it day to day and go with that. And then really just hope that results follow. I don’t want to end up resenting it.”
It all sounds very sensible, particularly when you consider the environment in which she has operated for the past eight years. Both Laura Kenny and Katie Archibald – team-mates in Rio and Tokyo – have had to take a step back from racing this year due to mental and physical exhaustion. The latter has now also suffered a bereavement with the sudden death of her partner.
“I don’t really want to comment on that,” Barker says. “But of course it is unbelievably sad. And it has brought home the importance of family and of balance in your life. I feel so fortunate to be where I am now. I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been on a personal level. How few people actually get to do this postpartum? To go out and get some fresh air, and socialise, and compete… basically keep my own identity… and then come back and be a mum, too?
“How will it go next year? I’m sure it will be a struggle juggling everything – the nursery, Casper’s job, my racing – but I’m looking forward to it. Lizzie [Deignan] and Laura have already shown what’s possible as a mum, so I don’t feel under pressure. I guess I’ll try to build some confidence through the spring classics. And then, hopefully, be in a good place for the Ardennes. Women’s cycling is just in such an exciting place generally with iconic races such as the Tour de France Femmes and Paris-roubaix Femmes now happening. Just racing in them before I retire would be amazing.
“I just feel lucky that I get to try, while also being a mum.”
‘Lizzie and Laura have already shown what’s possible as a mum, so I don’t feel under pressure’