Pedal to the medal: Full-throttle Archibald on thrills and spills . . .
Rio podium hope lifts lid on a little white lie and the 70mph motorbike crash nearly ended her Olympics
IT’S less than three years since Katie Archibald abandoned a telesales job – selling mattresses and beds for the family company – and shelved university plans to pursue a cycling career. Within weeks she was in Britain’s gold medal pursuit team at the 2013 European Championships, and within a year had become Scotland’s first female world champion and Commonwealth bronze medallist. She has since won five more European golds, and the Olympic podium beckons.
But she has harboured a secret while battling injury which threatened to keep her from competing in Rio. She ruptured a posterior cruciate ligament in a bike accident, cornering too fast on a Cheshire lane. Yet that’s only half the story. She came off her motorbike at 70mph. So confirmation this week of World Championship selection is enormous relief.
“Previously, I thought I’d at least be on the plane to Rio, but then I crashed my motorbike. I just said I’d crashed my bike. It was not quite a lie, but I didn’t just come of at 30mph. I also fractured the head of radius in my elbow. The bike has now gone. The girls voted as a team that we’d use more standardised transport until August.
“It was stupid, but I did not put anyone else in danger. I went slamming into a corner as fast as I possibly could. I just enjoy riding the bike. I’m more of a racer than trainer. Some girls in the squad are just dedicated at riding a bike, but I’m dedicated to getting to the finish line first. It involves a lot of training, but if I could, I’d just race.”
Her father, Ian, was among Scotland’s brightest young athletics prospects, but lost interest after breaking the 1500 metres equivalent of the four-minute mile. Ranked second to Graham Williamson in 1983, Archibald twice won the Scottish 1500m title, out-sprinting Nat Muir for the second – no mean feat. Williamson and Muir still hold the national best at the mile and 5000m.
“The sport was more fun on the way up than when I got there,” said Ian.
“I really didn’t enjoy athletics and much prefer cycling – more application of intellect.”
Officials once ran the sport as their own fiefdom, seeming to regard competitors as an inferior species. “I’d won the national title, but they would not pick me for Scotland. If I wouldn’t help them, they wouldn’t help me.”
He became absorbed by cycling, so when he took Katie up Mont Ventoux when she was 14, he’d already ridden the notorious Tour de France climb “loads of times”. “I was the father from hell,” he confides.
Katie confirms her competitive streak comes from her father. “He never let us win at anything in life, whether it was a game of chess or climbing a hill,” she says.
Competitive juices also flow in her sister, cross-country internationalist Rosie Smith. With the national championships scheduled for Falkirk a week today, she hopes to break her duck. Thrice in the past four years Rosie has been runner-up for the senior title. She has twice been third, but has led Hunters Bog Trotters to team gold, silver and bronze.
At 5ft 10ins, Katie has perfect levers for cycling, but she dismisses early sport success. “I won a few West District swimming medals, a couple of them gold, and bronze at the Scottish schools – I was big for my age, classic story. There was never any expectation I’d make it big in swimming.”
She cycled grass track at Highland Games, collecting as much as £70 for a day’s sport until handicappers caught on. “What did I spend it on? Not petrol money, as mum always reminds me. I’d like to say I spent it on bike parts, but it went in a piggy bank and I squandered it on jelly beans and Coke.”
She was advised to try hard track. At the British junior championships, wearing a second-hand skin suit and cheap wee helmet, on a standard bike without disc wheels, she lapped the field three times. “Hugh Porter [doyen of commentators] went wild, said it was the best race he’d ever seen,” recalls her father.
Katie joined City of Edinburgh Racing Club: “I thought they were the coolest people in the world and wanted nothing more than to go away with them, prove I could win races, and follow the training.”
Life after cycling? “I’ve not thought about a lot until after the Olympics. Journalism and coaching are big interests. I write in Cycling Weekly [and our Sunday Herald sister] and receive a lot of coaching, but in terms of worldly experience ... I don’t know.”
Dad, who has a physics degree and Phd, jokes that he is keeping her seat warm at Archers Sleepcentre, and hopes the Olympics do not become what defines her life.
“They are the most important thing in the world to me right now,” she counters, but questions whether this is “rational or justified”, adding: “I don’t know. I don’t try to put too much sense into it. It’s hard to do and keeps you from looking at a gas stove too much.
“You can now earn money from sponsorship, financial interests. I put everything into it, because you know the guy across the ocean is putting everything into it as well.
“I guess it’s about your wider picture of life. I do know people for whom it’s about building up a nest egg, and then surviving, just doing what makes them happy. You need the concept of enjoying being what you are, I suppose. Can you just seek happiness, and is that a contradictory life pursuit? I think it’s probably the pursuit and not the attainment.
“There’s this big appeal: to live a moral life and a good life. As a balance that seems to give happiness. I don’t think anybody really thinks that going pleasure-seeking’s a good life. That’s tricky. I don’t enjoy it when I try and justify why I do what I do. When you start thinking that you don’t enjoy it, the obvious question is: ‘Why don’t you change it?’
“I’m in the very fortunate situation of doing exactly what I like, and I’m funded to do it, to inspire the next generation as it were. I run these things through my head, prepared for an argument that I never have. Nobody has ever said what I do is disgusting, and that there’s no justification for making a living by riding a bike. I almost wish somebody would, so that I can have this outrageous debate. But I would not have these thoughts without wondering if I am justified in what I’m doing.”
I thought I’d at least be on the plane to Rio, but then I crashed my motorbike. I just said I’d crashed my bike. It was not quite a lie . . .
FLYING THE FLAG: Katie Archibald, pictured after winning Commonwealth bronze at Glasgow 2014, has pulled through an elbow injury on the road to Rio.