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Neverending Storey: Why Dame Sarah isn't slowing down yet

James Witts
10 Dec 2021

Dame Sarah Storey recently became the most successful British Paralympic athlete ever. And, as she tells Cyclist, she has no plans to stop

‘I’ve been here a few times recently for shoots with the likes of Hello and Harper’s Bazaar. Sir Geoff Boycott has his own parking space over there, and we filmed the “mystery guest” segment of A Question Of Sport here once. I was dressed as a dame. I’ll be on it again soon.’

Dame Sarah Storey’s moment of fame has stretched out to 29 years from the time she won her first Paralympic gold medal. But as Storey tells us within the shadows of the grade-II listed Mottram Hall in the salubrious idyll of Cheshire, now is the time to capitalise on her record-breaking 17th Paralympic gold medal at Tokyo 2020/2021.

‘The spotlight shines on Paralympics for such a short time. This time I’m going to make the most of it.’

In Japan last summer, the 44-year-old (then 43) closed in on, equalled and then surpassed para-swimmer Mike Kenny’s British record 16 Paralympic gold medals by winning the individual pursuit title in the Izu Velodrome before claiming time-trial and road race gold medals on the sodden Fuji Speedway Circuit.

That made it 12 para-cycling golds and five para-swimming golds since the Eccles-born athlete’s first Paralympic title at Barcelona 1992. That’s 28 Paralympic medals in all. Collectively they weigh more than the Boardman SLR 9.6 Disc that she has propped up against the wall.

It’s an incredible achievement, albeit some way behind American para-swimmer Trischa Zorn’s record of 55 medals, of which 41 were gold. That’s arguably untouchable in the modern era so, with the GB record in the bag, surely retirement must loom…

Muted celebrations

‘Not at all,’ Storey tells us as we sit in a private room of Mottram Hall’s Champney’s spa (husband Barney is also here as kit man and chef for the day, carrying Sarah’s packed lunchbox). ‘I couldn’t imagine finishing in those circumstances. Covid figures meant Japan tightened restrictions even more once the Olympics were over, so there were few spectators.

‘Once we’d finished in the Fuji circuit, I remember looking up at a huge stand like you’d see at Brand’s Hatch [where Storey raced at London 2012] and it was empty. There’s a great picture of me. I’m stood on the podium with mask on and it’s a complete empty space.’

Storey’s support team, including husband Barney, daughter Louisa (eight) and four-year-old son Charlie, weren’t allowed to travel to Japan, which added to the conflicting emotions.

‘It’s strange because your psychological preparation is all about the process, all about the events you can control up to the finish line. You don’t think about the celebration. But when it’s missing, there’s a certain anti-climax.’

That’s no criticism of the organisers – Storey, like her contemporaries and the world’s spectators, was just grateful the postponed Games weren’t cancelled altogether– but the circumstances of the Tokyo Games were certainly different to what she was used to.

‘I stayed in different places for the track and road events,’ she reflects. ‘The road training route wasn’t too bad, but because of Covid the track training route was limiting to say the least.

‘You’d have a 16km stretch from your hotel to train on, so a 32km out-and-back. Unfortunately, 4km of that stretch comprised numerous traffic lights. There was quite a downhill, too, so it wasn’t really what you were after as a road rider.

‘You also had to book in a slot each day, so you couldn’t wake, see how you felt and then ride. And if you were out longer than your allocated slot, the police were onto you and you’d be escorted back.’

It’s why Storey spent many an hour Zwifting on her hotel balcony, and why Paris 2024 is a definite. But that’s for the future. After beating the now-retired Crystal Lane-Wright into silver in all three races, Storey is enjoying the fruits of her labours until Christmas.

‘I’m still training but I’m enjoying myself too. I went to the Bond premiere with my brother, who won’t wash his jacket after brushing up against Daniel Craig. I was a guest at Old Trafford for Manchester United against Aston Villa, and presented a category with Jason Kenny at The National Television Awards [for TV fans, Line Of Duty won the Returning Drama award]. I’ve enjoyed the variety.’

Not enough hours in the day

On top of the training, racing, raising a family and hobnobbing with celebrities, Storey somehow finds time for a number of other laudable projects. Since 2019 she has been the Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City region, a role similar to that undertaken by Chris Boardman for Greater Manchester. It involves championing active travel and working alongside Mayor Dan Jarvis to make cycling more accessible and safer.

‘It’s a far-reaching and interesting job. Take yesterday, for example, where I was part of Operation Close Pass. This is an initiative that police forces are rolling out up and down the country and, as the name implies, is about reducing the number of incidents caused by drivers not giving cyclists enough space to ride.

‘So yesterday I was one of several who were dressed in cycling kit while there were normal-clothed riders on e-bikes. The aim was to see if one set of cyclists received a worse reception than the other from uneducated motorists. The sketchiest incident was an HGV driver who “close passed” both sets when speeding at well over the 50mph limit. Well, the police radioed ahead and another officer pulled him over to educate him.

‘The police also have the powers to serve a section-55 for anti-social behaviour, which includes excessive use of the horn and hand gesture abuse. It’s aimed at ensuring drivers behave appropriately, which is important as the biggest barrier to take up cycling is safety.’

Evidence from West Midlands Police suggests it’s working, with a 20% reduction in the number of cyclists seriously injured or killed on their roads in the first 12 months after launch.

Another project Storey’s particularly passionate about is Wheels For All, a nationally recognised programme that provides non-standard cycles for those living with disability and long-term health conditions.

‘There’s a well-established centre at Hillsborough Park,’ says Storey. ‘We were there recently. The staff introduces cycling to people who might not think it’s for them. It’s done in a very controlled and co-ordinated way.

‘Once they’ve grown in confidence, they’ll use that trike or four-wheeled bike to take themselves around the corner to the shops. That’s a big deal as you wouldn’t believe how many people are reliant on being collected in a vehicle to drive them less than a kilometre. It’s often forgotten, especially in high-performance sport, that cycling gives you independence. As parents, we’ve seen it with our own children and it’s the same for the Wheels For All initiative.’

One of Storey and her team’s longer-term ambitions is seeing a fully connected cycle network across South Yorkshire by 2040, where it’s not just A-to-B but features as many routes as you would enjoy in a vehicle. It’s a way of keeping cars and cyclists apart, and of ensuring there are no incidents if, in Storey parlance, ‘the chimp doesn’t remain in the cage’.

Chimp epiphany

The locked-up chimpanzee recalls one of the most influential figures in Storey’s cycling career, Professor Steve Peters. Storey worked with Peters, whose book The Chimp Paradox was a best-seller, during the psychiatrist’s time at British Cycling. It proved a game-changer.

‘I first listened to Steve on a training camp in 2006 – in fact it was in the same room where Charlie enjoyed his first food as a six-month-old. Anyway, it was like an explosion went off in my head: the approach of controlling what you can and focussing on incremental improvements so that all of the different areas work together.

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‘Having had it explained to me, it was like [cycling Olympian] Rebecca Romero once said, that it was as if you’d graduated from school to university. It was like being released into the world with new knowledge: a process-driven approach. Follow the plan and don’t worry if you come up short. Defeat is an opportunity to learn and don’t get cross about the result. Steve had an incredible way of making you think about the detail, like overtaking an opponent on the straight instead of the bend to conserve energy. Of using the “computer” instead of the “chimp”.’

Storey doesn’t work with Peters in a formal capacity anymore, though he sent a congratulatory text after Tokyo. He was also there for one of Storey’s rare disappointments when she narrowly missed out on a place in the gold-winning Olympic women’s team-pursuit squad in 2012.

‘I remember it was like X-Factor for cyclists,’ Storey smiles. ‘I think we started as a group of 15, but each week a rider dropped out of contention. I ended up being rider number five, and four riders qualified.’

Despite being born without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord, Storey has regularly excelled against able-bodied competition including a stage victory at the competitive Tour of the Reservoir held in Northumberland (although she’s usually a super-domestique).

That was for her team Storey Racing, who compete on the National Series circuit. The team was founded by Storey and husband Barney – a three-time Paralympic gold medallist himself as a sighted tandem pilot – in 2017. They were UCI-registered for 2018 but with the proviso that they would need to fund themselves.

‘We always said if we couldn’t generate the interest in the team to secure a good budget by year two to do it properly, we’d revert to National Series level as a club team. Running a UCI team where you don’t pay your riders or pay them a nominal amount [like many men’s teams] is, for me, wrong. It also creates a false level of what it takes to step up to the professional peloton.’

Now Storey Racing is arguably more a development team, with the likes of Lizzy Banks, Joss Lowden and Zoe Bäckstedt all riding at some point beneath the Storey Racing banner.

‘Covid once again hit our programme in 2021 but hopefully that will change next year,’ Storey says. ‘We should have a full roster of 12 and within that dozen there will be four who are connected to para-cycling in some way. There’s Corrine Hall, who’s a tandem pilot; Katie Toft, from the C1 class; myself [C4-C5]; and one other.

‘Then we have youth and fantastic riders like Lucy Gadd, who’s a very successful time-triallist. She’s only 20, already an incredible mentor, thinks correctly under pressure and is ready for UCI level. It’s all about making sure everyone’s nurtured via a manageable workload.’

Sarah’s story 

Some of the glittering highlights of Britain’s most decorated Paralympian

1977: Born on October 26 in Eccles, Greater Manchester

1992: Claims six medals, including two golds, for swimming at the Barcelona Paralympics, aged 14

2004: Claims three medals in her fourth and final Paralympics as a swimmer before switching to cycling

2005: Wins the road race, pursuit and 500m time-trial at the European Para-Cycling Championships

2006: Takes individual pursuit gold at the UCI Track Para-cycling World Championships

2008: Wins double gold in the time-trial and pursuit at the Beijing Paralympics

2012: Takes an unprecedented four golds at the London 2012 Paralympics

2013: Appointed DBE in the New Year Honours after her OBE in 2009 and MBE in 1998

2014: Wins the time-trial stage of the Tour de Bretagne Féminin

2016: A further three gold medals makes her Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian

2019: Appointed Active Travel Commissioner for Sheffield

2021: A 17th Paralympic gold in the road race in Tokyo makes her Britain’s most successful Paralympian

Storey on...

Leadership

‘I’m really interested in the team behind a leader. That’s why the last book I read was Becoming by Michelle Obama. There’s no more important leader than the President of the United States, and she seems incredible.’

Bullying

‘I was bullied at school because I was different. I was an athlete. I was mixing with famous people and lots of my friends were lads because swimming is male-dominated. It led to my well-publicised eating disorder. Now I see food as fuel and it doesn’t have an emotional attachment.’

Missing Barney at Tokyo 2020

‘One of the biggest differences for me in Tokyo was [husband] Barney not racing there. We’d been on the same team in Beijing and I found it really comforting competing alongside Barney. Him not being there took some adjusting to.’

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