Becky James: Double World Champion
The Olympic Academy rider won the Sprint and Keirin and was second in the 500 metre TT. All this on top of a similar haul at the European Championships only a month before and after a major crash in the Keirin at the Europeans where she was off her bike for over a week.
I caught up with her before she went to Moscow and on her return where was competing at the British Championships in Newport in front of her family and friends and with a rainbow jersey to show off.
In Russia right now is a sensational young lady from Wales, Rebecca James, who has already won three medals in her first major competition (Europeans) and will be giving her all for more in the Junior World Track Championships being held in Moscow between the 11th and 15th of August.
Becky is a second year junior who came into sprinting from mountain biking which she was doing aged 11. It wasn’t until she was 15 that Becky knew that sprinting was where its at for her and with the help from the Welsh Talent Team, Becky worked hard and soon found herself one of the few athletes who have been added to the Olympic Development Programme a year early. Just how good this young lady was became clear when she was given the opportunity to wear the colours of Great Britain at Revolution 18 (November 2007) where in the flying 200 metres she went under 12 seconds for the first time aged only 15.
Becky last week at Manchester shortly before flying to Russia.
But 2008 was not the big year she had hoped for due to illness. With the European titles late in the year because of the Olympics, it was certainly bad timing for Becky to get glandular fever around August and then once over that, and slowly returning to training, Becky had another set back when she had her tonsils out in February this year. It was, in her words, a nightmare time and the young lady missed riding her bike more than anything.
But Becky bounced back quickly and during the year, along with school, she has been training hard back home in Wales and at a competition in Germany, Becky had her first taste of international success. Things got better for her a short while later in Belarus at the European Track Championships where she made the headlines with three medals; two gold and a silver.
Success like that doesn’t come without hard work and unlike the Academy and Podium programme athletes who are based in Manchester and can train full time, the Olympic Development Programme riders spend most of their year training at home and only get track time together as a squad when at training camps or on trips abroad.
To help prepare for the major competitions this year, Becky has had to juggle training with school work and that won’t change until she leaves school next June after her final exams. So for now, Becky spends a lot of time doing her drills on the road after school and a normal week sees her doing road work as much as three to four days a week.
Another integral part of her training is work in the gym and she does this twice a week with the help of the Welsh Institute of Sport in Cardiff, a 50 minute trip away from home. On top of that, once a week, Becky gets a session on the boards at the Newport Indoor Velodrome which is half an hour from her home.
Her coaching is handled by former World Sprint Champion (2000) Jan van Eijden who she is in constant contact with when away from the track at Manchester. In the lead up to the Junior Worlds when Becky had the luxury of being able to train without having to worry about school thanks to the school holidays, she was able to talk to him nearly every other day.
Top coaching is just one of the advantages riders on the Olympic Development Programme have to help them get the best from themselves. There are many more advantages such as getting a grant to help with the expenses of being a world class athlete, access to the best bikes in the world as used by the Olympians in Beijing and clothing too. Becky says she is also lucky to have such a great family behind her, one who share not just the success but also the low points when she needs picking up after getting ill or injured. “I could not have a better family!” she says.
2007 and Becky takes on a young German challenger at Revolution 18 which gaves the British girls some valuable sprint race experience.
Training to Race
One of the aspects of being a sprinter is they don’t get to race as much as an endurance rider. Asked does she miss racing when training week in, week out, Becky replies “I do miss racing but I also love the training and keep myself motivated for it. The coaches have also taken us on a few trips this year to Cottbus (Germany) for example and we have had a few training camps where there has been coach led racing so we’re always doing bits and bobs.”
Asked about a highlight of her racing career so far, the rider who has won many a British title doesn’t have to go very far back when she picks the European Championships in Minsk. “The Europeans started off really well and I was stupidly nervous for my first major competition. I didn’t know what to expect -- whether I was going to qualify and how good the other girls were.”
“Once I qualified fastest, that gave me a bit of confidence and then when I won my first title, I just wanted them all! I knew I was the strongest one there and after winning my second title, I have never wanted to win the Keirin so much. I rode my first two rounds really really well (winning both) and then I went out to race the final.”
“I hit it really hard early on and I just didn’t have the legs for the last quarter of the lap. I wasn’t in the best position early on in the race and went to the front because I wanted it (the win) so much but when I didn’t get it (Becky was second), the tears afterwards were not because of the crash but because I’d come second. That last day spoiled a perfect week for me and whilst I was disappointed, the coaches kept me on a high saying how well I had done.”
As a GB Cycling Team development exercise, the Europeans taught Becky a lot about life as a cyclist competing at the highest level. Not only did she have to deal with losing a race she really wanted, needed even, to win, but also the pain of the crash where she lost a lot of skin which meant Becky found it hard to sleep and so to recover for the Worlds challenge, had to take a week out of her training at a crucial time in her preparation for the worlds.
Becky’s next big race is the Junior World Track Championships which start on August 11 and asked how she felt about that so soon after the Europeans, the Welsh girl replied “I am a very nervous person and just thinking about it now, I’m getting nervous! I have done everything I can with my training though and everything has gone well, so all I can do is go out and race it as hard as I can.”
These major championships are for the most part a development exercise for the riders in the team to help these young athletes get accustomed to the build-up, travel and competition that comes with a major event. The riders are prepared as well as they can be taking into account most are still at school and so the results are not the be all and end all for the team. For the riders though, they see them as an opportunity to get those rainbow bands and Becky is no different.
“I think I put more pressure on myself than the pressure I get off the coaches but I really want to see myself in a rainbow jersey!”
When I asked her ‘I could give you that prized rainbow jersey in just one event in Moscow, which one would it be?’ Becky chooses the Sprint because it’s the Olympic event and as such, is the one Becky wants to do her best in.
One of two Gold medals for Becky at the Europeans last month.
Being such a nervous person, Becky has found a surprising remedy thanks to the help of her brother – the music of Bob Marley! Apparently her brother told her that she should listen to the reggae of Bob Marley before exams to relax and now she uses that to relax when at major events too. It is quite a different beat to the one Becky uses to warm up to which is usually dance music emanating form her iPod Shuffle which has been brought into service after she broke her main iPod in Belarus.
Just like the Europeans, her opposition in the Junior Worlds is an unknown. Whilst Becky knows she was the strongest in Minsk for the Euros, what the Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Cubans and other countries have up their sleeve is anybody’s guess. Not that Becky hasn’t tried to get an idea by scouring the internet for her rival’s times and results.
But just like the Euro’s, Becky knows that until she gets to Moscow and nails the flying 200 metres in the sprint qualifying, she, like the rest of the riders will not know where the opposition is going to come from.
Life as athlete
What ever happens in Moscow, after the championships have been won and lost, Becky will return to Wales for the British Championships before slipping back into the training routine for her next event after that, the senior nationals. For athletes so young, having to focus on major events such as the World Championships means a change of lifestyle as training becomes more a part of a cyclist’s daily routine.
For example, Becky explained that she loves horse riding, something her sister does but the European Sprint Champion knows that it can also be dangerous so she doesn’t get to ride as much as she used to or get to compete in show jumping events as she once did. Friends of hers have also had to come to understand that going out and doing what teenagers do has to be put on hold from time-to-time which means Becky now relaxes with friends by going out for coffee or picking up the latest ‘chic flick’ at the movies. Things which help her relax but don’t interfere with her training during important phases prior to a major competition.
At least being so young, Becky has time to live her life as a teenager at home but that too is expected to change as her cycling career evolves. Another goal after the Junior Worlds will be to get selected for the Olympic Academy and then continue the push to making it onto the Podium Programme and a spot at the Olympic Games. One thing GB has learnt since introducing development programmes is that athletes develop at different speeds and while some may take many years to get to the level required to challenge for Olympic Gold, some like Jason Kenny develop as fast as they race the track.
When Becky was asked is she thinking London 2012 or the Olympics after, she admits that whilst she is some one who prefers to take small steps and see where it leads, the 2012 Olympics is not out of the question. “I have thought about the Olympics in London and looked at what Jason Kenny has done” she says. “Perhaps I could make 2012 and if I did, that would be unbelievable and is certainly my biggest goal right now”.
First World Title for Becky James
A week and a day after the interview above, Becky James was World Junior Sprint Champion after winning the final in Moscow. A very calm sounding new World Champion Becky James came on the phone at the time to say "it feels good, really good to be world champion! It's surreal and it hasn't sunk in yet. I have worked so hard for it and I was so happy when I got it. I couldn't stop smiling on the podium -- I was so chuffed and I was thinking to myself, I can't believe it! "
“I was nervous before the semi final against the Chinese girl because of that 500 time she did but in the flying 200 I was two tenths faster so I knew I was stronger. I went out there with a plan and it all went well.” Asked to tell us about the final for Gold when the pressure is much higher as the rainbow stripes of a champion’s jersey are tantalising within reach, Becky explained "Jon talked me through the final rides and I was able to handle my nerves a lot better than I did yesterday. I went into this event a lot more confident because I knew what I needed to do. Both the rides in the final went to plan and after the first ride when I beat her, I knew then I was stronger than her."
"I knew if I got to the front again in the second ride she wouldn't be able to get past me. In that second ride, she took the front and I knew she wanted to pin me to the fence like I had done to her. So I kept trying to dive down and get her to go down to the black line but she wouldn't budge and she kept watching me. So when she turned, I went straight underneath her and took her back up the track and it all went to plan. I went for it with about 200 or so to go and I didn't see her after that! Jon says I won by miles!"
Asked how she found the track in Moscow, Becky replied "it is amazing! I love it here. The transitions are awesome because you get so much speed coming off them you can ride big gears which I did in the 200 and even then I felt like I was spinning out." Becky had begun the Championship week with a silver medal and modestly said that her delay getting out of the gate wasn't an excuse for not winning. "I handled it a lot better, not winning, than I thought I would. I was upset straight afterwards but calmed down soon enough. I had Jon supporting me and I then switched my focus to the Sprint because it was the event I wanted to win the most."
Becky explained that the hardest thing leading up to the championships besides all the physical work she has had to do, has been the pressure she has put herself under. "Now I have the world title and the world record, all the pressure on my shoulders has gone, it’s great!
Becky James competing in Newport wearing the rainbow stripes of World Champion.
Title Number 2
Well almost all as Becky the next day had the Keirin event, one she wasn’t looking forward to after what happened in Minsk at the Europeans. She woke after winning the Sprint title the day before absolutely shattered. “I didn’t get to bed until half eleven and had to be up at half seven for the final day with the Keirin. It wasn’t enough sleep so I felt pretty tired on the morning of the Keirin. I was really achy in the warm-up too and getting nervous before my first round”
Becky explained the nerves were more to do with how she was feeling and that once she gets that first race out of the way and she knew the legs were okay, the nerves can be put aside and she can concentrate on the racing. “I felt pretty strong in my first round and won that pretty well. I found the other girls didn’t really want to come round me and were looking to sit on my wheel. In the next round, I had a hard heat and I decided to lead it out from the front and that worked well.”
Asked does she have a fixed strategy before a race or goes with the flow, Becky replied, “We do a lot of video analysis so I always plan my races before hand and have a plan A and plan B!”
“I had also a learnt a lot from the final in the Europeans where I should have held my rivals back from the front position and not gone flat out and then died on the last lap. In Moscow, once I got through to the final, I had the same focus as I did in the Sprint the day before and knew I was the fastest rider there. I knew I had to be at the front so they couldn’t get round me and I went with one and half laps to go and kept the pace going while looking out for moves behind. I then made the pace higher and higher and with around 230 metres I go, I just got out of the saddle and went as hard as I could to the finish and no-one got round me – it could not have gone any better.”
“I was really happy to win the Keirin because after the Europeans where I was second and crashed, I’d been really disappointed and in Moscow wasn’t looking forward to the Keirin but after the Sprint and knowing I was the fastest rider, it all went to plan. Winning the Sprint the day before still hadn’t sunk in because I’d been thinking about the racing to come and after winning the Keirin, it still hasn’t sunk in yet! I can’t believe I am a double world champion.”
In Moscow, with its giant transitions, Becky knocked off half a second off her PB and said that going back to other tracks like the one at Newport it was going to feel really slow.” Not only that, Becky, like so many of those who had been in Moscow, was pretty tired after a late night dash the night before to get to Newport from Moscow.
And there is little rest for her now because in the coming weeks and months, she has a trip to Germany where she will be mixing it with the likes of Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy at a training camp there and then following that are the British senior Track championships which come shortly before the Track Cycling World Cup at Manchester where Becky is hoping to get selected and test herself against the best senior riders in the World. It is one of those strange times for a young champion, one where they are on top of the World whilst also working hard to continue making progress so they can achieve their big goals and 2012 doesn’t get any bigger for any British athlete.
For now, Becky has a big bash to go to at her parents which the BBC are gate crashing and why not, this young lady’s achievements are truly special and worthy of a party. Today at Newport, in between trying to beat the Junior men in the sprint, Becky was being constantly congratulated and her smile never seemed to leave her face and long may that continue. Congratulations to Becky and good luck to her for the future.