Riding is Life


A chicken learns to fly

Emma Pooley was unstoppable going uphill. But at the top, there was just one small problem.

Emma Pooley
by Emma Pooley 23.07.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
More from Emma +

Ahead of the Tour de France Femmes, a top racer of her generation looks back on her experiences with a predecessor of the race, and her struggles to master what comes after you reach the summit. Former pro cyclist Emma Pooley got fed up with processed sports nutrition products and developed a better way to fuel on the move. In her forthcoming memoir and cookbook “Oat of This World” – from which this excerpt is adapted – she shares 40 original recipes for delicious, oat-based portable snacks, bringing world-champion nutrition to everyday athletes. To find out more visit her site.

Fear clutched my stomach and locked my arms. It jittered my knees and gripped my hands ever harder on the handlebars. Fear clenched my teeth and fixed my gaze on the steepness below the front wheel. Braking juddered the bike but I couldn’t let it roll free because gravity was sucking me downward, seizing control, faster and faster. The fear was so complete that nothing could take my mind off it.

It was the final stage of the 2007 Grande Boucle. This race, the successor of the first true women’s Tour de France of the 1980s, should more accurately have been called the Petite Boucle since by then it had dwindled to just five days. But the final stage was impressive, with two long mountain ascents in the Pyrenees – a rare opportunity in women’s racing back then. As the road ramped up on the 19 km Tourmalet the peloton started to break apart. Delighted at this chance to escape the nerve-wrackingly hectic bunch, I rode straight past the stretched line of riders onto the front and pedalled as hard as I could. The move was one of pure joy, despite the physical pain of pushing my body to its limits. I was in my element: the wide road led only upwards to the open mountainside. 

Surprisingly, given the small scale of the race organisation, there was a media moto filming alongside us. In the highlights the TV commentator sounds shocked by the bold attack from a nobody, then admiring: “Who is this rider?” (Imagine his words in French, or at least a French accent) “What is she doing to the bunch? She’s even dropping the yellow jersey!” (Short pause to look up my race number on the start list) “It is Emma Pooley.” (Short pause for an internet search.) “Winner of the Rund um Schönaich. She has dropped everyone on the Tourmalet!”

The Rund um Schönaich was a minor local event in Germany with about 50 riders and up to that point, my only road race victory. But now I was on the road to glory: I was leading a major international tour on an hors catégorie climb. My focus was entirely on the road ahead, pedalling, effort, breathing, sweat – I barely noticed the view. At the top my gap was over two minutes to the handful of chasing riders.

Two minutes – that’s a good lead! And I know I still have the energy to put in a similar effort on the Col d’Aspin. Incredibly, I have a real shot at winning this race overall.

At 2,115 meters high, the col is barren and windy, the road curving to the right between rocky cliffs. By the guardrail on the exposed verge a few people are cheering, some offering spare bottles and jackets. The TV moto follows me through the cleft in the ridge and suddenly it seems the tarmac drops away. To my left, the mountainside is just dizzying emptiness. I feel the familiar dread clutch at my throat. 

The commentator pauses, confused. He can see straight away that something is awry: I’m grabbing the brakes and my body is awkwardly tensed. His gushing enthusiasm evaporates: “It seems she lacks technique on the descent.” Out on the cold mountain I can’t hear his criticism but my own internal voice is screaming at me with shrill panic: “It’s too STEEP! The tyres won’t grip! You’ll fly off that cliff when you crash! You’re doing it wrong! Wrong!” Wind in my ears, cramped shoulders, trembling knees. At every hairpin I brake from slow to almost a standstill, then creep round with painful timidity: “And wrong again! Every corner you get it WRONG! Why can’t you ride properly? Why are you so SLOW? You IDIOT!” The descent is only 12 km long and there aren’t even many turns, but it felt like an eternity.

Two riders catch me before halfway down, and as they fly by the commentator delivers his final verdict: “La pauvre poulet: elle est pétrifiée par peur.” “The poor chicken: she’s petrified with fear.”

By perfect coincidence, my surname ‘Pooley’ sounds very similar to ‘poulet’ – the French word for chicken. And “poor chicken” is the nickname I deserved, even if it’s not the one I wanted. 

To add to my humiliation, the soon-to-be-winner slapped my rump as she passed and yelled at me to stick with them. Maybe it was meant as encouragement, or maybe she wanted my help in beating her teammate (because the headline drama of the race was a bitter internecine battle between those two riders) – but I couldn’t follow, of course. I caught them on the next climb but knew there was no hope for me on the final 12 km descent from the Col d’Aspin to the finish line. I’d blown my chance to win a major race, and it was entirely my own fault. I was a failure, a laughing stock, an embarrassment, and not worthy of being an elite cyclist. On the long drive home my teammates and director tried to console me. But their jokes about installing remote-control brakes didn’t seem funny to my crushed morale. It was hopeless: I’d never be able to win anything with this all-consuming fear on descents. 

These days I often talk to other nervous riders who claim to be bad at riding downhill. But I’ve never met anyone as hapless and inept as I was. I was a student in my early twenties when I took up cycling as a competitive sport. I didn’t have lessons in bike handling because, simply, I didn’t know what I didn’t know: there were no descents to get dropped on because Cambridgeshire is very flat.

Anyway, skills training for road cycling wasn’t really a thing back then. A few months after starting racing, my job took me to Switzerland where I could ride in the mountains … and soon found out I had a problem. Some cyclists can pick up skills and technique by imitation, but I was too slow and hesitant to keep up with anyone worth learning from. Plus, my attention was entirely fixated on scanning the road for hazards: potholes, gravel, sand, any hint of slipperiness, and the steepness of the open mountainside.

Being scared of heights obviously didn’t help. Neither did the crashes. My tyres slid out on a corner and asphalt grazed all the skin off one hip and elbow. The next time it was the other hip. On a steep hairpin I skidded into a rock wall, ending up in hospital. I lost all confidence in the grip between tyre and road; leaning the bike terrified me. I rode downhill slower and slower. In the rain, I would probably have been faster walking.

The anticipation of any descent made me so anxious that I developed my own method: ride as hard as possible on any climb, to get ahead. With enough of a head start there was at least a chance of getting down the other side not too far behind. Plus there was one thing I feared more than descending, and that was descending surrounded by other riders.

It wasn’t a very smart tactic. Firstly I was just avoiding the real problem, which was that I went round corners like a sack of potatoes – if potatoes could whimper with fear. Secondly, it soon became ineffective: racing cyclists don’t typically like letting their rivals go ahead on climbs, even if it’s only so they can descend slowly alone.

Pooley winning the 2011 Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Unlocking descending skills let her develop into a complete racer. Photo © Cor Vos

But my avoidant method helped in one way: that fear was a powerful motivator to become fast uphill. By 2007 I’d terrorised myself into the absurd situation of being an outstanding climber while still an atrocious descender. My weakness was public, humiliating, and obvious to everyone … so other riders knew they should attack downhill. I could, and did, lose any race on the descent – sadly we rarely had a mountaintop finish. I felt ashamed of losing races like the Grande Boucle just because, it seemed, I was a wimp. My incompetence seemed to be unique. Like most humans experiencing shame and humiliation, I dreaded confronting the source of those emotions. I started to get recurring nightmares; my dread of descending was becoming a phobia.

Luckily someone else had hope for me, and that person was my coach. Tim Williams, founder of Perfect Condition Coaching, was a stalwart member of my first cycling club and one of the first people I cycled with. He was free of traditional cycling’s misapprehension that descending “can’t be taught” (as one national team coach dismissively told me). The old-fashioned theory was that descending had to be learned “naturally” and that it’s 100% about bravery – or maybe 90% bravery and 10% line choice. Over the years I’d received many unsolicited offers of help from other riders saying, “Just follow me and I’ll show you how to go fast!” It seemed that most cyclists just didn’t get it: speed was only a tertiary problem. I couldn’t go fast because I was scared. The primary issue and reason for my fear was technique: I couldn’t corner properly.

Tim didn’t offer the simple trick I’d hoped would cure my descending, because no such thing exists. With so many variables and moving parts on both bikes and bodies it turned out to be more complicated than I wanted. But the correct technique is teachable and Tim taught it well. I slowly built up confidence in myself and my tyres over many hours of descending, climbing back up, setbacks, crashes, and slow returns. The process required a lot of café stops, which – fortunately – Tim’s coaching ethos fully endorsed. 

My descending went from atrocious to poor, to slow-but-safe, to mostly-adequate. Does that sound disappointing? In fact it’s one of my proudest achievements. Becoming the best in the world wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, but at least I no longer lost every race on the descents. And that meant sometimes I could actually win. In spring 2008, soon after Tim’s first skills 101 bootcamp, I won my first UCI World Cup at the GP Alfredo Binda. Later that year my first stage race overall win, at the Tour of Brittany. In 2009, two years after the pauvre poulet debacle, I went back for a rematch at the Grande Boucle. This time I kept the lead, despite a long tricky descent from another Pyrenean col. I don’t have any photos from that race because the organisation and media interest were still “petite” – but a win is a win, even if it’s celebrated quietly.

Although it’s nice to do well at bike races, in the grand scheme of things it’s not particularly meaningful. The bigger lesson from all that toil and progress was the potential to conquer fear. With enough work it’s possible to improve many things – fitness, climbing ability, time trial results, technique, and confidence. For me, learning to deal with fear was harder than any interval session or physical challenge. Simply riding fast was one of the things that terrified me about descending – and is there anything more absurd than a professional cyclist who’s scared of speed? I can laugh about it now, and that helps. Self-compassion is essential for growth – after all, it’s hard to learn anything when your internal dialogue is as mean as mine was.  

Better than winning races, I learned to love descending. Not in the rain or in the peloton: no amount of training could take away my instinct for self-preservation. But in good conditions, riding fast downhill is an amazing thrill. A real joy replaced my miserable fear, and even if I’d never won a race I would be thankful to Tim for that. I’m lucky that he agreed to be my coach for many years. 

Of course, it’s absolutely fine to ride downhill slowly. There’s nothing intrinsically good about speed, and what does it matter unless you race? But it saddens me to see nervous cyclists suffering fear and anxiety on descents. Their distress is so avoidable. I hope reading this helps them realise that it’s possible to learn both skills and confidence. If I could do it then anyone can.

I’m grateful that I learned to ride downhill safely because it’s so joyful. The exhilaration of a swooping descent is the closest I’ll ever come to flying – not bad, for a poor chicken. 

What did you think of this story?