In Your Own Time
An interview with Emma Pooley
Rarely seen without a smile on her face...
Josh Ibbett - Hi Emma. You are a relative newcomer to the world of bikepacking, but not to cycling, having raced at the top level of women’s cycling for a number of years. How did you start getting involved with competitive cycling and what was the draw for you? (Anecdotally, I think our stage race debut was the same race; the Ras De Cymru in about 2005… I raced as a junior and you were racing for Cambridge Uni!)
Emma Pooley - I was a late starter in cycling, and in fact only took it up as a way to cross-train when I got injured running while a student. I can’t say I even enjoyed it to start with, I only stuck at it for the cafe stops! But I started doing the Cambridge chaingang, then some friends persuaded me to try a few road races... but I was just dabbling. Actually, my idea was to try to race triathlon seriously, but my swimming was (still is) too poor and I was too often injured running.
Road racing was exciting because I seemed to have a knack for some things (ok, just one thing: riding uphill! Anything needing skill was beyond me!) but I found it incredibly stressful. It was never the “plan” to become a pro cyclist, I just kept progressing and it seemed a shame to turn down opportunities. But I think if I’d known how hard the journey would be in cycling, and how hard it is even at the top, I might not have done it!
I was incredibly lucky with the opportunities I had, and looking back it was an advantage to me that I also worked part-time alongside racing (until the end of 2013) as it removed some of the pressure. The draw and the excitement were the improvement, and once I felt under pressure (and that I wasn’t improving) it got stressful. I was better at it when semi-clueless and enjoying it, than when experienced and unhappy.
Still, I was lucky and got a few results, plus I made some wonderful friends in cycling.
"I was better at it when semi-clueless and enjoying it, than when experienced and unhappy"
JI - Having raced professionally what was the draw to try bikepacking? Was it a competitive desire, or more to try something new?
EP - Bikepacking is not about racing for me. It’s a way to combine cycling (which I love) with journeying and adventure and moving through beautiful mountains. Mountain running was always what I wanted to do, and I really resented having to give up running in the race season. My off-season was always about running or hiking hüt-to-hut in the mountains. Bikepacking for me is the perfect way to combine that with cycling.
On my adventure bike I feel I can go anywhere (maybe not always riding it, my skills aren’t great!) and I love that feeling of freedom. And on a bike your distance range is way further than on foot of course. I think for me the bikepacking is also a way to escape from my own demons in road cycling: riding on the road I’m (sometimes, not always!) pursued by a feeling of inadequacy. I’ll never be as strong or as fast as 10 years ago and although it shouldn’t matter, somehow it does make me sad. On the road I rapidly return to feeling like I’m “training” and thinking about watts and TSS - which have their place, but sport for me needs to be relaxing, it’s my time off. I can cope with physical stress (I need it!) but the mental stress gets me down.
Its better if I’m bike touring on the road because it’s a journey. Even better off road bikepacking because it’s so beautiful and so wild, it feels like an adventure. So I get the challenge I love and which I find so rewarding , without getting stressed about it.
JI -Lets talk about Further. Your first competitive bikepacking event and probably one of the toughest on the calendar with the combination metres climbed and hikeabike. You dominated the event, finishing with the fastest time. How was that experience for you?
EP - I can sum up Further in one sentence: it’s the happiest I’ve ever been on a bike. Not because it was a race or because I won. Simply because it felt so simple and the challenge was so great. It was like a kind of meditation. Yes, there’s physical discomfort in that kind of event. Accepting that, and not minding it, is very peaceful. The task is so very simple: keep moving forwards. I felt like that left me able to concentrate all my mind on observing the beauty around me - and it was a beautiful route!
That I happened to finish first was neither here nor there. Some other riders were unlucky with health. I was very lucky in having just one minor mechanical, and I also had the huge advantage of being slightly clueless and therefore not knowing what I couldn’t / shouldn’t do, if you see what I mean? For example, I didn’t eat anywhere near enough... but I can cope with being hungry and the reserves come in handy! I can also cope with not much sleep, for a few nights at least.
The one thing I can say is that steep uphill hike a bike is something I AM good at! Sorry if that sounds arrogant! But I do lots of uphill running races and I took very little kit so my bike was light to carry. If there had been more technical riding I’d have been way slower. But mountain running + bike is basically the sport for me! Sadly, somewhat niche.
JI - Finally what are your plans for 2020? Has the bikepacking bug bitten and will you be taking part in more events?
EP - Yes, totally! I mean, I think I’d go riding and camping out anyway, but Further was such a great experience that I’d like to do more events. I think the difference it makes is being set a challenge and knowing there are other people out there challenging themselves as well. Totally different to the vibe in road racing where it’s all about beating other people: in the longer bikepacking events it feels to me like a personal challenge. Everyone at Further was so friendly and welcoming and so impressive - it was just a lot of fun being there. I guess that given the toughness, and solitude, and sheer challenge, maybe everyone who does crazy bikepacking events is a bit of a way up the weird spectrum? I mean that as a compliment - I felt like I fitted right in!
So after Further, I wanted to sign up for everything! Tour Divide, Rockies, GBDuro, etc etc... but I have a job and only so much holiday. And no experience of the long stuff. I want it to be fun, not another serious racing career where I have to dedicate every waking hour to being better at cycling. I have lots of run races to do, so I moderated my plans, to “just” Italy Divide, Hope1000, Further, and a few mountain marathons and an ultra run.
Then Covid-19 changed everything. I felt so lucky to be living in Switzerland (I moved here 15 years ago for my PHD, and never left). We weren’t restricted in doing sport as long as we avoided risking virus transmission. So I did lots of mountain rides and bivvying out in the spring and early summer. It was so much fun! I’ve never been as frustrated and annoyed as when carrying my bike for hours through crusty deep snow! It grazes your shins and your feet get soaked and cold. Yet somehow, awesome adventures. I felt like I was following in the footsteps of those rough stuff fellowship heroes, but with much better equipment. And, since regulations eased up and we’ve been allowed to do sport with other people, the adventures got even more fun.
So yes I want to do some events, but the most important thing for me is just to ride and enjoy it, and share the sport I love with other people.
Keep up with Emma's travels & races, on her Instagram below
Thanks to Dan @ Breakaway Digital for all photography