February 23, 2011

When Jonathan Vaughters introduced 28-year old Garmin-Cervélo rider Emma Pooley at a team presentation earlier this year, he remarked that in 2010 the 28-year won the world time trial championship as well as the British road and TT championships, all while working on her Ph.D.

Handed the microphone, Pooley admitted that pro cycling has become her primary focus. “You heard it here first,” Vaughters added to the crowd’s delight. “My Ph.D. is like a hobby.”

We caught up with Pooley to see how she’s balancing pro cycling with the demands of a Ph.D. in civil engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Though a towering cycling talent and Olympic silver medalist in the TT, in person Pooley comes across as a humble 28-year old grad student who fell into cycling on a lark.

MJ: Tell us about your Ph.D. work.

EP: It feels a bit like a stone around my neck because I haven’t finished it. There’s no time in the season really to sit down and write a good chunk, so I only work on it in the off-season. It gets a bit stressful. I worked on it full time for two and a half years, but then the Olympics were coming up so I went part time for about a year. No I’m literally 5-percent. It’s my hobby.

MJ: MJ: You were a graduate student before you were a cyclist?

EP: If I hadn’t started the Ph.D., I would have never gotten into cycling, because at the end of my undergraduate degree in Cambridge I moved to Zurich to do this Ph.D.. My cycling career is just a series of lucky coincidences, and I would have never managed it if I hadn’t been in Zurich. I first tried racing in Belgium with an English team—commuting from Zurich on weekends on the train. It was not a good experience. So at the end of 2006 I decided I’d do some triathlon for fun. I went to Australia in the winter to stay with some family for the holiday. I did lots of cycling there, came back and I was much stronger. I found a small team based in Zurich. I got to go to a few races and I won a few races.

MJ: Then the Beijing Olympics came up?

EP: In 2008 I was with the same team in Zurich. It was the perfect setup for the Olympics that I had this opportunity. It was just lucky. So, I got a silver medal in the time trial. Then I got a pro contract with Cervélo. I actually got paid to ride my bike, it was like, crazy! Since then my Ph.D. has been a spare time off-season hobby. The number of nights where I can actually stay awake to do any work after training is fairly low.

MJ: Can you put your Ph.D. on ice until you retire from cycling?

EP: Obviously I want to finish it because I did three years of work on it and it was hard work. My Ph.D. supervisor is called Sarah Springman. She’s a really keen tri-athlete. She’s the president of the British Triathlon Federation and she’s been super supportive. If she had not let me go part time and take time off I would never have gotten here. I actually have a deadline in just over a year’s time, so I’m writing it at the moment. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing two things badly. Given the choice, I know I’ve got to be healthy for cycling because I won the world championship, so I’d rather focus on that.

But on the other hand, I’m not going to be a cyclist forever. And as a female cyclist you don’t earn enough money that you can retire and live off the back of it the rest of your life. Since I trained as an engineer, it would be nice if I used it. But I don’t like the idea of taking a year off, especially with the 2012 (London) Olympics coming up. Racing the Olympics at home would be amazing.

MJ: Why did you decide to focus on cycling rather than triathlon?

EP: I was fairly average at triathlon. Then a friend from my triathlon club convinced me to go to a road race. It was the Bedford Three Day, a small race in England. She said to me, “This will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” And at that point it was! It was really hard. I did alright, so I went to nationals and I got fourth at nationals. That was a bit of a shock, so after that I thought I would do a bit more just cycling.

MJ: How was the transition from triathlon to cycling?

EP: It was actually very frustrating. In triathlon there’s no drafting, so it’s all about how strong you are. There’s no tactics. There’s none of this sneaky hiding in the slipstream thing then sprinting. I was like, “sprinting?” I had no idea. I would go to these road races and ride around at the front. Then I would be really upset when someone would sprint around me at the end. (Laughing) I thought, “That is so unfair!”

MJ: How does it feel being with Garmin-Cervélo compared to Cervélo Test Team?

EP: They have similar ethos in many ways. Strong anti-doping, and focusing on working with sponsors rather than just taking their kit and riding it. I like giving sponsors feedback and it’s really nice because sponsors have come to this team from Cervélo Test Team. They are really interested in working with us and getting our feedback and listening to us.

Companies like Castelli, they are really super at listening to what we say about the kit and adapting it. And that helps with me because I’m below average height. I’m 5’2” and, during the race season, about 47-48 kilos (104-106 pounds).

MJ: Tell us about winning Worlds.

EP: I’ve got family in Perth. So last winter when I was in Perth I flew over to Geelong just to look at the course. I could see that it was quite a tough time trial course. So I thought, well, it’s worth going for.

I rode my time trial bike a lot coming up to it. Rather than racing in Europe in September I went to Perth and I trained there for two and a half, three weeks.
I think that was a good move because being over the jet lag made a big difference. It went so well. It went off perfectly. It felt like the sacrifices had paid off. I wouldn’t say it was a dream-come-true because I wouldn’t really have quite dared dream it, but it was amazing.

In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada

More photos of Emma Pooley:
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