Emma Pooley: The thinking person's road cyclist

Cambridge graduate, geotechnical engineering student and polyglot Emma Pooley is the accidental cyclist.

And she is showing off now, having just listed the six languages she speaks (English, German, French, Spanish, a little Italian and Dutch), shifting seamlessly into German to describe where she lives, the village of Hausen am Albis near Zurich in Switzerland.

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I was pretty lucky to get selected for Beijing and I was astounded to get a medal

Emma Pooley

Pooley, 29, won road cycling's time trial silver medal at Beijing 2008 and the world title two years later.

She is a formidable if diminutive proposition on a bike, but her prowess on the road is more than matched by her intellect. In a sport which produces its fair share of thinkers, when she answers a question, it stays answered. There are no throwaway responses.

Asked simply to predict which sport will be Britain's best performer at London 2012, she first swats the question away, then almost relents, but quickly decides no - that isn't how she feels - and proceeds to explain in detail that she objects because she feels sports cannot be so easily compared.

When we join her on a spring training camp with the Dutch team AA Drink,  for whom she rides alongside Team GB team-mates Lizzie Armitstead and Lucy Martin, she is using the one hour of internet she gets per day to hoard BBC Radio 4 podcasts.

"I spend most of my life listening to Radio 4. It makes me feel calm and at home. I really like it," she says.

A Team Sky for women?

Emma Pooley
  • BBC: "Why isn't there a women's Team Sky?"
  • Emma Pooley: "You should ask Dave Brailsford that."
  • BBC: "Have you?"
  • Pooley: "Yes."
  • BBC: "What did he say?"
  • Pooley: "That they're not ready yet. They seem quite ready to me - I'm not saying I'd ride for them, they can make me an offer. There's no shortage of British women at the right level to make the core of the team up. Given the investment they make in the men's team, a little bit wouldn't go amiss in women's cycling."

Rarely, after all, is Pooley actually at home. Brought up in Norwich, hers is now a professional cyclist's life of training camps and races across the globe.

It is not the life she always had in mind, and despite her Olympic medal she remains philosophical - to the point where, compared to many Team GB colleagues, she almost sounds negative - about her place in the sport.

"I've been lucky with the chances I've had in life. The cycling was a total accident but something I've been lucky to have the opportunity to do.

"I felt I was pretty lucky to get selected for Beijing at all. I was quite new in cycling, and I was astounded to even get a medal. That feeling was quite incredible.

"Then your thoughts immediately turn to the next Olympics, especially because it's at home, but cycling is very course-dependent and the one in Beijing suited me down to the ground: it went up a big hill and down a big hill.

"London isn't like that. I've had to improve a lot and I know I'm a lot better than I was four years ago but it doesn't necessarily mean I'll do better or even get a medal. I'm not saying I'm confident, but I've got a good shot. As long as the pressure of a home Olympics doesn't get to me."

Pooley will have two jobs at London 2012: the priority for her will be a medal in the time trial, but not far behind is her role in helping Britain to win the women's road race title. The four-woman GB team will try to get either Armitstead or defending Olympic champion Nicole Cooke over the line first, depending on what happens in the race.

"Cycling is a bit strange in that it's a team sport but you only get one medal," says Pooley. "Being honest, the road race is not the kind of course that suits me. I'll have a supporting role. That's a job that goes quite well with the time trial.

"Anyone who starts the road race has got a chance - everyone else could crash and I could solo to victory," she continues, laughing at the prospect. "But realistically there's a very small chance that I get away. I'm not a sprinter at all, my usefulness to the team is either in controlling the race or being in a break that another team has to chase.

"It doesn't matter who wins that medal, as long as we win. It's important that you believe in your team-mates, trust them and make a plan for the best person to win. Luckily, that's not my job."

Pooley storms to time trial world title in 2010 (UK only)

Pooley's job, other than bike riding, is her PhD: in the improvement of mining waste. While she is unlikely to find many in the Olympic village with much of an opinion to add, her supervisor happens to be a vice-president of triathlon's world governing body - former GB triathlete Prof Sarah Springman  - so she has an understanding ear when sport has to take priority.

One major race remains before the Games, the Giro Donne, one of the Grand Tours of women's cycling - Pooley came second last year. This year's Italian course is not to her taste, but she is not in it for the result.

"I didn't have such a good spring - I had a couple of crashes in races and a bit of bad luck," she tells us as she collects her Team GB kit in Loughborough, but she is still at her analytical best, prone to immediate self-assessment.

"You can't disassociate bad luck from incompetence, sickness or whatever," she quickly adds as a caveat, then continues: "That was disappointing. Now I've come back into a racing block and it's gone better, I had a couple of wins in Spain which gave me some confidence. It's nice to have won something.

"I've got the Giro coming up - the course doesn't really suit me but it'll be great training for London, a really hard race, nine days long. I don't mind if I come last in the Giro, what I want from it is a lot of hard riding. And then we're there: the Olympic Games."

So how will we know if Pooley is in title-winning form?

"You'll see the result when I've finished. Frankly, there shouldn't really be a point before the Olympics where you're in the same form you will be at the Olympics.

"The whole point is it should be the best point of your life. I won't know until I see the result."