By Tony James
Tourists on the holiday island of Lanzarote have been known to do double takes when a familiar figure cycles past. It can’t be? It is. And Joanna Rowsell Shand, one of cycling’s most approachable golden girls, will happily chat to anyone who recognises her in her idyllic training retreat.
One of the perks of being in the Podium Ambition powered by Club La Santa cycling team is the chance to train at the Club La Santa resort in Lanzarote.
Rowsell Shand says: “It’s the perfect location for an athlete and the roads on the island are ideal for training. It’s also great being in an environment with like-minded people. You don’t feel out of place in cycling gear – in a normal hotel you get a lot of funny looks if you walk around with a bike in cycling kit.”
Rowsell Shand, 27, is far too self-effacing to admit those looks are much more likely to be recognition of a two-time world champion, reigning Olympic, European and Commonwealth Games champion and one of Britain’s major hopes in retaining Olympic team pursuit gold at Rio.
Women’s cycling transformed
While winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics is so far the pinnacle of her career, there have also been unexpected spin-offs that give her great pleasure and satisfaction.
“What happened in 2012 has transformed women’s cycling,” Rowsell Shand says. “It’s always nice to meet other cyclists and often people say their daughters watched us in the Olympics on television, which made them want to join a cycling club, and that’s great. When I started, it was very much a minority sport and a lot of my friends thought I was doing something a bit weird by going out on a bike.
“When I started riding seriously in 2005, if I saw another cyclist when I was riding up Box Hill near my home in Surrey I would go home and tell my brother. It was a real talking point. Now it’s a world famous climb and heaving with cyclists.
“In those days there were very few events for women in the UK and I had to go abroad – to France and Holland – to race and get the experience. In this country it was a struggle to find enough competitors for a women’s race.
“Now it’s completely changed. The domestic races in the UK have full fields and there are lists of reserves for major competitions.
Now training up to five hours a day – both on the roads and at Manchester’s Velodrome – Rowsell Shand good naturedly accepts that budding racers she meets out on the roads won’t be able to resist the challenge of sitting on her back wheel or racing her up a hill.
“It’s a unique sport in that you can’t just go and play football with a Premier League player, but you can race an Olympic cyclist out on the public roads,” she says. “People can get quite competitive, which is funny because what they don’t realise is that my training sessions are very much focused on a specific power output and I’m deliberately not letting out my inner racer.”
Rowsell Shand has been letting out her inner racer, when appropriate, ever since she was spotted by a British Cycling talent team at school. An accomplished swimmer, she wasn’t even sure about attending the talent day because, growing up in London, she rarely rode a bike.
“They came with bikes and we couldn’t really say no,” she remembers. “My competitive nature was to race the other girls, rather than see if I had potential.”
She came last in her first two races: “If at that point someone had come up to me and said I would ride round a velodrome at full speed with no brakes on my bike, I would have laughed at them.”
But that’s what she was doing just a year later, when she won the junior British national championships pursuit title. After that there seemed no stopping Rowsell Shand’s quietly determined rise to the top of the pursuit racing ladder. She won gold in the 2008 world championships and was in the teams that set two new world records.
Olympic glory in 2012
The stage was set for Olympic glory in 2012 when Rowsell Shand, Dani King and Laura Trott became cycling’s golden girls, winning the team pursuit and breaking yet another world record.
Looking back she says: “When I started cycling, it was an eight-year journey to the London Olympics and that was going to be the highlight of my career and the biggest thing I’d ever done.
“We came away from London as world champions and world record holders. Now the USA are world champions and at the last world championships our women’s pursuit team could only get a bronze.
“We are obviously not head and shoulders above the world at the moment, but we are in the mix with Australia, the USA, Canada and New Zealand and there’s everything to play for. We’re in a good place and personally I’m in pretty good shape with a couple of personal bests in training.
“Rio is going to be different, with some new challenges. This is the big one for us. The world championships in London didn’t quite go according to plan, but we said it’s all about Rio – that’s the big one this year and the only one we really care about.
“In 2012 we were the world champions, so we had the pressure leading up to the Olympics, but it also gave us a lot of confidence. This year we are the chasers, which is a completely different mentality. It’s exciting, but also a little bit scary.”
The pressure is certainly on the girl from Carshalton, who got an MBE in 2013 for services to cycling. If she is not ticking off the road miles, Rowsell Shand is in the gym or on a state-of-the art Wattbike.
It’s a gruelling schedule only made possible by the help and support of husband Dan Shand, a trainee accountant and former cyclist, who she married two years ago and who understands the strains of what being an elite athlete is all about.
It was Lizzie Armitstead, who came into the GB team about the same time as Rowsell Shand, who introduced her friend to Dan. He proposed on bended knee during a holiday in Venice. “It’s hard to explain what he does for me, but he’s a massive help,” says his wife.
Armitstead knows first hand what a ferocious competitor her friend is: “She’s phenomenally powerful over a short distance and very headstrong. Her work ethic and team spirit are incredible. She’s so good at switching her mind off and getting the job done.”
Price of fame
The price of sporting fame can be high. “I’ve had tons of bad times,” Rowsell Shand admits, ticking off smashing her front teeth and breaking her nose in a crash, losing weeks of training with glandular fever and breaking her elbow.
But none of this clouds a relentless ambition to be the best – for herself and her team. Now her total focus is on Rio and coming back with gold. “I will never get complacent,” she says. “There are always people who are coming up, whether it’s someone in Britain trying to take your place or the rest of the world raising their game.
“So you always have to strive to get better, faster and keep improving. We can’t just turn up and think: ‘How many golds are we going to win?’. Elite sport doesn’t work like that.”
Proudest moment: winning Olympic gold in London.
Greatest influence: Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Romero, who switched from rowing to cycling. An inspiring person to train with.
Sporting hero: Sir Bradley Wiggins. He does things his way.
Best moment: winning the individual pursuit at the 2014 world championships.
Worst moment: when I was reserve at the 2011 world championships and couldn’t be part of the winning team.
Hardest opponent: the Australian pursuit teams have, over the years, been our biggest rivals.
Remaining ambition: to win another Olympic gold to go with the one I’ve already got.