Young Athlete Series: Elinor Barker on what it takes to be a Team GB cyclist
At just 21, Elinor Barker is incredibly accomplished: she has earned both European and World Championship titles in Team Pursuit with team mates Laura Trott and Dani King, and won her first Individual Gold medal at the European Track Championships at the age of just 17. We met up at her second home, the Manchester Velodrome, to talk about her career in cycling, and what to do when a competition clashes with your high school prom.
Name: Elinor Barker
Discipline: Cycling - Track and Road
Based: Manchester Velodrome, the home of British Cycling
How did you start in competitive cycling and what attracted you to the sport?
Our mum took me and my sister to swimming lessons when we were little – so we wouldn’t drown when we went on holiday! – and we really didn’t enjoy it. Cycling was on at the same time so if we were cycling, we couldn’t go swimming as well…I don’t know how she agreed to it because you need a lot more than just a pair of goggles and a swimming costume to cycle! It can be expensive and time-consuming, but it’s certainly been worth it over the years.
What made you stick with cycling through your teens?
Although with swimming you have plenty of 5am starts, the earliest we started with cycling was about 8.30am. At the time it feels early – especially losing your weekend lie-in – but there was never anything that didn’t feel exciting about it. I got to see my friends and do a few laps of the track, so it was always something I looked forward to doing. That’s definitely the trick: to find a sport you love to do.
Do you have a typical training week?
Not at all! I’m asked a lot about my typical training day and there just isn’t one, but I like the variety. I really enjoy the gym work – we do a lot of strength and power work in there – and it’s a great feeling getting lots of PBs (personal bests)!
Have you had to make sacrifices over the years to keep your cycling career going?
Now I’m 21 and I make far fewer sacrifices now than I did when I was around 16-18 and all my friends were discovering parties and boys! I was away competing a lot at weekends and my friends would be out, and when I was around I’d often be too tired to go out, and I would feel like I was missing out all the time. Now my friends are all people who like doing the same things as me, so we’ll go out for dinner or to the cinema instead of going partying.
How did your cycling affect your friendships and experiences as a teenager?
It was really tough sometimes, but I knew [cycling] was what I wanted to do. If I had a week off then I’d go to the parties, but they weren’t that good. They were fun, but I realised the stories you hear are collected from lots of nights out - you might get one really good story from six nights out, it’s not that every night is amazing. I realised it’s not all it’s cracked up to be whereas the feeling of winning a race is so much better than any night out. I also realised who my friends were around that age – a lot of people would say to me I had no social life and why did I not just quit cycling, but it doesn’t really work like that. You don’t miss Nationals just to go to a party! I missed my prom and some of my friends were annoyed with me that I didn’t go. Then a couple of weeks later I won my first international title [Euros] and my friends were saying how that’s so much better than going to prom – and I knew they were my real friends.
What experiences has cycling given you?
I’ve got to travel a lot and have been to some great places – Hong Kong, New Zealand, Columbia –and the Caribbean was amazing, although competing in that heat was horrible. Putting your skinsuit on in that heat was like Mission Impossible! We don’t often get to see a lot of each place we go to – although we unintentionally saw a lot of Mexico. We were trying to ride back from the track, but we’d been a different way every time we’d been there, and what should’ve been a 20-minute ride turned into a 3 and a half hour nightmare ride…we were totally lost, and saw the bit of Mexico that the tour guides don’t take you to!
Has your career in sport changed the way you feel about your body?
Just remember that everybody – and I really mean everyone! – feels self-conscious about their body at some point, and it’s totally normal. But also you only get one body and whether you’d rather be taller, shorter, or have smaller hips, it’s not going to change that much, so you have to learn to love what you have. You get a lot of confidence from treating your body well and being the best you can be. Not drinking too much [alcohol], not eating too much junk food, and drinking lots of water: all these little things will make you feel really healthy and good about yourself.