The Pursuits Interview: Laura Trott
Simply sign up to the Life & Arts myFT Digest -- delivered directly to your inbox.
Double-Olympic cycling champion Laura Trott is sitting in her apartment by the Ashton Canal in Manchester discussing the relative evils of bike crashes. “Falling off on the indoor track at the velodrome is the worst,” she says, wincing. “Road rash hurts but you just leave the wound and it gets better. After a crash on the track you are picking wooden splinters out of your legs for weeks.”
With her slight 5ft 4in frame and youthful giggle, Trott, 22, seems an unlikely fit for the brutality of bike racing. The presence of Sprolo and Pringle, her two soppy “sproodles” (a springer spaniel-poodle cross) dozing by her feet, and a brightly coloured packet of sweets on the table only softens her image further. But her words are anything but soft: “I crashed at the Women’s Tour [in May] and my arm and shoulder were killing me, but when everyone kept asking how I was, I felt like saying: ‘This is bike racing. We ride inches away from each other’s wheels at ridiculous speeds. What do you expect?’”
Trott competes in road cycling events for the professional women’s team Wiggle Honda, in whose jersey she won the prestigious British National Road Race title in June. Next month she hopes to defend another of her road titles at the Prudential RideLondon Grand Prix. However, it is on the indoor track that Trott excels. Her gold medals at London 2012 came in the team pursuit (a synchronised 3km dash around the velodrome in a team of three, alongside Dani King and Jo Rowsell, at speeds of 55 kmph) and the omnium (a mix of solo races against the clock, head-to-head battles against an opponent, and chaotic group races). She has already amassed five world titles and five European titles but is hunting her first Commonwealth Games gold medal in Glasgow this weekend.
“I love the freedom of the road but track has always been my thing,” she explains. “My favourite is the team pursuit, as I love working with the other girls. You feel as though you are moving as one rider. When you get sucked around the bend [of the track] at speed it is like being in a washing machine.”
For an Olympic athlete of supreme physical fitness, Trott has had to contend with a remarkable series of health issues. She was born with a collapsed lung in Harlow, Essex, in 1992, and spent her first weeks in intensive care. As a young child growing up in Hertfordshire she suffered from asthma. When a doctor suggested that exercise would help, she took up swimming and trampolining but further problems followed. “Trampolining was my first love but I kept passing out mid-air. I had to have brain scans to make sure I was OK. Nobody was sure why but the doctors advised I stop for six months.”
Throughout her life she has also had an acid reflux problem that makes her sick after intense exercise. “[In the past] I would wander over to the middle of the track and throw up, then get back on my bike and start riding again,” she recalls. “Now after every race someone just hands me a bag.”
FT Masterclass: Rugby training with Katy Mclean
The double-Olympic cycling champion sets her sights on her first Commonwealth Games gold medal in Glasgow this weekend
Although she enjoyed riding as a child, it was not until her mother, Glenda, started cycling in a bid to lose weight (dropping six-and-a-half stone in 18 months) that her interest blossomed. “Seeing mum’s commitment was inspiring,” she says. “I first went on a road bike when I was eight. I overtook my mum near a roundabout and I could hear her screaming: ‘Turn!’ I just hit the barrier and crashed.”
Trott soon began racing competitively on concrete and grass tracks. She can remember shaming the boys when she won bronze at the under-12 national track championships. “Back then girls raced against boys but no girl ever got on the podium, so they handed out gold, silver and bronze medals to the winners and a second gold medal to the first girl. That year they had to give the girl’s medal to the first boy because first, second and third were all girls.”
When Trott was 12, a chance encounter with Bradley Wiggins at the London Bike Show sparked dreams of a future cycling career. “He let me wear his gold medal [from the 2004 Athens Olympics]. Seeing him in person made professional cyclists seem more real, more touchable. Before then I had only ever seen them on TV.”
The following year she was scouted by the British Cycling Talent Team and by the age of 15 had progressed to their Olympic Development Programme. One coach tried to get her to switch to mountain-biking but she refused. “I used to say to my dad, ‘God didn’t make me a horse so I’m not jumping over things or getting covered in mud.’”
Trott won her first senior British titles in 2009, her first European title in 2010 and her first world title in 2011. Her success at London 2012 was not a surprise to her. “I wouldn’t say it was expected but I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t won,” she says. “I remember my dad saying to me after I had won the first medal, ‘You’ve made this hard for yourself now.’ Thanks for that, dad.”
A combination of Trott’s Olympic success and her lively personality catapulted her into the spotlight: her face appeared on magazine covers and lucrative sponsorship deals followed, along with a bizarre flood of free toasters, kettles and wellington boots. Her relationship with fellow track cyclist and triple Olympic champion Jason Kenny became public when they were photographed smooching at the beach volleyball event.
She admits the hullabaloo felt a bit strange, given her normal lifestyle. She attends any Bruce Springsteen concert she can get to, enjoys rambling and hasn’t had a proper birthday party since she turned 16. “I’m not into the big party scene and I’m always tired from training anyway,” she says. “The attention was crazy after London 2012 and I couldn’t even go shopping. It has calmed down now, although at Southampton Airport recently I sat next to the one guy who knew who I was, just when I was feeling hungry, tired and grumpy.”
In any case, Trott’s friends are more than happy to keep her grounded during her journey to the Rio Olympics in 2016. “They couldn’t care less,” she giggles. “I bought my best friend a ticket for the London Olympics and she kept saying, ‘Laura, this is so boring.’ It’s nice to have people who still see me as Laura and not as an athlete.”
Laura Trott is ambassador for Prudential RideLondon (August 9-10); ridewithprudential.co.uk
Photographs: Getty; Prudential RideLondon 2013; Tina Hillier