Why cyclist Laura Kenny is top choice for Laureus Woman Athlete of the Year 2016
Laura Kenny exudes an aura of energy which comes across even over the phone. It would be easy to brand her articulate quick bursts of words during the conversation as nervous energy, but, we know better. Speed defines Laura!
With the two gold medals she won in Rio Olympics last year to add to the two she won at the London Games in 2012, Laura Kenny, at 24, has won on all the big stages in track cycling and has touched greatness, not just by the Olympic medal-starved Indian standards, but by the lofty scales of the British Isles too.
Laura Kenny’s four gold medals have made her the most successful female Olympic athlete from Great Britain, and has earned her a prestigious nomination -- for the Woman Athlete of the Year (2016) at the Laureus Awards slated in Monaco for February 14. She has made it into an elite list alongside Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Allyson Felix, Angelique Kerber and Elaine Thompson, an honour, as Laura puts it.
The British cycling programme is something even strong cycling nations such as USA, France, Italy, Belgium and the likes look up to. In the last decade -- after the Lance Armstrong episode cast a huge shadow on the sport -- British Cycling has produced countless “clean” champions or “ambassadors”, including two Tour de France victors: Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
So, one would imagine Laura, who is married to Olympic champion Jason Kenny, to have had a well-set path to traverse to reach the pinnacle. But no!
NO GRAND TOUR
Women’s cycling -- track, road or MTB -- is a distant poor cousin of the men’s sport and Laura, as one of its illustrious ambassadors now, is hoping her medals bring in the attention, sponsorship and races it deserves, and also inspire the next generation.
“I think women’s cycling has taken a huge step forward from when I first started racing (mid 2000s),” says Laura, who competes in Omnium and Team Pursuit events of track cycling.
“As a kid, I had to race against the boys, because there weren’t enough females for a separate race. But now, we can fit in races. In the National Omnium Championships, I had to run two races because there was too many to be on the track at the same time, that’s progress.
“In terms of the professionals, on the track, we get prize money,” adds Laura. “Now we have a UCI Women’s World Tour, which was never there before. They have (one off) races at the Tour de France. I think small things like that are only going to grow the sport.”
However, Laura never had to break glass ceilings and societal barriers that, say, an Indian woman athlete (not just cycling but any discipline) has to break first, before dreaming of taking on the world. British Cycling’s programmes also ensures both men and women cyclists get their fair share of resources.
But still, cycling is a male dominated world and the biggest evidence is that there is no grand tour for women like the Tour de France. Then again, the story is the same for all sport (remember Serena Williams and Co. campaigning for equal prize money in Grand Slam tennis).
“There used to be one (a grand tour for women), and I don’t see why it can’t come back,” says Laura. “I think it needs to happen slowly. If they do it slowly and grow it, like say they start with the women having a five-day tour in Britain, going up to seven days and then lifted the limit so that they can go even longer.”
Laura is talking about a gradual change in her sport, and evolution works better than revolution. After all, she is a product of one, post the darkest era in cycling.
Cycling is clean now, she believes.
“I’ve only ever experienced it to be clean,” reiterates Laura. “It seems like a completely different era. The UK Sport and the UCI (world governing body) have a good system in place for testing us. We are one of the most tested sports. Pre-Games, I was getting two or three (tests) a week. That’s massive and that’s hugely important.”
Doping tests apart, cycling is a sport full of challenges --the physical, mental and social (since the sport takes an athlete away from a “normal” life). Being married to a fellow cyclist helps as they both understand the demands.
At 24, she has a long road ahead too, and she doesn’t find it hard to refocus and get motivated thanks to the inherent nature of her sport. Who doesn’t enjoy cycling!
TOKYO AND BEYOND
Medals in Tokyo is her “possible” target.
“I always love riding my bike. Whether that’s just going out, or whether it’s for a training ride,” says Laura. “Since Rio, I’ve taken a step back. I obviously had my injury (hamstring). But I don’t actually see that as much of a bad thing because it means I’ve had time to step away and work out what I actually want. I would obviously love to go to Tokyo and try and do it all again.
“This is always difficult because the UCI like to change our events. At the moment, the Omnium has changed to what it was in Rio. So I’m just waiting to see what the events are actually going to be like so that I can know what to target.”
And Laura is not averse to refocusing, the variables changing in her sport is good for it, she believes. And few would bet against her if she happens to be in Tokyo in 2020.
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