– Contributed by Ashley Gruber –
The short run down of Sharon Laws’ life is quite a tale. Laws was born in Kenya in 1974 to British parents. While she didn’t remain in Africa for long – her family returned to England early in her life – Africa would play a big role in the Cotswold native’s life.
Laws got a biology degree at Nottingham University, then headed to Africa. The first stop was Zimbabwe with the organization now known as Restless Development. After an initial period with the charity, she moved up the ladder and to Uganda where she worked to set up environmental programs.
The African theme would take a backseat for a time, as Laws returned back to the UK to pursue a Masters degree in Conservation at University College in London. A job with the British government’s Department for International Development followed, which then resulted in a secondment to the United Nations. The secondment focused Laws’ attention, once again, back to Africa, where she worked on environmental projects in the southern part of the continent.
If one thing stands out in Laws’ life, it’s a fearlessness in pursuing new opportunities. Most would have been content with a UN secondment, but once again, Laws opted for something new when the opportunity arose: she took a job with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
(That’s a hopefully decent paraphrase from Sarah Connolly’s excellent interview with Laws on PodiumCafe.com)
Let’s take up the story with cycling though, because that’s why we’re here, right?
PEZ: How did you go from a commuter, public transport rider to racing and wanting to race as a career?
Sharon Laws: I actually got a mountain bike in the UK the year I left for South Africa – purely because I did an adventure race training weekend with a friend at a geographic society, which was set up for a birthday weekend. She asked me if I wanted to go, and I’d never done anything like it. I used to run, but this was way more – running, kayaking, absailing, along with the mountain bike. I loved it.
I bought a mountain bike and did an adventure race training weekend and then a few races that summer. Later that year, I moved to South Africa. The sport is huge there. I just got into doing long mountain bike races and adventure racing. I was there for two and a half years.
Then I moved to London when I worked with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. I didn’t find England as well set up for it, and I was traveling a lot. It was really expensive, and I didn’t have a car. I did do the Trans Alps mountain bike race one year.
I had never thought of cycling as a career. Then I went to Australia in 2006. I did a lot more road biking, because it was a lot easier to road bike. It was sort of right on the door step. Mountain biking wasn’t so easy. You had to drive somewhere generally. Everybody was going out on the road bike every day.
At the time, I was traveling a lot for work. There was one race in my favorite area, the Tour of Bright, and I asked my boss if I could have a month without travel, so I could actually train for it. I won it. I was riding quite an old bike and I hadn’t had a coach or anything at the time, so somebody said “Why don’t you get a coach and buy yourself a new bike?” That was in 2007. I did the Australian Nationals in early January, and that’s when I came in second. It was their Olympic selection race.
After that result, I was contacted by the British Federation who said “Do you want to come and ride full-time with Halfords? The team was set up in preparation for the Olympics. It was a total whirlwind. I was working full-time until April 2008, and in August I was at the Olympics. It was never any conscious kind of decision. It all sort of happened.
PEZ: Then you had some struggles?
I was doing some filming with the BBC, and I broke my fibula six weeks before going to Beijing. Mentally it was really hard to deal with. I hadn’t really raced. All I had done was the Fleche Wallonne World Cup and the Tour de l’Aude, and then the next race was the Olympics. It was all a bit of a shock really.
PEZ: What were you thinking “I’m in the Olympics, wow. I just had this crash.” What kind of things were going through your mind?
I think I was just totally, I don’t know… I didn’t really think about it. It was all just surreal. I was super nervous. It didn’t really register that well. It had been such a struggle to try and get over the injury with my fibula. It was all quite overwhelming. I was staying in Wales at the time, and they often put on local handicap races, and I just remember my coach saying “Just pretend it’s a handicap race. We kind of got to the place and there was a massive stand and a giant clock. I remember thinking “I’ve only ever seen this on TV.”
PEZ: How has this season been for you with the Giro and British Nationals?
It’s had some good and bad points. I feel much more comfortable in terms of how I’ve been riding in a bunch. I’ve only raced on the road in 2008 and 2010. In 2009 I did mountain biking and only rode on the road in August and September. Both 2008 and 2010 I’d broken something so I hadn’t had a whole season. It’s been really nice to have the whole consistency of racing this year. I think that has really benefitted me in terms of being more comfortable in the peloton. It’s always hard when you don’t race so much and then you’ve broken something and you’re nervous and then you go back and trying to feel comfortable in the bunch. I feel from that point of view I’ve progressed quite a bit.
I think missing the Tour d l’Aude in May hurts. It’s quite a big race, and it’s mountainous. I think not having that, and then this year really just having the Giro as the main long race made things more difficult. It was good to have the Tour de l’Aude to prepare for other races. I think having that gap hasn’t been good for everybody generally.
I think I’ve been able to help the team quite a lot though. The second stage of the Giro I got second, and that was really great. I felt pretty good for the Giro in the first four days, but then I got sick. Like a cold and sore throat, and that was the day just before we got to the mountains, so that was a disappointment for me. Normally I can climb a lot better than I was climbing in the Giro. I’m hoping it was just because I was sick.
PEZ: What are your goals for the Olympics?
I’d really like to be selected. It’s going to be quite tricky when you’ve got the current Olympic champion, the World Time Trial champion, and Lizzie in the British team. I think hopefully we will get four riders. I think those three will take the three spots and then it’s everybody else for the fourth spot, and there are a lot of really good, young riders. It’s going to be tricky.
I’d love to do it, because when I was working in London it’s actually the area I used to ride around. Most weekends I rode on what will be the time trial course, the way it comes back, I was more or less riding that road every morning before work. I used to get up at 5:30, and I’d ride around the North Downs, get back by 8:30, have a quick shower and I’d be at work by nine o’clock. It would be like completing a circle.
There is also a silly reason why I want to do it. When I was working in London when they announced the Olympic Games, this was before when I was riding for fun. I remember texting my Mum when I was walking along the Thames. I’d just been to a meeting and I wrote to her: “Oh, it’s great news about the Olympics. You’ll be able to come and watch me.” Just joking. She texted back saying “What the hell do you think you’ll be doing? You’ll be 38 by then.” I texted her back and said “Yeah, I’ll probably be married with two kids.” It would just be really ironic. I wasn’t doing any sport really competitively at all.
PEZ: Do you feel like your vast experiences outside of bike racing have helped you on the bike?
That’s quite a tricky question. Maybe not on the bike so much, but maybe everything else around it. I think the thing that I’ve found in a way challenging, and I think it’s what a lot of people find challenging, like some of the Dutch girls go home during the season and they have all their friends and family, so it’s quite easy, but for the Australian riders and the South African riders that come over, I kind of classify myself with them because I don’t have family with a place anywhere, that’s probably more challenging than the actual bike racing.
You’re away from friends and family and you don’t have the support structures that other people have when they’re at home. I’ve traveled a lot with work, I’ve probably been able to deal with that a bit better than some of the younger rider who suddenly have been at home and then have to go somewhere they don’t know and have people to support them. There are a lot of talented riders from overseas who I think really struggle and interestingly they race so much better domestically because they have all the support structure around them. Suddenly when they come to Europe they don’t do so well.
I’ve never lived anywhere longer than two and a half years before I started cycling. I’ve been really fortunate to see lots of other places. Having worked in Africa and a lot of developing countries, one thing I struggle with a lot is just the decadence and wastage- when things are just thrown away. I find it really difficult. There are so many things that are done that could be done so much more efficiently or in an environmentally friendly way or whatever, and I find that quite hard to get my head around. People trying to ride a bike in Africa are lucky if they’ve got one pair of shorts and one top.
PEZ: What’s it been like to go from the work world to the cycling world? How are they different and how are they similar?
It’s not so much the work world, but when I was working and still wanted to train and racing for fun on the weekends, what I found really hard was my time. I had to really stay well time tabled. I got up really early and everything had to fit to clockwork for me to be able to fit in training. I was never very relaxed. I never had enough sleep. I only got five or six hours of sleep a night.
Now, it is all really different. Essentially I do have more time, but I manage to fill it, and I still feel like I’m always running around and don’t have enough time. Now I can’t even imagine how I managed to fit in work and training. I can prioritize now, which helps so much. I’m getting enough sleep and doing things like core stability and stretching and all the things that when you’re working and trying to train you can’t possibly fit everything in. I had a job, so essentially I sat in an office the whole day. It’s really nice to be able to feel a lot fitter and be able to train.
In terms of the discipline, that’s really similar to being in a job I think. You have to create your own goals and what you want to achieve in the year and how you can best work toward that. That’s really similar with work.
One thing that is quite different, obviously you love cycling and that’s why you do it, but it does mean that you never really get a break. There always seems to be something every day. Whereas when you’re working then you work so many days, but then you have a day when you’re not working. Whereas I find it really hard, even if I’m having a rest day and not on my bike I’m still doing core exercises or stretching or trying to plan my training for the week or writing in my training diary or something. It’s a 24 hour/ 7 days a week job. If you’re not sleeping you’re worried because you know you need to be sleeping.
PEZ: Do you keep a pretty extensive record of things or is it kind of “Felt bad,” whatever?
I’ve tried to be good. I’ve done an Excel spreadsheet and it’s been quite hard because we’ve had different stuff the whole time. Before I used to use Polar and then last year we had the Power Tap and this year we’ve had Garmin, and I’m really worried my computer is going to crash, so I have all of that data stored like my heart rate and the power. We had the Power Tap and the Garmin, so that’s all stored on the programs that came with, and then I write up the Excel diary. If I’ve done intervals then I’ll write down in the diary what power and heart rate I did the intervals at. It’s pretty good, but I think when I chatted to some of the other girls it’s maybe not as extensive as they do. I know Jessie said for their federation they have to fill in how many hours you slept, what your heart rate was, your weight, how many hours you train, and so much. I’m not so good at that.
PEZ: Where will you go at the end of the season?
We’ve actually got a camp to go to and look at the Olympics course straight after Worlds, and then I might actually be doing a time trial in mid-October. Then I’ll probably come back to Girona, and the last two weeks I’ll spend there maybe just to try and look around a little bit. There’s not really a chance to go around and look at stuff. After that, I’ve got to do two weeks with Cola-Cola as part of an athlete thing I’m doing with them. Then I haven’t decided, I’ll either go to Australia or South Africa. I’m waiting to find out the race schedule for next year. There is a rumor that they might have a World Cup back in Australia. Then it would make more sense to go there. I was quite keen to go to South Africa, actually.
PEZ: What’s your hometown?
I don’t really have one. I grew up in the Cotswolds. My Mum is still there. It’s a really small village in the southwest of England on the water. I stay with her for a bit, but she’s got a one bedroom retirement flat and is 72 now, so it’s not like a permanent base for me. Although all my stuff is in her loft! She’s a bit distressed about it. All my stuff is there. I love going to see her, but I always feel really guilty. She moves out of her bed and puts up a little camp bed and she insists that I sleep on her bed and she sleep on the camp bed. I always feel really bad. I did end up there a bit of last season.
PEZ: What are your goals for when you finish racing?
I’m not really sure, but I’d like to do something that is benefitting society a bit more. I feel that the cycling career is quite decadent, whereas the work I did previously did actually have a benefit to the environment and to people in developing countries. I guess I want to put something back, but be that whether it’s doing the same kind of work. I’m not really sure.
PEZ: Do you still keep in touch with the NGO that you were working with.
I worked at Kew Gardens, but then I worked at Rio Tinto, and each year I do a bit of consultancy work for Rio Tinto, the mining company. Last year I did a bit for a consultant who I met through Rio Tinto. I try and keep in contact with people in the conservation community and even the guy I worked with at the UN, I’m still in touch with. I’m trying to keep doors open for the future.
PEZ: How do you continue to educate yourself so that you are prepared for those jobs?
In the racing season I don’t have time to do anything. I think listening to the podcasts is pretty good. I probably don’t do as much as I should do, but I find there is not that much time. The work that I’ve done I’ve just sort of read around it when I’ve been given the work. It’s research based and then you use the knowledge that you’ve already got to help inform that.
PEZ: What kind of sports were you into before?
I started adventure racing in 2001. When I was growing up, I grew up in a small village, and sport wasn’t really that big in school or anything. I generally did what I could. I was ok, but I wasn’t super good. I did a bit of running and I did join the running club. I mainly played hockey through school. My Mum was a really good hockey player when she was younger, and I think that you often end up doing what your parents are keen on. She was super supportive of me and would come and watch me every weekend. I played school and club hockey and county hockey as well. I did that all through school, and I played in Australia, and the first year of university I was still playing.
The answer to the last question shouldn’t be a surprise…
PEZ: When you where a kid, what did you want to be ‘when you grew up?’
I didn’t know, and I don’t think I know now either! [Laughs]