Rowsell blasted to a Women’s Team Pursuit world record with Dani King and Laura Trott, and then backed that up with a thunderous ride to see off Canada’s Alison Shanks in the Individual Pursuit. Two events, two gold medals.
Still buzzing from the high of competition, PEZ caught a quick chat with Jo on the Sunday morning as she prepared to go and visit the track as a guest for BBC TV, and to cheer on her team-mates.
Joanna Rowsell was born in Sutton, not too far from the Olympic Velodrome, and is already a seasoned campaigner on the boards and the road, even although she only turned 23 just before Christmas.
Aged just 17, she became U23 women’s champion in the UK and took third in the senior race behind Nicole Cooke. On turning to riding full-time over the winter of 2007/8, she put that new-found training time to the best use by teaming up with Rebecca Romero and Wendy Houvenaghel to take the World Team Pursuit title while still only a teenager.
2008 saw two UK titles on the road and a string of elite wins in Belgium, as well as two wins on the programmes of the post-Tour de France criterium circuit.
2009 saw overall World Cup wins in both the Individual and Team Pursuit, as well as back-to-back World Champion jerseys in the Team Pursuit. Ahead of London 2012, things seem to be coming along very nicely!
PEZ: First of all, congratulations on your fantastic weekend on the boards! Are you still on cloud nine?
Joanna Rowsell: Yep, still buzzing! I’ve not been able to get a lot of sleep, it’s very difficult to get to sleep after being up racing in that atmosphere. It was such a special experience, an awesome weekend.
PEZ: The noise backing the home riders sounded incredible!
Joanna Rowsell: The crowd was absolutely spectacular! They really, really made the event. I think doing something like an Individual Pursuit or a Team Pursuit when you’ve really got to dig in and you can’t see your opponent, you don’t know what they’re doing, and you’ve got to give it absolutely everything and the crowd really get behind you.
It’s something you just can’t replicate in training. That sort of support just makes you go faster. It was absolutely awesome.
PEZ: Can I ask about the Team Pursuit? I’ve seen interviews where you’ve talked about the process for selecting the line-up for that event, and you’ve described it as being like the X-Factor.
Joanna Rowsell: Yep, I was quoted on that – we actually had twelve riders about eighteen months ago, going for the Team Pursuit. That’s obviously a lot of riders going for an event with just three to ride. Over the last year and a half they’ve gradually been taking riders out and there have been dates where they’ve said: We’re going to narrow the squad down again. That’s been happening gradually – we’re down to four riders now, so that’s it really.
We’ll probably be going to the Olympics, all four, and working together as a squad of four. [Jo, Dani King, Laura Trott and Wendy Houvenaghel ed.]
PEZ: You, Dani King and Laura Trott rode the final and set the world record. How does the dynamic work with Wendy Houvenaghel having ridden the qualifiers but missing out on the final?
Joanna Rowsell: I think it’s always hard to miss out. I missed out in the World Championships last March, I was man four there, the reserve. Wendy was part of the qualifying ride (in London) and she got us into the final so she’s very much a part of the team. She was there on the night supporting us. We’re a team of four so we’re going to carry on together and keep getting faster hopefully.
PEZ: It’s not just the four of you that have brought success for Team GB in the Team pursuit – Rebecca Romero, Sarah Storey and Lizzie Armitstead have all been involved in recent years.
Joanna Rowsell: As a nation, we’ve got a lot of strength in depth. There have been six or seven of us who have been world champions in the Team Pursuit over the years. We’ve won it three times.
That’s helped us as a nation to improve, and keep improving, our times because everyone wants to be in that team. There’s obviously that sort of internal competition as well, which is good for bringing us all on. We’re happy to keep ahead of the rest of the world and hopefully we’ll keep going.
PEZ: Setting the world record in 3 minutes 18 seconds against Canada was great! Is there more to come?
Joanna Rowsell: There’s definitely more to come. We were hoping for a time like that this week. We were a little disappointed with our qualifying time but it didn’t really matter because we qualified ahead of our rivals so that was job done really. We knew that sort of time was in the bank, but, definitely, we’re looking at going even faster come the Olympics.
We’ve got a lot of speed in the first kilometre but we’re going to work on our endurance and really bring that last kilometre up as well and hopefully improve the overall time.
PEZ: Silly question: how did the track feel?
Joanna Rowsell: It does feel like a fast track! Before we raced there, we weren’t really sure how fast it was going to be. When you train on there before a competition there are always a lot of nations on at the same time so you always find it quite fast because there’s a lot of circulating air so it’s hard to tell what it’s going to be like when you’re up there on your own against the clock there’s no hiding. So I’m really pleased that it produced some really fast times and I think the track is only going to get quicker the more it’s ridden.
PEZ: In terms of the whole experience, as a local girl riding the Olympic test event, you now know how everything works, the facilities, getting to the venue. How much of an advantage does that give you?
Joanna Rowsell: It’s a really valuable experience we’ve all had. We had to keep reminding ourselves that this is a test event – we’re here to learn what it’s going to be like in the Olympics.
I’ve not been to an Olympics or the Commonwealth Games or anything like that before, so it’s all quite a new experience. They have the Mix Zone which is what you’ll do after each race, speaking to the press and everything. It’s really good to get a feel for what that’s going to be like.
With the home crowd as well, that definitely gets to me when there’s support like that. It’s absolutely amazing and it spurs me on to go faster, but you’ve got to have a bit of control as well. You can’t go out completely flat-out and not back-up the last kilometre so it’s learning how to deal with that and all the adrenaline mixed in. It was a really great experience – we’ve had some great results but we’ve learnt a lot which we’ll take forward to the Olympics.
PEZ: Equally important, I guess, is following up your Team Pursuit with the Individual Pursuit rides?
Joanna Rowsell: Yeah! I was absolutely chuffed with that. The morning after the Team Pursuit, for the Individual Pursuit qualifying, I felt absolutely awful I’d had three hours of sleep but I was on such a high the night before having won the Team Pursuit I just couldn’t get to sleep!
I was determined to do a good ride in the Individual because I knew that I had good form so it was just about getting through to that gold medal ride. I was quite surprised to be the fastest qualifier. I went out on a schedule and thought it would be enough to get me in the top two so I was surprised to be the fastest. I knew I had a bit more in the tank for the final, so I went out fast and got myself in the lead in the race. The crowd really got behind me and helped me bring it home and hang on for the win.
PEZ: Was the plan in the final to hold back a little mid-race because Alison Shanks started to come back at you?
Joanna Rowsell: From the qualifying ride, I’d ridden the fastest in the first kilometre, she’d ridden fast in the middle [kilometre], then I’d come back in the final. So I knew she was good in that middle kilometre.
For me, it was a case of making gains early on, getting some time in the bank and minimising my losses in the middle kilometre and bringing it home strongly. I think I pulled it off!
PEZ: You might not be aware of this, but on the TV coverage of the track centre when you were racing that final against Alison Shanks, there was footage of Dave Brailsford (Team GB head honcho) and Laura Trott going nuts, hammering on the Perspex boards and roaring you on!
Joanna Rowsell: Oh wow! I didn’t know that when you’re going round it’s difficult to pick out individual people. After I got off the track, they both said: Well done and everything, and then I got to watch Laura in the Devil (the Elimination race in the Women’s Omnium) later that evening and she did an absolutely awesome ride.
There’s such a good team spirit in the camp at the moment, everybody’s right behind everybody else, both the sprint squad and the endurance squad. You’ve got everybody’s support whenever you’re up on the track so that’s a great feeling.
PEZ: 2012 had the London Track World Cup, then the World Championships in Holland come in early April, and then the Olympics – how do you plan your peaks?
Joanna Rowsell: The way we looked at this World Cup was that we weren’t going to really peak for it. We’ve had a few easy days leading up to it and we haven’t trained hard right through, but we were training really hard on the track last week. It’s just sort of a stepping-stone.
We’re going off to Majorca next week to train for the World Championships. We’ll have a bit more of a taper for that, then a big block of training, a big block of road-racing and then back on the track before the Olympics.
It is difficult to peak three times in a year but this one [event] was never supposed to be the biggest peak. It’s just sort of a stepping-stone along the way, seeing where we’re at now, doing another block of training and hopefully move on again before the Worlds.
PEZ: Will your road-racing be a mix of UK and European events?
Joanna Rowsell: Yep. My team, Matrix Fitness-Prendas, has a base in Belgium so I’ll go out there for a bit and do some racing there, maybe some stage races. They’re also organising the Women’s Tour Series again this year in the UK, which is a series of town centre crits so hopefully I’ll get to do a couple of those when that fits in, which is all really good preparation for the track.
PEZ: As well as representing the sports nutrition company CNP Professional, you’ve just been named as the official Cycling Ambassador for Action Medical Research – can you tell us a bit about that?
Joanna Rowsell: It’s a really great charity to get involved with and I’m really excited to be working with them. They’re doing some great fundraising, and I’ll be able to go along to some of their events after the Olympics and I’ll be looking forward to getting involved and inspiring people to get on their bikes to raise money for this charity that is doing some awesome work.
Awesome work – a pretty good description of Jo’s performances on the London Velodrome last weekend. Best of luck to her, and her Team Pursuit colleagues for the rest of the year to come. Thanks to Jo for her time – to find out more you can follow her on Twitter!
Thanks also to Gayle Howells at Seren PR for helping to set up the interview!