Meet Sheffield mountain biker Annie Last, the Commonwealth Games champion who relishes a tough challenge. Nick Westby reports.
There has to be an element of a screw being loose in anyone who enjoys throwing themselves down a woodland trail on two wheels.
An adrenalin surge and a fearlessness when it comes to injuries must also be high in that person’s make up. Such is the life of a professional cross-country mountain biker, and one Annie Last has had the pleasure of living for the past decade.
And yet for the greatest moment of her career, the challenge was even greater, and the danger she was hurtling towards, even more frightening.
“On the Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games, there were quite a lot of snakes on the course,” begins the 28-year-old.
“I hate snakes, I’m terrified of them, but people were saying actually you need to be more worried about what’s in the trees.”
A big part of sport is encouraging other people to get involved, not necessarily to compete, it might just be to get out with their mates at the weekend, and mountain biking is a really good sport to do that.Annie Last
No matter the danger from anything slithery that crossed her path, Last managed to hold her nerve to win the Commonwealth Games cross-country mountain biking title.
It was the crowning moment of her career, and also a proud day for the sport in this country as her compatriot Evie Richards finished second.
“Mountain biking is not a mainstream sport so to be able to achieve something on a platform for people who wouldn’t ordinarily get to see it was really great,” reflects Bakewell-born Last. “Success at a major championships is a great way for the sport to grow.
“A big part of sport is encouraging other people to get involved, not necessarily to compete, it might just be to get out with their mates at the weekend, and mountain biking is a really good sport to do that.”
It may not be a sport for the faint-hearted, but for anyone with the merest hint of daredevil in them, it is not that hard to get involved. All you need, as Last found out, is a mountain bike and a have-a-go-attitude.
“My brother Tom is two years older and when he started cycling, I used to get dragged along to stand watching him on muddy trails,” she says. “In the end I thought I may as well have a go at this. It’s a 10-minute bike race at the end of which you get a chocolate bar, a can of pop and a goodie bag, which was the hook that got me.
“I started with local cyclo-cross races but where I grew up in the Peak District made it a lot easier for me to get into mountain biking.”
Her elevation was rapid. Last proved as fearless as anyone and was soon spotted by British Cycling talent scouts and placed on the national programme.
He progression took her to an unlikely appearance at the London Olympics, where she finished eighth. That should have been a springboard but injuries over the next two years set her so far back that both she, and Great Britain, were unable to qualify a place at the Rio Olympics.
But, having relocated to the outskirts of Sheffield city centre with the natural mountain-biking terrain of the Peak District still on her doorstep, she has been able to ride herself back into medal-winning contention.
At last year’s world championships in Cairns she finished second, before returning to Australia in April to reach the top step of the Commonwealth podium.
“It’s been amazing to see all the hard work pay off,” says Last. “I never lost belief that I could do it.”
Now, having tasted both the elation of making an Olympic team and the despair of missing out, Last is targeting Tokyo 2020.
Qualification has already begun, with a complex system in which over the next 18 months riders have to qualify Olympic places for their nations, before then qualifying individually
“So in theory,” summises Last, “you could qualify a place for your country but then see your form dip at the wrong time and not get selected. It means you’ve got to be at the top of your game for two years.”
It’s a daunting challenge but one this Sheffield rider seems willing to meet head on.