Weekend Interview: An uplifting Storey to give cycling hope

Dame Sarah Storey's brand-new Storey Racing cycling team during thier recce of the full route of this years Asda Womens Tour de Yorkshire. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
Dame Sarah Storey's brand-new Storey Racing cycling team during thier recce of the full route of this years Asda Womens Tour de Yorkshire. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
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It is one of the great careers in British sport, and yet even that statement rather under-sells the pioneering accomplishments of Dame Sarah Storey.

Because if anything, she has enjoyed two careers.

Checking the route: Dame Sarah Storey doing a reconnoitre on the Cote de Lofthouse climb out of Nidderdale for her new Storey Racing team ahead of this years Womens Tour de Yorkshire. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Checking the route: Dame Sarah Storey doing a reconnoitre on the Cote de Lofthouse climb out of Nidderdale for her new Storey Racing team ahead of this years Womens Tour de Yorkshire. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Firstly, Storey – who was born in Manchester without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb – was a hugely-successful swimmer, winning five Paralympic gold medals and another batch of world titles in her teens and early-to-mid 20s.

Satisfied with her achievements in the pool, Storey switched to para-cycling in 2005, an event in which she has proven to be even more unbeatable, winning nine gold medals across three Paralympic Games. That she has no silver or bronze medals to her name says everything about her complete dominance of cycling.

Throw in the fact that Storey is a world track champion against able-bodied cyclists, and you have the type of athlete who transcends the boundaries of sport, raising the standard among her own peers and then challenging those deemed more equipped than her.

Unsurprisingly, she is Britain’s most decorated Paralympian.

If we look at where women’s cycling is compared to men, then look at para-sport, the gap to the women is larger for para-athletes, so the challenge is much greater

Sarah Storey

Yet that is not enough, for as she approaches 40 this autumn, and with a young daughter now placing increased demands on her time, Storey is still hunting more.

An eighth Paralympics in Tokyo is her long-term aim, but of a more immediate concern is the ambition to build a successful women’s British road racing squad in her own name.

That name, Storey Racing, will be one to follow next Saturday at the Asda Women’s Tour de Yorkshire.

“Having a race of this magnitude so close to home is a true blessing,” says Storey, who together with husband Barney launched the team earlier this year in a bid to help develop women’s cycling.

Dame Sarah Storey's brand-new Storey Racing cycling team during thier recce of the full route of this years Asda Womens Tour de Yorkshire.  Pictured is Dame Sarah on the Cote de Lofthouse climb out of Nidderdale.
 (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Dame Sarah Storey's brand-new Storey Racing cycling team during thier recce of the full route of this years Asda Womens Tour de Yorkshire. Pictured is Dame Sarah on the Cote de Lofthouse climb out of Nidderdale. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

It is the latest attempt by the couple to get a women’s team off the ground, but the first time they have done so with the athlete’s name as the brand.

“We hope that a young female will see a team like ours and know that it is possible to work hard and be selected for our roster and maybe there will be a potential sponsor watching who sees a strong synergy with their business and our work ethic and positive approach and environment,” continues Storey.

“For British riders who haven’t raced with Women’s World Tour teams very often this is definitely an opportunity to get noticed.

“In between that is the excitement of the local communities and the opportunity for the race to reach other talent in the UK and inspire them to keep working hard in training. There’s a lot of excitement around the race in the rest of the media, as well as in the local communities through which the race travels.

Dame Sarah Storey's brand-new Storey Racing cycling team during thier recce of the full route of this years Asda Womens Tour de Yorkshire. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Dame Sarah Storey's brand-new Storey Racing cycling team during thier recce of the full route of this years Asda Womens Tour de Yorkshire. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

“The Tour de Yorkshire is a huge opportunity for women’s cycling, from the prize money to the TV coverage.”

If Storey broke new ground in her Paralympic career, then the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire can say the same for its role in developing women’s cycling.

Forever the inferior race when up against a men’s road programme headlined by the fabled Tour de France and the Spring Classics, the Tour de Yorkshire can at least boast to be at the vanguard for equality in a sport that finds itself in a perpetual battle with its image.

The prize money for Saturday’s stage from Tadcaster to Harrogate is £50,000, the richest in women’s cycling and one that dwarfs how much the men will share for three days of racing through the Broad Acres.

It is the second year that the headline-grabbing sum of money has been stumped up by the organisers – so no flash in the pan – and something Storey hopes will filter into other areas of her sport.

“There’s lots of things that show we are still not on a par with the men, but I don’t think any female rider feels inferior since we are able to control what the public sees, which is hard-fought, exciting and unpredictable racing,” she says.

Dame Sarah Storey became Britain's most decorated female Paralympian, winning her 12th gold medal in the C5 three-kilometres individual pursuit taking her beyond former wheelchair racer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson's haul of 11. She won her first titles as a 14-year-old swimmer in Barcelona, 24 years earlier, and became a mum for the first time in 2013. (Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)

Dame Sarah Storey became Britain's most decorated female Paralympian, winning her 12th gold medal in the C5 three-kilometres individual pursuit taking her beyond former wheelchair racer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson's haul of 11. She won her first titles as a 14-year-old swimmer in Barcelona, 24 years earlier, and became a mum for the first time in 2013. (Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)

“Things are improving steadily but there are some big gaps in things like live TV coverage, and this has a knock-on effect on the amount of sponsorship a team can command.

“Team Sky’s wage bill alone would run the entire top 10 of the Women’s World Tour, possibly more. Women’s salaries are much lower and in some cases non-existent because teams have to choose between paying riders or staff or simply just getting to races, and riders would rather have the opportunity to race and get a result than turn down the team and not race at that level at all.

“The gap up to the age of 23 is also a big challenge for some female riders. The men get to develop more slowly through the years up to 23, while women race in the seniors from the year they leave the junior ranks.”

It is not just gender equality which Storey is versed in. Indeed, has her trailblazing in able-bodied world championships paved the way for her to compete as an Olympian?

Probably not, as that is down to the individual sporting federations to integrate Para-athletes into able-bodied events.

“If we look at where women’s cycling is compared to men, then look at para-sport, the gap to the women is larger for para-athletes, so the challenge is much greater,” explains Storey.

“The biggest challenge for para-sport is the years between Games when the TV coverage is virtually non-existent, spectators are sparse and prize money even more rare. Just like the women deserve better in cycling, para-athletes deserve better, too.”

While the fight for equality rages on, next weekend’s third annual staging of the Tour de Yorkshire will offer an insight into just how damaging the scandals that have engulfed British Cycling have been on the sport’s image.

Cycling burst into the mainstream on a wave of track medals a decade ago, success which was built on by the exploits of Team Sky on the road.

But as high as the sport rose, the fall appears to have begun with allegations of bullying in British Cycling and the Team Sky TUE (therapeutic use exemptions) controversies eroding the hitherto faultless facade. For Storey, there are positives to be taken. “The two situations are still to be resolved and I’m looking forward to having the facts and for everyone to be able to move on,” she says.

“British Cycling have acknowledged the shortfalls and are working towards a 39-point plan and with a new group of people in key positions.

“Hopefully, people are seeing this response as a governing body taking their role seriously and, as such, they wouldn’t be put off the sport. British Cycling is not just about Team GB, but also the grassroots development of the sport which includes getting more people on bikes and positively contributing to the nation’s health.”

There is no greater exponent of that than Britain’s finest Paralympian. So what is the next milestone to achieve in the uplifting Storey story?

“Winning gold at the Paralympics is always the priority,” concludes Storey of a mantra that has driven her for more than two decades.

Sarah Storey’s tale of success...

1977: Born Sarah Bailey on October 26 in Manchester, without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb. The hand did not develop as normal.

1992: Wins two gold medals as a 15-year-old swimmer at the Barcelona Paralympics.

2005: Switches sports to cycling after winning 16 Paralympic medals as a swimmer.

2008: Wins first Paralympic gold in cycling and also a national able-bodied title.

2010: Becomes first disabled athlete to compete for England at a Commonwealth Games.

2016: Three more golds in Rio take her total in Paralympics to nine.