Janet Birkmyre is an inspiration to the older amongst us. Janet is a top-class track cyclist who didn’t take up the sport until the age of 35 and began competing a couple of years later.
She has won a series of major titles since then including the scratch race at this year’s National Track Championships against the finest up-and-coming riders in Great Britain.
She can still mix it with the best of them, and she was good enough to give me some of her time for an interview to find out a bit more about a rider I admire so much.
What made you take up track cycling?
The truth is that I was really not interested in track at all for quite a while. I was introduced to cycling by some guys I met while working a ski season in Chamonix whilst having an early mid-life crisis! They were there to climb Mont Blanc and I did some day ski-tours with them and got to know them well. They were all mountain bikers and when I got back to the UK I would meet up with them to go riding in the Peak District. I absolutely loved it and found myself looking for a road based club just to get fit, so that I could keep up. The Twickenham cycling club was the perfect choice, because I had recently secured a contract with Marks & Spencer in London, so was based locally to them and I went along when they organised a trip to the Calshot velodrome. If I am honest, I still did not really get it even then.
Later that year my husband was riding as part of the Twickenham team pursuit squad at the nationals and I said I would come along to watch. He pushed me to ride a couple of events while I was there and I picked the 500m TT, pursuit and sprint, simply because I reckoned I had less chance of crashing. By the time I got there, I had only ridden on the track nine times, almost all at Calshot and I felt a bit overwhelmed. It all happened so fast, we had sold a tandem we had been given on our wedding day, bought cheap track frames with the proceeds and suddenly there I was at the national champs fighting for a bronze medal in the Sprint competition. It went to three rides and I lost by half a wheel, but coming fourth was a huge motivator and I got serious about my training with the sole intention of winning a national medal.
Why did you only take up the sport competitively until you were the age of 37?
As a child I had the opportunity to ride horses – my thing was dressage and eventing. It was clear that I had a strong competitive spirit, but going to university and then focussing on my career put all that on the back burner. I just did not know about cycling and had never really been involved in that kind of physical activity. It would be fair to say that I still don’t know quite how this madness started, but I blame my husband, David – who I met through the Twickenham – entirely because, he pushed me to try racing, from local time trials, two up time trials where I would cling to his back wheel, then road races and eventually the track. It is such a big part of our lives now, I can’t imagine it any other way.
Does a part of you wish you had taken up the sport sooner and think ‘what might have been’?
Yes and no. Of course I would love to know how far I could have gone in the sport, but I am happy with where I am now. If I had followed a sporting career it is unlikely that I would be married to David, living where we are and doing what I do now. And all of that is so good that I really can’t complain…. But yes, I do wonder what might have been.
From the outside looking in, it appears that if you are an athlete you are defined by your performances, your times, your progress. Sometimes when I have had a bad result, I love that I can get stuck into my work and remind myself that I am not defined by my cycling, I am more than that and it helps me deal with the disappointments.
What do you make of the recent successes of British Cycling (over past 10-12 years on the track and now on the road) and what do you put it down to?
For me, as a relative new comer to the sport, it seems to be all about the vision that Peter Keen had for British Cycling, combined with the building of the Manchester Velodrome for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and, of course, Lottery funding.
You’ve won countless gold medals at various events since you started racing, have you always been a very competitive person?
Yes, always. I hate to lose! As a child it was all about horse riding. When I was at university I played a bit of squash, but in truth I was a social player. When I look back it surprises me that I managed to suppress it all for so long, but I really threw myself into my career when I left university. I have always driven myself really hard, whether that is work or play, and I think the hours and energy that I devoted to work left very little to do anything else.
What has been your proudest moment in cycling so far?
Now that is a difficult one to answer. My first elite national title was so unexpected (to me at least) that it just blew me away. I won the National Derny champs in 2008 with Graham Bristow as my pacer and could not believe he had packed celebratory champagne and brought it to the event! Hearing the national anthem being played after my first World Masters title was pretty good too, but I have to say winning the National Scratch title this year probably caps it all. Again it was totally unexpected, I had not been feeling great and just before I got on my bike to race I said to my husband that we might have to accept that I just was not good enough to compete at this level any more…
You compete in a wide range of events from the sprints to the endurance races, which do you prefer?
I prefer a good bunch race. I love the jostling, the tactics and most of all the winning from a bunch. But I also enjoy the team events; team pursuit, team sprint and Derny paced – it is great to work with other people and to win together. The time trials (200m flying, 500m TT and pursuit) are great because they are all about getting the technical aspects; the start, holding the line, pacing in the pursuit right, so they have a buzz about them too. The match sprinting would be bottom of the pile, I am not good with the psychological side of that and David always has to coax me through those days!
Which would you say was your best event?
I really am a jack of all trades (some might say master of none!), so really I am an omnium rider. If I was pushed to select a single event, then I would have to say that probably the 500m TT is the one I have had the most consistent success with.
You still compete and indeed beat (as you did at the British National Champs recently) much younger riders at major championships, do you think there is the strength in depth coming through the ranks to keep Great Britain as the top track cycling team for years to come?
Yes, without a doubt, there is massive strength in depth coming through and GB’s place at or near the top of track cycling is secure for a while I believe. Cycling is cool now and it is very successful as a sport. There are so many young riders coming though now who want to enjoy the profile that they see our top riders have and that keeps British Cycling’s talent spotters busy! I have had the pleasure of racing with most of the female stars in the Omnium series as they worked their way up the ranks – Vicky P, Laura Trott, Dani King, Jo Rowsell, Becky James and Jess Varnish – and it is great to see how they have developed as riders with the backing of the lottery funded programmes that British Cycling has used to devastating effect.
You’re constantly setting PBs and world-best times, what drives you to keep trying to go quicker and quicker?
I love winning! That and the fact that I am still going faster makes me feel there I still some unfinished business with cycling. On top of that, cycling is what I do with my husband, a great deal of my success is due to his passion for helping me and looking out for new products and new ways of training that help me to continue to improve. It is very much a team effort and that keeps it fresh and exciting for me.
How important are your support staff and family in achieving the kind of success that you have?
Really it is all down to David. Without him I would probably not have progressed beyond a few local time trials. He really believed I could achieve something in the sport and has put so much time and energy into helping me it’s quite humbling. When I go out onto the track, I know that every nut and bolt on my bike has been checked, and that he has spent hours researching ways to make the bike more efficient in order to help me go faster. He wears a T shirt that says “Pit Bitch” on the back and when we are at races he works tireless for me all day. I simply just could not have achieved what I have without him.
I have also had a lot of support from Graham Bristow. He is one of those very special people who gives so much to the sport and he offered to help me by giving me some derny training sessions before my first World Masters. Sadly we could not get together then, but I have spent some gruelling hours chasing him around Herne Hill, sessions that were so hard I would crawl home knowing that I had some serious credit in the bank! I owe him a huge debt of gratitude as well.
What are your plans for the future?
It is hard to say, because I only take it one season at a time. I always set very specific goals for each season and then plan my racing and training around that and hope that work does not scupper my plans. For now, 2013 is still a work in progress. It is interesting to see how the goals have changed though, the number one goal for the last couple of years has been to have fun. I know I am playing at this and that it is a glorified hobby – it doesn’t pay the bills and it is highly likely my ability to improve will stop abruptly and quite soon. So it is all about enjoying it while I can and by that I mean the appreciating the camaraderie in training and racing and genuinely appreciating the fact that I can be a part of events that I ride, while I am riding at this level.