Janet Birkmyre is a sensational cyclist. She has been competing for less than a decade having taken up the sport and racing at the age of 38, but she has a list of Palmares as long as both arms put together.
She recently competed in the European Masters Championships in Newport and won seven gold medals from her seven events. In the coming weeks, she is to visit Manchester’s National Cycling Centre for the British National Championships to defend the scratch race title she won last year, and for the World Masters Championships.
I caught up with her to discuss her recent success and to look forward to the challenges which lie ahead.
Firstly, well done on all the gold medal success at the European Masters, which victory gave you the most pleasure?
Thank you so much. I am always genuinely flattered when anyone notices my results. It is tough to pick one result that stands out because they were all quite special, and the stretch goal was always to win all seven, but riding a PB in the pursuit to win against a competitor who was 12 years younger than me felt really good. Actually, it hurt like hell, but it is a fantastic testament to the training I have shoe horned in around my work commitments over the past two years and, quite frankly, I think that any time I better myself at my age is to be celebrated. And we did celebrate once the racing was finished!
What was the standard of racing like over the course of the week?
I thought the standard of racing was pretty high. It was definitely the strongest field that I have faced at a European Masters. That was partly a function of the low numbers competing in some age groups, which meant that several age groups were put together and as a result I was racing 35 year-olds in every event. At the World Masters it is more usual to get five or 10 year age categories.
Added to that, there were World Masters champions and medalists looking to use this event as a stepping stone to the Worlds in October and there was no doubt most of the women turned up looking to race hard.
For me, it was a real pleasure to meet women who clearly take their cycling very seriously but, and I am not sure why it was, I don’t think I have raced against a more sporting group. The atmosphere off the track was the most friendly I have encountered and competitors were really quick to acknowledge each other’s achievements. Perhaps that is a reflection on the organiser, Graham Bristow, who pretty much took out a second mortgage to run these championships. I understand his wife does not know about that yet!
Were you expecting to perform as well as you did?
Honestly, no. I knew I could possibly win all seven events if things went my way and if I stayed out of trouble, but I had a great deal of respect for a number of riders including the specialist sprinter and coach from Holland, Carolien van Herrikhuyzen, and the reigning World Masters Champion in the pursuit (35-39), Susie Mitchell from Ireland, to name just two.
Quite apart from the quality of the field, whether you view me as ambitious or greedy, taking on all seven events required that I dig pretty deep towards the end of the competition. I knew I had great form going into the event, the National Omnium series is such a great way to prepare and I have been performing well all season, but I was not sure how well I would recover between races. Bottom line, I knew I would need to be near to my very best to win. As it turned out, it was one of those weeks when everything comes together so beautifully. I felt physically really strong and, with a few choice words from my husband, David, I managed to stay confident too.
Are you going to be competing at the British National Championships in Manchester?
Of course, I think I have an obligation to try to defend the scratch title, no matter how outgunned I am likely to feel! I will only ride the scratch race this year and can only hope I am as underestimated as I was last year. There is no other opportunity to race against World and Olympic Champions and so long as I am not embarrassing myself, I think I should enjoy being part of the event. Every year I ride now, I think it will be my last, so I am determined to enjoy it.
You won the scratch race there last year, how high on your list of achievements in cycling does that rank?
It is probably my greatest achievement, because it was an elite title and because it was in Manchester in front of a packed Saturday evening crowd. I won the Derny Paced title back in 2008, but that was largely ignored. The scratch race was a little more difficult to sweep under the carpet and I have been ridiculously proud to wear the jersey in scratch races this season. It completely changed my attitude to the World Masters last year, because I really did not think I had anything to prove and as a result I enjoyed myself more than I ever have before at a track meeting.
It’s also the World Masters coming up soon in Manchester, are you looking forward to those championships?
Oh yes, definitely. They mark the end of a long season and the championships are a wonderful mix of great racing, with fantastic camaraderie and banter in between times. We have made some lovely friends through these championships, largely because my husband, David, is so generous with his time and has such a talent for helping people go faster than they ever thought they could. He has helped a number of riders win medals and titles that they did not believe they were capable of and that means we are greeted with so much warmth by so many. We have a guy from Holland who now stays with us for the week before the championships and we lend wheels to a lovely chap from Denmark who “pays” us in Nutella and there are several more like these, who have benefited from David’s many Pit Bitch qualities, which include bearing upgrades, bike set up, tactics and walking the line, as well as an injection of self-belief that has helped them go on to win. It is no secret that without him I would probably not have achieved anything on a bike.
Who will be your main rivals at the champs?
That’s a good question and not one that is easy to answer, because there are so many new faces this year, but it is great to see the number of female competitors are up.
I have only had a quick look at some of the new names that I am likely to face and there are some very interesting riders. The sprint events are likely to be dominated by Gea Johnson, the American athlete who has had an interesting and highly controversial career before finding herself in cycling. She had only been cycling for a couple of years when she broke my World Masters record over 500m in 2012 and when I say broke it, I mean smashed – she took over two seconds off it. Her web site states “Gea Johnson – one of the world’s greatest female athletes”, which clearly puts her out of my league! I am also told that Janni Bormann from Denmark is very fast, so the racing should be interesting.
In the endurance events, because of the numbers, I am likely to be riding against competitors from the age group below mine in the pursuit and that would mean that I might ride against Erin Criglington from NZ. She posted a 2:32.814 at their National Masters champs in February of this year and so if we were to meet that could be a really close match.
Of course, I might be overlooking riders just because I don’t know them. Maria Mora Crier from Spain and Tonya Moran from Ireland for example, as well as some new faces from Italy and the USA who I have no information about. Whatever happens, I know the racing will be good and anyone who wins a title will have earned it.
I’d like to thank Janet for taking the time to speak to me and wish her all the very best for the forthcoming championships. I will be reporting at the World Masters from Manchester in October.