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Lara Gillespie is back on track and has her eyes set on Paris

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Ireland's Lara Gillespie. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland's Lara Gillespie. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland's Lara Gillespie. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Lara Gillespie has taken a somewhat unorthodox route to the top step of the cycling podium.

The 21-year-old from Enniskerry played hockey for Leinster, ran for Ireland, played soccer, did Irish dancing, swam, did triathlon and even thought she was going to become a ballerina at one point before setting everything else aside to race her bike.

“Mountain biking is where I started,” she says. “We’re good friends with the Maye family and they did mountain bike racing. When I was under 12, I just happened to do a national champs one year and won. Then, I did a national champs every year because ‘last year I won, so I might as well do it.’ But I never trained or anything for it. I never saw myself as a cyclist until I was 19 or 20.

“When I was in fourth year I said I’d join a mountain biking club but accidentally joined a road club, Orwell Wheelers. I did my first road race, Rás na nÓg for U-16s, in 2017 and it was so bad. I crashed and I was one of the last girls. I was so confused as to why I was bad. I trained so hard after that because I was determined to be the best the next time I raced. The next race was Rás Mhaigh Eo. I won the first two stages, then crashed and broke my elbow on the third day. But I was selected for the Youth Olympics and thought ‘Ok I might keep doing this’.”

The three weeks leading into the Youth Olympics however saw Gillespie building houses for Habitat in Zambia with her schoolmates, with not a bike to be seen. Instead, she got up at five every morning and did circuit training with one of her friends under the baking African sun.

“I really knew nothing about cycling back then,” she admits. “I was very naive to the whole sport.”

In Hungary, imposter syndrome struck while she was warming up the day before the Youth Olympic time trial.

“I was riding doing the time trial course. Elynor Backstedt zipped by me and I remember getting a bit stressed. ‘Oh my God, everyone has such fancy bikes and such fancy wheels.’ I felt way out of my depth. But then in the race, the next day, I came second. I was like ‘Whaaat?’ But I didn’t see myself as a cyclist until I was 19 or 20.”

Playing hockey and running during the winter, Gillespie began to rack up cycling medals during the summers. A year later she tried her hand on the velodrome and took gold in the points race and silver in the pursuit at the European junior championships. The following year she took bronze in the pursuit at the junior world championships and three silvers at the Europeans.

The past two years have been severely disrupted by illness, but she still managed some good results.

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“I was born with a rare gynaecology condition that caused a lot of pain,” she says. “It was literally the day after I won the road national championships in 2020 when I got sick. I was eventually diagnosed last January and rushed in for surgery.”

A return to action in summer 2021 yielded more results but Gillespie found she hadn’t recovered properly from the operation.

“I was on the senior team pursuit squad. We’d got a few good results at Nations Cup and I got a World Cup bronze medal and World Cup gold in team pursuit while I was trying to manage the pain. I was recovering from surgery but had never healed (properly). I ended up getting a silver at the U-23 Euros but straight after that I was in agony and said ‘I need to get this sorted’.”

Shortly after, Gillespie found out she had glandular fever and was forced off the bike for another eight months. While the previous condition had manifested itself in excruciating abdominal pain, glandular fever was different.

“Glandular fever was harder because you don’t feel pain but you feel tired all the time,” she says. “I couldn’t even get out of bed. I’d get up and then have to go back to bed by 9am. It got to the point where my body was only used to being tired. I couldn’t remember my athlete self. I couldn’t do any activity other than my rehab and little bits to test where I was. Everyone was telling me to be careful because if you push too hard you can get long-term fatigue.

“From February I was able to do little bits of movement, half an hour – not even 100 watts on the bike. I’d still be tired for days after that. But I was so grateful because I had gone so many months in bed that I didn’t mind doddling around outside and enjoying the nature. In April I’d do 100 watts, try not to let my heart rate go over 120bpm or 150bpm. To be honest I just loved having that routine back again, feeling that I have that purpose of riding my bike back. I only started working with power in June and July.

“I’d say the first time I felt like myself was at track nationals a couple of weeks ago. We had Euros a month ago and then a short track camp. I got three fifth places at Euros but that was a pretty good result because it was literally my first proper race back. I feel like my endurance has come on so much this month because I had a good month of hard training and racing in July and I think I’m seeing the results of that now.”

Two weeks ago Gillespie become the first Irish stage winner at Rás na mBan in 14 years when she took the opener into Callan.

“After the finish I got a flashback to me, a few months ago, absolutely suffering, not being able to do 100 watts, so it meant a lot to me and I proved a lot to myself. It was such a good feeling to win again. That was our goal.”

Her second stage win came a few days later on a tougher route to Piltown, making victory even more satisfying.

“That was probably the hardest I’ve had to dig to win a race, going over those hills,” she recalls. “I had to really position myself well on the climbs. The team were on the ball all day. It was really nice to have the girls there until the finish and then I took it on with 200m to go.”

Gillespie’s focus switches now, as she joins the Irish track squad for a two-week training camp ahead of the world track championships in Paris in October. The lack of a velodrome here however, means the Irish set-up has to rent the track in Mallorca and base themselves there for the duration.

“People have this idea that we’re out in Mallorca having a holiday,” she laughs. “But it’s not like that at all. All we do every the day is train really hard, walk to the shops to get our food, make our food, train really hard again and sleep. We’re so lucky that Cycling Ireland have that out there and Sport Ireland support us, but it’s definitely not anything fancy.”

Gillespie has two dogs, a cat, and hens in her Wicklow home and loves nothing better than being outside in nature. So why spend so much time indoors, riding around in circles?

“When I’m away that’s what I miss, just being out in the garden,” she says. “The walks in the mountains. But there’s something about the track. You’re going full gas. It’s the intense hard work I love. Every time I turn up for a track session I forget how hard it is. It’s just turning yourself inside out. I think that’s what I like about it.

“It’s so intense but you can only really be focused on that one thing. You’re just in that moment, in that flow state that a lot of people are trying to find nowadays. You can switch off from everything else. I think that’s what I appreciate most about it.”

The time spent away from home as part of the squad however has been a factor in retirements among the men’s squad and even among the coaching staff recently. While life on the bike is fine, it’s the time spent off it that kills you.

“I’ve been lucky up to this point that I’ve had college keeping me busy,” she says. “I’ve never had that free time to be homesick. But I think that’s what gets people, that numbness of the mind when you’re sitting there and don’t have that connection that people based at home would have. It’s definitely a factor.

“I love Mallorca. I love going there, but having our own velodrome would save a lot of money and time away from loved ones.

“That’s something that I think helps performance. When you’re happy and healthy is when you’re at your best. We’re lucky with what we have, but it’s nothing like home.”


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