Sunday 22 September 2019

'It's always been a very hectic, busy life' - Irish cycling's rising star Lara Gillespie on track for success

Wicklow rider Lara Gillespie won a bronze medal at last month’s Junior Track World Championships
Wicklow rider Lara Gillespie won a bronze medal at last month’s Junior Track World Championships

Ciarán Lennon

Lara Gillespie collected two results of note at last month’s Junior Track World Championships in Frankfurt; one a personal achievement, the other of significance for Irish cycling.

The young Wicklow racer was at the velodrome preparing for a training session when her Leaving Cert results pinged into her phone and at the same location four days later Gillespie produced a bronze medal-performance in the individual pursuit.

Her results guaranteed her college place at UCD and a small piece of sporting history, Gillespie becoming the first person from Ireland – a country still without a velodrome – to step on to the podium at the Junior Track World Championships.

She takes these achievements in her stride, which is understandable when you catalogue her success over the last 18 months; two elite cyclocross national titles, a gold and silver at the national junior road race, one gold and four silver medals over the last two European Junior Track Championships and capped by that bronze in Frankfurt.

"That’s something I need to work on," she admits. "I don’t really think about it when it happens, I’m like 'oh that’s great, what’s next'. But I should probably stop and be proud of myself... but I think it’s because I always want to be better and always think 'what’s next?'."

Not that Gillespie has much time to take stock. She spent her school years at Wesley College rushing between soccer training, Irish dancing, ballet, hockey.

Or more recently, it’s been 4.0am turbo sessions and hockey practice all before the school-bell rings.

50Irish.png
Lara Gillespie after being presented with her silver medal for second place in the women's cycling time trial during the European Youth Olympic Festival 2017 in Gyor, Hungary. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
"I’ve always been focused, I’ve always done loads of sports. It’s always been a very hectic, busy life. So I’m very used to it by now. I love it," the 18-year-old says.

On Wednesday she starts her first Rás na mBan on the Team Ireland squad, meaning she won’t be on campus for the orientation week at UCD, where she will study Health and Performance Science.

After spending the summer training for 2km efforts, the six stages over five days on the roads of Kilkenny and Laois will present a different challenge for the teenager whose first taste of cycling was mountain-biking near her home beside the Powerscourt Estate, outside Enniskerry.

Gillespie sees the Rás as an ideal preparation for the upcoming Road World Championships, where she’ll compete in the junior time trial and road race, but this week she will be racing to support her team, which includes national senior champion Alice Sharpe and the rider who finished ahead of her in the junior national road race, Maeve Gallagher.

The racing begins in Kilkenny with a 70km run to Gowran but Friday’s third stage should be the key day for the overall contenders with a testing 111km that finishes with an assault of The Cut in the Slieve Bloom mountains.

"The standard is really high and there’s girls that have been racing on the road all year, it's their forte," the Orwell Wheelers racer adds.

For a rider who spent most of the summer going around in circles, she knows what direction she’s going, and how to get there.

The Tokyo Olympics will come too soon for the teenager, but she’s already thinking about joining up with the elite track squad and building on their recent progress.

Like any Irish track rider with ambitions, she faces a familiar challenge. Despite Cycling Ireland’s base and facilities in Majorca, the limited time on the boards means she has had to learn quickly in an intimidating arena.

"When Irish juniors are thrown in, or even if you’re starting as an elite or U-23 rider, it is quite daunting to ride in a big group knowing that if you make a mistake you could bring everyone down," Gillespie explains.

"You’re all going to make a mistake at some stage and hopefully your mistake doesn’t end up with broken bones."

She used last year's World Championships as a learning experience, watching the style and tactics of the Italians who were making their presence felt.

"They were just showing so much aggression and people respected them. So I was like ‘I’m going to do what they’re doing’ and just rode as if I knew what I was doing and then riders started to respect you a bit ... even if you just fake it till you make it!" she adds, smiling.

"You have to get in there and get your elbows out. You need to be selfish in a way, so that’s what I learned."

She's put those lessons to good use and believes her time in UCD can only help her develop on and off the bike.

"A lot of cyclists don’t go to college, they go straight to being a full-time cyclist, but as a female cyclist, and with no track in Ireland it’s kinda difficult because only the top few ‘make it’ and can make a living off it," he said.

"So I thought that instead of rushing things, I’d work on both, get my degree – my course is only three years’ long – and get out fast and if that's still what I want to do I can go full out then."

Online Editors

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport