It’s late 2014 and 20-year-old blue-haired Katie Archibald is writing in one of her many journals. This one asks her a question each day, things like who are you closest too? Or what’s your salary? You repeat it every year to create a record of your changing relationships, status and ambitions.
“It asks, ‘What's something that you're aspiring to? I've written ‘the Olympic Omnium spot!’ when it's just total pipe dream,” she says. “There's no way that this is happening. I used to say that I wanted to Olympic omnium spot loads with no sense that it would be attainable at all. But of course, that's the dream.”
That day comes round again in 2018. “The Olympic omnium spot!” she writes, as she has done each year since. Soon after writing it she decides she’s not ready and takes herself out of the running - she’d been the world champion in the discipline just 12-months before.
“So I'm back again in 2021 and it asks, ‘what's something that you're aspiring to?’ It's almost not funny at this point,” she says before briefly adopting the monotone drawl of a bored teenager, “Still the Olympic omnium the spot.”
“I’ve been here before but this is the most serious I've been about it,” she explains.
Archibald has indeed been on the receiving end of a Cycling Weekly Award before, she was Cycling Weekly’s female rider of the year in 2018 when we professed she was the best Madison riding woman in the world (a claim we’d still stand by), but in many ways 2021 Archibald is quite different. The fact that Archibald feels completely comfortable professing that she wants to do omnium, Madison and the team pursuit - in essence taking the place of Britain’s most successful female Olmypian Laura Kenny - is built upon the results she’s had this year and the work she did to get them.
The Scotswoman has always been charismatic, self-aware, insightful and often very funny; and her grit and determination is apparent to anyone who’s watched her race, but she says herself that she’s now physically more consistent and emotionally more robust than she used to be.
One of the biggest sources of that has been her enhanced role in the women’s endurance team that she has taken on for the Madison. She was an active participant in the planning, the tape watching, the analysis and all the spreadsheets that went into her and Laura Kenny winning gold in the race’s first appearance at the games in dominant fashion winning nine of the twelve sprints and gaining a lap to boot.
“I had a voice as a consequence of what I call the ‘authority of ability’. You have results that give you a voice when just being maybe, intelligent, or charismatic, or determined wouldn't give you the same voice,” she reflects. “The latter half of the Tokyo cycle, I had a definite voice, definite respect from the entire team that we're working with.”
She adds that it made sense that her run into the Rio Olympics would be more one of listening than one of challenging and asking questions given she hadn’t been through an Olympic cycle before but she has clearly stepped into, and relished, her enhanced role.
Not that it’s always been easy. She says her and Madison partner Kenny never really fought but inevitably not every preparation race went to plan. “The times where it went badly, we've kind of both come off and gone, what have I done?” says Archibald. Even when there was a “jokingly small falling out” over Archibald seemingly performing better in an omnium than in a Madison that preceded it, she says it was never an issue.
“We have this saying, ‘It's not about the bins.’ You know, wherever somebody falls out with you about taking the bins out, and it's never really about the bins, it's about something else.
“We're all in a really like high stakes, high pressure environment and you’re just f**ked all the time. We’re trying to be nice to each other when you're just constantly tired, constantly slightly immunosuppressed and this is a state that you can be in for a long, long time… We rarely fall out about the race, it’s just about ourselves and that we want to go to bed.”
When we ask if her elevated status after the Rio Olympic win and two world titles in 2017 and 2018 made people within British Cycling’s Manchester velodrome HQ treat her differently she says, “This feels weird to convey but the U19 men [who they did Madison training with] were really happy to be working with us in a way that I hadn't expected. I thought it would just be sort of turn-up bash around like, ‘Oh, we'll show them what we can do’... They were in some sense, intimidated in a way that I just totally didn't expect.”
Since the Olympics, where Archibald also won a silver as part of the team pursuit, Archibald has barely taken a break though there was a family party: “We made the same photo album as we did after Rio where everybody [extended family] tries the medal on and then we try and fit lots of people with their heads in the medal.”
But soon she was back training and has gone on to win three European titles and one World one, in the omnium, results she refers to as “happy fallout” from all that Madison work that she cites as the highlight of her year.
We wonder in light of this whether she feels differently about passing up the chance to go for the omnium slot she’d dreamed of since 2014. But she says, beyond her dad pushing her towards it in the summer of 2020, she’s happy with her choice.
“After the games were delayed I think I probably could have been in a place, form wise and mental robustness wise, that maybe I could have - if nobody else was pulling for it - maybe pulled it off just in time. But the games isn't one single day, it's the entire cycle of being able to cope with that pressure, much stress of getting prepared for this event,” she explains.
“By summer 2018. I'd already said, ‘I can't cope with this. I can't do this’ but I think I might be the best in the world at something else. And that was Madison racing. So it made life a lot easier. It really gave me this grounding and anchoring and the time for this event,” she says.
Now as the squad enters a new phase of trying out more riders in preparation for the Paris games, and more crucially finds itself scattered to the four winds as the building of the Manchester velodrome undergoes extensive refurbishment, Archibald finds herself with an expanded role. It is both a product of and contributor to the renewed mental robustness she cites. “I've taken my role more seriously as a holistic contributor to the team. It's not just my responsibility to have my legs go well. If that is your only responsibility and then your legs aren't going well, well, that's everything that you failed at.
“Now I both take more seriously and value more the contributions contributions that I'll make, as a teammate, as someone who pushes the programme forward to someone who's asking questions and make sure that we're we're improving as someone that's just constant consciously just checking in on the relationships with the squad as a whole, our communication with the staffing group I can lean on that a lot more when I'm having a bad training day… I know all that won’t disappear in the way that sometimes form just disappears.”
That makes the next three years, which will include the Commonwealth Games in 2022, her home World Championships in Glasgow in 2023 and of course the PAris Olympic Games in 2024. Sound like they’ll be more challenging than before but Archibald points to 2022 as the bigger challenge.
She is joining road team Ceratizit-WNT with a programme of 30 race days in 2022 alongside track rival Lisa Bennauer and under the tutelage of retiring rival Kirsten Wild. “The big game for me next season is to try new things and, and hopefully fail a little bit and get things wrong. Get the mistakes out of the way... So if you can schedule disaster, I’m scheduling disaster for between now, and the start of 2023,” she says with a chuckle.
We’re fairly confident that the 2014 Katie Archibald scribbling in her journal spent more time avoiding disaster than scheduling it and that’s why the 2021 version is much improved, and unfortunately for her rivals on track, much more dangerous. Indeed right at the end of our conversation she’s even brave enough to say she’s aiming to one day be back at the CW awards capping off a career that rivals either of the Kenny’s. It’s never looked more likely.
- 5. Laura Kenny
- 4. Anna Henderson
- 3. Lizzie Deignan
- 2. Evie Richards
We've got a full interview with Katie Archibald in this weeks' Cycling Weekly magazine, in stores from Thursday, December 9. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to your door every week.
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