Hayley Simmonds will take the start for Great Britain at the World Championship time trial on Tuesday September 22. Not listed as a favourite, she could surprise a few of the bigger names with her ride.
Cycling Weekly caught up with her earlier in the summer, soon after she won the British National Time Trial Championships.
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On the top step of the podium at this year’s time trial Nationals in Lincolnshire, Simmonds looked like she belonged. With Dame Sarah Storey on one side and Liv-Plantur pro rider Molly Weaver on the other, she even managed to look cool. Inside, however, she was anything but.
“I was overwhelmed,” PhD student Simmonds told us. “I wasn’t sure what was going on. That night I hung the jersey on a coat hanger on the side of the cupboard door in my room, so when I woke up the next morning it would be there to remind me.”
The undulating 33.6km course in the Lincolnshire Wolds suited Simmonds’s skills and she was quietly confident of success. “I hoped to get on the podium,” she explained, “but I never even thought about winning.”
Riding in the colours of her Velosport-Montegrappa team, the 27-year-old beat her nearest rival, Weaver, by well over a minute. There was some surprise at her victory but those in the know had expected Simmonds’s success.
Cycling Weekly contributor and time trial expert Michael Hutchinson has worked with Simmonds. “It’s in the nature of time trialling that you can be very close to the top but not attract a lot of attention,” he told us. “She won the national 10 and 50 last year, which didn’t attract as much attention as they deserved. I know she’s going better this year than last year, she’s improved, so I was absolutely sure she was going to be right up there and wasn’t at all surprised that she won.”
Third on the day, and a pre-race favourite, Dame Sarah Storey raced with Simmonds in 2014. “I had been following her performances because we’d worked together last year,” Storey explained.
“She put in a superb performance at a stage race in Yorkshire in early June too, so everything was pointing towards her being incredibly well prepared for the Nationals.”
Simmonds’s sporting career started at school in Worcester where she began rowing at the age of 13, eventually representing England in the 2004 Home International Regatta. Two years later she arrived at Cambridge University, where she still studies, hoping to compete in the University Boat Race. But Saturday morning chemistry lectures meant mixing sport and study was difficult.
Sport versus study
“It was quite tough, the alarm would go off at five in the morning, I’d go training for four hours and then be so tired in lectures I’d be falling asleep. After practicals in the afternoon there was more training in the evening.
“We won our boat race, so I ticked that off my list of things I wanted to do. The following year was my finals so I basically stopped doing sport at almost any level. I didn’t really want to go back into rowing, because trying to go back to college level was then not that fulfilling, I suppose.”
After a sporting hiatus during which she gained significant weight (see boxout), her boyfriend, now fiancé, Mark Holt, a life-long cyclist who now acts as her coach, persuaded Simmonds to try cycling. “Mark and I take the same size bike, so I bought some cheap cycling kit, borrowed some cycling shoes and his bike and here we are.”
Dr Hutch talks us through how to pace a long time trial
In cycling, the varsity match against Oxford is a 25-mile time trial, and one of the criteria for earning a Cambridge Blue in the sport. Part of the reserve crew in the Boat Race, Simmonds had missed out on her colours but was determined to earn them through another means. She began time trialling. Having achieved a half Blue in 2011 she has since won four consecutive Blues — the first Cambridge University cyclist to do so.
But Simmonds has ridden beyond university competition. In 2014 she won the National 10 and 50-mile time trial titles. This year, in addition to the British Cycling national title in June, has seen her win the National 25 and 100-mile races, best the national 10-mile record and achieve an excellent finish in the Thüringen Ründfhart and Ladies Tour of Norway stage races.
Holt advises her on all aspects of the sport. Hungry for knowledge, both seek advice from wherever they can. One of those sources is Hutchinson, but he is keen not to take too much credit. “There’s been a bit of general advice,” he told us. “The biggest thing I have done is help her with some aerodynamics work. We had her in a wind tunnel and looked at position and equipment choices. I’ve done my best to hand on any advice I can, but to be honest, neither she or Mark needed all that much help. They’re both very smart; very switched on.”
Hutchinson says her analytical mind is a boon in a discipline like time trialling.
“If you have a scientific outlook you’ve got a much more realistic expectation of what gains you might find and how best to use them. I think being smart helps.”
“It probably does help,” Simmonds said, “certainly with the power numbers; it’s such a numbers game. I leave most of the analysis to Mark, I ride the bike, he does the science stuff and aerodynamics. I know enough scientifically to have ideas, but normally just add my own thoughts if I think it’s helpful.”
It is evident when speaking with her that Simmonds defers much of her success to other people, especially Holt. Her achievements, however, cannot only come from the belief others have in her; there must be something deeper.
“I’m a really bad loser,” she admitted when asked what drives her. “I was alright at sport; I’d be in the teams but I wouldn’t necessarily be the first person selected. So I always felt like I was relatively good at a lot of things, but not outstanding at anything.
“I always loved sport. Until Mark convinced me to try cycling, I hadn’t found that thing that I was necessarily naturally good at. Even when I started cycling I had weight to lose and various improvements that I had to make, but Mark has always said to me, ‘you could actually be really good at this, you could actually make a career out of cycling’.”
The road ahead
After her first road race at the end of 2012, Kidderminster-born Simmonds realised that she would need to improve if she wanted to make a living from the sport. This year has seen real improvement, culminating in 24th place against a stellar field at the 2.1 ranked Thüringen Ründhfart in July.
Simmonds believes the real breakthrough came in the spring in the rain and gales of Ghent-Wevelgem. Racing two hours ahead of the men, the women suffered the same conditions.
Caught behind a crash on the Kemmelberg, then at a level crossing, she crossed the line outside of the timecut, one of 104 DNFs. “Even last year I didn’t enjoy road racing as much, but now I think it has really clicked. It gave me a lot of confidence. It proved I was a strong road rider and I now feel that I can perform on the road as well as in the time trials.”
The performance at Thüringen, guesting for Storey’s Pearl Izumi-Sports Tours International team, saw further consolidation. “Her technical ability is strong, she has a better awareness in the bunch and is able to move around a strong field,” Storey told us. “She provided the team with a strong person to look after at the front of the race for as long as we could manage.”
Sir Bradley Wiggins passes his minute man
Simmonds is due to complete her PhD in March and hopes to be riding full-time in Europe on a UCI team thereafter. British Cycling has not sent a female time triallist since Emma Pooley in 2012 and now Simmonds is filling that void.
Hutchinson certainly believes that Simmonds should be on the plane to Richmond, Virginia.
“I think Hayley is now capable of making top 10 in the Worlds. I would have thought in the next two or three years, given there’s certainly more to come, she’s capable of being a top-10 World Championships rider.”
Achieving what she has in such a short time is remarkable and testament to Simmonds’s determination. When her inorganic chemistry studies are finally done next year, the sky is the limit.
Before that, however, is a defence of her National 10 title in Wiltshire on September 5. “I’ve done the fastest 10 ever this year, so I like 10s at the moment,” she said.
The weight stuff
Most cyclists are interested in their diet, but sensible eating has been key to Simmonds’s success on the bike.
“At my heaviest I was 104 kilos, and the week of the British nationals I was 58,” she said. “When I was about 14 or 15 a nutritionist came and gave a talk to everyone in the boat club. They told us we should be eating about 3,000 calories a day or we wouldn’t have enough energy for rowing training. I’d go to Sainsbury’s after a training session and buy a small malt loaf and thought it was fine to eat it all.”
Change what you eat and feel the benefits when riding
That continued beyond her rowing career. “When I stopped rowing in 2009, I wasn’t really doing any exercise, but I was still almost eating as though I was. I went from being overweight when I was rowing to being very overweight.”
Advice from nutritionists led to a balanced approach to losing weight: “I don’t think you can successfully lose weight just with exercise or just with diet, so I’ve used both. I’ve adapted my diet and still make changes now. I try something, see if that works. If it does, great. If it stops working I re-evaluate and start again. I do train really hard which helps.”
All this despite a passion for baking, though she’s not tempted to indulge.
“My friends call me a feeder. I love baking cakes, then I take them to work or to a friend’s party or I feed them to Mark.”
The Cambridge Connection
Simmonds is not the only Cambridge graduate to have made a splash in the cycling world. While NFTO’s Edmund Bradbury is performing well on the domestic scene, it is with Emma Pooley that comparisons are made.
Pooley studied engineering at Cambridge and while at university turned from triathlon to cycling. With one World and three British Time Trial Championship successes, Pooley was outstanding against the clock, as well as one of the sport’s best climbers. So does Simmonds see a comparison?
“She was an incredible rider and the best climber in the world,” she told us. That climbing ability was something that made Pooley stand out and while the hills have not been a happy hunting ground for Simmonds, she has been working on it. “I’ve lost so much weight my climbing is now a strength. I used to hate courses that had hills, now I hate courses that are pan-flat.
“Emma was really helpful when she did a Q&A in Cambridge last year. I would like to be as successful as her at some point. She’s somebody to look up to and aspire to do some of the things she has done.”