'You have to be smart & you have to be strong, you can’t be one or the other': Why 2018 was Katie Archibald's year

As well as penning a weekly CW column, Archibald has also found the time this year to etch her name onto the list of British cycling greats

(Image credit: Dan Gould)

Katie Archibald was selected as Female Rider of the Year 2018 in association with British Cycling at the Cycling Weekly Awards 2018

Competitor. If there’s one word to sum up Katie Archibald’s style on the bike it’d probably be that. A self-confessed training-phobe, the Scot is never better than when there’s a gun and a finish line. It’s a characteristic she has attributed to her father’s unyielding attitude to games when she was young — no wins came for free. The Olympic and world champion is getting her own back now though.

“Sometimes on a ride I’ll just say ‘you say go and we’ll just go for the sprint’ and then I’ll just squeeze at exactly the same speed as him,” she says, a mischievous grin spreading across her face.

That’s far from an isolated incident. Archibald’s merciless. She recounts how he came to visit her at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester and took part in an Archibald family holiday tradition of trying to see how much he could leg press in the gym. “I noticed he’d failed to complete the leg press and I, with an injured knee at the time, just said I’ll get that for you and did it with one leg,” she says. Has he forgiven you for that? CW enquires. “Oh no, he doesn’t do forgiveness,” she says smiling.

There are at least two reasons why Katie Archibald nearly didn’t top our list of female riders. One, we’re well aware that as one of our much-loved columnists, putting her in the number one spot might look like favouritism. Two, finding things to talk about with someone who has written over 17,000 words about their life in the magazine over the last year, presents something of a challenge.

Katie Archibald (Alex Broadway/SWPix.com)

But, as is often the case with Archibald, the legs have done the talking. Her Madison partner Emily Nelson was the only other British woman to win a world title in an Olympic discipline this year but Archibald was also part of a European title-winning team pursuit squad and racked up a further nine wins, a Commonwealth individual pursuit title, three national titles and one stage win on the road — a 3.9km prologue.

Madison queen

Slightly to our surprise, it’s not the world title she picks as her highlight of the year: “Mine would be the individual pursuit at the Commonwealth Games and the British record that came with it. That was a huge thing for me,” she says.

Doing the time of 3.24.119 had, she reveals, been a bit of an albatross for a while. “At the Olympics in Rio Laura [Kenny] rode a 3.25 and came bouncing off very happy and said, in a nice way, ‘Imagine what you would have done’. With the conditions, equipment, the form all based on how the team pursuit had gone. I wouldn’t have been able to touch her in the other events but individual pursuit was my thing. I was very happy to get that done and show that if the form is there then the time is there.”

We can’t help but feel that this downplays the significance of her Madison victory that cements the Scotswoman’s place as queen of the discipline (see box).

It is in many ways her perfect event. She explains that as a junior she always loved the points race because of the combination of tactics and strength — the Madison is the same.

“It feels like this is what I’ve been waiting for,” she says. “The truth of it really is that I’m a lot better at pursuiting, I have a physiology that’s suited to it, I have an inclination to immerse myself in the training and theory of it but when it comes to race day I wish I was good at points racing, and Madison racing — now it’s coming off. If it could be summed up in one sentence it’s: you have to be smart AND you have to be strong, you can’t be one or the other.”

Katie Archibald and Emily Nelson celebrate winning women's Madison. (Picture by SWpix.com)

Days prior to our interview Archibald had been quoted as saying she’d like to go for omnium, team pursuit and Madison gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It chimed with her brother, and Huub-Wattbike rider, John’s assessment that: “She’s not afraid to fail; when there’s more to lose than there is to win she’s still prepared to do it.”

Fierce competitor

But Katie balks at that characterisation, saying her “introvert” brother is saying that because he fears failure himself. She goes on to explain that while she might dream of winning three golds in Tokyo — “basically being the best track rider in the world” — she’s realistic. While the Olympics are just starting to loom large she doesn’t want to completely cash in her omnium chips because she hopes the stack will be big enough when she does it’ll earn her bid for the Madison spot some credit with the powers in the BC Manchester offices.

Always a competitor, always strategising, but Archibald is rarely predictable. CW asks her why she puts sticky labels on her medals telling her who she beat, or who she lost to depending on the medal’s colour, and the times for timed events. When we heard about this we assumed it was part of that competitive drive and in part it is, “If I put Laura Kenny down I think ‘this is a good one,’” she says. But it’s more than that. “When my grandpa died and we were kids we went round to clear the house,” Archibald recalls. “I’d seen my dad’s medals, grandpa would show me my dad’s medals, but I’d not seen his. He was a sprinter, he did a bit of long jump too. He had all these labels on the medals [with the details of the podium and the event].”

Just for the record

She adds: “It’s sad that this happens when they’ve gone, that you find out of bits of their life that they didn’t have time to go through with you. But I’m looking forward to when I die and people will go through them.

“What’s fun is that at this year’s national points race Jess Roberts was on the podium and now you’ve heard of her because she’s national road race champion but I like the idea that someone might look at that and say, ‘Oh Jess Roberts was on that podium back then.’ I just like the story.”

While the track has been a good source of those medals in 2018, the road for Archibald has been a rather different story, largely because she’s had difficulty staying upright. She broke her collarbone at the Tour de Yorkshire in May, bruised her ribs badly in a crash at the Women’s Tour, consequently missed the National Road Race Championships, leaving the only road races she completed as the BeNe Ladies Tour, and Vårgårda and the Worlds TTTs. As we speak she is nursing a perfect crescent of tyre burn along her leg from what she admits was a slightly embarrassing slow-speed training crash in a segregated bike lane.

Spurred by injury

How does she cope with the setbacks? “I used to think I rarely got injured and I rarely got ill and it’s been hard to maintain that in recent times,” she says.

Archibald (last) in the GB team pursuit line (Picture by Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)
(Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

“I tore a ligament in my knee in Christmas 2015 before the Olympics and for a long time I credited it as this boot up the backside to chase perfection in everything because the dream was slipping through my fingers and the only way the dream was going to survive was if I did everything right. I was going well before the injury and it came round by the time we reached Rio but I do sometimes wonder if the injury helped or hindered. There’s a part of me that thinks it helped, and it’s not a part of me I like because if that’s right I wasn’t strong enough or motivated enough to do it off my own back, off intrinsic motivation. But I can’t be doing that every three months! It does mean when anything that goes wrong there is a part of me that is grateful, like here’s your wake up call, but I’m not sure I really need any more wake-up calls,” she says.

Now, she explains, she is a bit concerned at effectively having missed two good road seasons in that she just doesn’t have the base fitness to bounce back as well.

But she isn’t one to feel sorry for herself. When these things happen, she mostly gets back on the bike as soon as possible, though she does admit that often she’ll pour out her frustrations to her boyfriend or her mum, only to have them make suggestions on how to fix it, much to her annoyance: “I just want them to listen to my complaint!”

In it for the long haul

It is difficult not to look at Archibald’s achievements both this year and in 2017 and not see a rider on course for a collision with Laura Kenny (she assures us they get along just fine) to be the biggest woman in British cycling. But that would be to misread Archibald’s intentions. She gives a straight no when we ask if she’d like to be Laura Kenny-level famous before her tone becomes almost conspiratorial: “Do you know what my dream is?” she says. “I’d quite like Ed Clancy’s career. The longevity of Ed’s career, the respect he has as a rider, the longevity of his relationship with JLT. I’ve had three teams in three years and I’d like to find a team that’s my home. The kind of laidback-ness he has, which you can only earn by having such a long career.”

Whether that’ll happen only time will tell, but on the evidence of 2018 and the years before that, you have to feel a pang of sympathy for anyone who would dare stand in her way.

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Having trained as a journalist at Cardiff University I spent eight years working as a business journalist covering everything from social care, to construction to the legal profession and riding my bike at the weekends and evenings. When a friend told me Cycling Weekly was looking for a news editor, I didn't give myself much chance of landing the role, but I did and joined the publication in 2016. Since then I've covered Tours de France, World Championships, hour records, spring classics and races in the Middle East. On top of that, since becoming features editor in 2017 I've also been lucky enough to get myself sent to ride my bike for magazine pieces in Portugal and across the UK. They've all been fun but I have an enduring passion for covering the national track championships. It might not be the most glamorous but it's got a real community feeling to it.