Straight to the front: Anna Shackley’s whirlwind year

Nineteen-year-old Scot Anna Shackley had never raced a pro race until this year’s World Championship road race, but as Vern Pitt finds out, there’s no way it’ll be her last

The excitement in the living rooms of cycling fans across Scotland was palpable as the 2020 women’s World Championship road race approached the final climb of the day. Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen had already opened up a sizeable gap and was soloing to victory, but there at the head of the chasing pack, leading former rainbow jersey wearer Lizzie Deignan into the final skirmish, was a Scot who was arguably putting in the best ride of the championships.

“My phone was full of messages from friends and family saying ‘I saw you on TV!’” says Shackley. She had ridden the worlds before, but that was the junior road race a year earlier in Harrogate. “The 2020 Worlds was the first pro race that I’d done,” says Shackley. “It was only my second race after lockdown, so I was a little bit nervous, but the other girls were so calm it was easy to be around them. They basically told me I had nothing to lose.”

That didn’t make her day out in Imola any less momentous. “On the last lap I was on the front going up the first climb and I thought, ‘Oh I’m still here’. Then I looked behind me and I had Annameik van Vleuten chasing me.”

Earlier in the year, based almost entirely off her power numbers and a set of glowing reports from British Cycling coaches, Shackley had signed a contract with WorldTour powerhouse Boels-Dolmans, set to be SD Worx, for 2021.

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As Cycling Weekly and Shackley speak in September, it’s been just one year since she joined British Cycling’s track-focused senior academy so it’s no surprise that the contract was, well, a surprise. “I was not expecting to get a pro contract this year at all. I did always know I wanted to go to the road because while I do enjoy the track I’ve not really got the kick it.”

“Emma [Trott, BC academy coach] was in contact with Danny Stam, [director at Boels-Dolmans], and he was looking for some young riders to develop. He looked at my power data and training and it was from that that I signed.  

“It was a little bit early but I didn’t want to pass up on that opportunity, it’s what I wanted to do. I was a bit nervous about being signed simply off my power data, but he was happy how I went at the Worlds as well.”

Getting distanced

Shackley grew up in Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, riding the hilly roads of the Trossachs and started racing when she was six. Her father, who she describes as the most influential person on her career, coached at the Glasgow Riders club and she followed her elder brother Callum there racing cyclo-cross and road. 

Anna Shackley (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

“It’s really only the past few years that it has been going quite well,” she says. “I came last in many races when I was younger. I had moments as a year two junior when I peaked a bit, but then it went downhill in year three.”

It’s more common for pro riders to win a lot when they’re younger and competing in local races. But Shackley says being used to not winning means she doesn’t worry when things now don’t go her way. 

What made her keep coming back during those early, winningless years? “I just enjoyed racing and riding my bike and the people,” she says. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” Shackley points to the time she spent being coached by then Scottish Cycling coach Mark McKay as a key turning point in her development. It then stepped up again as she moved to the senior academy at British Cycling.

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That improvement has come with an unexpected upside. “We do go out as a family occasionally. But it’s mostly just me and my brother racing each other, because even though he doesn’t race, he doesn’t like his little sister beating him.” 

Perhaps her most prominent result was the 2.1 classification Women’s Tour of Scotland, where, still a junior, she finished 13th overall – the best placed Brit in the field. “I was quite surprised how well I did but it was very grim weather that week so I think it helped being Scottish and used to it,” she recalls. 

Now in her off-season there will be no return to the track as it’s all about preparing for the road in 2021. Shackley has yet to have detailed discussions with SD Worx manager Stam about what she’ll be doing but if the progression of the last two years is any indication it won’t be long until she is at the head of the pro peloton again in its decisive moment, just like in Imola.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.