Jess Varnish: Aiming to shine again at Cycling World Cup

Briton rushed back to action after the heartache of missing out on a medal at 2012... and got injured. Now, she's fit once more and delighted to be back on track at the World Cup

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The Independent Online

If you believe what she writes on Twitter and the picture of two adorable creatures she took while out in the Worcestershire countryside, Jess Varnish wants a Shetland pony. On reflection, though, she doesn't. It's her sister who's into horses and for all their cuteness, Shetlands are bad-tempered animals with diva-ish qualities. Her dog, Hugo, may not approve. "And anyway," she laughs. "I couldn't afford one."

For most of this year, all Jess Varnish really wanted was to ride a bike without pain. Had she and Victoria Pendleton not been disqualified in the team sprint at the London Olympics when they were guaranteed silver and would probably have won gold, Varnish's anger may not have demanded that she begin training within two weeks of the closing ceremony. Pendleton said Varnish had "almost jogged to her bike" so keen was she to start the fateful race and there was a similar impatience afterwards.

She had been the only member of the British cycling team not to have won a medal, although Pendleton assured anyone who would listen that when the Olympics came to Rio de Janeiro, Varnish would be among the world's best. Varnish did not want to wait to prove it. Soon, she began suffering from backaches and then at a training camp in Australia it went completely. Varnish was diagnosed as having a torn disc in her back that was leaking fluids into the muscles. It would take her out of competition for five months.

"I literally couldn't do anything," she said. "I can't blame anyone else. It was me who wanted to go straight in after the Olympics because I felt I had so much to prove to everybody. On reflection, it was silly.

"Had we not been disqualified, I might have relaxed a bit more, taken a proper break and enjoyed the moment. But all I wanted to do was get back on the bike as soon as I could and show people. I wasn't able to train for three months at all. Then I was told I could go on the track and do a warm-up. Sometimes, I just had to go home because I was in too much pain and I'd think: 'You know what, I am 22 years old; I don't want to be in pain every day of my life just to ride a bike.'

"There seemed to be plenty of other things out there and other things I could do with my degree. Before, getting on a bike was so much a part of me that it was really difficult to cope with the fact it was now awkward, difficult and painful. It was the first time I'd been injured and it seemed to go on for ever."

Pendleton had retired the moment her final race in London was done but the two had become great friends off the track. Between them, Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy helped persuade Jess to stick it out.

"Vicky put a lot of things in perspective and then Chris Hoy got in touch to say that, although things might seem horrible, I was doing the right thing and I would get back into the sport. I felt alone and scared. To be encouraged by two people who had been through it all was wonderful."

Varnish grew up with a poster of Pendleton on her bedroom wall and it would have been strange to have a new sprint partner in Becky James, who as a former show-jumper might have been interested in acquiring two Shetland ponies.

The first time they raced seriously after the Olympics was in the World Cup in Colombia's second city, Cali. They won. In November 2012 in Glasgow, in the velodrome named after Hoy, they won again. Then, Varnish's back began to ache.

She made a return to action in Manchester last month in the first round of the 2013-14 World Cup (cycling stages a World Cup every 12 months that straddles Christmas) and she finished an admirable fifth in the individual event (James was paired with Victoria Williamson for the team sprint).

The Great Britain team did well though and flew out to Mexico for round two, which starts on Thursday, in the lead.

"I obviously wanted better [than fifth] but, if you are not going there on your best form, you can't expect much against the best in the world," Varnish says. "Before that, I had gone to the national championships just to see whether I could get back in to the World Cup squad and if I could ride without pain. I wasn't in very good shape but getting off the bike, having proved I could compete and proved to myself I could compete without pain, was a very sweet feeling."

Aguascalientes, where the second round of the World Cup begins, is in contrast to the urban sprawl of most Mexican cities, green and filled with cycleways – albeit 6,000 feet above sea level.

Varnish is an ambassador for Breeze, a campaign that aims to have a million women cycling by the end of the decade, and Aguascalientes seems a good deal more appealing than the dark, rain-slicked streets of London, which in November alone have claimed half-a-dozen lives.

"I'd be quite happy to cycle through central London on a winter's night," she said. "Provided I had good, reflective clothing and was prepared for it. I don't think London is any more dangerous than cycling through Manchester. But I am looking forward to the few days of sunshine we will have in Mexico."

And being in the thick of it once more. "When you are on the track you try to blank your competitors out and not think of them as real people but we are all girls of a similar age. There aren't many of us, we are often cooped up together so we might as well get on and, after everything that's happened, I am just pleased to be back among them again."

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