There is something in Shanaze Reade's make-up that compels her to do things in a hurry. She talks quickly and she acts quickly. She always has. "I was so hyperactive [as a child]," says Reade animatedly. She grins and her hands shoot out of the sleeves of her parka where they had been sheltering. It feels like the coldest day of the year and the temperature has driven us inside from a BMX track in east London to the improbable sanctuary of a city farm. "I loved to run and go fast, always fast, it was always about speed. There was this hill at my school and I used to run down the hill as fast as I could and the teachers would think I was crazy. Sometimes I would do roly-polys down it. I just loved speed."
Getting to the bottom of the hill as fast as possible has become Reade's sporting raison d'être. The hill is now eight metres high and its descent signals the start of 30 to 40 adrenalin-filled seconds that take her round 400 metres of jumps and bumps at the end of which, if all goes to plan over the next six months, she will be a world and Olympic champion. Reade is already a BMX world champion three times over – as well as a double track world champion in partnership with Victoria Pendleton – but the Olympics is a painful (this is a sport where pain is often literal) gap on her CV.
Four years ago she arrived in Beijing regarded by all and sundry – those in the know and those along for the ride – as favourite to win the first BMX gold at the Olympics, an all-action heroine for an all-action sport. In the final she trailed Ann-Caroline Chausson and so made a last-ditch, desperate attempt to pass the Frenchwoman. It ended with Reade in a heap, nursing a damaged shoulder, a sprained wrist, a displaced pelvis and no medal. Silver would have been hers if she had been prepared to settle for it, but then that is not the way of her or her sport.
"When you're a kid you fall over, you get back up and you go through that. I got into BMX at 10, you fall off and you break your first bone and you're like, 'oh my God', then you get over that and you get used to it," says Reade, who over the years has fractured a knee, an elbow, a foot, ribs, her coccyx and a hand. "It's what you know. It does hurt – breaking a bone is never nice – but at the same time you think 'I've been there and I've got over that'. You mustn't dwell on it. If you live in that reserved way then you wouldn't do anything. I love my sport. That's what it is and that's what you're faced with."
In the build-up to Beijing, and with the plaudits of the likes of Chris Hoy ringing around the British camp, Reade was the subject of intense interest, in one part because she was a British golden prospect and in another because it was an exciting new sport and Reade is engaging and sparky company.
"Beijing was one of the worst points of my life," says Reade. "There are a lot of people out there who have had a lot worse things happen than losing an Olympic Games but to me that was very, very tough. But then you think sport isn't all about winning. You can't win every single race and you've got to know with the smooth there's going to be some rough times. You are going to lose some races in your career but mine so happened to be the biggest race of my life." She shrugs. "I've lived to see another day and I'm back for the next Olympics."
The next Olympics take place not far from where we talk at a long table at one end of the café of Hackney City Farm, having been politely asked to move from a sofa because this evening is veg box night and the farm staff need space by the door. It's not the usual venue to meet an Olympian, but it fits, unintentionally, with Reade's plan to keep a low profile during the build-up to the Games. She admits the attention got to her in Beijing and has used the experience to redress her preparation this time around.
"It has changed because of Beijing," she says. "If you had asked me this time four years ago, I would have said it was on my mind every morning. That's how it was and you burn yourself out. You get to the Games and you're like [she flops on the table] instead of letting it go with the flow. It's no more interviews after this. I want to keep more under the radar, I don't want to be in people's faces. Now you've got your big hitters, you've got [Jessica] Ennis, Tom Daley, all the cycling team, who have won every medal going. I'm this little fish in a big pond now, whereas before not lots of the team were tipped to win. I can blend more – that's my intention, anyway.
"I'm more experienced. It wasn't like I was immature before and I don't think I was ever naïve for a 19-year-old – but there is only so much you can have experienced in life by that age. Now just things like buying a house, understanding life in general, as well as going through a failure at such a big event, it all sets you up and you get that life experience to deal with an Olympics. Ann-Caroline was the best mentally prepared that day and it won her the Olympics. A lot of it is to do with the mind and now I have a lot more control over that."
Reade has moved from the family home in Crewe to Manchester – having bought that house near the velodrome where the BMX team are based, alongside the rest of Britain's cyclists. There is the same attention to detail that has helped the track team – to whose ranks Reade wants to return one day – harvest such success. "We are always looking for marginal gains," says Reade, "whether that be in training or performance, or with actual equipment." What they are she will not say. There have been suggestions she may even look to put on some weight for the Games in the belief that a heavier rider – within obvious reason – can be quicker around the course. The equipment is leaning against the wall next to our table.
The striking difference between the two forms of cycling comes in the bike. Every part of Reade's BMX, she points out, can be bought from a shop. She herself has transferable skills between the two disciplines thanks to an ability to reach high speeds quickly. But the track cycling programme is much more regimented than BMX. "My sport is a lot looser – it is more like an art, there's more expression," she says. As a child she took to BMX precisely because of the lack of structure that surrounded the sport.
Last year Reade won the test event over the London course – one she describes as the toughest she has ever ridden – to underline her status as a gold contender. This summer she will compete in the World Championships in Birmingham and then the Games.
"A World Championships is massive," says Reade. "I see the worlds on a par with the Olympics so I will not ride them with any reserve. I'm a firm believer in life that 'what will be, will be'.
"God forbid, if anything happens and I crashed out of the worlds and could not go to the Games, then that was mapped out for me. I don't let my imagination run too wild. It's six months and if you think about [London] all the time it can become too much. It's about the journey as well – not just about the destination. You need to enjoy everything along the way, and I have got a lot to look forward to."
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