A little under a month ago Katie Archibald was doubting she would make Mexico. The £60 petrol money needed to get her from her home on the edge of Glasgow to Manchester to compete in her first World Cup had stretched her budget. “It will be £100s to get out to Mexico, won’t it?” she said and shrugged.
Today she is in Aguascalientes, in the middle of Mexico and some 1,800m above sea level, preparing to ride her first World Cup in British colours. That’s the difference a month makes; a year ago she missed the national championships because she was away working at her holiday job in a French vineyard.
British Olympic sport and British Cycling in particular operate set-ups that seek to leave as little as possible to chance. Athletes are identified early then groomed for gold, steered and guided every step of the way. It is a system that works, and works well –the photographs of Olympic medal-festooned Britons that fill the walls of the Velodrome in Manchester demonstrate that – but that does not mean they will not find room for a flyer.
Archibald, in cycling terms, has come from nowhere. It is only within the last year that the brains trust of Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton who run the British team have become properly aware of her. They have been quickly impressed and quick to act. Winning two medals in Scottish colours at the season’s opening World Cup in Manchester sealed it and Archibald is now part of the system, already an extra member of the team pursuit squad alongside Laura Trott, Dani King, Jo Rowsell and Elinor Barker, all world and/or Olympic champions. Whatever quartet takes to the track in Mexico, for the second of three World Cup rounds, they will expect to lower the world record once, if not twice, in the course of the event.
“A really exciting prospect” is how Brailsford describes Archibald, a smile breaking across his face. Brailsford and Sutton, Britain’s head coach, like what they see. “How can you not be impressed?” adds Brailsford.
Archibald is 19 and has just moved to Manchester to join the Olympic Academy programme only two years after starting to take cycling seriously. She spent her early teenage years swimming but switched to cycling when her father, a weekend fell-runner as well as a keen amateur cyclist, spotted races at Highland Games. He saw it as a way for his competitive and energetic daughter to earn a bit of extra pocket money. She competed in mixed sex handicap races, pedalling furiously around grass tracks pursued by the men and soon started earning; her best pay day was £70. Her progress since has been brisk; junior national champion, third behind Trott and King in the seniors and then an invitation for a trial in Manchester.
She was dropped in at the deep end for the European Championships in the Netherlands last month, replacing King for the heats. The world record was broken (the women’s pursuit has been changed from three to four riders since the London Games so the record will be briskly rewritten on each outing by a British team that are catching some of the leading men’s quartets). King returned for the final, Rowsell dropped out and the world record went again. Archibald was a European champion.
“That goes to the point we’ve always tried to make here, that the door’s always open,” said Sutton. “We saw this girl and we dropped an Olympic champion to give her a ride in the qualifying round, then dropped another Olympic champion to give her a ride in the final. And she broke the world record. No one’s ever heard of her – apart from the odd hairdresser, I suppose.”
Archibald’s hair is currently pink. It has been green, blue, orange and red – she bulk buys dyes online. Her hair may well be given a blue hue again come next summer’s Commonwealth Games, at which she is likely to be one of the leading figures in the host nation’s ranks. Sir Chris Hoy’s assertion this week that she can go all the way will only heighten expectation in a country looking to fill a large Hoy-shaped hole.
Talking to Archibald after her successful weekend in Manchester, she seemed utterly unbothered by it all, and it is this ability to adjust quickly to new surroundings and new challenges that so excites Sutton and Brailsford. The presence of another rider to challenge the established quartet is also manna from coaching heaven. In Manchester a silver in the scratch and bronze in the individual pursuit were secured with performances worthy of a much more experienced rider. “Phenomenal” was how Rowsell put it. There is a sense the competition is welcome.
This week in Mexico brings another of many firsts in recent times for Archibald. “I’ve never actually ridden at altitude,” she said. “So I can’t give a report of what it’s going to be like but it’s nice to be optimistic, so why not? Let’s go faster.”