Emma Trott crossed the finishing line in tears, a study in reflection rather than dejection. She savoured the crowds and the familiarity of the pain because they will soon be mere memories. She will retire on Sunday, when the women’s Tour of Britain ends in Bury St Edmunds.
It was a bittersweet day, which began with her younger sister Laura, the double Olympic champion, being feted in Cheshunt, their home town. The pair posed for photos and gave little hint of the inner struggle revealed when Emma stepped off her bike in the incongruous setting of a supermarket car park in Welwyn Garden City.
“It’s a bit emotional” she said, after world and Olympic road race champion Marianne Vos had won her second successive stage to confirm a 19-second overall lead. “I took the moment in and will keep it for life. I have not said anything until now, but I started thinking about retiring at the end of last year. I love cycling and that is the problem. I lost two dear friends in the past year and that changed my perspective. I went on a training camp and didn’t want to be there.
“I have been professional for seven years and have raced for 14. I have no regrets but I am 24 and feel like I have got so much more to give. Tomorrow will be hard – the close of one chapter and the start of a new one – but I just want a normal life.”
In an age in which sport has become detached from its audience, women’s cycling has managed to achieve accessibility without sacrificing any of its intimacy and professionalism. There is an arresting composure and tenacity about the riders assembled in the biggest race of its kind staged in the UK.
Emma Pooley, the time trial world champion in 2010, was politely asked if she minded posing for a photograph on the start line. “If you like,” she said cheerily. “But I’m riding crap this week. You don’t want to be bothering with me.”
They were when she featured in a six-woman breakaway, 90 minutes into a stage which put hamlets like Cold Christmas on the map. The few residents who emerged on to a narrow lane were glad of the recognition, since souvenir hunters systematically steal the signposts.
Pooley had taken eight months off, finishing her PhD in geotechnical engineering and testing her physical limits in a series of marathons and triathlons. Cycling does not her offer her a steady living; her victory in a recent half-ironman event in the Philippines earned her more than in any race on two wheels.
She is 31, a singular character who does not own a television. Why did she come back? “Because it is the people you really miss,” she said. “I didn’t start road racing until I was 22 and have been racing for less time than riders who are younger than me. I will know when the time is right to stop but, in terms of physical limitations, you can race until you are 40. It is just that sometimes there is other stuff in life.”
Sharon Laws, who retained her lead in the Queen of the Mountains category, which seems a geographical anomaly in the flatlands of rural Hertfordshire, took up cycling in her thirties, after gaining an masters’ degree in conservation and working as an environmental activist.
She endures despite a horrendous crash in South Africa in which she fractured two vertebrae and her collarbone, broke four ribs, had a pulmonary oedema and a secondary infection in her lung. She was in intensive care for six days and took 25 tablets a day while in rehabilitation. The defiance which led her to resist the temptation to retire after failing to be selected for the London Olympics led her to return “because I was determined not to end my career on a negative note.”
The vagaries of fate are occupational hazards for cyclists. Lizzie Armitstead, Britain’s first 2012 medallist, had her hopes of overall victory yesterday ended by a puncture for the second successive day.
“Just how I like it, a bit crazy,” she said, smiling at the finish, which was in jam and Jerusalem territory.
The leading riders did their post-race interviews in a musty Church hall and had to compete with a local choir, supplemented by a solitary cellist. No one spoke more eloquently than Pooley.
“The crowds here for this event are pretty special” she said. “I loved the London Olympics two years ago because so many of my friends from every stage of my life got to know what I do for a job. It is the same for this race – I am getting more text messages than I can answer from friends. That’s got to be good for our sport, hasn’t it?”