Cycling: Reaping rewards from a soil lab

Despite juggling World Cups with a day job, Britain's Emma Pooley is on course for Beijing glory
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The Independent Online

Following Britain's gold-medal fest at the World Track Championships in Manchester, it seems hopes of two-wheeled success in Beijing could hardly be raised much higher. Or perhaps they could, thanks to a 25-year-old soil engineering PhD student based in Zurich.

Emma Pooley from East Anglia seems an unlikely addition to Britain's list of Olympic contenders. Quite apart from her day job in a Swiss laboratory,Pooley only joined a fully professional team for the first time last spring. A former triathlete, her first road race was less than three years ago. Racing experience – as she is the first to admit – is her weak point, but no matter how steep the learning curve, Pooley seems able to handle it.

Proof came last month with victory in one of the hardest challenges that women's road cycling can throw up, a World Cup. Only one Briton – Pooley's friend and GB team-mate Nicole Cooke – had won one before. But at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy, Pooley upped her game when she rode away from the pack, including Cooke, 40 kilometres from the line to win.

It was only her second race of 2008. Then, after a five-hour drive back to Zurich, she was back in her lab at 9am. "It keeps my feet on the ground to have this job. Even with the prospect of the Olympics and good wins like Binda, my ego won't get too big," she says. "Fortunately I have a very understanding boss, but it's tough juggling the two worlds. All my racing is done during holiday periods and extended leave. Workwise, it will all have to be paid back."

Pooley's road to Beijing is a refreshing throwback to the sport's roots. Her trade team, Specialized, are classified as professional but she, like the rest of the squad and staff, rides and works unpaid. Technical back-up is equally limited: "If wehave a problem with our bikes outside racing, we go down to the bike shop," she says. "It's not four bikes foreach rider."

She calls the financial situation in women's cycling "horrendous, appalling. At least us team riders get to split up the prize money, but there are staff who never get a penny".

Media attention is equally limited, which annoys her: "It really gets on my wick. I could rant about it for hours. It gets me so annoyed that everybody goes on about the [men's] Tour de France and nobody talks about the women's races at all. We have probably the best female cyclistin the world [Cooke] and half the population haven't even heard of her and would not know her from Adam if they met her on a train."

It is light years away from the glamour and multimillion-pound budgets of the British Olympic track cycling scene. But Pooley says she likes being out of that particular loop. "It must be hard being Shanaze Reed and Vicky Pendleton and know that you're constantly being watched by the press. I don't feel like I'm out on a limb here in Zurich. I like it here."

Her success means increased pressure but there is – at last – a better support network for her. British Cycling's women's coach, Dan Hunt, keeps in regular contact, and after two top-10 places in the 2008 World Championships, she now gets a grantas well as increased technical back-up. They even flew her to Beijing to look at the course.

Should Pooley make it there, she will be on promising terrain. Both the Olympic road race and the time trial feature multiple ascents of an 11km climb and she is equally capable in both. Another attractive prospect for someone who shirks the limelight is she will not be the leader. That burden will be carried by the experienced Cooke, but as Pooley says, "with two or at most three of us riding for GB we cannot hope to control the race".

On her chances, Pooley says: "I have the potential to be good enough to get a medal, but you can be the strongest rider in a race and not win. Plus I'm new to the game, a baby tactics-wise.

"Last winter I nearly packed it all in. I decided I wasn't good enough, but the Olympics were at the back of my mind. They helped bring me back."

After the Games, whatever the colour of the medal, it will be back to her Swiss lab and her soil PhD. "I've got a contract to respect. All this racing means I'm living on borrowed time, but if that's what it takes to go to the Olympics, I'll take it."