Less than two years after she came within a whisker of quitting the sport, Emma Pooley triumphed in the women’s time trial at Beijing with a silver medal as brilliantly netted as it was - in some quarters - unexpected.
Part of the reason for the general surprise is that Pooley is nowhere near as well-known as Nicole Cooke, Sunday’s gold medalist for Great Britain on the road-race and 15th here today. Now, though, the East Anglian Pooley has definitively come out from the Welshwoman’s shadow.
In fact the two’s paths to Olympic glory could not be more different. Whereas Cooke was a World Champion at junior level as far back as 2000, Pooley turned to road-racing as recently as 2006, a move which only became definitive in the spring of 2007. Yesterday’s success was testament to just how quickly the 25-year-old has learned the ropes.
Just five feet two tall and weighing a mere seven stone (that her first pro team should be called Fat Birds is the sort of irony too good to be invented), the slightly built Pooley’s biggest talent is climbing. The course at Beijing, then - an 11-kilometre grinding ascent past the Great Wall of China followed by a fast, untechnical downhill section - could not have been more up Pooley’s street if she had designed it herself.
Focus was never a problem for Pooley, either, who said “it was a wonderful setting for a time trial, but all I was doing was concentrating on the next 100 metres and going as fast as possible.”
Seeded as fifth rider to start, Pooley was technically at an disadvantage because of a lack of references on her main rivals, but Pooley turned that into one of her strengths.
“To tell the truth I was a shade miffed to be off so early, I don’t know why that happened, but finally it paid off, because it made me think - I’ll show ‘em.”
And show them she did. At the summit of the climb, even nearly an hour later when the last rider, Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel passed through, Pooley’s split time of 20 minutes 46 seconds was still at the top of the leader board as the fastest.
Only Kristin Armstrong, the American who would finally beat Pooley, came close - just four seconds adrift at the summit. The rest of the field were 35 seconds behind or more - in a middle-distance time trial, cycling’s equivalent of nowhere to be seen.
In fact the signs for Pooley had been good far earlier. With riders rolling down the ramp under Beijing’s usual layer of dense fog and intense humidity at two minute intervals , even before she reached the summit Pooley had stormed past the previous starter, Lithuanian Edita Pucinskaite.
Then the fast descent she overtook Russian Natalie Boyarskaya - four minutes earlier onto the 23.5 kilometre course - and come the finish had a third, China’s Men Lang, firmly in her sights.
Success, then, seemed more than certain, but Pooley tried hard to play it cool.
“I spent most of my time keeping [women’s coach] Julian Winn from getting agitated.” Pooley revealed. “That way I didn’t get too stressed myself.”
“I couldn’t really imagine myself winning, I just tried to stay calm.”
After nearly an hour, when all the “big hitters”, as Pooley called them, had come through, only Armstrong had overtaken her.
This was no disgrace. For a former tri-athlete who only turned to road racing three years ago - and who still combines her professional career with a Ph. D in soil engineering in Zurich - a silver medal was a phenomenal acheivement.
Such a fast rise to the top means Pooley still has some areas to work on technically and descending is not her strong point.
However, intense practice this spring, combined with a time trial bike with handlebars specially designed as for normal road racing - “I imagined I was off the front of a road race, and just hammered it” Pooley said - helped the Briton cover any possible deficencies.
Team-mate Nicole Cooke’s gold medal on Sunday had already meant this was Britain’s best ever road-racing performance at Olympic level - even without any success in yesterday’s men’s time trial, won by Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.
But Pooley’s silver was much more than mere icing on the cake - there was a huge amount of poetic justice involved, too.
Her eighth place in last year’s World Championships was what guaranteed British Cycling a second spot in the time trial in Beijing. It was also - as she told the Independent on Sunday this spring - the Olympics that partly motivated her to come back in the sport in January 2007.
“I was going to quit because I wasn’t getting much enjoyment or glory. But thinking of the Olympics helped bring me back.”
In fact up until this year, when she started getting a subsidy from British Cycling, Pooley was not paid at all - instead she and her trade team-mates lived off prize money, and in Pooley’s case, a grant from her studies.
This financial difficulty - very much the norm in the impoverished world of female professional cycling - compares sharply to the multi-million pound budgets on offer in track racing in Great Britain. But given Pooley’s success has been pulled off under such difficult conditions, that surely makes it arguably even more remarkable - and it should not be snowed under, either, by this weekend’s widely expected medal-fest for Great Britain in the Laoshan velodrome.
Flying start: Britain's medal winners
Rebecca Adlington, Women's 400m freestyle; Nicole Cooke Women's road race.
David Florence Men's canoe slalom; Emma Pooley Women's cycling time trial
Jo Jackson, Women's 400m freestyle; Tina Cook, Daisy Dick, William Fox-Pitt, Mary King, Equestrian team event; Tina Cook, Individual eventingReuse content