Sharon Laws: British road race cycling champion and 'one of the most beloved riders of the peloton'

She enjoyed successes at the British National Time Trial, National Road Race and UCI Road World Championships, but it was her selfless attitude that propelled colleagues on Team GB to Olympic gold in Beijing

Christine Manby
Sunday 07 January 2018 17:43 GMT
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Laws’ late-blossoming career was cut short after she was diagnosed with cancer
Laws’ late-blossoming career was cut short after she was diagnosed with cancer (Getty)

“I was not one of those girls that competed from the age of six and was born to race a bike.” These were the words of Sharon Laws, looking back at her surprising late-blossoming sporting career for voxwomen.com, for which she regularly blogged, in February last year.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1974, Laws spent most of her childhood in Bourton-on-the-Water, an idyllic Cotswold village in Gloucestershire. With a degree in biology under her belt, she took a masters in conservation at the University of London and then kicked off her career as an environmental consultant. But a chance meeting in 2001 with endurance athlete Anna McCormack changed her life’s direction in a most unexpected way.

McCormack invited Laws to join a birthday party weekend with some of the UK’s best adventure cyclists. She lent Laws her bike, and by the time the weekend was over, Laws was hooked.

A week later Laws bought a bike of her own and threw herself into adventure racing. She kept up her interest when her work took her to South Africa. There she bought her first road bike – and had to ask where the brakes were. Coming back to London to take a job at Kew Gardens put paid to her racing for a while but a move to Melbourne in 2007 saw her join the Australian road cycling scene in earnest.

In January 2008 she finished second in the Australian National Road Race, much to her own surprise and that of her coach of three weeks, Donna Rae Szalinski.

After her Australian success, Laws was asked by the British Cycle Federation to take a sabbatical from her consulting to race with Team GB. She left her job and turned professional, riding first for Team Halfords Bikehut.

Laws wasn’t sure it would work out. “Statistically, I was unlikely to become a professional – let alone at the age of 34 with no background in cycling,” she wrote in her voxwomen.com blog in March. But her one-year sabbatical turned into nine and during her professional career she raced for some of the biggest teams in women’s cycling, including Holland’s AA Drink-leontien.nl, Belgium’s Lotto-Belisol Ladies, UnitedHealthcare Pro in the US and 2011’s international Garmin-Cervélo.

Though cycling doesn’t always look like a team sport to outsiders, Laws was revered by her teammates as the ultimate domestique – a cyclist who rides for the benefit of the team rather than personal glory. For example, a domestique cycles ahead of the star rider to provide an energy-preserving slipstream until the crucial moment when the star can break from the pack and go for a win. Domestiques provide tactical and mechanical support. They may even sacrifice their bike.

In 2008, Laws proved her team spirit when she joined Team GB for the Beijing Olympics. Though she had broken her left leg just weeks before flying to China, she returned to form just in time to compete, and her selfless efforts enabled Nicole Cooke to win gold in the road race.

More success followed but Laws was a surprise omission from the 2012 Olympic Team. It was a decision that looked especially odd when Laws went on to have her best season ever, becoming that year’s British Road Race champion and taking a bronze medal in the World Championships.

Laws retired from professional cycling in August 2016. Two months later she announced that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, describing her condition as “treatable but not curable”. She continued to ride throughout her chemotherapy treatment, even tackling the notoriously difficult Taiwan Challenge.

In a diary of the difficult mountain event for Rouleur.cc, Laws wrote: “All that is certain is that I have to make the most of every day and the opportunities I’m given… For this event, I’d travelled for 24 hours, I’d met new people who didn’t know what I was going through, or why I had a silly hairstyle, I’d laughed at jokes and I’d had brief moments during the climb when I forgot I had cancer… I finally felt like I was me again.”

Fellow road-racing cyclists Emma Pooley and Iris Slappendel said in a statement: “Athletic talents aside, Laws was one of the most beloved riders in the peloton, and her loss was felt deeply. Laws was an incredibly caring, humble and inspirational woman who lived life to the fullest.”

Sharon Laws, born 7 July 1974, died 16 December 2017

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