For Elinor Barker and many other athletes who were set to compete in the Tokyo Olympics last year, the Coronavirus pandemic meant the upending of four years’ worth of preparation for the Olympic Games and plunging into months of uncertainty.
Far from letting all of that get the better of her, Barker considers herself one of the lucky ones, having found herself accidentally locked down at home in Manchester with her Danish partner who had been visiting from Copenhagen when the lockdown was announced.
“He'd come to stay for the weekend,” she says. “We’d started doing the long distance thing for probably not even six months so we were fairly new, and then he got stuck at my house for just over two months. I think if he'd not been there, I'd have struggled so much more than I did.”
Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
During a time when many relationships were tested as couples were holed up in close quarters, it’s lucky for Barker that her boyfriend is, she says, “the happiest man in the entire world, as an actual fact.”
Like many, though, letting go of the parallel life she would have been leading pre-Covid was tough. “For the first month I'd be going, 'Oh, I'm supposed to be on a training camp now' or 'there's only supposed to be 60 days to the Olympics.’ ‘I'm supposed to be doing this or that or whatever,’” she says. However, “deleting everything out of my calendar was probably the best thing that I did.”
At 26 years-old, Barker has been balancing back-to-back track and road seasons for her entire career to the detriment of being afforded a real off-season. A welcome side-effect of the lack of competition was the advent of a much-needed break: “I think it's been my first off season since I was 15 maybe,” she says.
Having balanced her track commitments for British Cycling with road racing for Wiggle High 5 in 2018 and then Drops in 2019, Barker was unsure of which team she should ride for the would-be Olympic year.
Barker found a happy home riding with Tekkerz cycling team, which counts Rapha among its sponsors (Photo credit: Chris Sansom)
“I had a number of offers from teams that didn't really fit. Either the team was too big and I couldn't commit enough to it or for various reasons it just didn't feel like the right fit,” she says. “Or it felt like taking advantage of a smaller team when I wouldn't be able to race.”
Something she was sure about was the need to belong to a team outside of the national track squad: “I still wanted to be part of something else outside of British Cycling,” she says. “I've always had a road team on the side and I think it's just been really important to widen my social circle within cycling. Otherwise, you end up in a group of just five riders that you're in competition with and that's what your entire existence within cycling is.”
Struggling to decide, she called her friend Alec Briggs – the DJ and manager of the Tekkerz cycling team – for help: “He said, 'I don't really know, but don't worry about it. When you retire, you can just join Tekkerz anyway and then you won't have to think about it,’” she recalls.
Realising that there was a space on the squad open for her, she suggested to Briggs that she join the team sooner, rather than later: “It's exactly what I want really; to be riding on the best equipment, riding the best road bike I've ever had, the nicest cycling kit I’ve ever had and definitely widening my social circle within cycling.”
Briggs agreed and so Barker joined Tekkerz, hoping to benefit from the wealth of experiences and interests within the collective. “I think it was that which really drew me to it,” she says. “Because it's kind of that opposite side to cycling that I get with British Cycling. Because it is really fun, everyone has really diverse interests.”
Photo credit: Chris Sansom
On the team’s custom Rapha kit, their logo bears the phrase ‘cycling charisma’ and the general modus operandi is a rejection of the trope of the one-dimensional athlete. “People are really ambitious, but there's a lot more to it as well,” says Barker. “It's a lot about the grassroots and the enjoyment, the fun and the wheelies and all that kind of stuff. I feel like it's made me a bit more of a more rounded person.”
Each team members’ disparate interests and skills are, in Barkers view, what sets Tekkerz apart from other squads. “It makes me think a little bit of the Avengers or something like that, where everyone's got their own individual strengths and then we can kind of come together as this team,” she says.
Her new team, coupled with the relative freedom that training without upcoming races allowed “kind of allowed me to get back in touch with the reasons I started in the first place.”
Barker has yet to race for Tekkerz, but is already reaping the benefits of belonging to an unconventional team that represents a far cry from the rigid structures of British Cycling. “Just to know that I've got an existence in the cycling community outside of that squad, and that really high performance unit so that if — for whatever reason — I did need to step away from that, I'd have another community that I still belong to. I'd still have opportunities,” she says. “I think it's probably helped me to relax a little bit.”
Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
As for Tokyo – where she is set to compete in the team pursuit and madison – Barker is feeling pragmatic after last year’s postponement. “While I still absolutely really, really want to win gold and it's what I think about every single day, just going would be such a luxury now.”
Owing to uncertainty around the pandemic, as well as her own ambitions, Barker says she is “completely undecided" as to what her future will look like after Tokyo. She will race the track cycling world championships in October, but away from the velodrome, she says, “The only thing on my calendar for us to do as a team at the moment is the Tour Series.”
The Tour Series criteriums now come with the added incentive of the winners securing a spot at the USA Crits final in Winston Salem, North Carolina. This year the Tour Series is set to take place in August, just after the Tokyo Olympics, but Barker feels up to the task. “There's perhaps an overlap with the racing in the Olympics,” she says. “I think it would be a case of getting off the plane wherever the city of the first race is and getting on a bike and going. I think it'd be quite a quick turnaround.” As exhausting as that might sound, a race-deprived Barker is relishing the idea: “I would quite like to do that,” she says.
Her determination to start a road race — albeit a town centre criterium — reflects Barker’s desire to hone her skills away from the boards. “I'll be 27 this year, but I still see myself as a developing rider on the road,” she says. “Because I've spent so much time on the track that I haven't really developed those skills as much as I'd like to.”
Whether immediately after Tokyo or not, it seems Barker has her sights set on dedicating some of her career to the road. “I've kind of got unfinished business on the road,” she says. “I've never really had a full season, I've never had a winter of training for the road. It's always been that I've trained for a four minute event throughout the whole winter and that's what I've raced.”
Barker’s ‘unfinished business’ is a result of factors which prevented her from having a consistent season between 2018 and 2019. “The year I was with Wiggle there was the Commonwealth Games,” she says, “and European’s, for some reason, were in the summer. It's usually always in the winter. So that took up a huge chunk of time.”
Afterwards, it was health, rather than scheduling conflicts that left her sidelined: “I also had to have surgery so I had to have a month off. So in terms of racing exposure, I didn't really get as much as I really wanted to that year. The following year I was racing with Drops. And again, a huge chunk of the season was taken up on the track, and then I broke my collarbone, so I missed the last half of the season.”
Photo credit: Sophie Capewell
The operation Barker refers to was to treat the painful condition endometriosis (in which the lining of the womb grows on other internal organs causing excruciating pain) from which she has suffered for “at least three years, if not four or five. And if I really think about it, I was struggling with it as a teenager, really.”
Barker has spoken openly about suffering from endometriosis and how it has affected her training. “It took a month out of a season that was already really busy. So in that month, I probably could have doubled the amount of racing days that I had that year, because it was already so limited.” Her hope is that by highlighting the condition, others might be able to avoid going through the seven year average time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis.
Barker herself admits that she “just didn't even know that it was a thing.” And, like many women suffering from such conditions, “I got told by a number of people that actually it was all in my head, I don't have any problems and I need to stop worrying about it.”
Her eventual diagnosis and subsequent treatment came as a result of having access to British Cycling doctors she “could call now and they'll pick up within 10 minutes,” but she is aware that others are not so fortunate. “Actually I was incredibly lucky that it only took me three [years],” she says. “But if I was relying just on the NHS, and I didn't have the luxury of having private healthcare through British Cycling, it probably would have ended my career at some point.”
With surgery and other challenges behind her giving her the ability to focus on the road again (Coronavirus permitting), Barker has some catching up to do with her Tekkerz team.“I just wish that I had more experiences,” she says. “I wish I had more stories to tell.”
“I've only spent time with them, I think, on two or three occasions last year, and we haven't done any racing.”
Despite the relatively scant interaction with the team in real life, Barker is already sold on the team’s atmosphere: “I really, really appreciate what Alec is doing,” she says, “I think he's doing a fantastic job of being an ambassador for the sport in a different way to how we normally see our ambassadors.”
Currently, there is only one other female rider officially on the Tekkerz line-up alongside Barker. Will the team be adding more women to their roster? “Well, the Tour Series is something that I’d like to do this year,” hints Barker, “and you need four or five riders for that.”
But, there is the small matter of the Olympic Games to tackle before she can start tearing up town centres, “I just really want to go now,” she says. “Just going, I feel like it would be such a luxury now. It would be incredible.”