From the outside, it can be easy to be tricked into thinking that full-time cyclists have a relatively easy life. While the rest of us are stuck in a 9 to 5, they simply have to ride their bikes in the sunshine, keeping their own hours with coffee stops and free new kit aplenty. As the weather turns grey in most of Europe, they shoot off to warmer climates, letting us all know about it from their colourful Instagram feeds. The cold truth, though, is that this image is far from the harsh reality for some riders, especially female athletes on teams that don’t form part of the WorldTour.
Imogen Cotter, the new Irish National Champion, who represents a Belgian regional team on the road, is one of those riders. “I'm still very self funded, I'm very broke,” explains Cotter. “There's so many female cyclists I know now and I know that nobody is doing it for money. At least with a male rider, they might be doing it because they have a chance to earn, perhaps just something like €600 a month, and you'd be thinking: I would kill to earn €600 a month to cycle.”
Cotter asserts that most of the women she races with are driven simply by a love of the sport. Such passion is essential, as there is no minimum salary for female athletes who aren’t part of the 9 Women’s WorldTour teams. A survey by The Cyclists' Alliance earlier this year showed that 34% of the women’s peloton earn no salary. Of those surveyed who are paid a salary, only 21% receive €30,000-€40,000 or more, of which only two are Continental riders, all other Continental riders who answered the survey earn no salary, or less than €19,999.
Image: David Fitzgerald/Getty Images
“There's nobody doing it because they're like: I'm going to get rich, or I'm going to be able to pay my bills. We're all in the same boat,” says Cotter. “Obviously, on the World Tour teams, you have people who are earning good money, but for people who are trying to make it, it’s very, very difficult.”
Such harsh working conditions mean that Cotter, like many female cyclists competing at a lower level, has had to embrace new and innovative ways of keeping herself afloat throughout the last few years she has been living in Belgium riding for an amateur team. One of those ways has been through Zwift and the ‘Zwift Academy’ initiative. Each year, the virtual training platform gives riders from all over the world a chance to compete for a place in a WorldTour women’s team via virtual racing, all from the comfort of their living rooms.
Cotter took this opportunity in 2019, after breaking her arm at the end of the road season. “I couldn't get outdoors and ride and I saw that Zwift Academy was taking place at the same time,” she explains. “I was actually still able to get onto the turbo. I had an ironing board above my handlebar so I could rest my arm on that instead of holding the bars. I just did Zwift Academy to keep me motivated while I was recovering and when my bone was healing.”
“I just got through to the next round, and then I got through to the semi finals, about which I was very happy, and it was very unexpected.”
Image: David Fitzgerald/Getty Images
Her superb showing in the Zwift Academy meant that Cotter became a well-established rider on the e-racing scene, and opted to try out for the Movistar e-team in 2020. After being successful in her pursuit, Cotter was signed up and has been representing Movistar on Zwift ever since, giving her a small taste of what it’s like to race at the highest level with the full support of a WorldTour outfit.
“We are basically members of the Movistar team, as in we have the kit and the bike but I also have my road team as well so I don't ride for Movistar outdoors,” she says. “We do the Zwift Premier League and it is really hard and really fun, because when you're suffering in the company of other people it makes it less painful I suppose.”
“It's amazing because Movistar have now set up the first ever World Tour eSports team so they're breaking ground in that way. It's amazing to actually know that you're in the same team as people who you've looked up to for years,” she says. You've got Valverde, Annemiek [van Vleuten], there's amazing riders riding for them.”
Cotter has even had the opportunity to debut her resplendent blue kit in an outdoors as she represented Movistar in a gravel race a few weeks ago. “That was a real pinch me moment. You're like: what? You're actually allowed to wear it and you've earned the right to wear it, it is like a crazy feeling and a lovely feeling too.”
Although her exploits on Zwift have caught the eye of many, Cotter has had some big success on the road this year, winning the Irish National Championships a few weeks ago, something she admits has always been a target of hers. “I didn't realise until I crossed the line and I had won how important it was for me to win and how awful it would have been if I hadn't won,” she says. “It was my last race [of the season], so now I have the opportunity to let it sink in. Usually I'll be like, okay, on to the next thing, but now I can enjoy it.”
Image: Matthew Lysaght
Cotter’s post-race interview was an emotional watch that made it blindingly clear how important the victory was to her, and how hard she had worked to get there. Having only started cycling properly in 2017, her rise to becoming National Champion was made even harder by her lack of experience in the peloton. While many of those she competes against have been cycling from a young age, Cotter’s background in running meant she had a lot to learn when she made the transition to cycling.
The 28-year-old struggled with injury throughout her running career so made the decision to try out for Cycling Ireland’s talent programme in 2017. Living in London at the time, Cotter admits she made the trip back to Ireland for the trials simply as an excuse to spend a weekend with her family. Through strong performances, she found herself making it to the end of the camp and securing a place on the national team. From then, she moved to Majorca to train full time with the Irish track squad.
"Track is so different to the road,” she says. “The feeling for me on track was that it was just a lot of pressure all the time. It was just constantly like looking at milliseconds, a millisecond can ruin your day. I ended up leaving the track program and it was in 2019 that I moved to Belgium.”
“When I went to Belgium for road racing, I realised people normally do it the other way around where they come into the sport and they kind of ease themselves in with a local race. I was just right in there with the pros. It was just sink or swim.”Image: David Fitzgerald/Getty Images
Despite what she admits was a baptism of fire, Cotter has achieved a phenomenal amount in the 4 years she has been racing competitively, with the Irish Championship win being the icing on the cake.
“When I did running and I did triathlons, I always wanted to represent Ireland. On both occasions in both of those sports, I had come really close, and I had always kind of been snatched away through injury at the last minute, or something that just happened that meant I wouldn't get to do it. I dealt with that disappointment so much,” she says. “When I started cycling I had just dogged determination to wear the national jersey. So becoming the national champion is kind of like another level of honour. I get to represent Ireland basically all the time now because I will have my national colours on, it's just such a lovely feeling.”
So what’s next for Cotter and where will she take her fresh Irish champs jersey? Things are still up in the air with regards to a team for 2022, but she explains she’s had some interest following her results this season. One thing’s for sure, though, she’ll be attending Rouleur Live in November to talk about her unique journey in the sport so far.
“I'm coming at it from a different angle, because I've come into it a very different way to a lot of riders and also I've got the e-racing, which is a unique thing,” she explains.
“I would like to share my experience with cycling. I think I looked at the list of guests attending and I felt a bit of imposter syndrome because there's amazing professional and ex-professional riders. But I would like to just give a bit of an insight from my level.”
Imogen Cotter will be speaking at Rouleur Live 2021. Tickets are available here