"It’s an insanely good feeling" – In the Winners’ Words, Dame Sarah Storey

In this extract from the Road Book 2021, Sarah Storey describes her journey to winning a Paralympic gold medal in the in the C4-5 road race

Dame Sarah Storey made history at the Tokyo Paralympic Games by winning a 17th Paralympic gold medal – more than any other athlete from Great Britain. Her debut at the Games dates back to 1992 when, aged 14, she picked up her first two gold medals as a swimmer. By 2008, she had switched to cycling and began to dominate across multiple disciplines. Her victory in the C4-5 road race in appalling weather conditions on Mount Fuji was one of her hardest fought. If she is still racing in Paris 2024, she will be 46 years old. 

It felt like I was going to do a job. There wasn’t an expectation of any razzmatazz. I knew that the Games were going to be held in a very challenging environment for the Japanese hosts, so I knew we were going to have to be resourceful. There wasn’t going to be any kind of party at the end. I went very prepared to be living in lockdown, which is what it was. I knew I was going to be travelling home by myself. It felt like I was going somewhere to do something and then come home: do your job; come home; control the controllable. For me it was very, very simple: just focus on what you do on two wheels.

There were so many things we had to do just in order to get on the plane. That was the first success. There was so much we had to do just to prove we should be there.

The hardest point of my preparation was not having any kind of data point that I knew I could rely on. The three-week training camp was the only thing that was at all similar to previous years. The longest race I’d done was only 70km. I’d had no proper road races for the two years or more since I’d come back to racing after having my second child. I’d had none of that sense of normality since the pandemic had struck so soon after he was born.Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

If it was all going to work, each of my races in Tokyo had to be treated with equal importance. They were such prolific performances. I was 4.3 seconds quicker than I’d ever been over the individual pursuit on the track. Then the time trial was the more controllable of the two on the road, and it was also the one that I had raced the most. And I had an absolute dream TT: the handling, the cornering, the speed. It was just the perfect time trial.

Related: Women's Tokyo 2021 Paralympics Debrief

Once I’d got through the first of the stepping stones successfully, I had a lot of confidence going into the road race. But I was aware of the possibility of a mishap, especially with the weather forecast. I had to make sure that I was paying attention to every detail that was necessary.

I’d prepared everything that I needed the night before. I’d taken my own little rice cooker with me and made my own porridge in my room. It was all part of staying isolated, staying the right side of the playbook and making sure that I wasn’t going to test positive for Covid.

Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

I ate my porridge and then left in the car. On the side of Mount Fuji where we were the weather actually wasn’t too bad. But we went through the tunnel and out the other side and it was like emerging into a different country! The rain lasted all through the day. The forecast was bad, but it got worse than that. It was a bit like approaching a race in the UK in the knowledge that we were definitely going to get very wet. There were suddenly no discussions about ice jackets for the heat any more. In fact, I could have done with a cup of tea! It was awful. I was so cold.

I was forced to go on the front and was the only person chasing the breakaway. It actually wasn’t a problem riding on the front because it was the only way I could stay warm. It was 17 degrees and I was prepared for 35. So that was the surreal part – adjusting back to a normal UK temperature, having been so prepared to manage the heat.

The group was already down to six riders after the first lap anyway, and Kerstin Brachtendorf just kept attacking. She’d got a silver medal at the World Championships and was very keen to see a similar style of race. She’s not as confident as me on the descents and corners, so she wanted to be up the road. It was always me who had to make sure she didn’t go too far, and the one time I thought that someone else should chase, she got away. So I realised, ‘Ah, OK. That didn’t work. I am literally on my own here. Nobody’s going to help close the gap to Kerstin.’

Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

I was aware that my legs weren’t feeling great because of the cold. I didn’t feel as zippy up the climb as I had expected, which is normally my strength. So I had to think hard about which part of the race to use to shut her down, and I chose the technical bit because I was aware that I was the more confident and had the better skills. There’s a picture of me with my eyes shut. I took a corner fast – at around 60kmph – but the rain was just coming straight into my face, so I thought, ‘OK, just shut your eyes!’

Nobody else wanted to go around that corner so quickly in the rain. I didn’t touch my brakes. I was rock solid, my weight distribution was just right. I didn’t have a single ‘sketchy’ moment, to the extent that I started to question whether I was actually going fast enough. I had so many endorphins from just zooming around the circuit. It was brilliant!

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Going into the bell lap, we were all together again. Then we got away – me and the other GB rider, Crystal Lane-Wright. She just wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t be caught again, so I was on the front on the climb, keeping the pace high enough to hold them off but not so high that she would get dropped. She was saying, ‘You’ve got to get me to that silver medal.’Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

None of it had gone according to how I had planned it. I had expected to attack on the climb and go solo. But that’s what you have to do: work out a way to win the race with what you’re given.

It was only with about 200 metres to go that I finally realised it was mine. Ever since I’ve been thinking about the number of different ways I have had to use to win a bike race. There’s never been two races that have been the same. All three of my Paralympic road titles have been very different strategies.

If I am absolutely honest, it’s still taking me time to work it all out. Normally when you finish a race you feel as if your legs have worked the way you wanted them to. I’d never been in a championship race before when my legs have not done what I asked them to do: a combination of the lack of road racing preparation and maybe the cold, too. So slowly it’s been sinking in that perhaps my brain was the winning factor. Though I was physically in great shape, I had to use my brain even more than normal. The tactics were not straightforward.

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I feel huge pride. To be the greatest Paralympian in the UK – and still to be competing – that brings a huge smile to my face. I think of all the people I’ve worked with, trained with and raced against. The win in Tokyo has given me the opportunity to celebrate that while still racing. It’s an insanely good feeling. I feel that as I’ve got older I’ve allowed myself to acknowledge and celebrate it more. Being a parent, and all the other things in my life, have given me a good balance and helped provide a clarity of thought, allowing me to make good decisions.

The future? Paris. I said even before Tokyo that, regardless of results, I couldn’t imagine stopping in an empty stadium and with no crowd. You need to be prepared to win in an empty room, but I didn’t anticipate that moment after the victory, which was empty as well. I hadn’t imagined what that would feel like.

The chapter couldn’t be closed – not on anything. There are so many reasons to keep going. And fewer reasons to stop.

This is an extract from the Road Book 2021, available to purchase here

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