'The main person I’ve got to overcome is myself': Emma Pooley on finding freedom off-road
The former World and Olympic champion talks to Rouleur about finding new challenges on new terrains, embracing a deeper meaning of competitiveness, and the liberating act of rejecting road cycling’s rigid rules.
As a road racer, Emma Pooley achieved almost everything there was to achieve. From titles at Olympic, World and Commonwealth level, to wins in some of the biggest races on the calendar, Pooley is one of the most successful cyclists in history. When she retired in 2017, though, rather than shutting the door on sport and physical challenges, she opened the door on a whole host of new ones.
Since retiring, Pooley has taken on everything from Ironman triathlons and duathlons to Everesting attempts and ultra off-road challenges. Now spending much of her time running up mountains or wild cycling on an off-road bike laden with luggage and supplies, Pooley’s sporting life in 2022 is a far cry from the world of professional road racing, but the desire for new challenges and new achievements remains the same.
She’s no longer a professional or full time athlete - currently, she’s fitting running and riding in between studying and exams - but Pooley never felt like her retirement should mean an end to riding, racing or challenging herself.
“I really don't race that much anymore, but I really object to being put in a pigeonhole of like ‘oh, you were once pro, so now you’ve stopped being pro you should sit around and let other people race’,” Pooley says. “Because it’s not like there’s limited chances. I think it’s really cool when you see 70, 80 year olds at the start line of races. There’s literally no age limit, and I’m also not quite that old yet, and I’m still competitive.”Image: Philipp Preiter
“I think in some sports, people don’t want to do it anymore,” Pooley says of retirement. “But I love running and I love cycling. I’m certainly not going to go and do a road race, because I have to say I found them very stressful and I don’t want to do another one, I wasn’t very good at dealing with the peloton and stuff. But there are other events that are really fun. And racing covers a broad spectrum - there’s being competitive at National Championships and things like that - but then there are the kinds of races that I mostly do for the experience. I don’t really care who’s ahead of me, if anyone’s ahead of me, if no one’s ahead of me, if I’m at the back. I do it to challenge myself. I really think that’s a good way to go about racing in general.”
Pooley’s chosen sports - off-road running and cycling, often over ultra distances or up huge mountains - are some of the most physically demanding activities in the world, and require a high level of fitness to participate at all, let alone be competitive. But despite the physical toll of sports like these, it’s the mental side that keeps Pooley coming back.
“I didn’t realise I needed it until I looked back and some of the times when I hadn’t enjoyed a run or a race or even a whole block of training, and then compared it to the times when I really did,” she explains. “I realised that the difference was the headspace and the mindset and being mindful about it. And being mindful really means not being too much in your own mind.”
“For me, a good way to relax my mind is by going running and cycling in the great outdoors, not always in races. It sounds weird, but sometimes it really helps to get hungry and tired, so you stop worrying about the pointless things and you have to be really efficient with your mental energy, you just think ‘okay, it’s only 7km to go to the feed station and I can get water’.”
Image: Augustus Farmer
Pooley often describes sport as being meditative, and whilst she recently had it pointed out to her that actually learning to meditate is also an option, training one’s mind is such a challenge that sometimes, heading out on a 100km is indeed the easier path.
“It would be way more time efficient [to meditate], because these ultra runs take an awful lot of time, and it would be good if you could do that in half an hour every morning. But that's a skill that I find harder than running, and I do think it's possible to do moving meditation. I don't want to sound like some kind of preachy hippie, but I just know that when it works, it feels really good.”
The freedom of letting go of numbers
Despite being a world champion time trialist - now one of the most data-driven disciplines in the sport - Pooley was never a slave to the numbers as a road racer, admitting she used to hate having to give power data to her coaches or being asked about why she stopped for coffee in the middle of a ride. In her post-professional career, it seems to be the events that stray farthest from the ever-more performance and numbers-driven world of road cycling that attract Pooley the most. One of her latest ventures is wild cycling, the idea of just setting off into nature with few goals apart from to adventure and explore.
“It’s certainly not about performance or riding fast up a hill or getting a little crown on some social media platform, because you have a load of luggage, or you might be hungry, or you might be carrying tonight’s dinner,” she says. “It is physically exhausting, it’s great training if you want it to be, but there is no expectation of having to perform to meet a metric which I find very liberating. It’s also just fun, going places and exploring. It’s not really about training, it’s just about the experience.”
The most extreme wild cycling challenge Pooley has taken on was the Further Pyrénées, a highly attritional and mountainous loop at the border of France and Spain.Image: Global View Photography
“It was this epic adventure where 32 of us started and eight of us finished,” she explains. “We hiked over the border to Andorra and then hiked back via Spain. A lot of it was carrying, it was way too steep to ride, and it was so much fun. It wasn’t a race, it was just like ‘am I going to make it? I’m so hungry, where’s the next bakery?’. It was quite an extreme event, but one that I really enjoyed.”
As well as the chance to take on challenges that are about more than numbers and power, more than winning and losing, the inclusive and open-to-all world of off-road, long-distance cycling and running has been a big attraction for Pooley.
“I loved how welcoming it was,” Pooley says of her venture into the world of alternative racing. “At the start [of Further Pyrénées] there were people in everything from full on serious lycra to baggy t-shirt and baggy shorts, and people were setting off with a loaf of bread and a lump of cheese, other people stopped for pizza. I’m used to the road cycling world, which to me felt very much like you had to fit in, all these stupid rules like you have to wear your sunglasses a certain way and your socks a certain height, but it really doesn’t matter. What are people trying to prove? It’s very much a belonging thing. And I think it’s sad because it excludes people who are new, and I don’t like that, I think it should be more welcoming. So I like that about the off-road scene.”
At times, the off-road scene Pooley describes seems one where competition is hardly even a consideration: participants ride or run with each other more than against each other, they share tips about what socks to wear or what route to take, they support each other when they need it and often seeing finishing as a more important goal than winning. But, Pooley is keen to point out, it’s not about rejecting competitiveness, but rather redefining and re-evaluating what we mean when we talk about competition.
“It depends how you define competitive,” Pooley contemplates. “I am competitive, I like to push myself to do better, and if I’m racing I like winning. But I think that competitiveness is often seen as a bad thing, especially in women, and that’s outrageously unfair. I’m not ashamed to be competitive because I don’t think it’s an unfeminine trait. What I think is very unpleasant in men and women is to be competitive at the wrong time and wanting to kick others down.”
Image: Global View Photography
“If I'm in an ultra run, or an ultra cycling event, basically the main person I've got to overcome is me,” she says. “It's not about beating other people, it's about doing the very best you can. It's very different to road racing which really is quite tactical, you win by beating other people. But I think in ultra sports, whether it's cycling or running, you win by just doing your absolute best and not letting yourself down. So it's a bit of a mindset to go to the start line of any race thinking ‘well, I wish the others the very best, and I'm going to try my very best as well’. And if it goes well, in terms of results, that's great, and I still think it's competitive. It's just trying to do it in a non-negative way.”
Adventure with preparation
While off-roading can be one of the most accessible and open disciplines in cycling and running, it can also be hard to know where to start, with local knowledge of trails and routes needed to plan a successful ride. It’s a difficult balance to strike - Pooley likes to stay off of her phone as much as possible when riding or running, but having a plan is key for safety and enjoyment - and so mapping apps like Komoot, for whom Pooley is an ambassador, help to bridge that gap between exploration and preparation.
“As soon as I start looking at my phone, it ruins it, and if you get lost or you need to get somewhere by a specific time, that can be massively frustrating,'' Pooley says. “So route planning, and having the route already on your watch on your bike computer, saves a lot of annoyance on the trail which can really ruin the experience - as well as making you late for dinner, which is terrible.
“The preparation for an adventure is a really important part of it,” Pooley explains. “For races and things the route is given to you, for preparing for adventures, Komoot is totally invaluable, and I really like that it has this nice interactiveness and you can see where other people have been. It’s a really nice community.”
If the sense of community, welcoming and sharing of expertise is an attraction to off-roading for Pooley, Komoot is a way to bring that to the virtual world, too.
As well as planning her own rides, Pooley says Komoot has helped put her friends' minds at ease, who can now see the routes she’s planned for them after she earned herself a reputation of making people hike up mountains with their bikes.
“But you get somewhere really cool at the end!” she laughs in defence of the infamous mountain hikes.
Next up: more challenges
In her road career, Emma Pooley ticked off practically every accomplishment there was to tick off, but in the always-growing world of endurance sport and off-road challenges, she is only just scratching the surface of what she hopes to do. The first challenge is her summer exams, but Pooley’s list of goals to achieve, events to race in and countries to explore is always being added to. She is planning a trip to Georgia, travelling there by train, returning home by bike, and has an eye on exploring more of Eastern Europe in the Trans Balkan Race, whose 2021 event just finished. In October, she has a start in the Atlas Mountain Race, a 1200km race across the rugged hills of Morocco.
Image: Augustus Farmer
The one thing you won’t see Pooley taking on, though, is the ever-growing and ever-professionalised world of gravel cycling. As well as her environmental effort to avoid flying where possible - most elite gravel racing is still held in America, a big drawback for Pooley - it’s also down to the fact that race series like the Life Time Grand Prix are no match for Pooley’s wild, mountain-filled off-road adventures. “I’m never going to do a race like Unbound, it looks so boring,” she smiles, concisely summing up where she stands on the matter.
When not on her bike, Pooley will be running, with the 101km Eiger Ultra trail race high on her agenda, as well as the Golden Trail Series. These are all races Pooley could win, and she’ll no doubt want to be competitive, but her ethos remains clear: she wants to push herself, finish the race, and enjoy the day.
After a staggeringly successful career on the road - one that wasn’t without its challenges, but Pooley is grateful and proud of - Emma Pooley seems to have found a new and fulfilling calling in off-road adventures, one that keeps her mind and body focused and pushes back against the increasingly rigid world of professional road cycling. The one thing she might change about her career? “I wish I’d got into off-roading sooner.”