Emma Lewis is a British domestic rider who came into racing a bit later than usual. Her enthusiasm for the sport in all its facets is infectious. Always positive and full of grit, Emma has achieved great results, finishing 4th and 5th at the National Time Trials, a top ten finish at the dreaded Lincoln GP and many successes and records in the Time Trial scene. Emma would be more annoyed by what she couldn't achieve than pleased for what she has achieved, always striving for improvement. She has found support in friends and family but also in her current sponsor, The Independent Pedaler. I began by asking her what made her choose cycling in the first place.
What made you choose cycling?
As a teenager, I was overweight and inactive; I had lost almost 4 stones at Weight Watchers and by taking up jogging to help keep the weight off. It was my partner Craig who introduced me to cycling. He was super enthusiastic and when we first met he would be out every weekend on his bike and racing around the county. I would go to races with him and hand out bottles. I was still just jogging the odd 5 km during the week when Craig suggested I try a duathlon at the local race circuit, which is now best known as Betteshanger Country Park. Craig’s little sister Sophia lent me one of her bikes and a pair of shoes and that was the beginning.
When did you realise you wanted to race?
I would say it was when I started time trialling. I really enjoyed the racing and the ‘nerdiness’ of it all and the fact that it was a race of truth. It wasn’t about who was tactically clever enough to win but about the person who was the strongest, who rode their best ride and smashed it.
Who are your inspirations?
Craig first and foremost. His attitude, enthusiasm and selflessness inspires me every day. Then Christopher Fennell, the local time trial king. His advice and guidance has always helped me through some real highs and lows of the sport. Claire Steeles, an amazing friend who I met in 2018 at the Brother Fusion RT training camp and we gelled straight away. She takes cycling on as a profession but always ensures she enjoys herself and encourages others to laugh. If you don’t enjoy this sport what are you doing it for?
How do you juggle the training, the racing and working as an office manager for Kent Police?
With difficulty! It’s a very challenging and time-demanding role. If I need to train, I have to fit it into my working day, by either getting up for a 7 am turbo session or getting the kit together to commute home which is a 30-mile journey. But I love the challenge, I will squeeze a gym session into my lunch break or take an annual leave day to get a mid-week ride in.
Has cycling changed the way you eat?
Do you have a particular way you recover after training or racing?
Not really, I’m pretty bad at knowing when to stop and rest, I am lucky that my partner will identify tell-tale signs of me being tired and remind me to speak honestly with my coach to ensure I am given time off to recover. I try to get some protein in me as soon as I finish a ride, whether that be a tin of tuna or a protein shake with soy milk. I try to stretch when I’m in the shower or as soon as I get off the turbo. It’s easier said than done but is a habit every rider should get into immediately as the benefits of stretching are paramount.
Do you take periods of the year off from riding?
Yes, I take mid and end of season breaks. Mid-season will normally be after the British Cycling Nationals, while at the end of the season I would take a week completely off the bike after my final race of the year to allow a mental break more than anything. I then enjoy a bit of cross-training in the form of running, going to the gym and doing exercise off the bike, eating a bit of cake if I want to and having fun social rides with my local cycling buddies. We often take a trip to Spain to kick-start that training again and build a base ready for the new year turbo time.
Your partnership with "The Independent Pedaler", a cycling café on the outskirts of Canterbury in Kent, for whom you race in time trials, has brought you lots of success. How did it all come about?
It was at the end of 2018. I had won my 2nd consecutive national CTT (Cycling Time Trials) title as Closed Circuit champion and had got the exact same time as my co-winner. Aaron Hudson-Tyreman, the owner of the café The Independent Pedaler, asked me what I could have done to have been the out and out winner. I told him I was on a borrowed bike and wheels, with a standard skinsuit and helmet I wasn’t sure fitted all that well. From that point on, Aaron made the decision to invest in me and Chris Fennell for the next season. He continues to support us to this day, beyond expectations and giving us more support arguably than a professional athlete gets.
Tell me about your time trial bike. For instance what wheels do you have, frame and most importantly for the geeks like me, what chainrings/cassette do you normally use?
It’s a beautiful bike! Giant Trinity TT frame, custom painted with The Independent Pedaler graphics; HED Jet Black deep-section wheels and disc wheel; 62 tooth Pyramid chainring; CeramicSpeed jockey wheels; SRAM etap RED electronic gears; Speedplay pedals; Giro lace-up shoes (so much more aero than any other shoe type); NoPinz skinsuits (Chris has a time warp one which becomes most effective over 30mph); Giro helmet; AeroCoach bar extensions and armrests.
I could talk about this all day.
If you had to choose one item from your bike or kit that you wouldn't change, what would it be?
It would be my saddle. It took me years to find one that did not cause me horrendous pain and sores, so if I happen to ride on a different setup at least my tooshie would be looked after.
This past season has been full of great performances for you. Are you pleased with your results and what are your goals for 2020?
I am really pleased, to be completely honest even though I was disappointed towards the end of the year with my result in the National 10 and 25. I do not and will not make excuses. I know I could have done better and I didn’t, but this does not detract from the amazing performances of the ladies who came in front of me.
There seems to be some genuine fun and camaraderie in your team. Do you get to train together often, or do you tend to train alone?
Chris and I train together a lot. He’s a great (albeit sadistically painful) wheel to sit on. We also hit the gym together and meet for lunch often at the café. It produces a great team-like environment and at races, we will always be on hand to help each other out and cheer each other on.
Time trials are your passion and you have come so close to the podium at the national race. Are you aiming to go a step higher or possibly winning the title one day?
I would love to take the title or stand on the podium for sure, but I am not naïve to the fact that I am one of the few riders in the top 10 of the rankings who has a full-time job and does not dedicate her life to being a full-time athlete. With this in mind, I know sometimes they will have the edge over me. Although I believe I have the ability, at this current moment in my life, I am really happy with my career, home life and athletic life. I enjoy the balance and often enjoy the break from the cycling world if I want it.
You have a lot of support from friends, family and your partner. Have they been crucial in your development as a rider?
I am very lucky to have friends and family that I do, they are really understanding of the time-consuming effort I put into cycling and are excited for me when that work pays off. My parents have driven me around to many races but Craig is most definitely the person who has sacrificed the most (including some of his pay packets!). Craig gives fantastic advice on and off the bike; my handling skills, race tactics, pre and post-race rituals, all come from his initial guidance. I would often sit with him watching the Tour De France when we first started our relationship and get him to explain in detail what the riders were doing, why teams did and didn’t do something and what it meant overall. He has taught me a lot.
Time trialling requires concentration and sustained effort, what do you do to motivate yourself on the bike on a tough day or a time trial?
"Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever"… Craig would often quote this to me.
This will not kill you, you are not going to die from this effort, it will be over...
... this is something Aaron says to me. His history in the Special Military Services always reminds me that this is simply a bike race, I am not under gunfire and I will survive. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it! Aaron will always send me a motivational message before a big race, he knows my brain is more emotive and I thrive off supportive and philosophical words. He knows how hard I work and knows I deserve it (often more than I believe) so the help and support of those around me is a big motivator.
Who is your favourite elite rider and who do you think is the one to watch out for in 2020?
Without a doubt, the most legendary rider in the current climate is Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix). He is predominantly a cyclo-cross rider (multiple world champion) but one who in 2019 won some Classic road races like Amstel Gold and was the overall winner of the Tour of Britain, always with exhilarating race finishes! He is an absolute legend and he’s only getting started, I feel. Tom Pidcock (Trinity Racing) is a UK rider who I believe is another Van der Poel in the making… watch this space.
On the women's front, they are all pretty awesome but I would say Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo). Her ride in the UCI World's mixed relay Team Time Trial was amazing. Also the Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten for her amazing solo win at this year's World Championships! It’ll be exciting to watch her race with the rainbow stripes.
Women's cycling has increased its exposure and global reach in the last few years, but it's still nowhere near the level of exposure and rewards the men get. What would you like to see changed in the next few years?
There's a lack of races being put on, lack of teams with the funding to support women’s team for more than a year at a time, teams will come and go, so every year there is movement with racers and ladies will still be racing in August but trying to find a new team come October.
But when you watch a women’s race you can compare it to the men's and I personally believe their races to be far more exciting and enthralling, I mean they do race… there are of course tactics but it’s not one specific team or rider who dominates throughout the year. You watch a race not knowing who might win and that makes it just great.
I believe the pay scales should be equal no matter your gender. That being said, there isn’t much money in the world of cycling… the women’s teams in the UK this year (men included in fact) have seen a dramatic change and loss in willing sponsors. Bike racing is a sport you can plough money into but gets little financial gain in return, you have to have sponsors who do it for the love of the sport, not for gain. This is where The Independent Pedaler's owner Aaron is someone who inspires me, the cycling team does not sell him more coffee or cake. Even if it did I don’t think we’d be able to equal the amount of support both physical and spiritual that we get from him.
In the coming years, I would like to at least see races being televised equally, give the women the exposure they deserve as believe you me, they put the exact same amount of hours and effort into winning bike races that men do, they also do it on a much smaller budget.
Give women the opportunity to blossom and the cycling world could change dramatically.
What would be your advice for a young woman interested in cycling?
For those ladies who can ride a bike but want to take it more seriously, my first suggestion would be to join a local club who have regular rides or events where you can get to know local like-minded people willing to pass on any advice and information they have. You will be surprised at the wealth of knowledge within local clubs but also the selflessness of those members who would happily go out of their way to bestow their help upon you.
Equipment-wise, go to your local bike shop and tell them what you’re after. Or even consider a ride to work scheme to help you get a nicer bike with more of a discount. Get yourself a good quality and well-fitted bike, it will make you want to get on the bike more often and for longer if its fun to ride and makes you feel fast.
Clothing: get good quality bib shorts, and I cannot emphasise this enough. I like NoPinz, DHB and Sportful for a mid-range price tag. They do funky colours, nice fit and all-weather kit.
Has cycling helped your physical and mental health?
Hugely, if ever I am in a grump, my partner will suggest I go for an hour's ride. If I’ve had a long day at work or have a busy day planned, the bike is a great outlet to forget about the day and just focus on the pedals and scenery. I incorporate weight/ strength training into my programme and it is one of the best things I have done. I really enjoy it, DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) included! The more I lift (frequency not weight!) the better I feel, the leaner I get and the more calories I burn at rest! It’s amazing how exercise can make you feel confident, I often walk with a hop skip and a jump. I make better decisions about the food I eat throughout the day and feel motivated to say "thanks but no thanks" to the multiple offers of cake and biscuits during my office working hours!
And finally, you have a nickname: The Tank, tell us how it came about
Oh god, I was hoping this wouldn’t come up!! OK, where to start... Craig works for a demolition company as a site manager. In my first year on a national women’s team (Aprire HSS Hire) we were asked to devise a nickname. For instance, Eddy Merckx was The Cannibal and Mark Cavendish The Manx Missile. We needed something that represented our style as a rider so I called Craig with this question whilst he was working away at a Ministry of Defence site. He was on his lunch break and we were thinking of things like Emma ‘on the rivet’ Lewis but we were struggling. Then he said, “what about The Tank…" I said, “did you just look at a TANK and think of me?!” No getting out of this one... he squirmed his way through by saying I was strong and unstoppable, I wasn’t won over at this point. So he told the funny story to our cycling buddies Matty and Robbo (nicknames ‘Bearded Matt’ and ‘Breadstick legs’ or ‘Silverback; Craig's is ‘The Honeybadger’ by the way!) and well, the boys found it hilarious and decided whether I liked it or not, this was now my name. no ‘Emma’ when I was riding with them, just 'Tank'! So there it is, not that much of a good story, my boyfriend saw a Tank and thought of me!