In 2016, Shannon McCurley became the first Irish woman to qualify for an Olympic track cycling event. This time around, she will be joined by her Madison teammate, Emily Kay.
The dynamic duo somewhat fell into cycling by accident and things haven’t gone too badly since. Most recently, Shannon McCurley claimed silver at the 2019 European Championships in the Scratch race while Emily Kay won bronze at the at the Track Cycling World Cup last year.
This is the first time that Cycling Ireland has qualified such as a large team for the Olympic Games and the first time Ireland will be represented in a team event in track cycling, with the Madison being an event comprised of two riders. McCurley and Kay will compete in the Madison which is a team endurance relay over a 30KM distance. Kay will also compete individually in the Omnium.
Speaking prior to leaving for Tokyo, McCurley who recently claimed two national medals at the Australian National Championships, explained how she started cycling was initially to recover from running injuries. ” Running long distance took its toll on my body and I was wearing out. I was told to get on a bike to recover and realised I was handy on a bike. I did a few triathlons but I’m not a good swimmer, but I continued running and switched to cycling at 13.”
For Kay, her path into the sport is more obscure. The 2018 Commonwealth Bronze medallist saw a mountain biking legend wearing her favourite colour, which inspired her to get started.
”My dad used to have a mountain biking magazine, and one time Paola Pezzo was on the cover wearing a pink and purple leotard. That was my favourite colour, so I told my dad I wanted to be like her. I joined my local club at aged 5 and haven’t looked back. I’ve not wore pink for a few years but I’m happier to wear green now!”
The Madison is an exhilarating endurance track event raced by teams of two cyclists. The two riders compete alternatively with only one rider ‘active’ at a time. To switch who is active, they must tag each other on the track. They can do this as many times as they want. The race consists of 120 laps of the track with a sprint contested every tenth lap. Read more about the Madison here.
The nature of the Madison means it’s integral to have a deep, symbiotic understanding of your teammate’s body language, and immense mutual trust.
McCurley explains, ”We have trained together in the gym, track, road etc so you must be confident in your partner. We know we can trust each other out there and have each other’s backs.”
Kay considers sprints races to be a bigger motivator, as you’re not just relying on yourself anymore.
”When we’re doing training, we push each other to be better because in a race we need that strength. It pushes you to be better, probably more so than competing alone.”
Body images is dominant in all sports and cycling is no different. In road racing, the aim is to be light and skinny to get over those mountains. Kay explains that it can be pretty tough to deal with sometimes, and it can bother you over time.
”Growing up as an athlete and seeing my body change, and going through as puberty was hard. Over time, I’ve realised my body is my strength, it’s what makes me good at cycling and gets me through races. It’s a difficult area and hard for people to understand from the outside. There are more people talking about it and spreading awareness and for young girls can look up to.
Luckily, the pair have a supportive community around them. There’s lots of other female teammates, coaches, support staff that are always happy to help with these issues. McCurley explains that as it’s a male-heavy sport, girls shouldn’t be out off by it.
The hard part is isn’t getting girls in, it’s getting them to stay. The more opportunities and developments are amazing. Our team are majority of females. They can see a clear pathway so that’s important to stick at it.
Kay seconds that, saying that it’s so important to have others to talk to about taboo issues like period.
”A huge part of what kept me going is finding other females and cyclists who understand things. You can go to them about questions that men won’t understand. Finding a supportive and inspiring community is so important.