Bridie O’Donnell’s post-Hour interview – in writing!
Last week, Bridie O’Donnell became the first rider in 2016 to break the UCI’s Hour Record, and the first woman to break the record at sea-level since the rules changed. I talked to her about it on the Monday, just before she headed back to work, and you can listen to that here – but because I know not all of you listen to podcasts, I’ve also written part of it up. We talked for over an hour, so this is NOT a word-for-word transcript, and misses out a lot of really interesting things Bridie talked about, including her sauna protocol and a lot more – but if you want that, it’s all in the podcast!
ProWomensCycling: Congratulations! Has it sunk in yet?
Bridie O’Donnell: Yeah, for sure. I think being on the back page of L’Equipe as the image de jour on Saturday, that was a highlight, and that probably helped make it sink in, that was incredible.
PWC: When I spoke to you about the Hour, when you announced it in November, I was very anti-Hour, but you converted me. I was super-impressed with the way they showed it – especially how they balanced it, and not trying to keep the crowd up for the whole time – did you plan that?
BO’D: No, I think that was a combination of good commentary by Rick Fulcher, who’s very experienced, and obviously Anna Meares, who knows how to get a crowd involved. It started a bit low key for me, when I got to the track, the sprinters were just about to start. By the time we started, the crowd was excited, but there was a bit of a history of the last time this happened in Australia it was a trainwreck, and even the organisers kept reminding me of that: “Don’t do what Bobridge did”, no disrespect to him as an athlete, but that didn’t work from their perspective!
But I was feeling so relaxed, I made a joke in the startgate to the crowd “Please don’t judge me on my really bad start, I am not a track cyclist!” and they all laughed, and probably thought “This is alright, she seems quite relaxed, let’s just see what happens.”
I could hear the commentary the whole time – I thought I’d be be in some sort of pain-cloud, and wouldn’t be able to hear anything, but actually found myself annoyed at times, hearing Rick say “She’s going to be feeling really bad”, and I thought “actually Rick, I feel alright!”
But aside from getting my lap splits every lap, I was hearing every ten minutes the target was 31 laps, and she’s done 31 laps, and they kept using a lot of words about being consistent, and being above pace and everything, and that does wonders for your confidence, so the commentary was great.
PWC: Polderspeed asks about your playlist – that was your music playing in the velodrome?
B’OD: I needed some upbeat dance music, like the kids are listening to! A lot of that stuff I listen to when I’m training, and those songs would pop up – like Sia’s Titanium, makes me think of when I was racing in the US with Vanderkittten, and we’d listen to that in this big truck we’d drive around in. A lot of that David Guetta album, I used to listen to them motor-pacing in Palo Alto, behind Yukie, the most fantastic motor-pacer of all time, and I’d listen to dance tracks for hours on end, so that stuff was really cool for me.
PWC: You’d been planning this for ages, and I said back in November to you that I didn’t think you’d have come public and said you were attempting it if you didn’t know that you could do it. But when did you know you were going to make it?
BO’D: On Friday morning. And I say that because I probably had the worst day of my life, mentally, on Thursday, so the contrast, probably, was so great that I felt “this is going to happen, I’ll be able to do it now”.
It was a very good and hard lesson. I totally suffered from Impostor Syndrome on Thursday, which was something that culminated from the normal challenges and logistics that happen. We flew into Adelaide, it was hot as Hades, we went straight to the track to do a session at race time, around 8pm, and the organiser had this big meeting, and we had lots of logistics, and he said “Everyone keeps asking me are you going to break it? and I said don’t worry, she will. No pressure, but you know that Brian Cookson’s coming out”. There was all this sort of “No pressure, but you’d better do this”.
And then I did this training session, and I didn’t feel that great, and I rode some 10 minute efforts, and it was a bit of an effort to hold a 19.1 schedule, and I thought “that’s not great”. Then we went back to our accommodation, the air conditioning wasn’t working, I just lay there in this hot room, feeling tired, and I thought “this is all going to be a disaster”.
I didn’t feel super-anxious, but I couldn’t sleep, and I lay awake for four or five hours, and as any athlete knows, sleep is so paramount to your feelings of well-being, and your ability to recover. None of us slept well, and we all woke up grumpy, I spilled coffee all over the floor, I went for a ride, and I just thought “What was I thinking? What was I thinking?”
It was really powerful, how bad I felt. And I spoke to some wonderful people, who gave me some great advice about that idea of mindfulness. Particularly around that idea of: that’s just your fearful self, your childlike self, the part of you that doesn’t want to be humiliated, so you should quit now before it all goes bad. I was basically thinking “the reason I’ve never done this, or been a World Champion, is because I’m not good enough. And what was I thinking, to even try it”. They were all the thoughts in my head, it was terrible.
But the day unfolded, I talked to great people, and tried to relax. I watched some great mindless movies, and I’ve been reading this great book, “Iron War”, a great book about endurance suffering, and I just thought “I still do have another 24 hours, I can’t feel worse than this”. I slept ten hours, woke up on Friday, and I thought, the world didn’t end, we’ve still got 12 more hours. My coach slept better, and we all met in the kitchen, and everyone said “It’s going to happen” we’ll be alright”.
Then I had a very funny meeting with Steve, my coach, where he sat me down, looked at all of the data, all of the lap splits we’d done in every single training session, what my watts were, what the temperature was, what the pressure was in the velodrome in every single training session, so he could basically say, “Based on the conditions tonight, this is the schedule you should ride”. And because he knows me, he said “What do you think you should aim for?” And I said “I feel like I’m going to hold 19.1s” and he smiled and said “I think you should go for 19.25, and here’s why”. And he gave me all of his supporting evidence, and I said “OK, I believe you”.
Because he knows me, I think he’d realised how fearful I was the day before, and he said “If you promise me you’re going to ride the first 30 minutes at the 19.25 schedule, basically nothing can go wrong, you can’t blow up. The data, the heart-rate, the power says you can hold that all-day long, until you run out of water, and nutrition, and everybody goes home and cries because they’re bored.”
I think it’s very easy to think Olympians and World Champions have somehow had an easier run than you. That’s a common misconception. I even found myself thinking “I bet Wiggo didn’t get nervous, I bet Wiggo doesn’t feel anxious”, I really did feel that. “I bet Lizzie Armitstead wasn’t nervous, the entire Road Race at Richmond, because she looked so calm, and then she won, so therefore she’s better than me”.
So Steve was basically saying “I know you haven’t ridden an Hour World Record before and broken the record, but I’m telling you, if you do it this way, you won’t combust”. So I said ok, and I swore on my pinky finger that I would do it that way.
That being said, the poor guy, I nearly gave him a heart attack, because I rode the first lap in 26 seconds, and then the next three laps were all like 18.5 seconds, and he did exactly what he said he was going to do, which was just stay like a robot and hold the lapboard for me, but he looked at me like “Are you serious? What are you doing?”. And just like Wiggo said after his Hour, it’s so true, I actively had to almost think “Backpedal! Backpedal! Put pressure on the pedals! I feel amazing, this is way too easy, and I’m riding .8 of a second faster every lap than I’m supposed to be”, and I just had to back off a bit to actively not go too hard, and that was in my mind the whole time.
PWC: Do you think one of the reasons you were going faster was because you were there with crowds? Because it must have been strange, having trained and trained, and to suddenly be there with people cheering for you.
BO’D: That’s never happened to me before, I felt like I must know what male pro cyclists must feel like all the time, it’s pretty wonderful. But that being said, everything else we structured the same way, it was like I’d done it 32 times before. I was there on the wind trainer, and I was so calm that I saw that there were all those people there, but I didn’t feel like “I must do well” or “This is so stressful”.
This also comes from being a time triallist, you always have to work backwards from your start time, to know when you have to do things at what time. So I wasn’t nervous at all, I wasn’t even agitated. There were a lot of little things that were happening, where I thought “Isn’t that interesting?” but I didn’t let it bother me. So I got off my ergo much quicker than I’d planned, I don’t know why, and went to sit down, and I heard the commentator say “It’s still 12 minutes to go, Bridie’s ready, she’s sitting in her chair”, and I thought “Ah, that’s a bit sooner than I thought”. But I didn’t think “That’s bad, I fucked up”, I just thought “Oh well, here I am, I’m ready, I’ll just sit here and they’ll put the bike in, and I’m going to watch, and listen to music”, and I was feeling pretty relaxed. So that mental arousal level, being in the right place, that was everything for me. I think that was part of the reason I think I went faster, because I was relaxed.
I also went faster because I had that amazing chain that Muc-Off had prepared, the same kind of chain as Wiggo had, crazy, amazing fast chain, I don’t know what they do, they send it to Mars. I had new ceramic bearings in from C-Bear, and absolutely this is a plug for those people, because they weren’t actually on my bike until that session. So there were things that were different, for sure, that were faster, and definitely some technical thing that made me go faster.
We were fortunate with the barometric pressure – wasn’t the lowest it had ever been, but it was pretty damn low, and that’s a big part of it, when the temperature wasn’t really hot. I was fortunate that it was warm enough so I would go fast, but not so hot that I would begin to fatigue, and get heat-stress 40 minutes in, like I had a few weeks earlier, when I went and did the test run over there.
PWC: Andy Roo asks what was going through your mind at different parts of your ride? Or was anything, or were you just there?
BO’D: Initially I’d started, and all I wanted to focus on was coming round the bend and seeing the times I was supposed to see, and I feel like I was doing quite a good job early on of just responding to that information. So I’d see that I’d done a bit of a fast lap, a lap that was under-schedule, and I would just slightly try to back off. So a lot of it was technical, me giving myself some technical feedback to go “OK, that was a good one, do that again”.
Despite my appalling line riding, I was telling myself to ride on the line! But I look at the replay, and I rode 49km that night, it was so bad! I haven’t seen a lot worse in terms of how high I was riding. That being said, though, I was really relaxed, so I didn’t go “This is bad, you’re shit”, I just told myself, OK, too high, come on, bring it down on the bends.
A lot of it was those technical, mindful cues – “Now shrug down, shrug down. You’ve looked up and seen the time, now put your head back down”. I moved on the saddle a little bit, to try to change weight distribution, I moved my head down lower, and I’d move it up to look at lap times and information. All I was looking at was Steve’s lap timing. I couldn’t really see anything else.
I knew my boyfriend was there, with his mate on the back straight, and I could hear them cheering. I could hear a lot of people on the back straight, and some people started banging those inflatable stick things, and the first time I nearly peed my pants, because I thought I’d blown a tyre, but the next lap, I thought oh no, that’s ok, that’s just some people banging.
Then I was getting cues, and we were scheduling the cues, so that at 50, 40, 30 and then every 5 minutes, I was getting the time to go, because time does get away from you a little bit. And then we also agreed that at 45, 30 and 15, he would hold up the projected distance – if you keep going at this pace you’ll get this. So the first number I saw, after 15 minutes, said 46.8, and I thought “OK, I feel really great, that’s a good number”.
Halfway through I saw it again, and I thought I really want to ride 47k. I was just so motivated, I really wanted to break over the 46.99 barrier, I couldn’t think of anything else I would rather do. And then with 15 minutes to go, I was thinking “Yeah yeah, come on legs, ready to go for 47!” – and nothing happened! they just kept going at exactly the same pace!
I just didn’t panic, ever. I didn’t do any “what if”s, which is what I had been doing the day before, when I was thinking “What if I get to 45 minutes and then it all falls apart?”. I just didn’t think that.
One thing we had discussed was the idea of imagining I was doing a Time Trial, the rider in front of me was the World Record, and I wasn’t going to make any inroads into that World Record until the turnaround. 30 minutes was this magical turnaround in this Time Trial I was doing, and from the turnaround, then I was going to start coming home stronger. So while the splits didn’t change that much, your relative perceived effort changes, so even though I think my overall average split was 19.7, I think I held that for more or less the whole time, it didn’t lift, but it feels like you’re trying hard in the last 10 minutes, even though you’re not going faster – you’re basically just not slowing down. And that does take a lot of mental energy, obviously.
PWC: I never thought you couldn’t do it physically, but I worried that the nerves would get to you, because that’s what would happen to me.
BO’D: Clearly they did, but it all happened 24 hours beforehand. Insight into your own anxiety is a big challenge, because then my evil voice inside said, “You’re afraid you won’t be tough enough to suffer enough, that idea that you’ll give up.”
There’s a real myth too, around someone like Bobridge, people said “he knows how to hurt himself”, and only 1 person has said this to me afterwards, “You look like you could have tried harder”, and I thought, as people said about Dowsett, the whole point is to break the record, (not) who collapses the best afterwards.
I think a lot of athletes might agree with me: all of the hurting happened for the last nine months. There’s that great quote, “All spectacular achievements are preceded by unspectacular preparation”. Endless, monotonous sessions.
The whole idea of training hard – it not only builds your mitochondria, your muscle strength, your endurance, but it tells your brain that you know how to suffer. When you implement it, you’re not doing anything different, you’re just doing the same thing you’ve already done, but on the day that everyone’s measuring it.
PWC: Talking about suffering, Dan Maize asks about pain endurance – do you think it’s something that can be learned, or something you’re born with? Is it more psychological or physiological? And I want to add, how much is stubbornness?
BO’D: Stubbornness is key!
Pain endurance is two-fold – one is absolutely physical, the fatigue that comes from muscles that have been over-worked and aren’t being replenished or rested. You get pain in muscles, particularly when you run, because you’re doing damage. You’re getting physical pain from the force, you’re getting chemical pain from lactic acid and metabolites – the waste products of your exercise. If you’re not able to replenish fluids, salts, and carbohydrates, you’re getting that fatigue pain, where the glycogen in your muscles is running out. They’re all the physical contributing factors.
The mental fatigue is totally related to completion, or distance, or time. We know, in all physiological studies, if you ask someone to exercise to exhaustion, they always stop sooner than if you said “I want you to do 30 minutes”. They will be able to generate more power when they know the outcome, and the finish-line is there. We know endurance athletes always perform better against someone, or something.
PWC: So you’ve broken the World Record – what’s next? You famously came to cycling late, from rowing to triathlon, to cycling – are you going to do this again? If Molly Shaffer van Houweling has another go and takes back the record, or after the Olympics, if Ellen van Dyke breaks it, will you want to get it back?
BO’D: I don’t know. It was a damn expensive exercise, not just for me, but getting the commissaires, having the venue and all that sort of thing. It’s not a simple event to orchestrate if you want to do it officially.
And I also think, not that I’m afraid, but it might be difficult to generate that same mental and physical state. I think I got very lucky, or skillful or whatever it was, but I timed a lot of things very, very well, and that’s a great thing and I’m taking pride in that – but those things don’t happen all the time. I could arrive at peak physical fitness with greater track skills, and better line riding, and get unwell, or have a crappy day from a weather perspective, or arrive at the startline and be really agitated, thinking I’ve got to break 47.2 now, because that’s the new record, or I’ve set this goal for myself.
I have to confess, I’m not making it my life’s mission to be like Sergei Bubke, and keep breaking the pole vault record by a centimetre…. I don’t know, I think it’s quite nice not to have a plan, I haven’t had that for a long time. I’ve been very goal-oriented for quite a few years, pretty much ever since I started riding in 2007. So I haven’t kind of ridden for fun or ridden solely in support of a team leader – and I’m not saying that I’m given up on goals, but I actually hadn’t thought past here, which I’m also proud of myself for. In the past I think I’ve been very much a future-thinker – “If this doesn’t work I’ve got that race, or this thing, or the next event”. But I didn’t even think past January 22nd, which is good for me, because I think that’s what you have to do when you’re trying to something extraordinary – that’s your finish line.
PWC: I was asked to ask you about your speech at the end of the Hour – especially about the comment you made about being written off.
BO’D: The point I was trying to make about being overlooked, the KPIs for selectors and Federations are totally based around medals. You win a medal, you get more funding. Nearly every country in the world works that way, and Olympic and World Championships medals give the sport the funding they need. It seems perverse, because if you don’t win a medal you get less funding, which is clearly not the solution to building and developing the sport.
But the hard part is that creates an environment that really isn’t developing, it’s seizing. You’re seizing a person, hopefully just before the prime of their performance, they perform well, they win a medal, you as the selector or coach look good, and you get money. But if the plan doesn’t work for the seven women you’ve got, and three of them break down mentally or physically, and two of them retire, or are just a bit slower to develop, that’s not your problem.
But the challenge of course is, and I wrote a little bit about this in my last blog, is that it’s really hard to be a coach. Should it be the coach’s responsibility to modify their coaching style to suit the 15 different type of personality and skills in their squad? That’s nigh impossible, and I think a lot of coaches, once they get to an elite level, they figure “Hey, it’s my way, or no way”.
I suppose if I had any message, it’s this: Just because that plan didn’t work for you, just because you didn’t get selected for a national team or you got flipped from a squad because they said you’re difficult, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work.
You need to work out – do I need to be pushed harder, do I need to be held back? Do I need to be cajoled, do I need to be loved more? What is it about you as an athlete? And go and find the coach, or the support staff, or the mentor. It’s not other people’s job to work everything out for you, you’ve got to work out what you need. And that stuff doesn’t come until you’re a bit older, and you’ve made mistakes and been around the wrong people.
PWC: There was so much I loved your speech, but the other thing was hilarious about it is you were completely buzzing off adrenaline and exhaustion – congratulations for being able to string three words together! But for people criticising you for having a bit of a dig, when else are you going to have the chance to use a platform like that?
BO’D: It’s funny, another very high profile rider made a comment that there’s no place for politics in sport, and I said I absolutely disagree. When else would I have an opportunity to outline the challenges that many athletes face, other than when I’ve just broken a World Record?
Athletes are human beings as well, and they’ve had their own share of frustration. I didn’t name anyone, and I didn’t drop any F and C combinations!
PWC: But you make it more fun, and I genuinely think it’s much better to have a rider who has a bit of edge to them. If everyone was nice, it’s more boring! So I loved it, and I loved you thanking your people – and the response you received. I liked the photo of the people in the Endura factory in Scotland, and all the people going crazy on twitter for you, it was really lovely to watch.
BO’D: I’ve had SO many amazing messages, and it’s just been mind-blowing. I suppose it touches a chord with people, me being a bit older, that idea of overcoming adversity, and coming to something late, and persisting.
I had to remind myself, Molly van Houweling is just a woman. She’s an extraordinary woman, but she’s not a robot, she’s not superhuman, if she can do it, I can, and it’s that wonderful line, “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”.
And I think that strikes a chord with people. Persisting, even when you’re afraid, even when you’ve been told you’re not great, that’s what inspires people, particularly with kids, with girls.
A friend of my boyfriend, a rowing coach in Adelaide, brought his whole girls crew to watch it, and he said he talked to them about it, and the interview later with them, and he asked them what they liked about it, and they said “She said that she had lots of help; she said she was nervous the day before, but she did it anyway; she said that all the training was really hard and boring, but she did it anyway – it wasn’t just this fairytale story”, and I think that that connects with more people, perhaps – I didn’t just say “I just woke up, and I was amazing, and then I won!”
PWC: I did wonder if it was looking bad for you achieving the Hour, if you’d come up with some excuse three weeks before – “Bridie has a strange back injury that means she can never ride the track again” . But if it was looking bad, would you have done that, or would you have gone through with it anyway?
BO’D: I don’t know! Speaking about that, I would have to say the biggest physical challenge for me was absolute terrible saddle sores, and saddle discomfort, riding in the aero position, both on the time trial bike and the track bike. I spoke to the wonderful Josie Bobridge, former World Champion in Individual Pursuit, and she said when you do track camp, you get home and you put a bag of frozen peas on your groin for an hour.
It’s just the stuff people don’t want to talk about, both with men and women. As a bike racer, you’re not sitting upright, on your sit bones, as they’re euphemistically called, your ischial tuberosities, you’re sitting forward, on your external genitalia, when you’re a girl. Squashing all the soft, sensitive parts that are getting lots of blood supply, and you’re not moving, and you’re putting all this pressure on them, and underneath your soft, sensitive parts is your pubic bone.
There’s no padding, you’re not sitting on your buttocks that are muscular and have got some fat around them, your sitting on fleshy bits of your body, and 1cm below that is bone. So it’s just a very unnatural position to be in. I was really fortunate to be sponsored by Dash and they gave me this great saddle, which is the best saddle I’ve ever ridden, but you’re still sitting on a saddle, not on a cloud, so that was a really difficult thing. I was doing training sessions in the weeks leading up, and I couldn’t keep still, I had to keep moving to change pressure distribution, because it was so painful, and so there were a couple of weeks beforehand when I thought what if I actually can’t maintain an aero position, because I’m so uncomfortable – that was a bit nerve-wracking.
PWC: So now you’ve got your window, what do you want to use this little moment of fame for?
BO’D: To get into restaurants quicker!
PWC: “Do you know who I am?” You can just leave copy of L’Equipe backpage lying around everywhere – “Oh, is that me? I forgot that was there!”
BO’D: I don’t know if I want to use it for anything. I’m still the manager and rider for our National Road Series team, Rush Women’s Team, and we’ve got some absolutely amazing riders in our team – our team captain, Ruth Corset, who won the NRS last year and got second in the National Road Championships just two weeks ago, she’s so good. We’ve got a lot of good, interesting personalities in our team – like Jo Hogan, who spent quite a few years racing overseas, and Loretta Hanson, who is absolutely a rider to watch. She’s going to head overseas and race for Colavita, but she raced with us over the summer, and won the sprint and u23 jerseys at the Santos Tour Down Under.
So for me, I think it solidifies my role modelling, I suppose. It’s pretty great for the riders in our team to have someone managing and looking after them who knows what it takes to commit to something, to work hard, to set a goal – I think that helps strengthen the motivation and commitment for all our riders.
And it’s great for business! It’s great for this team to have results through me, through Ruth, through Loretta, that promote women’s cycling in Australia, and help cultivate the Subaru National Road Series, because it’s really growing, thanks to Cycling Australia, thanks to sponsors, thanks to independent race organisers. It’s slowly and surely catching up to the American road series. It’s slowly but surely catching up to, say, the American Road Series. I’m so impressed by the standard of racing in Australia, so that’s a really cool thing that I can be part of.
I have to say, the cheering and the people banging on the side of the wall, that was amazing. It was pretty incredible, I was coming past every lap on the home straight, and I could hear people doing a Mexican wave, and I just thought wow, you guys are incredible. For people who came, thank you so much, because they didn’t need to, they could have stayed at home and watched it on the live stream, but they did.
And my family! My father and stepmother commuted in their caravan, all the way from the Sunshine Coast to Adelaide, with no air conditioning. And my aunt came, my mother came, my sister came, and that’s pretty cool. And to her credit, my mother’s not a sporting fan, and she said afterwards, “I think I realise now, what level of commitment, and preparation it took” – and to inspire your own family and parents, that’s pretty cool.
During the interview, Bridie thanked a LOT of her sponsors and people who helped her, but there just wasn’t the space to transcribe it all, so if you want to know more about that, please do listen to the podcast, check out this blog of hers, and click through to her amazing sponsors and supporters and say thanks to them too:
Her coach Dr Stephen Lane PhD and Ken Ballhause B.Sc at HPTek; Endura, for the custom-made skinsuit; LeuscherTeknik and HPTek for the unique engineering and laser-printed special components; Cervélo Australia for the bike; Mavic wheels; Ultimate Sports Engineering components; Dash Cycles saddle; Fetha custom components; Power2Max Australia meter; Muc-Off chain; C-bear bearings; Kirsty Baxter‘s photography; FreeBirdVelo for the t-shirt logo; King & Wood Mallesons, who also sponsored the livefeed; Rod and Barbara Dux of Dux Dreams Foundation; Ben Young at Frank Green; Bendigo and Adelaide Bank; AeroCoach; OsmoNutrition; Craig Eastwood and the Cycling Victoria staff at DISC; Johnny Wurtz, massage therapist at Pure Physio; Graeme Moffett & Lucien Keene at Derby Cycles for her Cervélo T4 & 3T front end; and doubtless many many more – and omissions are my fault, not Bridie’s!
You can watch the whole Hour feed here – there’s sprinting before the Hour, which starts at about 1:58:00, and her speech afterwards is from 3:05:23. If you want the analysis, Bridie’s lap timings are on Metarace, and her stats are on Today’s Plan. The timeline of the modern UCI Hour Record, with how this Hour fits in, is on the UCI website.
I’m funded to do these interviews thanks to my wonderful Patreon supporters – thank you so much! If you want to join them from just £1.50/$2 a month, there’s more information here.