We thought Anna Meares had become the golden girl of Australian sport after her miraculous silver medal in Beijing but she has become even more popular after her gold in London. Appearing everywhere from tabloid press to The Cricket Show Anna has had to swap a hectic training schedule for a hectic media schedule, even taking Brett Lee for a few hot laps around the Superdrome. We managed to catch up with her just before Christmas to talk Melbourne, London and of course, looking to Rio.
Bicycling Australia: It’s been a big few months since the Olympics, hasn’t it? From my own observations you’ve had a park named after you and a bike path. Have you had any others?
Anna Meares: No, not yet! (Laughing) That’s it. Where the park is Kerry and I already had a street named after us. So they just added a park in the vicinity.
BA: You might get a whole suburb at this rate.
AM: (Laughing) Yes, maybe. Imagine that! No seriously, I’m happy with what I’ve got.
BA: And the awards have been coming thick and fast too.
AM: Yes, there was the Sir Hubert Opperman Award from Cycling Australia, as well as the People’s Choice. Ummm…the South Australian Sports Star of the year, that was for the fourth time and now three years in a row. And also I was nominated for ‘The Don’, at the South Australian Hall of Fame awards, but that was taken out by Sally (Pearson). In fact many of the awards I was nominated for were taken out by Sally, but I did get one up on her the other night at Woman’s Health, I Support Women’s Sport, Award. I took out the Female Athlete of the Year, which was decided by public vote, so that was very cool.
BA: That must have been a nice feeling. To me it seems like cycling has a slightly higher profile than athletics at the moment.
AM: Do you think? No, I wouldn’t say so. I think when you look at Olympic sports…hmmm…well, now you say it, I don’t know. I think Sally has done wonders for athletics.
BA: I guess what I mean is that in Athletics there’s one or two people who are well known at the top and then it drops off. Whereas in cycling you still see some of the riders outside of Olympic competition.
AM: Yes. Gotcha. I guess they’re facing the same battles that we have had. There’s so many different sports in Australia and there’s so many that aren’t even Olympic sports that dominate the media that it can be hard to break into that.
BA: Well you’ve managed to do it quite successfully so congratulations. But tell me, have you actually managed to have any rest after the Olympics? To me it looks like you’ve been chasing about all over the place. And I see that your husband Mark has you out on a cyclocross bike.
AM: Yes! That’s been great fun. Because I see him race and ride his all the time and I say “Hey, I want to have a go.” But he wouldn’t let me get on one until after the Olympics. He knows what a klutz I can me on a bike so he was scared I’d crash and injure myself. Which is fair because I have taken a few tumbles since I’ve been on one. But it’s nice to go out and ride with a completely different type and level of stimulus. It’s a different outlook and different challenge and it’s just been nice to also ride with Mark.
BA: Not to mention being able to ride outdoors?
AM: Oh yes. And you know, I’m not the kind of person who when they’re resting can just sit around and do nothing. I always have to be active. The difference is that I haven’t had any structure or routine when I ride.
BA: Of course I was watching as you won your gold medal in London. There was a bit of emotion happening afterwards. Lots of relief? Did you have any doubts going into the event, particularly after the Keirin?
AM: I had more doubt than belief, let me tell you. That was very, very difficult because after the Keirin my self confidence and my belief in my preparation, my ability, my decision making was shattered. And I had to lean very heavily on my coach (Gary West) and Mark to get through it. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of listening to your own negative thoughts when you’ve had a bad performance and that was what I was doing. So I was trying to lean on the people behind me who could offer the opposite, yet still be able to give me the level of honesty and the type of criticism that wouldn’t send me deeper into that self critical roller coaster that I was already on. I texted my family, my friends and my sponsors and read their messages over and over. I leant on Kaarle a fair bit actually. She was wonderful. She would give me a hug when I needed it and give me a mouthful when I needed it. She was wonderful, she was great.
I said to Gary after the sprint that a lot of the stuff he told me I didn’t believe but I decided to go along with and I agreed with it because I know he was on the right track and perhaps at the time I wasn’t.
BA: I guess in the Sprint you have a little more control than you do in the Keirin, simply from the number of riders on the track?
AM: Yes, the Keirin can be a bit crazy, six riders all vying for control and looking for that window of opportunity. And that window can come and go very quickly and if you miss it you can be made to look very, very silly, which is what happened to me. The Individual Sprint still has the same level of difficulty but there’s only one other person to worry about. Each race has its own challenges and I would look at the Keirin as more of an opportunity rather than something that I try to create in the Sprint.
BA: Let’s head back to pre Olympics. Right back to Melbourne. You didn’t win the Sprint against Vicki Pendleton there. When something like that happens is it a good or a bad thing? Let me try to explain. Everything you did in Melbourne was wonderful, victories, world records. But you were pipped in the Sprint. Do you think that puts her ahead with more confidence going into the games? Or does it give you the edge making you hungrier to lift your game?
AM: Well, all I can say is that I came out of Melbourne, very, very hungry to change that result when I got to London. I can’t talk for Vicki and how that win made her feel. But for me, well, it gave Gary and I some time and also a chance to correct it. I think it was a good thing because we could put some strategies in place to handle the situation and how to cope with the pressure that is the Olympic Games.
BA: Local press must play a big part? In Melbourne, despite finishing second the press were all around you while Vicki, the winner was left alone. I guess the reverse is true in the UK?
AM: It does play a part, although there was some focus on me in London. Some of it was good but some of it was not particularly good towards me. But Victoria must have been under immense pressure to perform. And she says so herself. She said when she won the Keirin it was an immense relief. She was so happy to know that she came away from a home Olympics with a gold medal.
BA: And thinking of that pressure, how do you keep your game up in the months and then weeks leading up to the Olympics? I don’t mean the lure of a gold medal. I mean what sort of things do you do day after day to keep that motivation going?
AM: It’s funny. People ask me if it’s draining, but it’s exactly the opposite. You get a more and more heightened awareness and your nerves are playing, adrenaline is coming into play. Your anticipation is becoming higher and higher so your extra effort, half a percent here, a quarter of a percent there gets sharper and more direct in your approach. I actually find it harder to get back into it at the start of a training cycle than at the end.
BA: How about being so recognisable? I imagine your recovery rides in Adleaide people must be always calling out, wishing you luck and so on. Is that a good thing or a distraction?
AM: Oh I love it! (laughs). It’s great! I’ve had occasions where I get a honk or a wave. Or I might see on Facebook people saying “I saw you on a road ride.” It’s great. But apart from the personal side I believe that any form of positive interaction between cyclists and motorists is a good thing. A very good thing.
BA: I noticed at Melbourne that you get to the track quite a few hours before your event? Do you have a particular warm up program that you use?
AM: I get there a lot earlier than required because I like to sit in the environment. I don’t like to be rushed or late. So I get there early enough so that I can stay calm and also, my warm up is very, very precise.
BA: I was hoping you could give me some ideas on what some of your training sessions would be like? When I was down at the Superdrome with Shane last year you were doing intervals behind the motorbike. Can you explain the theory behind that?
AM: Well, because we go so fast as sprinters, the only way to drag that extra bit of speed is to use the motorbike. It gets an extra five or ten kilometres an hour out of our legs. We use the motorbike throughout the year but the important thing is the changes of gearing through three different phases. The first phase is strength training, then power combined with speed building and finally pure speed building as we get closer to competition. That can fluctuate in and out depending on the particular competition that I’m targeting. Because you do come up and down a couple of times each year though you don’t adjust it too often because it’s very difficult to do. And very difficult to then come up in a big way and then lighten the load as you go into your final taper before the competition.
A lot of the time you’ll see sprinters on the velodrome riding through a World Cup still going through very big training periods because we have to keep the balance in place for a bigger event later in the year.
BA: You mentioned gearing. I don’t suppose you can tell me what gear ratios you use?
AM: HAHAHAHAHA! No way! I’m not going to tell you that. My competitors would love to know that kind of information while I’m still racing. But worldwide gearing ratios have been going up in recent years.
BA: Is it possible to get one of your weekly training timetables? Or is that sort of thing confidential?
AM: I can tell you in a broad sense what I do in a week. I’ll spend three gym sessions, each of these are about two to three hours long. I’ll also do two to three track sessions per week, each up to four hours in duration. I’ll have four to six road rides, each of 30km and I’ll have one ergo session on the Wattbikes at the Superdrome. That’s over a six day period.
BA: At the Cycling Australia Awards you said that you would be up for going around again in Rio. Was that a difficult decision to make?
AM: No, not really. (laughs). I always felt that I wanted to go through to Rio. I just wanted to give myself time to make sure that it was the right decision. I didn’t want to put it out there, say I was going and then to recant at a later date. Do you know what I mean? It’s weird, because you spend so much time, four years preparation, for London. It’s London, London, London every day and the minute it finishes they go “Right! What about Rio?” Rio is in four years. Let me live in London for a little while first.
BA: And you deferred your degree for a bit too so you have to consider what to do there.
AM: Yes, back in 2005-2006. I don’t know if I’ll take it up again. One area that I’ve experienced while riding is radio and it’s something that I’d like to do once I finish riding. The option is there if I want it and that’s the key, you have to have options.
BA: So you mean sports commentating?
AM: That’s right. I’m not just a cyclist, I’m an absolute sports nut. Every sport there is, so sports radio would be the number one choice but I’d be happy with any number of areas in broadcasting.
BA: I was watching with interest yours and Kaarle’s State of Origin rivalry. She’s had to wear the maroon so far hasn’t she?
AM: Oh yes! The bet is that if you lose the game you have to wear the opposite state’s skin suit at training. If you lose the series you become adorned with three accessory items for a gym session. And for the past seven years, or at least since Kaarle came to the program in 2008, I have had the pleasure, the absolute pleasure, of decking her out in with things like tutus and tiaras, feather eyelashes, leotards, sparkly stockings, Elmo pyjamas. All sorts of stuff. But if we (Queensland) ever lose, I am going to cop five years revenge for my amusement and her suffering in one go.
BA: And the AFL, who do you follow there?
AM: Well, when I came down to Adelaide I had no idea about AFL so I chose the Lions as they were the only Queensland team in the league. But since then I’ve come to support Port Adelaide.
BA: Going back to the Rio decision, I remember in your early career it was very difficult to make ends meet as a track cyclist and indeed for many people it still is. Have you found with your success that you can now support yourself through your riding?
AM: I’ve had my three major financial sponsors on board now for five years. They’re Toshiba, Uvex and BHP. And they’ve been extremely loyal and it’s made it possible for me to be a professional athlete and that’s very rare, particularly with track cycling. But I don’t like to be perceived as someone who is a freeloader. I understand that I’m someone who can be great for them but I also contribute to three charities, which helps make it easier in my own mind. So in conjunction with the Port Adelaide Football Club I go along to their community youth program where I go into schools and I talk to kids about being healthy, eating properly, and the damage that smoking and drinking can do.
I also work for the Little Heroes foundation here in Adelaide, supporting kids with cancer and their families. And I also do work with the National Breast Cancer Foundation. I try to keep myself balanced in that sense. You know, I’m 30 next year and I’ve worked very hard to get here and there are a lot of people in sports in Australia who are 30 or above, been in sport for 10-20 years, have been dedicated for all that time but then walk out with nothing to build on for the rest of their lives.
Sport is very rewarding in many ways, especially if you’re good enough to get to elite international level. But sometimes you compare the position they’re in with the position of the people they went to school with and it can be very different. They have qualifications, and incomes, homes, but there are so many athletes that through the dedication of their sport, have to begin again in the position they were in when they left school at age 18.
BA: The Australian cycling team did well in London I thought. How do you think we can improve going into Rio? Would you personally like to see and changes in CA? Not necessarily personnel, but in the approach to coaching, admin? Do we need an overhaul?
AM: (A long, long pause.) That’s an interesting question.
BA: I guess someone like myself is asking not just from a track point of view, but I do a fair bit of work with the female road cyclists who have a level of dissatisfaction at the moment. And a lot of that comes from the UCI and in some cases the blame can trickle down into Cycling Australia and then to personnel.
AM: I have a very inside, internal perspective and I think there are people in place in the high performance program that are really, really motivated and are always looking for ways to be better and to improve. And I like that and it’s one of the reasons I decided to continue to Rio. I’ve enjoyed riding and training under Gary West and his team in particular, because I am constantly challenged by them. I’m not treated in any way differently to any other member of our team and Gary is never satisfied with our best. He always wants more.
The problem that our sport has is that at the higher end it’s driven by its profile. Men’s road is the pinnacle of the sport. And every other discipline gets lower and lower below men’s road cycling. And we’re not just talking women roadies who are finding it difficult. I think it would be fair to say that the mountain bikers and the BMX-ers are finding it difficult as well.
And I do think there are areas that need to be improved, in particular the women’s road, even like, just being able to get a wage. But how that happens I’m not particularly sure. It was one of the main topics that came up on the Athletes Commission at the UCI the last time they met, but I haven’t heard the outcomes of that yet. And is it a CA issue that people don’t have profiles? Is it the problem of their managers or their individual sponsors. It’s a problem in most of the disciplines really.
BA: With Vicki Pendleton retiring, who do you think will be your biggest rivals in Rio? Or is it too early to tell? Do you get much chance to see the juniors?
AM: I know exactly who my rivals will be. Not foreseeing people who I don’t know yet, my biggest challengers will be Shuang Guo and Kristina Vogel. I haven’t seen Guo ride since London and I’m not sure where she stands. But Simona Krupeckaitė will be a handful. And young riders like Jess Varnish and Becky James, particularly as they are members of the very successful British team who seem to be able to pick a rider and make them successful very quickly. And also locally, Kaarle McCulloch. Four years is a long time so to stay on top of a rider as dedicated and hardworking as Kaarle is a big ask. And if things don’t change heading into Rio there’ll only be one rider from Australia who can compete in the Sprint.
BA: I thought Taylah Jennings is showing some good signs?
AM: Yes! She was trained by my first coach, Ken Tucker. We both have history as we come from Rockhampton and I was pleasantly surprised that she chose the sprint disciplines over endurance. She has a lot of hard work ahead of her, picking up race strategy and work in the gym. She’ll need to do a lot of strength and power work. She has phenomenal technique on the bike, though that’s not surprising coming out of Ken’s stable.
And how great was it to see her podium at the Oceania’s? I presented that medal and I was walking behind her and she turned round and said “Can you believe it? I’m about to get a medal for the Sprint in the Sprint!” She was so excited and I think she could be a real contender for the Team Sprint if she builds on her standing start. She has great endurance so that second lap could be very good. And you know, Steph Morton too. She’s come off her tandem riding with Felicity Johnson and she’s doing all the right things on an individual basis to have a crack for herself. I see the competition going forward for Australian women’s sprinting with those three girls and myself at the top will be really, really great. It will keep me on my toes.