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Ireland's Orla Walsh goes from beginner to national 'talent transfer' rider

Aspiring amateur cyclist Orla Walsh has risen from sports novice through to cycling commuter and competitive club cyclist in little over two years. She served her 'apprenticeship' getting dragged out into the Wicklow mountains on winter evenings but now she is a podium regular with National Championship medals to her name and a succession of European training camps under her belt, all whilst holding down a full time job. Read about her journey here - a new instalment comes each week.

The Introduction to cycling and joining a club

I’m fairly new to the world of cycling but have come a long way in a short period of time. Not only am I new to cycling but I’m a novice when it comes to sports in general. I was never a sporty person growing up, the highlight of my achievements being to come 2nd in the 100m sprint at the school sports day in 1999. As a teenager I had half-hearted attempts at getting involved in tennis and hockey. As an adult, I never even owned a gym membership. Fast forward to 2017 and I’m training 10 hours a week, plus regular week-long training camps abroad, as well as holding down a full-time job. If you painted this picture for the Orla of 3 years ago, I would have scoffed and laughed while reaching for a beer and rolling another cigarette. It’s hard to understand what initiated this transformation. They say that cycling is addictive and perhaps that’s the reason - I can safely say I am well and truly hooked.

It all started when I needed a convenient way to get to college in 2015. I couldn’t afford to buy or fuel a car and public transport in Dublin leaves a lot to be desired. My Dad suggested that I take his old Lapierre road bike and try cycling the 10km to and from college. Although I didn’t like the idea of looking like one of those “lycra-clad idiots”, I decided to give it a go. Needless to say I loved it - quick, convenient and actually quite fun - where can I buy some lycra?

In March 2016 I decided to join Scott-Orwell Wheelers cycling club and began doing the first of many long group spins. I wasn’t used to group riding nor the long hours in the saddle but it was worth it when coffee stops and scones are on the agenda! In the early days I would come home from a 60km cycle absolutely destroyed and fit for bed but the sense of achievement each time I completed a longer spin or climbed a hill a little faster made me more motivated.

1. “Give it a go” they said, “it’ll be fun”

A few people in my club noted that I was relatively fast for a female novice cyclist and suggested that I try racing. “Try racing” they said. “It’ll be fun”. Feeling overly confident from that one “top 10” trophy I got on strava, I decided I could be really good at this. I rocked up casually to my first open road race 10 minutes before the start time, missing the sign-on but the race organiser felt sorry for me and let me head to the start line to race anyway. Ready to go, I was feeling self-assured and confident. This is going to be fun, I remember thinking - how wrong I was! I wish someone had managed my expectations just a tad - the whole experience was a disaster. It didn’t take long for the bunch to leave me gasping for dear life at the back over a 40km totally flat route. It got worse when I tried my second race which was the Des Hanlon (first race of the national series and very hilly) and was thrown in among the best female riders in the country. Needless to say I was dropped on the very first climb of the race after trying to stay with a breakaway group on a hill attack. I couldn’t even finish the race and was picked up by a support car! Defeated but not broken, I tried a few more races but unfortunately my efforts were all in vain. I continued to get dropped by the bunch on every climb and in one case I finished solo 20 minutes behind everyone. The prize-giving was done and dusted by the time I crossed the line! I’m sure many were surprised that I hadn’t given up at this point. There’s only so many times you can get your arse kicked and still keep coming back for more. 

2. The long Winter slog

The 2016 race season came to a close and over that time I'd learned two things: 1) I was one of the weakest female racers 2) I desperately wanted to be one of the strongest female racers. So I decided I was going to put in the hours over winter to come back next season better and with the modest goal of getting to the end of a race with the main bunch (i.e. not getting dropped).

I had a few male friends from the club who also raced and I began joining them for “winter miles, summer smiles” spins after work and at the weekends. I was fairly inconsistent with my approach to training but tried to put in the hours when I could. I was not deterred by after-work spins up the Wicklow mountains in freezing rain during the black of night although I had many 'WTF' moments where I asked myself what on earth I was doing!

3. Coaching for success

I'd never thought about getting a coach or doing any sort of structured workouts until I came across a competition run by A1Coaching. A week-long training camp was on offer giving me the perfect opportunity to put in some demanding back-to-back days. I figured there was no harm in entering and to cut a long story short, I won! 

One month later I found myself in Spain on my first cycling trip abroad. It was an amazing opportunity to train and speak with experienced professional riders and coaches. I realised quickly that although training on my own was fine for building up endurance over the winter months, I knew nothing about structured training plans designed around a race schedule. The guys on the camp would talk about threshold sessions and VO2 max efforts and I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about until it was explained to me. This enlightened me to a whole new world of science and training which both fascinated me and motivated me to want to learn more. 

So, before the 2017 race season started I started working with John Kenny from A1Coaching to help me achieve my goal and right away he gave me what I'd been missing - structure, consistency, accountability and expert guidance.

Looking back now things were starting to come together but in terms of bike set up and racing know-how, 2017 would teach me a lot.

4. Getting Results!

After months of building up endurance over the winter and getting in some high intensity sessions under the guidance of my new coach, race season was finally upon us. I was very nervous heading to my first open road race, fearing that all my hard work had been for nothing. However, not only did I achieve my goal of not being dropped by the bunch but I actually made it to podium. Result!

I went on to try bigger races as part of the National Road Series and I was consistently placing in the top 5, even making the breaks with the top female racers in Ireland. I couldn’t believe it. I still didn't have a win under my belt but that all changed at the Waller Cup where I sprinted to an uphill victory! It was a great moment for me to win my first open road race and gave me a lot more confidence as a novice athlete. Following these early achievements, I was contacted by Cycling Ireland to confirm that I had been selected to join a Talent Transfer team which I had applied and tested for earlier in the year. I began attending training weekends and sessions with the new team and learning new skills on track. I was so thrilled and thankful  for this opportunity and excited to see what the rest of the race season would bring.

5. The Crash

Annnnd...then I crashed. I think my confidence on the road had pre-emptively transferred over to my track riding but I should have realised the gap in my skills for safe racing on a velodrome. I made a horrifically rookie mistake during a track training day with Cycling Ireland by ceasing to pedal on a fixed gear bike after a full gas sprint against a teammate - track bikes don't like that and I was promptly thrown off in somersault fashion landing hard on my left side, cracking my helmet and smashing my collarbone. I knew right away that I was in trouble when I couldn't lift up my left arm without experiencing excruciating pain. The ambulance took me to the local A&E on a stretcher in a neck-brace (I found this to be a ridiculous overkill and highly amusing - hence the insane smiling). The verdict was that I had broken my left clavicle and would require surgery to repair it with several weeks of physio and rehabilitation. I was absolutely devastated. On the bright side though, I won the race so it was totally worth it...

I had to undergo surgery for the first time in my life to pin and plate the bone back together. According to the Orthopaedic specialist it would never have healed properly by itself as there were layers of muscle lodged between the broken parts...lovely. I had to wait 10 days post-crash for my surgery. I was so anxious to keep my fitness levels up that I hastily fashioned a support system on my indoor trainer using an ironing board which allowed me spin the legs whilst wearing my sling. The cyclist Matt Hayman once said "There's a fine line between stupidity and dedication"  as he clocked up hundreds of kms training indoors with a broken arm. Shortly afterwards he went onto win Paris-Roubaix! I underwent surgery 10 days later and the operation was a complete success, leaving me with a clear road to recovery.

6. The Recovery

I didn’t look at this setback as the end of my racing season. In fact, I looked at it as just another challenge to overcome, and I love challenges!

I had my first training camp in Spain with Cycling Ireland just five and a half weeks post operation so I needed to be ready for that. Alongside my coach John Kenny and physiotherapist Mark McCabe we figured out a reasonable but fast tracked recovery and training plan which adhered to the advice of my surgeon.

I continued to train indoors on my Tacx Neo Smart turbo to maintain my fitness but kept it at a low intensity for the first three weeks. During that same period I began strength and conditioning training with my physio which included exercises that mainly focused on my core, hips and legs without putting any weight on my injured shoulder. At three weeks post-op I was able to start introducing some harder workouts on the turbo and also strength building (but not weight bearing) exercises on my shoulder. I was amazed how quickly I was recovering and had full movement in my arm at this point but it was seriously weakened from lack of use. It would take some time to build back the strength in my shoulder but today (almost 5 months later) it is practically 100% with only the odd niggle now and then.

7. The Return to the Road and the New Bike

Five weeks after the operation I felt that I was physically ready to get back on the road. Of course the bone had not fully fused together at this point (it takes twelve weeks in total) so I had a lot of reservations and nerves associated with getting back out on the road. If I fell off my bike again I could easily cause a lot more damage to my shoulder. However, those worries rapidly dissolved the minute I got back out on my bike.

To make my reintroduction to the road even sweeter I had a brand new bike to enjoy. The frameset is a carbon Merida Scultura 7000. I paired it with Shimano's Ultegra 6870 Di2 groupset, PRO carbon handlebars finished with a set of Shimano Dura Ace R9100 C60 carbon clinchers, constructed by my local shop, 360 Cycles. I’m still absolutely in love with it.

8. The indoor velodrome and the return to racing

I was back! Just over five weeks after my operation I was on the road again and about to head out to Spain for a week’s training with Cycling Ireland. It was a steep learning curve (pun intended) getting on an indoor velodrome for the first time ever and the first time on a track bike since I crashed. I was absolutely petrified getting up onto that track with its 45 degree banking but I fought through the fear. Each time I circled the track my nerves reduced, it was actually quite fun! I got through the week without any injury, and after some speed work I returned to Ireland finally ready to try road racing again.

I had to figure out what race I wanted to do. Friends and family suggested I do a relatively short easy local race as a nice way to get back into it. Nah! Instead, I decided to enter my first ever stage race which consisted of four stages over three days against some of the best female riders in Ireland. I really do love to throw myself in the deep end! It was brutal but brilliant! I ended up finishing 4th in General Classification and even made it to the podium in third place for the points competition and for Stage 4. I was absolutely delighted. 

The new bike definitely helped with the confidence and performance.  Firstly, the Merida's carbon frame is 1kg lighter than my old bike. That doesn't sound like much but in a race when you are going full tilt up a climb and hanging onto someone's wheel 1kg can make a massive difference. Another thing I didn't think would make a difference was getting the correct width handlebars. I went 2cm narrower with PRO carbon handlebars and my position is instantly more aero on the bike. I also really love racing with the Ultegra Di2 shifters which I'd never used before. I noticed that I wasn't panicking shifting around gears during a hill climb attack and was confident that with a tap I'd be securely in a new gear if needs be. I could also easily change from small ring to big ring with both hands still in the drops. Lastly, the Dura Ace R9100 C60 wheels are class. They feel fast and aero and for the terrain in Ireland they are perfect. People have asked me if I feel a crosswind with them on due to the deep sections but I have to say I haven't found that a noticeable issue. They have an aluminum brake surface too which helps if you're doing any crazy fast descending in the wet. These changes have all made a huge difference so far and I'm hoping that first win isn't far away. 

Winding down to the off-season

Within 4 months of my surgery I competed in Ireland's biggest stage race, won national championship medals on track, attended two more training camps in Spain with the national team, and competed in my first ever UCI race at the Manchester World Cup against the best teams in the world.

These past two years have been an unbelievable journey for me and I can’t wait to see how the 2018 season unfolds!

To fast forward and find out how Orla's getting on right now you can find her on Instagram as @pedalingheroine.

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