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Monday, November 29, 2021

Exclusive Libby Clegg interview: ‘I thought cycling would be so much simpler – it’s terrifying’

Given the logistical headaches involved in her new career, it is no wonder an apologetic Libby Clegg is slightly late for our scheduled chat at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre.

For most of her adult life, Clegg’s commute involved no more than a five-minute hop from her Loughborough home to the local athletics track. As of last week, it has become a three-hour cross-country trek involving two trains and a tram, before undertaking the same journey again in the evening.

Too gruelling a trip for her beloved guide dog Hatti, it leaves one of Britain’s most successful visually-impaired sportspeople with only her white cane for guidance. “I didn’t think about the logistics,” she admits sheepishly of her decision to launch stage two of her sporting career.

Over more than a decade, Clegg was one of the most recognisable and decorated para-athletes in Britain. Paralympic sprint silver medals in 2008 and 2012 preceded double gold in 2016, before a final silver marked the end in Tokyo this summer. Aged 31 and with four Paralympic Games behind her, she announced her athletics retirement.

Yet little more than two months on, she is back with sights firmly set on Paris 2024. Clegg the athlete has become Clegg the cyclist. At least, she will be in due course. Today is only her third time inside a velodrome.

“I hadn’t ridden a bike for years, back when my sight was better and I was able to cycle alone,” says Clegg, who has the degenerative eye condition Stargardt disease.

“Athletics has so many minute technical things that make a big difference. I don’t know why but I thought cycling would be so much more simple. It’s not!

“It’s way more complicated than I initially thought, although I’m quite happy because I don’t have to control the bike – I just do what the pilot says. I do close my eyes though because it’s terrifying.”

Her learning curve is steep; from wearing underwear when riding – “I made that mistake and it really wasn’t comfortable” – to buying chamois cream to stop any chafing, nuggets that are second nature to cyclists are lessons for the uninitiated.

Only last month did Clegg first sit on a tandem track bike and whizz round the velodrome on her testing day. “When we went up the side I was s—-ing myself,” she admits.

A number of para-cycling friends – including dual Paralympic athletics and cycling champion Kadeena Cox – had attempted to coax Clegg into the sport for some time, but she wanted to “close my athletics chapter” before starting a new one.

That closure had been a long time coming in her mind. The decision to end her athletics career after the Tokyo Paralympics was originally reached in January 2020, soon after coming third as the first blind contestant on the ice-skating television show Dancing On Ice.

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