Fried lettuce and the future – interview with Abby-Mae Parkinson
24 October 2013
Abby is just sixteen years old but she already has a substantial trophy cabinet. A former swimmer and cross-country runner, Abby is no stranger to getting wet and hauling mud-clad shoes up steep hills. No surprise then that she has excelled in cyclocross.
Cycling writer and photographer Anna Buick (herself a mean CX rider) interviewed Abby for her great cyclocross blog From the Pits. Our thanks to Anna for allowing us to publish the interview within Youth Cycle Sport too.
Abby is a rider who is hard to ignore. The current youth National Champion and a familiar face at the British National Trophy series. She was not, however, someone I had chatted to before our interview, but we soon made up for lost time…
Abby is just back from China where she raced in the country’s first UCI cyclocross race. I started off by asking Abby whether she had any doubts about entering the race in China, and whether it was a case of nerves or excitement.
“I was so excited to start with!” she exclaimed. However, this excitement was quashed when it was realised the minimum age for entrants was seventeen. Only after several discussions with organisers and the UCI was it agreed that given Abby’s “UCI age” is seventeen her entry could be confirmed. After the yes, no, yes, no, yes roller coaster, Abby admitted that the prospect of going to China was actually pretty nerve wracking. “I knew it would be a real experience… As my first senior race it was a massive step.”
So it was Abby’s first senior race, and it was to be in China amongst a field of world class riders. I asked what it was like to line up with the elites, and whether racing abroad in a strange environment actually lessened the pressure and the tension.
“The organisers were really excited to have a young rider at the race so I was really well looked after. I didn’t have any pressure put on me, just the pressure from myself!” Abby admitted that despite trying to get in the pre-race zone it was pretty difficult when everything was so new and exciting. “It shouldn’t matter who is around, you should just concentrate on yourself, but I was just in awe.”
Having seen a Tweet from Abby about the Chinese food phenomenon of fried lettuce, I enquired as to what the food was like, and how difficult it was to race on a stomach of strange Oriental substances.
“The food was awful! It was all disgusting! Literally everything is fried, even the lettuce!” Abby was understandably very thankful that she had the foresight to bring some pasta and tuna with her. That, along with peanut butter on toast and the plentiful supply of watermelon, saw her through. “I was so glad to get back to European food. When we arrived in Amsterdam airport the first thing I did was go to a shop and buy some chocolate.”
I asked Abby what the biggest challenge was for her – aside from the food!
“The travel was not so bad, not as bad as I thought it would be. I think the hardest thing was not knowing what anything would be like.”
Abby explained that she didn’t know the other Brits particularly well, and it was the first time she had raced cyclocross without her parents there to support her. However, as is so often the case in cycling, everyone was kind and helpful. Abby says meeting new people was a highlight of the trip. “I travelled with the British Cycling group, and Hugo Robinson and Bruce Dalton met us out there. “Bruce really helped, he talks to anyone!” Chatting with other riders and sharing experiences was evidently a memory that Abby cherishes – “We met the cross-country Eliminator World Champion, and he was just so nice and down to earth. Everybody was.”
After the travel, the making friends and the fried lettuce came the race. The crux of the trip. I asked Abby how it panned out for her.
“I was gridded basically at the very back because I had no UCI points. I was almost dead last into the first corner. I had a good start, but I cut a girl up and she started going on at me. I felt so bad about it that I let her go through. Then I was like, what am I doing?” She laughs as she retells the story, aware that it is all good experience and not something to dwell on negatively. “I spent the whole race fighting to move forward. I got into a good group and I managed to stay with them. But the effort it took to get there meant that I couldn’t hold the pace and I had to drop back in the final lap. I am really happy with the race though, it was just such a great experience.”
So “what’s next?” I asked.
The way Abby answered this question was telling. She wavered for the first time, unsure of her answer.
“I have applied for the ODP (Olympic Development Programme) and I’ve been asked to the selection camp, so I’ll just see what happens with that.” I could tell there was a kind of reluctance in Abby’s voice when she said this so I asked whether cyclocross was Abby’s preferred discipline and whether she could be supported on a cyclocross programme. “If there was a programme for CX I would do it. I don’t know what is right for me, but it is difficult to see how I could make a future for myself in cyclocross. With British Cycling the future is the road or the track.” I was quite disheartened to hear this. Britain has such a pedigree of amazing female cyclocross riders, yet the younger generation don’t see a career for themselves in the discipline. It is a difficult choice for any rider who has real talent across a number of disciplines to focus on just one. Abby is certainly suffering this dilemma at present. In her unquestionably Yorkshire accent she kept saying “I don’t know, I just don’t know!”
That said, Abby was keen to reassure that “If I do get on ODP I would give it my best shot at the track and road programme. It might mean cross taking a back seat for a while, but whatever happens I will come back to cross because it’s what I really enjoy! It is tough because I do love cross but I know to succeed down the BC route I need to be a trackie or roadie, for now anyway.”
Looking into the less distant future, we chatted about Abby’s goals for this season.
“I’d like to get out to Belgium and race there, and hopefully a few World Cups too. I would love to be National Champion again but I know this would be really, really tough as a junior. I want to do well in the National Trophy series, try and stick with the women for as long as possible. I am really looking forward to seeing how much better they are and using that as a goal to get quicker. Mixing in with the Elites is so exciting, I would love to race with Marianne Vos, that would be amazing!”
We finished up with the two regular questions – what is your favourite cyclocross course, and who is your favourite cyclocross rider?
“My favourite course is Ipswich (Chantry Park). I won my first national cyclocross title there. It was such a good day and I’ll never forget it. It’s a fast and tough track. I love it! My favourite rider is easy too, it has to be Marianne Vos. She is so talented all round, to manage everything is just phenomenal.”
It looks to be an interesting, and perhaps even a decisive, season for Abby-Mae Parkinson. A first year junior looking to find her feet among the Elite women, eager to learn and humble enough to admit it will be tough.
I’m excited to see how it works out for Abby and, a girl after my own heart, I’m sure she will be wearing a big smile as what I am sure will be a fantastic future unfolds before her.