Reade: 'My head got swayed & I thought I was a rock star'
BMX - Interview with Shanaze Reade
By Donald McRae / guardian.co.uk
"I can't wait," Shanaze Reade says, her eyes opening wide in anticipation of a new year which has had a buildup like no other in British sport. There have been moments, ever since London was awarded the Olympic Games, when "2012" has seemed more like an overwhelming sporting obsession than a change of calendar.
Yet, now that we have finally reached the year itself, Reade looks happy and ready in her pursuit of a gold medal. "I can't wait for the opportunity," the 23-year-old BMX cyclist says again, expanding on her expectations for an Olympic year which could make up for the disappointment she suffered in 2008. "I do see 2012 as a fantastic opportunity because some people have already got a gold medal tucked away in their bedrooms. But all I've got to show from the Olympics is a certificate saying I finished eighth in Beijing. I've been waiting all this time for another opportunity."
In 2008 many people forgot that Reade was just a teenager as they set about describing her as a certainty for gold. Even the usually circumspect Chris Hoy stressed his conviction that Reade was the one British rider he would stake his mortgage on winning in Beijing.
Reade, however, was the last cyclist to race in a startlingly successful GB squad. The waiting and fretting unsettled her and she crashed three times with increasingly disastrous consequences. Her first two accidents, in the opening time trial and in the semi-final, spooked her badly enough that, in the final, still trying to win gold, she made another mistake and crashed again when clipping the back wheel of the eventual champion, Anne-Caroline Chausson.
"There was such expectation last time," she says with a disarming smile, "that I began to believe it myself. I'd been world champion two straight years. The only race I'd lost was in a semi-final when I was so far ahead of Chausson that my concentration dropped and she passed me in a photo finish. But I beat her, and everyone else, the next two years and didn't even lose a heat. So for me to lose to Chausson, in her last race, was very hard."
Reade was devastated then – but she now looks cheerfully determined to obliterate any suspicion that she might be haunted by her first Olympic experience. "I'm in a different place. Back then my head got swayed by the media attention and I thought I was becoming a rock star."
She cackles at her naivety, before revealing a more telling memory. "I used to have this dream two or three times a week in 2008 and it always bothered me. In the dream I'd be winning the final until I got to the last corner. And then the track would disappear or burst into flames. I'd ask Steve Peters [British Cycling's team psychiatrist]: 'What does it mean?' He would try and reassure me by saying: 'It's just a dream.' But it showed there was uncertainty underneath it all."
Has she started to dream of 2012? "Yeah," she exclaims. "I've had three dreams so far and they've all been good. In one I won by leading from start to finish. The other two times I've seen myself crossing the line, the crowds cheering and me on the podium. We're way ahead of four years ago."
Reade's jaunty mood can be measured by her warm descriptions of her family and how, in an unlikely way, she discovered her bike-riding talent. "I'm a Crewe girl," she says, "and my mum still lives there. I've got a much younger sister and brother so I spend lots of time there, especially around Christmas and New Year. My mum was only 17 when she had me but I was lucky I had a good nan and grandad. They still live at No92, mum's at No90, while my auntie lives across the road. It's a real close Irish family.
"My nan is full Irish with a strong accent. She's got 15 or 16 brothers and sisters and lots of them are also in Crewe. But we've got loads of family in Granard, in Ireland, and everyone there knows about me. It's quite funny."
Reade's tangled roots provide a pithy tag-line on her Twitter page – "Power of a Jamaican, luck of the Irish" – but she talks openly about being estranged from her father. "In simple terms he was the sperm donor for me," she says. "That's how it is. He's given me fantastic genes, which I'm grateful for, but he could be like that guy stood over there." At the impressive new BMX centre, adjoining Manchester's Velodrome, Reade points at a distant stranger.
"I see my father around Crewe's town centre and sometimes we'll say 'Hi'. But there's no connection there whatsoever. I still don't feel like I've missed out on a dad because my grandad gets really excited about me – even if he never lets me see it. Even when I won the test event in Manchester this year, which was a huge thing for me, he was mellow, saying: 'Oh, well done.' But nan said when he was told the news – because he gets too nervous watching – he was overwhelmed."
Reade speaks powerfully about another male figure in her past, Bob Fields, who taught her to ride a BMX and influenced her in an enduring way. "Black Bob!" she says exuberantly of the Jamaican who ran the local track in Crewe when Reade was a girl. "He was a Rasta and a special guy. The BMX track used to be this old tip on a wasteland but Black Bob turned it round and created this huge club. People came from Newcastle and all over because Black Bob would coach them. When it got dark he got the parents to drive their cars close to the track so the headlamps worked as floodlights. He'd buy a big trophy for the rider of the week and everyone would try to win it. He was amazing."
Reade's upbeat memories are underpinned by a serious appreciation of the way Fields changed her life. "If it hadn't been for Black Bob I wouldn't be here," she stresses. "I'd been to taekwondo, boxing and I did athletics for years. But it was all so regimented. I knew I was talented but I wanted to enjoy myself. Black Bob made BMX exciting but you also worked hard. That's the main reason why I stuck to the sport because Bob got that balance to a perfect T. He was like a life coach and he grounded me at a young age. I was winning European titles and got to world No2 but with Black Bob you'd never mention it or be big-headed.
"When he died [in 2008], I was standing outside the church because there were over 400 of us at his funeral. It was insane. His family were in the church and the rest of us were outside because they'd put up speakers so we could hear the service. He'd made this video diary of his last few months. We heard his voice telling us he wanted to say some things to a few people. I was thinking, 'God, I wonder what them people feel – with Black Bob talking about them?' And then he started talking about me. I was, like, 'Woahhh!' It was just before Beijing and he said: 'I'll be watching you at the Olympics, Shanaze, and don't you dare stop until you've achieved what you want. I'll always be watching you.' It was strange but I still feel that now: 'Right, I'm going to do my best for Bob.'"
Reade's name is now attached to the revamped track he started in Crewe. "Bob's BMX Centre is named after me," she says proudly. "After the last Olympics they gave £350,000 to that track. So it's one of the best in Europe and it's called the Shanaze Reade Track. It feels bizarre."
The lessons handed down to her by Bob Fields mean that Reade is unlikely to change, whatever success she might earn in 2012. She remembers going recently to a Rihanna concert at the O2, and how she was briefly swept up in the excitement of being in a VIP box. As an ambassador for Visa, who sponsor Reade and other British Olympians, she was surrounded by people she would never meet in Crewe. But Reade is most animated when discussing the fact that Rihanna caught the tube to her own concert.
"I love the fact she did something so down-to-earth. Even if I won 10 gold medals I'd also want to stay the same person."
Reade has already shown extraordinary power in track cycling. Alongside Victoria Pendleton she won the 2007 world championship team sprint after just a month of training. So there is lingering disappointment that she has not been allowed to ride more with Pendleton – for her breezy confidence boosted the more complicated Olympic champion.
"The only thing that stops Victoria is her mind," Reade says of Pendleton. "She's the best in the world even though she's tiny. We were a good combo. The first time we went out in the worlds she was so nervous and I said: 'Why? I'm not and I've only been on the track four weeks …' She delivers but, oh my God, I was shocked how nervous Victoria gets. I just said: 'Come on, let's get stuck in.' We smashed 'em."
Was she tempted to double up in 2012 and partner Pendleton on the track as well as compete in the BMX? "Yeah. I would've loved it and Victoria was just as keen. We're good friends and a few years ago me and Vic knew we were the best. [Australia's] Anna Meares has come back strong but I've always thought I could match her. But the training for both events didn't fit and the track world is very different. It's much more intense. There's talk about me being a reserve for the team sprint in case Jess Varnish or Vicky gets injured. But, for now, I'm happy concentrating on the BMX."
Reade is typically candid when asked how many women are serious competitors for gold in the BMX at London 2012. "I'd say that, besides me, there are just four. Sarah Walker of New Zealand is my obvious rival because we've been racing each other since we were 10. But the French are always good – and so Laëtitia Le Corguillé and maybe Magalie Pottier have a chance of winning. Mariana Pajón [the current world champion from Colombia] is also a threat. But BMX is my passion and I've done it for 13 years now. I feel ready for 2012. The year can't start soon enough for me."
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