‘You just have to be gutsy’: how Laura Kenny created her golden era

<span>Laura Trott wins gold in the women's omnium at the 2012 Olympics.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Laura Trott wins gold in the women's omnium at the 2012 Olympics.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“The find of the century” is probably the best summary of Laura Kenny’s career, the view of a leading British coach before the 20-year-old’s Olympic debut at London in 2012. The precocity of Kenny’s talent was blindingly obvious back then. Less easy to read were the long-term passion and drive that have made her Britain’s most successful female Olympian, with six Olympic medals to her credit – five gold, one silver – in a 15-year career that spanned three Games. An old truism applies in this case: her retirement on Monday does mark the end of an era, a liberally gold-spangled one at that, with 23 other major titles to her name.

The arrival of Laura Kenny, née Trott, on the global stage coincided happily with the initial steps by the world governing body, the UCI, to bring women’s track cycling into parity with men’s, and with the inclusion in the track programme of the multidiscipline omnium, which she dominated in 2012 and 2016, all the while being a mainstay of the British women’s reign in the team pursuit. As the formats changed and times changed, she adapted with aplomb, winning the first women’s gold medal in the madison relay along with Katie Archibald at the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Related: Laura Kenny’s glittering career – in pictures

In the years of “peak Laura”, during 2011-2016, she turned one discipline in particular, the elimination race, into her personal party piece. The “devil take the hindmost”, in which the last rider is eliminated every other lap, is a mainstay of local track leagues to which the UCI gave – hotly debated – recognition with its inclusion in the omnium programme. As the group is progressively whittled down, the event calls for a blend of pinpoint calculation, hair-raising skill and sheer power to surge forwards every 30 seconds or so, amid the constant need to stay out of trouble while avoiding the drop.

“Somehow, she can find gaps where none seem to be, somehow she unveils the speed to nip up the back of the group when seemingly all is lost,” I wrote in 2012, in the buildup to London. Trott explained that in April after her world title in Melbourne: “You just have to be gutsy really, too many girls pussyfoot around and don’t get stuck in. If there’s a gap, why not take it? I’m only small and it’s do or die – I mean what’s going to happen is you’re going to get eliminated and that’s the race, isn’t it? So you might as well try to get through a gap.”

As it did in all her omnium titles, an elimination victory played a key part in her title at London 2012, providing the climax to the penultimate evening’s racing at “the Pringle” and setting her up for a dramatic run to the gold medal on Super Tuesday, a crazy few hours in which Sir Chris Hoy won his final gold, Victoria Pendleton closed out her career with a silver and Trott clinched the omnium with victory in the 500m time trial. To complete the picture of British sporting celebrity, the golden evening was followed by the revelation of a golden romance when Trott was pictured at Wimbledon with her future husband, her fellow multiple gold-medallist Jason Kenny; by 2016 she and her other half had won 10 Olympic golds between them.

Kenny made what she did sound simple, and look simple, which has of course been the hallmark of every sporting great. But her initial path to the top was not exactly straightforward, although clearly the foundation came from years of competing on banked tracks, beginning with her local velodrome at Welwyn, where she began racing at age eight, loving to win a few quid, and being given a massive handicap ranking because of her tiny build.

She survived a collapsed lung as a newborn and an episode as a teenage trampolinist when she passed out in mid-air. One interviewer in 2012 found she had just removed stitches from her chin with nail scissors after a road racing crash in which a spoke had pierced her nose and cheek. More recently, she had to deal with a miscarriage and an operation for an ectopic pregnancy. That’s on a different level of seriousness to her legendary tendency to vomit after extreme training and racing efforts, with a sick bucket constantly on hand in the velodrome. But it all points to the same no-compromise attitude, which made her a leader within the GB cycling team when just out of her teens.

Along with Kenny’s ability to ride through adversity, coaches also noted her complete lack of complacency, “unease with what she sees as a mediocre performance”. This refusal to compromise probably explains Kenny’s retirement. After giving birth to her and Jason’s second son, Monty, back in July – he followed Albie, born in August 2017 – she had not clocked up enough ranking points to make qualification for Paris this summer straightforward. She needed to be in competitive form for the final World Cup of the spring in a few weeks and the Great Britain performance director, Stephen Park, said 10 days ago that her chances were slim. For once, Kenny looked unlikely to beat the clock.

Kenny also turned to road racing briefly with some success, winning a British title in 2014, and if she has a legacy today, it is paradoxically more on the road than the track. The Olympic medal factory goes from strength to strength in its own highly funded bubble, with the discipline barely visible at grassroots level; more obviously, this year 22 British women will compete in the road WorldTour, more than any other nation apart from the Netherlands and Italy.

That generation, spearheaded by riders of the ilk of Pfeiffer Georgi and Josie Nelson, has been inspired by the examples in Britain of Kenny and Lizzie Deignan as strongly minded, highly competitive athletes – it is surely no coincidence that both returned to world level after having children. The national governing body is now scrambling desperately to ensure that a Women’s Tour of Britain goes ahead this year; the fact that such a race is now seen as a sine qua non is also tribute to the mindset change effected by Kenny and her peers.