This week Laura Kenny should have been whizzing around the Izu Velodrome in Tokyo at her third Olympic Games. Instead, Britain’s most successful female track cyclist is at home in Cheshire, counting her lucky stars.
“I’m probably one of the few athletes who was sort of glad it happened,” she says of the Olympics being shifted to next summer in light of the pandemic. “This is a blessing. I’m going to take this opportunity that I’ve been handed and I’m going to run with it and see where it goes.”
The rescheduling of the Games could not have arrived at a more opportune moment for Kenny, whose “Olympic year” was tinged with misfortune before the pandemic hit. The 28-year-old fractured a shoulder in a horrific crash at the World Cup in Canada in January, hitting the deck so hard while leading the omnium that she could not remember finishing the race.
She resisted surgery to compete at the World Track Championships the following month, where she was involved in a five-rider pile-up, only briefly stopping to receive stitches to her bloodied face before completing the entire event.
Cyclists such as British road racing specialist Lizzie Deignan have spoken of how childbirth has upped their physical tolerance, but for Kenny, who returned to competitive racing in Feb 2018 six months after giving birth to son, Albert, it appears innate.
“I’ve always thought I’ve got a high pain threshold,” she says. “I don’t know why – we crash all the time, it’s part and parcel of it. I just didn’t want to give up on the Olympic dream. I just thought, ‘No broken shoulder is going to get in the way of competing at the worlds, because I’ve given up so much time with Albie, I’d sacrificed so much up until that point’.”
Nor was a broken humerus. Kenny rode round for three weeks after those championships without realising the top of her ball and socket joint was sliced clean through. She attributed the pain to her recently healed shoulder, but when she struggled to even hunch over her time-trial bike, she knew something was wrong. “I honestly had to swing my arm into position, I couldn’t get it to go on the tri-bars without basically moving it with my other hand,” she says. “It was incredible pain but, as an athlete, you just push through it.
“To then hear 10 days later that the Olympics were being postponed for a year, I was like, ‘I am so happy about this.’ Not happy in the sense that Covid-19 has been absolutely horrendous, but in terms of my career, happy that it was postponed. I just wouldn’t have been ready for a madison.”
Kenny took time off after that to allow her arm to heal, but when lockdown hit, she found a whole new gear. Time juggled between training in her garage gym in Cheshire and home schooling with husband Jason, the six-time British Olympic track medallist, (“I taught Albie letters, Jase taught him the numbers”) means she is likely to look back on the lockdown with fond memories.
“It would have literally been the busiest time of the year, so initially I was like, ‘How are we going to do this?’ Especially not having the grandparents coming round – they’re our babysitters. We just worked it out together,” she says.
Having attended her first training camp without Albert earlier this year, hours of family time during the lockdown was not just an unexpected bonus – it has resulted in what Kenny unashamedly admits has been “the best three months” of her whole Olympic cycle.
Her overriding memory will be watching little Albert become a fully fledged cyclist. Some 1.3 million people in the UK bought a bike during lockdown as the public were forced to exercise outside, and it seemed appropriate for Britain’s most successful cycling family to do the same.
“Before lockdown, he [Albert] was just not interested at all in his bike,” Kenny says. “But because Jase was looking for things for him to do, we thought, ‘Let’s just get him a bike and see what happens’.
“We had the Strider – one which doesn’t have pedals and is a balance bike – we had that from day one, because it’s like a rocking horse. We had him on that for ages but we got him a bike a month ago, and he just took to it.”
When your parents share a combined total of 10 Olympic gold medals between them, it is easy to see why. A recent Instagram post shows an elated Kenny brimming with pride as she keeps close to her two-year-old confidently pedalling his miniature red bike down a residential street without stabilisers. She has, however, been transparent about the pressure she hopes her son will not be exposed to in PE classes at school, just because the sport is “in his genes”.
The surge in the number of people on two wheels during lockdown – along with the Government’s £2 billion plan to kick-start a “cycling revolution” to help tackle obesity in the wake of the pandemic – is equally as exciting and relatable for Kenny, who started out in the sport only because her mother, Glenda, chose cycling to lose weight.
“When lockdown first started, you could pretty much go on any road that tends to be busier and they were filled with cyclists,” says Kenny. “Some of the routes around Cheshire, like the hills, the amount of people on bikes was unbelievable. I like the fact that everyone’s like, ‘Oh are we going to turn into a cycling nation?’ And I’m like yeah, finally, let’s do this.”
Having topped the podium in the team pursuit and omnium at the London and Rio Games, Kenny is on course for the ‘triple double’ in those events and will also target the madison in Tokyo, where the number of women on the Great Britain Olympic team will outweigh men.
She is one of three British female Olympians – along with taekwondo star Jade Jones and equestrian’s Charlotte Dujardin – who could create history by claiming a third consecutive individual gold in Japan. If she did, would she target a fourth after that?
“I can’t imagine me ever retiring,” she says. “People ask me about it all the time, but I don’t want to think about it. I just enjoy cycling too much. I took a year off so now it’s [the Olympic cycle] the length it would have been if I hadn’t had a baby. It doesn’t really feel that much longer for me now.”