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Lauren Bell content to take long road to Olympics after missing out on Paris

Former athletics hopeful Lauren Bell looking at bigger picture after Worlds woe <i>(Image: Getty)</i>
Former athletics hopeful Lauren Bell looking at bigger picture after Worlds woe (Image: Getty)

Lauren Bell has come to terms with the fact that her Paris Olympic dream is over.

In the last two years, the 24-year-old has played a key part in transforming women’s sprinting from the ‘weak link’ of British track cycling to one of the jewels in its crown.

Sadly, she will not have the chance to see it through to this summer’s Games.

“If someone said a few years ago that I’d be in contention to go to these Olympics, I would never have believed them,” she says. “It’s frustrating but I’ve got a long way to go in my career.”

The season-opening UCI Nations Cup in Adelaide in February did not go to plan. Bell got caught in the starting gate and hurt her back, seeing her replaced for the final by two-time Olympic medallist Katy Marchant.

It left her unable to give her best at February’s British Championships and out of contention for selection for Paris 2024, where the track cycling programme starts on 5 August.

It is the latest twist in a knotty sporting tale that began in the Highlands. Native to Forres and born to two military parents, Bell was one of those kids who had to be kept on a leash because she ran before she could walk. Fittingly athletics, not cycling, was her first passion.

“Athletics was where my heart lay,” said Bell, who became a multi-eventer. “We didn’t have many facilities in the Highlands and running - you can do it anywhere. Cross-country is quite a big thing in the area and that’s how I started out and just fell into it.

“I now realise how lucky I was to grow up there. You take for granted that it’s an amazing place; I’ve got multiple beaches, mountains, and woods on my doorstep.”

In 2016, Bell spotted a UK Sport talent identification programme targeting powerful 15-21-year-old men and women to be fast-tracked into the world of high-performance sport - fronted by Marchant and Sir Chris Hoy.

One of Bell’s favourite events was the discus throw, imbuing her with strength and explosiveness that would see her earn a place on the British Cycling programme. The process was a dizzying one.

“I was really nervous at first,” said Bell. “Jason Kenny or Katie Archibald would be on the track, really big names, and I felt embarrassed to be on the track with them. I felt silly.

“I think it was a bit of imposter syndrome. Those people have Olympic medals - I don’t want to crash and knock them off, or get in their way. I was just overthinking.

“In the individual races like sprint and keirin, I was so far behind everyone else just on tactics. There aren’t many races on a world level you can learn and fail in, but domestically you can win the races just by being quick enough and you don’t learn anything from that.

“I was frustrated that I’d missed all of those early years to develop those skills.”

Bell was kicked off the GB programme in August 2018 - just too late to accept university offers, leaving her future uncertain.

“It was pretty rubbish,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I’d given my all and I didn’t know how I’d carry on in the sport. I hadn’t grown up in it…I didn’t even have a bike.”

That is where Scottish Cycling stepped in and then-gym coach Paul Coyle reached out to her, offering support and a training base, that would see her work with national sprint coach Dave Daniell and Ryan Lateward.

Before she moved to the big city in 2019, Bell’s dad was ferrying her from Forres to Glasgow on seven-hour round trips to stay in the sport.

“The support I was given was amazing,” she said. “It actually gave me time to learn about bikes. Learn how to ride a bike, learn how to do mechanics, learn what the parts of a bike are called!

“It gave me a greater appreciation for the sport. I went and bought all of my kit and it has made me more of a well-rounded bike rider. It took me back to the basics and I fell in love with the sport.

"Scottish Cycling is such a nice environment and a place to be in. Everyone is happy to see everyone else do well and it's a really nice place to learn. A blessing in disguise, for sure."

Reinvigorated and by now a full-time university student at Edinburgh Napier, Bell smashed the 2020 British Championships out of the park. She won keirin and time trial gold medals to wrest back her place on the programme in April just as the world was coming to terms with the Covid-19 lockdown.

"It was quite frustrating but I'm lucky I had the chance to show what I could do," said Bell. "I might not have had the chance a year later. That British Championships was one of my proudest moments."

Bell is now one of over 1,000 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, allowing her to train full-time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering medical support.

Her rise as a rider coincided with a turnaround in GB's fortunes in the discipline.

The golden era of Victoria Pendleton gave way to a fallow period that saw Team GB fail to qualify a women's sprint team for the Olympics at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. Post-Tokyo, when the event switched from a two-rider to three-rider discipline, GB were poised to pounce with a new crop of riders including Bell, world champion Emma Finucane, Sophie Capewell, Blaine Ridge-Davis and Milly Tanner.

Like all top sprinters, Bell timed her move perfectly. She broke through in 2022, coinciding with the appointment of inspirational Australian coach Kaarle McCulloch, winning team sprint bronze at the World Championships.

"There was a whole new philosophy going into the team with Kaarle," says Bell. "We need someone there giving us all this attention, believing in us and giving us good programmes.

"2022 was when I first started showing promise, I guess, we went to Worlds and got a medal. That's when I think I needed to remember that I was still young in 'bike years'. I started getting a bit ahead of myself then."

The road to Paris seemed to run smoothly with a home World Championships in Glasgow a perfect pit stop, but 2023 was where things began to unravel.

"I wanted to stay on this trajectory of keeping pushing for the Olympics and I wanted to hit the Worlds hard," said Bell. "I stopped doing things that made me happy outside of cycling. I would cancel dinner with friends because I needed to eat what I needed to eat.

"I think I let all this pressure and stress get to me and I wasn't really in that good of a way. I had a home Worlds and I didn't enjoy it because I was so nervous.

"I couldn't get to sleep at night because it was all going over in my head and it was not good."

You would think that Bell had crashed out of the competition entirely but she won silver, Britain's best result in the event in a decade, less than a tenth of a second behind the victorious Germans. So fine are the margins that her own performance did not quite hit the mark.

"I underperformed personally for what I would want to do," she said. "I had been doing really good times on track and I think it was a mental block."

There will be no first Olympics for Bell, who as a track and field athlete always dreamt of representing Team GB.

In its place is a new perspective that may well be more precious than any kind of metal.

"I came into this year with the goal of enjoying it more," said Bell. "I'm doing things that make me feel good and enjoying riding my bike because I know that if I'm happy, I'll go well.

"The result is that I actually feel a lot better and happier on my bike. So I think it will pay off in the long run."

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