Her sport may be in lockdown, but Kilkenny cyclist Mia Griffin is making the stoppage work for her by getting in extra training
The coronavirus pandemic means the Swiss mountains have become a second home to Kilkenny cyclist Mia Griffin. It’s hard work but the challenge has been worth it
The coronavirus has left an indelible mark on many parts of the sporting world and cycling is no different.
However, one Kilkenny athlete has been determined to make the lockdown work for her.
Rewind a few months and the world seemed to have opened up for Mia Griffin. The Glenmore native had just helped the Irish women’s pursuit cycling team set a new national record at the Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin. After that, the chance to get some much-needed experience on the pro cycling circuit beckoned.
Then - the red light came on in the global shutdown.
However, the Kilkenny woman isn’t one to dwell on the what-ifs.
“Obviously without racing it’s been different,” she said, speaking from her training base in Switzerland. The pandemic has really changed my training programme, but it’s been positive as I’ve been able to work on my cycling.
“In the three years I’ve been riding a bike (up to a few years ago camogie was her chosen sport, but a chance encounter with cycling led her down a different path) I’ve been pretty much immersed in track training; I never got as solid a block of road training as I’ve been able to get now.
“I’ve trained really hard, so this time has given me an opportunity to focus solely on training with no other distractions to take my attention.”
Things could have worked out so differently for Griffin, but timing – and location - played a part in her decision-making when the world ground to a halt through the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was really lucky as I’d been racing in Belgium and spent a month there after the Track World Championships,” she explained. “I competed in four races there but once the coronavirus pandemic started getting bigger I decided to get out of the country and move to Switzerland, where my boyfriend lives – I’ve been here ever since.
“Switzerland has been really good for training,” she added. “We were always allowed to go cycling on the roads here; we never had to train on the turbo (a static trainer which allows cyclists to cycle without leaving their home) like other athletes. I was really lucky to be here and to get the chance to spend three months training on the road, doing longer hours than I’d ever done before.”
The last few months have been far from easy, but it’s great to hear an athlete take a positive from the situation.
“When it happened I was lucky I wasn’t in a situation where my training was restricted to a 2km or even 5km limit,” she said. “I always had the freedom to be able to train on the road.
“I was grateful for that,” she added. “I was grateful for the fact I wasn’t stuck indoors like a lot of other people found themselves. I know that if I was in Ireland I would have spent a lot of time on the turbo or going around in circles in 5km loops – my motivation would definitely have taken a hit.
“That’s not to say there haven’t been times where my motivation hasn’t suffered,” she added. “A lot of that is down to a lack of racing, but because every athlete is in the same boat the ones who have the best attitude towards their situation will come out better. Racing will go back to normal at the end of this; there’ll be no excuse why you’re not racing well.
“That’s been the driving force for me,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to go back racing and feel like I’m at a disadvantage to other riders.”
Having signed to race with Belgian team ILLI Bikes, Griffin has just started to get a feeling of what the pro circuit was like before the pandemic struck.
“My first race was a Belgian classic straight after the Track Worlds,” she said. “That would have been the start of a block of road races and kermesse races (“these are little local circuit races where any cyclist can turn up,” she explained).
“The level of racing in Belgium is quite high, and the races I took part in were an eye-opener,” she said. “I went to one local kermesse and because of the coronavirus a pro team called Sunweb arrived at the start line – everyone was like ‘what the hell?’.
“My plan was to stay in Belgium and to race for another month, then come home to do a training block in preparation for the European Under-23 Championships which were meant to be in July,” she added. “After that there would have been the Road Nationals, which hopefully will still go ahead, but road races would have been the bulk of my work.
“This was a chance to explore the road a bit better,” she said. “I wanted to do the road events to learn how to suffer better for the track.”
That might sound like torture, but there is method in the madness.
“In a road race you’ll get many different blocks of tough periods,” she explained. “Track cycling is like a super-concentrated road race where all the hardest parts are concentrated into a really short window of time.
“I spoke with my coach about it and he was the one who presented me with the opportunity to race with ILLI Bikes and take the chance to see what it’s like to suffer.
“It is hard, but it’s something that’s a mad experience,” she added. “You go to Belgium, where 130 or 140 girls take to the start line of a race and it’s mayhem. In my first race I crashed into another girl’s wheel and one of the spokes came out. I stood on the side of the road waiting for the team car to come with another wheel but when they get there you have to try and chase down the rest of the riders – it’s a different world from the track. You’d be in the cold and wet weather in Belgium racing and you’re wishing for a warm velodrome!”
That might sound tough, but Griffin loves a challenge.
“It’s really different but it’s really cool,” she added. “Being out of your comfort zone is a great way to learn.
“I did one race, Le Samyn, which was like a shorter version of the Paris-Roubaix (one of the oldest professional men’s cycling road races, this is a one-day event which starts in Northern France and finishes in Roubaix at the border with Belgium).
“It has loads of cobble sections and was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You can’t prepare somebody for cycling on cobblestones for the first time – they’re brutal. About five kilometres before that cobble section there’s a race to get to the front. When 100-odd girls want to get to the front at the same time it can be very stressful, but it was a cool experience.
“A lot of pro riders featured in the event, so I was delighted just to finish the race,” she added. “Of the 140 girls who started the race little more than half the field finished. I was so happy to complete it in 74th place, a good result considering the conditions.”
Working through the pain barrier was tough, but it has given Griffin some valuable experience.
“I’m looking forward to going back racing now that I know how fit all the girls who race professionally on the road are,” she said. “I’m trying to catch up, which is what I’ve been doing in terms of training throughout this pandemic. Some of the other cyclists have years of endurance training under their belts, so for me it’s about squeezing as much training in as I can while the season has been stopped.”
And for a lot of training, read a lot of kilometres.
“I did my longest ever cycle the other day,” she said. “We did 200km, which took six and a half hours. It was a long day on the bike, but at the end it felt like I had achieved something which was great. At this stage it’s great to be able to do this much training; hopefully I can continue that when I come home.”
Griffin won’t have long to wait before she’s back on local roads and with her family (parents PJ and Maria and siblings Isobel, Danielle, Killian and Oisin).
“I’ll be coming home to Kilkenny on June 15, but I’ll have to spend two weeks in isolation. I’ll train on my own but I’m sure there’ll be loads of people around to train with after that.”
She will also get the chance to link up with her coaches and members of the Irish track team, no mean feat as they are scattered across Europe at present.
“Three girls and one guy from the track teams are in Mallorca at present, two girls are in the UK, two guys in Ireland and I’m in Switzerland so it’s complicated for track training!
“We’ve been able to keep in touch with a weekly Zoom meeting which is run by High Performance director Brian Nugent while our physical coach Tommy Evans gives us our training plans. We do a weekly check-in every Tuesday to see everyone’s getting on ok.
“It’s really important we have that as it makes sure everyone is coping well at this time and it keeps up all up to date with what’s happening at home.”
And home means spending time with her family.
“It’s been tough at times not seeing my family, but they know I’m in a good place to train and that I will be home eventually,” she said. “I’m very lucky to have such supportive parents.”
The support of her family and coaches was key to Griffin’s great learning experience. Now she wants to take that to the next level and use it to propel her towards her ultimate goal - the 2024 Olympics.
“While I was in Belgium, I felt a rapid progression in my ability between the second and the fourth race,” she said. “I saw how fit the top girls in the sport are, and see their training records on Strava and that motivates me to do even more. I want to get to their level, and I know the only way to do that is to train and put the hours in.
“I want to do well in the sport,” she said. “I haven’t pursued the college route for a while so I want to go full gas at this. The Paris 2024 Olympics is the goal. That’s what I want and what I’m building for on the track. If I get enough time and the opportunity to explore road racing I’d love to eventually get on a UCI team and be a pro rider on the road. Through the track I’ve had the opportunity to ride on the road but it’s something I haven’t fully explored yet.
“As I do more of it, it’s something I want to do, so I won’t stop until I have achieved what I want to achieve,” she finished. “I really want to put everything I have into what I’m doing right now.”