Exclusive Libby Clegg interview: 'I thought cycling would be so much simpler - it's terrifying'

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Picture shows Paralympic athletics champion Libby Clegg who has just moved into cycling. Libby wearing pink is photographed with her pilot Helen Scott during a training session at Manchester Velodrome, Tuesday Nov. 23, 2021 - Exclusive Libby Clegg interview: 'I thought cycling would be so much simpler - it's terrifying' - JON SUPER
Picture shows Paralympic athletics champion Libby Clegg who has just moved into cycling. Libby wearing pink is photographed with her pilot Helen Scott during a training session at Manchester Velodrome, Tuesday Nov. 23, 2021 - Exclusive Libby Clegg interview: 'I thought cycling would be so much simpler - it's terrifying' - JON SUPER

Given the logistical headaches involved in her new career, it is no wonder an apologetic Libby Clegg is slightly late for our scheduled chat at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre.

For most of her adult life, Clegg’s commute involved no more than a five-minute hop from her Loughborough home to the local athletics track. As of last week, it has become a three-hour cross-country trek involving two trains and a tram, before undertaking the same journey again in the evening.

Too gruelling a trip for her beloved guide dog Hatti, it leaves one of Britain’s most successful visually-impaired sportspeople with only her white cane for guidance. “I didn’t think about the logistics,” she admits sheepishly of her decision to launch stage two of her sporting career.

Over more than a decade, Clegg was one of the most recognisable and decorated para-athletes in Britain. Paralympic sprint silver medals in 2008 and 2012 preceded double gold in 2016, before a final silver marked the end in Tokyo this summer. Aged 31 and with four Paralympic Games behind her, she announced her athletics retirement.

Yet little more than two months on, she is back with sights firmly set on Paris 2024. Clegg the athlete has become Clegg the cyclist. At least, she will be in due course. Today is only her third time inside a velodrome.

“I hadn’t ridden a bike for years, back when my sight was better and I was able to cycle alone,” says Clegg, who has the degenerative eye condition Stargardt disease.

“Athletics has so many minute technical things that make a big difference. I don’t know why but I thought cycling would be so much more simple. It’s not!

“It’s way more complicated than I initially thought, although I’m quite happy because I don’t have to control the bike – I just do what the pilot says. I do close my eyes though because it’s terrifying.”

Her learning curve is steep; from wearing underwear when riding – “I made that mistake and it really wasn’t comfortable” – to buying chamois cream to stop any chafing, nuggets that are second nature to cyclists are lessons for the uninitiated.

Only last month did Clegg first sit on a tandem track bike and whizz round the velodrome on her testing day. “When we went up the side I was s----ing myself,” she admits.

A number of para-cycling friends – including dual Paralympic athletics and cycling champion Kadeena Cox – had attempted to coax Clegg into the sport for some time, but she wanted to “close my athletics chapter” before starting a new one.

That closure had been a long time coming in her mind. The decision to end her athletics career after the Tokyo Paralympics was originally reached in January 2020, soon after coming third as the first blind contestant on the ice-skating television show Dancing On Ice.

Libby Clegg and Mark Hanretty during the Dancing On Ice 2019 photocall at ITV Studios on December 09, 2019 in London, England - WIREIMAGE
Libby Clegg and Mark Hanretty during the Dancing On Ice 2019 photocall at ITV Studios on December 09, 2019 in London, England - WIREIMAGE

At that point, she was “in incredible shape” and primed to defend her T11 100 metres and 200m titles in Japan, only for the Covid pandemic to hit. “I was gutted,” she says. “Having decided I was going to retire from athletics, I knew I’d then have to go on for another 18 months.”

It was a struggle. Clegg had always alternated her small elite training sessions with larger group sessions where she worked alongside university students and club athletes, who ran purely for the love of the sport. Their enthusiasm fuelled her own passion.

When lockdowns and bubble life forced Clegg to live an increasingly solitary existence, her desire faded.

“It just wasn’t fun,” she says. “It took the social element out of it and I really struggled to motivate myself. I wasn’t around the people who made me enjoy running. It was mostly mental rather than physical, but then I ended up with little injuries and my Achilles started going.”

When Britain’s athletics team for Tokyo was initially selected, she was only named as a reserve before gaining a spot when another athlete withdrew. Hampered by her troubled build-up and troublesome Achilles, she made a calculated decision not to over-exert herself in her individual event, exiting in the heats and saving her energy for the mixed 4x100m relay. She classes the silver she won alongside her GB team-mates as the proudest medal of her career after the “mental breakdown” that followed her double gold at Rio 2016 and the birth of her son Edward in 2019.

SEPTEMBER 03: Libby Clegg of Team Great Britain and her guide Chris Clarke competes in the 4x100m Universal Relay heat on day 10 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan - GETTY IMAGES
SEPTEMBER 03: Libby Clegg of Team Great Britain and her guide Chris Clarke competes in the 4x100m Universal Relay heat on day 10 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan - GETTY IMAGES

“I was so unhappy after Rio,” she says. “After Tokyo I was just happy. I’ve matured and grown as a person, and my outlook is very different to what it was around Rio.

“I felt horrible then. I just felt really numb that I’d done all the hard work and winning gold didn’t feel like I wanted. I was happy for two weeks and then these feelings of not knowing who I was crept in. Edward has changed that. He makes me happy every day.”

Last weekend, she held an athletics retirement party to “celebrate properly” with everyone who had helped her reach the sport’s pinnacle, and she now has six months to make her mark in cycling.

After that, British Cycling will decide whether to retain her on their programme, although her early power output scores suggest any thoughts of rejection would be misplaced. It is not a question of whether she is good enough, but just how good she could be.

Guided by pilot Helen Scott, who has won Paralympic medals at the last three Games, the immediate aim is the British Championships in January – which will be Clegg’s first ever cycling competition – followed by the as yet unconfirmed World Championships in April and Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July.

Tick those boxes and attention will soon turn to whether she can match the likes of Cox and Sarah Storey as Paralympic champions across multiple sports. Do not rule out further celebrity television ­appearances either.

“I wouldn’t say no to anything,” says Clegg. “That’s my motto now: just say yes to things. That’s why I’m in this situation trying to be a cyclist.”