Janet Birkmyre won’t be a new name to you if you follow Masters racing; the woman has won on a prolific scale but not just as a Master, at UK Elite level too.
Here’s her tale…
Please give us a resume of your British, European and World Masters titles, Janet – and I believe you have won British Elite Titles?
“Three elite national titles (Scratch Race 2012, Derny Paced 2008 and 2015).
“Eight elite National Series wins in the 10 years 2005 to 2015.
“37 World Masters titles.
“28 European Masters titles.
“57 National Masters titles.
“These are not titles I know, but I have had a couple of wins on the road too, including: Tour de France women’s support race, Hyde Park 2007, Tour of Britain women’s support race, 2006 The Mall and 2007 Crystal Palace, Hillingdon Grand Prix 2009.”
And tell us about the records you hold.
“That’s a much shorter list!
“Hilariously I hold the national record for 5k on a tandem, set in 2006 with Hannah Manley.
“It is a random, non-competitive distance and that was why it was up for grabs and has not been broken.
“My individual World Masters Records previously set over 200m, 500m and 2K have all been lowered but when the Masters National records are published I should have four of those.
“The record set in the Team Sprint with Ali Chisholm of 36.55 (2013) and Team Pursuit with Maddy Moore and Mel Sneddon of 2:27.886 (2016) still stand.”
Has an age group Hour Record bid ever crossed your mind?
“No, why would anyone what to do that to themselves, it sounds horrible, I have always said that 500m is quite long enough to sort out any argument.
“In truth I have so much respect for anyone taking on the challenge of an hour record but it would take some serious arm twisting to persuade me that it was a good idea.
“Although, now that you mention it I have to say that it has rather peeked my interest … (heads off to do some research!).”
You came late to the bike, how/why?
“I grew up on a farm and had always been active, with horses being my competitive outlet growing up.
“It will be difficult for those who know me now to believe but I was very small as a child and I did not stand out at anything athletic at school.
“Once I graduated I poured all of my energy into my career and there was no time for anything else, until I woke up and realised I was working too hard and living too little.
“I gave up my job to travel around the world, finishing with a ski-season in Chamonix.
“Here I met a group of guys who were there to climb Mont Blanc. I am a reasonably handy skier and spent some time with them, in return they introduced me to mountain biking in the Peak District and it was immediately a passion.
“I turned to road cycling while I was working as a consultant with Marks & Spencer in London and thanks to The Twickenham I got my first taste of track cycling. That was 2001 and I was 35.
“I took some persuading to start racing, which included a 2up TT with my husband shortly after we got engaged. I recall telling him how much I hated him in the last two miles of that race and he just laughed and told me he hated me too but that was normal.
“I took even more persuading to race on the track, the thought of it terrified me, but actually once I was up on the track the nerves disappeared and I quickly realised it played to my strengths.
“I guess we all enjoy doing the things we are good at.”
What do you do for a living?
“I work as a marketing consultant, specialising in Trade Marketing (marketing between businesses, for example grocery brands such as Tanqueray and Coca Cola and the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury) and I also work with companies to measure and improve the customer experience they offer.
“It is pretty full-on at times and requires quite a bit of travel from Worcester to Scotland, the North East, South Wales and all points in between.
“That said I am my own boss, so wherever possible I try to avoid big travel weeks and back to back meetings in the days leading up to an event that matters to me.”
How do you fit training in?
“Often with some difficulty.
“If I am coming back from a long trip I will phone my husband and ask him to put a bottle on my bike in the garage because I know that if I get home and relax I will lose the will to train, but the legs never seem to work well after long trip in the car.
“Like everyone who works for a living, the weekends offer some high quality training time and in the lead-up to big events I ink the occasional trip to the Newport velodrome into my diary.
“It’s not easy but I know that I am not alone in trying to find a balance and my non-cycling friends are incredibly understanding.”
You compete in a wide range of disciplines, how do you accommodate that in your training?
“Some might argue that I am ‘a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none’.
“I guess there is a little bit of compromise and that is why I allowed myself to be talked out of continuing with the match sprint by my then coach, Chris Davies.
“He suggested I could not do it justice, riding it as a bolt-on event while trying to specialise in the pursuit and bunch races, especially as I was racing women who focussed on shorter distances and more explosive power but to be fair I had had some success with sprinting until this point.
“These days I focus on the individual pursuit and my feeling is that the training I do for this works reasonably well for the other disciplines; 500m TT, scratch, points, team sprint and team pursuit.
“Certainly the results suggest the bunch racing and 500m time trial have not been compromised as I become more and more focussed on the IP and even the odd 10 mile TT all work well to build a bit of endurance.”
Do you have a coach and/or mentor?
“Absolutely yes, I have both a coach and several mentors.
“My husband David Jack was my first coach and determined my training programme for the first six years, up to 2012.
“He has always believed in me and still supports me behind the scenes now.
“I then worked with Chris Davis until 2017 when a number of things conspired to make life difficult.
“Most notably my health was not good.
“I really struggled both on and off the bike and after months of feeling dreadful I eventually went to see the doctor, who took bloods and diagnosed me with hyperthyroidism.
“That seriously curtailed my training over the 2016/2017 winter and well into the spring when I found it very difficult to get back into proper training and racing having missed so much.
“That’s when Ivor Reid stepped up. We had known each other for years and we would meet up in Mallorca to train together. He had so many amazing stories and we would talk for hours – what was said on the bike stayed on the bike obviously – but I just loved those rides, his company, his humour and his ability to make me feel like a proper cyclist.
“Ivor’s offer to coach me fell out of all of this and he seeded the idea of going for the 2K record at a time when I felt a little lost for direction with my cycling.
“Since he has passed I have started working with Steve Cronshaw, who again I have known for years and have huge respect for.
“His approach to my training is quite different to anything I have done before but I am really enjoying working with him.
“He is very similar to Ivor in temperament and incredibly patient with me.
“He is challenging what I do and how I do it, just what I need to breathe life into my cycling at the end of a difficult season.
“As far as mentors are concerned, David is the most constant but it would be remiss of me not to mention Graham Bristow, who has had a huge influence in turning me into a cyclist. I met him at my first Masters Nationals in 2005 and following that he called me out of the blue to offer me some derny paced training.
“Graham taught me to suffer in a way that I had never suffered before. I knew that he was giving up his time to help me and I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. At the end of those sessions I would leave Herne Hill on my knees but it gave me the confidence to push myself I races and I found some new limits.
“While it was never the original goal, we went on to race together in the National Derny Championships for a full decade, picking up two titles which reflects on his abilities as a pacer more than it does on mine as a cyclist.
“I owe him a huge debt of thanks for everything he has taught me and for the fun we have had along the way.”
How do you maintain your motivation, year in, year out?
“In the early days it was easy, I remember coming away from my first elite National Championships in 2005 having finished fourth in the sprint and I was determined to win a medal the following year.
“I was so fired up that I managed a huge block of training that winter, despite working a particularly difficult job, 60+ hours a week and with a nasty commute thrown in for good measure.
“To be fair to myself, it has only been very recently, that my motivation has wobbled and that has been largely down to illness and injury.
“It’s so hard to keep motivated when you feel ill and the doctor has told you not to raise your heart rate above 120bpm.
“When I was at my lowest ebb Ivor stepped in and helped me focus on getting healthy, he gave me a goal that got me back into proper training and more than all of that he made me feel like I could still achieve something worthwhile.
“I miss him dreadfully.”
Tell us about your current team.
“The TORQ Performance Track Team is just amazing and the friendships now extend way beyond what we all do on the bike.
“I actually started riding for TORQ back in 2012 and won the national title in the scratch race in their colours.
“It was a natural choice for me to represent them because I had found their products, knew they were clean, well-researched and very effective.
“The team now includes Mel Sneddon, Maddy Moore, Lou Haston and Justin McKie who are all really lovely people, hilarious, generous and outstanding athletes too.
“If ever the motivation dips a training session or race meeting with any one of them puts me right back on it.
“I have never laughed as much as I do now, track centre around these crazy people.
“And best of all, they make me look normal!”
Are you an ‘equipment girl’ or do you just ride what’s available?
“I would say I ride what I am given but that only tells half the story. My husband is definitely a ‘Gear Geek’ and is all about getting the very best kit, he is forever in search of things that will make me faster; wheels, helmets, bearings…
“In the early days I used to feel uncomfortable with him spending money on kit for me, I can remember he wanted to buy me an aero helmet that cost £90 and I told him not to because I was not good enough to justify it.
“Of course he bought it anyway and we shared it to get the best value for money.
“Now I embrace every tiny little performance gain he can find for me in terms of kit and then I ask for more!
“These days I am lucky to be very well supported but I really don’t believe in compromise when it comes to equipment, so I am lucky that the TORQ team sponsorship includes a Felt track frame and Lake have supplied their beautiful cycling shoes to me for years.
“Like I said, I don’t do compromise.”
Have you done any aero testing to optimise your position?
“Oh yes. I booked a session with WattShop and went to see Dan Bigham – it was a revelation and worth every penny.
“I know that with a full time job I cannot train like a pro but I can afford to buy some things that help me getting the most out of myself, for me that is all part of controlling the controllables and I would thoroughly recommend it.”
Tell us about your current steed.
“You’re going to be jealous but, ok then, you did ask!
“I will be riding a TK FRD in 2019, teamed with Mavic wheels, Scatto bars and an ISM saddle, always an ISM saddle.
“David is also building up a Felt FR1 for me which will have Dura Ace Di2, again with an ISM saddle and Garmin Vector pedals, and since my days of racing crits and road are mostly over this is primarily for training on the road.”
What’s still on the JB ‘to do’ list?
“As far as next season is concerned that’s crystal clear for me, thanks to Ivor Reid; we were riding in Mallorca talking about motivation and he suggested I work towards setting a new World Best Time for the 2k pursuit in my age group (50-54).
“I actually held the record for about five minutes in 2016 – it was immediately lowered in the heat after mine during qualifying and Jayne Paine’s record of 1:31.595 is not to be taken on lightly.
“Secondary to that but still a stated goal is to lower the world best time for the 500m TT, which I did this year at the Masters Nationals but UKADA failed to turn up to conduct tests, so I have to ride that again.
“I have always set very specific goals but more recently it has become harder to make those fresh and motivating.
“The IP record has really a got grip on me though and I only wish I could have achieved it while I was working with Ivor.”
What’s your take on the ‘transgender’ issue – ‘biological’ men riding as women?
“This is such a hot topic just now. My view is that we live in a society where we are allowed an opinion and personally I love a healthy debate.
“We can all agree to disagree but should do so in a respectful way and for my part I have been really disappointed at the abuse that has been directed at individual transgender athletes and I certainly don’t want to fan those flames.
“I am also aware that I do not have any medical qualifications and I am no expert on sports ethics either.
“Let me start by saying that the rules allow transgender athletes to race, so if anyone disagrees with that they need to take issue with the rules and not the individuals.
“Added to that I think we can all agree that we do not live in a world that is black and white, there are many shades of grey in areas where decades ago we perhaps did not acknowledge them. Gender is one of those.
“My father competed in the double sculls at the 1960 Rome Olympics and he has told me how medallists had to ‘prove’ their gender by allowing medical staff to visually check their bodies.
“Well, 58 years on from that we know that a visual test cannot detect intersex conditions for example.
“For me sport should be all about fair play and it is difficult for me to understand how a person born male – who has grown up and developed as a man – can compete fairly against a naturally born woman.
“I am aware of the rules about testosterone levels that apply to transgender athletes however this does not, in my opinion, address the potential for them to be at an advantage because they have spent their formative years with a mix of male hormones, typically developing greater height, strength, stamina, muscle mass and lung capacity than the average naturally born female.
“If it were up to me, I would like to see a separate category for transgender, as we have for para and transplant athletes.
“I know the argument against this is that there are not enough transgender athletes competing but that argument could be applied to the 80+ year old masters category.
“Until very recently there were not enough athletes for this age group to be recognised but from 2019 (at least at a National Masters level) they will be.
“The practice of sport is (according to the IOC philosophy) a human right but I feel that we need to be mindful of how we exercise that right and be sure we do not do so at the expense of someone else’s human rights.
“So if we agree that transgender athletes are not and cannot ever become anatomically, biologically and physically identical to naturally born women – and since fairness is in my opinion the underlying principle of sport – then the right of biological women to fair competition is sacrificed by allowing transgender athletes to compete against them.”
With thanks to Janet for taking time to tell us about her career and some thought provoking comment on one of the hottest ‘chestnuts’ around.