It was that man Harry Tweed who suggested we speak to a lady who was hugely successful in Scotland in the 1990’s until her career was cut short by a horror accident.
She’s Sarah Rowe these days but in the world of cycling she’s remembered as Sarah Phillips; Scottish Champion at 10 and 25 miles in 1988, 1990 and 1991 with Scottish records at 10 miles with 22:43, 25 miles with 57:18 and 50 miles with 2:00:51 achieved during 1990.
And that’s before we discuss her RTTC successes; RTTC 50 mile Champion in 1992 and runner-up in the 25 mile championship by one second; RTTC 25 mile Champion in 1993; RTTC 10 mile Champion in 1995.
Here’s her tale:
How and when did you get into cycling?
“I guess it depends on what you mean by “cycling”.
“As youngsters my brother and I rode bikes with our parents for family days out.
“My parents used to ride solo and latterly a tandem for the pure pleasure of pedalling and seeing the countryside.
“We were encouraged to see the bike as a means to enjoy what was around us but we were never forced to do it.
“My brother and I spent our teenage years at the local riding school obsessed with horses and competing in show jumping events.
“We used our bikes to get to the stables every day come rain or shine.
“This was a six mile round trip after school and at weekends which was a means to get to the horses but in hindsight it served as a good base for my future cycling.
“I did a couple of touring holidays with my parents and went to the CTC Birthday Rides which I loved and became interested in trying a time trial after seeing these at the York Rally.
“Around this time I was struggling to be competitive in the show jumping arena due to having a horse who insisted on knocking down the last jump.
“I met friends from school who had become involved in triathlon (canoeing, cycling and running) and were competing in a quadrathlon which required someone to ride a horse for the team.
“I agreed to do this and went to see what they did for training.
“I started cycling with them and found that I could keep up with quite a few of them thanks to the years of cycling up to the stables come rain or shine.
“In the end my horse was lame and I didn’t ever do the team quadrathlon but I was hooked on the training.
“I continued to dabble with some triathlon and canoeing. One of my friends was Robert Lindsay (son of the famous Sandy Lindsay) who encouraged me to try a 10 mile TT (1985).
“I reluctantly did this and loved it at the same time as breaking the female club record.
“The next morning I joined Deeside Thistle CC and that was the start!”
Your RTTC championship wins: 1992 the ’50’ – 1993 the ’25’ – 1995 the ’10’ were there other podiums?
“To be absolutely honest I can’t actually remember.
“I did get some silver [‘25’] and bronzes as well as the wins mentioned but can’t remember what or when.
“I also got silver in the BCF 3K Individual Pursuit Champs in 1994.”
I remember a controversy about one of your medals – was it a timekeeping mistake which went against you?
“Again I struggle to remember the details but it was the RTTC ‘25’ Champs and basically I won the event but a week later I had a phone call to say that there had been an error in the timing and that another rider had won the title.
“It appears that the rider’s husband had got a different time from the timekeeper and queried it and got the result changed.
“Incredibly bizarre as nothing was said on the day and there were always lots of spectators/fanatics out doing their own timing and nothing was mentioned at the time of the results.
“It upset a lot of people but it didn’t really bother me as the ride was done and I had moved on to my next target event.
“I could never be bothered to contest such things – for me it was all about my performance and that was what was of interest to me.
“I had better things to do with my energy and that was to move on and train for the next race, I never spent any time dwelling on results be they good or bad, I just refocussed on the next challenge.
“Sometimes on reflection I wish I had taken some time to enjoy the good results but that’s hindsight – or nostalgia – for you.”
It was unusual for Scottish girls to go down south back then – how were you accepted?
“I suspect there will have been some riders/husbands/parents who would rather I hadn’t got involved but equally there were others who gave me a lot of support and encouragement.
“I became very friendly with Marie Purvis (Isle Of Man), Clare Greenwood (Wales) and Kim Staff and rode many events with them as team mates.”
You were on the British Road Race Championships podium twice: second in ’92 and third in ’93 – what are your memories of those races?
“The ride in 1992 was an important step forward for me as up until then I had been seen by many as purely a “tester”.
“The course finished on a hill which suited me and I finished in second place ahead of three of the other riders who were subsequently selected to represent GB in the Barcelona Olympics.
“I can’t remember the 1993 event but I do remember one year having two separate punctures and spending the whole race chasing and ending up catching the group on the last hill and still finishing on the podium.”
Remind us of your Scottish titles, which one(s) gave you most satisfaction?
“I can’t remember the Scottish titles but I know I broke some records, won the 10 and 25 ml TT Champs, and the BAR a few times.
“The most satisfying was beating the hour for 25 miles in Dundee.
“This wasn’t a championship event but an evening TT on the fast Dundee to Perth dual carriageway.
“I was the first female to go under 60 minutes with a time of 59:49 and I also broke Beryl Burton’s all comer record that she did when she was in Scotland.
“This meant a lot to me as it was still regarded as the blue riband event.”
You rode the Commonwealth Games in 1994, how did that go?
“I had quite a bad winter in 1993 with illness and my preparation didn’t go to plan.
“The course didn’t suit me in the heat either but it was a great experience with a fab team.
“I was the only Scottish female cyclist and shared accommodation with the bowling team.
“Their day consisted of coffee, a bit of practice, gin and a few cigarettes – I would be doing turbo whilst they sat and smoked on the patio!
“Kenny and Roddy Riddle were also on the Scottish team and they looked after me like their sister – I had known them for years from going to many North of Scotland events and they always looked out for me – I am forever grateful to them.
“I also had the opportunity to ride the 3K Individual Pursuit and finished 6th. I had never raced in a track bunch race before but was entered as a last minute entry for the Points Race… I finished 6th in this and loved it and came home wanting to do more track but this was before Manchester had the first indoor velodrome.”
And the Olympic Games in 1996, what are your memories of that?
“It was an amazing experience but I found it very difficult to stay focused for the whole time that we were away – there was 16 days between the RR and TT.
“We had a holding camp in Tallahassee which did give the option to get away from the athletes village when the sickness bug was rife.
“However, being away from the rest of the team made it hard to focus.
“Unfortunately the women’s road race was held in horrible conditions and there were multiple crashes in the bunch due to the greasy city roads.
“However, I managed to avoid them and had a pretty decent race.
“The TT wasn’t the best course for me and I was still very weak from being ill just several days before (the bug had caught up with me).
“One of the great memories I have is of spending time with fellow Scots out there: Graeme OBree, Brian Smith and I met up and spent some time with Rita and John Montgomery and Liz and Tom Clark.
“That was very special as Rita, John, Liz and Tom had always been so encouraging and supportive during my racing years.”
What was your favourite discipline – time trials, road or track?
“Initially I just wanted to ride TTs.
“However, once I tried RR I loved them.
“I found it hard to avoid the accumulative fatigue associated with the 10 day and two week stage races (Tour de France Feminin and Tour of EEC) but I loved the five or seven stage events in Belgium, France etc.
“I enjoyed the little track I did.
“Whilst I was out in Atlanta (1996 Olympics) after the RR I decided that I would make the Individual Pursuit my main focus for the next games in Sydney in 2000 as the RR was such a lottery.
“With Manchester velodrome having recently opened it meant that I could train hard at home with visits to the velodrome and not need to take so much time off work for the long stage races.
“I was confident that I could do what was needed to do to be competitive for a medal in four years time.
“However, I never made it that far!”
In terms of team support there was much less infrastructure for girls back then – what sort of back up did you get from the BCF/SCU?
“There wasn’t anything like there is today.
“It was a very different world.
“It depended upon self-funding for travel and kit.
“I did get a lot of support from SCU and was always treated fairly by them.
“Ray Harris included me in the Scottish Ladies team along with Carol Gray/Scott, Susan Horne/Twelves, Janette Wond/Hazlett, Anne Mackinley, Shona Smith and others.
“We had some fun events as a team with the most memorable being my first year at the Isle of Man International Cycle Week.
“It was here that I met Jimmy McGinty who took me under his wing and invited me to train with the bigger bunches in Glasgow.
“I used to go down to stay with the McGinty family and they treated me as one of their own.
“I loved these weekends full of bike chat with Jimmy and family, I still have such fond memories of the whole family.
“I met lots of true characters on my visits to Glasgow and even just last week I met up again with Tommy Banks after all those years.
“The British team operated on a very different level from today.
“I worked full time to pay for my travel to all the races down south.
“If I rode for BCF in Europe or America then I had to pay to get myself to the ferry port or airport that they sailed/flew from.
“We would be given old kit which very often had other rider’s food still in the pockets.
“I always put on new tubs for any of the races that I rode for BCF.
“If you punctured you would be given a bog standard tub to get through the rest of the stage race and then it would be removed at the end of the event and you would be given back your punctured one to go home.
“Very different from today!”
Your accident in 1997, what happened?
“Basically I was out training for the 1997 season to get results to qualify for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
“I used to ride in the morning before work and on some nights again after work.
“This particular morning I was very tired at 6am but I knew it was forecast to snow in the evening (it was April) so I knew I really needed to go out in the morning.
“Unfortunately, I was hit from behind by a speeding car (80+mph) as the driver didn’t see me.
“I’ll never forget those words “I didn’t see you, the sun was in my eyes”.
“I always thought you were supposed to drive at a speed appropriate to the conditions.
“I was struck at 80+mph on my right leg which resulted in my Carnac shoe shooting through the hole in the underside of the tight neoprene overshoe and being hurled a hundred metres down the road in a ditch.
“My lower leg and foot was like jelly held on by the tight neoprene overshoe – I won’t give you any more gory details.
“Basically my lower leg was like eggshell and pulp and the consultant said it was consistent with hand-grenade or land mine injuries.”
I believe you had 10 operations as a result – how long did recovery take?
“Yes, I had 10 operations over 10 months and I had to learn to walk again.
“I was incredibly fortunate to have an amazing, optimistic consultant named Paddy Ashcroft who was instrumental in using an old Russian technique on limbs to avoid amputation.
“I had an Ilizarov external fixator on my leg which required multiple adjustments on a daily basis by me with a spanner and frequent visits to the theatre for new wires to be inserted etc.
“I also had bone marrow transplants and bone grafts to assist with healing along the way.
“It was a long journey with lots of hospital visits and physio appointments all the time, being supported by my wonderful caring parents who were there for me all the time.
“After a year I had to learn to walk again – I will always remember watching my father walk around the kitchen.
“I used to watch him and take notes so that I could copy it and walk again.”
Did the motorist ever get brought to justice?
“He walked away as there were no witnesses despite him confessing that he hit me as he didn’t see me for the sun in his eyes (and driving at excessive speeds).
“I just had to move on with my rehab.”
What dreams did the accident shatter?
“The 1998 Commonwealth Games, 2000 Olympics, and the opportunity to really focus on the Individual Pursuit.”
Do you ever get out on your bike these days?
“Yes, but I never got back to training due to a painful fused ankle and many muscle imbalances.
“However, I’m able to do long rides at a leisurely pace of 13 mph with a group of my mum’s friends.
“We call ourselves the “Coffee Shop Cruisers” and we choose a good ride around the best coffee shops in Royal Deeside.
“I also ride with my husband and children which is the most important thing to me – it would break my heart if I couldn’t do this.
“Although, I’m now struggling to keep up with them as they get older and faster, but I don’t mind that!”
“These days I’m currently heavily involved with Youth and Junior coaching with Deeside Thistle CC and with Scottish Cycling, putting back into the sport…”
This second generation on the way up, how are they doing?
“Our son Elliot (13) and daughter Melanie (10) are both racing and loving it.
“My son is very like me; he has a similar approach to his training and racing.
“My daughter is completely different and I love her feistiness on the bike.”
“They are both competitive just now but I would like them to always appreciate the most wonderful feeling of simply being out on a bike with the countryside around them and the fresh air on their faces – you can’t beat it!”
Indeed. With thanks to Sarah for her time and wishing her and the family all the best – perhaps we’ll be interviewing another member of the Phillips clan soon enough!