Lara Gillespie: Queen of the Mountains

by Stephen Findlater

** Lara Gillespie celebrates winning the national road race title in Limerick; below at a recent Irish session at Sundrive. Pictures: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Flipped over handlebars and landing on her neck, Lara Gillespie’s competitive year came to a painful end at Under-23 European Track Championships in Italy.

It brought to an end another memorable year for the Junior World Championship bronze medalist, making an almost effortless jump up to senior level, winning the national road race title and the scratch race on the track.

Battered and bruised, the fall might have been a lot worse for the 19-year-old but she credited some unique lockdown work-outs in the Wicklow mountains for helping to strengthen her shoulder and neck muscles and reducing the discomfort as she goes into a well-earned rest.

Among her routines, she tied resistance bands to her grandparents trailer; her sister’s woodworking projects worked as make-shift gym equipment while there was plenty of heavy-lifting to be done around the garden.

“We have such a busy house and are always doing projects. My sister is really good at woodwork and we are always building things!” she said. “It definitely built up my back and leg muscles.

“In Italy, I was very lucky not to break my neck or collarbone. I have been doing a lot of strength and conditioning on my neck and shoulder muscles and it stood to me!”

And Gillespie – whose skills were honed at the Orwell Wheelers club in Dundrum – is more than happy to be recuperating back in her favourite place.

She could have been soaking up the rays in Spain at an Irish training camp but she is more than happy to be up the hills just outside Enniskerry.

“Mallorca is a lovely place to be for training camps but I do love to be home with my family and I can train just as hard here. The bad weather, I don’t mind it.

“We used to live on the side of Mount Leinster until I was five before moving up here. I was always tearing up a mountain all my life and have mountains in my legs.

“I went for a lovely hike in the fresh air this morning [Tuesday]. I love all the seasons, especially when it gets all snowy. It is the best place to be.”

Tackling the hills was a passion that was ignited early on. Her mother was an international orienteer and they regularly went on mountain runs together.

At Wesley College and Blackrock AC, Gillespie developed her cross-country running skills and represented the Irish mountain-running team at underage level.

She would also get representative trials in both soccer and hockey to add to Irish dancing and ballet achievement.

But it was the mountain-biking which was her passion from an early age, undeterred by a fall in her debut outing where a sense of fearlessness was apparent which lives on today.

“In my first race, there was ice and everyone just slipped off the track! You get a sense of adrenaline and that was the same as what happened the other day [in Italy].

“I banged my head; first, I checked if I had any concussion symptoms and then got straight back on and won the next two sprints, purely from the adrenaline. It seems to happen a lot when you are buzzing; then the race ends and you are in a lot of pain!”

In transition year, she wanted to join a mountain-biking club and linked up with Orwell, not realising the Dundrum club’s focus lay more on the track and the road.

There, the legendary Orla Hendron took her under her wing at a series of camps for girls and Gillespie embraced it all.

It has meant a whirlwind couple of years, picking up a trio of European medals in 2019 before becoming Ireland’s first ever junior world championship medalist in Frankfurt. Now on a sports scholarship in UCD, she is zoning on in on making her mark at adult level.

“As a junior, you can get away with just being strong. As an elite rider, race-craft is really important.

“For the track, it is something which will get riders far, regardless of their physical ability. It’s something that’s hard to build, especially without a velodrome in Ireland.

“In my junior European and World Championships, I literally hadn’t done a bunch race before with more than five people in it! I had to watch the Italians racing so aggressively and I’d have to fake it until I make it, pretending like I know what I was doing.

“Because we only race every few months here, if we got to do that every week, our skills would improve way quicker. Because we don’t have the track and big numbers, it makes a big difference.”

For now, it is rest time with February’s European Championships the next date in mind. The 2021 Olympics is an outside possibility but 2024 in Paris looks a more reasonable target while she would love a shot at the big mountains on the Grand Tours down the line.

“Definitely over the next few years, that would be fun!”

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