WITH under two months to go before the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, you might think that many athletes selected for Team Scotland would want to steer well clear of high-risk competitions for fear of injury. Not a bit of it. Not, at least, as far as Lee Craigie is concerned.
For the mountain biker, one of 30 cyclists named in the team yesterday, there will be no taking it easy between now and the Games. Such a defensive attitude, she believes, may be counter-productive – and she has a British title to defend just a week before she competes for Scotland.
“I want to retain that title,” Craigie said yesterday. “You can’t wrap yourself up. If you start thinking like that in mountain biking you’re finished.
“You need to know you can handle the course and you won’t fall off. If you think you might fall off and hurt yourself, you’ll fall off and hurt yourself. So doing such a big event so close to the Games could well be ideal – as long as I don’t fall off. I like to think as I get older and more experienced I get injured less, but I’ll usually get one big injury in the year. Under race conditions, you push that wee bit harder. I’ve broken fingers, cut heads, dislocated all my bones out my sternum. They’ve been pretty horrific injuries.”
Craigie won the British championship last year over the same course at Cathkin Braes to the south of Glasgow where she will compete in late July. But she thinks it will be the support of the Scottish crowd, rather than her knowledge of the course, that will give her an advantage.
“Sometimes when there’s a tough course with difficult lines to learn, you can get home advantage, but the top guys will turn up and learn Cathkin in a day,” she said. “There will be official course practice, I guess two or three days before the event. Knowing the course and understanding how to get around and warming up will be helpful with stress relief on the day.
“The advantage will be the home crowd. That’s going to be absolutely huge. Just knowing the city and being inspired by the backdrop will be the benefit.”
Now in her mid-30s, Craigie has already been inspired for a long time by the city and the backdrop. Had the Games not been coming to Glasgow, she explained, she would probably have retired from competitive mountain biking by now. She has a wealth of other interests and abilities, including founding the project Cycletherapy that works with young people who are thought to be in danger of social exclusion, and could turn her attention to one of them.
“I probably wouldn’t still have been in the sport if it hadn’t been for the Commonwealth Games being in Glasgow. I’d have retired from the sport a couple of years ago. This has been the drive for almost as long as I can remember.”
And before that, the drive was simply the pleasure of being on a bike, and of going as fast as she could. “The first bike I had was a wee red BMX. You could not prise me off that plastic seat. I was on it all the time. I’d have been about seven or eight.
“That same feeling of freedom and adventure and exploration and independence I got as a seven-year-old are still the reasons that will get me out at the weekend, although now there’s a different element to it. I can’t do as much of that exploration: I need to be pretty focused on specific training. But when I get some downtime, I can explore faster and harder.”
But why, given those multiple dislocations and all the other injuries a mountain biker is prey to, did she choose that side of the sport to one of its more genteel, less bone-shaking variation? “That feeling of being able to flow through the trees and over rocks, and really take these adventures through the hills and be independent. Movement, travel, excitement, adrenaline.
“It’s the perfect day. It does everything for you.
“There are social and emotional gains as well as the psychological gains. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t ride a bike, especially mountain biking.
“You need to have all the sprint, track and road cyclists have. You need to be physically strong, able to handle your bike over technical terrain.
“You also need heart and lungs. You need to be strong and light and have good enough aerobic endurance. It’s a real mix. You need to be a well-rounded bike rider.
“You also need a different psychology to chuck yourself off stuff. Slightly mad? That’s a nice way of putting it. Maybe a wee bit.
“You also need to be able to assess very quickly your own level of skill to the terrain, otherwise you’re never going to make it. You’ve got to be confident and brave, but you’ve also got to know your limits.”
And if, as seems probable, she bows out after 29 July, would a gold medal be the perfect high on which to finish? “Just being there will be enough to finish on,” she added. “Any outcome is going to be a bonus. Having the chance to have the race of my life is what I’m after.”