18-year-old Welsh rider Eluned King is one of our under-23 riders to watch this season. She joined the GB Senior Academy this year after a very bright showing as a junior and has been quick to make an impression in the few road racing opportunities she has so far had in 2021.
Hailing from Swansea, she is one of a group of talented young Welsh riders – including the Bäckstedt sisters and Ella Barnwell – that seem poised for future success. While her 2020 season was a write-off due to the pandemic, the results she had in her first year at junior level – 2019 – as well as her early results so far in 2021, suggest she is already capable of making a significant mark on road and track this year.
She made a solid start to her junior years, finishing 15th at the Trofeo Da Moreno – Piccolo Trofeo Alfredo Binda and 16th at the Gent-Wevelgem Junior Women, her first junior-level international races. Things got even better from there. Riding against the best senior domestic women in the UK, she was 10th in the Lincoln Grand Prix, 6th in Women’s CiCLE Classic, and 5th in the National Circuit Championships.
She won the junior national road race championships that year, beating Elynor Bäckstedt amongst others, and then ended her road season with 20th at the junior road race at the world championships. On the track, meanwhile, she won a silver medal in the team pursuit at the junior European track championships and bronze in the same event at the world track championships. All that for someone who only turned 17 in August that year.
When the flag dropped, everything clicked into place and riding my bike felt like the most natural thing in the world
Fast forward to 2021 and she hadn’t ridden a road race since those Harrogate world championships until she lined up at the GP Eco-Struct earlier this month. Despite her 20-month absence from road racing – and the fact she’s still only 18 – she finished 6th. She followed that up two weeks later with 2nd place at the UK’s first national road race for 428 days.
Keen to find out more about King’s career so far and where she sees herself heading, we sat down for a virtual chat with her. Here’s what she had to say…
First off, tell us about where you are from…
I am from Swansea in south-west Wales, but I currently live in Manchester as part of the GB Senior Academy. I love where I live and it was a great place to grow up especially for cycling, I have access to Carmarthenshire, the Gower peninsula as well as big climbs like the Rhigos and Bwlch. South-west Wales (like Manchester) is also a hotspot for cycling talent so there is never a shortage of group rides to go on. I might be a bit biased but south Wales has the best roads in the UK. Manchester is a good base for riding too though, with the Peak District to the east and the Cheshire Flats to the west.
And what about your cycling background. How did you get into cycling? Are you from a cycling family?
Well, I started cycling at a really young age, I think when I was about 6, with Towy Riders at the velodrome in Carmarthen. At the time it was the closest cycling club and it’s also where my Mum is from so we would go see my grandparents after training sessions. My two older siblings started at the club before me, and I think like the majority of younger siblings I wanted to tag along with them. My Dad is a cycling fan and his father used to race a bit at Herne Hill velodrome I think, so you could say it’s in the blood. My family has always been sporty and growing up I did every sport imaginable from hockey to karate, but cycling definitely has always been my favourite. That might be because of the cake every Saturday after training from my Mamgu (grandmother)!
I’d like to develop into a similar rider to Alejandro Valverde or Demi Vollering; able to climb with the best but also a contender in a reduced sprint at the end of a hard race
What kind of rider would you say you are?
I’m not too sure yet but I’d like to develop into a similar rider to Alejandro Valverde or Demi Vollering; able to climb with the best but also a contender in a reduced sprint at the end of a hard race. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
At what point did you join the British Cycling programme?
I joined the pathway as a second-year under-16. I wasn’t selected as a first-year which looking back was actually really hard. It felt like everyone I trained with at the time had been selected. Seeing all of them go off to do camps in London and Manchester together was demoralising. It’s just a reminder that everyone develops at different rates and there’s no rush. I then moved through two years of Junior Academy before being selected for the Senior Academy last Summer.
Looking through your results, it looks like you’ve combined several disciplines for quite a few years now. Is there a discipline you want to specialise in eventually?
Yeah, I used to run competitively too but had knee injuries which stopped me from competing on the track for a few years so I did cyclocross, mountain bike and the odd road race. I started racing the national youth road series as a first year under-16 and then the track as a second-year under-16.
The women’s peloton is getting stronger and stronger every year so I think we will see fewer people combining road and track
The women’s peloton is getting stronger and stronger every year so I think we will see fewer people combining road and track. More riders will specialise within disciplines, as we see with the men. So in the long term, I want to become a full-time road rider. But at the moment I think there’s so much to gain from racing on the track, such as tactics, top-end sprint, and moving comfortably in the bunch. I would also love to race a full cyclocross season at some point in the future as it’s a massive training tool as well as being really fun.
Your last full season of racing was in 2019 when you were a first-year junior. Tell us how that season went..
I went into the season not sure what to expect. I had a really successful season as a second-year under-16 but everyone kept saying how much of a step up racing as a junior was. I adapted quickly though and raced on the track in Apeldoorn, in the Netherlands in January before doing some Nations Cup events in Europe through March and April.
It was quite a full-on season as I was also doing my AS Levels at the time. But I raced as much as I could. I was lucky enough to be selected for the European and world championships on the track as part of the team pursuit and then the world road championships in Yorkshire in September. I didn’t expect to go to three major championships as a first-year so that was massive for me especially as I wasn’t really seen as a ‘track rider’. I definitely exceeded my own expectations and was really looking forward to having more of a leadership role as a second-year junior which unfortunately didn’t happen.
What were the highlights for you, and why?
That’s really tough as different results and performances are important to me for different reasons. If I look at the track side, we won silver at the Europeans and bronze at the worlds in the team pursuit. It was really cool to be stood on the podium with my mates. That was special to me as I was desperate to make it into the team pursuit squad but it looked really unlikely at the start of the year. I worked really hard at the track feeling like I was never going to catch up to the other girls. To go from that, to winning a medal at a major championships was really rewarding.
I knew in my head that I could sprint but to demonstrate that with a result gave me a big confidence boost
Another highlight was winning the junior national title on the road. The course was really flat and it was quite clear it would come down to a bunch kick. I don’t think anyone expected me to win it and just everything went right on the day. I knew in my head that I could sprint but to demonstrate that with a result gave me a big confidence boost. And any national title is special, especially when you win as a first year, knowing you’ll be able to race in the stripes for the next season.
My last highlight was the junior world road championships in Harrogate. The result itself was disappointing but I had crashed badly a few weeks out at a training camp and was nursing a nasty concussion. I’d never had a concussion before or any serious injury and I didn’t even think I would be able to start the race, but I somehow recovered to make it to the start list. Physically I wasn’t there at all, but I am really proud of how I coped with a less than ideal run up and my determination to do the best job I could. Dealing with training to be a team leader to not knowing if I would be able to race overnight was a massive learning curve and I’ll always cherish racing at a home world championships.
You raced several elite races that year, getting some impressive results in the National Road Series. What’s it like for a junior, racing against the seniors?
I loved racing the National Road Series as a junior and I’m so glad that they allow junior girls in the race. The British field is getting stronger every year and to be able to race on the open road was a big learning curve. The races are normally longer and it’s unlikely that you’ll be the strongest in the race so you really have to think about how you ride and measure your effort.
Being able to race against full-time cyclists helped me realise I could do this as a career
I also did the elite national circuit championships where I finished 5th. That race was a big eye-opener for me as I spent most of it solo in third, not quite strong enough to hold on to Becks Durrell and Anna Henderson but just ahead of fourth and fifth. I got lots of messages after from people impressed with my ride as I was only 16 at the time. Being able to race against full-time cyclists helped me realise I could do this as a career.
You’ve joined the GB Senior Academy this year. What made you decide to join the Academy? Were there other options?
I knew from the start of 2020 that I wanted to join the GB Senior Academy, mainly because of the mix of road and track. It’s a great place to develop as an athlete as well as an individual with a great support network. I love the mentality of trusting the process and looking for long-term gains rather than expecting too much from individuals as soon as they turn 18. I really feel like I have space to grow without pressure. I have a place at Warwick University to do a Maths and Economics based degree but at the moment I want to give myself the best chance to succeed as a cyclist and for me, that means putting my studies on hold for a few years. I’m in awe of anyone juggling a degree or job with a cycling career!
Until the GP Eco-Struct earlier this month you hadn’t raced since Harrogate in 2019. How did you find the lack of racing? How challenging was it to stay motivated?
In 2019 it felt like I’d raced from the start of March solidly until the end of September and in all honesty, I was exhausted! I got ill a lot and I don’t think I could’ve balanced all the racing and exams too for another year. I absolutely love racing but going into the 2020 season I told myself I wouldn’t overdo it again. When I planned that, however, I didn’t expect for a full season of races to disappear and to not race for over 18 months! Be careful what you wish for.
It felt like a really really long summer holiday where I could just ride my bike and spend time with my family
I was really lucky with the first lockdown. I had finished school and although there was a lot of stress surrounding what would happen with exams, etc., it felt like a really really long summer holiday where I could just ride my bike and spend time with my family, which happen to be my two favourite pastimes. I had a lot of support from my Junior Academy coach, Monica Greenwood, and she organised lots of Teams meetings, quizzes and even fake races we could do at home as a squad. We had a really great group of girls. That in general kept morale high and, surprisingly, I didn’t struggle with my motivation at all. It was only in August when it felt racing had kicked off again in Europe that I found it challenging, as it felt like everyone but Britain was racing.
Without a doubt, the most important thing I’ve learned is the importance of having a support network around you to keep you grounded
I’ve definitely gone through all the highs and lows of lockdown as I’m sure everyone has. I’ve had days where it’s easy to remind myself that my biggest issue right now is whether or not I’m allowed to race my bike, whilst I’ve also had days where I don’t want to get out of bed let alone out on the bike. There’s no point sitting about feeling sorry for yourself and dwelling on “what if’s”. I’ve learned so much over lockdown but, without a doubt, the most important thing I’ve learned is the importance of having a support network around you to keep you grounded. I always thought I was an extrinsically motivated person who needed races and events to keep me going, but I’ve enjoyed taking a step back, learning more about training, and finding out what makes me tick. I’m super fortunate that I’ve been able to use this time positively and that I’m in the privileged position where I can do that in a safe environment.
And how was it being back at the races at the GP Eco-Struct?
When I tried to imagine before the race what it would feel like to finally race again, I thought of all the extreme emotions: being overjoyed, excited, nervous. Instead, I just felt calm, almost as if my body forgot to initiate my fight or flight response. I’m not normally too stressed around races but I can get very nervous, so it was really bizarre that I just had a great sense of relief. Last summer I chose to pursue a career in a sport that I hadn’t raced in for almost a year, so it’s natural to have thoughts flying around your head questioning your decisions, but when the flag dropped everything clicked into place and riding my bike felt like the most natural thing in the world.
You had an excellent result considering your age and the fact that it was your first race for a long time. How did it play out for you?
As a team we went into the race knowing that physically we were equal to everyone in the group, but technically we would be a bit rusty. It was good to understand that before the race as it’s very easy to put too much pressure on yourself and expect perfection from the get-go. I think that played a big part in my lack of nerves and the good result. I was genuinely just happy to be back racing and didn’t expect too much from myself.
In the race itself, it took a few laps to adjust to the movement of the peloton again but I was actually feeling confident in the bunch and could move around as I wished. It was clear from the course profile and also the strength in particular of the DSM team that the race would come down to a bunch sprint. I wasn’t actually the chosen sprinter before the race but situations in the race meant that the plan changed and that I was free to go for the sprint.
A small part of me wonders if I could have contested the win if the gap hadn’t opened
I had done quite a lot of work chasing and initiating breaks in the first half of the race before knowing I would be sprinting so I tried saving as much energy as possible in the second half of the race. The girls, especially Sophie (Lewis), did a great job keeping me near the front. We also had Abi (Smith) off the front, meaning we had no pressure to chase. The peloton was nervous in the last lap with a lot of jostling for position but Sophie and I managed to get on the DSM train leading up to the final three kilometres. I kept my position well up until the last corner where I lost a couple of places and so a small gap opened to five riders. I tried my best to close it and managed to do so as we reached the finish line, finishing sixth. Obviously, I’m very happy with my performance as it’s my first international race in the elite category but a small part of me wonders if I could have contested the win if the gap hadn’t opened. I am excited for more races on the horizon and I hope I get the opportunity to be in that position again with a bit more race experience to see how I fare.
What is your programme looking like for the rest of the year now?
Because of rising Covid-19 levels in Europe earlier this year a lot of road races have been rescheduled towards the back end of the season. This actually works in my favour as I’ll be able to focus on the track over the summer before refocusing on the road from September onwards. I’ll also be keeping busy in between with racing in Britain, be it time trials, crits or road racing. There’s plenty to get stuck into. I’ve learnt over the past twelve months or so to be adaptable and I’m sure plans will change again over the next month.
The dream would be to win Flanders in the world championship stripes
You’re still right at the beginning of your career of course. But what are your ambitions in cycling? What would you like to achieve?
Gosh, that’s a big question! Short term I hope to be selected for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 in Birmingham and to win a medal in the road race. But the long-term goal is to win the world championships on the road. I’d also love to win the Tour of Flanders as I grew up watching that race so it holds a special place in my heart. The dream would be to win Flanders in the world championship stripes, that would be really cool. I want to have some sort of legacy, be it helping to promote women’s cycling at the highest level or making cycling more accessible as a grassroots sport in Wales. I’m going to race my bike for as long as it makes me happy which I hope will be a long long time.