Features Interviews

Megan Barker interview: on a flyer

James McKay speaks with the Welsh track and crit star about her career to date, her stellar season and her future ambitions

24-year-old Megan Barker is one of the latest success stories for the Maindy Flyers, a club that has produced Luke Rowe, Owain Doull, Geraint Thomas, and Megan’s older sister Elinor. It is easy to imagine that there’s something in the water at Cardiff. But Megan’s path to the top of the UK scene has not been smooth sailing. 

The youngest of four siblings, Megan and her sister Elinor both swapped swimming lessons for cycling at an early age, with their interest quickly blossoming when their potential was spotted by the coaches at Newport velodrome. Despite several setbacks – she battled back from illness after suffering a blood clot on her lungs in October 2017 and a previous bout of glandular fever – she fought her way onto GB’s podium programme the national senior track team based in Manchester. Her results on the velodrome have been excellent, including winning the madison at the European Games in 2019 and a silver medal in the scratch race at the Paris World Cup in 2020.

What I believe I can achieve is on the track … I really want to be world champion and Olympic champion

Megan has had an excellent season on the road this year with her domestic UCI road team CAMS-Basso. She won the Ilkley Cinema Women’s GP and then took two wins at the Tour Series, helping her team to secure the overall team win in the process. More recently, she finished 11th overall at the Ràs na mBam international stage race. Her attention now turns to the track with the European and world championships firmly in her sights.

James McKay caught up with her at the end of August to discuss her career to date, her stellar season and her future ambitions.

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 10/08/2021 – Cycling – Tour Series 2021 – Round 2: Sunderland, England – Podium – CAMS Basso’s Megan Barker wins.

How did you get into cycling? 

I started at the local club when I was seven. My family wasn’t a family of cyclists or anything like that, but at the local leisure centre there happened to be an outdoor track: Maindy velodrome.  

We’d go to the leisure centre for swimming lessons every week and there was always a cycling club session on at the same time. One week my sister and I did the cycling session and then we stopped swimming and started going cycling instead.

It must have been a better fit?

Yeah, I’m not very good at swimming!

So you rode with the local club, and that became a competitive outlet?

To start with it was just learning how to ride. Working out that on a track bike you can’t stop pedalling. There were just so many kids there the same age as me and my sister. It was just a social thing for years. But Maindy would take the club to races together. We would do the Welsh leagues. 

I think because my sister was three years older than me, and she started racing quite competitively, I naturally just did as well. My parents would take her to a race, I’d have to go with, so I may as well have done it myself. So I ended up racing nationally at a young age really because my sister was. I was either going to stand and watch in the cold or do it myself.

What was it like growing up with a sister who was so successful? Did you feel pressure to achieve similar things? 

For years we were both just racing and didn’t think too much about it. [But] as a junior she was super successful. She won multiple junior European titles and was world champion. But because I was younger we weren’t racing against each other. I never felt any pressure. I just thought it was really cool; “that’s my sister!”

Often you see people doing well and think they just magically get there. But I got to see the ins and outs of what it took

Often you see people doing well and think they just magically get there. But I got to see the ins and outs of what it took. I think it was really useful.

Even for Rio, I had only lived in Manchester for a year. So for the majority of her training, I didn’t see it because I was still living at home. I’d watch it and I thought they’re just robots, there’s no chance that they will not win. Come Tokyo, I’ve been there the full cycle. I see that they’re normal people. So many things do actually go wrong. Winning is not guaranteed. Even though she is my sister, this cycle is when I first saw the person behind it.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – Tokyo 2020 Olympics – 02/08/2021 – Track Cycling – Izu Velodrome, Izu, Japan – Elinor Barker of Great Britain ahead of the women’s team pursuit qualifying.

How has your track cycling developed since you were younger?

So as a junior we did win the junior team pursuit Euros. It’s a bit of a tradition within GB – quite a few of our juniors do win that Euros, so it felt like a good start. I moved up to the academy and moved to Manchester. It becomes a bit of a fight. There were nine of us and obviously only four get to ride any championship team pursuits. It was really tough to get picked as a first-year. It took me a couple of years to break into the squad.

Missing two years set me back a lot. It was rough

I had a couple of years with really bad illnesses that took out two track seasons in a row. They were really critical years when I was just starting to break through into the senior squad. So missing two years set me back a lot. It was rough. Missing one opportunity rolls onto the next so I never got that chance to prove what I could do. It just happened that the two illnesses I had came at the start of the track season, two years in a row. 

So that was a bit of a nightmare, but since then it’s gone a lot better. That took up most of my under-23 years on the track but my final year racing under-23 Euros was pretty successful [Megan won a silver medal in the Team Pursuit and a gold in the Madison] so that almost felt like the start of me being able to show what I can do. I got put onto the podium programme after that.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – 01/11/2019 – Cycling – Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup – Minsk Arena Velodrome, Minsk, Belarus – Megan Barker, Laura Kenny, Emily Nelson and Josie Knight of Great Britain during the Women’s Team Pursuit first round.

Was Tokyo a possibility for you?

There were eight of us to start with, and as you get closer to the games they get rid of people to narrow it down to their chosen squad. Unfortunately, I didn’t get picked for Tokyo when it was meant to be in 2020. They never changed their minds [for this year].

I need to make the most of any opportunity that comes post-games because that’s when they start thinking “who could we bring in? Who could we change?

It’s been a long wait but I think now is always the perfect chance where it opens up to new people. The post-Olympics Euros and worlds are a great opportunity for anyone. Post-Rio is when I had glandular fever so I missed all of those squad opening-up opportunities. This year, training every day, that’s what’s been in my mind. I need to make the most of any opportunity that comes post-games because that’s when they start thinking “who could we bring in? Who could we change?

So you’ve still got big ambitions for the track?

Since I was a kid it’s always been what I’ve loved more. It’s what I’ve dreamed of. What I believe I can achieve is on the track. As I’ve got older, my focus has been quite team pursuit-based. 

I really want to be world champion and Olympic champion. And I see that more on the track. The road has always been something I’ve loved doing but I don’t really have those huge ambitions. Maybe that is something I would consider after I have achieved what I would like to achieve on the track.

How would you describe your riding style? Both on the track and the road?

I’m quite a punchy rider. I’m small and used to be super skinny as a kid. So when I was younger I liked climbing and hilly races. But as I’ve gotten older, especially since I’ve trained specifically for the team pursuit, I’ve become a punchy rider. 

I think that’s why crits have suited me more than the road races, because it’s that repetitive effort: sprinting out of the corners, recovering slightly, and going again. And then a sprint at the end… that’s my kind of thing.

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 23/07/2021 – British Cycling – HSBC UK National Women’s Circuit Series – Women’s Ilkley Grand Prix – Ilkley, Yorkshire, England – Megan Barker of CAMS-Basso wins

An ideal race would be?

I like a crit, a hard crit. Obviously, I liked Ilkley, I liked the really punchy climb where it split everything up. But the team pursuit is my favourite race. 

How did last year go for you? Going into lockdown and having a break from racing. 

In a bit of a weird way, it was almost a saviour for me. I’d just found out I hadn’t been picked for Tokyo. I was a bit unsure what my career was going to be like, and I was still training. I never gave myself a bit of time to take in what I was feeling. I just had two days off when I found out, and then just carried on.

Lockdown gave me that opportunity to let myself breathe

Lockdown gave me that opportunity to let myself breathe. So straight away I had a week off. With all the uncertainty I probably should have had that time off anyway. As bad and as horrible as the pandemic was and is, it was a good little breather for me. 

Then it was a lot of time to ride my bike rather than just training. That was also quite good for me. Just exploring and riding with no pressure. Not really stressing about when racing would start again. 

I think I handled it quite well, just took it for what it was, which was a very weird situation for everyone. And tried not to overthink it too much. I just rode my bike and sat in the sun.

Do you think you came out of it a stronger rider physically?

Yeah. One of the things that I and some of the other academy girls found was that because we do race track and road all year round, we never have a break but we also never have time where we don’t have to back off slightly for a race. Just having a massive block of consistent training where it didn’t matter how you felt, you didn’t have to freshen up for anything, was so useful. I trained really hard because I had no fear of not being ready for a race next week. I could really push myself without any fear at all. We never really have that.

Unless you are coming up to the last few months of training before the Olympics, where that will probably be your next race, so you train until you taper, you never have that much of a break between races. So it was strange, but I think it did help a lot of us get stronger.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – 27/06/2021 – British Cycling – HSBC UK National Women’s Road Series – Women’s CiCLE Classic – Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England – Megan Barker of CAMS–Basso Bikes

How has your experience been with the CAMS team so far?

It’s been so good. I did sign at the start of 2020 but wasn’t able to meet any of them until the very end of the year. But we did do weekly Zoom calls, pub quizzes, and all got to know each other as much as you can through stuff like that. When the lockdowns eased we managed to get a team weekend in which was really fun. We did one day riding and one day of an activity, so that helps you get to know everyone. 

The atmosphere is so good and everyone is so happy for each other when they do well

But this year has been amazing. Getting the results for the team has been so good because the atmosphere is so good and everyone is so happy for each other when they do well. There’s no bitterness. Whoever it suits we’ll ride for that person and get a result. The wins have all been shared out because different races have suited different people. I think everyone is happy, and it’s a really nice environment to be in.

You’ve certainly stepped up this summer. Can you tell us about Ilkley and the Tour Series?

The break from racing really affected me nerves-wise. The build-up to the first race in so long, I was really nervous to get back in a bunch and feel that adrenaline again. It did take me a couple more races than most people to get back into the flow of it. It was stressing me out: “Am I ever going to feel like I used to feel at races?”

But it came back. As soon as it comes back and you get a result, that sets you off on a roll. My confidence is back and I think that’s the most important thing. Winning Ilkley did set off a streak for the whole team. It was really nice to see the happiness in the staff and all the girls. Now everyone else has been really successful in the last few races. It’s been amazing.

What are your goals for the rest of the season?

Track will be my main aim over the next couple of months. Track Euros was supposed to be in July but it got postponed until October. There’s also track worlds in October. So either one or both of those would be a really big aim for me if I got selected.

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 12/08/2021 – Cycling Tour Series 2021 Round 3, Castle Douglas, Scotland – Women’s Race – Tour series winners Cams Basso Megan Barker

What are your aspirations for the future?

I am really happy on CAMS-Basso. I like the level we are racing at. We are a big British team that can win the British races. I enjoy racing in Britain; the Tour Series is such a good event to do. So I’d like to continue doing that. We are a UCI team so we do get into some big races: the Women’s Tour, things like that. 

I do still enjoy doing the road, and if things on the track don’t work out in the next couple of years, putting my full focus into the road would be really interesting for me. It’s not something I’ve ever done, and I’d like to see how much it benefits me.  The main thing I struggle with is my endurance when I’m trying to train for track and road. Once it gets past 100 kilometres I start to suffer. I think it would be interesting.

Featured photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 12/08/2021 – Cycling Tour Series 2021 Round 3, Castle Douglas, Scotland – Women’s Race – Cams Basso Megan Barker