Interview: Katie Archibald wonders why she bothered with all the tattoos and hair dye
She’s the Olympic champion cyclist who pedals a different path. Her tattoos, piercings and ever-changing hair colour tell us that. But the message she’s sending out today is a bit drippy.
“Stop all the bad things making people sad,” it reads. No one could argue with the sentiment, just the bedwettery, Coldplay-ish manner in which it’s expressed. I mean, where’s the Scroobius Pip? She could have gone with “The fear the scream the struggle the shock”. Or “If the bad times are coming let ’em come, let ’em come”. Even “I saw a dead fish on the pavement and thought ‘What did you expect?’”.
I only found out who Scroobius Pip was five minutes ago while doing a final bit of swotting up on Archibald before she breezed into the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow in jeans, trainers and that T-shirt. “Rapper,” I say, trying to appear with-it, that very phrase confirming I’m not. “He’s your favourite, right?” “Spoken word,” she corrects, while removing the cellophane from a fearsome-looking home-made dried-fruit power-snack.
A gold medal-winner in the women’s team pursuit at the Rio Olympics – and now one of the best globally in her own right having claimed the omnium at the Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong five months ago – the 23-year-old Scot is on a day off from the bike. “I have one of them every week,” she says. “That’s pretty standard. For some, that will still involve cycling to a cafe, but I don’t want to see a bike. What I do instead probably isn’t quite as thrilling as you’d expect. Usually I’m sat down with my legs all sore.”
What did I expect of these days off? That she’d be “wacky Katie Archibald” only wackier? What did I expect of her T-shirt slogan? Something non-conformist, maybe rude, possibly outrageous? Oh, the pressure on the poor girl, the pressure…
But of course she’s had her moments. You don’t amass a reputation like hers based on the shade of your locks, which today for Archibald are Saltire blue. Some days off have been thrilling to the point of near-disaster, like the motorbike crash a few months before Rio which could have ruined her chance of glory. More of that later...
That dimpled smile is now a podium fixture. Again in team pursuit she became Scotland’s first female world champ in 2014 when she also claimed bronze at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. Her first European Championships gold came within weeks of being fast-tracked into the squad after quitting a desk-job and there have been five more since. Next year will be an exciting one for her with the Commonwealths on Australia’s Gold Coast and the Euros coming to Glasgow.
Archibald may not be on her – pedal-powered – bike today but she wants all of Edinburgh to get on theirs tomorrow. This is the latest in the series of HSBC UK City Bike Rides where cars must vamoose and lorries beat it so that bicycles will rool, OK. The aim is that by 2020 two million more Brits will be cycling. They won’t always have the streets to themselves but at the very least they’ll get fitter, while some may have higher aspirations.
Here, Archibald’s tale is instructive. She got into cycling late. She never fantasised about the Olympic top step, the anthem, the medal. She’s sceptical when others insist they had the dream right from the beginning.
“I never wanted to be an Olympian,” she says, “I just wanted to ride my bike fast. It intimidates me when I meet cyclists who say they’ve always wanted to compete in the Olympics or always wanted to be world champion. The ones who say these things are always in this elite performance environment of ours and I never know whether they’re telling the truth or they were just some punter on a bicycle.
“I was a late starter as I used to be a swimmer so I’ve had an unusual route. We can’t really say to young kids that the Olympics is the ultimate ambition because it’s not that simple. What we can do is encourage them on to their bikes and into sport. But you do get that one freak. My track team-mate Ciara Horne is a really inspiring example of someone who did know she wanted to be Olympian. It’s a startling drive to witness and sometimes it can make you feel guilty.”
So what was Milngavie girl Archibald’s earliest ambition? “Just to beat my brother. He’s four years older than me so it was always an untouchable ambition, really, although not any more because he’s just taken up track so he’s on my turf.
“I got into cycling because it was cool and growing up I never was. The social circle around it in Glasgow looked great and I just wanted to be involved. That’s what drew me in deeper than I’d ever been with swimming.” She repeats: “Cycling was just so… [quivery voice] … cool.
“At school I wasn’t popular although I guess that’s not quite the same as being uncool, though unfortunately it is when you’re in a playground. I was anonymous. There are contemporaries of mine who would go back and see their teachers. I know some who’ll even go to the pub with them. Me, I can’t remember any teachers’ names and I doubt they remember mine. I wasn’t an asshole, just unremarkable. Just another face in the crowd.”
You can’t say that about her now. There are her achievements on two wheels, of course, and also the way she is. The way she writes in her blog. A typical posting might be headlined: “If you reach all the way to the bottom you get to read the word vagina – incentive!” She’s fascinated by words, collects quotations which move or just amuse her in a book, values lyrics over melody when listening to music and loves Laura Marling and Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner for that reason. In the blog, on politics, she’ll conclude: “The [independence] referendum has been so much fun, I think we should make big decisions ALL the time.” And the funniest words around in her opinion? “Ecclefechan and boobies”.
The despatches started to dry up as mainstream media spotted her talent and signed her up for columns in newspapers and cycling magazines. “The blog was me basically writing my diary at home then, like a typical self-indulgent teenager, thinking: ‘If I put this on the internet maybe someone else will read it.’”
When I compliment Archibald on her writing, especially given the anodyne, android-like utterances of so many media-trained athletes, she stresses she’s never used “Ecclefechan” for a laugh in a post-race interview, far less “boobies”. “It’s not even that easy to give rote answers. There’s satisfaction to be had when you can be sensible and coherent because the alternative is sounding like an idiot on live TV. I definitely envy the basic answer. Maybe not envy, but there are occasions when you need it.”
Archibald, in our brief time together, thinks carefully about what she says, even when the question is the straightforward “What’s the best thing about your sport?” She drops her head on to the table to agonise over the correct response, or maybe this is her despairful reaction to the banality of the inquiry. “I don’t want to say racing because that seems so simple and I don’t want to say the friends you make because that seems too cheesy. Both these things are true, by the way, but I guess I should say the satisfaction of getting it right in a race. When all the tactics unfold and you realise you were the one in control – that’s my best thing.” And the worst? “Maybe when you attach too much of your self-worth – everything you think about yourself and who you are as a person – to the result. That shouldn’t happen.”
Is she always cycling in her dreams? An amused scowl, then: “You mean only if I dream in a language am I officially a native speaker? Well, as a kid I used to dream I was swimming up and down, backwards and forwards, all night long and then the alarm would go off at 5am and I’d be in the pool going: ‘Hang on, I’ve done this already today.’ That’s probably what killed the sport for me, pushed me over the edge. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a dream with a bike in it. That’s good, I suppose. It must mean cycling’s not haunting me.”
Recently there was a story portraying Archibald’s father Ian, who’d been a notable middle-distance runner, as the “dad from hell”. She stresses this wasn’t the case, that some banterish “trash-talking” got out of hand. “Dad was a bit upset. I said that he never let us win at anything – a game of chess or climbing a hill – which was true but I don’t have a tale to rival Victoria Pendleton’s [the fellow Olympic cyclist’s difficult relations with her father was revealed in her autobiography].
“I didn’t grow up with my father but he was always around – he was Weekend Dad. I’ve got a friend with two kids who’s remarrying and I’ve been telling him that Weekend Dad is the dream. I got on really well with my father – he had it easy! Obviously I can see now that was hideously unfair on Mum because she was the one who taught me to ride a bike and but it was Dad who got to go cycling with me. Mum would teach me to play tennis and yet I’d play matches with Dad.
“She bears a lot of hardship does Mum. When I was cycling in grass-track races at Highland Games I was winning as much as £70 a day. She jokes about it now but at the time it never occurred to me to give her any money for petrol: ‘But surely you want to drive me all over Scotland?’” So what did she spend the £70 on? “Sweets!”
Her father runs a bed superstore, and before cycling, while she was still contemplating university and a degree in French and Spanish, Archibald had a stint selling mattresses. Was she any good? “Horrific. In sales you need to have confidence in what you’re selling. I don’t think I lacked that but I was conflicted. The higher the commission rates, the greater incentive to sell, but I was like: ‘Am I just playing the game? Am I manipulating the customer? Do they really need this stuff?’”
This was Archibald perhaps over-thinking the issue, and she’s currently vexed by personal image, or more specifically the number of questions she gets asked about it, and how she should respond to them.
The tattoos on her left arm are of The Thinker of Tender Thoughts, drawings by the poet Shel Silverstein of a man growing up with flowers instead of hair who’s mocked for being different. She thinks she’s explained the story “about 102 times… I brought it on myself, didn’t I?” On her other arm she has the Olympic rings. “If people don’t know me they’ll go: ‘Oh, did you go to the Games?’ The straightforward answer is yes but then I might have to get involved in a conversation. I’m easily embarrassed and end up wondering why I bothered to get the tattoos.
“It’s the same with my hair which must have been just about every colour. Every few months I tell myself I’m not dyeing it again because I don’t like that it’s expected of me to keep changing it. I guess I’m the classic yo-yo dieter: I don’t even believe myself anymore!”
Archibald almost had no need for the Olympic rings after coming off her motorbike at 70mph on a Cheshire lane. The damage was a wrecked cruciate and a broken elbow, causing her to miss last year’s Worlds. All of that hurt and imperilled Rio but, able to laugh about the drama now, it’s provided her with good copy. “The people I called right after the crash, in order: 1 The person who scored the sponsorship deal for the Triumph because I looked down and thought: ‘S***, what have I done to this beautiful bike?’ 2 My agent. 3 The RAC. 4 My dad. 5. The physio to say: ‘Listen, I’ve hurt myself a little, I might pop in.’ 6 My coach. That was the hierarchy, but only because I didn’t want to call the coach.”
The crash was “stupid” and she forgot about motorbikes in the build-up to Rio but they won’t be banished forever. They can’t be, she loves them too much. “I thought I’d be buying one this summer but I’ve been racing so much I’ve not had time. I got a fair amount of abuse after I crashed but a lot of people in the squad ride motorbikes. We’re in a two-wheeled world; it’s the nature of the beast. I like going fast and motorbikes go faster. The crash hasn’t put me off although what I do find strange is that if you have a motorbike you’re expected to be into them in a really big way. No one expects you to be obsessed with cars if you’ve got one of them. But if you own a motorbike you’ll get people coming up to you and being really nerdy.”
Beyond the Commy Games and the rest of 2018, Archibald is looking forward to the next Olympics in Tokyo where for the first time there will be a women’s madison, something she’s been banging on about for years. And beyond that? She doesn’t know. “I think the trick is to not be overly successful. Chris Hoy, the greatest of all time, had the pressure of having to finish on such an absolute high. If you’re not quite as successful you can float along with a little bit more obscurity and your career can tail off slowly and there will be no need to end with a bang. You can go from gold to bronze to top ten to saying to yourself: ‘Okay, I can’t squeeze any more out of these legs now.’ That’s the path I fancy.”
Katie Archibald going all obscure on us? Don’t be so sure about that.
l HSBC UK City Ride Edinburgh starts at 11am tomorrow after the OVO Energy Tour of Britain sets off from the High Street. For more information: www.letsride.co.uk/city-ride/Edinburgh and www.tourofbritain.co.uk.