15th November 2011: When France’s Clara Sanchez-Henriette won the Keirin at the first round of the 2011/2012 UCI Track Cycling World Cup Series in Astana, Kazakhstan recently, she extended her run as the most successful female Keirin rider of all time.
Clara claimed her first World title in Melbourne in 2004 before successfully defending the title the following year in Los Angeles, a feat that no other female rider would repeat over the next six years.
With a return to form ahead of the 2012 Olympics, culminating in the victory in Astana Clara is re-emerging as one of the favourites for Gold in London as the Keirin makes its debut on the Olympic stage.
Christin Muche, Victoria Pendleton, Jennie Reed, Shuang Guo and Simona Krupeckaite have all failed to defend their World title victories since 2006, so what is the key to Clara’s success?
“It is no secret! The Keirin is my favourite event and I think that physically it is kind of sprint that suits me and my abilities”
“I’m a very instinctive sprinter, preferring to react to the situations within each race as they arise. I do not know what I will do before each race, but this is why I love it!”
Most riders are unable to cope with this kind of riding, however Clara clearly thrives on the unpredictability of the Keirin, consistently ensuring she is in the right place at the right time to sprint to victory.
Male Keirin riders are often rewarded for displaying such talent with invitations to the Japanese Keirin Association’s Keirin Series and with invites set to be sent out after the 2012 Olympics for the first International Women’s JKA Keirin Series in Summer 2013, Sanchez-Henriette is surely going to be top of the list as the prestigious event looks to attract its first female intake.
“This would be amazing! To discover the culture and ride in the professional Keirin series would be great. Francois (Pervis) and Michael (D’Almeida) rode in 2010 and they commented on what a great experience it was and how it improved their riding, so I would be honoured to receive an invitation.”
Does Clara relish the chance to race with more freedom in Japan rather than under the restrictive tactical constraints of the UCI?
“Yes for Japan definitely, but yes and no for the UCI, because sometimes the tactics that are not allowed in UCI events restrict your tactical movements and the potential of the event, without causing danger”
So what rules would Clara change if given the opportunity?
“Whilst more freedom for tactical movements to assist you’re riding and would make racing better they have the potential to cause many crashes. I can understand why for some riders this would be dangerous so for safety they’ll maintain the current rules”
“Aside, I would like to change the regulation with regards to handlebar positions relative to the front wheel, as it often changes with the UCI forcing us to change moments before a race, even though the setup was acceptable at the last competition. This is never consistent and not ideal to have to change your setup minutes before a race!”
Clara started cycling at the age of eleven after watching her idol Miguel Indurain win the Tour de France. She took to the roads around Martigues in the South of France however quickly switched to the track when local facilities and competitions allowed her to watch World Champions like Félicia Ballanger and Laurent Gané race and train.
She left home at Seventeen to pursue her cycling dreams and moved from Martigues to the training centre in Hyeres.
“I was living alone with the only other cyclists all male, it was really tough but now I look back and think it really was worth it!”
As with all of the French Track Cycling team Clara has to source her own funding to support her cycling career so she is employed by the French Army as a Master Corporal.
“Many French athletes are in my situation because unfortunately for us track riders there is no structure for professional cyclists like in other countries”
“I am therefore forced to divide my commitments to cycling with my employment in the Army. Obviously this affects my cycling but the Army are very understanding towards my training and racing requirements”
“I still have the time to train in the Gym at Velodrome Hyeres in the morning, with a mixture of Squats and upper-body exercises such as the Bench Press to ensure all-around cycling specific development.”
“The Gym work is sometimes hard for us females as we try not to change physically too much, but we have to be muscular in order to get more power and improve our performance”
“When we do not train in the Gym we go out in small groups on the roads around Hyeres for as long as we need to depending on the time of year and training phase we are in.”
“In the afternoons we train on the track at Velodrome Hyeres with 20 minutes behind the Derny for warm-up/cool-down with specific exercises, again dependent on the time of year and training phase we are in, with starts, motor-paced and sprint efforts common.”
With her rivals including Victoria Pendleton from Great Britain and Anna Meares of Australia both receiving funding to enable them to concentrate fully on Track Cycling the fact that the French team still have to pursue employment in order to compete is obviously a disadvantage. However as with the German team who face the same situation, Clara and her French team-mates regularly demonstrate that funding is not everything as they out-perform their wealthy rivals. This sends a strong message to all cyclists who struggle to race and train at whatever level without any help or assistance that achievement is possible with excessive amounts of sponsorship.
As with all sports the benefits of success in terms of sponsorship opportunities and prize money is much lower for female cyclists in comparison to male riders.
“It's true that women's cycling is less publicized so men logically earn more money, however I’m very happy as I get to do my passion every day.”
“One example of the differences that is annoying me at the moment is with my Look 496 Track Frame, currently the male riders have the new version with the integrated Bottom Bracket, both are fantastic but obviously the newer version is improved. Hopefully Sandie (Clair) and I will get this for the World Championships, but why not now? At least we have been given the 3T Scatto Ltd Carbon Track Bars which are much more rigid than my old Look Carbon Sprint Bars and possibly the best handlebars any manufacturer has made, but it is still disappointing about the frame.”
It was through Track Cycling that Clara met her husband, the former European U23 Champion Didier Henriette who recently gave up on his dreams of progressing to the senior squad.
Didier formed part of the U23 Team Sprint team with Gregory Bauge and Michael D’Almeida that claimed the European title in 2007. Henriette also took the Gold in the Kilometre Time Trial the same year, however failed to progress at the same rate as his team-mates so decided to leave the sport.
“In 2005 during the World Championships in Los Angeles, Didier and I were scheduled to ride and were in the group that was assembled in Hyeres prior to flying out from Nice.”
“It was early morning and we had assembled all the equipment and arrived at the airport only to realise one of the boxes was missing.”
“Didier discovered it was my bike which I needed for the World Championships! We had little time until the flight but we decided to go back to the hotel and collect the bike.”
“We got the bike but missed the flight; however as is so often in France there was a strike by the workers so the flight was delayed so it was ok and I went on to defend the Keirin title on that bicycle!”
Didier is a huge inspiration to Clara, providing the motivation that she often requires in order to raise her game and improve her performances ahead of major events.
“Before an event I listen to music from Reunion Island, where Didier is originally from, this makes me think of him and is a huge motivation to perform.”
Throughout her career Sanchez-Henriette has trained and raced with many inspirational figures within the French team, one such figure is Laurent Gané whose professionalism Clara aimed to apply to her own riding.
“Seeing how hard he worked in training and how this helped him in his competitions really inspired me”
Another source of inspiration is Benoît Vêtu who joined the French coaching team in September 2005.
“Benoît is always there for me, giving me the best advice in both my professional and personal life, he really is great.”
With the French dominating sprinting, especially in the Men’s events over the last few years, what would it mean to France to host a World Cup or World Championships?
“It would be fantastic for us French riders to have a World Championships at home. I remember in 2006 when the World Championships were in Bordeaux my family were able to able this event and the support we received from the French public was tremendous.”
“Unfortunately Bordeaux does not seem to be a possible host anymore despite the great facility for cycling, it is used for too many other sports and music.”
“It would be fantastic to have a World Cup at Velodrome Hyeres but this is an outdoor facility and the World Cup season from October to February makes this impossible.”
What are Clara’s thoughts on the 2011/2012 season and the build-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games?
“The Olympic Games are the culmination of every athletes dreams and to participate in them is a great honour. For any athlete to return with medal is exceptional, I never experienced a successful Olympics so this is my biggest challenge”
“With Anna Meares being World Champion in all events in 2011 she is the biggest rival for any female sprinter. In the Team Sprint with Kaarle McCulloch they are very hard to beat”
“Kristina Vogel is progressing nicely at the moment, she gets better all the time and China’s Shuang Guo has not been seen yet this season so we are interested how she will perform and Victoria Pendleton will always be the rider everybody talks about, especially at home in London.”
What do you think of Pendleton’s comments to the press about her lack of motivation and confidence?
“What Victoria does or says does not interest me, everybody doubts their own abilities and fears losing, but to be a great champion you have to be strong and not think or talk about this.”
It will be interesting to see how Clara develops over the course of the 2011/2012 season as if Astana is anything to go by she’ll be incredibly hard to beat when the World Championships return to Melbourne in April 2012.
In 2004, when the event was last hosted in Melbourne, Clara claimed her first World title and went on to dominate the Keirin for two years until German rider Christin Muche’s victory at the 2006 Bordeaux World Championships meant she had to settle for Silver.
Current form hints at the 2012 World Championships going the same way as 2004 so Sanchez-Henriette better prepare herself for something special as the most successful female Keirin rider starts her journey towards Olympic Keirin Gold.
Thanks to Clara Sanchez-Henriette for taking the time to talk to TrackCyclingNews.com