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Sammie Stuart puts a different meaning on the phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” or perhaps in her case it should be “out of the fire and into the frying pan.”
The 31-year-old, who only competed in her first road race just over a year ago, has taken time off from her job as a firefighter trainer and on-call firefighter with the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service to race at the Women’s Tour this week with CAMS-Basso Bikes.
Stuart’s call up to WorldTour racing came late last month after she impressed with two victories in May at the Tour Series — a critérium series organized by Sweetspot, which runs the Women’s Tour. A week later, she was making her WorldTour debut amongst the top riders in the women’s peloton.
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“It’s been crazy. If you asked me two to three weeks ago if I’d be riding for CAMS, a team that I’ve always wanted to ride for, or even ride in the Women’s Tour? I’d have said there’s no chance,” Stuart told VeloNews. “It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s really enjoyable and I’ve learned lots over the last three days already. Definitely more learning to still be done.”
After having a strong May, Stuart was given the opportunity to race up when her team manager at Brother UK-LDN spoke with the manager at CAMS-Basso and suggested she should step up.
Stuart has had to use up a lot of her annual vacation time from work to be able to race this year and has been putting in some overtime to earn herself a few precious extra days off. So that she doesn’t use up too many, she’s also driven hundreds of miles to make sure that she’s in work the following day.
In mid-May, she drove nearly 200 miles (321km) from an event in Stranraer, Scotland, back to Lancashire in England and was back working the following day. Her work not only means long hours, she has also had to cut training rides short to attend to a fire.
It means that she and her coach have to make sure she can maximize the time she has on the bike.
“It’s pretty tough,” Stuart said when asked what it’s like balancing a full-time job with racing and training. “But my coach is super in the way that he balances my training around what I’m able to do. I’m a firefighter trainer, Lancashire Fire Rescue, and I work a nine to five with them Monday to Friday. But I’m also an on-call firefighter for Lancashire and I respond to my local stations. So, I do 60 hours a week with that as well.
“It’s a lot of time and sometimes I can be on the bike, and I get called out because I have a bleeper that will disrupt my training. The intensity that I’m going through at work, regardless of my training, so I’m going into 350 degrees (662 F) heat where my heart rate is already going up to 120 at resting, and then because your blood thickens your heart carries on working afterward. So, for an hour or two afterward, my heart rate could still be up at like 190 beats per minute or in that range. When you look at training suffer scores on training peaks, I’ve already had that at work. Some days I just look at the bike. And I’m just like, ‘no, not today.’”
While her day job might sound stressful, Stuart says that racing is far more challenging.
Falling in and out of love with cycling
Stuart is not a complete newcomer to cycling, she got into the sport after competing in triathlon and doing an Ironman event back in 2016. At the time, her bike leg of the event was the worst of the three disciplines, and she says that she “fell out of love” with the bike soon after.
It wasn’t until she broke her foot and cycled as part of her rehabilitation that she found the passion for it again, confirming that she very much loves riding again.
“I broke my foot and I used cycling to rehabilitate and then I went on a cycling trip with some friends and just fell in love with it,” she told VeloNews. “Then a coach picked me up, John Oliver. He contacted me and said he would supply me with coaching to see how far I could get me.
“Because obviously I’ve got a busy life with work, he’s super mindful of that and he’ll put in really short sessions that I’m able to get done, but with a high intensity. I’ll train a lot less than loads of these women in this peloton. If you look on my Strava, I don’t do many hours a week, but it’s just quality and intensity of it.”
Despite the Women’s Tour being the first-ever stage race she’s competed in, Stuart has got stuck in and went on the attack on stage 2. Unlike at the Tour Series in May, she is not in the running for a victory but getting through each day and making small improvements in her riding are her own personal successes.
“I keep reminding myself about, the standard I’m racing against, and I am super happy with being able to finish,” she said. “It’s a very big mental game out there as well. Because you constantly tell yourself you’re not good enough and you’ve got to fight those thoughts.
“It’s been unbelievable. I mean, you look to your left, and Ellen van Dijk is there. It’s just unbelievable, but riding with CAMS, I feel dead comfortable. It’s only when I become stranded and alone. The team makes it a bit more of a comfortable experience.”
Stuart has made it to the halfway point of the six-day race, a huge mental hurdle for anyone riding their first stage race. However, she still has to tackle some of the route’s most challenging roads, particularly with the finish at Black Mountain on Friday.
She’s looking forward to riding in front of the crowds on the climb, but she’s not sure how much her legs will enjoy the experience.
“There should be some good crowds and I really like that. It is one of the biggest things for me as well,” Stuart said. “I really enjoy seeing the support of women cycling and going down the streets and seeing all the kids out from the schools and giving them a wave. It’s just a little thank you, to them. I’ll see if I can hold my own and kind of stay on the back of some of the groups up that climb. I’ve not told my legs about it yet, they can wait to find out.”