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Anna Meares may be proud to have just delivered her 11th world championship win but the Australian track cyclist is not about to get caught up in her history-making achievement, not when there is still work to be done towards the Rio Olympic Games next year.
When the 31-year-old won the women’s keirin final at the UCI Track World Championships in France a little over a week ago, she beat Felicia Ballanger’s record of 10 world championship gold medals. With win number 11, Meares solidified her place in the record books, and the cycling world took notice. Meares received congratulatory tweets from figures such as Jens Voigt and Robbie McEwen, a flood of messages on her Facebook page and heavy mainstream media coverage.
“In my mind I am still someone who is barrelling away working hard trying to achieve something, because I think if I give myself too much perspective I am going to lose focus on what I have to do to continue on the path that I am on,” Meares told Ella CyclingTips.
Once Meares committed to her racing plans beyond London, the path was always about the 2016 Rio Olympics. There were other goals on the way, such as picking up that 11th world championship gold medal, but there has been no question about the main aim.
“I’ve been working for two years towards Rio. It has all been a building phase and process towards that,” Meares explained.
Meares has won five Olympic medals, two of them gold, and has delivered memorable performances across three Olympics. She became Australia’s first female track Olympic gold medallist in 2004. She took silver in Beijing after fighting back from a horrible crash which left her with a broken neck, and she engaged in a tough strategic battle with retiring British champion Victoria Pendleton to take the sprint gold in London.
Meares said she was making “pretty good” progress towards her fourth Olympics.
“It’s not perfect – even though I strive for that,” said Meares “I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’ve got new people to compete against with new strengths and weaknesses. I’m trying to work on new strategies and implementing those, and it is really challenging. But at the same time that is what I like about it. That’s why I’m not bored with the sport yet.”
“I have been riding my bike for 20 years and 14 of those have been at the elite senior level and it constantly changes,” she added. “That is what keeps me engaged – trying to adapt to those changes.”
Rising to the challenge again
She identified the sprint as an area where she feels she is “behind the game.” Meares started off the world championships in France by winning bronze in the team sprint and then silver in the team time trial, but in the individual sprint where she is the reigning Olympic champion, she failed to make the quarterfinals.
“I’d almost written myself off after the sprint,” said Meares. “I really wasn’t sure how I was going to fare in the keirin. I had almost accepted that it wasn’t going to be.”
But Meares, who is no stranger to fighting back from adversity, spent the day between the events enjoying time with teammates and managed to take on the keirin with a fresh mindset. She told her coach that she didn’t want to analyse video to prepare but just wanted to go out and have fun riding her bike.
“I don’t remember the race,” she admitted. “I was operating much more on feel than thinking. Some of my best races I have no recollection of. I watched the video that night when I went back to the hotel and I didn’t even realise how early I had got to the front because obviously that normally wouldn’t fare well for me.”
Meares was at the front of the field for the final two laps and powered on with such strength that none of the other riders ever seemed to have a chance of challenging for the lead position. The win that secured her record-breaking 11th title was the first time she had been on the top step of a world championship podium since 2012.
Meares said she was incredibly proud of the win, but the title of the greatest female track athlete is not one she is about to claim from Ballanger.
“It has taken me twice as long and with double the opportunity to achieve one more than what she did,” said Meares. “Obviously the sport has evolved and opportunities are becoming much more equal than in the past so I certainly don’t, in any way, want to be disrespectful to Felicia Ballanger because I do still believe she is the greatest of all time.”
In fact, meeting the French champion was a thrill for Meares, who said she was like a “kid in a candy shop” when she was introduced to the women she admires.
“The image of her in the 500 metre time trial in Sydney (at the 2000 Olympics) is so stamped in my memory bank because she was the first women that I witnessed that was physically defined by muscle, not skeleton. She was strong and aggressive. These are the sort of qualities and attributes that I then started to associate with being female,” said Meares.
She chuckled when she considered that others may feel equally nervous and in awe at meeting her. However, she does recognise the strength of her public image and takes care to protect it.
“I very much like the fact that I can inspire people in a positive way and I have adopted a lifestyle that feeds that,” said Meares.
An example of the extent and connection of her followers is that Meares nudged out Cadel Evans to win the People’s Choice Cyclist of the Year award for a second time in 2011, which is the year Evans became the first Australian ever to win the Tour de France.
The charities that she supports, the athletes that she champions, the causes she gives her time to and the sport that she draws new fans to are all beneficiaries of this strong and engaged following.
“I realise that I have a profile, that I can help the sport that I love and that has given me so much in my life. That would be an area that I would really like to go into when I have finished because I feel like I can bring a lot to the other athletes, to help them grow the sport and grow themselves and their profile,” said Meares.
But she is certainly not ready to take her eyes off her goals and start thinking about retiring from the track and stepping into other opportunities yet.
“You don’t focus on that because that becomes a distraction to actually being able to involve yourself with what you are doing,” said Meares.