Stop Waiting for Permission

Posted: 17th February 2016

I have one leg longer than the other. My right leg, from the knee cap down, is about half an inch shorter than my left leg. I’m not aware of it at all when I stand, walk or run, but when I was a professional cyclist it was something that probably needed looking at. You know, marginal gains, and all that…

In fact, it was while I was a cyclist that I first noticed it. Many times in the gym, on the leg press machines and squat racks, I noticed that one knee appeared to be ‘higher’ than the other when I was in the crouch/squat position. I commented several times to my coaches and was told it was nothing. Looking back throughout my cycling career I always struggled to get my saddle height just right, and had too many well-meaning people suggest I need to lower it, or raise it, or lower it, or raise it… I also had a distinctive rocking style when I raced, not the most efficiently smooth and aerodynamic style. Both symptoms of what would happen if my saddle was always half an inch away from the best position.

At the end of 2003, GB teammate Victoria Pendleton was offered a place at the distinguished UCI Sprint School in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was the only remaining female GB sprinter in the UK and to mix up my training a bit, I contacted an old, trusted coach, Martin Barras, with an idea. Martin had been poached from the New South Wales state team in Australia by the British in 2000, and then poached back again by the Australians to become their National Track Coach in 2001. I worked with him in the short time he was in the UK and I liked his style. Based in Adelaide, Australia he had 3-4 women in his National sprint squad, including the inimitable and awesome Anna Meares. They agreed for me to join them at the Australian Institute of Sport for 6 weeks at the start of 2004. I still think how generous and open they were in allowing an outsider to work with them in this way.

In a gym session while I was there I repeated my claim that my legs appeared to be different lengths. This time, rather than tell me I was being daft, I was taken seriously, was properly measured by their physio and was found to be right. What happened next still amuses me…

You may already know, but most cycling shoes have clips/cleats on the underside that lock into your pedals, giving you much smoother control over your pedal action, and importantly the ability to pull up on the pedals as well as push down. Aussie sprinter Sean Eadie (who in his beard-wearing phase resembled Bluto from Popeye, yet still one of the most intelligent and funny people I have ever met) and I hatched a plan to fix a block between my cycling shoe and cleat on my shorter leg which would effectively give me the extra length I needed to balance out.

One Saturday we rode our bikes up to a hardware store near Henley Beach and found an 8mm thick Perspex chopping board. I mean exactly the kind of chopping board you would use in the kitchen. We bought a hack saw, a file and some extra long screws and shaped and fixed this piece of plastic right into place. 8mm is a bit less than half an inch but hey, it did the trick. Lots of riding up and down the road near the Institute of Sport, and much tweaking and adjusting we got this plate into perfect position. And we didn’t tell anybody.

At my next track session I was on fire. “Wow you’re really going well today” said Martin. “You seem to be wrapped round your bike well.” I showed him the shoe. “Cool, it obviously worked” was the response. I carried on to the end of the training camp with my chopping board shoe doing the trick, as I was going quicker and quicker the whole time. I couldn’t wait to get back to the UK and show off my new riding style.

On returning to the UK I kept quiet about the shoe for as long as I could. “You’re looking great on the bike” I was told. Eventually the chopping board was noticed. I’m not sure what I was expecting but “What a stupid thing to do, you could injure yourself making a change like that, take it off” probably wasn’t it, but that’s what I got. However, rather than take it off, I left it there. I didn’t get injured and instead spent the rest of my racing days rocking a little less and handling my bike a little better.

I haven’t raced for over 10 years but I do still ride sometimes. And my shoe still has the chopping board screwed into it and it still serves me well. Looking back, there was a big lesson in there for me. As an athlete I was 100% responsible for my own performances on the bike. Yes, the coaches and the support team were there to help and advise, and give me the benefit of their expertise, but at the end of the day no one else was responsible for what I did on that bike but me. I had spent far too long waiting for permission to address something I knew was an issue.

If you are responsible for getting something done, don’t wait around for permission to find solutions that will help you. Don’t worry either if your solutions appear to be a hack, or a temporary fix, just have fun experimenting and testing and seeing what works. I don’t wait for permission anymore. What would you do differently if you stopped waiting for permission too?



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