Shannon McCurley: ‘Everything seems to have fallen into place’ to make Irish cycling history

Shannon McCurley will make history this Saturday at 2pm Irish time when she takes to the boards inside the Olympic velodrome in Rio, writes Brian Canty.

The Australian-born Irishwoman will become the country’s first ever female cyclist to ride on the track at a Games in a discipline few will confess to knowing anything about.

The keirin is her event, a high-speed discipline where between six and eight riders line up behind a motorbike known as a derny and stay there for a predetermined number of laps.

Shannon McCurley at the Rio Olympic Velodrome during yesterday's practice ahead of her Women's Keirin event on Saturday. Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Shannon McCurley at the Rio Olympic Velodrome during yesterday's practice ahead of her Women's Keirin event on Saturday. Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The derny increases its speed before peeling off, after which those behind sprint for the remaining two 250-metre laps.

Crashes and nasty injuries are common while first and last are often separated by fractions of seconds.

“I just love the adrenaline of it,” she replies when asked why this, of all events.

“I love how it feels, it’s tight, it’s aggressive and I love going for little gaps in the bunch.

“I’ve always been told I raced the keirins smartly because I don’t think,” she added with her customary laugh.

McCurley qualifies to ride for Ireland courtesy of her mum and dad who are from Dublin and Belfast, respectively.

They emigrated to Australia before she was born, hence her unmistakeable Victorian accent.

She was sports-mad from a young age and won many middle-distance running titles before she switched to cycling.

And when she discovered her passion for that she pledged her allegiance to Ireland when the federation here learned of her talent - and eligibility.

She medalled at the 2011 European U23 Track Championships in one of her first major events but because that event (scratch race) was a non-Olympic event the focus was shifted to making her into a keirin rider.

Not something she initially enjoyed.

“It was extremely difficult, when I first made the crossover to sprinting to focus on an Olympic event, I hated it.

“I was going from medal contention in big races to making up numbers and I couldn’t handle it.

“I guess I stuck with it and I saw the improvements and I knew it was going to take time,” she conceded.

To get to Rio, McCurley had to qualify by a long and convoluted process that involved Track World Cups (3) as well as European and World Championships.

Might sound easy but after getting hit by a car before a key Track World Cup in New Zealand and having her appendix taken out three weeks before the World Championships in London, Rio began to fade from view.

“I had a really bad run into the World Championships (in London this year),” she explained.

“I had my appendix out three weeks out before it and I had a really horrible season.

“But I knew I had to start and that was horrible. I was there, on the start-line, nobody really knows what was wrong but I was struggling to hold the wheel in front of me.

“I hadn’t even been on a bike (in a race setting) since the end of January so I knew I was going into it with nothing.

“I cried my eyes out after; I think I kept my helmet on for a good 20 minutes after the race so nobody could see me cry. It was heart-breaking.

“I was just so overwhelmed thinking, ‘I’m here at the World Champs but I’m not able to race’.

“I’m in pain but I’m also embarrassed because of what’s happening…but it’s all behind me now.”

But she raced and she picked up valuable qualifying points which were enough to secure her passage to the biggest show of all.

She’ll be up against it to advance from her heat but one thing she doesn’t lack is confidence.

“I’ve always been a strong, tactical bunch racer but now I’ve got a bit of power there too; I’m just really happy with how things have gone in the run-up to this.

“I’m going in quietly confident, my power has sky-rocketed in the last six months and everything seems to have just really fallen into place the last six weeks.

“I’ve had a gruelling training camp in Portugal recently so I’m excited to get out there and see what I can do.”

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