At the end of the 2020 competitive season, Ruan cyclist Imogen Cotter was making huge strides having been called up to ride with a top tier professional team. A visit home over Christmas saw Cotter contract Covid-19, and though fearful of the damage that might do to her career prospects, the Clare woman is back on track for 2021. She spoke with Ronan Judge.
What do you do when your world is in perpetual motion and that world stops?
You keep doing what got you to that place: work hard and focus.
You keep pedalling.
So it was for Belgian based aspiring pro-cyclist, Imogen Cotter.
2020 brought the highs of a World Tour trial and the chaos wreaked on the sporting calendar by the pandemic.
Whether at home in Ruan or with her team Keukens Redant in Belgium, Cotter held fast to the commitment that has been the guide rope of her ascent through Irish cycling.
It hasn’t always been easy or straightforward.
There were doubts and struggles.
There always are when you trying to make it in the tough world of pro-cycling.
And then there was a positive test for Covid-19, an unwelcome bit of news Cotter received on New Year’s Day.
“I came back in the middle of December (2020), followed all the guidelines, all the guidance, did everything I was supposed to do. But it still got into the house. I wouldn’t say it was eventful. It was probably the most extremely uneventful Christmas I ever had. It was just me sitting in my room!”, she recalled.
Cotter detailed her Covid experience in a lengthy article on her website. She said that despite suffering some days of tiredness and weakness, she was spared the worst of the symptoms, a fact for which she is grateful.
However, there was a period of uncertainty and worry prompted by what effect the disease could have on her dream of a cycling career.
“When I started thinking about it at first, I was really, really concerned. You have all these thoughts going through your head that my whole season could be ruined. I was thinking that months and months of work are gone. My job is to build my fitness and try to hit these markers. And when I got the positive test, it was like this feeling of panic that I’m going to lose everything that I spent months and months building up.
“But I have to say that I was actually really, really lucky. I didn’t get a very bad dose of it and I have recovered well and there hasn’t been any side-effects.”
Cotter last raced at two World Tour events last October. The plan then was to start building for a new season until restrictions put that on hold.
That shape of the new cycling season, like many top level sports, remains unknown.
Elite sports people are often creatures of routine. Cotter admits that trying to stay focused and ready for whatever the year may hold can at times be “physically and mentally draining”.
“There are supposed to be races coming up but no specific dates have been nailed down yet. So it is difficult to pinpoint when you should be aiming for. Like everyone else, it has been a really, really difficult year for athletes. I love training and staying focussed and preparing for races but what is really difficult is not knowing exactly when you are training for. It’s that part of it, the waiting and the uncertainty that can be physically and mentally draining. You are just waiting around and that can be difficult”.
The time and space made Cotter think; is it time for a change?
Not of ambition or career but on what is important and goals she could hope to achieve whenever the bike gets back on the road.
That change in approach flows in part from a tough end to last season when the difficulties caused by the pandemic crashed into the hard realities of trying to crack pro-cycling.
Cotter was at home in Ireland during the fist wave until the end of June 2020.
At that point it was unclear when racing in Beligum would resume. So as has been the hallmark of her sporting life through her days as a runner and triathlete, she worked hard.
And she continued to work hard, putting in the hours required to be in “race condition” when the time came.
She recalls a period of heavy competition in July and August before easing back a little as September rolled around.
The work paid off.
Cotter is part of a club team and her form earned her call up to cycling’s next level – a UCI team.
That UCI trial saw Cotter participate in two UCI World Tour events last October
“I spent a lot of time between March and August racing and then trying to stay in race condition when Covid hit. And then I had that period where I eased off a bit in September, just before the trials in October. For the life of me I just couldn’t get into the right place to be at 100% and compete.
“I just felt, really, really exhausted. You know when you’re cycling or running and you get to a point where you’re wrecked and you tell yourself to keep going, keep going? And then when you stop you realise, wow, I’m exhausted. That’s how I felt”.
She continued, “Towards the end of last season, I found it difficult and I was struggling mentally. I found it hard to stay motivated. I knew I had to maybe change my goal setting for the new seasons and maybe my approach. I knew it was something that was right for me. I think looking back in hindsight, that period was a a bit of a downfall for me.”
“I think now I’m more focussed on being on the bike and enjoying it and letting the outcomes or the results come from that,” she added.
A new perspective for a new season. Cotter returned to Belgium at the end of January and is completing a period of quarantine.
Cycling these days means plenty of hours on the indoor training platform, Zwift. “From the comfort of my home I can go anywhere I want in the world. All I need is my turbo trainer and I can go anywhere,” Cotter said.
Although after her recent periods of confinement, Cotter is counting the days until she get can get back on the road.
“I’m still in quarantine since coming back to Belgium so I’m limited in what I can do. I can’t wait to get back out on the road and get ready for the year ahead. Last year was hard but I got great help from my coach, my family. People in Clare have been really supportive too. Fergus Cahill at Cahill Taxation Services has really helped me out with going to training camps and things like that,” she added.
Cotter’s climb through cycling’s ranks has been as swift as it has been impressive.
A childhood love of running and swimming led to a brief period as a triathlete.
She returned to running, winning national titles on track and cross country.
Cotter has recalled feeling a bit “lost” when she left university.
In 2017, aged 24, she joined Cycling Ireland’s new Talent Transfer programme.
Missing out on selection for the 2018 European Track Championships was in Cotter’s words a “crossroads” moment.
Cotter moved to Belgium to pursue a pro-cycling contract in 2019 – the same year she finished second in the Irish National Championships.
The last few years have seemed like a blur, but Cotter is happy she is on the right track.
“I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I think I surprised myself at how quickly I progressed. I feel I’m getting better and I’m learning all the time. I do feel it is going in the right direction,” Cotter said.
It’s the same direction she is determined to remain travelling.