“This is only, what? Twenty-five minutes from home? And yet it feels like we are in the middle of nowhere. It is so wild up here.”
We had left the Tweed Valley behind to head up the Gypsy Glen, and Isla Short’s beaming smile looked back at me as we climbed a Kirkhope Law smattered with snow and riddled with ice patches. My front brake had already stopped working, so we were in for a rowdy descent.
It is the early days of the new year; 2017 had been a year of ups and downs for Isla, struggling with a less-than-ideal start to the last season, but ended up with a fourth place finish at Val di Sol in August.
“2017 was definitely a tale of two-thirds and a little bit”, she tells me after our ride. “I was in really good shape coming into 2017, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to get back into front-line bike racing, because I knew I could be that rider, and I knew I had done the training.
“But I wasn’t prepared for the other stuff that can come with that, such as stressing about my weight, under eating, expectations and not knowing how to deal with failing those.
“I spent months and months training and I threw that all away in two months by not eating enough, and that was hard to deal with because it had gone to waste.
“And then I got back on track mid-season, and it took me six World Cups to do what I knew I had set out to do, but getting fourth in VdS was the best day of my life. People might think, ‘Oh wow! Look at her, doing that and she’s not been out here before’. No, for me it wasn’t that; it was ‘This is where I want to be, and I deserve to be here.’ I was just relieved I could have faith in the work I put in.”
I met Isla soon after that VdS race at the Forfar Funduro, organised by Muckmedden. A group of ladies at the top of one of the stages I was waiting at cried, “We have a pro rider in our midst!”. It was one of those awkward moments when you feel like you’ve totally missed something, but Isla put her reputation to good use by winning that race.
We were stood in the middle of a very long queue for our results, and we got chatting, with me finally able to show my complete lack of knowledge about who she was.
You cannot help but want to know Isla’s story: her bubbly attitude is as infectious as her smile, but you cannot take that for granted – she has a serious sting in her tail. Unlike her dog, Buzz, who is just full of bubbles and will flip your resting arm from its place to wrap it around himself – something he enjoyed doing while we sip our tea during the interview back in her home in Cardrona.
“I started racing about 13 or 14”, she tells me. Supporting her father on 10-hour races, Isla and her dad entered a race as a duo. “We won the race – well, he won. I did three laps and he did 12. I helped though.”
After that, she couldn’t shake the need to race. “I was kind of average at quite a lot of things at school, because I hadn’t found anything I wanted to work hard at. This was the first thing I found I wanted to work my hardest for.”
She did work her hardest, racing nationals and competing in her first World Championships in Norway, in which she finished seventh in 2014. It wasn’t her desired result, suffering from concussion after a crash during the race, but soon after it she met the guys at Team OMX, who were building themselves to become a more professional team, and signed for two years before extending to three.
Joining a team who were small and invested in their riders was a serious benefit to Isla in the early days of her career as a rider. Just before leaving school, Isla was struck by a car and left with two fractured vertebrae, a head injury and a broken collarbone.
But it was more than that. “I spent five days in hospital, and I was back racing two months later. People say, ‘It couldn’t have been that bad’, and no, the injuries themselves weren’t that bad, but mentally it took me a very, very long time to get back. I would say, probably the best part of the last four years to get over that.
“I think probably the main reason I am so grateful to OMX was, because I struggled with my mental health, they were aware of that, and they were patient with me for that. And they obviously saw potential, so they were willing to give me the space that I needed, and I am really grateful to them for it.”
OMX obviously did see the talent in Isla. They are a small team, with just four riders registered on their website, Isla being one, another Annie Last. Annie picked up silver in the 2017 World Championships, but for Isla she doesn’t just see Annie as a team mate, but a friend above all else.
She says: “We were on the same team for two years, which was awesome because Annie was very much an inspiration and a stranger to me until we were on the same team, and now I would consider her a friend over anything else.
“She has gone through shit; she’s had a fractured back, and had a few tough years in the sport, and I could relate to that. So, the reason I could say she is a friend more than anything is just because she’s shown me that she’s not done what she’s done with support of others, she has done it in spite of everything else.”
Despite the happy outward look Isla now has on her career – her smile almost immovable from her face – she has struggled with her mental health. She struggled with it after her accident, but was left in a dilemma after leaving school and taking a year out to ride.
“I did the classic When You Leave School You Go To Uni. I had left school, had a year out, and was taking time to get over my injury, and then after I did the World Champs with that seventh, and I knew I was joning a pro team, I was a little lost in myself.
“I just panicked and thought I needed to get a degree – I didn’t want to be mooching around at home. So I went to do European Film and Media – don’t really know why.”
After chopping and changing the shape of her degree, Isla concluded that giving 50% to racing and 50% to university was not going to make the cut when she hit her honours years.
“I changed courses to French and went part time, which was OK for being in second year and doing the minimum, but I just wasn’t enjoying university, and that second year was tough. That was when my mental health got to its worst, and when I started seeking help.”
Mental health in sport is an issue gaining increasing coverage. The charity Mind conducted research into how governing bodies and players’ organisations are addressing the issue after high-profile sportspeople spoke out about the issue.
For many, this is the pressure for results, and Isla addresses that issue, but she also mentions the societal pressures that can come about through being an athlete. She is very considered in her response, taking her time to think it over.
“From my experience, I see why mental health is a problem in sport – it is generally, but in sport especially. You are trying to build a profile for yourself, and you have to be in the public eye to get anywhere. That’s how it is.
“So, by portraying yourself as a certain person on social media, and just having to be at your best all the time is so exhausting. I will have times I go on social media and cannot bear seeing people’s Instagrams, because I know they aren’t like that. People’s lives aren’t perfect.
“For people who are in a similar position to what I have been in, just turn all of that off. I remember when I was not well, my psychologist said to turn everything off for two weeks, and just do it. And I did, and it was the best thing I ever did.
“Knowing what the public think of you, in relation to mental health, is totally irrelevant. Making it seem like you’re happy doesn’t make you happy, so find that line when it starts to hurt you.”
For Isla, sometimes it is just about growing vegetables. In a recent Instagram post, she wrote about the goals for 2018 that she had for her non-cycling pursuits: knitting a jumper for her boyfriend, growing vegetables and going to pottery classes, as well as working towards a sports nutrition qualification.
“It is important to me because I can be so focused on my cycling, which can be a good thing. However, when I am in a position where it’s the only thing I am investing time in and focusing on, when you do the hard work and it doesn’t pay off, that is your self-worth. I was defined by the results on the paper – that’s all I worked towards. If you don’t achieve them, that’s all you have.
“For my mental health, I needed goals beyond bikes, so I can have a bad race and I can have new goals: it’s a nice day, I can go look at my courgettes. Last year was terrible, I would just analyse every race result, and it would consume you. In the end, that doesn’t make you faster, some people are just faster on the day, and that’s the way it is. You just need something else to take your mind off of it.”
I can certainly attest to Isla’s abilities outside of riding; as I entered her house, the smell of bread wafted out to me, and she was in the kitchen adding chocolate to some blueberry bars.
“I am not sure about the bread”, she admitted. “It smells a bit iffy.” She was making lemon and poppyseed bread, and, sure enough, it was citrusy, but far from unpleasant. She scowled at me, as if I was just being nice.
Really, she does bake some good stuff.
Going into 2018, Isla made some changes to her normal off-season training. It was the first time in seven years she hadn’t raced the Scottish Cyclocross Series. She tells me she likes using it as a gauge, something to let her know how she is performing.
Despite that, she told her coach she would race the Scottish CX Championships, and she won convincingly. There have been many other ways she has changed her training.
“I started running, which is amazing, and I started climbing in placed of one of my gym sessions, which I did last year. It has been so good, because I feel more of an athlete than a cyclist. I think, in the past, I have been a bit one-track minded with sport, and now I feel capable of doing other sports, and just be stronger.
“Plus, they’re more natural than being in the gym: running is the most natural thing you can do, and climbing, you are moving your body in a way you just never would normally. It is much better than just riding bikes.
“This is also my first winter training with power, so really I do not need to race to know how I am doing – the watts will tell me how hard I am trying. Seeing the numbers keeps you very honest, and I am really enjoying that.”
Moving on into 2018, Isla will be saying goodbye to Team OMX, with her in the process of signing a contract with Habitat Mountain Bike Team, sponsored by Habitat for Humanity.
“I liked Habitat because they ride Felt bikes. Felt make really small frame sizes, which can sometimes be a real limit on my team options. I finished VdS, and I was chatting to two teams, and then I went to the Netherlands and won that race. The other two teams hadn’t worked out, so I sent Habitat an email, and they had already Facebook messaged me on the same day without me knowing about it.
“It was really nice we both wanted each other, especially after them seeing me race in the Netherlands and wanting me to race for them.”
Improving on that VdS placing is high on Isla’s agenda for next year, with the aim of gaining consistent podium positions in the World Cup. And, of course, racing a World Championships again, something she hasn’t done since that seventh place in Norway.
“I would love to go to World Champs, seeing as it is my last year as U23 and I have never raced in that category. Commonwealth Games are a big priority; I want to come top five at Gold Coast.
One thing that is looming close on the horizon of her race season is a four-day stage race in Lanzarote. After our ride in the hills, we sat in No 1 Cafe in Innerleithen, where she mused, “I cannot wait to be warm”.
She laughs when I ask about the event. “It will be hard,” she admits, “and probably harder than I can imagine.
“I have never done a stage race before, because I think it is risky when you’re young; quite often you don’t have the miles in your legs, or that kind of fitness. I wouldn’t have said before this year I was ready for one, but after increasing my training by five hours a week this cycle, I have coped quite well with it.
“We are doing it early season, because it will be a good four-day block to go on and build from, and it is good for world ranking points. I’d love to start the first World Cup on the front row.”
It iswith deep regret I have to wrap up our interview, Isla being one of those people whose positive energy you cannot help but want to be part of. But more than anything, I felt awful leaving Buzz, who had clearly found a new friend who would kick a tattered version of a tennis ball for him.
“It’s OK, Buzz,” says Isla, “We will go for a run after dinner.” I am not sure how excited Buzz looked for that.