Blazing saddle;Mind and body

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Blink and you'll miss her. For Anne Smith moves fast on the trail, and in the classroom. Here she tells Nicki Household how being a champion mountain-biker has made her a better teacher too

Few deputy headteachers enjoy the luxury of being considered "cool" by their pupils, but Anne Smith is one of them. "Cor, Miss, you've got suspension forks and titanium rails on your saddle," coo her Year 6 boys at Cudham C of E primary school in Kent.

They are even more impressed at the medals she has won as one of Britain's top mountain-bikers, and she is happy to show them off. "We have a policy at Cudham of celebrating everyone's successes, both inside and outside school," she says, "so I always bring in my trophies."

Her most recent successes include a silver medal in the 1998 National Mountain Biking championships in Belgium last January. She has won many races at pro-elite and masters level and has regularly been invited to represent Great Britain in the World Mountain Biking Championships. But she has only managed to go once. They are held in September in faraway places such as the United States and Australia - not the best time or place for a British primary school teacher.

Now 37, she started racing at the relatively late age of 30, having bought her first mountain bike just one year earlier. While on a walking holiday in the Lake District, she and her husband, Richard, felt so envious of the riders they saw whizzing past them that they went straight out and bought a bike each. "It was Richard's idea that we should do some 'fun' racing the following summer. I wasn't keen because I was convinced I'd come last, and 30 seemed very old to be starting something like that."

Her first race was on the day after her 30th birthday and she was amazed to finish 10th out of 70. In her second race, a few weeks later, she won by a comfortable margin. "It was all the more surprising because I wasn't very fit," she says. "I did aerobics and the occasional jog, and had once taken part in a three-mile fun run, but I'd never done anything competitive. I began to realise I had natural talent for biking and decided life didn't end at 30 after all."

Ironically, her husband, whose idea it all was, became so nervous before races that he didn't enjoy them, so now he supports Anne at weekend events and runs his own bike shop in Tunbridge Wells.

Anne has to combine a punishing training schedule with her roles as deputy head, class teacher of Years 1, 2 and 3 (the school has only three classrooms), co-ordinator for English, IT and early years and teacher-governor. "I don't do any fewer hours because of my biking, but I do have to be extremely well-organised, and probably do more work than other teachers during the school holidays.

"I'm fortunate that my headteacher, being a New Zealander, is very pro-sport. She recognises that a member of staff with a strong outside interest brings an extra dimension to the job, and is happy to let our senior management meetings revolve around my training. And she knows I put in the work and the hours, if not always at conventional times."

Anne spends 90 minutes on her bike or in the gym every weekday and five or more hours a day at weekends. Her one "rest" day is staff meeting day, but it's not most people's idea of a rest. This is when she puts up classroom displays, labels trays, sharpens pencils and all the rest.

"I actually get more done than I ever did before I started racing because I don't waste a minute. Every task, from drafting a discipline policy to writing an evaluation or designing a format for half-termly planning, is allocated a time slot in my diary and has to be completed within it. I don't have any half-finished wall displays hanging about like I did in the old days."

During the April to September season she travels to biking events every other weekend, loading her bike into the estate car on the Saturday, completing a gruelling 12-mile cross-country course anywhere in Britain on the Sunday, and being driven back in the evening, ready for school on Monday. "I often fall asleep on the way home. I'm lucky to have Richard to drive me around, and look after my bikes when I'm racing."

There's no mistaking her love of the sport. "The best moment is when the starting gun goes off," she declares, eyes shining. "You feel full of energy because you've trained for this moment. There's a period in the early stages of a race when you feel you're going to die or explode because you go from nothing to all-out in 30 seconds. You're breathing hard and reach your maximum heart rate very quickly."

Inevitably there are tumbles, cuts and bruises, as a typical course involves negotiating steep, bumpy hills, not to mention mud, roots, trees and rocks, at speeds of up to 45 mph. "I used to get upset when I saw another scar on my knee," she admits. "Now I wear them like trophies."

She believes mountain-biking has made her more of a "whole" person, if only because it has stopped her being completely work-oriented. "I'm quite obsessive about teaching, but it can fill up every corner of your life unless you make space for something else. Also, no matter how hard you work or how appreciative people are, you never feel you are doing well enough, so it's particularly satisfying to be successful at something that's measurable."

Anne finds she has some of her most creative thoughts while pedalling gently on the "recovery ride" at the end of a hard training session. "The other day I spent a whole recovery ride thinking about what we needed to do to create an extra class, and by the end of the ride I had it sussed. Now we're going to sit down with the budget and try to make it work."

Only about 100 women take part in competitive mountain-biking in Britain, compared with more than 1,000 men (men and women don't compete against each other although they race on the same track at the same time). Anne would dearly like to see more women in the sport.

She is also aware that if she had started earlier, she could have been Britain's top woman rider. But it is never too late too start. It took her only four years to progress from novice, through sport and expert to pro-elite (the top category). At 35 she had to move into the masters category on age grounds, and has the veteran and super veteran categories to look forward to in her 50s and 60s.

And there is no excuse for slacking, even when you're close to retirement - so many people now carry on racing into their 60s that there's talk of creating a super grand veteran category.

More details from the British Cycling Federation, tel: 0161 230 2301


* A good mountain bike will cost pound;500-plus (Anne's two bikes cost pound;4,000 and pound;2,500) * Helmet: pound;35 - pound;120 * Padded cycle shorts: pound;50 * Wicking layer for underwear: pound;40 * Travel costs and race entry fees (usually around pound;20) * Anne Smith says it's not difficult for a woman to get a sponsor - usually a bike manufacturer -once she starts doing well. She found one five months after taking up racing

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