Five-time world cycling champion Shanaze Reade is as active as ever during lockdown, and has been helping to nurture Great Britain’s next generation of BMX talent.
It would be fair enough if Shanaze Reade wanted to use the lockdown period caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic to take a bit of a rest. The three-time BMX world champion, who also won two track cycling team sprint world titles, has only recently retired from international racing – having started her career at the age of 10.
Reade, however, now 31, is staying as fit and active as ever. “I’m very lucky, actually. I’ve got a nice house in Cheshire [England] and I’ve got a garage that I’ve turned into a gym with a Wattbike, a rowing machine and weights. I’ve just done 45 minutes on the bike, actually,” she said.
“I’ve been getting out for bike rides, too, because we have some beautiful countryside around here. But I have also been using this time to take a deep breath, and hit the reset button. I’ve been gardening and baking, shopping for my nan and granddad and checking in on my neighbours, who are elderly. The situation has definitely helped pull people together, especially on Thursday nights when we are all outside, cheering for the National Health Service [which has become a tradition in the UK].”
Reade has had a long and eventful sporting journey. A BMX prodigy from Crewe, Cheshire, she was virtually unbeatable for a number of years. In both 2007 and 2008, she pulled off the extraordinary double of winning the team sprint rainbow jersey in the velodrome before switching bikes and being crowned BMX world champion. “I was young and I didn’t really appreciate what I’d done,” she said. “I took it for granted.”
She has recently become involved with a group of young BMX athletes from Hackney, London, who are starting out with dreams similar to those she had herself as a kid. The BMX club aims to keep young people off the streets. Reade’s mentoring has been a huge part of that, and was the subject of a recent Olympic Channel film.
“I enjoyed working with the boys and meeting their families; it was a great opportunity,” she said. “They had similar backgrounds to me. BMX is very raw, and lots of people get involved because it’s a cheap discipline. Seeing that community vibe was nice. They didn’t have much but they were putting so much into trying to make it in the sport.
“I grew with the boys. We went to races, went through those emotions during preparation. I wanted them to view me as a friend and someone to chat to. We spoke about training, and they know they can stay in touch with me for advice.”
Reade’s own sporting life was packed with highs and lows. “Being the first person to win UCI world gold medals in two different Olympic disciplines, in the same year,” was one highlight, she reflected, although the other was “just going to Beijing  and experiencing everything about the Olympic Games.”
On the downside – in the two biggest races of her career, the BMX finals at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 – Reade, the strong favourite, failed to make the podium. In Beijing, she took a big risk in a push to move up from second place to first, and ended up crashing.
“I feel like it was my alter ego; I’m such a different person now,” she said. “I look back now and think, ‘Wow, I used to do that’. But I am happy with my career. Apart from the Olympics, I won every title there was, and was dominant for so many years. I’m also proud of how I dealt with the mental side of things. I did myself justice.
“Looking back on Beijing, I would probably do the same thing all over again. I’d do whatever it costs to win the gold. If I was sitting here now with a silver medal, I think I’d look at it and have some resentment that I didn’t push for gold. There is an element of chaos to BMX, with variables out of your control. That was part of the buzz of the sport for me. There’s no guarantee of winning. It’s an extreme sport in many ways.
“You can’t define a career from two races. The Olympics have so many stories to tell – unfortunately [mine] just [don’t] have a gold medal. But I’m so proud of how the country got behind me. Not many people get to ride at two Olympics.”
Reade struggled with her first retirement, in 2017. “I went through depression, working out what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue. I’d been in a bubble for 20 years. When winning is taken away from you, it’s hard. But I was feeling burned out from cycling, and I was worrying about injuries.”
She then made a comeback in 2019 – only to find the goal of a third Olympic Games appearance, at Tokyo 2020, scuppered. “I took a break after 2017, but during that time I was very involved in CrossFit, and I ended up in the best shape of my life,” she said. “British Cycling invited me back on to the track programme, and I said no twice, but eventually said yes.
“I was soon the fastest athlete on the women’s team and won the national title. But because I hadn’t raced in a World Cup, I couldn’t go to the World Championships this year, and eventually our slower team didn’t qualify for Tokyo. So I have now stepped away from the programme.”
While there is disappointment, Reade is firmly looking forwards. “Coming back on my own terms gave me great closure. I feel physically and mentally well. It was about more than just the Olympics.”
Whatever she does next, it is sure to be interesting – as her friends in Hackney can testify. “Working with them takes me back to starting out in Crewe,” she said. “Lots of volunteers, everyone making the most of what they’ve got. I missed that. BMX is cool.