Interview – Melanie Spath

Mel2You are probably the only woman to have represented Ireland at a high level in three separate cycling disciplines?
Yep – I raced in the MTB Marathon World Championships in 2008, 2009, 2010, Road World Championships in 2013, and was at the Track World Championships in 2015 – although I didn’t get to race due to my leg issue – hopefully will get to race at the Track Worlds in 2016 in London though. I also raced the European Track Championships in 2014 (IP, TP) and in 2015 (IP, TP) and the European MTB Marathon Championships that were held in Ireland in 2014.

Whats your best achievement to date in any of the three? 
Well, it is hard to compare the different sports but at least on paper the best result was the European Track Championships this year in Switzerland – 6th in the TP (and new Irish record) and 7th in the IP. I had an 11th place finish in the European Marathon Champs, while affected by the leg issue.

You were laid off with injury for a while. How long were you off for, how long did it take to get back to full fitness afterwards?
Late in 2013 I was starting to have trouble with loss of power in my left leg at intensity which became much worse over the year in 2014. I didn’t know what the issue was for a long time, and it was really frustrating because I couldn’t train properly any more either. Eventually I got diagnosed with iliac artery endofribrosis, which meant my left leg wasn’t supplied with enough blood during exercise. Currently the only way to get this fixed is through a major operation and even then it’s not guaranteed that the operation will fix it completely. I contemplated retiring from competitive cycling then, but decided that I want to get the operation done anyway, because I still wanted to enjoy cycling and exercising in the future, even if it wasn’t at a competitive level.

Then the track opportunity came along and we agreed to wait till the end of the track season for the operation so that I’d be available for the TP for the duration of the season. I eventually got the operation done in March 2015 in London by a vascular surgeon who specializes in this condition. The procedure involves slicing open the iliac artery, removing the scar tissue, then patching the artery over with a piece of cow vein. The operation is pretty big, so I was in hospital for 4 days. I wasn’t allowed any real physical activity apart from gradually increasing walking for the 6 weeks after. It was hard to start back into it, I had lost so much fitness, it felt like starting from complete scratch and took about 4 weeks before I remotely felt like I could ever be fit again. By the time the National Road Champs came along I had just clawed back some of my base fitness but had no high end, so I wasn’t expecting any result and I can tell you the road race hurt a lot! After the Road champs I did a track training camp and then a mtb stage race and I felt I was back in good form leading into the MTB National Champs in July. Loosing out on the title in 2014 was hard to take, so I was motivated to win it back in 2015, but unfortunately I became sick before the race and lost out again this time. Maybe next year I can get it back! Shortly after I won the Sudety MTB Stage race (a 7 day stage race in Poland), so I knew my form had finally returned. I would say it took about 4 months from the operation to be fully back in form.

I have heard it is very difficult to qualify and compete at a high level in mountain biking as there are many financial constraints
There are quite a few off-road disciplines now (Enduro, Downhill, Marathon, Cross Country), but only Cross Country is an Olympic discipline.

So in general the financial constraints are mostly related to the costs of logistics. Of course you would need a decent bike too to be competitive, but if you’re at the level to be racing abroad, good at brand promotion and marketable it’s possible to get the support of a bike shop etc.

With regards to qualifying for the Olympics, if you’re not a super star in mtb, as a nation you need 3 riders racing UCI races to collect enough points to qualify for the Olympics – all on their own cost, organizing logistics themselves, that’s prohibitive and often impossible for most young riders (to rent a car you need to be 25 in most countries), and ideally you’ll have some kind of helper with you too for feed zone/mechanical support.

Despite all the challenges, my advice is to do the sport you enjoy, and if that is mtb, stick to mtb. Try and get experience abroad as much as possible, racing in Ireland will only get you so far. Racing abroad will also give you exposure to teams, which is important if you want to try and get onto an international team, which would help with equipment, logistics and support at races.

You really caught my attention with your superb performance in the Individual Pursuit in the Euros
with an outstanding time (3.40.698) It’s the second fastest time ever ridden by an Irish woman in the 3k individual pursuit by a long way.
Thank you! I had no specific preparation for it (my only other ever 3km IP was in the Euros the year before when I still had my leg issue). I felt good on the day, considering I was riding with a lot of open road rash from an unfortunate tumble in the last TP round. To be honest, I didn’t really think about the IP that much because I was still over the moon about our TP performance. With the World Championships coming up, it is something I think about now though.

Do you enjoy the Individual Pursuit or the Team Pursuit more? What are your short and long term ambitions on the track for the next few years?
TP is way more interesting and challenging than IP, so I have to say TP. Hmm, I haven’t really thought any further than until the end of the track season, it’s still all open in the air really.


Where are you at the moment and where / who will you spend Christmas with?
I’m currently on a training camp in Gran Canaria with Ryan and then I will race in Belgium this weekend to try and gather points to help qualify a place at the Worlds for IP (since the article was written, Melanie got a superb 3rd place in the IP!) and then I will travel to Ireland where I will spend Xmas in Ireland with Ryan’s family.

Are you training full time or working as well? If your working how do you manage to balance your work / training balance?
I am working part-time as a software engineer. The company I work for is very supportive of my cycling, so I can mostly work my own hours. I find it easy enough to balance the two during road training weeks – it’s more tricky when we have a track camp because we usually train twice a day or when travelling and racing, so it’s been OK so far.

On average how many hours a week do you train and what does it entail?
I train between 10-20 hours a week, if a track week it’s something like this: track 5 times a week, road 7 x a week (including 2 recovery rides – I like keeping my legs going), gym 2 x a week:
Monday: 1hr recovery
Tuesday: AM gym, PM track
Wednesday: AM road, PM track
Thursday: AM road, PM track
Friday: 1hr recovery
Saturday: AM gym, PM track
Sunday: AM road, PM track
If it’s a road endurance week it’s longer road rides instead of track.

Finally what keeps you motivated?
Hmm – I’m competitive and like a challenge?

Thanks Melanie and the very Best of Luck to yourself and the Team Pursuit Squad!
 (Susie Mitchell)