Back on Bike: Speedskater Clara Hughes returns to Olympic cycling

Clara Hughes has Olympic medals of every colour and stood on the podium at both the Summer Games and Winter Games.


The veteran long-track speedskater is back on the bike for London, making her return to Olympic cycling for the first time since the 2000 Games in Sydney.


It’s the latest challenge for the 39-year-old Winnipeg native, who would become Canada’s most decorated Olympian if she returns to the podium.


Hughes is coming off an impressive performance at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where she won bronze in the 5,000 metres. Hughes said she learned how to totally clear her mind, release the pressure and simply let herself skate the race she always wanted.


She’s hoping to apply the same techniques in London.


“I let that beautiful motion come through me and I had the best race of my life at a home Olympics because of that,” she said on a recent conference call. “Because of just liberating myself and freeing myself to do that. That’s been my big goal on the bike.”


Hughes won two cycling bronze medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Team Specialized-Lululemon rider will race in the women’s time trial and road race in London.


“I’m not coming into a sport I don’t know,” she said. “I did two Summer Olympics, I have Olympic medals in this sport but yet I don’t feel I’ve ever achieved the race of my life.


“When I say that, what that is, is I just want to let myself ride my bike as fast as I can and be fully engaged in each pedal stroke and every moment of the way.”


Hughes is currently tied with long-track speedskater Cindy Klassen with six career Olympic medals.


“The Winter Olympics I found to be just so much smaller in scale. But what was absolutely the same was the intensity of competition and the pressure-cooker that it is in any sport that you’re in,” Hughes said.


“I mean it’s the Olympics and everybody’s trying to win. Everybody’s there to bring their best and it is such an incredibly complicated and difficult thing to achieve and that’s a peak performance at the Olympic Games.


“I would say they’re equally as hard.”


Hughes made her return to cycling two seasons ago and finished fifth in the individual time trial at the recent UCI World Championships.


“Coming back into cycling, I just thought I have to re-learn all the things that I already knew and then make them a little bit better,” she said. “But it has been so humbling. It has been an experience of re-learning all those things and then basically realizing I knew very little about this sport and I had a lot to learn.


“I’m still in that place where I feel like I have so much to learn and so much to improve on and every day is so important to me leading into my races.”


Hughes said coach Chris Rozdilsky has helped get her back into top form.


“I give him so much credit for taking an old dog and teaching her some new tricks basically,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been challenging, it’s been humbling.”


She has learned a lot about mental preparation over the years. One area of weakness used to be maintaining her focus during the long grind of pre-Olympic training.


“I would get really, really burned out at times,” she said. “To the point of after my first Olympics I ended up in a state of depression because of pushing myself for so long, so hard, beyond any reasonable way a human being should be pushed.


“So as a mature athlete I think the biggest thing is just accepting what the lifestyle is and accepting the fact that I live a really quiet life and I live a life that’s dedicated to the pursuit of excellence.”


Hughes worked as a cycling broadcaster for CBC at the Beijing Games four years ago. She feels refreshed and invigorated ahead of her sixth Olympic appearance.


“It brings me back to being a young person witnessing the Olympics for the first time and being totally inspired,” she said. “I feel completely inspired by the possibilities and this opportunity. That hasn’t changed, it hasn’t dulled one bit.”


One thing she won’t do is allow herself to reflect on her sporting career. At least not right now.


“No way. I’m just too busy thinking about and focusing on and preparing for the two races I have in London,” she said. “I don’t want to give an ounce of focus that I have for these races. If I were to sit back and think of everything I did — first of all, it would be a long moment — and secondly it’s not going to help me.


“It will not help me go faster and it will not help me be stronger. It will not help my focus in London. I think it would take away from it.”


Hughes has won two of Canada’s three Olympic medals in road cycling. Steve Bauer won the other, taking the silver medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.


“I have 13 years in cycling under my belt but I just feel like I’m learning so much in this process,” Hughes said. “It’s a pretty special place to be as a 39 year old.”


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