Olivia French’s first passion was tennis, but since rediscovering the joys of cycling during the first Covid lockdown she’s swapped serving up aces for spending more time in the saddle.
The 21-year-old Durham University student’s skills on the court meant she followed an elite path from the age of nine and she’s competed in several national and international tennis tournaments.
“I chose Durham mainly because it has the best university tennis club in the country,” she says.
“Tennis was my first love and that’s where I thought my sporting ambitions lay.”
Olivia, who’d not even ridden a bike since she was 12, says an achilles injury coupled with start of lockdown in 2020 persuaded her to start cycling again.
The great thing with cycling was it allowed me to get out and about and explore.
“Lockdown started half way through my first year at university and I couldn’t play any tennis because all the courts were closed,” she says.
“I was looking for something else to do but I couldn’t run because of my achilles.
“It was my dad who suggested cycling, so I borrowed my mum’s bike and started riding with him.
“I was happy we could do something together and I rediscovered how much fun you can have cycling.”
Olivia says the quieter roads during lockdown gave her the confidence to cycle after previously feeling “intimidated” by traffic and passing motorists.
“I think I’d also been worried about feeling too sore or having the right fitness,” she says.
“But the great thing with cycling was it allowed me to get out and about and explore.
“During lockdown, we were only allowed out to exercise and cycling took me much further than I could have gone running – that’s what I really enjoyed.”
Olivia says she developed a different kind of fitness with cycling and she found it pleasurable to measure her own goals away from the pressure of competitive tennis.
“I wasn’t really enjoying the competitive side to tennis,” she says.
“With cycling there was not of that pressure, I could see how I was improving without comparing myself to other people.
“I’m studying mathematics and because cycling is more about numbers, heart rate, power and so I found it much easier to measure my own progression – it’s more objective.”
I think cycling has something in it for everyone. It’s such a diverse sport, you can do road, off-road, mountain-biking, you can use it to commute or go riding with friends.
From casual rides of 20-30 miles during lockdown, Olivia progressed to doing tough 100 mile routes through the the hilly Peak District, helped by her dad.
She became hooked by the “challenge” of serious cycling, even if some of her first longer rides involved wearing the Deliveroo helmet she wore while working in between her studies.
Olivia went on last year to be recruited for the Skoda DSI Cycling Academy which offers young, female cyclists guidance, insight and experience in the sport of cycling.
The academy, headed by cycling legend Dame Sarah Storey, gave Olivia the impetus to want to take up the sport professionally and she’s already competed in several hi-profile races with the Storey Racing team.
“I absolutely love cycling,” she says.
“I think it has something in it for everyone. It’s such a diverse sport, you can do road, off-road, mountain-biking, you can use it to commute or go riding with friends.
“It’s something people can do together and I’d urge everyone to give it a go.”