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Annalise Murphy on swapping sailing for cycling, and setting her sights on Paris

This year Olympic sailing silver medallist Annalise Murphy won three Irish track cycling titles on a borrowed bike - now she wants to compete for Ireland in France

Annalise Murphy will tell you she’s good at hardship. She’s an expert at doing things she doesn’t like. Once it has purpose and it makes sense for her to believe in it, she’s up there doing it, knocking it out, reps, minutes, miles.

She did it for sailing and in Rio 2016 her promise as one of the best in the world in the Laser Radial class finally delivered a silver medal.

Four years later Tokyo was a fall back. It wasn’t wavy and windy at the Enoshima Yacht Harbor and the conditions didn’t suit. Murphy came back from Japan with over a decade of living the life of an elite athlete, wondering what was next.

“London, I knew I was good but no one else did. I was going out to see what I could do,” she says.


“In Rio I probably didn’t have expectations of myself because I had such a tough year. I wasn’t thinking I’m guaranteed a medal here. I wanted to do myself justice. I spent a huge amount of time training there, getting used to it, understanding what was happening on the racecourse.

“I think in Rio I won the medal not being faster than anyone, [but] being smarter, doing things a little differently, thinking differently to everyone else. In Tokyo, I thought it was going to be windy and wavy every day and it wasn’t. It completely shook me. It shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be predicting like that.

“I was really disappointed after Tokyo. I felt I was allowed to feel sorry for myself because it all kind of went wrong for me.”

After half a lifetime spent as a professional sailor, falling back into civilian life was not straightforward. Murphy chased down an MBA in Trinity College in Dublin and while that was a challenge and rewarding, the habits she had learned from when she first set out along the Olympic pathway as a teenager before London 2012 hadn’t dissipated.

Part of her sailing fitness routine was cycling. She preferred to get out on the roads into the fresh air instead of being stuck inside and used to cycle from her home in Terenure to Dún Laoghaire where she trained on the boat in Dublin Bay. Cycling was the part of her sailing training that had been built in as a lifestyle choice. When she left the full-time, funded career of sailing after Tokyo, cycling was a keeper.

“When I was 19, I was so serious about the Olympics and sailing. I never really went and acted like a student. I was just training. Hammering away in the boat. So being a student was a great craic. But I kept up my cycling over the year and raced a bit last summer in 2022. I did some of the road races that are on around Ireland. I did the time trial in the National Championships, a few things. I was trying to work out what I was good at.”

That same summer in July, Murphy cycled up the toughest leg of the Tour de France, Alpe d’Huez, with an unwanted companion – long Covid. It was stupid she says to put such stress on the body with a virus in her system. At one point she ground to a halt, got off her bike and sat at the side of the road. A bag of Haribo jellies later she was back on it. Nine and a half hours later she was at the top.

“I said grit your teeth and get through it,” she says. “You’re tough, get into it. About 60km in I was still not getting into it. The heart thing was scary. I’d a heart rate of 230 for nearly five minutes when my max heart rate is 185.”

It was a lesson learned, one that taught her that she needed to protect herself from the worst impulses and not go smashing herself into the ground. But just where the sailor became the cyclist is difficult to say.

Cycling insinuated itself into her daily routine and the more of it she did, the more she enjoyed the ride. It organically took off from there, all the time without the sailing stress of having to hit targets, win races, qualify and climb podiums. Then, the cycling became track racing and it arrived to her as a kind of epiphany.

Murphy knew she had power and endurance but almost all other aspects of competing on the track eluded her. She didn’t know the tactics and she didn’t know the rules or what she was allowed to do. She didn’t have the right bike and this year was given the loan of one by Cian Keogh, a member of the Irish team.

It was rough and ready. But Murphy quickly turned heads. Throughout her sailing career she had rarely suffered injury. Her body, now 33-years-old, came through relatively unscarred although still powered up from the years spent chasing the Olympic dream and her inclination towards the bike.

This year in May she entered the Dublin Track Cycling International at Sundrive Velodrome in Kimmage, which is run over two days. On day one, in her first official race on a track, she won the scratch event, breaking away from the group with two laps to go. An elite group of athletes with members of the Irish team were among those in the field.

“I didn’t know what was going on in the race as it was my first,” she says. “The commissaries, they whistle and they point at the person who is leading the race. I was leading at the start, so he whistled and pointed at me. I’m thinking I’m getting a penalty. Then the next lap he points and whistles at me again. So, I peel off to the back and I’m thinking maybe I should drop out of the race here.

“Then I notice he points and whistles at the next person at the front. It was 10km. I was racing around and again I go to the front. I knew there were good sprinters there so if it was a sprint finish I didn’t think I’d have any chance of winning... so with about five laps to go I sprinted off. Two of the girls got on my wheel. I eased because you’re just dragging them along and dropped back into the group.

“Then everyone slowed down and started looking at each other. I was probably sixth in the line, so I used the banking to get a bit of speed and went all out for two laps and ended up winning my first-ever race. I went through the finish line and expected a hooter like they have in sailing. There wasn’t one.”

In this year’s National Championships, Murphy won three Irish track titles, the individual pursuit, team pursuit and Madison, on the bike borrowed from Keogh. Between his events and her events, they had to adjust the saddle and change pedals.

On the track she thinks she’s found her niche. Now she wants to improve, to learn more, get better. She thinks there is a lot of room to develop. Maybe she could be even more powerful, she says and maybe not. But she wants a shot.

“I just have to get given an opportunity,” she says. “Maybe if someone in Cycling Ireland thinks ‘oh she does have ability and let me try out…’ That’s what I’m missing out. I don’t have any international experience. I’ve gone over to the UK to go on an indoor velodrome. I went over to get experience because I hadn’t been [in a velodrome]). Very different to Sundrive. First of all as you are going around corners, indoors you’re not getting blown off your bike.

“I flew to East Midland, got the bus from the airport into town. I rented a bike there and did a two-hour session, just to... the banking was so high. Like you couldn’t crawl up it. It’s pretty vertical. That’s the big problem in Ireland. There’s no indoor velodrome and it’s hard to get coaching.

“I’m 33 but not that old in cycling. Annemiek van Vleuten retired just this year [40-year-old Dutch Moviestar rider]. I’d like to be given the opportunity. Love to. You can’t help but want to be what you can be. Maybe it’s also about pushing myself in sport. I find it very easy to motivate myself to train.”

A few weeks ago in the Dublin mountains, Murphy was out riding with Lara Gillespie, one of Ireland’s young cycling talents. She told the 22-year-old from Enniskerry to do it all and that she would never regret being a professional athlete. She told her that it’s not a normal, conventional life but she can do something most of her peers will never get a chance to do and if she has the talent she should go for it.

In a sense, Murphy is following her own advice. She is doing it with the Olympic Games next year seeping in and out of her thoughts. She doesn’t sense she is in Cycling Ireland’s sightline and there are barriers. It’s €10,000 for a track bike, six grand for a wheel, a whole other world.

It’s like an arms race, she says. Everybody wants the best gear, needs it when ergonomics and milliseconds are the difference between winning and losing. But she’s not giving up.

“I think my next move is I need to go and do some indoor track events in Europe,” she says.

“Figure out what competitions I can go to. Get to the UK or France, get race experience. The individual pursuit is what I’d be best at I’d say. It’s a 3k distance. Four minutes. Time-trialing power, that’s what I’m pretty good at. Then I’d try scratch races, 10k, first-person-over-the-line races. Elimination races. There’s all sorts of races you can do on the track. See how it goes.

“I might have left it too late. People have been preparing for years for the Olympics... it’s very hard to rock up and... I’d love the opportunity to try but I don’t think I’ll get the opportunity. Probably naively I thought I’m really going to go after this.”

After missing out on Tokyo, it will be a big deal to get a women’s track team qualified for the Paris 2024. Ireland will probably bring five athletes.

“If I’m not good enough I can accept that. It’s grand,” she says. “You don’t always get what you want in life.”