The spectacular rise of Megan Armitage
There are only 8 km to go in the 138 km long Scheldeprijs women’s classic in Belgium. Up front, Offaly’s Megan Armitage is part of a three-rider move that has been away from the peloton for nearly 100km.
Rmitage, who initiated the move, has been a driving force on Flanders’ tough cobbled sections and open roads, but his time up front is about to end. The peloton sweeps the trio within sight of the line and the race ends in a bunch sprint win for defending champion Lorena Wiebes of DSM.
For Armitage, playing an active role in one of the biggest women’s one-day races in the world is once again accelerating the trajectory on a steep learning curve that began when she first rented a bike there. barely two years old.
Prior to 2020, Armitage had gone from fun runner to marathon contender in an equally impressive time, but cycling was never on her radar.
“I used to run every morning just because I liked it,” the Shinrone native explains. “I loved being outdoors and it was good for my head but I didn’t have a training plan or anything like that. I joined the UCD athletics club in my second year at Emmet Dunleavy, the trainer, tried to get me into so many races, but I was so nervous when I had to race track or cross-country that I hated it.
“Some of my friends from UCD were into orienteering, but I can’t use a compass to save my life. Then they started sky running, high up in the mountains. I was just starting when I arrived in Toulouse for my Erasmus year, there was a huge running scene there, so I decided to do a marathon as well.
After completing the Toulouse and Barcelona Marathons for fun, she finished third in the Cork City Marathon, despite having no coach.
“I only did the Cork Marathon because my mum is from Cork. I was a bit disappointed with my time but didn’t expect third place at all.
Encouraged by her result and the pleasant atmosphere of the marathon, Armitage improved her game and, with Tokyo Olympian Aoife Cooke coaching her, she headed for the Seville Marathon. The problem was that she was still training for heaven under another trainer, neither of whom knew about the other program she was on.
Inevitably, an injury knocked on her door and she was forced to stop running.
“It was half term, I was stuck in France, really fit but unable to run,” the 25-year-old recalled. “Out of boredom, my friend Alex asked me if I wanted to rent bikes and go on a cycling holiday in the Pyrenees and I accepted.
“We rented two city/MTB hybrid bikes with panniers. We cycled about 100km to get there, then cycled up to 150km every day, camped in the middle of nowhere overnight for four nights, then cycled back on Mondays when we had to go back to class.
“I was literally in a pair of shorts and runners, I had no idea what I was doing. I remember having this massive rain jacket, and every time I went down it acted like a parachute We were climbing the Tour de France climbs at 12 o’clock at night We camped right at the top and came back down the next day We got to explore so many places, small villages, small winding back roads, places you don’t see ever when you run. It was really “raw and ready” but I thought it was so cool. Absolutely loved it. Came back the first weekend, spent €200 on a used bike that was two sizes too big for me and started again the following weekend.
When Covid hit, Armitage’s mum persuaded her to “fold in on herself” and come home. When she did, she swapped the Pyrenees for the Slieve Bloom and spent her days up and down the local climbs. It was also in Slieve Bloom that she found her new trainer and the second love of her life thanks, among other things, to the GPS tracking application Strava.
Used by runners and cyclists to record their training, Strava also includes sections of road where records can be set and Armitage noticed that the same name appeared at the top of the leaderboard for all the difficult climbs in the region.
“He had all of the King of the Mountains fastest times for all of the Slieve Bloom climbs. I thought he was just an old dude who was really strong so I followed him on Strava.
The ‘old dude’ was 25-year-old Australian pro Cyrus Monk, who had ridden with the Irish Continental team EvoPro and found himself stranded in Ireland during lockdown and training on the same roads.
“We met for a ride, we got on really well, and then he started helping me train,” says Armitage. “I was just pedaling around the place having a great time. Cyrus started giving me a bit of advice and because I had that running experience, I loved having a training plan and stuck with it.
“When he went back to Belgium to race, we kept in touch. Every time he came back to Ireland we met, and it went from there.
After working at a cheese factory to save enough to buy a bike that actually suited her, Armitage was encouraged by Monk to race here and when she did, she was hooked.
“My first race was the Lucan Grand Prix and there’s a finish picture of me with my helmet pushed back on my head, the numbers on my shoulders, sprinting on the grass. I didn’t really know what I was was doing but I really liked it and kept going.
Armitage’s physical condition and strength were sufficient to begin winning races within weeks, and she took eighth place in her first national road race championships that year. When everyone took the winter off, she continued to train to prepare for 2021. The season started with wins in almost every race she entered on the Irish stage. When her university course ended last May, she ventured further.
“Once I finished university I just packed my things and went to Belgium, partly because Cyrus was there but also because Belgium is the mecca of cycling and I knew that it was the place to go if i wanted to progress and join a team.. Racing in Ireland is amazing but you don’t really learn a lot of racing because the groups are not that big.
After working her way through the Rupelcleaning team’s development team, she quickly found herself on a staple diet of hard and fast fairground racing. “I was totally overwhelmed, but I learned a lot and learned quickly,” she says. “I was in good shape but I didn’t have a cop, I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle at all. The fairs really attracted me. There were bigger groups, narrow roads, more road furniture, more wind and everyone had so many racing boats. It was a perfect environment to learn. I was so determined to make the UCI team that I went to every fair and really tried to do well.
Consistent top 10s earned him selection for the Irish national team for a stage race in France last July and a call up to the ICBT UCI team at the second tier of professional cycling. Even though she wasn’t paid, it was another step up the ladder, the WorldTour.
A four-day block of racing in August saw her take a second, a fourth and claim her first victory for the UCI team when she beat five-time Belgian time trial champion Ann-Sophie Duyck to win the GP Emptine in Wallonia.
“There was a hill on it, so I attacked up the hill and managed to stay away for most of the race. When she got closer to me, I thought, ‘ how am I going to win this?’ I knew she wasn’t a good sprinter so we slowed to a complete stop at the bottom of the finish hill and I dug as hard as I could and reached the top first I couldn’t believe I had won a race.
She finished last season with a silver medal behind Imogen Cotter at the national championships and an international call-up for the European and world championships.
“At the European Championships I realized that I was not at the level that I needed to be. I have a lot of work to do regarding the positioning in the peloton and all that. You can be the fittest person in the race and still get a terrible result if you can’t position yourself properly and read the race. A lot of pro girls grew up with this, to me it’s pretty new. It was really a little intimidating.
“At the world championships I was always in the main group after all the tough climbs, but I crashed after that. I was distraught at the time. I thought I had wasted my chance and would never be chosen for anything again, but now I realize all the experience I gained there.
After a solid winter in Monk’s native Australia, Armitage is in his first full season in Belgium with the same IBCT team, and is currently in the thick of the Spring Classics.
“It’s great to participate in the spring classics. I have done Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pjil and Scheldeprijs so far. I knew Scheldeprijs was probably going to sprint back but I wanted to be aggressive so I attacked before the feed zone and had a bit of a gap. Abi Smyth and Simone Boilard came up to me and we just hammered it and stayed away for a long time getting caught in the last 6k. It was a bit boring but I was so happy to have crossed all the cobblestones and stayed in front for so long.
Armitage has come a long way in a short time but knows she has more to offer. Under the watchful eye of Strava’s ‘old dude’, she hopes to continue this upward trajectory.
“Cyrus has taken me further than I ever thought I could. If I hadn’t been injured I would still be racing. I had never thought about cycling before so I just wanted to going out and learning. Riding for Ireland in Kreizh Breizh was never planned, let alone going to the Euros and World Championships. Being part of a UCI team was not on the cards.
“My journey has only just begun. Even yesterday I blamed myself for being in the wrong place during the race split, so I know there is so much room for improvement.