Malgorzata 'Gosia' Wojtyra - Storm from the East
Malgorzata Wojtyra, or Gosia (pronounced Go-sha) for short, blazed her way across Europe in a winter 6-Day campaign that saw London, Gent and finally Berlin fall beneath her silk track tyres over the course of consecutive nightly battles in each city. This dominance of the 2015/16 Six Day season follows seven or so years of build-up that has brought UCI World Cup, National and European medals and titles to the Polish ex-gymnast turned track cyclist
("After three months of training I entered the National Champs on the track - I got a podium. I felt pretty good for only three months of training, strong enough to compete with other girls who had trained a lot more than me. I gave up gymnastics for good then!"), culminating with silver in the 3km Individual Pursuit at the 2016 World Track Championships in London.
It hasn't all been plain-sailing and ascendancy. Gosia was on the verge of quitting racing after a confidence crushing result and the consequent fallout with her national cycling federation just one year ago at the track Worlds in Paris. Enter stage left Kris Sordyl, the altruistic and cycling obsessed Polish business entrepreneur, who set about turning things around and propelling Gosia towards that victorious podium topping and silver-lined run, culminating with a brand new team built around her...
Always Riding had the pleasure of catching up with Gosia and Kris, the driving force behind Planet X / Bo-Go Cycling Team - the brand new road and track squad that has come about through his vision and passion for bike racing, at the Lee Valley Velopark during the racing to talk about the glories and the brave new venture.
To start with, I draw Gosia away from the perma-grin and the feel of the cold metal of the silver medal she is clutching in her hand as we chat and skip back a year to the Paris Worlds, the aforementioned low point. How close did she come to packing it all in? Malgorzata casts her mind back and picks up the story.
"I raced the Team Pursuit and Omnium. I did pretty badly in the Omnium, pretty much last place. That was the worst result of my career to date. I'd been training and preparing for that really hard but I wasn't in shape and I didn't know why. The result meant that I had some problems with people around me- they wouldn't accept or understand that I could have this bad result. A lot of people just didn't want me in the team after that one bad result. It was quite a hard time, dealing with the result and also having to fight with these people; all the comments etc... But I had in my mind that there was only one year until the Olympics in Rio and I had put three years in already. I came round to thinking it would be stupid to just quit after putting in those three years. But, crucially, there were also the other people, the ones that helped me- my family and friends- not necessarily cycling friends but the people from my home town and school. Also my club coach- the coach I'd known since first starting cycling. He said it was not me on my own who would do this, but a 'We', doing this together to be again on the top."
"I started working with my coach's daughter- she also used to be a very good cyclist. If I'd been on my own I think I would have quit as I had no motivation to stay in cycling at points. I decided to try, though it was hard at first to build up real motivation again. And also Kris- he came along and he wanted to help, he became my manager and we changed a lot of things: The training, starting to do more crit racing in Poland. I had some good results and that gave me some motivation. I saw that the new training I was doing was working, I was getting more from it than the last few years. That visible improvement saved me!"
A lot of people just didn't want me in the team after that one bad result
That- and perhaps Gosia's first ever bike fit, I venture, having been primed by Kris previously as to this fairly surprising fact about a rider with a string of major podiums and victories already on her palmares.
"Yeah! 2015 was the first year I ever had a bike fit and aero testing!!" Gosia seems as incredulous about this twist as I am "I was really surprised after the bike fitting and aero testing- I suddenly felt really good on the bike. I thought I felt good before, but I didn't! Now I know I didn't! When I look at the photos of how I looked on the bike and compare them with now, it's a massive difference. I can really feel it when racing. I had no idea before the fit that getting a proper fit would change it that much. I'm happy we had the opportunity to do that... Before that point it was a case of you get a bike, you set it up and think "yeah… I feel ok, I kinda feel comfy" and you go! If you didn't feel comfy then you might just change a little with the stem or whatever- and of course, see how it looks!! If it looked OK, then off you go!!"
That bike fitting session seems to have been something of a watershed, perhaps the most crucial of Kris Sordyl's initial influences that eventually led to the success of the 6 Day campaign that followed. Gosia beams at the mention of it, "I'd done a few 6 Days before, but this year we concentrated much more on them and it brought more victories: I won London, Gent and then Berlin- it was amazing!! The atmosphere at the 6 Days is always fantastic- it seems like a World Cup or something, a World Champs, in fact- it's even louder than this!" Gosia gestures towards the track and the cacophonous crowds on the other side of the thin glass double doors to the arena that are making the dictaphone app on my phone work hard for its living.
"It's crazy- even if you are fighting with the local girl-like the Belgian girl in Gent, she had won for years in a row and you're fighting for the victory with her- the people there don't treat you as the 'enemy', they get behind you, they appreciate you also and not only her!"
I know from experience that even just watching 6 Day racing is a feat of endurance in itself, but what about from the other side of the Cote d'Azur?
"It's hard for sure. We start racing quite late and we finish really late- midnight. But then we get to sleep late, until ten or eleven, and we can recover. Then, maybe go on your rollers. Or if not, just lie in all day and wait for your next race! It's hard for sure though... I remember the 6 Days in Rotterdam, the last 3 days I could hardly pedal, getting slower and slower, I was asking for a lower gear every evening! My legs were dead. Three races a day for six days- I think three days are enough! The level of the racing is so high, there are no easy sessions- it's all full gas. And then, if you want to win a bit of prize money in the Primes you have to fight even harder! But they're really enjoyable- it's great to get an invitation to go."
The atmosphere at the 6 Days is always fantastic- it seems like a World Cup or something, a World Champs...
The bike fit and renewed support certainly paid off. That support has not only been encouragement and advice from the coaching side of things but backed up by cold hard cash. Kris Sordyl came in initially to help the somewhat adrift racer but that remit, somewhat typically of the excitable entrepreneur, soon encountered a healthy dose of passion-fuelled mission creep: Why set one athlete on the way to the top step of the podium when you could do so, hopefully, for a whole team? Fittingly, as far as the narrative of this article is concerned, the story of Kris' involvement started right here in the velodrome we are stood talking in.
Kris explains, "The idea first came up about a year and a half ago, I went to the track World Cup in London in November 2014 - it was my first time seeing track racing up close and I fell in love with it! The first time I saw Gosia race I saw that she could really do with some help with equipment etc: I wanted to make a small donation to her club. It soon became clear, however, that money on its own was not really going to be enough. Her coach suggested I become her manager. I wasn't sure that I was really suitable, whether I was the right guy; sure I'm a manager by profession but in a completely different industry- I run my own sales company-so this was a totally new experience. But, I picked up the role and we started from the very beginning: We started building up the team, employing a second coach, a physiotherapist, a psychologist, a dietitian. We did bike fitting and aero testing."
"Our goal was Rio, to qualify through the European and World Championships. Then I started looking for sponsors as we had a big need for equipment so I approached a few different manufacturers, big names, but they did not get back to me. I decided, as I live in the UK, to approach Planet X - I thought why not? I asked them for help, to sponsor Gosia with equipment and they jumped at it! That was my first big moment, securing that help. Also quite a nice surprise- having Planet X be willing to sponsor Gosia even though she is not from England. Dave Loughran, the boss up at Planet X, loved the idea though! I thought that was it, but we met all together, Dave, me, the coaches, Gosia, and he then tells me he'd be happy to supply a whole team! The idea really took off. We made contact with a few other talented riders and have built a very international team, based around Polish, Belarusian and Lithuanian riders".
There is an air of excitement, the first steps of a big adventure, around the new team but maybe not so much of the tub thumping and over-ambitious proclamations that can sometimes accompany such a launch. Kris openly admits to needing all the help he can get in getting to grips with the administrative vagaries involved in running a race team but is determined to plough through the paperwork. The goal is to secure starts for his squad in as many high-profile events as possible (a Tour de Pologne place is already on the table), whilst juggling the requirements of a team of Olympic track medal hopefuls as Rio draws ever nearer.
"The first season is going to be so hard- but I heard someone once say 'If you have a goal that you know exactly how to reach straightaway, the goal is not big enough!' So, yes, I have no clear idea how we will achieve everything we want through the year but I have a vision: That in a year or two we can become a good team- who knows how high we will be able to reach but we want to race in the big races and compete at the highest level. The team is good: the riders are very talented and successful, so I believe they can do well. This year we need to concentrate on the Olympics, for sure- we also have important European Championships. On the road we already have a few nice races lined up, the Tour de Pologne for women - it's going to be a tough race, for sure, but it is, naturally, one of our big targets! The main goal is to build a strong team and secure a strong financial sponsor. That is what we are looking for at the moment- that is no secret. I can only fund so much personally so, yes, we are looking for additional support. With these riders, I believe we can build a team that will be one that will race well, be successful and repay a sponsor's faith"
If you have a goal that you know exactly how to reach straightaway, the goal is not big enough!
For now though, the good times are rolling with the capture of Gosia's first precious metal at World Championship level. Gosia admits to sleeping with the medal in full view on the bedside table and to it not having been out of her possession since it was handed to her on the podium.
"I think if someone had told me I'd get a medal at the worlds a week before I'd have told them they were crazy! It was a really hard time before the Championships as I didn't really know what events I would race, I couldn't really prepare. Then I'm down for the 3km Individual Pursuit: it's my eighth time at the World Championships but my first time racing the 3km Pursuit! But we decided I'd do that, we decided that my goal was a PB and that we'll train for it and see what happens. Then, three days before my race, I woke up really ill- Oh no! I'd been really careful, everytime I'd gone outside I'd covered up properly, everything. Then I wake up and I can't breathe properly, I'm coughing. I figured if I even do near my PB it would be a good result."
"So, I start the race and get going and feel OK- not really, really good, but OK-and then I hear my coach "8 laps to go- FULL GAS, FULL GAS!" I'm like 'Still 8 laps??? Oh my...' But when I hear over the speaker there are only 2 laps left and I'm topping the leader board, it really picked me up! When I finally finish and see I've PB'd I felt like I'd already won! After that I had to wait to see whether I'd make the the gold or bronze race- I was so happy I made it to the gold final. I wanted to fight for gold but knew I didn't feel great. The Australian was so strong and really wanted that jersey- I wanted it too- but Rebecca (Wiasak) was so strong! But, in the end, I was so happy to take silver after so many times being fourth- three times fourth- nobody remembers that... But to have the medal, it may not be gold, but it really is a dream- and a new PB too! I'm so happy. I'm carrying it around everywhere with me to make sure it's real!"