The dusty track at Crewe’s Tipkinder Park was the perfect place for kids to let off steam and throw bikes over mounds and around tight corners. One young girl loved it so much she quit hanging around the streets and dedicated her teenage life to BMX. A bumpy ride, but one that would see her race to the top of her game…
“From a young age I knew that I wanted to be involved in sport, but I never dreamt that it would involve bikes. At school I enjoyed athletics and I was a good sprinter. In the evenings and weekends there wasn’t much to do around our streets, so I went along to Tipkinder with my cousins one day and paid a pound to hire a BMX bike. A bloke called Bob Field ran the club and his enthusiasm was infectious. He was known as Black Bob and had a massive Afro. Oh, and he was always smiling. Everyone was made welcome and he always had time to chat. Looking back, he was the reason I went back again and again.”
Shanaze’s parents split soon after she was born and much of her early life was spent with her grandparents, aunts and uncles. Hardly a wild child, but without focus who knows where this Crewe kid would have ended up? Instead, her dedication to BMX soon set her apart from others. “I started riding when I was ten and within a few months I was obsessed. I’d pack my bag the night before – my kit, drink and snacks – then head down to the track and grab any daylight time I could. It was great in the winter when hardly anyone else turned up, as I could practice everything over and over without interruption. As I grew and became more of an athlete I’d get down to Tipkinder at 6am in the summer to squeeze three hours in before school. It was the same in the afternoon, straight to the track getting in the training I knew I needed if I was going to succeed.”
The hard work paid off. At just 15 Shanaze became the World U18 BMX champion. Then, unexpectedly, there was some great news about her sport that encouraged her to put any idea of further education on the back burner. “When I started out BMX wasn’t very high-profile and only a few people rode professionally. In 2003, when I was choosing GCSE subjects and trying to plan my future, my coach at the time, Jeremy Hayes, told me that BMX had been added to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It was nearly five years away but I knew immediately that I wanted to become Olympic Champion. So if there was a moment when I knew it would completely dominate my life, it was then.”
From that moment it was a crazy regime of fitness work and practice – and often in unusual places. “The sprint training was important and that’s how I improved my power. One of my favourite venues was Morrison’s supermarket car park early in the morning. There was a good stretch where you could get a 100 metre run going. I used that to improve my times. People often gave me strange looks and a few asked me why I didn’t go down to Tipkinder. I did that as well, but the flat surface was brilliant for speed work. One of the lads from the track, Levi Ashley, started training with me, then about 15 of us formed an unofficial club, all working together and improving our times.”
A teenage girl, competing against and beating local lads, must have turned heads, but there was no animosity. “After a couple of years I was winning races. But everyone was cool about it. There was no jealousy as everyone at the club pulled together. Black Bob made sure of that. When you lose to someone, boy or girl, then that’s your target – to beat them the next time. So although I hate losing it always gives me something to aim at the next time. The lads at Crewe just accepted me as one of them.” Those closest to Shanaze have also been very supportive, also helping her keep her feet firmly on the ground. “My family are very laid back. They treat me as they always have. Even when I’ve been top of my game and competing at massive competitions these are the people who keep me grounded. Winning tournaments makes them smile and they are proud, but I’m still just Shanaze to them. I don’t get any special treatment from friends and family. That’s how I like it. I want to remain a normal person.”
For Shanaze there is no better place than the track, a place she can immerse herself in the single-minded pursuit of success. “There’s nothing like a final, the last race of a long day. Your nerves are jangling and your heart is beating fast, but the last few seconds at the gates are amazing. You know the bar is going to drop but you’re pushing forward, holding the front wheel tight against the gate. And that split second is vital. Get the edge at the start of a race and you’re half way there. Anyone in the final is there on merit and about the same ability, with the same power. So any advantage at the start is what sets you apart and gives you the chance to dominate from the front. Then the race proper kicks in. All the preparation, the planning and practice is tested. You must avoid contact with the other riders as you hit the pedals, flat out as you dive to the bottom of the first slope. Then the jumps become priority and you have to be perfect. There are no second chances. Forty seconds of racing – up, over and around the berms. You have to be precise. Your mindset has to be spot on and you must know what you’re doing over every part of the course. If something does go wrong you have to sort yourself out in seconds. But that’s usually too late. So you work hard to avoid that situation. Getting over that finishing line – first – is everything.”
In July 2007, in her first senior season, Shanaze became the Women’s Senior UCI BMX World Champion. Lifting the ultimate crown, therefore, at the Beijing 2008 games seemed a formality, but a clash of bikes in a dramatic Olympic Final saw her walk away empty handed.
That was a major disappointment, but coupled with the death of Black Bob a few months earlier she became more determined. “Losing in the final was a massive blow but it allowed me to take stock. Whenever I have doubts I think about Bob, because he was the one who always inspired me. He brought such a vibe to the track. It was fun and enjoyable. Without that I don’t think I’d have spent so much time at Tipkinder or gone on to compete at the highest level. I was given something to focus upon, and I could set my own high targets. That hasn’t changed. People around me made me believe that I could achieve something. I don’t think I’d had that before. So setbacks only serve to spur me on.”
Olympic gold, perhaps at the 2012 London games, is still in her sights. However, a local tribute put a huge smile on Shanaze’s face in August 2009 when the Tipkinder track was renamed. “It’s a massive achievement and a great honour to have the track named after me. So many good riders have come through this track over the ten years that I have trained here, so to see my name on the sign feels fantastic. I think Bob would be proud.”
Shanaze’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.