Halfway through our chat at the Lee Valley VeloPark, Sarah Storey, still basking in the glow of becoming Great Britain’s most successful Paralympian after a record-breaking 17th career gold at last year’s Tokyo Games, drops a bombshell.
“If you win a time trial race, you might win 10 pounds,” she says. “But literally, the prize pots of the races that I do start at…well…you’re lucky if it’s 120 quid for the winner. You’re literally talking expenses, not even that, because you can’t even buy a hotel room.”
By some way of comparison, when she fell agonisingly short of breaking the women’s hour record in 2015, the handlebars on Storey’s specialist time-trial bike, designed to support her riding posture which is impacted by having no functioning left hand, cost £600 alone.
It is little wonder, then, that Storey’s glittering sporting career has always overlapped with business ventures off the track. By the time she burst onto the Paralympic scene as a 14-year-old swimmer at Barcelona 1992, she was already undertaking lessons in public speaking.
Four years and five Paralympic swimming golds later, she was snapped up by schools as a guest speaker, offering talks on adversity and resilience. Little did she realise how she would need bucketloads of both after switching to cycling in 2005.
“When I won the able-bodied national series in 2012, there was no prize money for that,” says Storey. “Nowadays, that series attracts a prize pot of about £10,000. So there has been progress, but when I won it, it was zero. Within parasport, every single race I’ve ever done has been a big fat zero.”
Storey has spent most of her career channeling her frustration from such experiences towards other game-changing projects. She has become a figurehead for developing emerging talent within women’s cycling, particularly through Storey Racing, the women’s cycling team she launched nearly a decade ago with her husband, Barney.
More recently, she has played a leading role in nurturing some of Britain’s brightest young riders through her DSI Skoda Academy, which she set up to support aspiring female cyclists and address the gender imbalance in cycling. “I have so many fingers in so many pies because there hasn’t been an opportunity to earn a living through my sport,” explains Storey. “So I have to earn a living through the additional bits of my sport, which is obviously more time consuming.”
Not that her extra-curricular activities have detracted from her 30-year career, in which she has amassed 46 global titles across two sports. While Storey wholeheartedly supports Telegraph Women’s Sport’s Close The Gap campaign calling for equal prize money in women’s sport – especially in cycling where the imbalance is stark – she insists there are more pressing issues on parasport’s agenda. The 44-year-old felt “hugely privileged” at becoming front page news when seizing her 17th Paralympic gold in Japan last summer, but the tailing off in coverage in between Games remains a major problem.
“I’ve spent my entire career sort of waiting for that media pop, waiting for that coverage of the Paralympic Games to really hit off,” she says. “We had that coverage around the Games [at the 2012 Games] in London.
“It really did die off four years later in Rio and in between Games it always dies off. So there’s still that challenge there and covering parasport properly, not just once every four years. With TV coverage, the jury’s still out on whether we’ve nailed the next stage.” With no intention of hanging up her wheels any time soon, she has similar concerns around the Paris Games in 2024. “That would be Paralympics number nine,” she beams.
Earlier this month, she was also appointed Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner, having previously held a similar post in South Yorkshire. Her community work, she says, has helped preserve her longevity as an athlete and given her valued perspective. “Winning a gold medal or being on top of the podium isn’t a matter of life or death, whereas getting access to be able to be physically active is,” she says. “Having to work at the grassroots all the way through to the elite level, I get a really strong message of what’s worth worrying about.”
Among her main concerns is that the gap in prize money across parasport – and women’s sport – gradually narrows. “As a mum of a girl and a boy, this matters for their future,” she says.
Dame Sarah Storey is the Principal of the Skoda DSI Cycling Academy. For more information visit www.skoda.co.uk/discover/cycling-academy