Talented Gillespie back on track and aiming to deliver on vast potential

Versatile Wicklow cyclist has overcome illness and injuries and is focused on the challenges ahead as she prepares for Paris 2024

Lara Gillespie takes no offence when you suggest she’s a bit of a hippy.

“Yeah, a secret hippy maybe!” laughs the 21-year-old from Enniskerry who was embracing ‘vitamin-sea’ and communing with nature long before Covid send the whole nation doolally over our great outdoors.

Regarded as the country’s most talented and versatile young female cyclist, she has already picked up World bronze and six European medals at underage level and is a bit of a polymath.

Off the bike she’s into reading, dance, hillwalking and sea-swimming as well as the family’s menagerie (hens, horses and two dogs) and vegetable plot at their bucolic Wicklow home which looks across at the Sugar Loaf.


She is certainly a poster-girl for late specialisation in sport, not focussing on two wheels until she left school where she was the ultimate allrounder.

In her early teens she made regional development squads in hockey and soccer, won medals for cross-country and 800m, competed for Ireland at mountain-running and won several Irish junior triathlon titles.

“I love swimming but didn’t really love swimming training,” she confesses of her eventual switch to cycling. “I was just good at sports because I was so active. My muscles were well developed because I’d be climbing trees or running around all day.

“I just grew up playing in the fields, climbing bales and running up mountains, that was just my fun time. To get to school I had to climb a really steep hill. Our drive [way] is like 45-degrees so I’d always be cycling or running up hills.

“My mum also studied sports science. When we were young people would be like ‘she needs to focus on her cycling now’ and Mum was like ‘have they never heard of cross-training?’ It’s totally beneficial for the development of muscles and injury prevention’.”

She is particularly close to her mum Suzanne (a former international orienteer), her only sibling and her grandparents, with whom they have lived since moving from Mount Leinster in Carlow when she was five.

“She is a single mum, very strong-minded, the most incredible woman really, keeping myself and my [younger] sister Bobbi together through some really tough times as kids.

“We learned that the best things in life are free so we’d spend our summers in our camper van and going for sea swims and adventures on our bikes.

“We had a tandem for Bobbi while she was learning to cycle and one of us would ride it with her. Nature was always our safe place, where we spent all of our time. I don’t think I was ever indoors as a kid. Even if it doesn’t benefit me physically it definitely benefits me mentally.”

Success, especially in track cycling, came easily to her.

Mountain-biking is actually her greatest love but track is a priority for Cycling Ireland and she proved a quick study.

A European Youth Olympic silver (Time Trial) in 2017 was swiftly followed by a European junior title (Points) and silver medal (Pursuit) in 2018.

In 2019 she was Ireland’s first ever medallist at World Juniors (Pursuit bronze) and won three more silvers at European Juniors.

When lockdown struck she got injured mountain-biking and kept fit by rollerblading on the irresistibly smooth entrance drive of the neighbouring Powerscourt Estate.

But then the wheels came off completely and it is to her tight-knit family and eclectic interests that Gillespie has clung during two years of ill health.

She may have been a teenage winner of the 2020 Irish senior Road and Scratch (track) titles and picked up a European U23 medal (Individual Pursuit) in 2021 but she was hiding a world of pain and frustration.

“I had this rare gynae [gynaecological] condition that I was born with but it only started causing issues when I was 15. It came back really badly in late 2020. It was only diagnosed in January 2021 and I was rushed for an operation.

“I never healed properly from that, ended up fighting through it, going abroad [to train] and then tore my hamstring.

“I got some good results in 2021 – Euro U23 silver and gold [Team Pursuit] and bronze [Omnium] in a senior World Cup which was a big step up – but, after the U23s, the pain was so severe that I just had to stop.”

Even after a meticulous rehab she was still exhausted and last December came the glandular fever diagnosis, a condition she attributed to everything her body had been through.

Despite graduating recently in Health and Performance Science from UCD, she declares herself shocked at the dearth of specialists, treatment options and expert advice when it comes to women’s reproductive health.

“After the European U23s I did six months of intensive pelvic floor rehab. It was very expensive but so worthwhile and I was like ‘how were we not taught this? How are there so few specialists in this area?’ I’d really like to work in it eventually, not just for female athletes, but for women’s health in general.”

What she was inundated with was a pessimistic Greek chorus of ‘Oh I had glandular fever and never raced properly again’ but her holistic approach avoided a second operation and she eventually returned to training in May.

The family polytunnel, a Covid project made entirely from recycled materials, played its part in restoring her equilibrium.

“It’s our most magical space now, we grow stuff and socialise in it and do our yoga in there. We don’t have to buy vegetables anymore, we’re growing grapes and kiwis and lemons!”

It’s been a tough two years but she says: “I was eventually able to turn it around and appreciate that time [at home] because I kind of feel I’ll never have it again”.

All pro cyclists embrace a peripatetic life, particularly the Irish as there’s still no indoor track here (Ireland’s squad is based in Mallorca though that is currently under review) or home-based professional road teams.

Gillespie finally returned to competition in the European U23s in July and flew from there to Palma for a two-week Irish camp ahead of the senior European Championships which start in Munich today and she also hopes to fit in Rás na mBan (September) and World Championships (October) this season.

She signed for a Belgian UCI team (IBCT) in 2020-21 but illness and injury meant she never raced.

That should be her future career path but track remains her priority and she’s one of 15 beneficiaries of the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s Paris 2024 scholarship scheme.

The past two years have hammered home that no cyclist’s career is linear, not even someone of her precocious talent.

“It’s hard to plan and connect with teams when I’m not sure where I am physically. I didn’t think I’d make the European U23s because I got Covid two weeks beforehand and had to quarantine in the camper van.”

Yet she still won a few sprints and got three fifth places: “I was fighting for medals and, off such little training, that’s made me excited. The [senior] stars of the sport are a stretch [away] right now, I know there’ll be a gap but I’ll just keep going and work hard. There’s so much more in me and I really want to use all the potential I have.

“Obviously I’d love to be on a World Tour team and see what being a professional road rider would be like. A UCI team would be a great opportunity too but everything has to fit into the track programme because Paris 2024 is the real priority right now.”

2022 European Cycling Championships, Munich (August 11th-21st)

Ireland Women’s Track Team: Lara Gillespie, Alice Sharpe, Mia Griffin, Kelly Murphy, Emily Kay and Orla Walsh.