Cycling: A change of gear for former rower

By Andrew Alderson

Jaime Nielsen in her rowing days. Photo / Getty Images
Jaime Nielsen in her rowing days. Photo / Getty Images

Her jeans fit differently, she has discovered a penchant for blueberries on America's East Coast and she has stopped toppling off her bike at traffic lights. Jaime Nielsen's transition from international rower to international cyclist is complete.

The 24-year-old from Tamahere (between Hamilton and Cambridge) is in line to represent New Zealand at the Delhi Commonwealth Games next month in the 3000m individual pursuit and has an outside chance of taking part in the road race as her career blossoms after swapping oars for pedals last year.

Nielsen was a travelling reserve with the New Zealand rowing team in 2007, even filling a spot in the eight to cover an injury at a World Cup. She also had success sculling at age group level, winning gold in the under-23 world championship quadruple sculls in 2004, aged just 18.

That changed with a visit to the Invercargill velodrome after the national rowing championships at Lake Ruataniwha in February 2009. Nielsen had not raced in a track competition and had only trialled a track bike for a few months, yet was selected for the world championships in Poland.

She was chosen from BikeNZ's Power to the Podium programme, a scheme aimed at getting Kiwi women cyclists to medal at the London Olympics.

Nielsen won silver in the team pursuit with Alison Shanks and Lauren Ellis, just over a second behind Great Britain, in what has recently become an Olympic event. The team pursuit doesn't feature at the Commonwealth Games but BikeNZ high performance director Mark Elliott says Nielsen's talents are too good to pass up on the track - and maybe even the road.

"As soon as we put Jaime on a track bike [as part of the Power to the Podium programme], she looked like she'd always been there. Her engine' also helped. Physiologically she can handle the workload of top cycling, which is probably a credit to the endurance she developed as part of the national rowing programme.

"She's a good team player, so she could be great for covering any breakaways for her team-mates when she's on the road in Delhi.''

Even after that successful initial foray, Nielsen says making the transition to full-time cyclist came with its share of peculiarities. "I was still mastering going straight [on the road] while taking my bottle out of its cage and I'd often get greasy chain marks on my legs. I'd occasionally topple over at traffic lights [trying to get the shoe cleat out of the pedal].''

Nielsen initially found it hard training by herself. Rowing had the benefit of crewmates to share the pain.

"There is not much difference mentally between powering a boat and a bike - I'm sure my expressions would be similar at the end of a race. . . Rowing differs in that it requires more focus on technique. In cycling, I've found if you have the power and general bike skills there are not the same technical demands, as long as you pedal efficiently and put in the hours."

Nielsen's body shape has evolved to match the training. "My legs have become a bit larger, meaning the hunt for some good-fit favourite jeans is tougher. In contrast, my upper body has lost the muscle mass acquired from rowing. I have rationalised the changes believing that, as long as I'm doing the hours on my bike and eating right, my body will naturally form an ideal mould for cycling.''

Nielsen is just finishing a training block in Pennsylvania and will head to Bordeaux for a three-week training camp in the velodrome this week.

With some of her Delhi team-mates, she has been living and riding around Kutztown, a stronghold of the Amish people. The Amish are a traditional Christian community known for their simple life, plain dress and dislike of modernism. That contrasts sharply with the Kiwi cyclists' need for state of the art technology.

"I never get sick of the sound of horses and carts heading down the main street but I have felt awkward overtaking them on my bike,'' Nielsen says. "I also often see girls riding their bikes in bonnets and long dresses. I do wonder what they think when they see us in our cycling gear. The countryside is perfect for cycling but having said that, I've had a few close calls with deer running into the middle of the road, snapping turtles and negotiating past the odd chipmunk or squirrel.

"We also take advantage of fresh blueberries and melons from the farmers' market. The berries go well in my muesli and I like to cut the rock melon into cubes and put it in the freezer to eat after training on hot days.''

Those hot days have had Nielsen training in temperatures up to 40 degrees with high humidity; perfect practice if she's to help haul in competitors on the streets of Delhi and perhaps help one of her team-mates to a Commonwealth medal.

- Herald on Sunday

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