Sports writer Paul McNamara tells the rollercoaster story of Natalie Creswick, who will compete for Great Britain in the World Mountain Bike Orienteering Championships in July, but whose career has largely gone under the radar of mainstream sports coverage. It is a tale containing moments of outstanding success, too often tempered by long periods out of the saddle with numerous injuries. But throughout it all, Creswick’s unshakeable resilience and sense of joie de vivre have proved to be an inspiring combination
Natalie Creswick sends me her apologies. But this isn’t the type of breezy sorry, dispatched via an agent by a capricious world-class sportsperson, suddenly encumbered by a diary change and unable to fulfil an interview commitment. Rather, Creswick is saying sorry for her form on the bike when we met. An elite-level performer across a number of disciplines, she would have expected to ease to a podium finish in the final race of the singularly named Gorrick Saddle Skedaddle Spring Series. When she fell short of her own demanding expectations, Creswick’s first thought was to apologise to her guest for the day, not to rue the illness that robbed her of her racing legs throughout what must have been two hours of purgatory.
When we exchange emails ten days later, Creswick reveals that she only ploughed on for fear of appearing to be a quitter. “I actually ended up going back to the GP the following day as I felt so awful during the race,” she says. “I tried to hide it but I felt terrible. I would usually expect to finish on the podium, not come last by some margin, and I was really disappointed.”
Never mind that the race represented, in essence, more valuable training time as Creswick prepares for the World Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) Championships in Portugal. She was there to win, or at least to make a fist of it. Without that ruthless determination and her accompanying resilience, there is no way that Creswick would have enjoyed the catalogue of success that burnishes her sporting c.v.
Nor could she have recovered from the painful injuries which serve as unwelcome bedfellows for people who race bikes. Her steely attributes also helped the 35-year-old locate the mental strength to brush off the aftermath of the most excruciating, the most cruel, of her falls
Rewind five years to 2011 when Creswick signed a professional cycling contract with German outfit Team Abus Nutrixxion “It was the fulfilment of a dream,” says Creswick. “But then it kind of just came crashing down around me.” Apt words. Four months after joining the team in March, Creswick was competing in a three-day event in Luxembourg. Riding for the first time on a bike set up in a different style to the one with which she was familiar – in Europe the back brake is on the right hand, as opposed to the left in England – Creswick hurtled into a corner and tugged at the wrong brake. “I just went flying,” she says.
But 24 hours later, the roof really caved in on her professional ambitions. The rear hanger on Creswick’s bike snapped towards the end of her warm-up ride. With time at a premium, she had to collect the team’s spare bike and rush to the start. “I got there just as the race started, so I was right at the back of the peloton,” she says. “The race started slightly uphill, so when we set off I stood up out of the saddle to put quite a lot of power through the pedals – and the chain snapped sending me flying off the back of the bike and landing on my back. I got back up and chased the peloton to get back into the group, but I was in agony and knew something was pretty wrong. Usually if you crash the adrenalin masks the pain, so as I could feel it I guessed it must have been fairly serious.”
Creswick was promptly pulled out of the race. Since she struggled to even get off the bike, her team’s physiotherapist suspected she had chipped a vertebra. “Fortunately it wasn’t that,” says Creswick. “But I had a herniated disc [when a spinal disc is damaged and presses on surrounding nerves].”
In that one second, an incident out of her control, Creswick’s life was set on a different course. Asked if Team Abus provided any reassurance, she is reluctant to commit. Creswick chooses her words carefully. “It was very cut-throat, sadly,” she says. After another moment to collect her thoughts, she seems ready to expand – but after another pause, merely declares, wistfully: “It was a bit cut-throat. You have to race and you have to get results. Because I was injured over the winter it was difficult to get back into the professional side of things.”
Indeed, when she returned to England, from what had been a new adventure, Creswick was concerned that her injuries would cost her more than just her professional career in the saddle. “When I was injured I came back home and I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be able to race again. I couldn’t really ride a bike. I was in so much pain.”
Standing in the eye of a spiteful wind whistling through the surrounding trees, Creswick considers the attitude that helped her put that crushing disappointment into perspective. It is, perhaps, quite appropriate that she is speaking in the immediate aftermath of her frustrating ride in Frimley back in mid-April, while concealing the illness that stripped her of her competitive edge that day.
“I just try and appreciate that I had that opportunity and I took it with both hands,” she says. “But sometimes things don’t work out. If I started to think ‘it’s not fair’, that wouldn’t have done me any good. The fact is the injury wasn’t as bad as it might have been, so I have to be grateful for that. I try not to get too down. I think if I did that I’d spiral out of control.”
To appreciate the enormity of Creswick’s feat in securing a professional gig in the first place, consider that she only turned her focus to cycling in 2009. The girl who was alone among the boys in her school football team, aged six, took a fittingly circuitous route to the sport for someone whose current speciality requires competitors to be a dab hand at reading a map.
Dancing, hockey and netball all featured in a sports-centric upbringing. Rowing took over at university in Southampton where Creswick studied psychology. “I loved rowing,” she says. “But when I finished university and moved to London it was difficult to fit it in, as I had to be up early on Saturday and Sunday morning. I do that all the time now, but fresh out of university that was something I was struggling with.”
A flair for writing inadvertently presented Creswick with her next athletic goal. A friend who worked for London Triathlon offered Creswick a free place in the 2006 event, on condition she wrote a blog about her training, relating the story of a newcomer’s experiences in the sport. Already a keen runner, she bought a road bike, borrowed a wetsuit – and won the race, an achievement she understatedly describes as “pretty good going”.
That remarkable debut success over triathlon’s sprint distance (20 kilometres on the bike, sandwiched by a 750-metre swim in Royal Victoria Dock and five kilometres on foot in London Docklands) opened up new possibilities. Detailing the approach that enabled her to subsequently compete at the 2007 World Amateur Triathlon Championships in Hamburg, Creswick says: “I would try and do as well as I could in the swim, usually overtake everyone on the bike and then the run was a case of hanging on and not letting too many people overtake me.”
One year later she was upping the ante and competing in the UK Half-Ironman Championships on Exmoor – a 1,800-metre swim followed by a 50-mile bike ride and a half-marathon to close. She was first in her age-group, only four professionals finishing ahead of her.
Human nature and simple physiology persuaded Creswick to rest. But for the Reading-born competitor, that rest amounted to participating in criterium bike races, which involve riders completing multiple laps of a short circuit. “I did one of those and I absolutely loved it,” she says. “It was brilliant. I was hooked on bike racing then.” And, true to form, she didn’t have to wait long to stamp her mark on her latest sport. After sealing a place in the 2009 edition of the prestigious Three Days of Bedford race, Creswick promptly rode to victory on stage one.
Twelve months later she was splitting her time between Belgium and home, racing in the colours of Twickenham Cycling Club. Things became more serious when Creswick and a group of similarly gifted riders came together in the colours of Rapha Condor, under the tutelage of Rene Groot. The London-based Dutch coach thrust his talented squad into some of the continent’s premier stage races.
Creswick was a top-20 finisher in the 2010 Tour Cycliste Feminin International de l’Ardeche. Lizzie Armitstead, who would go on to win silver in the road race at the London Olympics two years later, was fourth. At the Tour de Feminin Krasna Lipa in Czech Republic the same year, Creswick quickly discovered the value of riding with elbows out when penned inside an aggressive 175-strong peloton. Germany’s two-time Olympian and a Tour of Qatar champion, Trixi Worrack, won that race. Creswick was mixing in eminent company.
Reflecting on that heady summer, however, the rider’s memories are not of the wins, of which there were plenty, nor of rubbing shoulders with the stars of her sport. Creswick just remembers the sheer joy of it all, the fantastic time she enjoyed. It was the ability to again achieve such highs that she feared were lost forever after Luxembourg and 2011.
It is hard to imagine such a competitive individual riding simply for fun, but that is exactly what Creswick did in 2012, post-crash. “A local team, Mule Bar Girls, where a lot of my friends were, asked me to join up with them,” she says. “They said it didn’t matter if I could race or not, to just come along and enjoy riding. That was exactly what I needed. I just needed a group of girls to ride and have fun with.”
Recovering from her trauma, Creswick turned to one of her former sporting mistresses in order to retain her condition, using swimming as a valuable fitness tool. Such versatility would come in extremely handy last year when Creswick fell victim to a freak accident. It is a setback which leaves her playing catch-up now as she prepares for a second tilt at the World MTBO competition.
“I had an amazing season in 2012,” she says. “I won eight or nine races. That’s not unheard of, but in road-racing it is unusual because so much of it is down to how everybody else is racing. I had the most fun that year. It was incredible.”
Fun, it seems, is central to everything Creswick aspires to in a competitive sphere. But her irresistible form, allied to that of her team-mates, roused the interest of stellar cycling sponsor Sigma Sport. Creswick’s standout victory in 2012 came at The National Masters Road Race Championships for riders aged 30-plus. And one year later, riding with the new-born Team Mule Bar Girls Sigma Sport, she was flourishing once more in her favourite ‘crit’ races.
And 2014 promised even more. Creswick was in the shape of her life, banking considerable mileage on the bike, devoting hours to strength training in the gym, and revisiting a former passion – running. She was ready to fly, until an old foe returned. “My herniated disc returned,” she says. “I was super-fit, but I had no power in my legs because it traps the nerve. If the nerves don’t fire then it just doesn’t work. I tried to battle through it until May, but I had to stop riding then until September.”
Her recuperation was a painstaking process, requiring her to walk before she could run. A season of competition had passed her by. But Creswick’s lust for competition, her love of the bike, ensured she was quickly back in the groove. In January 2015 she discovered a whole new world.
Natalie Creswick can remember clearly the day she fell for mountain bike orienteering. It is a sport in which riders are handed a map 60 seconds before they begin racing. Then they have to ride and navigate to a succession of checkpoints in a forest. As quickly as possible. It was another potent mix of that cocktail of competition and fun to which Creswick is addicted.
“We had a team day up in Sheffield,” she says. “This amazing coach called J.P. [John Paul] Jones from ALine Coaching did a team day with us. The majority of us had never ridden mountain bikes before. We had a whole day up there and I absolutely loved it. I had a massive grin on my face the whole time. It was just so much fun. And J.P. is so good at instilling confidence in you. He had me believing I could do anything. I started racing in May.”
Add in a chance meeting with Emily Benham, who had finished 2014 as the world’s number one ranked mountain bike orienteer, and Creswick was plotting a fast-track towards that discipline’s global competition. Benham, the current long-distance European MTBO champion, was invited by Mule Bar Girls owner Jimmy Docherty to a day at the team’s headquarters. All it took was a description by Benham of her specialist sport and Creswick was hooked. The visitor light-heartedly let it be known that she was after partners for the relay event at the world championships in the Czech Republic.
Along with team-mate Adel Tyson-Bloor, Creswick spotted an opening and leapt through it with characteristic zeal. The novice pair swiftly set about immersing themselves in their new pursuit. Creswick says: “Emily lives in Norway, but her brother and dad, who live in the UK, are big orienteers. They did a complete crash course for us on MTBO. That involved a couple of months’ intense training. And running with the map. We got to the stage where we weren’t awful.”
Following a final one-week training camp close to the Liberec-based competition course – which is embargoed for two years prior to the event – Creswick was taking on the world. She competed in each of the three individual disciplines – sprint, middle-distance and long-distance. She finished halfway up the field in the mid-distance race, setting her up perfectly for the relay.
Creswick is modesty personified when it comes to discussing her role in Great Britain’s 11th-place finish, investing all the credit in Benham’s final leg turn. But as soon as talk switches away from the competitive element of the event, Creswick’s speech gathers tempo. “Having that opportunity was amazing,” she says. “And I have never met such welcoming people as the orienteering community. For two complete beginners to come along and try and race, rather than think, ‘Who are these idiots trying to muscle their way in?’, they couldn’t have been more supportive.
“And not just the GB team. People from every nationality came up to us and said, ‘We think it’s amazing what you’re doing’. Orienteering is huge in Europe and they were excited that people from the UK are getting into it.”
Four months later Natalie Creswick was on the floor. Again.
It is San Sebastian last November. Creswick recalls: “It had been raining a little bit. The ground was slippy and as I was running to the start I was looking up for the start gantry and I put my foot on a bit of plastic between the road and the cycle path. I just fell flat on my face – and broke my leg, which was a bit of a nightmare.”
That is the memory Creswick is left with from her trip with friends to run a race. “They took me in an ambulance, prodded around, said it wasn’t broken and sent me home,” she says. With her leg wrapped in a rudimentary bandage, Creswick was merely relieved to be allowed on the flight back home. A hospital x-ray, however, revealed a broken foot. When she finally had an appointment at a fracture clinic, that diagnosis was upgraded. “They decided that I’d actually broken my leg,” she says.
“I was in a cast for four weeks. It healed really well. I have a tendency to go everywhere fast! But I was extremely disciplined and really backed off. I had four weeks of not doing anything – I wasn’t capable of doing anything. I was really knocked out by it.”
This unplanned break, however, allowed her to indulge in sleep and television.
However, with change afoot in Creswick’s team, this was not an opportune moment to be laid up. Docherty’s sale of Mule Bar at the end of 2015 paved the way for Cannondale to become title sponsors. But asked if she felt her berth in the newly branded squad, which now included Benham, might have been threatened by her inactivity, Creswick unwittingly captures the togetherness that exists at Cannondale Girls. “I knew the team would be really supportive. In fact that didn’t even cross my mind – maybe it should have,” she laughs. “They were brilliant. Adel drove up and took me out for lunch to cheer me up.”
With her Achilles tendon having thinned, and her calf muscles wasted away after a month spent on the sofa, Creswick endured a period of strength work before she could train at full tilt. Indeed, on the day we meet, she admitted, reluctantly, that perhaps she had been unwilling to accept how far back her injury had set her.
Her victory in March, therefore, in the gruelling Magnificent Seven event in Sheffield, was all the more staggering. That race, which she insists she loved, consists of seven sprints up seven separate hills, each dash prompted by a shrill blast of a whistle. “I thought it was going to be chaos,” says Creswick. “But it wasn’t. You were riding round chatting to each other between hills – then smashing it up them. But it was a lot harder than I had anticipated.”
Four months after suffering her freak accident in Spain, then, Creswick was riding to victory. It is the sort of morale-boost required as she buries herself in preparations for July’s world championships.
Mountain bike orienteering, she says, is as tough as it gets. “It is probably one of the hardest things I have ever done, because it is mentally so challenging as well. Mountain biking is new to me still. So I’m trying to remember how to mountain-bike, look at a map, because you have a map board at the front of your bike, try and pick my route – and remember where I want to go. You’re also always trying to think ahead. You don’t ever want to stop. That is just wasted time. It’s exhausting – but really good fun!”
There is the crux of it. It is why Creswick describes as second nature her five days a week training routine, two of those days featuring two sessions. That despite her holding down a full-time job with Surrey Council as an education safeguarding coordinator, something from which she says she draws great fulfilment. It helps, admits Creswick, that her partner, Martin, is similarly minded. In Frimley, Martin was at the start line and waiting at the finish. Between times he took himself off for a run. The race lasted close to two hours. “It’s probably best to ask the people around me if it’s all-consuming,” she says.
Perhaps the answer to that specific question comes in the shape of Creswick’s other major interest. She is entering her fourth year as manager of the South East Youth Road Cycling Team. Her squad of four boys and four girls (aged 14 to 16) were second only to Wales in last year’s Inter Regional Road Race Championships.
On the immediate horizon for Creswick is the MTBO World Cup event in France in May. But all roads now lead towards Coimbra, the university city in the middle of Portugal. “I would like to improve on my positioning last year,” says Creswick, looking forward to July. “Then my aim was to not come last, but this year I would like to try and finish higher up the field. I don’t expect to be mid-table, but if I could finish in the top two-thirds then I would be really happy.”
Interview over, Creswick inwardly mulls over our conversation. Then, her voice lowered almost to a whisper, and to no one in particular, she says: “I’m just happy as long as I have my bike.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul McNamara is a sports writer, currently working with Mail Online, the Southern Daily Echo and at News Associates in Wimbledon. Paul’s latest articles.