Image courtesy of SWPix / British Cycling
“When I was younger I loved horses and wanted to be a professional eventer, but I thought ‘sport as a career isn’t really sustainable’ so I should focus on veterinary work as a ‘proper career’ and do sport on the side for fun,” reveals Neah Evans.
The British, Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic medal-winning cyclist laughs when realising the irony of the view she once held.
She can barely contain a smile either when her many achievements on the track are read back to her. There is pride, but also perspective, because that the path she ultimately took bore no resemblance to the one she had once plotted.
Particularly given those honours have come in cycling, a discipline she initially “didn’t like” and had “no interest in” when it was first suggested by her father.
However, sporting success does run in the family. Her mother, Ros, competed for Great Britain in cross-country skiing at the 1984 Winter Olympics, while she and her husband, Malcolm, were also both strong orienteers.
Neah also grew up as the youngest of three siblings and her honed her competitive nature through “frustrating” attempts to rival her older brothers, one of whom – Donald – would go on to become a Commonwealth rowing champion in 2014.
Life growing up was far more “laid back” than you may image though, with Neah home schooled.
“You read all these books about how someone learned to play golf at the age of four and went on to become these superstars, but it wasn’t like that at all of me,” she tells the WSA.
“My pony was my life and I’d get really annoyed when it was suggested we go orienteering because riding was all I wanted to do, but there was never any pressure to do sport.”
FROM PONY POWER TO LIFE AS A VET
Images from @neah.evans
Neah competed in the Highland Games as well as eventing competitions and were it not for a “freak” injury suffered by her horse it is likely equestrian would have remained an extra-curricular hobby.
“It happened just before my first first-year veterinary exams, which was not good timing,” she recalls. “Students don’t have much money and certainly not to get another horse!
“My mum said we’d try and rehab her, but that if I wanted to do sport I’d need to find something cheaper, so she suggested running.”
The University of Glasgow student joined the athletics club, but admits that while she spent significant time studying and training, she lived a “very much student lifestyle” with “running and then academia coming in third.”
By her third year though Neah reveals she was ill, injured and “not in a particularly good place” as she struggled with ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) damage and fitness issues.
Her father, a two-wheel enthusiast, insisted she would be a “much better cyclist than runner” and despite initial reluctance ultimately found it “quite fun.”
“It was winter in Glasgow and the weather was crap, so being inside warm and dry was quite nice, but I didn’t expect anything more to come of it,” says Neah.
“Lots of people say the (steep velodrome) track is quite scary, but trust me, horses can be quite scary so I never had a problem with that.
“We had connections in Scottish Cycling who showed an interest and I had such a good kind of base fitness from all the running and being active my whole life, which really helped.
“After a couple of weeks, it escalated quite quickly!”
PROFESSIONAL SURGEON TO PROFESSIONAL CYCLIST
Images from @neah.evans
In 2017, at the age of 26, she took the decision to step away from her role as a veterinary surgeon and became a full-time athlete.
She was soon training with the likes of Laura Kenny, Elinor Barker and Katie Archibald who had claimed Olympic gold together 12 months earlier.
It was a “surreal” environment for the new cyclist, but Neah was not overawed.
“I didn’t think about it (the other athletes) too much which is probably a good thing because otherwise I’d have been a bit ‘oh wow’,” she states.
“But when I think about it, look at the 2016 Olympics, I wasn’t watching it because I was a vet and I didn’t have the time!
“My team-mates were all at the pinnacle of the sport then and I had never really even raced a pursuit properly.
“We do have some bizarre moments when people talk about former cyclists or moments which have happened and I just don’t have a clue because I don’t have the same background.”
PODIUMS AND PERSPECTIVE
Image from @neah.evans
Neah proved her elite medal-winning potential by claiming Commonwealth silver and bronze medals – in the scratch and points race respectively – for Scotland at the Gold Coast Games in early 2018.
By the time the pandemic impacted Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games began in the summer of 2021 Neah was now an established member of Britain’s team pursuit line-up who had won silver medals at the previous two World Championships.
Some in her position may, naturally, have felt the pressure but Neah’s unique background gave her a different outlook.
“Sometimes I wish maybe I’d been pushed to cycling at an earlier age so I had the experience that almost everyone else in the squad has to draw on, but at the same time so many people burn out at a young age and I have more life perspective,” she tells the WSA.
“I know that when things seem like ‘doom and gloom’ they’re often not really and when you break them down into manageable chunks it’s not that bad.
“That’s definitely a skill I have, which means I really appreciate what it means to be an athlete and that it’s a privilege which not everyone gets to be – because of genetics, but also you do need to be a bit special.”
LIKE MOTHER LIKE DAUGHTER – AN OLYMPIC FAMILY
Neah and her team-mates secured silver in Tokyo, Japan and she joined her mother in becoming a Team GB Olympian.
“Whatever happens in life, I will be an Olympic medallist and that’s a really amazing thing to be able to say,” she states.
“Then for me one of the really special moments was afterwards when we got home in Scotland and together with my mum we both found our GB Olympic tracksuits and had a bit of a photoshoots.
“Growing up I’d always had respect for my mum and what she’d achieved but I didn’t really have the context and so to have that mother-daughter moment, which we couldn’t have in Japan because of the (Covid-19) restrictions, was a life-moment I’ll never forget.”
FROM OLYMPIC SILVER TO WORLD GOLD
Image courtesy of SWPix / British Cycling
Fuelled by pride and a new purpose just over 12 months on Neah achieved one of her “dream targets” by claiming a maiden World title, in the individual ‘points race’.
“I'd been on the podium multiple times and been very close, but not won, and it’s one of these you think ‘I would really like to win it’ because it’s such a nice thing to be able to turn around to people and go ‘I’m world champion’,” she tells the WSA.
“It's a brilliant thing to be able to say and I think especially within cycling because you get the rainbow bands which you race in, so every time I’m in a points race now I’ve got this extra cheesy smile!”
A further European team pursuit title followed in early 2023 and while in the long-term Neah anticipates returning to her previous career after cycling, she hopes that is not “for many years.”
THE PATH TO PARIS 2024
Neah has her sights set on attaining the sport’s ultimate prize at the Paris 2024 Olympics.
“I've actually kept my license active because that's my safety net of, if I'm having a bad day, I can go and get a job as a vet tomorrow – but then I never do because I really like cycling,” she says with a smile.
“It’s very much all-targets Paris,” Neah continues. “I definitely feel I have unfinished business and I would like to improve on the last result, so it doesn't take many guesses to realise what that would be!
“Personally, I'm definitely in a better position than I was two years out from Tokyo and things are going in the right direction, so I’m really excited about the run-in to the Olympics!”
Image courtesy of SWPix / British Cycling.