Dame Sarah backing the top-class Etape Pennines

Dame Sarah backing the top-class Etape Pennines

BEAUTIFUL BUT BRUTAL: Last year’s 78-mile Etape Pennines was a resounding success – this year’s event on Sunday, October 6 is expected to be bigger and better with an increased field of 3,000 taking part

GOLD JOY: Dame Sarah after winning the Women's Individual C5 Pursuit at the Paralympics

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

A WEEK-AND-A-HALF on, and Dame Sarah Storey is still coming to terms with the recognition she received in the New Year's Honours list.

Her collection of 22 Paralympic medals, 11 of which are gold, makes her Great Britain's most successful Paralympian of all time. She is one of only a handful of Olympic or Paralympic athletes to have won gold medals in two different disciplines - swimming at Barcelona and Atlanta, cycling at Beijing and London. And her presence on the shortlist for last month's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award underlined her status as one of the country's leading sporting stars.

Despite all of that, though, she admits she was completely unprepared for the letter that dropped through her door at the start of December. Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Not bad for a down-to-earth girl from Manchester.

"It still seems completely surreal," said Storey, whose four gold medals at London 2012 were only matched by wheelchair racer David Weir. "It's hard to put it into words.

"When I received the letter to say I was being considered for the damehood, I just couldn't believe it. We had a laugh about it really - it's unbelievable to think that's my new title.

"But it's a real honour. It's an award for everyone who has helped me along the way and hopefully it's a reflection of the fact that I've been able to use my skills in the last 20 years to achieve things and help others."

In terms of a post-London personal legacy, Storey's new moniker is a fitting testament to her talents and the profound effect she has had on the Paralympic movement and increasing interest in Paralympic sport.

In broader terms, though, it will take time for the full impact of London 2012 to become clear, although Storey is determined to do all she can to ensure that the positive momentum generated during the summer is not lost.

That is why she is acting as the sporting ambassador for the Etape Pennines, a 78-mile cycle race, staged in County Durham, that was launched this week.

Last year's inaugural event saw more than 2,000 competitors embark on a circular route bordering Middleton, Stanhope, Consett, Esh Winning and Crook to help raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

This year's event, which is scheduled for Sunday, October 6, will be even bigger, with just over 3,000 places available for a course that will feature over 2,000 metres of climbing.

It is an opportunity for experienced club cyclists to test themselves in race conditions, and for enthusiastic amateurs to help raise money for charity, and Storey feels it is the type of event that will build on last summer's sporting feel-good factor.

"Cycling is one of the fastest-growing participation sports in the country, partly because of the success in Beijing and London, but it's not just about cycling at elite level," said the 35-year-old, who will scale back her own schedule considerably this year as she is expecting her first child in June.

"What's fantastic about an event like the Etape Pennines is that it gives people with a wide range of experience and ability the opportunity to compete together.

"It's not unusual to see an elite-level cyclist competing in an event like this because it fits in perfectly with their training schedule. How many other sports give you the chance to rub shoulders with an Olympian?

"That's great, but above all else it's just a fantastic opportunity to experience all the thrill of a top-class road race even if you're just really starting out in the sport.

"The course will be demanding, but not too tough, so it really is the case that anyone can do it provided they put in a bit of training.

"And as an added bonus, the race supports Marie Curie Cancer Care, which is an amazing charity that does so much good work in the North-East."

The event is open to able-bodied and disabled competitors, and four months on from the Paralympics, Storey is delighted that the nation's interest in disabled sport remains intact.

Did London 2012 change our perception of Paralympic competition? Undoubtedly. Did it have a wider impact on the way disabled people are treated and perceived in this country? Only time will tell.

"I think everyone had huge expectations within the disability world, and almost without exception, I think they were met," said Storey. "But things haven't necessarily changed for disabled people on a day-to-day basis.

"That is a long-term process, and a sporting event, even one as big as the London Paralympics, isn't going to transform things overnight. We're talking about a sporting event, not a political one, and that has its limits.

"But from the perspective of getting more people with impairments active and getting the profile of Paralympic sport higher up the agenda, I think all those things were achieved.

"There's still a lot of work to do in terms of society's wider approach to disability, and there are people out there each and every day trying to continually move things forward. Hopefully, the Paralympics helped in some small way."

* The Marie Curie Cancer Care Etape Pennies takes place on October 6 and has been hailed as "beautiful but brutal". The event has quickly established itself as one of the toughest Sportives in the UK, with riders take on 78 miles of hilly countryside with spectacular views.

Free fund-raising places for Marie Curie Cancer Care are still available. General entry places are priced at £63. For more information visit www.etapepennines.co.uk

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