'I want the world to know Rab was a legend': Katie Archibald opens up on the death of her partner

Katie Archibald

Even before the death of her partner, Archibald had been considering giving up her cycling career – Jon Super

Katie Archibald is fighting back tears, as she has been for much of the last hour. The Scottish cyclist is remembering sitting in Cathkin Braes Country Park, a familiar landmark on the southern skyline of Glasgow, with her partner Rab Wardell, the Scottish mountain bike champion. In particular she is thinking of a bench, 10 minutes from their home, where they would sit together and marvel at how happy they were.

“There’s this perfect spot where you can see out over the city,” double Olympic champion Archibald says. “You can see the [Sir Chris Hoy] velodrome, you can pinpoint where the West Highland Way would be, and Ben Lomond, and the Gleniffer Braes and the Kilpatrick and Campsie ranges, and all of these things that Rab has a connection to because he’s just synonymous with cycling in Glasgow…”

Wardell died on August 23 last year. He suffered a cardiac arrest while he and Archibald were in bed together. She woke at around 9am to find him gasping for air. At first she did not realise how serious it was. She offered to get him a glass of water. Then, as the true horror of what was unfolding dawned on her, she rang 999. Paramedics arrived within minutes but were unable to save his life. He was just 37.

Archibald has not spoken publicly about Wardell’s death until today. Even now, she is not sure she is ready to do so. She apologises, saying she nearly pulled out of giving this interview a number of times. “The truth is I’m not really in a place to…” she says. “The last few weeks have been…everything is still s—.”

She has decided to speak for one reason: the UCI Cycling World Championships begin in Glasgow later this week. It marks the first ever attempt by cycling’s governing body to combine all four disciplines — track, road, BMX, and mountain bike — into one big championship. Wardell was a big believer in the bid, an official advisor to it. As a coach, a former Scottish Cycling member of staff, and a huge advocate for cycling, he believed fervently in the power of the bicycle.

He even hoped to ride himself. After years in semi-competitive retirement Wardell had returned to elite competition in 2021. Just two days before his death he won the senior Scottish cross country mountain bike title, 20 years after victory in the same event as a junior.

“And so it’s not just a world championships to me,” Archibald says. “It feels so much bigger. Bigger than any Olympic Games. Bigger than anything I’ve ever done. Rab loved this sport. He loved the legends of this sport. And these world championships, and the conversations happening around it, I feel, are a chance for people to talk about him as one of those legends. So that’s why I’m speaking now.”

Archibald and Rab Wardell out riding together

Archibald and Rab Wardell out riding together — Katie wants to use the World Championships as a chance to tell everyone about Rab

It clearly isn’t easy for her to do so. We meet at the velodrome but decamp to a cafe in Manchester’s Northern Quarter for some privacy. Archibald initially makes small talk, joking about life in a new flat with team-mate Josie Knight and her love of gameshow The Chase, which she says she’d “love to go on” one day.

But as soon as the conversation turns to the Glasgow World Championships she stiffens up, avoiding eye contact and talking very quickly in long unbroken monologues. “I can’t see a way it’s going to go well,” she says. “The last few weeks have been… awful. I can’t explain it. It’s like when the fatigue gets to a point that you’re…I suppose everybody’s experienced this, where if stage one is like your legs are a bit sore, stage two is you can feel it’s hard to get out of bed, and stage three you sort of lose your language skills a bit… Stage four is that you’re just constantly crying.

“Actually I’m having a relatively good day today but generally I just wake up in the morning and feel like I’m in a deep-sea diving suit.”

What a lot of people do not realise, even those who follow cycling closely, is that Archibald was already struggling last year even before Wardell’s death. Really struggling. To the extent she actually quit the sport at one stage, told British Cycling “it was over”, and started researching nursing degrees. Again, she has not spoken about this before, but it was Wardell who was her rock during that period, who kept her sane.

An “accumulation of setbacks” had tipped her over the edge. Archibald had ended 2021 as the best female endurance rider in the world bar none. Having spent much of her early career in Laura Kenny’s shadow, the 29-year-old had emerged from it in emphatic fashion in Tokyo, where she led the GB pursuit team to silver and then masterminded a glorious gold with Kenny in the Madison. She started planning to ride all three endurance events — the team pursuit, the omnium and the Madison — in Paris.

Katie Archibald of Great Britain after winning the Women's Omnium Elimination race during day three of the 2018

Archibald ended 2021 as the best female endurance rider in the world bar none – Getty Images/David Fitzgerald

Things began to go wrong at the start of 2022. Archibald fractured a bone in her back after crashing in the early part of the season, with the “constant pain” leaving her “very low”.

Then a close family member fell ill. She chooses her words carefully here because she does not wish to discuss this episode publicly, suffice to say it was traumatic and left her extremely anxious and panicky.

Another heavy crash at the Nations Cup in Glasgow last April saw Archibald knock herself out, this time suffering a fractured collarbone.

It was during this period that British Cycling was going through contortions over its transgender policy. Archibald, as one of the most senior female athletes on the team, and with Kenny also struggling following her own health scares, was involved in discussions about how to respond.

“I found myself writing letters to British Cycling at the same time that I’m Googling the names of all these drugs [for the ill family member], and then I’m going out riding. Three hours of just cry, cry, cry, cry, cry…and then get home and ‘Get it together’. I’d go on all of these group chats, all this aggro that’s going on, with people stressed… It was a lot to take on.”

The “breaking point” arrived at the end of May last year. Finally pain-free and back on her bike, she was hit by a driver while riding to her mum’s house. “It’s funny because it was probably the least severe in terms of injuries, although it was my legs so I freaked out because I thought my knee was totally bust. But I just really, like, lost it. I couldn’t ride after that without panic taking over.”

It reached the stage where every time Archibald got on a bike — road or static — the same thing happened: her heart rate would rise and the experience would become “totally overwhelming”. “I sort of keep plodding on, thinking ‘Maybe this will pass’,” she recalls. “But then when I get to the point where I think ‘This isn’t going to pass’, I call up Monica [Greenwood, the ex-women’s endurance coach]. And I say ‘I’m really sorry. I love the team. I love the sport. I love everything that we’ve done together. And I really believed in the dream. And I wish that was still possible. But I can’t train. So I’m calling to let you know that I’m going to leave the programme.”

Katie Archibald

Archibald suffered a series of injuries that left her anxious every time she got on a bike – Jon Super for the Telegraph

Archibald is talking very quickly and quietly now, hardly stopping to pause for breath. I look at the timestamps on the recording later and some of her answers are eight minutes long. She jumps from one topic to the next. She talks about researching nursing degrees, and Greenwood coming up to Glasgow in an attempt to change her mind; joining Wardell on one of his training camps in the Alps where he convinced her to try downhill mountain biking, and discovering she “wasn’t anxious” doing that; and returning to Scotland where she became “like one of those lockdown puppies with attachment anxiety”, following Wardell around, constantly needing his reassurance, and ringing Greenwood to suggest that she “may have found a way to move forward”, then meeting the British Cycling physiologist for the third time that year to devise her third training plan for the year. “And I don’t know why I’m laughing,” she says, suddenly. “It’s not funny. I’ve never done that training plan either. About 12 days after that was the morning that I woke up and Rab was gasping for air.”

Archibald carries on, as if on autopilot. Which effectively she is. She says she replays the sequence of events leading up to Wardell’s death “constantly” in her head, as if on a loop. She cannot help it. Starting with his appearance on ‘The Nine’ – a BBC Scotland programme – to discuss his Scottish mountain bike title, welcoming him home, joking that he was this big “fancy” star, sitting on the sofa together, waking up the next morning, her initial response, for which she has clearly beaten herself up ever since. “I think he’s got something in his throat and I offer him a glass of water,” she says again.

“And eventually he stops gasping and that’s when I call 999. The ambulance got there in nine minutes. I’ve learnt that apparently the target time is seven, which amazes me. And the UK mean is nine, which just blows my mind. They tried for an hour. And I didn’t… I just never… in that hour I started imagining ‘What is our life going to be like now?’ But at no point did I think that it would be over. That whole, like, sequence is…constant…” She is quietly sobbing now. “Do you know what it feels like to offer someone a glass of water…?”

It is not easy listening to Archibald, such a mighty athlete, so raw and full of self-recrimination. She says the official cause of death, hypertrophy of the left ventricle, or ‘athlete’s heart’, causes her to wonder constantly whether Wardell might still be alive had he not returned to elite level competition. “Maybe if he had just stayed being a bit inconsistent, a bit s—…,” she says. She regrets her inability to save him, but feels guilty she has not used the tragedy to learn potentially life-saving skills. “I’ve not even done a first aid course,” she says. “I’d probably be just as out of my depth if it happened again.”

Worst of all is when she confesses to feeling guilty about not encouraging others to go for cardiac screening. She turns her face away. “There’s something that feels… I don’t know if I want to admit it… it was preventable. And if I start going about telling other people how to prevent it, then I don’t know, it’s even more in your face. Like ‘Did you know that you could have had a heart scan?’ I suppose it’s selfish.”

I tell her there is surely no right or wrong way to process grief and trauma, and just by sharing her story she will be helping others who are struggling. Archibald looks doubtful. She says she is thankful for the support of her team-mates, of British Cycling, she namechecks the team’s psychologist Rich Hampson. But the truth is, she is struggling. Her family is “a mess”. Wardell, she explains, was a huge support to her mum as well.

“She could speak to Rab in a way that she couldn’t speak to anybody else. Like, he would go around all the time, even when I was away racing and stuff, and get all his washing done, and his dinner made for him. Both of us are pretending the other one’s fine. And I know that she’s not fine. She’s so not fine. I can see that she’s in pain and she’s trying to hide it. And so I almost don’t want to get into it. Because I feel it too. And so we just kind of just play along and have a Sunday curry and talk about cycling.”

Katie Archibald's career medals

Katie Archibald’s career medals

It is almost time for Archibald to go. She wants to bring the conversation back to the World Championships. She says she is resigned to not performing at her best. “I’ve been dropped out of every single effort we’ve done in the last couple of weeks,” she says, bluntly. “Something’s gone wrong. I can’t see how in a week and a half I’m going to be able to get to do what I wanted to do, which was this idea that success would give me a moment… to be with him. But yeah, that’s where we are I guess.”

Archibald says it is more important that she is there. For Gill, Wardell’s mum, with whom she speaks “most days” and whose bravery and compassion for others despite her own suffering is “an inspiration”. For her own mum, who is having such a tough time. Most of all for Rab.

“There’s a conflict in the fact that part of the reason the Worlds mean so much to me is because of Rab,” she notes. “They meant so much to him. And because of that, I want to do well. And I can tell that maybe I would perform better if I shut myself off to that. But then what’s the point? You know? Like, if I pretend… then you might as well… I mean, why would I do this? I’ve got no future, I’ve got nothing to go home to… Like why would I? So it’s almost like I need it to mean something but that’s what’s making it so hard.

“I can tell that maybe from a health perspective, I need to not make everything about him. Which is funny because it is like a constant earworm. I don’t actually talk about it all the time because I don’t know what to say to people. ‘Oh, by the way guys, I’m so devastated.’ But he’s the first person I speak to when I wake up, the first person I speak to when I go to bed. But yeah, I guess I don’t want the worlds to pass without meaning something, like I said at the start, for him as an icon of Scottish sport.”

There are some things she is looking forward to. Archibald talks about plans for a mural, to be painted on the side of a car park on Montrose Street ahead of the road race; of Wardell pulling a wheelie up the same street after being dropped in the 2013 national road race. “It’s not really the best place to do one,” she smiles. “It’s not what you should be doing. But I think, as an emblem of who he was, I think it suits really nicely. I know he’d love it. All the attention.”

Wardell pulling a wheelie while taking part in the Queens Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games

Wardell pulling a wheelie while taking part in the Queens Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games – Daily Record/Phil Dye

Archibald laughs and for a moment the clouds appear to lift. Perhaps there can be brighter days ahead? “You know, Rab’s tagline was like ‘Ride Bikes, Get Outside’,” she says. “But the thing he would say to me all the time was, if you had to have a life mission, a life purpose, it was: ‘Chill Out, Have Fun.’ I feel like I have those two things in my head all the time now. Because I feel the ‘Ride Bikes, Get Outside’ line comes essentially from darker times when Rab was really struggling after he lost his best friend to suicide. This was before we were together. And his ‘Ride Bikes, Get Outside’ mantra was like the driver for health.

“I guess I’m a little bit devastated that I’m now back at ‘Ride Bikes, Get Outside’. Like, we’d managed to reach ‘Chill out, Have Fun’. That’s expert-level. If you’re not there, I guess you’ve just got to go back and look after yourself.”

Everyone in cycling, in British sport, anyone with a heart in fact, should hope that one of the most unassuming but impressive sportspeople Britain has is able to do that. That Archibald gets the opportunity over the coming weeks to sit on that bench, to have that moment with him. And find peace.

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