'I knew I could go faster': Hill-climb champion Illi Gardner on how she mounted her assault on the title

The Everesting record-holder talks us through a busy week of training, recon and racing ahead of the national champs

Illi Gardner in action at the 2022 hill-climb national champs
(Image credit: Andy Jones)

Want to know how the best riders in the world train? For each article in this long-running MY WEEK IN TRAINING series from Cycling Weekly's print edition, we sit down with a pro rider who talks us through a recent week of training in granular detail. This time it's the turn of Illi Gardner...

Born in the UK but schooled in the USA, Illi Gardner returned to Wales in 2017 and over the next two seasons continued to develop her road racing prowess. During lockdown, Gardner’s taste for climbing took on a long-distance flavour, culminating in her breaking Emma Pooley’s Everesting record – a mark she improved on further this July. 

For 2022, the 23-year-old decided to focus on hill-climbs and has taken the discipline by storm with 10 wins from 10 races – including a dominant performance at the National Champs at the end of October. Gardner generously made time for CW while taking a post-champs break in Majorca. 

How did you get started in cycling? 

I did triathlon while still at school [in the USA] and at first the bike was my worst leg of the three, so I started riding more and ended up enjoying that the most, so I dropped the two other disciplines. The scene in northern California was pretty amazing. 

How was it adapting to UK racing? 

It took a bit of time, as it was very different, racing on little narrow roads. I joined a team and started doing the National Series races [in 2018]. We went over to Europe a few times and did a lot of racing [among other results, Gardner finished fifth in the Tour de Feminin in the Czech Republic]. The next year, I started university. 

You smashed your own Everesting record in July with a time of 8hr 3min. Brilliant – but why? 

After breaking the record last year, I looked back and realised there was a period where I’d lost quite a lot of time. I knew I could go faster, so I wanted to give it another crack while I was still fit. 

You’ve decided to step back from road racing? 

Yes. Although I had a better season than expected, given that I was balancing work and racing, I still didn’t enjoy it enough to justify constantly having to stress out and deal with the pressure. I’ll do the same next year: find some new challenges and enjoy the hill-climb season. 

Rider profile: Illi Gardner

Age: 23

Height: 5ft 6in

FTP: 265W (estimated)

Lives: Cardiff, Wales

Rides for: Wahoo Endurance Zone p/b Le Col

Best results: 1st – National Hill-Climb Champs (2022); 1st – Ryedale GP (2021); 5th – Tour de Feminin (2018)

Twitter: @IlliGardner

Instagram: illi_gardner

Illi Gardner smiling, holding the 2022 hill-climb national champion's trophy

(Image credit: Andy Jones)

Was the National hill-climb your main aim this season?

Yes, because last year I had a terrible Nationals [Gardner finished fourth]. I don’t know what happened but I was really unhappy with how it went, so I was keen to come back this year and hopefully produce a better ride. I was really nervous beforehand, fearing a repeat of last year, but I knew what splits I needed to hit.

How did you pace it?

For the Nationals, I worked out the splits I needed to be doing every 100 metres. Sometimes I go into a negative spiral [mentally] at the start of a race, so I thought that checking splits would reassure me that I was on target. I find that power messes with my head – some days you can’t hold the power or worry that the power meter is under- or over-reading.

The week: Facts and figures

When: 3-9 October 2022

Where: Cardiff

Training for: British National Hill-climb Champs

Total riding: 8hr 55min

Z3+ effort: 1hr 20min

Monday: Easy recovery ride – 45min 

I’d had a hard weekend, racing the Chippenham Wheelers hill-climb on Saturday and a practice run on the Nationals course on Sunday, so today was just an easy spin of 45 minutes. I’m fairly terrible at doing easy rides, as I find myself going way too hard up the hills, so I was doing my best to keep it easy. 

Tuesday: Hilly ride with max effort – 1hr 

I usually try to ride during my lunch break [Gardner works full-time in visual effects for film and TV] for about an hour. Today I did a max effort up a 10-minute local climb that averages 7% gradient with a really steep start. It was a maximal effort of 285W, though it didn’t go very well, as I was still tired from the weekend. After that I did a few steady hills, climbing a total of 3,500ft. 

Wednesday: Lunchtime easy ride; post-work race recon – 1hr 15min 

Mid-week I usually try to recon the upcoming weekend’s hill-climb. Today I did 40 minutes easy at lunchtime and then after work went over to the Bristol area to recon Saturday’s race on Belmont Hill. My usual routine is to ride it at close to max and then a few more times to familiarise myself with the gradients. I was feeling terrible and didn’t get close to my previous best time here, so it left me feeling a bit negative. 

Thursday: Hilly ride – 1hr 30min 

On Thursday I managed to get out a bit earlier, so did a 90-minute ride on the hills close to where I live. It amounted to about 3,000ft of climbing and five climbs, which I rode quite hard but not as specific efforts – 190W average. The amount I’m able to do varies day to day depending on work and other commitments. I massively over-dressed today, as the weather was much milder than I’d realised. 

Friday: Easy ride with openers – 1hr 

As usual on the day before a race, I limited myself to an hour with just two one-minute efforts to get the legs working and wake them up a bit. This was another lunchtime ride, with the effort level easy apart from those two short bursts. I was glad to be feeling better than the past couple of days. 

Saturday: Race: University of Bristol Hill-Climb – 40min 

Today was a short hill-climb race at just over three minutes, and I was happy with how it went [Gardner won by 27 seconds]. I’m not usually so good at shorter climbs, so I’d been a bit stressed about it. It was a chance to get used to my race routine and warming up properly. I tried to stay relaxed and not go out too hard, and for the 3:21 effort I averaged 350W. In hindsight, I could have started digging in slightly earlier – shorter climbs are hard to pace. 

Sunday: Race: Welsh Hill-climb Champs – 2hr 45min 

The Welsh champs took place on the Tumble, which suits me as it’s a longer climb of about 15 minutes. There was a horrific headwind but I was quite happy with how performed: 276W for 15 minutes and 15 seconds [Gardner finished fifth overall and first female by more than eight minutes]. After that, I rode home, which took about two hours – and I didn’t fuel properly, so it was a real struggle!

This full version of this article was published in the 10 November 2022 print edition of Cycling Weekly magazine. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to your door every week.  

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