This feature was originally published in the December 2, 2022 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine
Some things in life are certain: death, taxes, England’s men’s football team falling short of glory. Add to that list Evie Richards smiling. In our two hours with Britain’s queen of the dirt she can barely wipe the grin off her face. It’s not, sadly, our company – we’re reliably informed she’s always like this.
Throughout 2021 Richards has had ample reason to smile, celebrating her best year yet. Top of that list of reasons to smile was realising her childhood dream of winning a senior world title. She now has a house full of rainbow jerseys. And we’re not exaggerating. When we visit Richards in her quaint power-pastel Malvern home she’s been sent boxes and boxes of rainbow jerseys to sign for her sponsors to then hand
out – the first box took her nearly
This wrist-breaking work is just one of the responsibilities Richards has taken on after winning the Cross-country Mountain Bike World Championship over the summer. Coming just weeks after she missed out on an Olympic podium, it was no flash in the pan or case of peak form coming too late. The 25-year-old seemingly reached a new level of performance this summer, winning the two World Cup events that followed the Worlds.
These results announced and cemented her status in a matter of weeks. “On the second lap [at the Worlds] I came through and felt good in my effort. The leaderboard said, ‘Evie Richards: second place.’ Normally if that happens I feel like I might have overdone it, and I’m [going to get] a bit tired. I didn’t once think where Pauline [Ferrand-Prévot, who was leading] was. It wasn’t on my radar. I figured I’d just ride my race and if I catch her, I catch her.”
Catch her she did and then solo to the win. Afterwards Richards did minimal celebration, switching instead to focus on the World Cup race a week later. She won that too. That was the real revelation for her. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I might actually be quite good!’”
That comment is emblematic of a thread that runs through our conversation. Underneath Richards’s smile there is a charming openness about her foibles that you don’t always see from top sportspeople. She talks about having worked with her psychologist to finally command her pre-race nerves over the last year. To give her a boost, her mum sends her inspirational quotes before each race; “Sky above me. Earth Below me. Fire within me,” the one she sent her before the Worlds, is now on the top tube of her World Champs bike. And only now does she seem comfortable in her place at the top table of cycle sport.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of 2021 was that she didn’t get to show that top-table class at the Olympics two weeks before her World Championship breakthrough. “It was probably the worst race I can think of. It’s one of those races I’ve just tried to erase from my memory. I was obviously very nervous. I was shaking. And if you go on a mountain bike shaking, you’re just going to crash.”
Long road to Tokyo
Crash she did. In practice. Multiple times, until she had a word with herself and pulled herself together. Having conquered that prior to the race the course then got adjusted, removing all the lines she’d practised and only leaving the ones she hadn’t. Then it rained overnight, something Richards loves, and she made a good fist of the opening lap, but as the course dried she dropped back, finishing seventh.
For Richards the Olympics was where her journey started. “I just decided from a very young age I wanted to go to the Olympics. I can’t even remember a time where I didn’t have that in my head. Every year we’d go on holiday as a big extended family. We’d hire a house and watch the whole of the Olympics together. We’d always be inspired by one sport. I remember one year coming home from France and we swapped our dining room table for a ping pong table, because it was the sport that year.”
When she started secondary school she tried out a host of sports from rugby, to rounders, to high jump, to hockey, to cross-country running before she found cycling as a way to keep her fitness up over winter. Her dad was happy as he didn’t have to stand at the side of a hockey pitch bored out of his mind, they could do it together. So he encouraged it and entered her into a few races. “Before I knew it I was racing in Norway at the Mountain Bike World Champs as a junior [in 2014]. I arrived there and I didn’t know how to build a bike. I didn’t even know what a World Championship was – I had never even watched a mountain bike race.”
When her team-mates pointed out the big riders like Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Yolanda Neff, Richards was clueless. She finished sixth.
That winter she was introduced to cyclo-cross for the first time. “We did a GB camp in Bradford, then we finished it off with the National Trophy race in Bradford. So that was my first cross race. I remember I had no idea of what it was really, and Ffion James told me, ‘Green is good. Brown is bad.’ I just remember going into the race thinking, OK I’ve got it. I won that race ahead of Amira Mellor, who was dominating that season, and everyone was like, ‘Woah, what just happened?’”
That success helped get her onto the British Cycling academy. Once there she was doing a lot of road riding in training and cyclo-cross was a way for her to “get back on the mud” as her coaches were less keen to let her fling herself around a mountain bike trail.
And likewise it didn’t take long for her to get to winning on the world stage. She won the U23 Cyclo-cross Worlds in 2016 having never raced another international race. She had a natural feel for the wet, slippery course in Zolder that day and although she started on the third row found herself in the lead at the end of lap one. Disliking riding in a group, she soloed off the front and was never seen again.
A brief dalliance with road racing followed – including the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire. But she won’t be returning to that any time soon: “I don’t get the same adrenaline,” she says.
The academy years were tough on her. You only need to meet Richards for two minutes to realise she’s a gregarious and sociable person and the environment didn’t suit her. “I really struggled... I was based in the Peak District with one other girl and I didn’t see the coach. I found it really lonely and really hard.” She moved house multiple times, found an equilibrium and stuck it out.
When she turned pro ahead of the 2017-18 cyclo-cross season she continued her steady progression through mountain biking and cyclo- cross, with wins in the UK and abroad. She won the U23 cyclo-cross world title again in 2018.
It was during the 2019-20 cross season that she stepped up to the elite level. At that point she was focused on going to the Tokyo Olympics on the mountain bike but gave herself a 10% chance of making selection. She had suffered a dislocated knee in 2019 that had kept her qualifying points tally down, and although she won the final U23 Mountain Bike World Cup event of that year – and was swiftly into podium places in cross – she didn’t fancy her chances having not raced mountain bikes at World Cup level in the elites.
Breakthrough Brits: The future’s bright, the future’s young
For years British women have been threatening to challenge the international scene with multiple riders, and the 2021 season has seen this promise reaching fruition.
Just look at the WorldTour young rider classification, which lists the most consistent U23 women in top-tier races, where GB have more riders in the top 15 than any other country – more even than powerhouse nations Netherlands and Italy. That’s why we at CW decided to do this series of interviews with them.
Alongside Richards on the mud, on the road you can expect both Anna Shackley (20) and Elynor Bäckstedt (19) to continue their development at SDWorx and Trek-Segafredo. And the increase in the number of top teams will bring more Brits to the WorldTour, with Jumbo-Visma and EF Education-Tibco-SVB taking Anna Henderson (23) and Abi Smith (19) up from Conti level. Plus there’s newly crowned British National Champion Pfeiffer Georgi (21) who we featured in a previous week’s magazine.
When the Olympics were postponed she says she was “a bit gutted” because she had trained harder than ever before in an effort make selection, but saw it as an opportunity to rest. She brought on board British Cycling cyclo-cross coordinator Matt Ellis as a second coach – mountain bike racers are largely solo athletes who have to build their staff around them. “The way of me coping [with the pandemic] was just do more, do more, do more, do more,” she says. That included buying her current house, redecorating and helping her dad construct her very well-appointed chill-out shed. But it affected her training too. “I was like, ‘I’m going to become an amazing skipper. I’m going to do the splits.’ Stuff that was not even relevant to cycling. And then it just got to the stage where I was riding crazy hours doing so many efforts doing all these other random things on top, and then I couldn’t walk down the stairs because my knees were so bad,” she recalls. “I needed someone on my team who was going to tell me, ‘What the hell are you doing? You need to stop.’ And that’s where Matt comes in.”
Entering the elites in 2020 she won both the Nové Mĕsto short track races in the truncated summer season, which she says showed her what could be done working with her new team.
Still come 2021 she wasn’t sure she’d make selection. The day she was due to find out she’d stopped every 10 minutes on her training ride to check her phone. Eventually she got the call that evening – a childhood dream would be fulfilled. It was only when she boarded the plane a few weeks later – after self-isolating for two weeks to ensure she didn’t get Covid-19 – that the reality hit her and she allowed herself to be excited. “I had Tom Pidcock next to me on the plane, who’s not the most enthusiastic. So by the end of it he was probably like, ‘Oh, my goodness, why do I have to sit next to her for 10 hours!?’”
However, she adds the experience of the Olympics in the time of Covid-19, and with the mountain bike squad away from the Olympic Village, wasn’t exactly what she’d dreamt about since her youth. “I thought I’d be seeing Tom Daley and Adam Peaty, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going be incredible! I can fangirl everyone!’ And then we get to the place and there’s 30-40 athletes… and most of those are people I see at the World Cups every week anyway.”
Despite her ride she recalls with fondness the experience of being on the team with Pidcock winning gold (“I felt like a proud mum”). You can’t help but feel that being around Pidcock and watching him operate may have helped in her subsequent winning streak.
Now with the 2021-22 cross season looming we wonder if she’s keen to carry forward that form into the Cross Worlds, where she has twice placed in the top 10 in the elite category. But as soon as we ask she shoots us down in flames.
“I’m going in it for training and just for fun. I’m doing cyclo-cross because I love it. I’ll be there but probably not very fast,” she says.
She will, however, be back at some point, stressing that cyclo-cross remains a passion of hers but while the mountain bike season is so long she’s not able to give it the focus it deserves. She may be even more confident in her abilities by the time she does and if that’s the case, that next Worlds jersey will surely one day be hers.
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