British hill climb champ smashes Sa Calobra QOM - and she's just getting started

Illi Gardner gave up road racing for hill climbing and never looked back

Illi Gardner rides up the Old Shoe in the British Hill Climb Championships
(Image credit: Andy Jones)

To destress from a season of racing up hills, newly crowned British hill climb champion Illi Gardner booked a holiday to Mallorca. 

“I’m just trying to enjoy it a bit more, rather than worry about training too much,” the 23-year-old told Cycling Weekly on Tuesday evening. “I’m excited to go up the mountains.”

The following day, she sends a nonchalant email to say she’s bagged the QOM on Sa Calobra, the Spanish island’s foremost climb, completing the 9.44km Strava segment in 29 minutes. So much for a relaxing holiday, some might say. But when sprinting up hills is your life blood, as it is Gardner's, this is what winding down looks like. 

The Cardiff-based cyclist's list of achievements grows more impressive every year. On Saturday, she stormed to a maiden victory in the UK National Hill Climb Championships, held in her native Wales. Having won all nine events she raced in the run-up, Gardner went into Nationals as one of the big favourites. 

“I got pretty nervous. I was quite stressed out for a while,” she says. “Last year the nerves got to me a bit and I didn’t have a very good ride, so I was worried the same would happen. It went a bit better this year.” 

On the day, Gardner stopped the clock at 6-46, making her the only woman to go under seven minutes on the mile-long Old Shoe climb.

Her success came just three months after she shaved 30 minutes off her own Everesting world record, which now stands at 8-03-29. “At the end of [my second effort] this year, I was like, that was good enough.” she says. “Now I’m sitting here, I’m like, oh, I think I could have gone a bit faster. But I think for a while that’ll do for me.” 

Elsewhere in her trophy cabinet, Gardner boasts Strava QOMs on two of France’s most iconic ascents: Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux. She’s now turning her attention to her “long bucket list” of climbs, which includes the Col du Tourmalet, the Col du Galibier and Italy’s mighty Stelvio. 

“I like that zone of being really on the limit and just nudging it off and seeing how far you can push yourself,” Gardner says. "That place you're in where you're kind of dying, but not quite dying."

Illi Gardner with British National Hill Climb Championships trophy

(Image credit: Andy Jones)

Spending her childhood in California, Gardner grew up dreaming of becoming a sprinter. “I remember going on family cycle rides and my dad would have to drag me out and talk me up hills. I didn’t take long to fall in love with it.

“It’s such a good stress relief,” she adds. “I guess it’s a bit of an addiction, as well. If I go a few days without going up a hill, I’m just like, oh, what am I doing?”

At the end of last year, Gardner made the tough decision to part ways with her then road team, UCI Continental outfit CAMS-Basso, to focus on hill climbing. When asked if she sees herself returning to road racing, she lets on that it’s unlikely. 

“After doing it for, I think, six years, my head was never properly in it. I kind of decided it wasn’t worth the stress and time to spend all my weekends trying to go across the country doing races," she says. “I just never really got the hang of riding in packs. And I was kind of terrified the whole time.

“I’m much happier now just sticking to the simplicity of hills.”

And who could blame her? Riding alone under the Mallorcan sun, Gardner finds solace when the road ramps up. Whether she's on a QOM hunt abroad, or battling at home on the British hill climb circuit, she rides with a smile on her face. 

As her accolades rack up, Gardner's case for being the best climber in the world grows stronger.

"I'm not sure there'll ever be a way to measure that, though," she says. "I'm just having fun being the best climber I can be."

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