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Imagine discovering a sport and becoming a world champion three years later. Then imagine repeating that feat.
Imagine coming off the first real injury of your life to take the biggest result of your career a few months later.
Imagine accomplishing your wildest sporting dream at age 21.
Imagine all this, and then imagine admitting that you sometimes “don’t believe in yourself” as an athlete.
British phenom Evie Richards doesn’t need to imagine. The Trek Factory Racing athlete is riding a wave of form, technique, and natural-born talent unlike few bike racers — across all genders and disciplines — have ever enjoyed.
Richards, 21, has won the U23 world cyclocross title twice, first in Zolder in 2016 — the first-ever U23 women’s world championship and her first race outside of Great Britain — and again in Valkenburg in 2018. She also took bronze, in Luxembourg in 2017. She’s medaled at the junior world mountain-bike championships, taking silver in Andorra in 2015, and she finished fourth at the 2016 U23 mountain-bike worlds in Nove Mesto.
Most impressively, in December, the Trek rider won the sixth round of the 2018-18 UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Namur, working her way up from a poor start position to the front of the race through the mud on hilly terrain. She would ultimately go clear and win alone, ahead of the best women in the sport, in challenging conditions on one of the most difficult courses on the calendar.
For context, British national champion Nikki Brammeier finished second, Italian national champion Eva Lechner finished third, US national champion Katie Compton finished fourth, and 2015 world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot finished fifth. Two-time world champion Sanne Cant was 12th on the day.
For more context, Richards was 20 at the time. To call it a breakthrough performance would be dramatically understating its significance.
In April, Richards took a silver medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games cross-country event, finishing 48 seconds behind compatriot Annie Last. The result left Richards in tears on the podium.
Over the April 19-20 Sea Otter Classic weekend in California, where Ella CyclingTips sat down with Richards for a brief chat, she finished third in the elite short-track cross-country race, and followed it up with another third in the elite cross-country race.
Since then, Richards has finished second at three consecutive U23 World Cups, and won the British U23 national title for a third consecutive year. She’s now targeting the U23 world championship, held September 7 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Energetic and enthusiastic, Richards speaks quickly and freely. If you walk away from a chat with her feeling like the world titles, the World Cup win, the Olympic potential — all of it — has been a bit of a whirlwind, that’s only because it has been.
Ella CyclingTips: How did you get into racing? Walk us through your path from first racing your bike to becoming an 18-year-old world champion.
Evie Richards: I was a field hockey player. I was probably playing four or five times a week. My dad was my taxi driver. He took me all over the country, to all these hockey events. [A regional coach] told me to pick another sport for fitness. I did every other sport you can imagine. Cycling was the only thing I wasn’t doing, and my dad had a ride-to-work scheme, so he got a discounted bike to ride to work. So we sort of did a run-ride, and it was nice to give him a bit of time back, because it’s three girls in our house, and he always gets pulled away from his rugby and everything. So it was something that we could do together.
I always got really nervous for individual sports, so that’s why I loved hockey. But cycling was away from school, and away from all the pressure. When I started, he would enter me into the races, and no one knew we were going, we would just go and do them together. It sort of just went from there.
It soon got swept up with it, I got a job at a farm shop on the weekends, and the only way to get there was to ride the bike, because my mum wasn’t going to drive me there and my dad was riding past there on the way to work. So I got a bike, and the more money I earned there, the nicer bike I got to ride to work on. It was always a mountain bike, my mum never liked me riding on the road, because of the danger. We lived on the hill, in Malvern [in Worcestershire] so it was perfect. It’s in the West Midlands, close to Wales, we’ve got amazing hills, and it’s just out my doorstep. Even now, nearly all my training is on the mountain bike. I would never give up my mountain bike. I love riding on it.
So that’s the story of how I got into it. We’ve got a really good system in the UK, and British Cycling were really supportive. With the Junior Academy I traveled across Europe. I was at school, and at the weekends I would go to a local race, or just go and do a junior worlds series, and then Monday I’d be back at school, and then back to work at Waitrose, which was the next job I got. It was just a bit of a surreal lifestyle.
And then Liam Killeen and Tracy Moseley really helped me out. Tracy helped me with bikes, and Liam helped me with coaching. Those two were such a big part of me getting into cycling, they were just so helpful. I was so lucky to have them around me when I got into it, really.
Ella CyclingTips: Was there a particular moment, or a result, where you realized that yes, I can make a career of professional cycling?
Evie Richards: I probably feel like I still haven’t had it [laughs]. Just before the Namur race [in December 2017], I was thinking, ‘Oh, I hope I’m one of those girls that actually makes it.’ I don’t always have that much confidence in myself. Maybe even the Commonwealth Games this year, I’ve never cried at the podium before. To put that race in perspective, it just meant so much. I’d always done so many sports when I was younger, because I wanted to go to the Commonwealth Games, and I wanted to go to the Olympics, and it was cycling that helped me get there. It really put it perspective that I had accomplished something that I’d been dreaming of since such a young age.
It’s happened quickly, I only started riding five years ago. It’s been a bit of a spiral. When the last Commonwealth Games was on, it was in Glasgow, and we drove up early in the morning to watch it, just as a one-off. I sort of knew around Liam then, so we sort of went to watch him. I’d just been selected to race in the world champs in Norway, but I didn’t know what it was — I’d been selected to race in Norway, I was going on holiday in my head. So four years on, to actually be racing in the Commonwealth Games, it just felt so surreal. I wouldn’t have even pictured it. It was crazy.
Ella CyclingTips: Which result do you feel best demonstrates what you are capable of?
Evie Richards: I think the Namur race. I’d had such a hard winter, I’d had all my illnesses, I’d had injuries. I got my leg stuck in a cattle grid. I fell, I crashed on my bike. I had stitches in the one leg, and the other leg was painful, but there was nothing there I could see that was cut or bruised, so I thought, ‘oh, it’s fine.’ I carried on, and ran for three hours the next day. I like running as well, and probably two weeks after it just gave way so horrendous, and it just kept giving way after that. I had so much trouble with that. I’d never been injured before. Still, I have to be careful just to keep on top of stretching and everything.
So that race in Namur, I wasn’t planning on racing it. I was actually looking for a flight home. It just came around, I had no pain, and it was perfect. I think from on the Wednesday, looking at flights home and being in tears, bawling my eyes out because I thought I wasn’t going to race, to then putting the race together that I knew I could do, it was so amazing.
On the first lap I was pretty far back, and the coach that was with us was like ‘Evie, you’re better than this.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I am better than this. What am I doing so far back?’ And I just followed Jolanda [Neff] and some of the mountain bikers, because I’ve raced them, and when I know someone that I race against, I think, ‘Oh, I’m faster than them,’ and it gives me a bit of confidence. I rode with them, and then they got dropped, and then I thought, ‘Oh, Nikki, I’ve raced her, I could beat Nikki,’ and then it was like ‘Oh, Nikki is the front group — this is real.’ I just gained confidence.
I like riding at my own pace. I’m not tactically thinking, I wasn’t going to sit on anyone’s wheel. I was going to go out and go as hard as I could, and if I got dropped, that’s fine, but at least I put down what I feel I could do.
Ella CyclingTips: What is your greatest strength as a racer — and what is your greatest weakness?
Evie Richards: I’ve got quite a lot of weaknesses [laughs]. Jumping, I’m not good at jumping. I get very nervous at races, that’s also a weakness.
I would say maybe my strength is that I’m good at transitions — when it gets the top of a hill, I’m quite good at driving over the top and keeping that speed. But that’s just where I live, that’s what I love to do.
Also, just having fun on my bike, I’m pretty good at that.
Ella CyclingTips: Where does cyclocross fit in with mountain-bike racing? Where do you see your career in five years?
Evie Richards: I love racing ’cross. Every time I race, it feels like a show, like I’m just going out and performing to all the Belgian crowds. I love ’cross, but the Olympics is everything I’ve always dreamt of. I sort of need to combine them both, but it’s been hard to get the balance. This year, I’d like to do a full cyclocross season, and a full mountain-bike season, and then go on to Tokyo — that’s the plan.
The Olympics is definitely what I’m aiming for. So I need to keep on the mountain bike, and keep improving, but also I want to do ’cross. I love racing cyclocross. My dad loves it, and he’s retired this year, and he wants to come and watch all the races, so hopefully we’ll manage to cram everything in. We’ll find some time to rest. I like to holiday with my family, so we’ll hopefully squeeze in a holiday somewhere around there.