When Evie Richards burst onto the international cyclocross scene to scoop the World Champion’s rainbow jersey at the 2016 U23 Cyclocross World Championship in Zolder, Belgium – her first cyclocross race outside Great Britain – she took most of her international rivals by surprise. “No-one even had a clue who I was,” laughs Richards, who was just 18 at the time.
Four years on, the 23-year-old’s rivals know exactly who she is – a versatile, world-class rider with two U23 CX World Championship wins, four U23 CX National titles and three U23 XC National titles to her name. Not to mention countless World Cup podiums and a Commonwealth Games silver medal in cross-country mountain bike.
Not bad for someone who only got into riding ‘for fitness’.
So where did it all start?
Growing up in a sports-obsessed family in Malvern, Gloucestershire, it was never in doubt that Evie would follow her passion for sport. “We were huge Olympics fans as a family. At the age of eight, I remember I couldn’t watch it [on TV] because I wanted to be there so badly. I was so competitive,” she remembers.
Cycling wasn’t on the Richards’ family radar yet; instead weekends were spent at the local rugby club watching Gloucester play, and Evie found her first inspiration in England player Jonny Wilkinson. “I remember watching Jonny Wilkinson kick – his dedication. He was the ultimate athlete and such a role model for me.”
I thought, ‘One day, I want my jersey up there’ – so I tried every sport until I found one I could see myself achieving a National jersey and Olympic qualification in
But it wasn’t until starting secondary school and seeing the National jerseys of former pupils decking the walls that Richards doubled down her sports goals. “I thought, ‘One day, I want my jersey up there’ – so I tried every sport until I found one I could see myself achieving a National jersey and Olympic qualification in,” she explains.
As the pressure of individual sports made her nervous (“I could only do cross country at school if I ran alone and they timed me!”), Evie gravitated towards team sports, excelling in hockey, which she was playing at county level when a coach suggested the team find an alternative sport in the off-season to maintain their hockey fitness.
Enter cycling. “Cycling was the only sport I wasn’t doing! My dad had just got a Ride to Work scheme bike, and I wanted to continue working at a local farm shop at weekends to earn money so I started a run-ride with him where we’d take turns running and riding,” Evie recalls. “With my first wage, I bought a kind of cyclocross bike, just the cheapest thing from the bike shop. That’s when we started riding together to the farm shop at weekends.”
Mountain bike races were the logical next step – this time without Evie’s usual nerves. “It was nice because it was away from school; no one knew I was doing these competitions, I didn’t feel any pressure. It was just a fun thing to do with dad.”
Success quickly followed and after winning several National XC Series events in 2014 and taking 2nd place at the UCI XC Junior National Championships, British Cycling took notice. “I got a phone call asking me to race in Norway at the [2014 Mountain Bike] World Championships. I didn’t really process how big a deal it was to be selected until I was there,” she says. “When I saw I was competing against the best in the world, I realised how big an opportunity it was to have so early on in my career.”
Evie joined the GB Junior Academy, racing the Junior World Series alongside Europe’s best mountain bike talent at the weekends, while studying for her A-levels at school and juggling a part-time job at Waitrose. “It was the best thing ever; we’d go to Germany, Italy, everywhere. On Monday, my friends would be talking about parties from the weekend, but I’d just flown back in from Europe.”
I remember doing turbo sessions at 10pm after work or at 5am before my Waitrose shift. Even then I was pretty determined
Juggling it all meant serious dedication. “I remember doing turbo sessions at 10pm after work or at 5am before my Waitrose shift. Even then I was pretty determined,” she recalls.
Her hard work paid off with a phenomenal silver medal at the 2016 Junior UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Andorra. “It was such an amazing experience, with 25 of my family and friends there to watch.”
After the highs of a silver medal, Evie faced serious lows when her move to Manchester as part of her progression to the Olympic Academy Programme left her feeling isolated and unhappy. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she laments. “It was the hardest time ever in my cycling career. We lived far out in the Peaks and I didn’t know anyone. I really struggled.”
Throwing her energy into racing regional cyclocross events at the weekend provided a focus, and a new training tool. “I had nothing to do but train really hard, so I raced ‘cross nearly every weekend. For me, it was nice to see other people, vary my training. I loved doing it and it broke up my week a bit.”
I said I’d do the race that weekend but I never wanted to get on a bike again
Despite this, she almost quit cycling in the week leading up to the 2015-16 UCI U23 National CX Championship because of how unhappy she was in Manchester. “I said I’d do the race that weekend but I never wanted to get on a bike again.” Thankfully, winning the race – and realising her dream of earning a National jersey – changed her mind. “That gave me a glimpse that I was good and I needed to find another way for me to make it work and enjoy it.”
Just a week later, aged 18, Evie lined up at the inaugural U23 UCI CX World Championship in Zolder, Belgium, where she was a relative unknown. “I’d only done a couple of national races – mainly local league races. I was gridded so far back, I definitely didn’t think I’d do well, and I remember feeling so tired going into the race.”
But she did do well, coming from the back of the grid to win the race by half a minute and scoop the rainbow jersey of World Champion, riding on a bike lent to her by Downhill and Enduro legend Tracy Moseley, a long-time supporter of Evie. “I think everyone was pretty shocked I’d won, because I was an unknown. I really didn’t know how big a deal it was until the next morning when my phone had gone crazy overnight and people were queuing at the tent for photographs!”
Richards was a phenomenon in the U23 category, but her breakout performance came in an elite cyclocross race she almost didn’t start. Days before the 2017 UCI CX World Cup in Namur, Belgium, Evie dislocated her knee, giving way for the second time in three months. She was distraught. “I cried my eyes out and started looking for flights home to get it scanned,” she recalls.
Incredibly, it ‘slotted back into place’, so Evie lined up to race against decorated elite cyclocross athletes such as Jolanda Neff, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Nikki Brammeier. In an audacious display of power on one of the sport’s toughest cyclocross courses, she picked her way through the world’s best riders to win by 15 seconds. “Again, it was such a shock. I’ve always watched Pauline and when I overtook her and Yolanda, I felt so strong. Then I overtook Nikki. I wasn’t even thinking about tactics, I just decided to ride as hard as I could.”
Winning silver at the Commonwealth Games was a real pinch-me moment, the only time I’ve ever cried on the podium. I was so emotional because it was something I’d always dreamt of
Riding a wave of success, Evie went on to complete a hattrick of consecutive U23 National CX titles during the 2017-18 season and win her second U23 CX World Championship, swiftly followed two months later by a Commonwealth Games silver medal in cross-country mountain bike in Australia – her proudest moment yet. “It was a real pinch-me moment, the only time I’ve ever cried on the podium,” she explains. “I was so emotional because it was something I’d always dreamt of.”
Injury and silver linings
Next came a huge blow when Evie’s on-going knee problem reached a critical point, dislocating during a physio session while training in Girona in 2018. “I’d just done a four-hour ride, a gym session and I was saying to my swanny [soigneur] that everything was falling into place,” she remembers. “Literally after that, she told me to turn over and I was screaming in pain for someone to get me an ambulance.”
Knee surgery in 2019 put paid to plans to defend her national and U23 world cyclocross titles, but it proved to be a turning point in her approach to training and life in general. “During my recovery, I realised I’d developed tunnel vision thinking that an athlete can only train and can’t do anything else. When I first joined the GB team, I stopped seeing all my friends. I cut off socialising because I thought it would be detrimental to training. I was also overtraining and under-fuelling to get as light as possible.
Since the injury, I’ve never been so happy. I enjoy every single training session. I’m a completely different person now
“I realised I should use my injury as a positive and find things other than cycling to make me happy, so I started seeing friends again, did loads of normal things I’d cut out – like going shopping or to cafes. I realised that from being happier, I was actually recovering quicker, and then I was training harder on the days I was actually training.”
Stepping up to elite racing, Richards is in a good place to realise her dreams of wins in the biggest races on the XC calendar. Mentally at the top of her game, she acknowledges that a happy rider is a fast rider. “Since the injury, I’ve never been so happy. I enjoy every single training session. I’m a completely different person now.”
Watch this space. It’s going to be a big year.