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Evie Richards wanted to win really, really badly.
The most striking thing about the four World Cup cross-country mountain bike races held in Nové Město last October wasn’t the terrible weather conditions or the fact that there were no fans lining the normally shoulder-to-shoulder sidelines. It was the young British rider with a long blonde braid who outsprinted the competition (including a somewhat perturbed Pauline Ferrand Prevot) to win both short-track races and then finish in the top eight during the Olympic-distance races that followed.
Richards wasn’t the only young phenom who crushed the competition at 2020’s extremely compressed cross-country mountain bike season — 21-year old Frenchwoman Leona Lecomte and 20-year old Austrian Laura Stigger also posted impressive results in the elite races. Yet there was something about Richards — from her all-out effort on the bike to how concerned she was that she might have annoyed Ferrand Prevot as they came around the final corner to her endearing Instagram page — that seemed to set the 24-year old Trek Factory Racer apart.
Richards didn’t grow up a dedicated cyclist but she did play every other sport that was offered. Raised in Malvern, a leafy town in Worcestershire County, England, Richards says that the impetus for getting involved in sports stemmed from one particular goal: she’s always wanted to go to the Olympics.
“I have dreamed of it since I was very small,” Richards tells me. “Every four years, we would rent a house as a family and watch it all. The opening ceremony and every event, my family would be glued to the TV. We were in France when the Olympics were in Beijing, and I remember I wanted to be racing in the athletics so badly that I actually couldn’t watch it! I was 11 at the time, and I wasn’t even a runner, but I think that just shows how long I have dreamed of going to the Olympics.”
When she got to high school, Richards dabbled in every sport she could, from athletics to rugby to triathlon to hockey, to try and find ‘the one.’ She showed particular promise in hockey and was rising in the ranks of the England Hockey Pathways program. When her coach advised her to find another sport to help build her hockey fitness, there weren’t many left to choose from.
“Cycling was the only sport I wasn’t doing a great deal at the time,” Richards says. “I had a weekend job at Clive’s Farm Shop and with my first pay, I brought a bike. I started commuting to the farm with my dad, he would cycle with me on his way to his work on his bike.”
Eventually, her dad entered her in some local MTB races, and Richards says that, because bike racing wasn’t one of her regular sports, she approached the competitions without the heightened nerves she felt before hockey games.
“I told myself that I was a hockey player riding a bike which helped to take the pressure off a little bit,” she says. “I always just wanted to win.”
Richards was good enough as a hockey player riding a bike that she ended up at a few of British Cycling’s Regional School of Racing (RSR) camps, where her power and drive caught the eye of Tim Buckle, an Olympic development coach.
“He told my Dad at a very early stage how raw I was on a bike,” Richards says. Shortly after that, the 17-year old was selected to attend world champs in Lillehammer, Norway where she finished sixth in the junior race, effectively ending her ambitions on the field hockey pitch.
“From that point onwards I knew I wanted to be a professional cyclist.”
In late February, after nearly missing a flight from Heathrow to Spain, Richards won the cross-country season-opener Copa Catalana Internacional in Banyoles, landing one step on the podium above her Trek teammate Jolanda Neff. After the MTB race, Richards chalked up her victory to a winter of hard and focused training, yet it’s important to note that the Englishwoman does not live and breathe the bike. Or, that her lifeblood is equal parts bike and people and things that make her happy.
“There is also a lot I love off the bike, so the list is endless,” Richards says. “I love holidays, the seaside, I love seeing my friends especially if a cafe is involved. I got my dream car last year so I love driving my old Land Rover Defender with the windows down and the music super loud.”
Richards seems to strike a balance uncharacteristic of such a dedicated athlete: she’s absolutely single-minded when it comes to winning on the bike, but she’s rather untraditional when it comes to how she does it.
Richards has said publicly that she doesn’t look at data when she trains, and she’d rather be with her dad or friends for hard efforts. In fact, she says, the early adventure rides she did with her mates were as important then as they are now. In fact, Richards acts as sort of a de facto advocate for young cyclists racing their friends rather than obsessing over training plans and structure.
“The boys in my village are the boys I went to nursery with, we have grown up doing everything together,” she says. “They got into cycling before me but when I started riding we would do amazing adventures, they are still some of my best memories on my bike. My boys and my dad are the best training partners I could ever ask for. It’s funny now as I was always the one who would get dropped on rides, and they would end up pushing me home or to the nearest train station, but now the tables have turned and some days it’s me pushing them.”
Pushing onto the podium
Basically, Richards has dominated the U23 cyclocross and cross-country podiums since she started racing professionally in 2015. That year, she finished second at the UCI junior cross-country world championships and was both world and national U23 cyclocross champion. The following years produced similar results: she kept the national U23 ‘cross record for another two years and won her first elite World Cup race in Namur in 2018.
On the mountain bike, Richards also wore Great Britain’s U23 national champ jersey in 2016, 2017, and 2019, and she finished in the top three of every U23 World Cup she entered from 2017-2019. Last year was her first competing in the elite races.
There’s a bit of a ‘full circle’ theme to Richards’ progression as a cyclist, and it’s totally in line with her deeply-seeded sense of hometown pride. Before she came through the ranks, Richards’ local club Malvern Cycle Sport had already produced some legends. Both Commonwealth mountain bike champion Liam Killeen and world downhill and enduro champion Tracy Moseley were Worcestershire locals, and Richards says that before the 2014 world championships in Norway, they were the ones that got her ready for competition.
“Now, six years on I have done a full circle and am back being coached by Liam along with Matt Ellis, and Tracy is my team manager,” Richards said.
2021 will be Richards’ first full year in the elite ranks, and she knows that all eyes will be on the first two cross-country World Cups of the season in May. Great Britain has not made its Olympic selection for mountain bikers yet, and in addition to wanting to start her season strongly, competing in the Olympics remains at the top of Richards’ list of priorities.
After all, Evie Richards wants to win really, really badly.
“I bumped into an old teach last year, she asked me what I was doing,” Richards says. “I told her I competed in bike races around the world. She said ‘that’s nice, but when will you get a proper job?’ I am proud to say that I am a full-time athlete. It’s all I’ve ever dreamt of, so I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.”