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Cyclist Rebecca Richardson zipping up her blue coat while listening to music on earbuds with grey sky in the background

Rebecca Richardson: The bitterest pill

“When I’m anxious, I go very quiet. I’d barely spoken in the previous couple of days. When it was confirmed that Wales would go back into lockdown, I felt the emotion well up, and I wanted to cry.”

The curse of 2020 has hit Rebecca Richardson twice. The Brother UK-sponsored hill climb specialist had already missed out on a road season with Team Brother UK-OnForm when news broke in October of a second national lockdown in Wales.

The “fire break” measures, intended to curb the spread of Covid19 in her home country, ruled out Richardson’s attempt at the biggest prize in hill climbing after months of gruelling preparation. To be deprived of an opportunity that had served as her north star throughout a training load most would struggle to bear must have been a bitter pill to swallow.


“At the Riber hill climb, I was checking my phone for news of the lockdown even in the final two minutes before taking the start. If the Welsh government had confirmed the ‘fire break’, I would have put down my bike and gone home.”


Richardson is a mature and intelligent athlete - a parent and business owner, as well as an elite rider - and so not given to the emotional outbursts of which younger competitors are sometimes guilty. Far from throwing metaphorical toys from a metaphorical pram, she resolved to cross the border into England and race for a final time in 2020, while government restrictions allowed.

Two days before first minister Mark Drakeford confirmed the principality’s second lockdown, Richardson realised that the Riber hill climb, a punishing route from the Derbyshire town of Matlock with savage 25 per cent gradients, could mark the end of her season.

Such are Richardson’s standards that third place on a course previously used for the national championships might seem a dip in form. A results sheet rarely tells the full story of an event, however, and a glance at the finishing order is often insufficient to uncover the stories behind the performances.

“On the Friday and Saturday, when the ‘fire break’ lockdown began to seem inevitable, and it seemed certain that I would miss the national hill climb championships, I really started to feel the disappointment. At 11pm, the day before the Riber hill climb, I decided to race the following day,” she reveals.

“I enjoyed the climb, but my mind was elsewhere. I was checking my phone for news of the lockdown even in the final two minutes before taking the start. If the government had confirmed the ‘fire break’, I would have put down my bike and gone home; that was the level of uncertainty I experienced.”

Side shot of cyclist Rebecca Richardson leaning over her handlebars as she rides along a country road with greenery and grey sky in the background

A psychological approach

Richardson has never attempted to conceal the psychological depths she must plumb to prepare for a physical effort that almost defies description. The ride-to-collapse effort demanded by a hill climb is expressed most clearly by bodies curled into the foetal position in the immediate vicinity of the finish line and features contorted into a rictus of pain.

For elite competitors, the event’s psychological demands are not confined to race day. For months, Richardson had pushed herself to new depths of pain in a training programme comprised of “disgusting” interval sessions intended to lengthen the time for which she can produce her peak power.


“Phil Jones called me straight away and told me that Brother UK supported my decision, so I didn’t feel under any pressure to find a loophole in the regulations.”


A bald, numerical rendering of the programme only hints at the mental strength required to complete it. Each session required her to produce a peak output for one minute and allowed only two minutes of recovery before doing so again. Twice a week, every week, Richardson repeated this gruelling sequence nine times.

Such demanding preparation is unusual, even in a discipline with an unusual predilection for pain. Hill climbing is a tight community, and Richardson confides that even those at its pinnacle had been shocked by the savagery of such intense efforts in training. The course for the 2020 national championships - an 837-yard ramp rising from the Berkshire village of Streatley - allowed for nothing less.

Hill climbing is as much about managing psychological demands as physical. With her dream of becoming national champion snatched from her by the historic occurrence of a pandemic, Richardson was left to manage an eviscerating sense of disappointment. Support came from Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK.

For many senior leaders of major businesses, the parallels between boardroom performance and elite sport are obvious. A CEO must manage factors beyond their control, as must an elite athlete. For both, pressure is part of the package. Jones, an authoritative voice on leadership philosophies and corporate cultures, called Richardson immediately after she had contacted him with the crushing news.

“I messaged Phil before announcing on social media that I wouldn’t be able to ride in the national championships. He called me straight away and told me that Brother UK supported my decision, so I didn’t feel under any pressure to find a loophole in the regulations, which was a massive weight off my mind,” she says.

“I was really touched. Phil knows a lot about our sport and sport more generally. He’s worked with elite sports psychologists in a business context and was kind enough to share some of their knowledge. We discussed managing the emotions I was likely to experience on the journey through this period of disappointment.”

Side shot of cyclist Rebecca Richardson leaning over her handlebars as she rides past the gate to a driveway of a country house

A new mindset

Managing disappointment is difficult for an individual, but still harder for those who lead teams. Like many sports that seem to depend upon a solo endeavour, at the elite level, performance in a hill climb is the result of a combined effort. The close community that is another of the scene's signatures will allow Richardson and each contributor to her campaign to draw strength from the other.

She received coaching from former pro Liam Holohan and strength and conditioning advice from Brooks Cycles in Welshpool. Her radical ‘string’ wheels were hand-built by small business Zed Wheels, and photographer Tony Wood, whose images have come rapidly to define the scene, researched tyre choices. She is aware that each will share her disappointment.


“Phil knows a lot about our sport and sport more generally. He’s worked with elite sports psychologists in a business context and was kind enough to share some of their knowledge.”


Now, Richardson must establish a new mindset to emerge from the long winter ahead with renewed ambition. She has decided to manage the uncertainty of life in a pandemic by focussing on intrinsic goals, such as raising her functional threshold power, rather than seeking new events in which to test herself against external competition.

For many, 2020 will be a year to forget. Richardson at least has eight victories from 11 races to reflect upon from a campaign in which she was never off the podium. Next year can only offer greater certainty and another opportunity to swap her Brother UK-branded skinsuit for the stripes of national champion.


Images by Anthony R Wood Photography

 

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