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Racing cyclist, female, red jersey, blue shorts, yellow bike, pained expression, viewed in profile, spectators in background, riding uphill

Mary Wilkinson: Pain Specialist

Mary Wilkinson, a rider with the Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing team, is a former international runner, a formidable hill climber and a specialist in pain.

Testing, testing

“I electrocuted eight people, basically, and asked them how much it hurt.”

Mary Wilkinson (Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing) is a specialist in pain. This is no casual observation of her hill climbing prowess. Rather, it is an accurate description of her academic investigations. Wilkinson’s PhD studies in psychophysiology carried her into extreme territory. Her athletic career has offered a comparable theatre of operations.

Wilkinson is a sports scientist, as well as a rider. Her PhD examined the relationship between blood flow and pain. She has long, personal experience of this seemingly niche subject. As a mountain runner (or ‘fell runner’), she competed internationally. A career-ending injury led her to cycling’s most painful discipline.

“The competitive element of sport has always appealed, but it’s more about being the best that I can be. I want to see how far I can take myself and how far I can push my body and what it can achieve."

The hill climb is cycling’s purest and most brutal test. Competitors race alone from a standing start against the clock. Savage gradients and fanatical, cowbell-ringing supporters add to the spectacle. It’s common to see riders collapse at the finish line. ‘Going deep’ is central to the hill climb’s unique appeal.

 

Brother UK is a trusted partner to British cycle sport. This year, we will sponsor the National Hill Climb Championships. The highly-accomplished Adam Kenway and Rebecca Richardson are Brother-sponsored riders. Few disciplines can match hill climbing’s openness and community spirit. It embodies grassroots sport: accessible and affordable, competitive and demanding.

The National Hill Climb Championships provide an annual focus point. Three times (2017, 2018, 2020), Wilkinson has finished as runner-up. This year, she hopes finally to be crowned British champion. The Peak District’s Winnats Pass will provide a searching examination. Its brutal inclines make it, arguably, hill climbing’s ultimate test.

“Winnats Pass is slightly longer than last year’s course, which falls to my favour, but it’s not too long, and it’s also super steep. It’s going to be hard. For me, the harder the better. Having finished second three times, I’m desperate not to finish second again,” she says, laughing. 

“The competitive element of sport has always appealed, but it’s more about being the best that I can be. I want to see how far I can take myself and how far I can push my body and what it can achieve. From my sports science background, I know how amazing the body is, and I want to use myself as an experiment, almost. Equally, I don’t want to look back and think, ‘What if?’” 

Female racing cyclist, red jersey, blue shorts, yellow bike, riding towards camera

New target, fresh motivation

 
Wilkinson describes her cycling journey as a huge learning curve. Bunch racing, for example, offered the challenge of wheel-to-wheel competition. She quickly recognised road positioning as something more than physical. Racing at high speeds in close proximity demands immense skill. It broadened cycling’s appeal for her from power to technique.
 

Her career as a runner terminated suddenly and without warning. She woke one morning to experience a career-ending foot issue. Despite exhaustive testing by leading experts, the problem remains undiagnosed. She believes the condition is neuromuscular, but cannot be certain. Cycling offered new fields in which to explore her limits.

“Life became so much better when I accepted I wasn’t going to run any more. I thought: ‘Ok. I can deal with this.’ That acceptance came in the moment I set a new target.”

Professionals of any kind suffer loss of identity at retirement. For athletes with short, intense careers, the crisis is magnified. Wilkinson provides an unflinchingly honest assessment of her post-injury struggles. Cycling provided a physical fix: the opportunity to stay fit. Emotional recovery followed only when she identified a new goal.
 
“I’m not going to lie, accepting that my running career had ended was very hard, mentally. Running was a huge part of my life. My entire social group was involved in running. My status was associated with what I’d achieved as a runner. Suddenly, that was taken away,” she reflects. 
 
“I was lucky that I could still push myself on the bike, so cycling filled the physical void. Over time, I grew to love riding my bike. When I started getting friendship groups and riding with people, that helped hugely on the psychological side. It became more like the environment that I was used to, but it took a long time. It took me three years to accept that I wasn’t going to run again.
 
“Life became so much better when I accepted that I wasn’t going to run any more. It was a huge relief. I wasn’t fighting all the time. I was like: ‘Ok. I can deal with this.’ That acceptance came in the moment that I set a new target.”
 
Female racing cyclist, red jersey, blue shorts, yellow bike, side view

An ideal discipline

Wilkinson is an interesting study in elite sport’s physical-emotional intersection. She has examined its physiological requirements and gained a doctorate. Experience has given her first-hand knowledge of its mental demands. Modern, data-driven cycling offers the sports scientist a unique window. When racing, however, Wilkinson the athlete prefers instinct to numbers.

British women’s cycle sport is currently enjoying a golden generation. Young riders are ‘graduating’ to professional teams with impressive speed. Anna Henderson (Jumbo-Visma) is one among many. Sophie Wright (Alé-BTC Ljubljana) also advanced from a Brother UK -sponsored team. Neither Henderson or Wright has yet celebrated her 23rd birthday.

 

“Hill climbing's community spirit and blend of inclusivity and performance mirrors Brother UK's activities as a responsible business with industry-leading standards.”

 
Wilkinson, 40, is honoured to race against the new generation. Maturity, she maintains, brings serenity, calmness and freedom from pressure. Prior accomplishments assure her that she has nothing to prove. Wilkinson’s approach affords pleasure a place alongside performance and pain. Her second British masters title provides evidence of sustained success.
 
Social media posts offer a glimpse of Wilkinson’s softer side. Her Instagram account mixes pain faces with her pet sheep. She still helps on the family farm in North Yorkshire. Sport, however, has been the dominant influence in her life. In the hill climb, she has found her ideal discipline.
 
For Brother UK, hill climbing is an ideal discipline, too. Its community spirit mirrors our activities as a responsible business. Like Brother, hill climbing is inclusive, but intensely performance-focussed, too. And the competitors’ obsessive preparation reflects our own, industry-leading technology. Their machinery, like Brother’s, is optimised for performance and reliability.
 
On October 31, every competitor at the National Hill Climb Championships, and not only Wilkinson, Kenway and Richardson, will find Brother UK at their side. The magnificent Winnats Pass will provide a savagely beautiful setting. The riders, specialists in pain, will face a brutal test. And the surrounding communities will benefit from Brother’s generous sponsorship.
 

Images: Tony Wood Photography

 

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