Evie Richards was not even born when Roger Hammond won the world junior cyclo-cross title in 1992, but in 2016 – in the inaugural women’s under-23 race at the ‘cross worlds – the Malvern-born ace became the first Brit since then to pull on the rainbow bands as a CX world champion.
Richards was a relative latecomer to cycling, taking up the sport initially as a means to work on her fitness as a county-level hockey player.
But her talent was such, that success soon followed – buoyed by British Cycling’s talent-spotters picking her up for a place on the Academy.
Richards made her mountain-bike World Championship debut in 2014 and followed up with a silver medal in the junior cross-country event a year later, before she added cyclo-cross success to her palmares – winning the under-23 world title in her first overseas ‘cross race.
After claiming bronze in the same event last year, 20-year-old Richards will now bid to reclaim her rainbow jersey. She arrives in Valkenburg for this weekend's race (Saturday February 3) buoyed by her first senior success, when she led home a British one-two ahead of Nikki Brammeier at the Namur World Cup in December.
For the latest instalment of RCUK’s Next Big Thing Q&A series, we caught up with Richards to learn more about her rise to the top, and her ambitions for the future.
RoadCyclingUK: How did you first get into cycling?
Evie Richards: I always dreamt of going to the Olympics when I was younger, and at secondary school I did every sport and tried to get to county level. I’d been doing hockey quite a lot, and had progressed to county level, and they told me to take another sport up for fitness. I was already doing almost every sport under the sun at this point, and cycling was one of the only ones I didn’t do.
"I’d always been really nervous about individual sports. It was a fear of failing – I hated losing. But Dad and I used to go riding on our own, so there was no pressure, and it just progressed from there"
My Dad had a ride-to-work scheme which meant he had a road bike, and I thought it would be a good way to spend a bit of time with him – he didn’t really enjoy watching hockey, and I could always see him across the pitch looking bored stiff. Shortly after that, I got a weekend job at a farm shop and that was quite a long way out. To drive there would have been a bit of a faff, so I bought a ‘cross bike and would ride there with my Dad, he’d drop me off and carry on riding.
Then it just went from there. I’d always been really nervous about individual sports. It was a fear of failing – I hated losing, and I managed to skive a lot of sports days at school. But Dad and I used to go riding on our own, so there was no pressure, and it just progressed from there.
So how did you progress from riding for fitness and work, to riding competitively?
I did a couple of events when I was younger – there was one [mountain-bike event] Tracy Moseley did and I remember doing that and I was still thinking, ‘I won’t do it, I hate it’. That was quite a while before hockey and everything, but then of course I got back into it and my Dad entered me into a couple of events.
I was the only girl, so I was just going round on my own and I loved it. Then he entered me into the inter-regionals, and to be honest I was just horrendous, but there was one race that I led out and I think some people from British Cycling saw something in me and I just got swept up from that.
I did the National Series while I was still playing hockey and working at Waitrose, and I just saw it as something that was fun to do at the weekend and then I got selected for the World Championships in Norway that year.
I remember getting out of the shower and finding out I’d been selected and I was really excited, but for me I just had no idea of the scale of it – I was just going away to Norway for a cycling event and that was exciting.
But I went there and once I’d got that level of support, that was it then – as soon as I came back I stopped hockey and I really cracked on with riding then.
Why was it mountain biking you initially chose to focus on?
For me, it’s almost the safety of it. When I go out the road, my Mum hates it and my Dad as well. But I can go out, straight from my back door and onto the hills with my mountain bike and I’m never more than an hour away from my house. Mountain biking was just perfect for me.
How did you make the transition to cyclo-cross then?
I moved onto the Academy as a mountain biker and moved up to Manchester, and it was just something to keep me training well over winter. It was quite hard moving to Manchester – I didn’t know many people – but I was doing cyclo-cross racing at the weekend and it was nice to see some friendly faces.
It wasn’t a conscious switch, but I just wanted to do something exciting over the winter; it allowed me to socialise and also do some really good training.
How easy is it to combine your training for both disciplines?
For me, I just live on my mountain bike. When I’m at home I mostly go out and ride my mountain bike. I’ll occasionally touch my road bike, and the same with my ‘cross bike, but I do all my training on the mountain bike.
"If it gets too muddy for my mountain bike, I’ll jump off and try and run up with it on my back. I consciously think about it, but I don’t do any specific ‘cross training like others do"
I just try and make a conscious effort to build up my cyclo-cross technique over the winter – if I see a muddy puddle, I’ll try to ride through it because I think ‘oh I should practice that’ but I don’t do any specific ‘cross training.
Similarly, if it gets too muddy for my mountain bike, I’ll jump off and try and run up with it on my back. I consciously think about it, but I don’t do any conscious ‘cross training like others do.
You’ve mentioned [former downhill world champion] Tracy Moseley already, how big an impact did it have to be living nearby?
I’m so lucky to have both Tracy Moseley and [former Commonwealth Games MTB champion] Liam Killeen live near to me. When I’m at home, Liam runs a turbo session on a Tuesday night, and Tracy will take a ‘cross session with Liam on the Thursday, then we’ll go out on a road ride with Liam at the weekend.
I’m just very lucky to have two amazing role models nearby, and they give so much of their time as well. I’m very lucky to have them, and I’m sure if I’d said I wanted to go to road they’d have helped me anyway, but as it is we do a lot of riding together.
Who were your cycling inspirations?
I was never part of a cycling family growing up, so I never looked at cycling and thought “oh my gosh, they’re my hero" but I think Tracy and Liam - having them to help me train, and the amount of time they put back into the sport - they are definitely my cycling heroes.
So who had the biggest impact on your career?
It’s probably my parents - my Dad playing taxi and taking me, well, everywhere all over the world almost. When I’m home he’s the one washing my bike in the rain. And Mum’s my absolute rock for everything - so I’m just very lucky to have them both.
What impact did joining the British Cycling Academy have on how you viewed cycling? When did it go from a hobby to a potential career?
That’s been especially the case this year, now that I’ve signed for Trek. I feel like it’s a proper job now.
Normally when I’m off I have lots of plans, but now I’ve realised it’s my job - I need to rest on my rest days - so I’ve been really lucky to have been through the Academy [to progress to this stage].
I struggled the first few years, living in Manchester, but this year we’ve got it spot on. I’m at home a lot, training in the areas I like, and we’ve just got the balance perfect. My coach Simon Watts has been so great in helping me to get the balance between Academy life and home life - it’s been so good, and I’m really lucky to be a part of it.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from British Cycling?
I think it’s probably organisation. I’m a bit of a random, scatty person and it’s just the little things you get taught when you’re part of the development programme: labelling the kit; being ten minutes early; having a pre-packed race bag in the car. Just all the little bits I had never even processed before I got on.
Why did you choose to sign with Trek?
Trek have always been amazing at helping me, back to when I rode for T-Mo - Tracy’s team - they’ve always been in the background. When I first got a ‘cross bike they gave me a discount on it, and when I won the world champs that was on two borrowed bikes from Trek.
They’ve always just been there, supporting from the sidelines almost. Last year, I wasn’t old enough to progress [to Trek] with the way the Academy is run. I was with Trek at the World Cups, and they did my bikes, but I was mainly with the Academy. This year, I feel like it was definitely time for me to step up. It was really a good time to make it a career.
How important has the introduction of the women’s under-23 category been in helping you to embrace cyclo-cross?
It’s such an amazing step. When I won in Zolder, in the first women’s under-23 race, I don’t think I’d have been selected to race had the category not existed. I’d only raced a couple of local races, and if that under-23 race hadn’t been there I honestly don’t think I’d have that opportunity.
You look at Harriet Harnden as well, who rides for my club. She’s a rising star at the moment - she’s only a junior, and she wouldn’t have had that step before racing against the elite women.
You say you wouldn’t have raced at the 2016 'cross worlds in Zolder had there not been an under-23 level, so what were your expectations before the race?
I really, honestly, had no expectations. I was a bit clueless going into it. I normally get very nervous but I was very laid back - in my own little world before the race.
I’d had a hard winter and I wasn’t enjoying my riding as much as I wanted to, so I just wanted to show everyone how much work I’d put into the winter training. I just wanted to really do a strong race.
I had no idea where I was [in the race]. When I watched it back, as I overtook the leaders I didn’t even slow down because I was so convinced there were more girls ahead of me.
Then when I came to the start/finishing straight I heard I was leading, and I didn’t even think about bunching down with the girls behind me. I was riding faster than those girls, so I just thought ‘this is just one effort, like Liam does with us, and that’s it – race over’ and I won. I was just focused on the training I do at home. I didn’t even think about the girls behind me, as bad as it sounds.
How big an impact did that win have on your career?
That night I was back with my Mum and Dad in the caravan they had rented and just went to bed like normal because it hadn’t really sunk in.
I didn’t have WiFi or phone signal, so it was only the next day when I saw all my messages and the response that I realised how big it was.
It gave me a lot of confidence, too. I’m normally not very confident when I’m racing - but, even now, I’m still thinking to myself, I won that race before so I can win it again.
How was the following season, riding as world champion?
I remember just going to my first National Trophy in Abergavenny, and there wasn’t a huge amount of people racing but I’ve never been so scared before on the startline.
I knew what the pressure was of wearing that jersey, and how badly people wanted me to go well, so I trained really hard over winter.
I tried something different, with more gym work, and put on a lot of muscle and it just didn’t work out. We’d said to try it out well before the Olympics and after the  world champs we realised that wasn’t the way forward with me.
"I’ve never been so scared before on the start line. I knew what the pressure was of wearing that jersey"
And yet I still got third place at last year’s World Championships. I’d put so much pressure on myself but actually looking back I’ve realised it wasn’t the end of the world.
And something obviously worked out, because this year you won your first senior World Cup race in Namur...
I think with Namur this year, it was similar to the world champs. I’d had knee problems all year, and it gave way again on the Wednesday before the race. I was going to book a flight home and get my knee scanned and all that but then the next day came round and it was feeling much better.
So, for me just to even turn up on the startline I was so pleased because my family had come out to watch. Whereas I’m normally really nervous, I just wasn’t – I was waving to my family, singing, and really just happy and I just wanted to do a good race for them.
Normally when I’m at the back, if I don’t get to the front I panic but I was just so calm. When I overtook the girls at the front I was riding at high speed, but I was comfortable so I just carried on.
What impact did that Namur win have? Has it changed your plans for the season?
I definitely needed that result to up my confidence a bit. I don’t normally get ill, but I had those problems with my knee, then I did get ill and it just felt like a never-ending cycle of training and then being ill. Just to get the result and see that, though I hadn’t been on my bike much, the training I had done (I’d been running a lot, for example) had been working - that was reassuring for me.
It was too late in the year to go fully cross-focused, however. The Commonwealth Games is still the big thing I’m working towards this year [on mtb]. The ‘cross worlds have always been a big goal, but the Commie Games as well and the mountain bike world champs, too. I have three big targets for this year and that’s not changed.
You have mentioned the ‘cross worlds being a big target, but were you ever tempted to try and get a ride in the elite category?
Ha, I was always going to do the under-23 race. I would really love to get that jersey back, and to my mind I don’t stand a chance of doing that in the elite race.
I’ll step up and race against the elite women when I’m at that age, but at the moment I feel like I’m still learning a lot on the ‘cross bike. I really honestly don’t feel like I’m ready to step up yet.
Which of your results so far has been the most important to you?
I think when I raced in Zolder, it was just amazing because I didn’t expect it at all. But there’s also the first medal I won in Andorra in the mountain biking, which was amazing too. All my family were there, my grandparents were there – I think there were 25 of them there to watch me and to get a medal in front of all of them was just perfect.
It was nice for them to be able to come and watch me, and nice to achieve a medal in front of them all – especially my first World Championship medal.
You say you are working towards the Commonwealth Games this year, but will you be taking stock afterwards? What does the future hold?
I think my view has always been the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, and I’ve always wanted to represent my country so badly. I couldn’t watch the Olympics some years because I just wanted to be there so much!
Obviously the Commonwealth Games are this year, and the Olympics in Tokyo are 2020, but I do want to do a full ‘cross season as well so I have to look at where I can fit that in.
I want to go back to Zolder, and I want to race on New Year’s Day [GP Sven Nys], and to go out to America and do Cross Vegas – that’s something I’ve really wanted to do since I won at the World Championships.
Is now a great time to be involved in cyclo-cross, given its growing popularity?
I think just even having the national champs on TV - and the number who tuned in to watch - shows it’s such a growing sport.
Even just the little ‘cross races I’ve been doing this winter, there are so many families there racing. I definitely think it’s a good cycling sport to get into – it’s a short race to do at the weekend, and it’s definitely a growing sport at the moment.
"If I was to win an Olympic medal, that would be my dream come true"
And finally, if you could choose any race to win in future, which would it be?
It would have to be one at the Olympics. If ‘cross ever got to the Olympics, or if it were mountain bike, or even road – if I was to win an Olympic medal, that would be my dream come true.