“It was just so magical: the landscapes, the rock formations, the vastness, the emptiness, the sense of just being completely alone in this wild landscape,” says Lizzy Banks of a memorable ride through the mountains of north-eastern Greece that she describes as one of “the most incredible” of her life. But as envy-inducing as the scenery sounds, the ride itself holds a deeper significance for Banks; it was on this trip that she was able to fall back in love with cycling.
“It was actually just after I’d recovered from my concussion…I wanted - and needed to - just get lost in riding my bike, to completely forget about the outside world and forget about everything else,” explains the 31-year-old EF Education–Tibco–SVB rider. “Everything, all of the pain of the last year kind of just left my body and got absorbed into the mountains somewhere,” she says with a sigh.
It’s fair to say that Banks is due some good luck. Having suffered a concussion after a crash at last year’s Strade Bianche and missing the rest of the 2021 season while recovering, Banks then tested positive Covid-19 in February, a day before her first race of this year. It was, as she puts it: “unbelievable timing.” Having spent six weeks getting back to what she thought was normal and starting racing again, Banks was delivered another blow when she began experiencing chest pains. She was diagnosed with pericarditis (inflammation of the lining around the heart) and when we speak, it’s been around five months since she’s been out on her bike. It’s something she, understandably, finds difficult to speak about.
“At the moment I’m not able to explore [by bike], unfortunately…and that’s a challenge,” she says of her new home just outside Geneva. She pauses, taking a moment to find the right words: “To be in such a beautiful place where everything is about the outdoors, adventure and exploring, and not being able to do that is really, really hard.”
“But, having said that, I know that when I’m back on my bike I’m going to have so much fun,” she adds, her face lighting up at the prospect. There’s a 7km climb outside her front door and she keenly reels off a long list of the numerous places nearby waiting to be explored. “Being here, it’s like the world is my oyster. Honestly, there is so, so much: walking, mountain biking, riding, wild swimming,” she enthuses. “I can see Mont Blanc from my house…I can’t wait to get stuck in.”
Image: Getty/Sean Robinson
It’s this desire to explore and take on new challenges that brought Banks, in a roundabout way, into the world of professional cycling. “Out of the blue, I suggested to my husband - and we didn’t ride at all - that we should fly to Dubrovnik and cycle to Venice,” she shares. “We kind of had a plan: we knew we needed to get to one point from another and we knew we had two and a half weeks to do it…we had a map, our panniers and a tent…[but] we had no idea about fuelling; we’d drink beer and eat pizza and put lots of salt on it to try and rehydrate ourselves…we were just completely underprepared.” Despite this though, she was struck by how much she saw on that first bikepacking trip in 2014: “Every day the landscape changed and every day we saw something completely different.”
After that first foray into cycling (albeit, 700 miles+ over two and a half weeks), Banks got a road bike and entered a hill climb. “I decided I wanted to start racing and the rest is history,” she says with a grin. “That [trip] was the first adventure that gave me a taste of what cycling really had to offer and where you could really go.”
As well as nurturing a strong desire to explore near and far herself, Banks is also passionate about encouraging others to get outdoors, experience new roads and explore their local area. “You don’t need to go miles away…you don’t need to go on crazy bikepacking trips. All you’ve got to do is just go and see something different where you live. Just look for the places you haven’t been and then you'll see all of these amazing things that you'd never noticed before." During the pandemic, she challenged herself to try different roads, lanes and paths, to the point that she now claims to know pretty much every inch of tarmac in her home town of Sheffield.
Image: Luc Claessen/Getty
Having collated a series of cycling collections for Komoot during her role as an ambassador for the navigation app, Banks is, of course, a dab hand at creating routes, but it also quickly becomes clear during our chat that she also just simply loves sharing recommendations and hidden gems. Pictures from previous rides, links to routes and a list of cycling destinations are pinged my way as the interview progresses.
Another great example of this is the series of cycling routes she recently mapped for friend and professional cyclist, Franzi Koch when she was in Sheffield for a few days. Dubbed the ‘Tour de Franzi’, the three endurance routes, each starting in Sheffield town centre, take in some of Banks favourite rides. “Good routes should always be shared,” writes Banks in the description.
In this same vein, another Komoot collection that she's been busy working on encompasses the lesser-known routes of Valencia - a place where Banks has spent a lot of time riding her bike - and which she is eager to introduce other riders to. “It’s an area where loads of cyclists go but I don’t think it’s that easy to find good resources about where to ride,” she explains. “If you search online, you’ll be able to find the real tourist hotspots but you might not be able to find the hidden gems, secret climbs and the places that are stunningly beautiful, but there’s no one else there…that’s what I wanted to be able to show people.”
A personal favourite of the nine routes for Banks is the ‘secret’ Col de Ratti climb. “The Col de Ratti is such a well-known climb - everybody goes there - but so few people know about the secret climb,” she says. “You are right above the busiest place in terms of cycling in the area, but there’s nobody there. You get to the top and there’s just the most stunning view back down towards the coast.”
She may enjoy plotting a good route, but Banks has also learned the importance of balancing a well-prepared route with the space and freedom that opens up a path to new adventures. “I don’t really like to go from A to B,” she explains. “I think that was the mistake that I used to make when I went for a bike ride. I used to think [that] I have to be on the way to somewhere, and it has to go back in a circle or a straight line. I realised that the less straight I made the line or circular the circle, the better the route became.”
For now, the cycling routes of he new home in France wait patiently, but you can be sure that once Banks is back on her bike, she’ll have a hell of a lot of recommendations to offer up.
Cover image: Gruber Images