Last-minute panic and keeping positive – Evie Richards on her Olympic debut
After finishing 7th in the Tokyo Olympics, the British rider has returned home and is able to reflect on a whirlwind experience in Japan
Evie Richards describes her hometown as like “something out of a film.” She explains that she knows the milkman and postman and waves to them as she heads out training each morning. People wind down their windows and shout encouragement as she rides hard on her local roads. She tells me that these people have been on her whirlwind journey to the Tokyo Olympics with her, and for that, “I’ll always be grateful,” she says.
Richards has inspired her whole neighbourhood with her Olympic debut, becoming a celebrity in her small town. She explains: “When I came home my mum said: ‘I'm exhausted, Evie, I have to put my lipstick on every day to go out now.'” In fact, the 24-year-old mountain biker still has those pinch-me moments herself, discussing how racing in the Olympics has long since been a dream for her.
“I'm so happy I got selected and I was so happy to be there,” she says. Richards looks back on her performance satisfied, despite initially hoping for more than her eventual 7th place. “I do feel like that course suited me and I felt like on the day, I probably just didn't handle myself as well as maybe I should have,” she explains.
After finishing third in the UCI XCO World Cup in Les Gets earlier in the year, it’s unsurprising that Richards may have hoped to be closer to a medal. External factors made the Olympic MTB race a tough one for the British rider, though, with unpredictable weather and course changes adding to the already high stress of the day.
“I don't think many people knew what it was like watching from home, but the race was nearly delayed because there was a hurricane coming in,” she explains. Luckily, it passed by and the riders were left with heavy rain instead, something that didn't deter Richards. In fact, she says she was excited by the prospect – given her upbringing in the UK, a country which has its fair share of downfalls, she excels in muddier conditions.
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“But then when I decided to jump on course in the morning, they had changed a lot of the course which has never happened at a World Cup,” she says. “They'd shut every A-line and they put the ramp in the jump. I think that just really threw me. It's almost like being a gymnast and then being told all you need to change your routine on the day.”
Richards is a rider who prefers to control all that she can, she describes her usual meticulous pre-race routine, which involves stretching, watching GoPro footage and drawing out each line she plans to take in her notebook. “The morning of my race, I can close my eyes and write down every line I'm going to hit, every rock I'm going to hit,” she says.
“When you get on the course and it's different, I think it just completely threw everything for me,” she explains. “I had to learn new lines and only had 40 minutes to do it.” Richards acknowledges that all of the athletes shared this predicament, but she notes that, for her personally, it has always been imperative that she knows all she can about the course. “I was pleased with seventh because of everything that happened,” she says. “But I think maybe I could have done better if it was a different day. I would have liked to do better.”
Despite being critical of her Olympic performance personally, Richards’ race was impressive to all of us watching at home. She finished the first lap in 2nd position after a blistering start. “That was my plan, I knew because of the conditions people would be pushing and running, if you're at the back then you will be off your bike and you'll lose even more time,” she says. “So I was pleased I managed to get a good start but I probably paid for it a little.”
Richards’ ability to examine every aspect of her performance in such detail is something that has surely helped her achieve such impressive palmares in her short career so far. A two-time U23 cyclo-cross world champion, she is no stranger to the top step of the podium. Looking at her consistent results, it would be easy to assume that she hasn’t faced challenges of her own, but Richards explains that she had to make some big changes in recent years to rediscover her happiness on two wheels.
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“I genuinely don't think I would have gone to the Olympics in 2020. The additional year was the best thing ever,” she says. “I made some changes during lockdown, I wanted to change how my programme was done. Now I've got two coaches who are amazing and I have a great psychologist and a nutritionist, we work amazingly as a team.”
“When I first went to the Olympic course in 2019, I basically looked at it and cried,” she says. “I was like: I will never be able to ride this.” Fast forward to 2021, however, and Richards was nailing every line, riding with supreme confidence. “I was just really proud. I think that showed how much I'd achieved.”
The process of getting selected for the Olympics was a journey for Richards, too. A notably friendly and approachable character, she describes internal rivalries within the GB team for the one Olympic place as difficult to handle. “I feel like it is really stressful. There's a criteria, but it's very, very vague,” she says. “It's very competitive within your country.” A strong start to the season took the pressure off the young British rider, but she explains that the last World Cups leading up to the Olympics were especially nerve-wracking. “I want to be friends with everyone but then there was this weird competition. It felt really odd,” she says.
Taking that singular spot surely added to the pressure for Richards when she made it to the race, and she explains that dealing with pre-race nerves is something she’s had to spend time tackling. “Normally, when I’m away with Trek [Factory Racing, Richards’ trade team], I like to arrive super early,” she says. “But with the Olympics there is course practice at a specific time. So I arrived and got straight on course and then everything was very rushed there.”
She describes the moments leading up the race as a blur, with panic over changing tyres and frantic phone calls to her coaches in the UK. “When I called my coach, he was like right, calm down, like take a few breaths, it's fine,” she says. These encouraging words helped Richards relax ahead of the biggest race of her career. She tells me that she had Sophie Ellis Baxtor’s 'Murder on the Dancefloor' blasting through her headphones as she warmed up on the rollers.
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“By the time I was on my rollers, I was chilled and excited to race,” she says. “At the time when it was a little bit frantic before, I was pretty nervous and quite shaky, but I managed to calm it down. I think that's how I had a good start because I was quite calm.”
Dealing with the mental challenges racing brings has been almost equally as difficult as the physical side of things for Richards. She explains that towards the beginning of her career, she struggled with balancing her racing and other aspects of her life, leading to eventually feeling unhappy even if she got the results she wanted. “I remember I won my second World Champs, I was just like: it doesn't really mean anything, I'm not really happy,” she says. “Now, I might not be a World Champion but I'm the happiest person ever.”
She tells me that through her Instagram, she hopes to share a positive message with young riders. “I just want to show that you don't need to be really serious and how important it is to have other things in your life,” she says. “I love riding a bike more than ever and I really think it's important to show younger riders that you can see friends and do cool things, and you can still ride your bike fast at the same time.”
With her positive attitude and optimistic mindset, Richards feels more prepared than ever for what lies ahead. It’s a good job, too, as she’s got plenty of racing coming up including the MTB World Championships and two World Cups, before heading full-speed into the cyclo-cross season. Could a World Championship medal be on the cards for the young British talent in a few weeks time?
“I don't really feel like I'm very confident,” she says. “I have a lot of boys as friends and they're like, oh, I'm going to smash this. I'm definitely going to win. I think no matter how hard I train, I never think that,” she says. “I'm just really excited to race and be away with the team.” Richards' next race will be the MTB World Cup in Val di Sole, which will be broadcast live on Red Bull TV from the 26th-29th August.Richards is a Red Bull sponsored athlete
Events like the World Championships are simply stepping stones for Richards towards her bigger goal that looms on the horizon: Paris 2024. “Winning Olympic Gold is the ultimate dream,” she says. “Paris, for me, has always been like the real big one that I would want to do well in,” she says.
With Tokyo 2020 hindered slightly by covid-19 restrictions (“We were eating behind a PVC film with plastic gloves and things like that. It doesn't really feel normal when you're eating breakfast”), Paris could well be an even better Olympic experience for Richards.
“I feel like I've done the Olympics and I know what it is like. I've got everything in place now to go full steam ahead for Paris.”