The toughest climbs of the Peak district with Keira McVitty
We visited the Peak District with ex-racer-turned-YouTuber Keira McVitty, finding out about the ups and downs of her career so far and why the Peaks is a special place
The Peak District is not an easy place to ride. The roads are constantly undulating, the climbs are steep and unforgiving. Narrow descents offer little respite as concentration levels must be kept high, especially in the worst of the British weather. It was August, but it felt like we experienced all four seasons during our five-hour ride. The sun would pop out, but a few miles down the lane it was hailing with a brutal headwind.
“Coming down one of the descents my back wheel locked up and I went straight on,” ex-racer-turned-YouTuber Keira McVitty tells me, huddled in a blanket, home and dry after schlepping some of the UK’s steepest bergs in biblical weather. “I just aqua-planed basically, there was so much water on one corner that I couldn't turn.”
Okay, maybe we’re being a little bit dramatic, but we did end the ride pretty soggy, albeit euphoric at completing the challenging route that had us slightly terrified at the beginning of the day. It was planned by The Service Course, a cycling café and bike emporium based in the Cheshire town of Wilmslow. Their local knowledge ensured we were given the truest of introductions to the nearby roads and famed climbs.
Even in driving rain, the area redeems itself with the breathtaking scenery. Landscapes are wide and vast, with moorlands stretching as far as the eye can see, only disrupted by clusters of quaint villages laced with cobbled streets and homely cafés. It’s a nice reward for the slog to the top of each climb – as the name would suggest, there’s a fair few in the Peak District.
We were slapped with the first, only four miles into the route, leaving little time to socialise with our riding companions. Longstone Edge Pass was a 6.9 per cent leg-stinger, but it was simply an amuse-bouche for what lay ahead. With the route nearing 2,000 metres of climbing over 66 miles, we had a tough day in store.
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Perhaps the most arduous part of all was the infamous Winnats Pass. With slopes averaging 12 per cent, but with a maximum of a mindblowing 28 per cent, the road is sandwiched ominously between two high cliff faces. It’s the sort of climb that you look up to with your heart in your mouth, feeling both dread and excitement. The views are spectacular, but Keira and I didn’t get much time to enjoy them as we grinded it in our easiest gears, virtually at walking pace.
“You get cars behind you and they start revving their engine and you're like, come on, I can't go any faster,” she says, still proud to have made it to the summit of such an ascent.
And Keira is rightly pleased to have finished our ride that day, as by her own admission, she’s an “unfit YouTuber” now, with little time to train for big endurance rides. She’s been there and done that, though, riding for UCI Continental Team WNT (now Ceratizit WNT Pro Cycling), for two years in her previous life. Racing for them in 2016 was a well-deserved break for the British rider after a difficult time in the junior ranks, narrowly missing selection for the GB Cycling Team.
“It's hard, especially when you're younger and you can't get it in perspective, when cycling is everything. I'd given everything when I was 15 to achieve what I achieved,” she says. Keira experienced a period of depression and a challenging few years following her non-selection.
Much like the Peak District, Keira’s journey through the sport has been one of ups and downs. When the door closed on a chance to ride with Team GB, an opportunity with WNT arrived. Riding for the team, which was then based in Sheffield, Keira had one of her most successful seasons ever. “I got some UCI points and I was getting in the mix in these bigger races. I felt like: okay, I'm here again. I've made it to a point where maybe I can see professional cycling as a career,” she explains.
It was during this period that she began her exploits on YouTube, using the online platform to share her journey as a female cyclist: “I remember having this conversation with my mum, saying that ‘I'm racing as a professional, but no one can see my races. I'm busting my arse and no one sees it and it's not important,’” she explains. Forced to accept that she couldn’t change the face of women’s cycling single handedly, Keira focused on what she could control: sharing her own narrative.
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With behind the scenes videos of her races and training camps, she gave fresh insight into life as a professional athlete and found that she had a talent for making videos, as well as an honest and confident way of talking to the camera. Her sincere post-race debriefs and truthful depictions of the highs and lows that come with attempting a sporting career have no doubt helped her amass an impressive 30,000-strong subscriber base and social media following.
But things went downhill for the British rider when she suffered from severe anaemia when riding for WNT in 2017 due to chronic overtraining. The grit and determination that Keira showed when riding over the Peak District’s climbs also had a part in causing her illness. She rode through it, rather than resting, because she was so fixated on doing well in races. “I gave everything I had to try to make it as a pro, but I didn't have the right guidance,” she says. “If I say I'm going to do it, I’m going to do it, but that was sort of my problem here.”
After heading to Belgium the following year to ride for an amateur team, Keira reveals that she began to fall out of love with the professional racing scene. “I think in a lot of ways, my heart wasn't in it,” she says. She recalls a race in the UK which was stopped due to a major crash. “We were sitting in a ditch and I just thought, for me, this is not worth it.”
Her passion for the sport wasn’t lost though, with cycling being an intrinsic part of Keira’s identity from a young age. It’s the sort of attachment that made her commit to riding 70 miles in the Peak District, despite later admitting that she hadn’t ridden more than an hour since May. “There is always a way to make it work. That's the thing. I think you should never let fear stop you doing something,” she says.
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“Throughout all my life experiences, I suppose I've worked out that you have to trust your gut, keep going and work hard. If everything got destroyed tomorrow, it wouldn't matter, because I still have my work ethic.”
She has gone on to create the perfect life for herself, travelling all over the world and sharing it with people through a medium she enjoys. Despite having applied for more secure, full-time employment in the past, Keira explains that having a regimented routine simply doesn’t suit her. “I think my soul would die,” she says.
Perhaps this was why her ambitions to become a professional bike rider didn’t quite come off in the end. The strict training regimes and repetitive nature of the job wasn’t what she was looking for as someone with a taste for adventure and a love of the unknown.
Keira finally felt like she had found her place when she experienced the Red Hook crit scene for the first time in 2017. While she was used to being part of a team, wearing sponsor-clad matching outfits with her colleagues, the relaxed nature of fixed-gear races offered a chance to show her colourful personality. “There was a lot of creativity,” she says. “The kits were always super wacky; everything was just a bit mental. I was definitely drawn to the idea that you could just express yourself how you wanted.”
Vowing never to conform to societal pressures or let fear stop her building the life she wants for herself, her plans for the future are almost as foggy as the view at the top of Mam Tor, but Keira has faith things will all work out.
There have certainly been tough climbs so far, and there’s likely to be more Winnats Pass-esque struggles that Keira will need to overcome as her career develops both on and off the bike in the future. She has faith, though, that the reward of reaching the top will be worth it. “Honestly, I’ll just be chasing making cool shit happen forever,” she says.
Keira's Wilier 0 SL
Wilier Triestina’s 0 SL is a striking piece of cycling machinery. It shares its DNA with the top-of-the-range 0 SLR ridden in the WorldTour by Team Astana-Premier Tech, standing out as a jewel amongst a sea of black bikes. There’s far more to the 0 SL than a pretty face, though.
Descended from the Italian brand’s famous line of ultra-light climbers, the Wilier Zero 7 and Zero 6, the 0 SL frame comes in at a supremely low weight of 780g for a size medium. It’s no wonder that Keira made this her steed of choice on the savage inclines of the Peaks.
In true Italian racer tradition, the 0 SL still has a racey long-and-low geometry well-suited to a rider like Keira, who has spent long hours in the peloton. But Wilier also offers custom handlebar spacers to add more height for those who prefer a more leisurely set-up.
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Despite the feathery weight of the bike, Wilier boasts far greater stiffness-to-weight than any of its Zero series frames (a 24 per cent improvement, to be specific). That stiffness was palpable for Keira when it came to handling and turn of speed. The 0 SL frame is accompanied by a Campagnolo Chorus groupset, making for perfectly smooth shifting on the rare occasions Keira was out of her easiest gear. Campagnolo’s hydraulic disc brakes proved a must-have for the wet descents and twisty, narrow lanes of the Peaks.
With completely concealed cabling and aerodynamically-optimised wide-set forks, the 0 SL is nimble on the flats and downhills too, all while being surprisingly comfortable. “It’s just a great all-rounder, really,” says Keira.
Above all, its handsome looks are what made Keira fall for her Wilier 0 SL. The striking metallic silver alongside blue accents is a unique combination that works, especially for someone who likes to stand out from the crowd. Frankly, we wouldn’t expect anything other than stylish from an Italian bike manufacturer. Bellissimo!