Cross-country mountain bike World Champion Evie Richards came into the 2022 Mercedes Benz UCI Cross-country Mountain Bike World Cup season as the in-form rider. Her win in Val di Sole to secure the rainbow jersey in August 2021 was followed up with her first World Cup win in Lenzerheide and a short course/Olympic distance double at the final race of the year in Snowshoe.
2022 will be Richards's Rainbow Year, where she gets to wear the famous World Champion Rainbow jersey at World Cup races. We'll be tracking her progress throughout the 2022 season as she prepares for each UCI World Cup in the rolling blog below, finding out the highs and lows from every race weekend. Read her insights from each round of the World Cup that has taken place so far below, and come back to this page following each race to read more.
The British bike athlete appeared to be unphased by wearing the iconic white and rainbow-striped jersey, and set off for the 2022 World Cup opener in Petrópolis, Brazil, after a well-earned rest and some great pre-season preparation. This was the first UCI World Cup race in Brazil since 2005. As a result, the course was something of an unknown for the majority of the Elite class riders.
“The fans are so passionate,” said Evie. “It felt cool to be part of this real buzz and they were so excited to have us there in their hometown.”
Unfortunately for Richards, she would also have to contend with an upset stomach that had spread its way around some of the teams in the paddock. Even so she managed to start the short track (XCC) race.
“I had been poorly for a day or two beforehand but I thought maybe I was feeling unwell because I was so nervous or something," she said. "When some of the other people in the team were having the same symptoms, I realised it wasn't nerves. I hadn't managed to keep food inside me, I felt super empty and I couldn't have any gels or my usual Red Bull before the start."
Despite racing on empty, she managed to be in contention for the win, battling with Pauline Ferrand Prevot and Laura Stigger on the last lap. She couldn’t hold on to those two though as the race reached its finale, and had to settle for third.
“Coming up that final hill, I could barely pedal and when I sat down to put my dropper down, I was struggling to stand back up because I had no energy inside me," she said. "To be poorly and to still get on the podium was insane. I was so happy but I felt so poorly that, after the race, I just wanted to get back into bed. It was kind of a bittersweet feeling.”
Women's XCC finish – Petrópolis
Find out who won the Women's XCC race at the UCI Cross-Country World Cup opening round in Brazil.
Given her illness, it was no surprise to see Richards pull out of the XCO race.
“To not be able to compete in the first World Cup of the year, especially in the rainbow stripes… I had no tears left to cry that week," she said. "I had cried for the first half the week because I was in so much pain from my back and then I felt so poorly for the second half of the week. I had to put my health first. At least that decision was taken away because I wasn't in a fit state to race.
“I know after last year's disappointment in Albstadt that the season is still long enough to turn it around. I'm not panicking. I'm just going to go, be excited to race and be in the mix with all those girls. I'm not expecting an amazing result but I'm excited to get back on track and feel good on the bike.”
Evie's Rainbow Year: Albstadt
Get Evie Richards's thoughts on how well she did at the Mercedes-Benz UCI Cross-country Mountain Bike World Cup stop in Albstadt, Germany.
The build-up to Albstadt a few weeks later was far from ideal. The stomach bug that stopped the 25-year-old Brit from competing in the XCO race in Petrópolis prevented her from training properly for a few weeks afterwards. She was also managing back pain as she came into the German weekend, and the omens weren’t looking good about racing with it.
“I've had so many back problems since the first race of the season and Albstadt was about feeling good on the bike, and progressing from there," she said. "Long climbs with a bad back are horrible because you're just in one position, so it's super painful. That was like one of the biggest challenges I was worried about."
The XCC race was a fast and furious affair. Richards stayed in contention with the lead group until lap 4 before falling away to finish 19th when the race ended. The result was enough to keep her 5th in the XCC competition but meant she’d be setting off from the third row on Sunday’s Olympic-distance race. Due to her injury, her focus was on finishing, rather than going for the win.
"For the first few laps, my back was feeling so much better," she said. "It's been such a sharp pain – like someone's got knives in your back. Today it just felt achy, which meant I could push the power.”
At one point she sat just outside of the top 10 but then the pain finally became too much and she started to drop back to her final position of 16th. She was happy though with how she performed.
“There was definitely a big improvement and there were little bits of the race where I felt like myself and that makes me excited.
"After Brazil, I was just grumpy at home but I feel like I've got my spark back. I'm excited for Nové Město – my family and my coach are coming, and I love Nové Město as well. I didn't have a good race this year in Albstadt but 16th with back pain is an improvement and sets me up better for the end of the season."
Evie's Rainbow Year: Nové Město
Hear Evie Richards's thoughts on how well she did at the Mercedes-Benz UCI Cross-country Mountain Bike World Cup stop in Nové Město, Czech Republic.
Entering the Nové Mesto World Cup round, just one week on from the previous one in Albstadt, was never going to be easy given her ongoing back pain issues. Nové Mesto is of course the scene where Richards took her first elite-level wins, and where she won back-to-back XCC races during the abridged 2020 season.
“My tactics going into the race were just to be brave, push through everything and be proud to finish," she said. "Although it was pretty tough, I think I did that.”
In the XCC race, Richards seemed to be there or thereabouts and within the mix of the lead group but like in Albstadt a week earlier she faded away, finishing 33rd.
“I was up in the front group but I was struggling... In that sort of race, unless you crash and take everyone down, there's no chance of getting back.”
Her XCC finish meants a fourth-row start for Sunday’s Olympic-distance race. Like in Albstadt the week before, her focus was simply on finishing.
“Normally, I really enjoy the back-to-back World Cups – it's nice to be away with the team for a couple of weeks. But when it's back to back and you're dealing with an issue, it's really hard because you don't have time to fix it in the week between.”
A good start saw her up in the lead group. But by the end of the second full lap, it was clear she was battling her back pain as well as those around her.
"I was really controlled. I didn't want to push too much in that first loop. I moved up super easily and even when I was sitting in that group near the front, I felt really in control. I wasn't really out of breath and I felt really sustainable in that position.
"As soon as my back goes there's nothing I can do really apart from just keep fighting."
A mechanical – a flat rear tyre – punctured any hopes of a top 20 finish, and she crossed the finish line in a respectable 36th.
“I came through the top feed zone and must have [got a puncture] going down that descent. It was a whole half a lap to get to the [next] feed and my back was super bad anyway. It wasn't great, but having a break in the feed whilst they did my puncture gave me time to stretch my back – I don't even know if I would have finished it if I didn't have that time because it relieved the pain a lot.
“I was quite upset after the race. I wouldn't wish my worst enemy to go through the pain that I feel like I'm racing through at the moment.”
It's not fun racing anymore – it's just so painful
Richards now has a four-week break before the next World Cup in Leogang, but her sole focus for the foreseeable future is getting back to full fighting fitness.
“My aim is to get my back better. I've been dealing with this since February and if I can't get it better, it might be that I need to miss Leogang. It's not fun racing anymore – it's just so painful. I’ve just got to get that better and we'll go from there.”
When the rider list was announced for the Austrian leg of this season’s series, it was no surprise that Richards name wasn't there due to her on-going back problems. Although a tough decision, it was clear she was prioritising her health and longevity over anything else.
The call to miss the World Cup wasn’t taken instantly though. After returning home from Nové Mesto, she tried to keep riding – albeit not her normal training – but after two weeks it was clear the back injury was still an issue.
“I just did a couple of weeks steady riding on my bike, which was frustrating because I wasn't resting and with an injury, you don't have time to mentally reset – you're trying to get it better,” says Richards.
Clear that things weren’t progressing, the decision was taken that rather than ploughing on, she needed to focus on getting her back sorted – even if it meant missing a World Cup and so the decision not to go to Leogang was made.
I'll just keep on until someone says stop. Even my parents said ‘you're not racing until this is sorted
“Obviously it's not great for the World Champion not to be at a race but the team just said ‘get yourself better' and I think that's what I needed, I'll just keep on until someone says stop. Even my parents said ‘you're not racing until this is sorted'.”
Help to try and get her back better was sought in British Cycling, cycling sport's national body in Great Britain. They had helped her when she dislocated her knee in 2017, and Richards pent a week with various physiotherapists at British Cycling's base in Manchester, England, to get an assessment of her issues.
“We covered all the bases and started from scratch. I thought they were going to give me loads of treatment, but initially, my back just needed time to settle down. It had got so angry from racing and treatment and being poked and prodded so much that it was just inflamed and needed a break.
“I had to be patient and that's when we were able to start rehabbing to make their muscles stronger to build it back up again.”
Her rehab schedule includes muscle activations before she gets on the bike and has prioritised strengthening her lower back in the gym.
Richards also underwent several bike fit assessments and it was clear her body had been overcompensating for her injury, disrupting her cycling form in the process.
“My body has almost tried to develop a different position to make it less painful and be able to keep power output, but I've adopted a really bad position now as the seasons went on. I’m recorrecting how I'm riding – it's not re-learning how to ride but trying to be aware of holding a better position.”
I haven't had pain now since Nové Mesto and that's a really good thing because I've had pain since February
Now, she has started adding high-intensity efforts back into her riding and her recovery seems to be on track.
“There's a lot more movement in my back but it still feels a lot stiffer and it's not right yet. I haven't had pain now since Nové Mesto and that's a really good thing because I've had pain since February.
“I’m definitely making small steps but I think racing-wise I'm not cured. It's really hard because the injury only occurs when I'm racing, but I don't want to push it because I don't want it to get really bad again. [The physios] said even when I race in three weeks [in Lenzerheide], it's probably going to still be painful.”
The whole episode has been tough for Richards physically, but it has also been difficult for her to deal with it mentally.
If I haven't had a month of clear perfect riding, in my head it’s like 'I haven't done anything'
“I've been through this a lot with my psychologist because I always panic if I miss a day [of training] – I'm like it ‘oh my gosh, it's the end of the world’. My coach keeps reminding me ‘you haven't lost everything’. But if I haven't had a month of clear perfect riding, in my head it’s like 'I haven't done anything'.”
It has made her reassess what’s important as well, and has shifted her ambitions for the season.
“I just really want to get back to a race and feel good. In my head, I'd obviously love to defend the [rainbow] jersey but I think I have to be realistic and concentrate on all my training sessions and do them as well as possible.
“I trained so hard over winter and I just want to show that towards the end of the season. It feels like it's all been a bit wasted, so I just hope I can put together a performance sometime this year that shows how much hard work actually went into my pre-season.
“I've also changed my schedule and I'll be racing the Commonwealth Games [which are being held in the city of Birmingham, England and close to her home of Malvern] and missing the two World Cups in America and Canada. I was full focus on the World Cups but I’ve realised the importance of prioritising the reasons why I got into racing, which were trying to medal at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, and making sure I'm still doing those.
“My grandparents have got tickets and my parents have got flags made and when I said I wasn’t doing it they were honestly in tears! So yeah, I had the change of plan and I'm dead excited to be in front of a home crowd for that.”