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Man on a mission: Alex Richardson interview, part 2

Defending Lincoln Grand Prix champion on his difficult to start to 2018, his comeback win at Lincoln, his views on weight management in cycling and his prospects of defending his Lincoln crown

2018 Lincoln Grand Prix champion Alex Richardson has shown already this season he is a rider on top form. In March he won the Omloop het Waasland (a highly-regarded pro kermesse in Belgium), and he followed that with victory in the Arno Wallaard Memorial (UCI 1.2) in April. And thanks to 6th place last weekend at the Ronde van Overijssel (UCI 1.2), he retains his lead of the Holland Cup with just one race remaining.

Unsurprisingly, Richardson has been touted as one of the favourites to win the Lincoln Grand Prix once again. Rewind a year, however, and his circumstances were very different. Far from being one of the most in-form riders in the domestic peloton, he was starting Lincoln as an independent rider, with little racing under and unsure of his form.

I was having such a bad relationship with the sport at the time, through the pressure I was putting on myself; I just needed to step away

Things looked bright for Richardson at the beginning of 2018. He’d joined a new team, One Pro Cycling, and he had a solid winter of training behind him. But from there, things began to unravel.

A self-declared cycling obsessive, he’d taken his weight management a step too far. A DEXA scan revealed he had less than 4% body fat, a situation which had led him to lose control of basic bodily functions. Experts warned him that he urgently needed to put weight back on. Finding himself in a dark place both physically and mentally, and deciding he needed a break from the sport, he quit the team.

He very quickly realised that he missed cycling however. And without the pressures of having to report to, and ride for, a team, he was back on the bike within five days, rediscovering what he loved about cycling. And then, just a 2 months later, riding as an independent rider, he stormed to a surprise victory at Lincoln.

In this second part of a three-part interview, we discuss Richardson’s difficult to start to 2018, his comeback win at Lincoln, his views on weight loss in cycling and his prospects of defending his Lincoln title.

Catch up with Part 1 of this interview here.

Alex Richardson. Photo: Hugh McManus / Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes

A lot has changed for you over the last year. Just a year and two months ago you left One Pro Cycling. What led you to leaving the team?  

Leaving One Pro was very much a personal decision. I was having such a bad relationship with the sport at the time, through the pressure I was putting on myself; I just needed to step away. I didn’t want to have to update people on how I was feeling. I just wanted completely out, and to learn to enjoy the sport again. It’s my only real hobby or passion and didn’t want to lose something I love doing.

Since then I’ve really learned to enjoy it, and if things don’t go my way I always just take a step back and say, “listen, I’m so happy to have the opportunities that I have, and the current platform I have.” All I can do is be grateful for that and enjoy it going forward, and to date that’s worked, and it’s clearly reaped the results.

And it was your health issues, the weight loss, that led to that decision?

Yes, it was the whole obsession thing: trying to be better and better. One aspect of that is getting lighter. And the weight loss had physical and mental consequences for me. There are things that are happening in the body that start to make you feel bad. Your body is giving you sensations that are not making you feel good because it’s deprived, so that has a knock-on impact on your mind. It’s a subconscious, constant feeling of feeling bad, all because of your obsession to try and better yourself as an athlete in terms of performance.

I now have a group of people around me that are very positive, that will go with me wherever I go, and they’re constant

13/05/2018 – HSBC UK Spring Cup Series – Lincoln Grand Prix – Alex Richardson wins the Lincoln GP. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

When we spoke previously, you freely say that you’re obsessed by cycling. It’s your overriding passion. Do you think that there’s ever a danger that that obsession could lead you somewhere that’s not particularly healthy again?

Absolutely, I never say never. But what I will say is that now I have a group of people around me that are very positive, that will go with me wherever I go, and they’re constant. My coach, Steve Benton, for example. Having these close people around you, they always encourage you and keep you on track, and help you enjoy the sport. And having been there and learned a lot about myself, I’ve learned how to manage those emotions and step back if I’m thinking too much about cycling all the time. I think there’s a highly reduced risk, but yeah, it’s easy when it’s going well. I never say never, basically.

So, you reached this point which you described to me before as ‘rock-bottom’. You were in a very bad place. Your body fat was less than 4%, and when you went for your DEXA scan they warned you that you were dangerously thin. Your bodily functions weren’t working properly. Was it a joint decision by you and the team at the time to take a step back?

Not at all by the team. The team simply said to me, “you need to put on a bit of weight and have a good few weeks of eating” basically. Completely my decision, absolutely nothing to do with One Pro. One Pro never told me to do anything like that. They’re very clever people, they’ve dealt with this kind of thing over, and over again, so they’re very good at managing that. It was completely me and where I was at the time.

So, it was your decision to leave. Was it also your decision to return to the sport as an independent afterwards?

It was. Initially I just wanted completely out of it. But it literally took me four or five days to get back training when I didn’t have that pressure of not having to report back to anyone, or not feeling like I’m doing it for someone else. It took me four or five days to realise, actually, “I want to ride my bike, that’s what I enjoy doing.” It’s amazing how it almost changes overnight. But then, the longer you’re in the sport, the more confident you get, the better you become at dealing with pressure.

This year we’ve had plenty of pressure put on us in races, but you learn how to manage it, and it’s about being rational and confident in your ability, and analysing the different variables that go into performance. Just because you didn’t win, it doesn’t mean you performed badly. You may have had a puncture, you may have had a mechanical, you have missed a move. It doesn’t mean you can’t push the pedals hard on that day. There’s just so many elements of cycling, but if you know you can perform then that’s all you need to reassure yourself.

I was waving and shouting and smiling at the kids from the break, shouting their names and they loved it … and I thought, “oh right, bugger it, I’ll make a thing of this. I’m feeling all right.”

So very quickly you were back on the bike after leaving One Pro. And after a few weeks you decided to enter yourself into the Lincoln Grand Prix. Without much racing in your legs, how you were feeling ahead of that race?

I went to the Lincoln Grand Prix and I said to my wife and the kids, “listen, I have no idea what’s going to happen in this race, why don’t you guys come down and watch the race, and maybe I’ll do two hours out of the four and then we’ll go for lunch after. So, just come and enjoy it. It’s a great event and we’ll take it from there.”

Anyway, it just so happened I was in the break, and I was waving and shouting and smiling at the kids from the break, shouting their names and they loved it, and that egged me on a bit further. And I thought, “oh right, bugger it, I’ll make a thing of this. I’m feeling all right.”

13/05/2018 – HSBC UK Spring Cup Series – Lincoln Grand Prix – Alex Richardson
Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

So, you obviously didn’t have any expectations going into the race then, about winning?

Zero, absolutely zero. Apart from the fact that I knew that I had trained very hard over the winter. Now, going into any race, I have a very good understanding and expectation of my level and the level I’m competing against, so I can manage my expectations accordingly, given the terrain. But, certainly at that point, this time last year, I didn’t really know what the level was, even on the domestic level, because I’d never really raced any National A road races in the UK. I’d done Leicester two years before in my first year of riding, and I came eleventh there. That was actually my first official National A, and Lincoln was my second!

I knew I could perform at a high level because I had done so in Belgium towards the end of the season of my second year. I was top-tenning in pro kermesses, so I knew I wasn’t shit, as it were. But, here’s the thing, in the UK people didn’t see that. The UK’s a massive bubble in my opinion, in terms of if you do a few good rides, even at national B level, everyone thinks you’re a hero, but it’s just not reality.

In any bike race an athlete’s constantly monitoring the feedback that the body is giving, and you know whether you’re within yourself or whether you’re out of your depth

So you were happily riding in the break. Did you know at the time that you were on a good day? Could you sense that as the race evolved?

Yes, I think in any bike race an athlete’s constantly monitoring the feedback that the body is giving, and you know whether you’re within yourself, how far you’re within yourself, or whether you’re out of your depth, and certainly on that day I felt very much within myself. And also, it’s all very well feeling like that after an hour or two, but after three hours when there’s an hour left in the bike race and you’re feeling pretty good, and you can see other people are suffering, that’s when you know you can get serious now.

And it was great because there was no expectation as well. Now certainly, when I do this year, after three hours I’m expected to be. I’m expected to be in those final ten riders, and I’m sure I will be provided there’s no bad luck, crashing, mechanicals, et cetera. It’s a bike race so anything can happen, but yeah, you’re expected to be there, and I expect myself to be there in the last five riders. Until I get there then I haven’t done my job properly, as it were. But, I’m also at a point in the sport where I’ve got enough results so far under my belt this year that I’m not going to get itchy feet for a while.

13/05/2018 – HSBC UK Spring Cup Series – Lincoln Grand Prix – Alex Richardson wins the Lincoln GP. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

You ended up winning that race solo. It’s normally a selective race. Can we expect another solo move? How do you expect it to go this season?

I think this year I’m planning on sitting back and having a little bit more of a passive role in the race.

There’ll be a breakaway early on, and as a team we will decide the make-up of that break, and who ideally is allowed in that break. Fortunately with the squad we have, we have the ability to control a race if we’re not happy with the breakaway, or any other moves that go up the road, and certainly from there we can race accordingly.

And the reality is, I would say all of our riders could win Lincoln. All of them can win, so it’s no good looking at two or three of us. Our opponents need to look at every rider, because all of us could win that race. We’re in a really strong position, which takes the pressure off as well.

And will you be eyeing up the startlist, marking out which riders are your key rivals?  

Yeah, so at Lincoln I’ll look through the start sheet and I’ll have my eye on probably five or six riders that I won’t let go up the road without one of us in there.

That’s very different to how you were riding last year, where you were independent, where it was all down to you. You couldn’t rely on team tactics to help you. On the other hand, you didn’t have to ride for anyone else either…

Yeah, exactly. Certainly in the bigger races you massively benefit from having a team. And that’s partly because you don’t actually have to beat your own teammate! Because arguably they’re some of the hardest people to beat in the race. If Rory wins and I don’t, then that’s great, or if Tennant wins and I don’t, or Stewart wins and I don’t, then that’s great. And if I go up the road for example, they’re going to be completely neutral because I’m on the same team as them, so it makes it a whole lot easier that I don’t have to beat some of the best people in the UK.

So, from that perspective, it’s a massive weight off the shoulders for any of us in the team, because certainly, if Alex Paton goes up the road, he’s not got to beat me, Rory, Stewart, Tennant, and the rest of the guys anymore. Hennessy as well. I’m not beating Hennessy in a sprint, but I won’t have to!

I don’t count calories and get obsessed about it if I’m 200 calories over or under for the day.

Alex Richardson. Photo: Hugh McManus / Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes

And going back to the weight issues you experienced. Is that something you’ve come across with other riders as well. Is that a prevalent issue in cycling do you think?

It is. The riders that have been doing the sport longer are much better, and have probably been through similar things themselves, so they’re a lot better at managing it. The reality is, is that if you’re not carrying noticeably bad weight, certainly in our climate, then it’s not really something that needs to be addressed. If you’re riding other races, stage races with climbing in them, yeah, it’s something that’s more important.

But now I’m, in terms of performing and racing, I’m racing at one of the lightest weights I’ve ever raced at, but that’s purely because I’m happy. I live how I want to live, and that means following a mediterranean diet. I enjoy that way of living. I don’t count calories and get obsessed about it if I’m 200 calories over or under for the day.

Are you quite strict about what you put in your body though?

The relationship now that I have with food is that I fuel for my training, and I eat in a way that I deem healthy and makes me feel good. Even independent of cycling, I want to live in a way that’s healthy, and a way that makes me feel good.

I don’t enjoy eating rubbish food, it’s not something that makes me feel good. And if you don’t do that, of course you’re going to have relatively low body fat all the time which is great for cycling ultimately. But I’m not doing it for that reason. I eat in a way that makes me feel good as a person.

Part 3 of our interview with Alex will be published next week.

Featured photo: Alex Whitehead / SWPix.com