Brought up in California, Gardner started honing her climbing pedigree on the Golden State’s sunny climbs. Now based in Cardiff, she has been riding for the CAMS team for several years and made the jump with them to UCI Continental level in 2020.
This year the 21-year-old is cementing her status as one of the country’s best climbers. In June she set new women’s Strava records for Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, putting minutes into the previous fastest times. Her form held strong throughout July and August. She put it to good use, winning two National B road races, and finishing third at Ilkley Cinema Women’s Grand Prix behind winner behind teammate Megan Barker.
This year there were a few weekends off without any races so I decided to just do it and see how it went
She then set a new women’s Everesting record, putting nearly 20 minutes into Emma Pooley’s previous benchmark. It is clear Gardner thrives when the road pitches upwards.
The Ryedale Grasscrete Grand Prix in North Yorkshire features steep gradients and makes for hard, selective racing. It was easy to see why we highlighted her as one to watch at the second round of the women’s National Road Series, just eight days after climbing 8,848 metres in record time.
Gardner didn’t disappoint, escaping with Brother UK – Cycle Team OnForm’s Becky Storrie on the climb out of the Ampleforth Abbey grounds. The pair worked well together for 30 miles, enough to hold off the chasing peloton. On the final ascent to the line, Gardner struck out first to seal her first win at National A level.
We sat down with Illi to talk about her journey so far, Everesting, winning at Ryedale, and her national hill climb ambitions.
How did you get into riding?
I grew up swimming, then did sprint triathlons for a bit when I was a teenager. Now I’ve decided to focus on cycling.
You grew up in the US?
Yeah, I was born in England and then did all my schooling in California. I moved back here in 2017.
So you got into cycling in the States?
Yeah. The scene is completely different. Crits are really big. At local [road] races you wouldn’t get many people. The big stages races are massive but at most of the other races, you would get 20 people. So to come here and do the National Road Series was a massive change.
Was the terrain different where you were in America?
The roads are generally way wider, and there were a lot of long climbs around. But there was a bit of everything in the races. It took some getting used to the narrow lanes here.
How would you describe your riding style?
I’m not the best in bunches. I like climbing and being aggressive. When it comes to sprint finishes, I don’t have a good history.
What is an ideal race for you?
A nice attritional race, where I can get in a small group or breakaway.
How did lockdown go for you?
It was weirdly quite good for me. It was nice not to have to worry about races. I found motivation pretty easy. I was still at uni which was all online, so I had loads of time just to cycle. We thought we might be back racing at the end of the year  so that was a motivator, although it didn’t end up happening. I got quite obsessed with Zwift racing as well. We had the Women’s Tour on RGT which was good to do with the team.
Being in lockdown for so long, I’d got used to doing the same thing every day. It took me a while to get used to normal life again
Motivation wasn’t too difficult. I think it was harder this year when races were starting and we didn’t really know what was going to happen. So it was quite a lot of unknown.
Being in lockdown for so long, I’d got used to doing the same thing every day. It took me a while to get used to normal life again, which also happened at the same time as racing was restarting.
You also did something quite different from normal racing recently. Can you tell us about your Everesting world record?
I didn’t have a date I was planning on doing it. I’ve known about it for years but it got really popular last year but I didn’t think my fitness was there to really attempt it. Then this year there were a few weekends off without any races so I decided to just do it and see how it went.
I loved it but it was also terrible. I like doing hill repeats so found it strangely fun. Mentally there were a few parts that were horrible. I wanted to stop but I’m glad I didn’t.
And you bounced back for the Ryedale Grand Prix?
I wasn’t sure how my legs were going to feel after that but I think they just about recovered in time.
I guess the circuit must have felt pretty flat after that!
Exactly! I’ve done it a few times before. In 2018 I was 5th. But every year there have been small groups that have got away.
I haven’t really been at the sharp end of National Road Series races before so it was a strange experience having to actually think about what to do at the finish
This year I was hoping it would split up and I could stay with whatever split went. It went perfectly. Becky and I got away after an hour or so and worked really well. We both committed to it and managed to hold on.
I haven’t really been at the sharp end of National Road Series races before so it was a strange experience having to actually think about what to do at the finish.
Do you think it is a breakthrough ride for you?
I don’t know about that. But in terms of confidence, it should help a lot going forward.
Do you have any targets for the rest of this year?
The 2021 National Hill Climb Championships take place at Winnatts Pass in the Peak District. It has been the venue for the national hill climb championships on ten previous occasions, although the most recent of these dates back to 1977. This year the championships return to the infamous climb after a long hiatus, and we think it could be one of the hottest competitions in recent years.
Have you ridden Winnats before?
We had a team camp in the spring. Our ride actually went up there. It’s pretty tough.
Do you have any aspirations for the future?
Oh no, I’m not trying to think about the future too much. Things can change really quickly and there’s a lot of uncertainty in cycling in general. I’ve started working recently which I enjoy, so I’m just going to see how things go.
As a climber do you feel there are enough opportunities for you in the UK?
Abroad there are a lot of races that would suit me. But I need to get better at a lot of things as well. My bunch skills, sprints, and flat, fast races. I’ve got a lot to learn.
Featured photo: James York. Illi Gardner after the 2021 Ryedale GP.