If you watched or saw any coverage of the National Road Series last year you’ll have no doubt seen a light blue-and-black flash lighting up the front of the race. That was Robyn Clay, riding solo for Otley CC and not afraid to mix it at the front despite only being in her second year of racing; and her first as an Under-23.
Coming from a family of racers – Dad Jonny needs little introduction, a medallist on the track at the World Championships and at the Commonwealth Games – you’d have assumed Clay would have been riding and competing since an early age, but that wasn’t the case. It was the world championships in Harrogate in 2019 that reignited her desire to compete.
She explains: “I’ve been cycling since I was three. I used to do grass track up until maybe age seven-ish and I never got old enough to go onto a fixed wheel. Then I stopped doing that and I didn’t really ride my bike much at all – maybe once a month. I used to go on my bike while my Dad would go on a run, that sort of thing.
Stuff like the world champs in Harrogate are so important in inspiring people to race. I don’t know how eager I’d have been if I hadn’t been to a race like that
“It was around when the world champs were in Harrogate. My dad was working there, so I was going to watch and I think I’d already been riding my bike maybe once a week at that point and then that sort of kickstarted it. I just like was like, wow, this is so cool. So I just wanted to get into it and give a race a go and see how it went.
“I think stuff like the world champs in Harrogate are so important for inspiring people to race. I don’t know how eager I’d have been if I hadn’t been to a race like that.”
Her first competitive road race was the Yorkshire Region Road Race Test Event in May 2021, where she finished 15th. She followed that with a win at the Albarosa Friday Night Adult Race Series later that month, before an incredibly impressive 8th overall at the Fensham Howes – MAS Design Junior Women Tour of Yorkshire, behind riders such Zoe Bäckstedt, Millie Couzens, Flora Perkins and Maddie Leech.
For someone who hasn’t been competing for long, Clay isn’t shy on mixing it at the sharp-end with riders – and teammates – with plenty more experience as she looks to continue testing herself and building up her racing legs.
Indeed, one of her most notable races of last year – a long stint off the front at the Lancaster Grand Prix – came about by being in the right place at the right time, and by accident.
“It’s funny, at Lancaster I actually went off the front by accident because we were coming down a descent and I think I took it fairly well. Then one of the girls, or two of the girls behind me, one of them didn’t know that there was a bend coming, they went straight on. I think it threw everyone off a little bit so I had a little bit of a gap,” Clay said.
“I was like, well, I’ve got a gap now so I’ll just go hard. So, I went hard and then I was just hoping that at least one other person would try and get across, but it just didn’t happen. It came to a point where I was like, I’m sat out here, I’m not a climber, and they’re definitely gaining on me so I just ended up deciding to sit up. I had a bit of advice from my Dad as well at the side of the road just because it’s never happened to me before!”
Her form last season, which garnered multiple top 10s and top 20s at the National Road Series and National Circuit Series, was made more remarkable by the fact that Clay effectively missed the opening chunk of the season. That’s because Clay was focused instead on taking her A-Levels, which clashed with early-season races including the CiCLE Classic.
Despite that late start, there was time to build up a strong palmarès, with a fruitful first trip to the continent and a series of races in Belgium where she could test her mettle against some of the rising stars of the international peloton.
Clay adds: “I did a few races in Belgium, I won a race, I came sixth and then there was the last race. It was a kermesse and then the top 20 in the kermesse did an elimination race. I came third in the kermesse and then I won the elimination race.
“But the race in Belgium I was most proud of was coming sixth in the first race [Heusdenkoers]. I think it’s because the field was stronger. It had some great riders; Fem van Empel won that race and I was like really chuffed with sixth. There were three up the road and then the bunch sprint. Looking at the results, there was like 50 of us in the bunch sprint and I just played it right. I’d been struggling with placing for sprints and it was something to work on and that was one of the first times it sunk in and it went well.”
While being in the mix with the likes of Fem van Empel, the reigning cyclocross world champion, is definitely a highlight, Clay pegs a different race as the proudest in her career so far. Her choice is one that The British Continental flagged her performance in back in 2021, and came despite battling bike issues for the majority of the race.
I think one I’m most proud of was the national crit champs in Lincoln. I went and I was really expecting to get dropped in the first few laps. It was the biggest race I’d ever done
“I think one I’m most proud of was the national crit champs in Lincoln. I went and I was really expecting to get dropped in the first few laps. It was the biggest race I’d ever done,” Clay says.
“On the third lap, maybe, my chain came off on the cobbles and then I think I damaged it and I ended up with a kink in the chain and for the rest of the race, my bike was broken. My gears were jumping all the time. So that definitely made it harder. But I think it made me want to go harder. I ended up getting back on and then stayed in the group, and I was just so happy with that result because, yeah, like I said, I thought I was just going to get dropped.”
That seventh in Lincoln – against a high quality field – was one of many results that Clay has built up as a solo rider. Now, still just 19, she’s heading into 2023 as part of Pro-Noctis – Heidi Kjeldsen – 200 Degrees Coffee, and is looking forward to continuing her development in a team stocked with talented riders.
Not that it’s a completely new environment for her, she was supported by the team informally last season when she competed in the national championships and at the Manx International stage race, where she finished seventh overall.
I spent a bit of time with them last season, which helped me in my decision to join the team because I got to know them and saw how they worked together. That definitely helped me pick which team to go with
Clay said: “I spent a bit of time with them last season, which helped me in my decision to join the team because I got to know them and saw how they worked together. That definitely helped me pick which team to go with. I’ve been to Calpe with some of my team-mates already and then we’ve got a team camp coming up at the end of this month. We’ve also been to Wales for a few days. So yeah, we’ve had time to like sort of gel together a bit more and see how everyone works and stuff like that.
“I just remember when I went to Scotland with them for national champs and I really enjoyed it. It’s just so different staying with a team than staying with your Dad! You just hear a lot more about the racing going on and like those guys have done those races before and they’ve just got a lot of insight.”
That insight is great for Clay, as she joins up with team-mates including former national circuit race champion Jo Tindley and the vastly experienced Amy Gornall to continue her development – not that she has any specific targets for this season, over and above maintaining her upward progression and hopefully taking even more decent results.
I want to keep improving all the time, whether that is physically or just tactically or just in any department, I’d like to develop and get better
“I want to keep improving all the time, whether that is physically or just tactically or just in any department, I’d like to develop and get better,” she said.
“I’ve been working quite hard training over winter, so I should be stronger, hopefully, but we’ll just see, Yeah, I just want to keep getting better. Some wins and podiums would be nice. But I think women’s racing is getting stronger and stronger and I think there’s so many strong women that I’m racing against that it’s just getting harder, so we’ll see how I go.
“I think anyone can say take it a year at a time, and that is how I’m taking it. But of course, it’d would be amazing if I could one day be riding on a WorldTour team or something like that. But it’s such a big step now. But if you take little steps, you might get there. So hopefully one day I’ll be getting paid to do this and just have it as my job. But we’ll see.”
Featured image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com 2022 National Road Series – Manx Telecom International Stage Race. Isle of Man Stage 3 Time Trial – Robyn Clay of Otley CC.