Evie Richards, Britain’s first elite women’s mountain bike cross-country world champion and a Commonwealth champion in the same discipline, has revealed the physical and mental costs of reaching such heights.
“After leaving school at 16 to join the British Cycling Academy and focus on becoming a professional rider, my periods stopped,” Richards said in a wide-ranging BBC (opens in new tab) feature story. “In the following five years I only had three menstrual cycles, because I was over-training and not eating properly or enough.
“When I spoke to doctors I was told that losing your period was very common as a professional female athlete, and it was nothing out of the norm or something to worry about.”
In the years since, Richards learned that this is a symptom of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (Red-S), a condition that can affect men and women caused by insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure, according to a study released by the British Medical Journal. It can cause adverse effects to many parts of the body including the menstrual cycle, bone health, and cardiovascular health.
In an attempt to mould herself into a more traditional ‘climber’ physique, Richards also became obsessed with her weight.
“No-one ever told me that was unhealthy, apart from my mum. I remember one time when I came home having won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia and she just said I looked like a bag of bones,” Richards said.
“I was always told I wasn’t built to be a climber, and thought people were probably right – but that just made me more competitive and obsessed with my weight to ensure I would be seen as being ‘small’ enough.
“That only stopped when I began putting work into changing my mindset, and my fuelling. When I became world champion, I showed everyone that I don’t need to be thin to be fast up the hills.”
By sharing her story, Richards hopes to set a good example for young aspiring female cyclists, teaching them to fuel properly and avoid eating disorders.
“I see some of the athletes I race against posting their weights on social media and it makes me angry because it is literally breaking some young girl’s heart – she will see that and chase after being that thin on the scales, like I did,” she said.
“I want to see lots of girls start cycling but more importantly I want lots of happy athletes and it doesn’t help when you see some people racing who look so ill. You race better when you’re happy and healthy.”
‘I was obsessed with riding and winning’
Richards traces her love of sport and competition back to her childhood when, determined to reach the Olympics, she played basketball, rounders and hockey before discovering cycling.
Shortly afterwards, Richards was selected for the British Cycling Academy in Manchester and rode in her first World Championships in Norway, aged 16.
“I remember…thinking my life was incredible. I just wanted to do this forever. After I moved to Manchester and joined the Academy, that feeling changed,” she said.
“I was obsessed with riding and winning, but at the same time I lost any enjoyment from getting on my bike.”
There, Richards said, she distanced herself from her friends to maximise her training time, and put increasing amount of pressure on herself to justify the sacrifices she had made to become a professional cyclist.
“My anxiety about getting the results I wanted meant I would be physically sick before races, and during them. There were lots of times where I didn’t even finish because I got myself so ill,” she added.
“That just made me even more worried about racing, because it felt like I had cut off my social life and achieved almost nothing from it.”
Since receiving the right support and advice including from a psychologist, Rich Hampson, and a nutritionist, Renee McGregor, Richards says that her mindset has changed.
“We realised that the only time I wasn’t sick at races was when I was racing cyclo-cross, because that was the discipline where I didn’t put any pressure on myself, and the one that reminded me the most of riding back at home in Malvern when I was little and falling in love with the sport. I’ve not been sick before a race since.
“My periods have started again now,” she added. “When they stopped, my first reaction had been ‘that’s great – it’s less of an inconvenience when you are racing’. But now I know much more about my body, and how bad it is not to have your period – and how, by staying healthy, you’ll get the best out of yourself.”
After achieving a lifelong goal by competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games where she finished seventh, Richards won the rainbow jersey at the Mountain Bike World Championships in Val di Sole, Italy.
Her year in the rainbow bands, however, has been marred by an lower back injury and she lined up on the start line for the Commonwealth Games with little competition under her belt.
“It was my first race this year with no pain and no tears… and I won, in front of all my friends and family, which felt very special,” she said.
“I’m in a better place to handle injuries and anything else now. I’m back living close to where I grew up, riding where I used to with my dad and the boys from my village.
“I love it and if you are enjoying what you do life is so much better, and your race results are too.”