23-year-old Hannah Larbalestier has been cycling for most of her life, having started when she was just three years old. Nine years ago she started riding a road bike. Hannah says she started racing seriously last year, but she’s been picking up decent results since her days with High Wycombe CC in 2014, getting her first taste of success that same season with three podium finishes including a win at Round 3 of the Odd Down Summer Series. In 2016, riding for the University of Bath CC, she won three rounds of the Rowe & King Summer Series and also proved her ability in the big road races: 5th at the Bristol South Women’s RR, 6th at the Modbury Spring RR, 4th at the Ilkley Cycle Races and 14th overall at the Manchester 2-Day were just a few highlights among numerous good results.
That brought her to the attention of Sunsport Velo, the team for which she now rides. So far this year, she’s won a round of the Hog With The Occasional Hill series at Redbridge and picked up more impressive results including 4th in both road stages and sixth in the TT at the Holme Valley Wheelers Stage Race (which earned her 6th overall). In addition, she’s been gaining experience in the biggest, toughest and most prestigious UK races of them all, including the National Road Series (Essex Giro, CiCLE Classic, Curlew Cup and the Lincoln GP.
Born in Oxford, she is now based in Sheffield – where she is currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience.
When and how did you first get into cycling? Do you remember your first bike?
My first roadie was a 2nd hand Giant TCR when I was 13, while I was training for a ride from Oxford to Paris, and I just fell in love with it (the bike and the sport!)
I did triathlon for a long time, but eventually realised the only discipline I wanted to train for was cycling! I started racing last year, so I’m still finding my feet and learning where my strengths and weaknesses lie.
Which is your favourite cycling discipline, and what is it about it that appeals to you?
I really enjoy the attritional nature of road racing, however I think I’m more of a crit-monkey. I can corner well, so a technical course where the bunch will split up is ideal. You also can’t beat the atmosphere of a town-centre crit!
And what do you love most about the sport?
I love pushing myself, and the reward of a decent result after a race or from a hard training session. But equally I love the escapism of just getting out on the bike, whether it’s for a quick hour at lunch, or going out for a long weekend ride.
Which bit of your racing kit is most important to you?
My power meter has improved my training so much. I’m a lot more pushed for time this year than last year, so getting quality training sessions in, and having power as a feedback for my coach has really helped.
The coaching that we’re provided with was a big attraction. Most people are excited by the bikes and the kit when joining a team (which definitely help!), but the benefits I’ve made by training smarter far outweigh that. After racing unsupported last year, I’m really appreciating having a team around me at races, both in terms of our team support and having a team within the peloton. Whenever anyone gets a win, it’s great to be able to share that feeling with the whole team.
What should the UCI and British Cycling be doing for women’s cycling?
More media coverage. Men’s racing continues to dominate the cycling media, and until the women’s races get a similar level of attention, they won’t gain the sponsorship to provide riders with the support they need. This is particularly true at a UCI level, where riders deserve a basic living wage, but only a minority actually receives this.
I have mixed feelings about British Cycling. Women’s participation (i.e. number of women with racing licences) has increased dramatically, and BC have claimed that as their own doing (rightly or wrongly). The Breeze initiative is a great way to encourage female participation in cycling, which I applaud. However, at a higher level, there’s far from parity between the men’s and women’s elite peloton. Take the coverage on Eurosport from the recent Tour of the Wolds National Series race: BC’s contract with Eurosport is only to cover the men’s racing, while the women’s race, while being at an equivalent level, received no airtime. This is fairly typical of many media outlets; however, as the UK’s sporting body for cycling, BC should lead by example.
Typically I’ll do an activation session with some hard efforts a couple of days before a race. This is a good way of prepping the legs, but more importantly it gets me ready mentally as it’s good to know I’m hitting the right numbers. The day before a race will generally be very steady, ideally featuring a course recce if possible.
Every cyclist has a bad day once in a while – maybe a race doesn’t go how you hoped, or perhaps your legs just won’t do what you ask them to do. How do you keep motivated and keep coming back for more?
You just need to have the confidence that it’s just a bad day, and to know you can do better next time. Even if a race goes badly, there’s normally something you can take away from it and build upon, so take note of what you can do better, work on it in training, and you’ll come back stronger.
What were your highlights, favourite race and hardest race in 2016?
Favourite race was probably Ilkley Town Centre Races, a crit which is basically a hill climb on repeat, with a really fun descent. The race just got torn apart and was basically a TT, so I was pretty chuffed with 4th place having had no idea where I was positioned throughout.
Hardest race was Manchester 2-day, where I punctured halfway after managing to stick with the lead group over the hill for the first 2 laps. I was given a spare wheel on junior gears and had no hope of catching up on the descent! Either that or doing the Mamnick hill climb while suffering from appendicitis!
I’m pessimistic in that I don’t think women’s cycling will ever reach full parity with men’s racing. But things have improved a lot over the past few years, and will hopefully continue to do so.
Describe your warm-up routine.
I don’t have a set routine. I prefer to get out on the road or circuit if possible, but will get on the rollers if not. Music is good but I’m normally too rushed to think about getting my headphones out!
There are still some people out there who think women’s racing isn’t as interesting or competitive as men’s racing. What would you say to convince them otherwise?
Come to a women’s race and see for yourself! I’d highly recommend getting out to see one of the Matrix Fitness GP series races in May, which are incredible for atmosphere, fast technical racing, and provide a lot more opportunities for viewing than a road race, due to the short lap format.
What are your main aims for the rest of the season?
Obviously a few more wins would be good. I’d love to get some good results at the Matrix Fitness GP series – I’d be pretty ecstatic to manage a top 10.
Note: Hannah completed her answers before the Matrix Series. She took part in and completed Rounds 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8, with a best result of 23rd in Round 2 (which, as anyone who has watched the Series will know, is indeed a good result). Stage 8 featured a team time trial; Sunsport were 8th.
Finally, here’s the keys for the Neutral Service time machine/teleporter – you can use it to go for a ride with anyone in cycling history, past or present. Who’s it going to be?
Beryl Burton. A Yorkshire girl who dominated over 3 decades, from the 50s to the 70s, taking world championship titles across road racing, track, and holding a ridiculous number of domestic time-trialling records – famously beating the men’s British 12h TT record, which went unbeaten for 2 years.
All photos © Chris Meads/Sunsport Velo RT, except Image 5 © John Orbea/Neutral Service