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How Hannah & Alice Barnes became winners

31 October 2013

Sisters Hannah and Alice Barnes are two of the most exciting riders in the UK. Hannah (20) rides for the MG-Maxifuel team and she leads British Cycling’s rankings after countless wins during 2013. Her victories this year include the National Circuit Race Championship, several rounds of the Tour Series plus overall victory and the sprint jersey, and the IG London Nocturne. Hannah won many National Championship titles as a youth rider and as a junior.

Alice (18) is part of the Olympic Development Programme and also rides for the Scott Contessa – Epic team. She is Britain’s leading junior female mountain biker, the current cross-country MTB National Champion, and she recently finished seventh at the World MTB Championship.

Youth Cycle Sport recently interviewed the sisters along with their parents Simon & Sue. We wanted to know what it was like to have talented, high-achieving youth riders in the family, how they balanced racing with education, and what advice they would give to today’s youth riders and parents.

On cycling as a young family…

Dad (Simon): I used to ride as a kid but I never really got competitive. But when Hannah was about two years old I went mountain biking on holiday at Center Parcs and I got back into it. I got more serious and bought my first decent mountain bike, and I started riding events like the Red Bull 24 Hour. And then the kids started coming cycling too – not really competitively, just having fun.

Mum (Sue): My dad was a very keen cyclist over the years. So, we used to go to a lot of time trials, and he did the Cape Argus Cycle Tour too.

On first steps in racing…

Dad: I was in Phil Corley’s bike shop getting bits and found out about the Trek Youth Challenge that was run by Team Keyne. We went there that same day.

Mum: Yes, around Milton Keynes Bowl. They did a youngsters’ session, and we used to go week after week on Wednesday nights.

When the coaches first said, “Your daughters are good, you know” we said “No – really..?”

Hannah: I was ten, Alice was eight, and our brother Henry was six.

Dad: It was really good fun and the kids loved it. They only had mountain bikes, because we were a mountain bike family. British Cycling started to channel Hannah into track racing. And that’s when it all changed – it became serious and I hardly ever get on a bike myself now!

Hannah: I did loads of sports at school, but each Wednesday was just “cycling day”.

Dad: They were given sweets for when they returned their numbers afterwards – I think that’s what they loved! It was good – they developed skills, did some MTB, and some road work too.

Mum: Then they suggested that we take Hannah along to a national level circuit race. It was in Sunderland, I think.

Dad: And she actually beat them, in fact! It was kind of funny because Hannah and Jon Dibben were both Under 12s, and Hannah could beat him – you can’t imagine that now, can you!?

Hannah: It was the first trophy, so I just carried on riding after that. And then my cousins Emily and David started riding too, and we’d all meet up at races every weekend.

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Speedy sisters

On school and social life…

Hannah: I was quite a quick track athletics sprinter at school. I did loads of sport just to stay busy – all the awards I won at school were for sport! But cycling became the big one, and all the other sports dropped away one-by-one.

Mum: They have a “Hannah Barnes Excellence in Sports” trophy at her school now, in fact. And Hannah has given them a National jersey as well.

Alice: Pretty soon you do have to focus though. So I could never go to school matches – I was training on my bike instead!

Hannah: Mum would send a letter in to primary school saying what I’d been doing, but no one knew really – and I’d die of embarrassment if they saw me in LYCRA! But as I got into secondary school, I was just getting better and better. My head teacher and my PE teacher were very supportive.

Mum: If the girls were doing training camps we’d need to take them out of school. The school was very supportive.

Hannah: It came to the point in IT where friends would Google my name – they thought that was quite cool!

Alice: My friends never completely understood, but as I got older they’d realise I couldn’t go to their parties because I’d be training. It’s quite hard but I enjoy cycling, and it doesn’t bother me much.

Mum: You obviously need to give them constant support, juggling schoolwork and helping them with their training plans. They were never quite as focused on school as much as they were on their cycling!

Hannah: Yes – I didn’t juggle it very well! School took a backseat to cycling really.

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Hannah & Alice had strong school support

On becoming noticed…

Dad: When Hannah was thirteen years old she was definitely blooming good, and when she was a first year Under 16 rider I took her to the elite senior women’s Grand Prix des Dames in Blackpool and she won it, beating some big names of the time. The commentator asked over the PA system “Can the winner come to have her Under 16 gears checked?” Well, by rights, she shouldn’t have been able to spin her legs that fast.

Alice at Bedford 3-Day Stage Race (© Huw Williams Photography)

Alice at Bedford 3-Day Stage Race
(© Huw Williams Photography)

Hannah: I was on the Talent Team by then, though – I was thirteen when I got onto it.

Dad: Yes, Hannah did a Wattbike test and she was flying. At thirteen all the figures (her power, her pedalling speed, her endurance) were the equivalent of a nineteen-year-old’s. So, I think it was just that she was strong from a very early age. Whereas, Alice took longer to become strong – she was getting whipped by everybody for ages!

Alice: I didn’t mind though. I just went to races for the social life really. I got on my bike, did the race, and then go off and have fun. But then, over just one winter, I just trained and trained, and I grew a lot.

Mum: Yes, she grew like you wouldn’t believe… I remember people who already knew her asking “Who’s that?”. She had just shot up and changed totally from a little girl to a young woman.

Dad: I think Al is probably still, physically, equivalent to an Under 16 really, but in two years’ time I think she’ll be as strong as an ox. I’m guessing British Cycling thinks that too, because they think the world of her and her mountain biking.

Hannah only had to turn up and everyone would think “Oh no! I wonder if I can come second today?”. It did just get harder and harder, though. Although this year’s been a little different, Hannah still finds it hard in longer races.

Hannah: The more you’re winning, the better you are, the more you enjoy it. I didn’t really feel any pressure as a youth rider.

But now, after winning a lot this year, if I don’t win everyone thinks “what happened to Hannah today then?”

I didn’t enjoy cycling all of the time. When I was eleven or twelve years old and missing out on kids’ parties it was a bit hard.

On racing abroad…

Hannah: I was sixteen or seventeen when I thought I’d rather do this than sit in an office. The Olympics spoiled it a bit for me, because British Cycling took away the Academy for my year. So that wasn’t ideal, but I just went to race in Holland instead. That’s where I realised how much I actually needed to improve, and what a jump it is from racing here in the UK to racing over there. I don’t think you can prepare yourself for such a big change. The lads can race at Under 23 level first, but women go straight into the highest level of racing

I was lining up against Marianne Vos, for example. It made me think “I’ve got a lot to gain from this”.

It was quite tough – I was nineteen years old and living in a house on my own in a foreign country. It was physically and mentally hard, but it was a great experience, and I learned from it.

After the number of wins I’ve had in the UK this year I’ve had some interest from UCI-registered teams – I’m quite worried because they’d probably expect me to just clear the board in Europe too! But the Smithfield Nocturne was quite a confidence booster.

Alice: I’ve done two World Cups this year, and the European Championships, and I did a few last year too. It’s hard to prepare yourself. In the UK I’d line up with just five or six other juniors and I might be able to win by three or four minutes. Whereas, I’d do a World Cup and there’d be 50 or 60 of us, and my best result has been twelfth. It’s really difficult to prepare yourself. {Ed: Alice has since finished seventh in the World Championships}

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Simon & Sue Barnes give huge support

On aims and motivation…

Hannah: Becoming more professional, having racing as my career. I like knowing that when I go out training it’s for one thing – it’s to win a race. I quite like all the publicity side too – it’s quite nice when we’re being talked about…! I’ve enjoyed it so far and I’m hoping that next year I’ll be racing abroad and getting paid, which would be great.

I think I’m quite good at just rocking up and racing. I prefer not having the pressure.  Like, “Well, if I don’t win this, I’ve got quite a valid excuse.” So, whenever I’ve won I’ve never thought, “Oh, now I’ve made it.”.  I just thought it was another win, so, sort of, a, jersey at the end of it.

I don’t really have any role models. I just go out and just race for myself and to make a name for myself. I don’t know too much about the history of cycling – we only go back as far as Nicole Cooke really. There are quite a few trophies in our cabinet with her name on. Our paths crossed in Holland last year, but I didn’t get to race with her in her prime.

On women’s pro racing…

Hannah: There’s obviously a big difference between women’s and men’s pro racing. When the guys are racing they’re just there for one thing, and one thing only, and are paid loads. Then you get women who are the best of the best like Emma Pooley but who can’t earn anything like what the men earn. I’m not really expecting a massive change soon though, and it’s not all about the money – you’ve got to enjoy it as well.

Dad: If you know how to go around a corner well and you know how to sprint, you can probably win a circuit race. For example, Hannah and I once drove back to the UK through the night after a week’s racing in Holland. With just two hours sleep she still managed to win the National Circuit Race Championship.

It’s like the Smithfield Nocturne. Five years in a row, people have turned up trying to beat Hannah, and we only went there for the first time because a local race was rained off. We thought “well, we’ve got the bikes in the car so we might as well race.” This year the entire Wiggle Honda team were there and when Hannah managed to win the race it propelled Hannah into the spotlight massively. She doubled her Twitter followers in 48 hours!

The sisters are confident about the future of women’s pro racing

The sisters are confident about the future of women’s pro racing

On training and coaching…

Hannah: We’ve probably always had a good capacity for training and recovery. I definitely go better after a really hard block of training. During the Tour Series I was racing three or four days per week.

Alice: Yes, I’m not too bad either. It shows more when you’re on the youth tours like Assen, when you’ve got races day after day – Hannah & I both won Assen in the same year which was quite cool! Some people use recovery drinks and everything else, but we’ve never used them but we can still recover.

Hannah: When I was within British Cycling’s development system I had a coach who would give me a weekly plan. I still stay in touch with her now – she’ll always tell me what to do, and give me advice.

During the racing season it’s not as full-on as in the winter. In the Tour Series you’re racing on Tuesday and Thursday, so you can’t really do that many base miles too, and you’ve got a road race at the weekend too. In the winter, when it gets to New Year’s Day, that’s when I start properly training again. And this year I went to Majorca which certainly improved my fitness ready for the racing season. I’m a lot stronger than I was last year. I did loads of mountain biking over the winter too. So I raced the first round of the British Cross Country MTB series at Sherwood Pines in March and came second. It was a flat course, and it just needed strength.

Over the winter, I just trained a lot more. I went out with groups of men – now they don’t really show me any mercy, and they just put me in the gutter – I can’t just sit on the back now! They make me do my turns, which is good.

Hannah in the Essex Giro (© Huw Williams Photography)

Hannah in the Essex Giro
(© Huw Williams Photography)

Mum: Ian Stannard offered to go out training with Hannah. He was from Team Keyne as well.

Alice: I’ve just finished school this year, because I went on to do A-levels. I was still trying to juggle that, but I also have to juggle the road and mountain biking too, because I do need to do mountain biking during the week. I do my skill sessions and race efforts. I get sent my training by Simon Watts, who’s my coach from the Olympic Development Programme. So, I just do what I’m told to do, which is six days a week. In the past I didn’t train is a structured way like I do now. I would just go out and do some hours, but now I can see how I’m improving.

I’m hoping to get onto the Olympic Development Academy {Ed: Alice is currently on the Olympic Development Programme}. So I’d l go to more races, and it would be more structured training. When you’re on the ODP you get set training, but you don’t do it with your coach. So, if I go on to the Academy, I might be taken out behind a car with my coach, for example, and it would be more structured. So it would help develop me more.

There are definitely places in the UK where you can develop the technical side of MTB. It’s difficult to do that living in Towcester, but when I go on training camps I get a lot of chances to practice my technical skills.

On influential people…

Hannah: Andrew Paine and Jamie Scott, who put the MG-Maxifuel team together. I’m on the phone to them nearly every day. It’s a good team, and they’ve put a lot of hard work into it. I try to do well for Andrew, Jamie and the team. They have a passion for the sport and they do anything they can to help me.

On how the sport is developing…

Hannah: The growth of the women’s sport is obvious – at every race there are people on the start line that you’ve never heard of. The bunches are getting bigger and bigger. You have to get your entries in quite quickly now, which never used to be the case in women’s racing.

Alice: The growth in youth racing is obvious too – we went to Milton Keynes the other day and there were loads more Under 16s. Qualifying heats are needed now, because the courses can’t take the large numbers of kids who are entering. It’s all improving, a lot.

Dad: It’s quite rare you see the national champion’s jersey in youth racing, because you don’t often win it as a first year in your age category. If you see a kid wearing the jersey, then you know they’ve done it a year early, which is usually quite good.

Mum: You could open Cycling Weekly a few years ago and rarely see a woman’s face in there, but now, they are much better represented. For example, Jo Rowsell has a weekly column. People are just more interested now. The racing itself has become more interesting too.

Hannah: The women’s Olympic road race was a fantastic showcase too. People still talk about it now. It was so dramatic as well – the general public couldn’t believe that they raced in that sort of weather!

The quality of riders in women’s road races isn’t always very high so there tend to be more crashes, but it will get better. Many women’s races are open to all categories – from Elite riders to 4th Cats who might never have raced before, and it’s a bit of a shock for them. They might not be used to dealing with riding in a group.

Dad: This is where cycling clubs play such an important role, because experienced members teach newcomers not to “half wheel”, not to overlap, and to give all the right riding signals.

I used to go out with Hannah and Alice and we’d zing wheels, grab their shoulders and pull them backwards, and have a right old time. As a result, they’re quite happy riding very close, bumping handlebars.

Alice: There are people that can’t do that. They can panic and slam their brakes on so everyone piles into them. And they won’t learn easily, because they’re not the ones who crash – it’s everyone behind them!

Dad: Gravel rash is part of a steep learning curve, isn’t it?

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Simon helped the girls develop their bike handling when they were young

On equipment for youth riders…

Dad: Parents should take care not to get caught up in an “arms race” of having the best bike and the best wheels. That doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day, because good riders can win races on cheap bikes anyway.

Alice at Dave Peck Memorial RR (© Huw Williams Photography)

Alice at Dave Peck Memorial RR
(© Huw Williams Photography)

Mum: It’s an expensive sport, but you can make savings. Hannah and Alice always shared a single time trial bike. They only did a few time trials so it wasn’t worth spending thousands of pounds. When they did a time trial we’d phone the organiser and ask if the girls could have quite a long gap between their start times.

Alice: Some kids say “Oh, Mum, I need this, I need that” and they’re just hoping that the kit will make them better – rather than training to get better.

Dad: Hannah used an aluminium framed bike for five years, and then Al took it on for the next two years. If it fits you right and it’s well-maintained then you’re 95% there, aren’t you?

Hannah: Obviously, you wouldn’t race on a £99 Apollo, but you don’t need to be excessive. Otherwise, you might have the best kit but…

Dad: You might run out of excuses why you didn’t win a race, and suddenly it’s “Oh, Christ! It was me that let the thing down!”, and that must hurt.

On advice for youth riders…

Hannah: Alice’s experience shows that if you’re not winning, it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you’re rubbish. You’re just at a different stage in your life, and you just need to bide your time.

You should learn to take it if you lose races. There are youths and juniors who rarely lose a race, and then they can’t take it when they don’t win. That can get them in the head and mess them up.

Don’t get het up worrying about being on British Cycling’s talent development programmes, because you can be successful by yourself too.

Some people freak out if they think they’re not on British Cycling’s radar. But there are so many people based abroad right now on foreign teams. I’ve got loads of friends living in Belgium and France who love it. They haven’t all been with British Cycling.

Mum: They need to know that if they’re not selected, they mustn’t give up. It’s not the “be all and end all” if British Cycling doesn’t pick you for the Talent Team or Olympic Development Squad. Just persevere. Hannah wasn’t selected during the first year of ODP.

Hannah: And that was the best year I ever had – it’s not always as much fun when you’re on the system, really, because all your school holidays might be spent inside a velodrome! I got to go out and have fun. So, you’ve just got to keep going.

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Hannah & Alice have clear views on talent development pathways

A lot of people have just said “No, I don’t want to go on Academy at all” and they’ve gone out and done their own thing successfully.

Alice: It’s true. A friend wasn’t selected for the Talent Team but she’s on target for the Youth Olympics. British Cycling doesn’t forget about you completely – they still, obviously, monitor people racing. You can still get opportunities if you carry on with what you’re doing.

Dad: You know, all the way through their youth years, you think each race is so important. You go to every round of a series because you think that series is so important. But, you know, parents just need to chill out and let life go on. In the bigger scheme of things every race isn’t vital. In a way, even Hannah’s twenty or so national jerseys as a youth still mean little. Because suddenly – bang! – they’re in the elite ranks, and then it’s a completely different ballgame…

Hannah winning Westminster GP (© Huw Williams Photography)

Hannah winning Westminster GP (© Huw Williams Photography)

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How Hannah & Alice Barnes became winners

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