The U23 Women’s race at the 2018 World Championships was Evie Richards’ to lose. The young British rider won the inaugural 2016 title and came into this year’s race as the favorite after winning the World Cup at Namur and finishing on the podium at Hoogerheide.
Richards won in Valkenburg-Limburg with an impressive rip and run through the Cauberg mud, but it was another young British rider who stole the show.
Harriet Harnden, a 16-year old from Malvern, England, quickly attached to Richards wheel and rode in second for much of the race before finishing fourth overall. Harnden’s ride caught the attention of the cyclocross world and left fans wanting to learn more about the young British cycling star.
Preparing For Success
Although only 16, Harnden acquitted herself against fields with riders twice her age this season. She raced in the Elite races at several of Britain’s HSBC National Trophy Series events, lining up against—and sometimes beating—riders such as Bethany Crumpton, Ffion James, Hannah Payton and others.
Harnden not only raced against those fields, she also reached the podium. She finished second in the October race in Derby and then won a month later at Shrewsbury.
Harnden also got to race against the world’s best women racers across the English Channel in Belgium. She raced at Essen and Druivencross and then did three Kerstperiode races. Her top finish was a 12th at the muddy GP Sven Nys, where she finished ahead of former world champions Thalita de Jong and Marianne Vos.
“Racing against the Elite Women definitely gave me more confidence and allowed me to understand cyclocross further and appreciated what they do more,” she said about her Elite experiences.
An Unforgettable Day at Worlds
Despite her Elite success, Harnden did not know what to expect in the U23 race at the World Championships. She finished 19th at the European Championships in Tabor in her one outing racing for a jersey with her age peers.
She can, perhaps, be forgiven for being surprised by her incredible ride on the Cauberg.
“I still haven’t found the words that quite describe it,” she said. “How I rode at Worlds shocked me more than anyone; it certainly was not what I was expecting against such a strong field of women.”
Looking back on the race, Harnden was equal parts wide-eyed and introspective about what her performance means for the future.
Part of her focus was on things she can improve. “There were plenty of mistakes I made, but looking back, even if I could change things, I wouldn’t. It was a really eye-opener, I learned so much. Not just the mistakes, but also where I have improved over the past season.”
She continued, “Mostly I was hoping to gain lots of experience from the race, but also from those with much more knowledge. I had set myself the target of trying to finish in the top 20, but that seemed very ambitious. To finish fourth was unreal.”
Finishing fourth at Worlds is a big deal for any rider, so Harnden is forgiven being a little awestruck after accomplishing the feat at age 16 in her first race at the World Championships. “I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. It’s one I’ll never forget. Just to be there was a dream come true.”
Malvern, located in west-central England at the foot of the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is home to several top-level British mountain bikers. Richards is also a native of Malvern and downhill and enduro legend Tracy Moseley was also born there.
Like many children, Harnden hopped on a bike at an early age. After joining a local cycling club, her love of the sport grew from there. “My parents weren’t really into cycling, but I joined the local cycling club, Malvern Cycle Sports, when I was nine and was encouraged to regularly ride my bike. I have been racing nearly 5 years after starting at the age of 12 when I was encouraged to have a go at my first race.”
Sharing a hometown with Richards has provided Harnden with a great learning experience. “Evie is hugely knowledgeable and being able to talk to her and go round parts of the courses with her really helped to see things differently. I learned a lot about how important it is to make sure you’re comfortable and having your own little way of doing things rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing.”
Harnden also got a first-hand learning experience at the World Championships. “When I was just behind Evie I’d never felt so out of my depth, like I was watching the race rather than actually in it. I knew how strong she was and that she could just ride away from me but it did feel particularly special to be behind such a phenomenal rider.”
Similar to U.S. U23 National Champion Christopher Blevins, cyclocross is not Harnden’s primary discipline. She started as a mountain biker and added cyclocross for some extra late-season training.
“The cyclocross started as just some winter training, but seems to have really helped with my bunny hopping and learning how the bike acts in different conditions,” she said. “Cyclocross has also helped with how I race and the different ways of going about it, which I can transfer across to other disciplines.”
Harnden added cyclocross to her repertoire in part thanks to the tutelage of Tracy Moseley. Moseley started riding mountain bikes on her family farm outside Malvern and went on to win multiple world championships. She won Downhill Worlds in 2010 and then took up Enduro racing and won three straight world championships from 2013 to 2015.
Moseley now runs a development program called T-Mo Racing that counts Harnden as one of its young stars. Developing multi-discipline skills is a big emphasis of the T-Mo program, and Harnden has benefitted accordingly.
Harnden credits Moseley for much of her young success. “Tracy has been a huge part my racing the last few years. I wouldn’t be where I am without all her help and support. Tracy lent me my first race bike and has been there ever since. Tracy has really given me opportunities that would otherwise be impossible for me to access. She always happy to answer any questions and pass on her knowledge.”
Fortunately for both Harnden personally and the sport of cyclocross, she has seen the results of Moseley’s multi-discipline approach. The cross country mountain biker has also added some enduro riding to her training, which she said upped her technical skills and made her more fearless when facing the tough technical features on World Cup cross country mountain bike courses.
“Tracy has always had a multidisciplinary approach and I’ve certainly found that the different disciplines compliment each other really well,” she said. “Tracy encouraging me to ride and race some enduros throughout the year, which has really helped my technical skills and meant that when I come to getting on my cross country bike I’m not afraid of the technical features in the races.”
No fear sounds like the perfect attitude for tackling the muddy technical course at the 2018 World Championships. Katie Compton, among others, said it was the hardest course she has ever raced. Harnden’s enduro time helped pay off, even if the running was a bit tough. After all, mountain bike hike-a-bike is never a spot riders want to find themselves in.
“The course was definitely the most unforgiving track I’ve ever raced, but it was also my favourite course I’ve ever raced,” she said. “All the running was really draining, as I don’t really do any, so it was a shock to the system when I spent as much time running as riding. The long descent was really good fun though. I think the mountain biking helped with those sections and nothing on the track seem scary compared with some of the things Tracy chucks me off on my mountain bike!”
More Cyclocross In the Future?
After her successful cyclocross season, Harnden has a big year ahead of her in 2018. Born in 2001, she is now age eligible for Junior cross country mountain biking and will be targeting many of the biggest races. The UCI World Cups, European Championships and World Championships are all on her schedule.
Harnden started as a mountain biker and feels at home ripping on the singletrack, but she said she is starting to grow fond of the mud and ruts of cyclocross.
“If you’d asked me my favourite disciplines this time last year, without hesitation I’d have said cross country mountain biking because I love the technical descents you’re rewarded with after a brutally satisfying climb,” she admitted. “However, after racing cyclocross abroad this year, I have grown more fond for racing through mud in the winter.”
Harnden’s love of cyclocross has obviously benefitted her riding, and her success at a young age means there is likely more in store for British Cycling and fans of women’s cyclocross. She will take the line in Bogense in 2019 with even less fear and more technical skills. The only difference? If she reaches the podium, there will be little surprise after her head-turning ride last month in Valkenburg-Limburg.