Out on the road, Rapha’s Manchester chapter often gets a shout of, ‘Alright, lads?’ from cyclists they pass. A well-meaning greeting but with an assumption that they are, indeed, all lads. Take more than a cursory glance as the group races past and you’d notice a young lady on a bright blue Giant Propel. British Cycling’s Grace Lambert-Smith is a regular on these rides into the Peak District and a passionate advocate for women’s cycling in the UK. A tenacious character, with a love of adventure, Grace sat down with Headset Press to discuss, among other themes, her love/hate relationship with hills and why she always stops at red lights.
You live, work and ride in Manchester?
Yes, yes and yes! I live not far from the city centre, work is about 6km away and my rides also begin right here.
But your accent suggests time spent in sunnier climes?
Before I came to Manchester, I lived in Adelaide for almost ten years. I was playing hockey and decided to take up running in a bid to get a bit fitter. I then decided cycling would be a great cross-training exercise so I bought a road bike – which I still own – and I’ve never looked back!
You work for British Cycling, based at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre?
I work in marketing in the Cyclesport and Membership Department. My colleague and I are responsible for all the day-to-day communications to our members, the overall member benefit offerings as well as enabling our members to engage with all the events we own.
An interesting work environment?
It can be. When you’re sitting eating your lunch and Bradley Wiggins is right over there. I mean, how do you act cool when Wiggo’s at work? Is it unprofessional of me, as an employee of British Cycling, to go over and take a selfie? Can I do that?
There’s probably a line?
Yeah and I do think about crossing it. But then it’s his workplace – where he can do his job and then go home.
Rapha Hell of the North 2016 / Jay Golian / http://jaygolian.com/
In terms of work, do you have a five year plan?
I don’t think I’ve ever thought that far ahead. I’m not a very planning sort of person, a bit fearful of committing to something that far away. Kind of, I’ll do this now and something else later. Heat of the moment sort of stuff. When I first started at BC it was a bit over-whelming, wondering if I’d made the right decision. It was really quite emotional when I first moved over here but then I made friends at work, made friends at Rapha through cycling, got through my first British winter. I still call Adelaide home but it feels good here as well.
The biggest difference between the UK and Australia in terms of riding?
Early mornings. I really miss getting up at 5.00 and out on the road; being in the middle of nowhere by 6.30. People don’t really do that here. You can’t even get a cup of coffee that early which I find really bizarre.
Is it fair to say that female riders are under-represented in UK cycling clubs?
Definitely. I think it’s getting better though and I’m really optimistic that one day it’ll be a balanced mix. I’m very often the only girl out on the weekend rides but in the last year of being a RCC (Rapha Cycling Club) member, there have been quite a few women who’ve joined and started riding. And that’s really great. I’m not sure what it’s like in other clubs, but it can be quite intimidating for a woman to join a club and hope she can keep up with all the men. It’s part of my role as a Rapha Ambassador, leading rides such as the Rapha Women’s 100 and Braver than the Elements, to break down that perception at the RCC. I ride bikes to the best of my ability and I feel empowered through Rapha to inspire and encourage other women to ride their bikes too. If I can keep up, then so can anyone.
Rapha Prestige / Matt Randall / http://mattrandallphotography.co.uk
Do you feel women are wary of trying cycling due to real or perceived barriers?
The biggest perceived barrier for women is safety. Yet you’re far more likely to be injured while gardening than cycling. But it can be intimidating. Trucks hurtling past when you’re using the narrow bike lane to the left – if indeed there is one at all – pedestrians jaywalking without looking where they’re going – resulting in my recent crash – potholes the size of a small crater underneath your wheels. It seems like there are never-ending risks but it doesn’t take long to become savvy to road cycling and ride defensively. I still occasionally get drivers who are unpleasant but the vast majority are fine and give me a wide berth when passing.
So these barriers can be broken down?
I’ve noticed that when women first ride in a group they tend to hang back; not trusting those in front. But it’s just a knowledge or experience thing. I remember my first group ride and this woman sat at the back and coached me through what I had to do. You initially question whether you’re doing it right but that’s the same for both men and women. It’s just about learning group riding skills – making a good bunch. And safety in numbers will allow you to enjoy riding solo whenever you want.
So what advice would you give to women wanting to try cycling?
I’m a big believer in questioning why you’re not doing something. Whether you go through life thinking, ‘What if…?’ If you want to find the answer, you should get out and do it. Cycling keeps me going and I would be so lost without my bikes. Hey, sometimes I’m lost on them and it’s great!
How significant was Rapha’s decision to sponsor the Canyon/SRAM women’s team following the end of their deal with Sky?
I’d been looking forward to an announcement like this since it was revealed that they’d finished their sponsorship with Team Sky. It’s the breath of fresh air the women’s professional cycling scene needed. A company that could offer long-term support, it’s a three-year sponsorship, as well as using the opportunity to fine-tune their already high-end clothing range. It was also a great decision by Rapha to put their kit in front of the eyes of a much harder market: women. I think my favourite thing about the sponsorship is that it reveals just how much potential there is for women’s cycling to grow. I already know that women’s racing is some of the best on offer but for whatever reason, media coverage is limited, prize money is much lower and it’s seen by some as an inferior sport to the men’s.
Cheering Paris – Roubaix / Angus Sung
And your cycling heroes?
Professionally? Lizzie Armitstead. She’s so gutsy and fights so hard for what she wants. I love watching her race; whether she’s going for the win or supporting her teammates.
Non-professionally? Cath Litherland. Fellow RCC member, my old manager at BC and a great friend. She’s so good at climbing and I want to be that strong! She’s currently in Europe dancing on her pedals up mountains with names I can barely pronounce.
You often comment on this love/hate relationship with hills?
I know hills are good for me so I do them. I enjoy hills when I get to the top but between the bottom and that point, I’m suffering. They never seem to get easier and I’ve been to some dark places climbing some of them. My lowest point was up The Struggle in the Lakes where I simply crumbled. It was the worst experience on a hill I’ve ever had but I’ve since gone back and faced my fear so all’s not lost.
There’s a stigma among some in cycling that ‘compact gears are for girls’. Something I’ve heard said between men. It really annoyed me! Compact gears are for people who need compact gears to enjoy cycling. I’m not going to suffer up hills on standard cranks just because there are unwritten rules and cycling snobs looking down their top tubes at me. I want knees when I’m 50 so I’ll stick to my 50/34, thank you! I also recently put on a 12-30T cassette before I did the Etape du Dales. I can spin up anything now!
Hardangerfjord, Norway / Grace Lambert-Smith
You recently returned from an unsupported ride in Norway?
I went to Bergen on a whim. The flights were cheap, it was a long weekend and I hadn’t been over to Europe since I’d moved to Manchester. I booked it, took my bike and explored. I was a bit worried as many people had mentioned that Bergen was a particularly wet city so I was frantically wondering what to pack with a limited amount of luggage to take. There’s a race in Norway from Bergen to Voss and so I used that as a base but switched the route back to front. I got the first train out of Bergen with the weather deteriorating by the time I got to Voss. Luckily, I had an insulated gilet and some back-up full-finger gloves in my saddle bag. It got a little drizzly straight away but eventually the sun came out and I ended up applying sunscreen halfway around. The scenery is stunning in Norway and I can’t wait to go back and do more. Although next time I will take overnight kit with me so that I can go from place to place; settling down wherever I want. The route was 160km in the end and it showcased the natural beauty of a largely untouched landscape. And I love that you can go so far in not very much time. You can do it with driving but not with the same feeling. Without that same sense of accomplishment, that sense of purpose. You don’t earn the view at the top of the hill.
What’s your priority in terms of kit?
I like versatile pieces that are able to do multiple jobs. My souplesse shorts have to be my favourite. I use them for anything from my 6km commute to 200km weekend shifts. They fit as well as the day I got them and they’re so comfortable. I’m also a big fan of a good gilet. You might be worried there’s a risk of a light shower or a chill in the air as you leave your house but a gilet over the top will solve most insecurities.
Many cyclists seem to struggle with the British weather. Especially in winter?
You’re talking to a girl who found her love for cycling in Australia. More specifically, Adelaide, one of the driest cities in the country. The British winter takes some inner strength though. It’s cold but often wet too and for a cyclist, moisture on the road acts as air-conditioning. Then add in a bit of wind coming off the sea and you’re well into minus temperatures. My only advice, the same advice I gave myself when I moved back here: if I don’t ride through winter, I won’t ride for six months of every year and I love riding my bike. It boils down to the right kit to make you comfortable: winter tights, merino socks, overshoes, neck warmer, winter hat and layers on your upper body. I must confess though, I don’t think I’ve quite hit the jackpot with gloves!
Hollingsworth Lake / Lisa Stonehouse / http://www.lisastonehouse.com/
What and where do you ride?
I have two road bikes: a 2014 Giant Defy and a 2016 Giant Propel. I love both bikes and they have their uses depending on the type of ride I’m doing. Even though my Propel is classed as an aero bike, I use it for climbing and it’s great. It descends like a dream, which is why I use it for so much climbing. My Defy is my reliable, bomb-proof adventure rig. I use it for commuting, wet weather rides or if there’s a risk of some off-road/gravel action.
I mainly ride in the Peak District or out to the northern hills of Manchester towards Hebden Bridge. I love going to Wales too where it’s so rural and you feel like you’re off the grid between these quaint countryside villages. When I’m back home, you’ll find me in the Adelaide Hills. Iconic roads used in the Tour Down Under are familiar territory for me. Gorge Road, Norton Summit, Old Freeway, Belair Road to name just a few. The views are magnificent. It’s very often sunny and I’m usually out with my friends. It’s the perfect combination.
Top of Corkscrew / Grace Lambert-Smith
Do you have a cycling ‘bucket’ list?
I want to do more bikepacking and endurance riding. The longest I’ve ridden is 354km in one day on Rapha’s Manchester to London last year. I need to eclipse that soon with something to the tune of 400km. I’d like to do the Bryan Chapman Memorial next year so that’s on my horizon. And I’m ticking off a dream of riding in the Alps next week, which is really exciting.
In terms of cycling etiquette? Red lights. Stop or go?
Stop. Every single time. And then I always make the point, if a cyclist has run a red light, of catching him up…
Is it always a him?
It’s always a him. Girls don’t run lights! At least in my experience anyway. I’ll just make a point of catching him to prove that you don’t get any further and it’s like, ‘I’ve been waiting at the traffic lights for 30 seconds longer than you but I still caught you up.’
Your thoughts on Strava?
Love it. I don’t read too much into the numbers as I don’t have a power meter but I just like to know where I’ve been. When I first moved to Manchester I didn’t know where the hell I was going so it was good to upload a ride and go, ‘Oh, so if I’d have gone left….’ It’s just nice to look back, reflect and ask, ‘Have I improved?’
And social media in general?
Maybe some people get too obsessed, post too frequently, but you could argue that it’s good things they’re posting. It’s people outdoors, doing what they love, loving what they do – I don’t think you can really criticise that to any degree. I ride bikes all the time – that’s what I do and what I document. It’s just a massive network of people wanting the same things, loving the same things. Let’s all do it together.
Portrait shot taken at Rapha Supercross by Gem Atkinson.