Women’s 100: Gem Atkinson

In the build up to this year’s Rapha Women’s 100, we spoke to three female riders who sit on different branches of the cycling tree. All of them featured in the recent Rapha shoot in the Cévennes: Polly Farrington, a novice rider who came into the sport from running; Gem Atkinson, an enthusiast who has been in love with the sport for almost a decade; and Hannah Barnes, a first year professional racer, already making waves with her team in America. We asked each about their goals in 2014, what the sport means to them, and who their biggest influences are.

Gem Atkinson – Enthusiast

How did you get into the sport in the first place?
I was commuting about 5km to work and back as I was too poor to afford public transport in London just after leaving university. So I commuted on a piece of crap mountain bike (in vile yellow) and over the space of a year realised I really liked cycling, and bought a road bike. Then it was only a matter of time before I segued into more miles and a life of road riding. I’ve been riding for about nine years or so now.

Tell us a little bit about your background.
I work as a photo editor at a big agency. I’m primarily office based in north London, but occasionally I’ll head to big sporting events on-site. I’m currently in Sochi in Russia for the Winter Olympics, which is a nice buzz and a very different atmosphere to the office in London. It can be quite full on at times, so cycling is my distraction. I find commuting daily helps, not only to get me alert and ready for the day but also helps decompress afterwards. I’m really into my house music, although my days of club nights are probably sadly numbered now… I can’t do with getting home at 5am on a Saturday if I need to be out to ride at 8am!

Why do you think cycling appeals to you?
Pure escapism. From the daily grind, the perpetual anxieties, or just a chance to spend hours on quiet roads with good company. I find however wound up I am, those feelings just melt away when I get on the bike. If I’m alone I’m concentrating on my riding, if I’m with friends I’m concentrating on good conversations.

I also like the feeling of bettering yourself through riding. Suddenly you start caring about your body, your fuel, recovery, just generally trying to become a better individual. Disciplined I guess.

It seems to me that women can suffer just as well (if not better) than the boys. What do you think?
I think anyone can push themself to suffer. Over time you become able to appreciate your suffering for what it is. It’s a kind of necessary evil. You’re only going to get better if you learn to dip into that level of discomfort. But I think the key for me is to dip into it, not spend every ride chewing on the bars.

Watching the pros hit up La Redoute at Liège-Bastogne-Liège I realised that those guys were suffering exactly the same way I was the day previous, the only difference being they were doing it much faster. But I think Greg LeMond’s famous saying runs true, it doesn’t get any easier, you just get quicker…

What are your main goals for this season? I’ll try and do a good ride on the full distance [276km] at the Liège sportive this year. Finishing is my only goal. Also I’ve tested the waters with a bit of early season racing which has been really fun, so I shall try and get in decent shape and give it another shot this season I think.

Apart from obvious riding ambitions, what helps motivate you?
I love the social aspect, getting out on the road with good mates and having a bit of fun. Also there’s always that motivation to try and train and get into shape. I also love riding with new people – I’ve got a great new training (and racing) partner in Polly, so me, P and Blanders [Blandine Viollet from Rapha] will take off on the weekend and get some great riding and gossip in.

How would you describe yourself as a rider?
Just a really, really enthusiastic fan who loves long days in the saddle here, there and everywhere.

How would you like to be known as a rider?
A friendly lass with strong legs and a big heart.

Who has been your biggest influence on the bike?
Some of my biggest influences have been good friends. I think Ben [Lieberson] and Rob [Saunders] have had some really encouraging and kind words to share with me over the years that have motivated me and taught me about what’s important in riding. That it’s about positivity, enjoyment and removing pressure (often that I put on myself).

What so far has been your greatest achievement with riding your road bike?
Not dying on the Etape du Tour in 2013 for the Women’s 100. That was tough in that heat! Other than that I don’t really have any traditional ‘achievements’ per se.

How about the fondest riding memory?
There’s been so many. Liège was truly awesome for the people who were there. It was incredible to ride that and then party-it-up watching the pros the next day. But climbing up a mountain as the sun was setting in Corsica with Ben [Lieberson] was probably my favourite time on the bike ever. We were pushing up behind the car, and I remember grinning to myself…

I’d looked up to Ben for ages and here I was climbing this incredible road with him. Up through the woodland right up into a sparse landscape, from the lush smells of pine and the smoke from a bonfire to vast sunlit rock faces. It was pretty amazing. As we reached the top the sun just dissolved out of view and the dusk started to settle. I don’t think I’ve ever loved riding my bike so much in any moment, or been so thankful for what cycling has given me over the years.

What’s the best lesson you can give to anyone wishing to get to a comfortable level?
Stick at it. Suck it up. Get out there. Even when you don’t really want to, I guarantee by the time you’re ten minutes into your ride, you’ll be super happy you saddled up.

Where do you hope to be as a rider this time next year?
Somewhere hot, 5kg lighter and with a decent tan!