Q&A: World Grand Fondo Champion Mary Wilkinson!

From a season of ‘Hard Knocks’, Mary Wilkinson has show how tough she is (iron Woman!) and had many an amazing result including winning her age category in the World Grand Fondo Road Race Championship (star!)

Q&A: World Grand Fondo Champion Mary Wilkinson!

From a season of ‘Hard Knocks’, Mary Wilkinson has show how tough she is (iron Woman!) and had many an amazing result including winning her age category in the World Grand Fondo Road Race Championship (star!)

1. Overall, how was your 2023 season with the win at the masters and podium at Ryedale and some other races?
MARY: 2023 was a bit of a rollercoaster in truth, with some satisfying highs interspersed with some of the hardest times I’ve had to cope with as a bike rider. The year started pretty quietly, and for me a very unusual feeling of low motivation to race. Training was good and I was enjoying riding my bike, but I just didn’t have that drive to go all in during races, but thankfully that did resolve itself as the year progressed!

My year was pretty much focused around the National Road Championships in June, as I’ve never had a ride at this event that I’ve been proud of and the brutal nature of this year’s course really appealed to me. Everything was going to plan until a freak crash in training a couple of weeks before left me in a pretty bad way with broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a concussion, the latter being one of the worst injuries I think I’ve experienced and highlights the importance of taking head injuries seriously.

Missing the chance to race the Nationals was hard, but I just tried to focus on recovery and made the UCI World Championships Gran Fondo as a stretch goal to be back in some kind of form for.

In terms of the National Road Race Series, I was quite lucky that the crash coincided with quite a big gap between the races and although Lancaster came a little too soon for me in terms of form, I was at least able to race and maintain a position in the overall. The National Masters is always nice to win, but I raced it as a test race to make sure I would be OK to ride Lancaster which came shortly after it.

Heading into August and the UCI World Championships Gran Fondo in Glasgow was an amazing event and to pull off the age group and overall win was something I could only have dreamt of a few weeks earlier, so that was defiantly a big high. Following that up with another podium at Ryedale Grand Prix and moving to second overall in the standings for the series was also a really good day.

Unfortunately, my bad luck for the year continued and just as I was getting to use my good end of season form at the Ras na mBan in September and a silly crash in the closing metres of stage 3 ended my year with a broken collarbone. Not the end I had hoped for, but that was that!

2. Is your approach to racing more of one to go out and enjoy the experience or do you put pressure on yourself to get a result?
MARY: A mixture of both I think. Having had “results” there is always a bit of pressure from both yourself and externally to do it again. That said, as an older rider and having stepped in cycling as a second elite sport, I feel lucky to be able to compete against the best in the country and see how I stack up. I don’t have anything to prove and I’m not trying to put myself in the shop window for teams, so from that perspective I can just get on and enjoy the events. That said, I’m a super competitive person, as much with myself as against other people, so I just want to see how far I can push myself. So I think racing for me is about testing myself as much as anything. Even if I didn’t race, I’d still be giving 100% effort in training!

3. Starting in March with the Proper Northern Races and finishing in September; how do you manage to keep the motivation going for so long!
MARY: Normally motivation isn’t a problem. I love training and racing and pushing myself as hard as possible. In fact doing too much is more of a problem than needing to find motivation. As I mentioned earlier, the start to this year was strange in that I didn’t have the real drive and commitment in races. I think some of that is due in part to the fact that I hill climb, Zwift race and road race so my season can actually be 12 months long!

Although I take mini breaks after each championship, looking back through 2022 and the start of 2023, I was bouncing from one target to another without a lot of down time, and the psychological refresh is as important, if not more so than the physical recovery for me. So, another lesson learnt, take more down time and that was one reason I decided quite early on this year that I wasn’t going to do a Hill climb season so I could have a proper break from the intensity of racing.

4. We see on social media pictures of you out in the hills; is the training a matter of just riding the bike or structured efforts out on the road?
MARY: I’m very lucky to live in a location that allows me to ride in beautiful surroundings day in, day out and the terrain in the Yorkshire/Lancashire hills is naturally challenging so pretty much every ride is a hard. I often use the natural undulations as unstructured interval sessions, but when I have a target race, then my training is very focused during the build-up, with specific sessions and intervals building towards the demands of the event.

5. You seem to enjoy the great outdoors on your bike so how will Zwift and indoor training be part of your pedalling a bike in the winter?
MARY: I really enjoy both outdoors and indoors. During the summer, I will do as much of my riding outdoors as possible, but come winter, my body really doesn’t like the cold and just won’t function, so any quality has to be done indoors on Zwift and to be honest, I actually enjoy the extra intensity that comes with indoor training. But whenever I can, I will get outside. It feels so much more of an escapism and a time to recharge and refresh the mind, so most of my endurance will be done outdoors. I will actually adjust my training programme based on the weather to enable me to get out for the longer rides.

6. What was the best performance of yours in 2023?
MARY: Probably the UCI World Championships Gran Fondo. At close to 100 miles, with significant amounts of climbing, it was really nice to compete on a longer, more challenging course and coming so soon after a bad crash, I was proud to be able to put together the race that I did both physically and tactically.

All smiles with her teammates at the Ryedale headquarters in 2023

7. What was the toughest bike race you did in 2023?
MARY: That’s a tough one! From a combined physical and psychological perspective, I’d have to say the National Masters. It probably came a little too soon into my recovery, but I needed to do it to for my confidence if I was to race Lancaster GP the week after. But thinking about racing in a bunch was quite stressful (it actually wasn’t stressful when I was racing), as was not knowing where my fitness really was and if the concussion really was all gone.

Then physically, it ended up being hard because my brain was still in tune to my pre-crash fitness and engaged in race mode, so I bridged across to the breakaway, but when I made it, I soon realised my body wasn’t back to that fitness to hold Ruth’s wheel so I had to accept that was a bad idea and reassess how to tackle the rest of the race and hopefully still be in with a shout of winning. Safe to say the rest of the race was pretty tough physically having gone pretty deep into the red!

8. What race was the most fun to do in 2023?
MARY: Definitely the Ras na mBan. Which might sound crazy considering it ended with me breaking my collarbone, but aside from being one of the only opportunities to race a proper stage race and being excellently organised, the whole week away with the team was an absolute blast. We had race plans, we executed those plans and we animated the race everyday. Every rider and staff played a huge roll and it was something very special to be a part of.

Another podium for may (right), this time at Loughborough University circuit races

9. Was the Women’s National A/B racing pretty much normal for the year or did it differ to other seasons in the way races are raced, the numbers of riders etc.
MARY: An interesting question. I think the numbers racing national A’s has risen and the numbers racing national B’s has dropped and I don’t think that is a good thing in terms of racing experience. I do however, understand some of the reasons being cited for the lower numbers in National B’s such as more dangerous roads, higher entry fees etc. I think we are lucky having the Cold Dark North series so local in that both of these factors are pretty low.

Generally, I think the way National A’s are being raced is more aggressive and more tactical with more teams going in with plans to animate the race. I think this is a good thing as it makes the racing more unpredictable and exciting. The strength in depth of riders has certainly risen too and that has definitely seen the physical demands of the races increase which is always a positive as it means everyone has to be on top of their game every race.

10. Do you have a favourite race from those done in 2023?
MARY: As a one day race, the Loughborough Cycling Festival really stands out. Racing around the campus of the university I spent many years at as a student was so much fun and how the race was raced with Jo Tindley, Frankie Hall, Alderney Barker and I attacking each other at every opportunity was so good to be a part of. It was a great day of racing with all the age groups also competing which is brilliant to watch and hopefully we as senior riders can help inspire them along too.

11. Finally, at this time of year, are you thinking of your goals for 2024 or will it be a case of just taking each race is comes and doing your best to do well and enjoy it?
MARY: I’ve had a much longer off-season this year having had a broken collarbone and choosing not to do the hill climb which also means I’ve had a lot longer to think about next year and what I want to do. I’m not actually sure that has been a good thing as I’ve probably over thought it!

I’m still waiting to see where the major races will be held and if the courses will inspire me and that will make my final decisions about exactly what I will focus on. I’ve still not got that National Road Race ride that I’m proud of! But the one thing that I’m keen to do at some point is actually have a dedicated build to the National Hill Climb as it’s where my cycling journey started and I really enjoy them. But whether that’s next year or later I’ll have to see when the course is finalised and announced. If none of the major events inspire me there is always gravel which I’m very tempted to try my hand at some time and links back to my roots as an off-road runner.

Team work in the second of the Proper Northern Road Races where Mary was third

1st Women 40-44 World Grand Fondo Champion
1st British Masters RR Champs

3rd Ryedale Grasscrete Grand Prix
3rd Loughborough Crits – Jose Gilbert Memorial
3rd Proper Norther RR Series Round 2

10th Lancaster GP
11th Women’s CiCLE Classic
12th Lincoln Grand Prix

Thank you Mary for a truly awesome Q&A with so many insights it was mega interesting … take care in the winter and look forward to seeing you race in 2024!


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