In the name of the father
Former equestrian Gina Cleere took up cycling to relieve her anxiety over her father’s dementia — now the 36-year-old is an avid ultra racer
For many seasoned cyclists, completing a century or six-hour ride is regarded as a mighty achievement, and justifiably so. For Gina Cleere, however, such rides are a weekly staple. The 36-year-old ultraendurance cyclist from Basildon, Essex, is no stranger to riding 300-plus miles without rest. Despite the fact that she works full-time as a supermarket manager and bought her first bike just four years ago, Cleere has become a hardened ultra racer.
The former dressage rider originally bought a bike after her horse was injured and had to be put down. Cycling was not merely a new hobby for Cleere; she found it a potent way to relieve stress and worry about her father, Michael Elliot, who was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago. She now rides over 300 miles each week, is a well-known figure on the ultra cycling scene, competing in the Mersey Road 24-hour national time trial championships and gaining victories at the Le Mans Velo
24 hour and Revolve 24-hour races. To raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK, Cleere also took part in Cycling Down Dementia, which challenges participants to ride either 300 miles or 1,000 miles over three months, November to January, raising money for pioneering dementia research. Naturally, 1,000 miles wasn’t enough for Cleere; she finished as the top distance rider, racking up 3,723 miles.
At the time of our interview, Cleere has just returned from the Race Across Europe, where she rode solo, covering 2,372 miles including 135,398ft of climbing, across five countries and six borders. Unfortunately, the unsupported section of the race was cancelled for safety reasons; undeterred, Cleere decided to ride solo and unsupported. How was it?
“I’m feeling great,” she says. “The route took me through France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, back into Italy, and then back into France.”
Riding solo through the night is a daunting prospect for any rider, let alone doing so unsupported, thousands of miles from home. There must have been some sketchy moments?
“There was a tough moment ascending Col Agnel where I badly misjudged my fuelling. I felt sick, tired and could barely ride. I was climbing until the early hours, couldn’t camp at the summit because it was too cold, and I had no food.”
Cleere’s modestly described “tough moment” sounds like a total nightmare.
“As I reached the top, I saw lights shining on me and thought it was a hostel, but as I approached realised it was two cars of French chaps, who said, ‘F****** cyclist — what’s she doing here?’ Whatever was going on didn’t look good, so I turned and did the very long dark descent and at one point fell asleep and woke up having nearly come off the side of the road.”
Luckily for Cleere, she was discovered by a good Samaritan boulanger from a nearby village, who provided somewhere to sleep and, crucially, food. This slight misadventure aside, Cleere evidently possesses remarkable mental and physical resilience in the face of fuel and sleep deprivation. How did she go from novice to superwoman in just three years?
“My dad’s illness was consuming my life. I was helping my mum with him all the time and was starting to become unfit and unhealthy, so I decided to buy a bike to cycle to work. Soon, my husband suggested I join a cycling club; it just grew from there.”
Cleere quickly discovered she had a talent for endurance.
“During my first summer with the club, I rode my first 100 and 150-milers and realised I could ride long distances. After that I ended up qualifying for the amateur Worlds, smashed the woman’s 15-hour Tilnar Cycle Challenge, and won the 24-hour [Revolve24] race at Brands Hatch. That was a big year.”
More than just allowing her to compete and test herself, cycling for Cleere has provided an outlet, ameliorating the worry she has felt about her father’s health.
“Being able to cycle, go out and have that fresh air, that stress release is amazing. I’m sure that, without cycling, I’d be suffering from some kind of depression. Getting that adrenaline and endorphin rush is a savior for me.”