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

Cycling Weekly - - MY FITNESS CHALLENGE -

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.”

Char­lie Gra­ham-dixon

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