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The Barnes sisters: Q&A

Peter Stuart
27 Sep 2016

The British sisters talk to Cyclist about going pro, Shane Sutton, and the future of women’s cycling.

Cyclist: You took gold and silver medals at the National Championships, with Alice claiming the Under-23 gold too. Did you work together?

Hannah Barnes: Everyone has asked if Alice led me out, and normally I just agree and say that you did, but [looking at her sister] you just went too early!

Alice Barnes: Everyone thinks I led you out but I definitely didn’t! I was annoyed coming second at the National Champs for the second time in a row. It was quite an interesting race, though, because it split and you had all the pros like Lucy Garner and Dani King together. I did my fair share of the work in the breakaway – I’d be scared not to do my turn because Hannah would shout at me.

HB: It’s true, I would have.

Cyc: Alice, you’re fairly new to the road racing scene, how did you get into it? 

AB: I’ve come through the British Academy in Manchester, and I’m currently riding for Drops [a UCI women’s road racing team], which has been great. I was doing mountain biking until this year, when we decided that I’d take a bit more of a road focus with the goal of making it to the Olympics. I’ve missed riding my mountain bike but you just don’t race that often, and I really like racing. I think I’ll return to it eventually. I do like mountain biking – it’s just a bit different.

Cyc: How did you get on with the selection process for the Olympic squad?

AB: I am an Olympic reserve this year [speaking before the Olympics], along with Dani King, but not a travelling reserve. To be honest I think racing in Tokyo 2020 would be cool, but Rio sounds a bit scary.

HB: I think Tokyo would be really great too, but I want to establish myself first. It would be great if British people knew my name and knew what I’ve achieved. I think in Britain everyone is gunning for the Olympics but I don’t want to have that as my all-time ambition. The thing is that if you have that gold medal your market value just goes mad and you’ll have all sorts of personal sponsors wanting you.

Cyc: Do you enjoy racing together?

HB: I actually don’t like it. When there’s a crash it’s another person to worry about. You’ve got your teammates to be concerned for but when you’ve got your sister there as well, there’s an extra level of worry. But, that said, it’s a lot of fun just being in the peloton together. 

AB: I quite like it. We usually chat in the early part of the race at the back of the peloton – find out some gossip before Hannah rushes off to do her thing.

Alice Barnes

Cyc: Would you ever like to be on the same team together?

HB: Yeah I think it would be cool. One day it might happen, but I’m not sure when. I’m not sure I’d ever go to a team and say, ‘I’m only coming if my sister comes.’ I think Sagan and Quintana can do that, but probably not me or Alice.

Cyc: When did you both start racing competitively?

HB:  I was 10 and Alice was eight. The first race we did was in Sunderland. We’d been riding at the Milton Keynes Bowl and everyone said, ‘Oh you’re really good,’ so dad drove us to this event in Sunderland, which was a four-hour drive, and I won!

Cyc: Did you take to racing quickly too, Alice?

AB: Until I was 15 I was almost always getting lapped. Until Under-14 you don’t really train, so between Under-14 and Under-16 I did a winter of more training and riding, and I just improved suddenly and I was eventually picked up by the British Academy.

Hannah Barnes

Cyc: Do your parents have a background in bike racing?

HB: Not at all. It was just mum and dad’s hobby – mainly dad’s. He decided it would be easier if we all had the same hobby, and so we all cycled together and they used to come to all of our races. They don’t know what to do with themselves now because they don’t have to take us anywhere any more.

Cyc: Did you ever go on training rides as a family?

HB: We did – that’s how it started. We’d go around Rutland Water and Pittsford and things, and do laps around there, and always to a pub.

AB: Dad used to have to push us up the hills. Now we have to push him. He used to have a trailer on the back of the bike that me and my brother Henry would sit in, but Hannah ended up towing us more – that’s why we think Hannah was so strong when she was young.

HB: Yep, dad gave up. He couldn’t be bothered any more so I took over.

Cyc: Do your family ever get worried about your racing? 

AB: I was watching La Course and there was a big pile up and mum was panicking. She kept saying, ‘Grandma will be having kittens.’ So we were trying to see if we could spot Hannah. Thankfully she wasn’t involved in the crash and was fine. So yeah I guess it’s nerve-wracking for the family at times.

Cyc: Hannah, you did end up with your leg in a cast last year, though. How?

HB: I broke my ankle last August. I was doing the Colorado Pro Challenge, there was a crash in front of me and I hit my ankle really hard on the ground. I’d broken my collarbone before but that was definitely the worst injury I’ve ever had. I was in a cast for five months. I even signed my contract for Canyon-Sram while still in that cast, which not many teams would be up for.

Cyc: Was it hard coming back from injury?

HB: It was kind of hard at the start. I’d had five months completely off and I couldn’t ride for 10 minutes without having to get off my bike and have a sit down. Going from the complete bottom, you see a lot of progress early on but after four months it started getting
a lot harder. I’d ride three times a day on the Wattbike and then go for a swim for 40 minutes and then do physio. The strangest thing was being at the team training camp in Mallorca in December– I was there for 12 days, just being at the hotel. It was really hard not
to ride, but I couldn’t.

Cyc: How much has the standard of women’s racing improved, especially in the run-up to the Olympics?

HB: I think it’s a lot harder now. The Olympic year is always the hardest and it’s just been insane. I mean, look at Marianne Vos. She is still great but she isn’t as dominant as she was. The level of the peloton has changed so much – everyone is catching up. I think things like power meters and proper coaching help.

Cyc: As two women who have been involved in the British Cycling system, what view did you take on the accusations of sexism levelled
at Shane Sutton?

AB: I thought he was always really supportive of what I did, and in terms of the sexism claims I think he probably did make the comments but he would probably have said the same stuff to a guy, just the same. You’re never, ever guessing with Shane Sutton – he just says it how it is. At the end of the day it’s our job and if you’re not performing they can’t just keep dragging you along.

HB: It can get very personal, but Shane helped me out when he really didn’t need to. So I don’t have a bad word to say about him, really. At the Commonwealth Games he said he wanted me to be part of the team and wanted to help fund me, and if he hadn’t stepped in and done that I wouldn’t have been able to just focus on cycling.

Cyc: Do you see a problem with a gender gap in the sport?

HB: It just comes down to money, I guess, and there’s not as much of it on the women’s side as on the men’s. It’s a vicious circle – there isn’t the money so you don’t get the TV time and you don’t get the sponsorship, which means you don’t get the money. That said, I think Britain is really doing a good job. They’re really pushing it. I mean, the Women’s Tour, that really is the race for us.

AB: There have been massive improvements. I think the more it gets televised the better. With the National Crit Champs last night, for instance, in the past you would have just seen the men’s race, and maybe two minutes of highlights from the women’s, but this year they showed the whole race live on Eurosport. And it’s not just the Women’s Tour: the RideLondon Classique had its biggest ever prize pot for the women’s race this year – €75,000 [about £64,000] for first place. That’s unheard of, and a lot more than most women get paid in a year. 

Cyc: Do you think there should be higher pay for female pro riders?

HB: It’s hard because for a while everyone was pushing for a minimum wage, but that will just restrict the events teams can afford to do. Ultimately, the main reason teams aren’t paying riders that much is that they simply haven’t got the budget. So it will only mean less money in the pot for teams to be able to travel and do races, or having fewer riders in the team in the first place. It’s slowly getting there on the British scene, but there’s still a long way to go. 

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