Friday 27 November 2020

52 Cycling Voices (in the time of coronavirus) - 31: Bithja Jones

Given the effect that coronavirus has had on sporting activities all over the world, it is not surprising that cycle racing has been affected too. A number of the national championship races didn't take place in the UK either. One event that did take place, and didn't fail to disappoint were the National Hill Climb Championships. They took place on Streatley Hill, just into the Chiltern Hills near Reading, and had a record turn-out of women. There were 110 entries and 93 women took the start line. Among them was local racer, Bithja Jones who started cycle racing a couple of years ago, and did her first hill climb race last year. With dedicated training, and help from her club Pankhurst Cycles she only went and won this year's championships, even beating the experienced hotly tipped favourite Mary Wilkinson. As an also-ran in the race who finished quite at the opposite end of the result sheet from Bithja, I was interested in talking to this single mum of two, who is also an artist, and finding out how she rolls. 

(Photo: Tim Phillips)

Bithja Jones (aka B, to her friends) aged 41

From: Kaltenkirchen (near Hamburg), Germany

Lives: Reading

Occupation: Support Assistant at a Special needs school

I have always been a keen cyclist, and cycled everywhere. I didn't get a driving licence until my son was born in 2012. As a 15-year old, when I had my first little jobs -  a paper round and then a cleaning job at a hair dressers - I saved up all that money to buy myself a decent bike. It was a Schwinn Crosspoint and I was really proud of it. My father took me and my siblings on bike packing holidays and those weeks were always very special. My longest ride was when I did a cycle tour from Germany to Croatia and back. I was 20 at the time, studying sculpture at Dresden University. 

Always cycling with the kids - even as toddlers
When my kids were in preschool, I started cycling with them. 

Then as soon as my daughter was old enough to sit on a bike seat I bought a Dutch-style Bakfiets. Like that, I could ride my bike with them and didn’t feel stuck at home. That was a great investment and it made me very happy. 

When I moved house 18 months ago, we started cycling the 4km-journey to school every morning, each of us on our own bikes. My daughter had just turned 5, and my son was 7 at that time.

I had a couple of years of running, which I loved. I enjoyed competitive events and got quite fast, coming 3rd at the Windsor 10k. But then at the end of 2018 I had to stop because of injuries. So I went to my local bike shop, Pankhurst Cycles, and bought my first proper road bike - another really good investment.

At Windsor 10k
I joined Pankhurst Cycles cycle club and started going on their weekly shop rides, recording my rides on Strava. My club mates commented on my speed and my power up hills. At first I was a bit embarrassed, because I got between 10 an 20 new Queen of the Mountains (QOMs) every time I went on a ride.  I thought my Garmin was broken, but it turned out that wasn't the case - I was just quite fast! 

Olly and Rikki from the shop supported me when I said I wanted to give track cycling a go. They prepared a bike for me, and gave some helpful tips and advice (I had never ridden a fixie before). Then after a successful track season I took part in my first hill climb race up Wittenham Clumps, near Didcot, in August 2019.

Next, I did the Reading CC double Hill climbs on Flint Hill and Streatley Hill and won both, including breaking Maryka Sennema's record on Streatley Hill in a time of 3:03.  I also raced the National Championships in Haytor Hill, Devon and came 13th.

After more training, I did the warm-up hill climb on Streatley Hill in September, run by Didcot Phoenix and Reading CC and broke the record again in 2:54. At the Nationals I went even faster. It's true I like to really immerse myself in what I do and try to do things as well as I can. 

Breaking the record on Walbury Hill
(photo: Steve Dixon)
Then nationals were definitely my biggest win so far. This has only been my second hill climb season and the Nationals this year was my 12th hill climb race.

This year's event was very different from what I had anticipated a year ago. Streatley is a short course and it would have been lined with spectators and would have been very noisy. 

I was hoping to get loads of my friends to support me and cheer me on and, of course, members of our cycling club Pankhurst Cycles which is very local. But given that there were no spectators allowed, it was great that the marshals on the course made an effort and cheered everyone on. It felt good!

I knew I had given everything on the climb, I had nothing left, and I think I also knew somehow that I had done well. I heard someone shouting ”new course record”. I couldn’t stand on my legs and I had a massive headache and quickly found a patch of grass to sit down and recover.

I knew my time quite quickly after I finished and when I heard I had done 2:47 I was very happy. It had been my goal to ride a sub 2:50. But I knew that the strongest rider, Mary Wilkinson was still to come. I had never raced against her but had heard a lot about her. Someone came over after a few minutes (maybe just 2 minutes or so after I had crossed the line) and told me that I had won. It all felt very strange and surreal, sitting there on the grass feeling awful and so happy at the same time!

At once, everyone around was very nice to me and congratulated me. I think the hill climbers are a fantastic lot. They are so friendly and welcoming and everyone cheers everyone on and every rider gets the respect they deserve. 

A hill climb is always hard. Even if you end up with the slowest time, it is still a hard effort and you get applauded for doing it and for putting in that amazing effort. And, of course, I am massively proud that I was able to keep up and even beat some amazing and experienced riders!

A very supportive environment at Pankhurst Cycles
This was such a special and fantastic event with a great atmosphere despite the difficulties of the pandemic.

Pankhurst Cycles is a very cool bike shop with very friendly people running it. They have a cycling club affiliated with the shop and organise weekly group rides and there are a handful of people racing in the track league in Reading, and a few do cyclocross races. 

They have always been very supportive and I love going there at the weekend for a coffee and just to hang around and catch up. Their support in the run-up to the Nationals this year was amazing. A friend from the club sponsored me and provided the Tifosi Mons frame that I rode this season, and Pankhurst Cycles equipped it with all the right gear for my hill climb races. Rikki Pankhurst was my supporter at most of the races this season and I didn’t have to worry about anything other than cycling up a hill as fast as possible.

The campaign run by Laura Hayley to get more women entrants was very successful. It made this year’s event very special, and seeing so many women at the Nationals was just fantastic. It would be so great to see more of that!  I hope lots of women get inspired and feel encouraged to enter events. We are getting a road bike ready for my daughter.

To get more women to participate in events there are a few things like equal prize money and separate results on the Cycling Time Trials webpage that need to be sorted. It’s a surprise really that things are so unequal still in some places, when you think about it. 

But I think it is also really important that we women encourage and motivate each other and set good examples. The press could help with that too and give the women’s event more coverage. 

To any woman who is considering doing a hill climb race I'd say just do it! If you are scared or feel intimidated, find someone to support you. Enter events together as friends, never hesitate to ask other women who are already racing. I am 100% sure they would love to help anyone with worries or concerns and would love to be helpful and supportive. I am always happy to chat if anyone has got questions. Get in touch and just do it!

Hopefully there'll track cycling in 2021
Rumours are that next year's race will be on Winnats Pass. I don’t know the hill but it looks great on Strava! I can’t wait, and will train hard, explore the course and do my best to defend my title! I am planning to do a bike packing holiday next summer and will cycle to the Peak District for some climbing practice.

I also do track cycling but because of the pandemic there were no events this year and I have only done one season since gaining my accreditation in April 2019. My first season on the track went quite well, as I became the track champion at the Reading league.

Next year, hopefully, track cycling will go ahead again. I also want to do lots of rides to the sea, get a little stronger and faster, and maybe give road racing a go if I can fit it in. I also hope I can win some hill climbs, and of course defend my title. The children and I want to fly to Hamburg to collect a tandem that is still at my sister's place. We will fit a tag-along to it and then cycle from Hamburg back home to Reading. That’s going to be our first cycling adventure holiday together.

My everyday schedule means I am quite busy, and often feel like there is not enough time to do all the things that I want to do. I am a single mum-of-two, with a full time job. I also love doing art and book illustrations and go cycling as much as I can. 

It’s a good balance though and it’s great to be able to go for an explosive quick ride after a tough day at work, or go cycling with my children. They are very passionate about cycling too, and hope to cycle around the world with me in a few years. 

Bithja's cycle-themed art
My art is often about cycling as well, so all the different areas of my life feed into each other. So I get ideas from my work for my art, or go cycling for mindful recovery time, and it all works together really well. I also cycle with my children 4km to school every morning, then cycle to work (another 6km), then do the same thing again in the afternoon. Some of my training is done on this daily commute.

Overall, my cycling is done for fun. I don’t really feel the pressure so much, but I do get nervous before a race. Mind you, I think you need that to perform well. 

With my art, it's the other way around. I feel more pressure doing a commissioned piece of art that someone is paying for, than I do for a bike race, as it has to be perfect. Having said that, I do a lot of art for myself, and I still do my best because it gives me great satisfaction and I love it!

When I first arrived in the UK 12 years ago I was terrified of cycling on the roads, but now I find it a lot easier.  I don’t know whether cycling has improved or maybe I have just got used to it. 

Reading is not bad for cycling. There is the cycle path along the River Thames, which I use a lot with the kids, and lots of short cuts where you can avoid the major roads and the traffic. Also I just love the countryside around Reading. The Chilterns and the North Wessex Downs are beautiful, and on a long ride you can cycle to the South coast and back.

At work in Pankhurst Cycles
Overall, I think it’s much more common in Germany to use a bike as a means of transport than in the UK. Therefore there are more cyclists on the road, and the awareness for cyclists by motorists is much better. The road surfaces are a lot nicer as well. Schools have large bike parking areas as most students ride to school on their bikes.

Dealing with the Covid pandemic has not been easy. I live in a small flat with my kids and we haven’t got a garden. We are all outdoorsy people, so it is hard to deal with, but you just have to get on with it and make it work. 

The pre-school I was working in closed down for good partly due to the pandemic, so I lost my job there. I continued my other job, working two days a week at Pankhurst Cycles but it was not an easy time. 

Luckily, I found a new job in a school for children with special needs and I absolutely love my work. But sadly, this new job didn’t leave me enough time to carry on with my work in the bike shop.

When it comes to favourite places to cycle - I went on a cycling holiday in the Alps in the Summer 2019 and that was brilliant. I really want to go back again. Slovenia is also a very beautiful place to cycle through, and there are so many places I haven’t explored yet, even quite close here in Britain. I hope my children’s passion for cycling will carry on and we can go do our round-the-world trip, exploring many new places together.  

My favourite person to cycle with is someone a tiny bit stronger and faster than me so I have to work hard to keep up. I just like pushing myself! For a long tour I would like to go with my sister, Sarah. We haven’t been on a bike ride together for many years but we did lots of bike packing tours together in the past and we would get on very well. She visited me here in England last year when I won on Streatley Hill the first time. It was great to see her here and to have her support.

Bithja Moor Illustrations

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