‘I really want to win races and ride at the highest level’
Rupert Cornford speaks to Henrietta Colborne about ambition, growing up fast and a fire that won’t go out
“It was just crazy, like riding through super glue. Kilometres have never passed so slowly in my life. We ran 34-30 on our bikes, and even then, we didn’t have small enough gears.”
Henrietta Colborne is describing her experience riding up Monte Zoncolan at the 2018 Giro D’Italia. It’s a climb that strikes fear into the peloton with gradients reaching 22 per cent, but ultimately delivers exactly what riders come for: ultimate glory with ultimate suffering.
“I really want to win races and ride at the highest level – the World Tour,” says 20-year-old Henrietta, who is riding for the Spanish UCI team Bizkaia Durango – Euskadi Murias in 2018. “It’s about suffering and not thinking about anything else. That is the difference: being able to suffer so, so hard for that amount of time. It’s easy to say you can’t do something, but to stick with it, is to have the upper hand in races.”
This is life of a cyclist: going deep inside yourself to perform and doing it day in day out to ride at the very top. The school of hard knocks, the university of life – it all happens on two wheels. I haven’t spoken to many 20-year-olds like Henrietta. She talks lucidly and calmly about her ambition, and the steps she is taking to achieve it. It’s a story of going ‘all in’ on life, with nothing left to spare.
Henrietta started cycling with her dad when she was seven. When she was a young child, he worked away in Italy and they didn’t see much of each other. But when he returned home to Norfolk, it was a tandem that brought them together, and created an opportunity for father and daughter to bond.
“At the start, we went on a touring holiday on the tandem… there were two towns of the same name – and my dad booked to stay at the wrong one,” she says. “We had to do about 80 miles on the first day.”
From ‘cycling initiation’ sat behind her dad, Henrietta was given a ‘cross bike for Christmas, which introduced her to racing, and she remembers struggling up the hills even though people were shouting from the side lines… ‘change gear, change gear’. In these days of fun and hard yards the seeds were sown: cyclo-cross turned to grass-track racing and then road.
But at the age of nine family life changed and it was left to her father to bring her up. It’s not something she chooses to talk a lot about, but clearly recognises the influence of this change, so early in her life. “I probably had to grow up quite fast and be quite independent at an early age,” she says. “I definitely think that has helped me in the long-term for living abroad.”
It’s her dad’s influence that come across in the interview; a father who has stoked the fire and passion in Henrietta, but who isn’t afraid to be honest. She describes Jon Colborne as a wise and logical man, who acted as a sounding board during her progression through the UK ranks, and into Europe. He runs a bike maintenance business in Cumbria, which is home when Henrietta isn’t in Spain, and they also have a company together to teach others.
“You can say anything to him and he won’t have a knee-jerk reaction,” she says. “Since I was 15, I have always put cycling above my school work. He encouraged me because cycling was probably my better option. I did my A levels, so I can go to university if I want to, but I wasn’t going to go to Oxford.”
I ask what Jon would say if he was with us for the interview… “He would probably say… ‘you could have peddled a bit faster’,” she laughs. “His view is that I might as well try to be the best I can and if I cannot make the best, I have had all that experience and years living away in a different country.”
Like father, like daughter, this is where Henrietta sees the opportunity now. She is progressing through this season with a team who is supportive, a good block of training and some promising results in races. But this is part of a much bigger plan. “I have a hunger,” she says. “I am putting in all this effort and dedicating my life to this – so there is no point doing it by half. All the girls in the team train so hard, the level is just going up and up. If you stand still for a moment you get left behind.”
The end goal is to ride in one of the top teams like her Dutch inspiration Marianne Vos. Henrietta is following her own path, getting support from her dad, her team mates in the Basque Country in Spain, and the Dave Rayner Fund. Because there isn’t a programme that does it all for aspiring road cyclists, she combines her hunger and drive with a quest for results and managing her own opportunities.
If it feels like a 22 per cent climb… her voice is one of pragmatic but determined focus. “Just another kilometre, just another four kilometres…” The goal is broken down into measurable steps, the mind is contained, and the body is pushed to its absolute limit. But if Henrietta can climb the toughest mountains, ride the hardest races, and revel in the passion and pain of the sport – it sounds to me like she is within touching distance of her dream.
In September 2018, Phil Jones MBE and James Golding will ride the entire OVO Energy Tour of Britain one day ahead with the aim to raise £50,000 to support the Dave Rayner Fund and its riders. Donate now by visiting justgiving.com/crowdfunding/tob1da and for updates on the challenge follow @roadphil and @daveraynerfund #TOB1DA