Illi Gardner: Queen of the Mountains


, by Fabienne Lang

All photographs courtesy of: Joseph Rees, Paul Gardner, and Bryn Griffith

Meet Illi Gardner: from road racing to Strava's Queen of the Mountains, her ascent in cycling is a relentless pursuit of peaks and records, dominating punishing gradients with passion and prowess.

“It’s usually super painful from the start, and then it’s about trying to get into the suffer zone and just hanging on for as long as possible,” explains Illi Gardner, her determination evident. “I just focus on digging in and counting down the kilometers.”

Meet Illi, a 24-year-old cyclist who thrives on suffering, where pain meets passion. She isn't just acquainted with the suffer zone; she practically owns real estate there. A lover of hill climbs, she revels in the quad-burning gradients that leave most riders questioning their life choices. As the saying goes, “There’s nothing but a fine line between ‘hell’ and ‘hill.’”

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While Illi only shifted her focus to hill climbs a couple of years ago, she's been on a winning streak ever since. On July 30, 2023, she conquered the legendary climb from Airolo (1,175m) to the 2,106-meter-high St. Gotthard Pass, winning the women’s division at the inaugural Coupe d’Europe des Grimpeurs Tremola San Gottardo in Switzerland. Continuing her triumph, on October 29, 2023, she secured women’s gold for the second consecutive year at the British National Hill Climb Championship, held on the aptly named hill, The Struggle.

Her Strava profile attests to her dominance as the fastest female on uphill segments, boasting over 8,225 Queen of the Mountains (QOMs) for climbs – nearly double the competition. In total, she has 9,064 QOMs - and amassed 2,749 QOMs in 2023 alone.

Bagging a QOM or KOM, for the uninitiated, goes to the speediest athlete on a Strava segment's overall leaderboard. Sometimes that translates to tackling an uphill time trial flat out, featuring gradients as steep as 15-25%. Illi, however, thrives on the burn. Switching from a successful pro road racing career to hill climbs, she found her true calling. “I was on a UCI team. We raced in Europe and elsewhere, but I stopped two years ago. I was finishing university and I realized I never really enjoyed road racing and had been thinking about stopping for a few years. 2021 was when it all started to come together, so it seemed like a strange time to stop, but at the end of the day I just never really enjoyed it and was starting to discover the hill climbing side of things a bit more,” she reflects. Since then, there's been no looking back.

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Watching Illi ascend is like witnessing a smooth glider effortlessly navigating the mountainous terrain. But make no mistake; cycling uphill is anything but easy. Illi wouldn’t have it any other way: "I just love the simplicity of it. It's just you and the hill. And, you can discover some really amazing areas of the world. It's a pretty great feeling to get to the top of a climb," she says with a gleam in her eyes.

Despite her Strava dominance and her previous stint with a UCI team, Illi's training approach is far from conventional. "My training is probably an absolute nightmare to most coaches because I basically don't really plan it very far ahead. I usually go out and go hard up a few hills, and that's where finding Strava segments to go after adds a lot of motivation,” she confesses with a chuckle.

On race days, however, her approach is more calculated. "Sometimes for the longer climbs like in Europe, I figure out how fast to go for each corner to break it down into chunks, and I definitely like pre-riding it before if I can," she explains. "Psychologically, I know what to expect, and that’s a big help. If you know roughly how long it will take you and how steep it is, that's probably the most important thing because you don't want to be underprepared.”

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Embracing the psychological side of hill climbing, Illi has a trick up her sleeve. "I convinced myself that I'm a climber and that it’s what I like doing. Knowing that makes it easier. Whereas, I think, a lot of people just hate climbing, and they've decided that they're not good climbers, and that’s how they lose half the battle because they then get to a hill and think ‘I don't want to get up this.’ But if you can fool yourself and get yourself excited to tackle new climbs, it just makes it so much more fun.”

“If you're enjoying it, it takes so much of the difficulty out of it,” Illi’s words to live by.

Her mischievous side emerges when she talks about cycling with others. While she mostly trains alone last minute, due to the UK's unpredictable weather, when with friends, she enjoys "planning slightly evil routes. I go up really steep hills sometimes and take my friends,” she chuckles. “I’ve been on the other side of that as well,” she explains, “like when I first started, and my dad and my friends would take me on horrific routes.”

Illi's friends and dad clearly did something right, as she now dominates the hill climbing scene. With gold from last year and excitement for the upcoming UK hill climbing season, including European bucket list hills like Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Telegraph, and the Col du Galibier, it's safe to say Illi Gardner will continue conquering peaks and setting new records in 2024. Get ready for more QOMs and jerseys!

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