Gill Barnes started mountain biking at age 60, lined up for her first race soon after, and in five years has earned a gold and silver medal at two XC World Championships. Her extraordinary palmarès carry on to a pair of Scottish XC National Champion titles in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and she will continue her tour of world champs and national level races for the 2019 season.
Barnes’ passion for mountain biking was sparked by her family and friends, all of whom are avid cyclists, and by the thriving community in her hometown of Fort William, Scotland. You may know the names of her kids, Hannah and Joe Barnes, both of whom have built their own successful professional mountain bike careers. This family truly shreds together.
“I’ve always been close with both of my kids and have had lots of adventures with them as they were growing up,” Barnes says. “For example in 2000 as a family we had a year living on our sailing boat. We sailed from Scotland across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back.
“Both Hannah and Joe have been really supportive of my racing and they help me however they can. Joe helps me out with my bikes and keeps them well maintained. He also gives me advice on training especially for the lead up to the World Championships. I ride a lot more with Hannah – usually in the woods where she lives, and Lumi her dog comes along with us.”
Though she only took to the saddle-life five years ago, Barnes has been an athlete all of her life. “I loved all sport when I was at school – particularly field hockey. I represented my university on the horse riding eventing team.” Before her kids were born she competed in mountain running events and worked in a sports hotel in Norway for several years where she developed a love for Nordic skiing. Barnes remembers her running days fondly. “In the summers I worked back in the UK at Outward Bound and my main sport was mountain running. I enjoyed the two-day mountain marathon style events where you carry all your gear and camp overnight. My best achievement was winning the Ben Nevis Hill race in 1994 when I was 40.”
After she was married and had a family in Scottland, Barnes continued to enjoy running until she was hit with debilitating arthritis in her early forties that made it difficult to walk, let alone run. Over the years she learned ways to manage the pain, eventually getting off the arthritis prescriptions and looking for new sports to try. At age 60 she saw that all of her running buddies had taken up cycling, and she decided to join them.
Barnes started off on a road bike, taking the occasional trail spin on a borrowed whip, and she realized that she loved riding in the forest where she once ran. Her son Joe gave her an XC bike to use, and she rode it for a while but was decidedly focused on improving her technical skills on the bike. She was doing well in local club races and knew that improving her skills on the trail would ultimately move her up in the results. She swapped out the XC bike for trail geometry and continued to improve her skills and fitness together. She is currently racing on Joe’s Canyon hardtail.
With honed skills and a proper bike, she continued to enter Scottish XC races, and decided to head to the World Champs in Andorra in 2017. When race day came Barnes says “they just set up all of the over 50’s riders together, so it was hard to know who I was even racing. Ya just sort of — away you go. I felt pretty good, and they only made us do two laps. I didn’t realize that I had actually won my 60+ category. I couldn’t believe it. It was so incredible!”
The following year she returned for another round to take second place in the 60+ category, and befriend the Australian race winner in the process. She said she enjoyed the race more in 2018 since she knew what to expect, and she had a friend to ride with.
Barnes has a personalized, fun-focused outlook on training. “For most of the year I just ride bikes – mixing it up with road biking, non-technical XC, and also practicing more technical tracks. I do all the local club XC races in the winter and most of the club’s road time-trials in the summer. A couple of months before the big event I will fine tune the training with some interval training and hill reps. I also do yoga about five times a week. This is very important for me – particularly because of the arthritis.” Barnes tops off long days in the saddle with large salads and homemade quiche, whipped up with eggs from the chickens she cares for.
When not training on her favorite trails in the Nevis Range and bike touring with friends, Gill Barnes can be found working on her bungalow, splitting firewood, and spending time with friends and family. “My main displacement activity is splitting logs. I love doing that and stacking the logs neatly.”
Master’s World Champs take place in Mount Saint Anne later this year, where Barnes will bump up to the 65+ category for the first time. We wish her the best of luck!