Former Finnish national champion – and winner of Gent-Wevelgem and Vårgårda – Lotta Henttala (née Lepistö), returns to the professional peloton after a break from racing. She became mum to son Olavi in January 2022 and has now signed with AG Insurance-NXTG for 2023, with the 2024 Paris Olympics in mind.
“I was chatting with Ashleigh [Moolman-Pasio] one day maybe make a comeback,” Henttala says from her home in Finland while feeding her son some breakfast. “I never really told anyone that I retired, so it’s just a comeback, a Lotta 2.0. Carl [Pasio] asked me if I was serious about the idea and I said ‘Why not! Let’s do this!’
“My manager then discussed with Natascha Knaven-den Ouden [CEO of AG Insurance-NXTG – ed.] and we had a connection. This team looks like a game. She was extremely supportive of the plan, so I said yes.
Henttala quit the sport due to her pregnancy, but before that she also took time off due to burnout. The 33-year-old feels she’s back on track now.
“My body really needed time to recover after everything I had been through,” she says. “I definitely wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t really ready physically but also mentally. There was so much going on in my life at the same time and I was really exhausted, but I’m leaving that behind and looking to the future. future now.
After a brief stint at Ceratizit-WNT in 2021, where she only did a few races, Henttala became pregnant and had to give up her place at the delayed Tokyo Olympics (where she had qualified as the only runner for Finland). She and her partner Joonas, a Team Novo Nordisk pro, then became parents earlier this year.
“At the end of March, I started riding again, which I hadn’t done for over a year,” says Henttala. “During this trip, I immediately thought of the Paris Olympics. I went home and told Joonas it was the first time I had fun on the bike in a long time. He supported us and we decided to go step by step. Then I started cycling every day and seeing how it went.
” Everything went well. I spoke with my manager Aschwin [Kruders] again and I felt committed to doing that again, to being a professional cyclist.
Henttala won’t be the only mom in the pro peloton. Paris-Roubaix winner Lizzie Deignan is an inspiring example, but Marta Bastianelli, Jesse Vandenbulcke and Tamara Dronova – one of the notable new names on the Women’s WorldTour circuit – have all returned after having children as well.
“Of course there are doubts,” says Henttala. “You never know how it’s all going to turn out. I haven’t been in a pro peloton for two years. How will I feel as a mom? Am I taking the big risks in the sprint, finding the gaps and all? These are all questions I have.
“I haven’t really spoken to the other mums in the peloton because I chose my own route. I chose not to sign a contract during my pregnancy. I didn’t know how I was going to feel and if I even wanted to do this again now that I’m a mom. I really needed time to get to know my child.
“I didn’t know if professional cycling was for me. But there was also the moment when I thought: ‘I’m getting old and if I want to do this, it’s now’. The return can be a month where I feel like it just doesn’t work. Or it may take a few years and then I’ll retire the right way.
At AG Insurance-NXTG, Henttala will reunite with Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, a former Cervélo-Bigla teammate. It will also find plenty of very young riders coming from what started out as an U23 development team.
“Lotta is a very experienced runner and an all-around sprinter,” said team manager Knaven-den Ouden of Henttala in the team’s press release. “She has shown mental resilience in her career and won big races.
“Lotta not only brings us her experience on the bike but also her life experience. We tend to approach the development of our riders holistically, so not only focusing on athletic performance but also mental toughness to support their goals during their cycling career and beyond. More than half of our team are young women and I see Lotta as an important person in the team structure.
“It’s also great to see that women’s cycling is progressing so fast. Only a few years ago pregnancy meant the end of your career and now it’s just a break. Riders like Lizzie Deignan or Marta Bastianelli have shown that coming back stronger is quite possible. Lotta dreams of representing Finland at the Paris Olympics and I want to help her achieve this dream.
In just a few years, the women’s peloton has changed enormously. Riders who sign a contract with a WorldTour team are granted maternity leave when just a few years ago pregnancy meant riders ended their careers. Undeniably, motherhood has its challenges, but Henttala is ready to meet them.
“Of course things are different now,” she says. “Olavi is a very happy baby and that makes it easier, but we have to plan a bit more because we’re not as flexible as a 20-year-old. We need a good race schedule which I do because the challenges are big enough as they are.
“When we were racing together Joonas and I were always out at different times. Novo Nordisk doesn’t have a big schedule like a WorldTour team. Also we have my parents and his parents who really want to help whether we’re at home in Finland or Girona. The team is also accommodating and they will let me take Olavi to training camps. He can also learn a little Dutch,” she adds with a smile.
“We talk more about being a mum and an athlete now. Motherhood is normal for a woman. It is also completely normal that as an athlete you can get pregnant. Being a mum and a professional athlete is now normal, in cycling but also in other sports.
As Henttala thinks about the challenges that come with combining a career with motherhood, she also sees the benefits.
“I feel freer when I train,” she says. “The bike is not the only thing in my life anymore. I don’t feel like I have things to prove to the outside world. I want to prove to myself that I can come back to the highest level. It’s good to win myself or to help the team to win, but I see things differently now. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose. Olavi will be at home and for him it doesn’t matter if I’m first or last. He will be happy no matter what.
While away from sports, Henttala followed cycling as an expert commentator for Eurosport Finland. The Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix are races that have captured everyone’s imagination, like his.
“It’s nice to experience the sport from the sidelines and see it from start to finish,” she says. “The competition is so much tougher than a few years ago. There are so many more runners on the starting line who can win. There’s more money in sport with minimum wages. Teams are so much more professional now with Team Buses. TV shows make such a big difference. Also, runners are aware of not doing a sticky bottle or anything like that.
Henttala is eagerly awaiting his return but has no set plan in mind other than the Paris Olympics as a point on the horizon to look forward to.
“It will be a shock to the system next season for sure,” she said. “I’m honest with the team that it might not work immediately in February. It’s normal that I don’t get the results right away. I have time to find my place. I’m trying my best and if all goes well, we’ll see what happens.
“It’s comparable to the young riders on the team coming from the junior ranks. It’s a new start. I am convinced that I can be good enough. I’m sure the first races will be a slap in the face, but I wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a big chance of success.
Henttala looks forward to working with Moolman-Pasio, to help support the next generation of riders across the team.
“There is a lot of talent in the team and it would be good to pass it on, to help them become the future stars of cycling,” she said. “I want to be a good teammate, give everything to the team leader and show that perseverance. If I have a chance to win, I also want to try to be a good leader again but also, I aim to be more relaxed than in my career 1.0.
“When things don’t go as planned, you can always try again next time. This is one of my important life lessons.
Henttala does not want to set a date for its first race. She follows the process step by step.
“I did my first FTP test, which was great in a way because it’s the start of something new,” she says. “It would be nice to do Roubaix because it would be a dream race but it might be too soon for me. I haven’t trained for months but I can only be stronger from today. today.
“The challenge starts now and I’m looking forward to it. Bringing it on.”