This interview originally appeared in the March 24, 2022 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.
“I can’t be serious when everyone is staring at me,” Zoe Bäckstedt says as CW photographer Olly asks her to do a meaner face. “I can have fun,” she adds. Soon, many people will be watching her, because if there’s one thing that sticks out after an hour in Bäckstedt’s company, it’s that she’s a superstar in waiting.
Although she protests that she needs a break after a long road, track and cyclo-cross season, which she extended to allow her to wear her newly acquired CX rainbow jersey, the 17 year old girl is a bundle of charm and energy; quick to crack jokes, quicker to smile, and quicker still to flash her rainbow-themed nail polish. It’s impossible to capture her energy through a lens, but we’re confident she’ll shine even brighter in a year or two when the television cameras of the world’s biggest races focus on her.
Aware of what lies ahead, British Cycling junior coach Emma Trott has put Bäckstedt in touch with her sister Laura Kenny to guide her in handling that attention. “I talked to them about how to deal with the expectation of potentially being the next big thing,” Trott says. “I don’t have that experience, it was never me, but Laura did. So why don’t we use someone within the GB system who has this wealth of knowledge that can help? »
Not that any of it would matter if she wasn’t performing well on the bike. In the past 12 months, Bäckstedt has set a new junior individual pursuit world record, is part of a team pursuit world record team, won the road world championship and the cyclocross world championship , and his first senior cyclo-cross race.
When asked what is her personal highlight among all of this, she doesn’t hesitate: “Road Worlds. I went there thinking I had the chance to win the time trial. The course was flat, it’s fine for me to put on the skis and lower the power, but the Russian beat me by 10 seconds. I was let down by that,” the palpable deflation in his voice even now. “Then when we recognized the course of the road race, I came back and said to my trainer: ‘I love it. The climbs were long but not long enough to hurt me, they were steep but not too steep and you could ring them if you wanted to tackle them.
It wasn’t just Bäckstedt who could sense that something special was about to happen. “We put in some effort on some of the climbs and passed the Dutch elite and they said to our coach, ‘If they do like that in the road race, nobody’s going to follow them.’
“I got my all-time best one-minute power on this race two days before the road race,” she reveals. She was 16 that day; she would be 17 the day before the race. The race itself went much like this predicted practice race with the British team repeatedly sending riders out onto the road. When Bäckstedt escaped with American Kaia Schmidt in the third of five rounds, they worked together, not that the muscular 5ft 8in Bäckstedt took shelter well behind the skinny 4ft 9in American: ” I’m sitting behind her and I’m just in the wind. I was like, ‘I might as well be up front here.’ She would eventually beat her in a sprint. How did she celebrate this afternoon in Brussels? “We walked into the center, got myself a waffle with Nutella on it and went to see the elite races.”
Dreaming of Cardiff
It wasn’t always about dreams of chocolate covered waffles when she was growing up in a small village just outside Cardiff. His first memory of cycling as a sport is seeing his father, and Paris-Roubaix winner, Magnus Bäckstedt racing around Canary Wharf in London during a Tour Series round. Although she comes from such a cycling-centric family – her sister Elynor now rides for Trek-Segafredo and her mother Meg was a national champion – and has raced and won since the age of five, she is not not immediately fell in love with the sport. “It took me until I was 10 to love cycling,” she says. “Before, I was doing netball, tennis, athletics and cycling at the same time.” She was quite good at tennis and sometimes played with her classmate Ella MacLean-Howell – now also a cyclist who finished fourth at the CX Junior World Championships.
But one day she felt the need to focus on one thing, and that thing became cycling. Bäckstedt and his father used to build his bikes together, although the skills didn’t seem to have stuck. “If something is wrong with my bike, I have to take it to a mechanic. I went out with a couple of the boys from my team in the winter and said to them, ‘You know, if I had a flat tire or something wrong with my bike, you’ll have to fix it. Because I have no idea what I’m doing,” she says.
Not even a puncture? “I can change one. But I had really nice nails back then and I didn’t want to break them.
By the time she reached the youth ranks, she had already racked up six national titles. At the end of 2020, she had recorded her first major international victory at the UCI Junior World Cup in Tabor, having turned 16 two months before.
But even with this trajectory, the results for 2021 would have been difficult to predict. There was one victory in a stage race at the junior Tour de Yorkshire in June; then a national title against the clock and a European gold medal in the individual pursuit (where she beat her older sister’s world record over 2,000 m in 2.17.494) and a gold medal in the team pursuit. She would end her road season with victory at the World Championship before focusing on cross country and another world title.
It’s perhaps no surprise given her success in all disciplines that she cites Marianne Vos as her inspiration. “I interviewed her in 2019 for GCN, and now I’m on the starting line with her. It’s so cool,” she said breathlessly. is cool. I’m front row with Lucinda [Brand, Trek-Segafredo rider] and people like that and I think, ‘I shouldn’t be here. But I am!'”
Star struck, perhaps. Intimidated? Definitely not. “I had to apologize to Lucinda several times because I pushed her out of the way. But if I have a good start, I have a good start and she has to pass me.
Building on her victory at the Road Worlds, she entered the 2021-22 cyclo-cross season with the ambition of winning both the UCI World Cup and the World Championships. As time passed in 2022, everything was going according to plan: she had won all three rounds of the World Cup and was at the top of the standings. Then on Thursday January 6, just before she was due to race the national championship this weekend, disaster struck.
“I was on turbo in the evening and my throat hadn’t felt good all day. I was like, ‘You know what? I tested negative for Covid in the morning. I’m just going to go take a test. Everything will be alright.’ I turned off the turbo, did my test and waited 10 minutes, nothing. So I went back on the turbo and I continued to do my session. And Elynor’s fiancé came in and said, ‘Zoe, maybe you should turn off the turbo.’ And he hands me the test. I looked at him and burst into tears,” she recalls.
“We spent a week sitting on the couch,” she says. “In the house, eating mini eggs and watching a lot of TV…the days were so long.” As she waited to recover, Dutch Leonie Bentveld, who had finished second in all previous races, won the final round of the World Cup and overtook her in the standings. Then the final race was canceled due to Covid-19, sealing his fate.
She got her revenge at the world championships. On lap one, the first time on the main climb of the course, Bäckstedt launched an attack that instantly put 10 yards on everyone. It grew from there and five laps later she crossed the finish line never looking like she gave up her considerable advantage. The downtime had given him “a little extra fire”.
As a two-time world champion, we assume there has been interest in signing her to WorldTour teams; maybe an agreement has already been made? There are furtive glances between Bäckstedt and his agent when we ask. “I can’t really say anything about any of this,” she said.
She would enjoy her one chance to wear the jersey at a race in Lille a week later before doing a few more elite races. “I came back on Tuesday to Belgium, Wednesday where I went out with the team, we went to where the race was at the weekend and I was in my kit for Worlds and there was this race for children that day.
“So many people were coming up to me asking for signatures on random things because no one really thought I was going to be there. I was going out on the course and people were trying to call me aside for pictures. I was like , ‘It’s awesome.’ Something tells us there’s going to be a lot more awesome stuff to come.
Who is the best Bäckstedt?
We know the whole family is great at riding bikes, but how does it fare in all the other things that come with life on a bike? Zoe Bäckstedt breaks it down for us
WRAP BAR TAPE
Worst: Me. Came back to a canal once while we were on the Belgian border and had to ride 5km of gravel as the road I wanted to be on was on the other side of the canal
REPAIRING A PUNCTURE
Worst: Mom. “I’ll never do it for you again,” said mom, Meg
TO MAKE A CAKE
Best: Mom. I’m also pretty good but I’ll give this one to mom
Worst: Dad. He’s really good at healthy meals
DJ-ING AUTO STEREO
Best: I’m the best DJ out there!
Worst: I can’t answer this question because we all like different things