When Zoe Bäckstedt took victory in Essen at the Ethias Cross, the teenager wrote herself into the history books. At 17 years and 78 days old, she had become the youngest ever winner of an elite cyclocross in Belgium.
The Ethias win is yet another highlight for an already impressive palmarès. Bäckstedt’s 2021 haul alone includes the junior World Road Championship, European track titles, a world junior record, a national time-trial title, and – as of this winter – the junior European Cyclocross Championship and series lead in the junior World Cup.
A true multi-talent, the 17-year-old’s eclectic pursuit of all cycling disciplines is not such a surprise once you learn how many sports she practised as a youngster.
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“I did tennis, netball, athletics and cycling all at once,” Bäckstedt told Eurosport two days after her historic victory in the Superprestige. A Monday night schedule that included criss-crossing South Wales, starting with netball, and ending in Cardiff on the boards of the velodrome, ingrained the importance of being healthy and practising all sports.
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“Doing all the disciplines, it’s like doing three or four sports at once but on the same machine,” she says of competing in road, cyclocross, track and mountain bike simultaneously.
“You never get bored of riding because you’re always doing something different. During the week when I go out training, I’ll be on the MTB, the cross bike, I’ll go out on the road bike, I’ll do a gravel ride, you name it, I’m basically doing it.”
Cycling is undoubtedly in the blood, with her surname being a familiar one to cycling fans thanks to Zoe’s parents, most notably her father who commentates on cycling for Eurosport / GCN. This is to say nothing of Zoe’s older sister Elynor’s notable results (she currently rides for Women’s WorldTeam Trek-Segafredo). Despite the ties, there was no pressure to follow into the ‘family business’.
“I’ve been riding a bike since I was three and I did my first race at four. I think I had dad running alongside me pushing me up the hills, but I mean, it’s still a race, isn’t it?” Bäckstedt recalls with a smile.
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“When I was younger, I used to build my own bikes. I’d get the frame sent to the house and me and dad would spend a day or two just building it up and basically, he’d go ‘This is what you need’, he goes, ‘Feed it into this hole, and do this and that, and put the little ends on everything like that’.”
Despite the initial love, it would be a while until Bäckstedt enjoyed her time on the bike. “It took me until I was almost 10 to enjoy cycling,” she explains. “I didn’t want to train, and I didn’t want to go to races, so it took me a long time to enjoy it but now I love it, so it worked out in the end.”
Anyone who has kept a close eye on the 17-year-old’s rise through the ranks will probably agree that this enjoyment for racing is something evident in each one of her performances.
Half-welsh, half-Swedish, Bäckstedt has high ambitions racing for Great Britain that match the talent she has shown from a young age.
“I’d love to go to the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, basically any big event you can name, I’d like to be there, win it, podium, whatever.”
Even now, with Bäckstedt on the cusp of graduating to the elite level full-time in cyclocross as an under-23, there is no pressure to specialise.
“There’s many people saying ‘do as much as you can, do whatever discipline you want to do, just do it’ because there’s so many cyclists now that prove that doing more than one discipline is good for you.”
Like the multi-talented riders who came before her, notably the likes of Marianne Vos, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Evie Richards, Bäckstedt has been helped by not specialising. Although she admits it is difficult to piece together a racing calendar, the benefits shine through in her strong performances.
“A lot of the skills that you get from cyclocross especially, transfer onto the track for bunch racing. Having the reaction time from cross, the skills to move quickly and wiggle your way through a bunch really helps. You also get the endurance from the road for cross, so everything you do all ties into one.”
These strengths were particularly evident in Essen where a muddy course forced Bäckstedt off her bike to run large sections of the lap. This was no issue for the Tormans Cyclo Cross Team rider though, who excels in tough conditions.
“Since I’ve started doing a lot more running, I’ve developed so much, and it really helped in Essen. I go well anywhere where power is needed, like a straight section with a bit of mud that you need traction for, that’s my strength.”
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Learning from the greats
Training at Maindy Flyers – the renowned Cardiff club that nurtured the talents of Geraint Thomas and Elinor Barker – has certainly helped Bäckstedt in her development, but she also came under the wing of Dame Sarah Storey while racing for Storey Racing.
“Barney [Storey, Dame Sarah’s husband] and her had a big impact on me,” Bäckstedt says of the 17-time Paralympic champion. “I got to go on a training camp with her in Lanzarote last year. On every ride she’d be giving me tips on fuelling, training, recovery, on literally anything – you name it. I could ask her any question and she or Barney would have an answer. She really helped in my development.”
Now at the Belgian Tormans Cyclo Cross Team, Bäckstedt is learning quickly from another cycling legend, her sports director, the two-time cyclocross world champion Bart Wellens and his brother Geert, the women’s team coach.
“Geert does all of my training with me. He’ll do my efforts with me, and he’ll sit behind me and challenge me into a couple of corners and things like that. He’ll watch me in a block and then we’ll do a recovery lap or two and then he’ll be like ‘on this corner try this line instead’. So even in training I’m picking up different little things from him and he does sand training with me to improve my technical skills, because being a Brit you don’t really have much sand in the UK to train on.”
Even from nearly 700 miles away the day before the snowy Val di Sole world cup, director Bart Wellens kept tabs on Bäckstedt’s performance.
“Bart rang Geert up mid-race and said, ‘she needs to try to go for the fastest lap on the last lap’ so I got fed that information in the race. It’s crazy that he’s watching and tells them to relay information in the race. In general, it’s a fun environment as well, they just have fun with everything they do. We’ll go training and we’ll all just have an amazing laugh.”
This culture has allowed Bäckstedt to thrive as she sets her sights on winning another junior rainbow jersey, this time in cyclocross, at the World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“My teammates raced there earlier in the year and a lot of them have said it will suit me because it’s quite a wide course. I think if I’m feeling right on the day, then I’ve got some good chances.”
Perhaps Bäckstedt will be the rider to break the Dutch dominance in women’s elite cyclocross in the future.
“Maybe next year when I’m an under-23 I could be fighting for some podiums, we’ll see.”
Zoe Backstedt became the youngest rider ever to win an elite Belgian ‘cross event earlier this year
Image credit: Getty Images
As mentioned, Bäckstedt is half-Swedish, and she actually took her first two elite cyclocross victories this year in her father’s homeland at the Täby Park race weekend, a C2 event on the outskirts of the capital Stockholm.
“Sometimes I class myself as fully Swedish,” she says, reflecting on her Scandinavian heritage. “When I did the races in Stockholm at the start of the season everyone was shouting for me like I was one of their own.”
The future is bright for Bäckstedt in all forms of the sport then but with the Paris-Roubaix Femmes now on the racing calendar, comparisons between herself and her 2004 Hell of the North-winning dad Magnus, are inevitably drawn.
“Roubaix is definitely one that I want to win, I want to do it like Dad’s done,” she beams.
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