Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
What do you do when you’ve just won two world titles? In Zoe Bäckstedt’s case, you start preparing for the upcoming cyclocross season, but not before a well-earned break.
“Basically from the moment I finished the race in Australia, that was when my off season started,” she says. “So I had 10 days off the bike, got back on the bike for two days and then got food poisoning.”
Despite the enforced extra few days off the bike thanks to whatever dodgy meal left her “throwing up everywhere all the time”, Bäckstedt managed to enjoy a few weeks of normality before plunging headfirst into yet more racing. She spent most of the time at home in Wales with her parents and sister before heading off to Belgium, where she will stay for most of the winter.
“I just kind of wanted to get as much time at home in my normal environment as I could. But now I class this as normal if I’m honest.”
When we speak, Bäckstedt’s father, Magnus, former pro and Paris-Roubaix winner turned commentator – and who will be a Canyon//SRAM directeur sportif for 2023 – is staying with her in the house they have rented for the season. Which, Bäckstedt tells me, is an upgrade from the camper van they lived out of last year.
“It’s a better situation as in I’m not living out of a motorhome for the whole of a freezing Belgian winter,” she says.
This year, Bäckstedt will be spending more time on her own than in previous seasons spent with her dad, who is due to leave a few days after we speak. “Once he goes I’m on my own for a little bit, but that’s not a problem.”
It’s a big step for any 18-year-old to live in a foreign country away from her family, albeit not dissimilar to what many others her age go through when heading to university. But such is the lifestyle of a cyclist, and it is one that she will have to adjust to if she continues her rapid upward trajectory.
“At the moment, I’m finding it okay,” Bäckstedt says. “Obviously, I miss my mum, she’s not been here. I won’t see her maybe even until Christmas. But at the moment, it’s okay.”
Despite the distance from her family, she also relishes the independence, including, in typical teenage fashion, the ability to “blast my music as loud as I want.”
“I’m quite an independent person, sometimes, so I quite like the aspect of just living on my own and doing stuff how I want to do it and just being able to be me,” she says.
She may come from significant cycling pedigree – her mother is a former British national champion – but Bäckstedt insists that she was not pushed towards the peloton by her parents.
“Cycling wasn’t something I wanted to do until I was maybe nine or ten years old,” she says. “I did netball, tennis, athletics, cross country, cycling all basically at once. And I got to a point where it was like certain sessions were overlapping as I got older and into a different age group.”
She realised she had to narrow it down to one sport and chose cycling: “that was probably the best decision I’ve made in a long time.” And it’s one that has already paid dividends.
At just 18 years old, Bäckstedt exudes a confidence that can only be borne out of the kind of achievements she has under her belt at this early stage in her career. In just a little over a year, she has set world records on the track in the individual and team pursuit, taken the junior cyclocross world title, twice won the junior road world title, claimed the junior time trial world title, and taken her first senior ‘cross win.
But all of this glory at the tender age of 18 carries significant pressure. Luckily for Bäckstedt, she has solid support around her in the form of her family, her team EF Education First-Tibco-SVB, and her coach, Emma Trott.
“I feel more pressure from myself than anything else,” Bäckstedt explains. “This is where my coach is quite good. She knows when I get nervous. And when I get stressed for a race I basically just lose control of what I’m thinking and everything like that. And she can see that I get stressed. So if she’s there, she’s probably the first person to calm me down and go, ‘just chill,’ take five to go and lie on your bed, put some Netflix on and chill out.”
It was Trott who coached her through her time trial win in Wollongong. “She was just talking to me. Just talking me through things,” Bäckstedt says.
At the back of the young rider’s mind was the previous year’s ITT, in which she lost the title by 10 seconds to Russia’s Alena Ivanchenko, who did not race in Australia. She knew, however, that she could do it this time, telling herself: “Last year, you were 10 seconds down. But you were also the best first year. So chances are, you can get it this year.
“I’ve done so much work, not necessarily on the time trial bike, but just doing so much work to make sure that, you know, I could hold a set amount of power for 20 minutes.”
Even so, Bäckstedt didn’t quite dare to believe she had won until the very last moments. “I couldn’t see the board, which is why you see me, just as I crossed the line, punch the air. Because I was like, ‘I don’t know if I have, but I’m gonna assume because my coach said I was like a minute and a half up’.”
Four days later, on her 18th birthday, it was time to defend her junior road race world title. “The road race is weird, because there’s not really much to say about it, because I spent it off the front.”
In those kilometres she spent away, Bäckstedt built up a lead of over two minutes to her rivals but, she says, “I never planned to go off the front that early.
“We didn’t necessarily go in for me to win. We went having four possibilities of winning,” she says of her GB teammates Grace Lister, Izzy Sharp, and Awen Roberts. “It’s a team race and I would have been just as happy if one of the first years got it so that they could wear it next year like I did.”
But in the end it was Bäckstedt who trounced the field and took her second and final junior road race world title.
“Coming into the finish was just…I was overwhelmed,” she recalls. “[In the final 500 m] I took my glasses off because I was starting to cry.”
Next year she will be U23 but, controversially, there is currently no separate event for U23 women at the World Championships. An U23 title was introduced this year with New Zealander Niamh Fisher-Black taking the honours, but the U23 women won’t get their own race until 2025 in Rwanda.
“I feel like there are enough U23 women that are of the standard to race,” says Bäckstedt. “I mean, you can see that there were a lot of U23s in the front group at Worlds this year. So it’s clear to pretty much everyone that we’re capable of having our own race.”
But while she backs a separate World Championship event, Bäckstedt believes that there is value in U23 women racing with the elites at WorldTour level.
“I think at the moment it’s actually quite good racing with the elites. It’s the same in cyclocross, you learn so much from racing with the elite women. My first years as a junior racing with the elites, I learned so much in so many ways I didn’t realise. It’s just something that you can’t teach yourself.”
Bäckstedt’s cyclocross season is already well underway, but she has, by her own admission, struggled in the early events.
“I’ve struggled the first couple of races just to kind of find my groove in the field on the ‘cross bike,” she says. “It’s been so long since I did it and I’ve spent so much time on my road bike on the actual road, and there’s so much difference between then two.”
After racing a double-header weekend of French Cups alongside teammate Clara Honsinger, Bäckstedt placed 22nd in her first World Cup race of the season. The European Championship in Namur was a target but a puncture and then a crash meant the best she could manage was a still very respectable fifth.
Her goals, however, are later in the season with the World Championships, “and then nationals, that will be a big one for me. I’m really looking forward to that.”
Beyond the ‘cross season, Bäckstedt has her sights on the Classics on the road.
“The plan at the moment is to basically go from ‘cross straight into the Classics,” she explains. “Because from the last actual ‘cross race of the season, the first road race is the day before. They literally go straight into each other. So hopefully, if I’m going well at the end of the ‘cross season, then I have some form for the road.”
Balancing two disciplines can be a tightrope walk to manage rest and recovery, and periods of peak performance but, says Bäckstedt, “I leave my coach to plan it, along with the team.. it all seems to have worked out so far with planning for the ‘cross and road season.
“I just have a lot of trust in them.”
A big goal is to follow in her father’s footsteps and earn herself a cobblestone trophy at Paris-Roubaix.
“Maybe not next year,” she concedes. “But definitely for the future Roubaix is something that I would absolutely love to win.”
She couldn’t ask for a better mentor than her father. “I’ve watched his race, I’ve watched all of the races that he’s done. And he’s told me stories about everything about different sectors of cobbles, different corners, different cobblestones and crashes that happened, and the lead-in to each sector – he knows it all like the back of his hand. It’s crazy how much detail he can give me on one sector of cobbles, that kind of thing.”
But that’s for another time, next season will be about “finding where I am within the team. Finding where I am within the WorldTour peloton and not going full gas from the start because, like I say, I don’t want to burn out, I’ve hopefully got a long career ahead of me.
“I don’t want to do too much now so that I can’t still be performing at my best in 10 years time, 20 years time, even.”
Given that the most dominant female rider in the sport is more than double Bäckstedt’s age, we could be seeing her win for a long time to come.