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Former Finnish national champion – and Gent-Wevelgem and Vårgårda winner – Lotta Henttala (née Lepistö), is returning to the pro peloton after a break from racing. She became a mum to son Olavi in January 2022 and has now signed with AG Insurance-NXTG for 2023, with the 2024 Paris Olympics on her mind.
“I was chatting to Ashleigh [Moolman-Pasio] one day about maybe doing a comeback,” Henttala says from her home in Finland while feeding her son some breakfast. “I never really told anyone 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 had a chat with Natascha Knaven-den Ouden [CEO of AG Insurance-NXTG – ed.] and we had a connection. This team feels like a match. She was hugely supportive of the plan so I said yes.”
Henttala has been out of the sport because of her pregnancy but prior to that she also took some time away due to burnout. The 33-year-old feels she is back on track now.
“My body really needed and got the time to recover after all I had been through,” she says. “I would most definitely not 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 burnt out but I am leaving this behind and looking to the future now.”
After a brief stint at Ceratizit-WNT in 2021, where she only did a couple of races, Henttala became pregnant and had to forfeit her spot in the delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo (where she had qualified as the sole rider for Finland). She and her partner Joonas, a pro with Team Novo Nordisk, then became parents at the start of this year.
“At the end of March, I started riding again which I hadn’t done for over a year,” Henttala says. “During that ride I immediately thought about the Paris Olympics. I went home and told Joonas that it was the first time I had fun on the bike in a long time. He was supportive and we decided to go step by step. Then I started to ride a bike every day and see how it goes.
“That all went nicely. I talked with my manager Aschwin [Kruders] again and I felt committed to do this again, to be a pro cyclist.”
Henttala won’t be the only mum in the pro peloton. Paris-Roubaix winner Lizzie Deignan is an inspirational example but Marta Bastianelli, Jesse Vandenbulcke, and Tamara Dronova – one of the remarkable new names on the Women’s WorldTour circuit – all came back after having had children too.
“Of course, there are doubts,” Henttala says. “You never know how this will all go. I haven’t been in a pro peloton for two years. How am I going to feel as a mum? Do I take the big risks in the sprint, finding the gaps and everything? These are all questions I have.
“I haven’t really talked to other mums in the peloton because I chose my own road. I chose not to sign a contract while I was pregnant. I didn’t know how I was going to feel and whether I even wanted to do this again now I am a mum. I really needed some time to get to know my child.
“I wasn’t sure if pro cycling was for me. But there was also the moment I thought: ‘I am getting older and if I want to do this, it’s now.’ The comeback may be one month when I feel that it’s just not working. Or it may be a couple of years and then I retire the right way.”
At AG Insurance-NXTG Henttala will be reunited with Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, a former Cervélo-Bigla teammate. She will also find a lot of very young riders coming through what was started as a U23 development team.
“Lotta is a highly experienced rider and a versatile sprinter,” says team manager Knaven-den Ouden of Henttala in the team’s press release. “She has shown mental resilience in her career and has won great races.
“Lotta doesn’t only bring 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 the athletic performance but also on mental strength to support their goals during their cycling career but also after it. Over 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 handful 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 very well possible. Lotta has a dream to represent Finland at the Olympic Games in Paris and I want to help her make that dream come true.”
In only a few years the women’s peloton has changed tremendously. Riders who sign a contract on a WorldTour team get maternity leave while only a few years ago pregnancy meant riders would end their careers. Undeniably motherhood has its challenges but Henttala is up for those.
“Of course, things are different now,” she says. “Olavi is a very happy baby and that makes things easier but we need to plan a bit more because we are not as flexible as a 20-year-old. We need a good schedule of the races I do because the challenges are big enough as they are.
“When we were racing together, Joonas and I were always away at different times. Novo Nordisk doesn’t have a big calendar like a WorldTour team. Also, we have my parents and his parents who really want to help, whether we are at home in Finland or in Girona. The team is accommodating as well and they will let me take Olavi to training camps. He can learn some Dutch too,” she adds with a smile.
“There is more talk about being a mum and an athlete now. Motherhood is normal for a woman. It’s also completely normal that as an athlete you can become pregnant. Being a mum and pro athlete is now normal, in cycling but also in other sports.”
While Henttala thinks about the challenges that come with combining a career with motherhood, she also sees the advantages.
“I do feel freer when I go training,” she says. “Cycling is not the only thing in my life anymore. I don’t feel like I have things to prove to the outside world. I do want to prove to myself that I can get back to top level. It’s nice to win myself or help the team win but I look at it different now. It doesn’t matter that much anymore when I win or lose. Olavi will be at home and for him it doesn’t matter whether I am first or last. He will be happy regardless.”
While she was away from the sport, Henttala did follow cycling as an expert commentator for Eurosport Finland. The Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix were races that caught everyone’s imagination, as they did hers.
“It is nice to experience the sport from the sideline and see it from start to finish,” she says. “The competition is so much harder than a few years ago. There are so many more riders on the start line who can win. There is more money in the sport with the minimum salaries. Teams are so much more professional now with team buses. The TV broadcasts make such a big difference. Also, riders are aware to not do a sticky bottle or something.”
Henttala looks forward to her comeback but doesn’t have a fixed plan on her mind, apart from the Paris Olympics as a dot on the horizon to look forward to.
“It will be a shock to the system next season, that is for sure,” she says. “I am honest with the team that this might not work out immediately in February. It’s OK that I don’t get the results straight away. I have time to find my footing again. I try my very best and if it’s going well, we will see what happens.
“It’s comparable to the young riders on the team who come from the junior ranks. It’s a new start. I am confident that I can be good enough. I am sure the first races will be a slap in the face but I just would not do this if there was not a high chance of success.”
Henttala’s looking forward to working with Moolman-Pasio, to help support the next generation of riders coming through the team.
“There is a lot of talent on the team and it would be nice to pay it forward, to help them become the future stars in cycling,” she says. “I want to be a good teammate, give everything to the team leader and show that perseverance. If I get 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 to plan, you can always try again next time. This is one of my important life lessons.”
Henttala doesn’t want to pin a date on her first race. She is taking 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 that would be a dream race but it might be too soon for me. I haven’t been training that many months yet but I can only be stronger from today on.
“The challenge starts now and I am looking forward to it. Bring it on.”