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When Lotta Henttala quit pro racing mid-way through the 2021 season when she became pregnant, she was suffering from burnout and needed a break.
Henttala had already taken a year-long break from racing when the 2020 season was disrupted by COVID-19, choosing not to return when the racing did in the fall. She made a brief return in May 2021 for five days of racing, before stopping when she discovered she was pregnant.
After making her comeback with the AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step team this season, the Finnish rider is eager to limit the stress of racing and find the joy in it. Though she still has her goals and targets, Henttala doesn’t want to get all consumed by them like she did before.
“I was thinking about it for the last few days a lot actually because I’ve said I want to go to Paris [Olympics] and stuff like that, but I feel like that’s also the old Lotta a little bit and stressing out about having these goals and I’m like, why?,” she told VeloNews.
“I want to enjoy again riding my bike and racing, of course. I’m always eager when I’m in the race. It would be nice to win a race of course, that would be amazing. And I have the Olympics in my mind a little bit to get points to get there. I will see if I can manage it or not, but not to stress too much.”
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Life has changed a lot for Henttala since she took her almost two-year sabbatical, and she gave birth to her first child, a son called Olavi, in January 2022. It gives her a different perspective on her racing than she had before.
“It doesn’t matter if I have a good or bad race. It’s all going to be happy anyways when I come back home,” she said. “Having a family means you need to have quite a schedule planned. I manage time better now when I’m having something else as well.”
Unlike a lot of the riders — such as Lizzie Deignan, Elinor Barker, and Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak — taking maternity leave in recent seasons, Henttala didn’t have any plans to return in the bunch. She was no longer part of a team after leaving her Continental squad Ceratizit-WNT after just two races with them.
She found out she was pregnant soon after those races, after feeling sick during the events and being prompted to take a pregnancy test by her husband — a fellow professional rider who races with Novo Nordisk.
Henttala wasn’t sure if she would ever return to racing, and she began training as a physio during her time off. It was on a trip to Girona with her husband for a training camp that Henttala started to consider racing professionally.
She decided to go out on a ride by herself and she rented a bike from Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio — who would become her teammate this year — because she didn’t have her own bike to ride. It didn’t take long before she started thinking about getting back into the pro peloton.
“I actually rented a bike from Ashleigh, like, because they were renting bikes at Rocacorba cycling. So I had a few rides with the rental bike, and then I was talking with her about it and if I should make a comeback,” Henttala said.
“I talked about it with my husband and then it just happened. I had a text from Carl Pasio, Ashleigh’s husband asking if I was serious. In a blink of an eye, it was like ‘I have an agent for you also.’ And then yeah, I talked with Aschwin [Kruders — rider agent], who is Ashleigh’s agent, and he started to look for a team for me. A few months later, I had a contract.”
Getting pro fit again
Henttala had remained quite fit during her sabbatical, but she had some work to do to get racing fit before the new season. There were a lot more trips to Girona throughout 2022 and Henttala started taking part in some local gravel and cyclocross events in her native Finland to build her fitness and form.
“It was not my plan to make a comeback or anything. And I decided after my kid was born, to make the comeback,” Henttala said. “I had my doubts about how everything is going to be because I wasn’t there for a few years. Of course, my form was not great when I decided to do the comeback.
“It’s actually only a year ago when I decided to do it, not even a year. It was somewhere in April when I started to work out again and it was like half an hour. Right. And then it was one hour, and it was very slow.
“I knew there was a lot of time to make it happen. I tried not to stress too much about it and I think that helped help a lot. Sometimes I was thinking, ‘what I’m doing?’ I was training alone quite a lot because I didn’t have the form to go with other pros.”
Henttala made her return to racing in February at the Volta Ciclista Valenciana. It was almost as though she hadn’t been away as she notched up two second-place finishes in the opening stages before going on to take some solid results at the Ronde van Drenthe and Nokere Koerse in March.
“It was exciting,” she said of being in the bunch again. “Of course, I was a little bit worried about how it would feel in the bunch, after such a long time but it was okay since the first kilometer.”
Being a professional again means dealing with the ups and downs that it brings and her strong start to the season was dampened when she contracted COVID-19. A flare-up a few weeks later of the fever she had meant she spent some two months away from racing in the spring, only returning recently at the Durango-Durango one-day race.
It meant missing a key goal in Paris-Roubaix, a race that was introduced to the calendar during her time off, but there are a lot more races to focus on over the remainder of the season. Indeed, the Tour de France Femmes and Tour of Scandinavia — two more new races added since Henttala went on sabbatical — that she would like to do.
A lot has changed in women’s cycling in the last two years.
“There’s loads more races now, and the peloton is much stronger,” Henttala said. “I was also a little bit afraid of how strong the feeling is going to be. Of course, I was training but I was thinking if this is enough to go in the peloton. Also, the money and the maternity, riders having babies, and stuff like that. It’s a nice change and I hope it develops all the time, year by year.”