As her father and 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus potters around behind her, Zoe Bäckstedt struggles to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes her so much better than other 18-year-olds. She does, after all, have not one but four world titles to her name right now.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you,” she tells Cycling Weekly from her winter home in the Flemish countryside. “I get part of my cycling skills from my parents, obviously my dad winning Roubaix, my mum being national road champion, things like that.”
“It’s useful having a cycling family as my background, but I put a lot of hard work into my riding, training and racing.”
Bäckstedt doesn’t get an off-season like other riders. For her, the racing never really stops.
“If I were just a road rider, I’d probably have a month off and then go to Spain or somewhere sunny for a really long training camp,” she says.
But she’s more than just a road rider. Each year, when the nights begin to draw in, Bäckstedt’s focus shifts to cyclo-cross, her favourite discipline. Her face lights up as she begins to explain the joys of cold mornings spent racing through mud.
“I just love it,” she says. “I embrace the pure grit and grime of Belgian winter and basically just layer up.”
“It’s like two degrees in the middle of a field in Belgium somewhere and you’re like ‘Why am I here?’ But yeah, I just love it.”
Over the past month, the teenager has been so busy border hopping between races that she’s barely had a chance to reflect on her season. When she does, she’ll realise that 2022 was special. Even by her high standards.
Bäckstedt opened the year by winning her first Junior Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, breaking away from the rest of the field on the opening lap. In August, she travelled to Tel Aviv, Israel, where she claimed the junior Madison world title on the track with her partner Grace Lister.
When asked what her favourite race of the season was, though, she barely stops to take a breath. “I’ve got to say road Worlds,” she replies. “Probably the road race and the time trial, doing the double.”
In September, a week after completing a clean sweep at the three-stage Watersley Ladies Challenge, Bäckstedt headed to Wollongong, Australia, as the clear favourite for both events. She was the defending junior road world champion, and had only missed out on the gold in the time trial by 10 seconds the year before.
As the hype built up around her and expectation grew larger, Bäckstedt took no notice. Instead, she was out doing what she does best. Preparing.
“I’d done a lot of studying, let’s say. I’d done my homework on the TT course. I’d been watching GoPro laps from months before. I GoPro’d the lap myself, so I watched that back twice before I raced and I had basically commentated my whole way through the lap. Just saying what gear I was in, power, which side of the road was better, down to…” She pauses. “I’d nailed it.”
When the teenager showed the footage to her coach Emma Trott, sister of five-time Olympic gold medallist Laura Kenny, it was met with astonishment. “She was like ‘I don’t get how you do it’,” Bäckstedt says. “I was just riding along and basically screaming at my GoPro at the side of me.”
Rolling down the start ramp, the Brit knew she’d have to ride hard to avoid the disappointment of the previous year. So she tore hell for leather, hurtling towards the first time check quicker than elite women’s race winner Ellen van Dijk had gone two days previously.
“I was literally going full gas to that time check,” Bäckstedt says. “I knew that once I had gotten myself up the climb, there was a little bit of respite with the downhill. Then it was full gas to the finish.”
Back home in South Wales, with the clock nearing 2am, her parents watched on nervously from their living room. As their youngest child thundered around the course, Magnus and Meg grew more agitated, rising up out of the family sofa to stand closer to the television. Watching her daughter descend, Meg’s heart rate rose to 155 beats per minute.
“I think that was probably higher than my heart rate, if I’m honest,” the 18-year-old laughs. “I think she gets more nervous for races than I do.”
Four days later, Meg would have to battle her nerves again, this time watching Zoe's defence of her road race title.
“In recon, I said to my teammates, if it’s dry on the course, you don’t need to break in the corners on the downhill,” the teenager says. “That’s pretty much what I did, apart from one corner, for the whole first descent. I looked back as we went over the first climb and there was a bit of a gap. So I was like ‘Well, we’re like three, four, five riders here, let’s push on and see what happens.’”
The Brit ended up spending just 15 minutes alongside her rivals in the race. With 58km to go, she roared off the front - something she has a real habit of doing - and was never seen again. Her winning margin of 2-07 was the largest ever recorded in the junior ranks, and the victory was made even sweeter by it coming on her 18th birthday.
“I had a lot of people saying happy birthday to me up Mount Pleasant. I’m like absolutely dying, chewing my stem, and they sing happy birthday?” she laughs, starting to sing the sombre tune. “That’s not motivational at all!”
As she rode down the finishing straight in Wollongong, Bäckstedt’s face was awash with tears. “I came across the finish line and I just kind of got a bit emotional,” she says. “I was 18 and crossing the line to win my fifth world title. I was like, 'Wow,' I felt quite proud of myself in that moment. Probably a kilometre out I started welling up, and then just that last 100m, it was crazy.”
The warm welcome she received at the roadside also took hold of her. “Apparently the Austalians love the Brits,” Bäckstedt laughs. “Down the whole finishing straight people were shouting for me, every single lap, anywhere I was on the course, just shouting for me.”
With a birthday and two new rainbow jerseys to celebrate, Bäckstedt toasted her successes as any adult would. “Obviously I had a little bit of champagne,” she says. “I basically spent the evening with my sister and the rest of the elite women and the junior women. And that was about it, if I’m honest. Just having a chill time, you know?”
It’s a wonder Bäckstedt finds the time to relax between racing and training, but she does. Asked what she likes to do outside of cycling, she answers bluntly. “Netflix,” she says, making her father chuckle in the background. “Dad and I just finished How to Get Away with Murder, and now we’re watching Shooter.
“We watched eight episodes of this one series yesterday. What was it called? It was something about houses, buying million dollar houses, and Dad was just like, 'Whoa,' and I was like, 'Whoa.' We finished one season, like the whole thing, in half a day.”
Next year, the teenager will get to spend more time with her father, with both of them joining the women’s WorldTour, albeit for rival teams. While Zoe dons the bright pink of EF Education-TIBCO-SVB, Magnus will be part of the race cavalcade as Canyon-SRAM’s lead sports director.
“This guy is going to get it!” she says, scrunching up her face to look tough. “No, I’m kidding. It’ll be interesting. Obviously I can’t now go to Dad and text him and be like, ‘Oh, this is what our plan is.’ And he can’t ask me.
“Mum is the neutral now for me, Dad and Elynor [Zoe’s sister who rides for Trek-Segafredo]. She’s the mastermind who knows all the team plans at the moment.”
Today, as the junior world champion prepares to take her first steps in the senior ranks, she seems relaxed. She knows many are forecasting big things, but that doesn’t faze her one bit. “There’s no pressure on me to go straight in and get results,” Bäckstedt says. “Coming up from a junior and doing that in your first year is virtually impossible.
“I’m just here to help out the team, hope they can get some results and just find who I am. I really look forward to what’s to come next season.”
This interview originally appeared in Cycling Weekly magazine on 1 December. Subscribe now and never miss an issue in 2023.
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