This interview with the 2022 Junior Women's World Time Trail Champion originally appeared in the 24 March 2022 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.
“I can’t do serious when everyone is looking at me,” says Zoe Bäckstedt as Cycling Weekly photographer Olly asks her to do a more mean face. “I can do fun,” she adds. Pretty soon there’s going to be a lot of people looking at her because if there’s one thing that is apparent after an hour in Bäckstedt’s company it’s that she’s every inch a superstar in waiting.
Even as she protests that she needs a break after a long road, track and cyclocross season, which she extended to allow her to wear her newly acquired cyclocross rainbow jersey, the 17-year-old is a bundle of charm and energy; quick to make jokes, quicker to smile and quicker still to flash her rainbow themed nail varnish. It’s impossible to capture her energy through a lens but we’re confident she’ll shine brighter still in a year or two when the TV cameras at the world’s biggest races focus on her.
Aware of what’s coming her way, British Cycling junior coach Emma Trott put Bäckstedt in touch with her sister Laura Kenny to mentor her in managing that attention. “I spoke to them about how to manage the expectation of being potentially the next big thing,” Trott says. “I don’t have that experience, it was never me, but Laura does. So why don’t we use someone within the GB system that has that wealth of knowledge that can help?”
Not that any of that would matter if she wasn’t performing on the bike. In the last 12 months Bäckstedt has set a new junior individual pursuit world record, been part of a team pursuit world record riding squad, won the road World Championship and the cyclo-cross World Championship, and her first senior cyclo-cross race.
When we ask her what her personal highlight of all these is she doesn’t hesitate: “Road Worlds. I went there thinking I had the chance to win the time trial. The course was pan-flat, it suits me to tuck into the skis and put the power down, but the Russian beat me by 10 seconds. I was disappointed with that,” the deflation palpable in her voice even now. “Then when we recced the road race course I came back and said to my coach, ‘I absolutely love it.’ The climbs were long but not long enough to hurt me, they were steep but not too steep and you could big ring them if you wanted to attack on them.”
It wasn’t just Bäckstedt who could sense that something special was about to happen. “We did a couple of efforts on some of the climbs and rode past the elite Dutch girls and they said to our coach, ‘If they go like that in the road race then no one is going to follow them.’
“I got my all-time best one-minute power on that ride two days before the road race,” she reveals. She was 16 that day; she’d turn 17 the day before the race. The race itself played out much as that training ride foretold with the British squad repeatedly sending riders up the road. When Bäckstedt escaped with American Kaia Schmidt on the third of five laps they worked together, not that the muscular 5ft 8in Bäckstedt got much shelter behind the skinny 4ft 9in American: “I’m sat behind her and I’m just hitting the wind. I was like, ‘I may as well just be on the front here.’” She would eventually beat her in a sprint. How did she celebrate that afternoon in Brussels? “We walked into the centre, I got myself a waffle with Nutella on it and went and watched the elite racing.”
It wasn’t always about dreams of chocolate covered waffles when she was growing up in a small village just outside Cardiff. Her first memory of cycling as a sport is watching her father, and Paris-Roubaix winner, Magnus Bäckstedt racing around Canary Wharf in London at a round of the Tour Series. Despite coming from such a cycling-centric family – her sister Elynor now rides for Trek-Segafredo and her mother Meg was a national champion – and racing and winning since she was five she didn’t instantly fall in love with the sport.
“It took me until I was 10 to like cycling,” she says. “I used to do netball, tennis, athletics and cycling all at the same time.” She was fairly good at tennis and would sometimes play with schoolmate Ella MacLean- Howell – now also a cyclist who finished fourth at the junior CX Worlds.
But one day she felt a need to focus on one thing, and that thing became cycling. Bäckstedt and her father used to build her bikes together, though the skills do not seem to have stuck. “If anything goes wrong with my bike, I have to give it to a mechanic. I went out with some of the boys from my team in the winter and I said to them, ‘You know, if I puncture or anything goes wrong with my bike you’ll have to fix it.’ Because I have no clue what I’m doing,” she says.
Not even a puncture? “I can change one. But I had really pretty nails at the time and I didn’t want to break them.”
By the time she reached the youth ranks she’d already racked up six national titles. By the end of 2020 she’d recorded her first major international win at the Junior UCI World Cup race in Tabor, having turned 16 just two months before.
But even with this trajectory 2021’s results would have been hard to predict. There was stage race victory at the junior Tour de Yorkshire in June; then a national time trial title and European individual pursuit gold (where she broke her elder sister’s world record, riding 2,000m in 2.17.494) and team pursuit gold. She’d finish her road season with the World Championship win before switching her attention to cross and another world title.
It’s perhaps no surprise given her success across disciplines that she cites Marianne Vos as her inspiration. “I interviewed her in 2019 for GCN, and now I’m on the start line with her. It’s so cool,” she says breathlessly. “Racing with any of the elites is cool. I’m on the front row with Lucinda [Brand, Trek-Segafredo rider] and people like that and I’m thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here. But I am!’”
Star struck, maybe. Intimidated? Definitely not. “I’ve had to apologise to Lucinda a couple of times as I’ve barged her out of the way. But if I have a good start, I have a good start and she’s got to get past me.”
Buoyed by her Road Worlds win she’d entered the 2021-22 cyclo-cross season with ambitions of winning both the UCI World Cup and the World Championships. As the clocks ticked over into 2022 everything was going according to plan: she’d won all three rounds of the World Cup and was sat atop the standings. Then on Thursday 6 January, just before she was due to race the National Championship at the weekend, disaster struck.
“I was on the turbo in the evening and my throat hadn’t felt right all day. I was like, ‘You know what? I tested negative for Covid in the morning. I’m just gonna go and take a test. It’ll be fine.’ Got off the turbo, did my test and waited 10 minutes, nothing. So I got back on the turbo and continued to do my session. And Elynor’s fiancé came in and said, ‘Zoe, you might want to get off the turbo.’ And he hands me the test. I looked at it and just burst into tears,” she recalls.
“We spent a week sat on the sofa,” she says. “In the house, eating Mini Eggs and watching a lot of TV… the days were so long.” As she waited to recover, Dutch rider Leonie Bentveld, who had been second at every previous race, won the last round of the World Cup and jumped over her in the standings. Then the final race was cancelled due to Covid-19, sealing her fate.
She took her revenge at the World Championships. On lap one, the first time up the main climb of the course, Bäckstedt launched an attack that instantly put 10 metres into everyone else. It grew from there and five laps later she’d cross the line having never looked once like surrendering her sizeable advantage. The downtime had given her “a bit of extra fire”.
As a double world champion we assume there has been interest in signing her from WorldTour teams; maybe a deal is already done? There are furtive glances between Bäckstedt and her agent when we ask. “I can’t really say any of that,” she says.
She’d go on to enjoy her only chance to ride in the jersey at a race in Lille a week later before doing a few more elite races. “I got back on the Tuesday to Belgium, the Wednesday I went out with the team, we went to where the race was that weekend and I was in my Worlds kit and there was this kids’ race going on that day.
"So many people were coming up to me asking for signatures on random things because no one really thought I was going to be there. I’d go out on course and people are trying to call me from the side for pictures. I was like, ‘This is awesome.’” Something tells us there’s going to be a lot more awesome to come.
Who’s the best Bäckstedt?
We know the whole family is good at riding bikes, but how are they at all the other stuff that goes along with the cycling life? Zoe Bäckstedt breaks it down for us
WRAPPING BAR TAPE
Worst: Me. I once came back on a canal when we were staying on the Belgian border and I had to ride 5km of gravel because the road I wanted to be on was on the other side of the canal
FIXING A PUNCTURE
Worst: Mum. “I’m not doing it for you ever again,” says mum, Meg
Best: Mum. I’m also pretty good but I’ll give Mum this one
Worst: Dad. He’s really good at healthy meals though
DJ-ING THE CAR STEREO
Best: I’m the best DJ out there!
Worst: I can’t answer that because we all like different things
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Having trained as a journalist at Cardiff University I spent eight years working as a business journalist covering everything from social care, to construction to the legal profession and riding my bike at the weekends and evenings. When a friend told me Cycling Weekly was looking for a news editor, I didn't give myself much chance of landing the role, but I did and joined the publication in 2016. Since then I've covered Tours de France, World Championships, hour records, spring classics and races in the Middle East. On top of that, since becoming features editor in 2017 I've also been lucky enough to get myself sent to ride my bike for magazine pieces in Portugal and across the UK. They've all been fun but I have an enduring passion for covering the national track championships. It might not be the most glamorous but it's got a real community feeling to it.
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