Within five minutes of talking to Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, I’m searching the words: “bird that sticks its head into the ground” on Google Images. Cecilie has just used it to describe what she wanted to do when she tested positive for Covid-19 the day after she finished the Tour of Flanders.
The bird was, in fact, an ostrich. “That’s it!” the Danish rider exclaims as I hold my phone up to show her the photo. “That’s what I wanted to do when I saw the result,” she says.
It’s no wonder that Uttrup Ludwig felt inclined to bury her head in the sand, ostrich-style, when she saw those two dreaded lines pop up on her lateral flow test. The illness couldn’t have hit at a worse time: just before the Ardennes Classics, a series of races that were supposed to serve as some of the FDJ rider’s main goals for the season. “It has been two years with Covid and I hadn’t had it yet,” says Uttrup Ludwig. “I was like haha, I'm invincible. But then, when I got it, I was like, no, no, not now!”
True to her famously optimistic mindset, the Danish rider thought that she might be recovered before the Ardennes week; it was a fortnight away and she’d heard tales of some people getting back to racing quickly from Covid-19. “I was like, maybe if it's not hitting me so hard then maybe I can start building up. But from that point on, it was just like a rollercoaster,” she explains.
Cecilie describes the amount of times she’s tried to get back to training but has had to battle with fatigue and constant fluctuation of energy levels. She’s had to make last-minute decisions to drop-out of races, and still doesn’t have a clear picture on when she’ll be back in the peloton. Understandably, it’s been “a really sh*t situation”, as she describes it, but the 26-year-old has been powering through it admirably.
Uttrup Ludwig points out that, as a Dane, she has a bit of Viking heritage in her blood, perhaps giving her the toughness to get through these turbulent times. She spoke to Rouleur about how she’s doing it.
Get some hygge in your life
Cecilie’s first tip for battling through the Covid curse is to embrace the Danish feeling of hygge. “It’s the most important word in Denmark,” she says. “It cannot be translated, it's a cosy feeling, but it’s more than that. It’s hygge, it’s like sitting with a blanket and your hot chocolate, with the fire burning, with your family. That’s what we’re good at in Denmark, the hygge.”
As she struggled to shift the aches and pains that her illness brought, Uttrup Ludwig found comfort in the home and in those closest to her. “What keeps my head up is my family and my boyfriend. When it's a shit period on the bike, I spend a lot of time with my best friends,” she says.
“I just surround myself with love. Last night, we had the whole family for dinner, my grandparents and uncle. It's just like, oh, that's what I need.”
Despite spending most of the year in Girona – a hub for much of the pro peloton thanks to its good weather and training roads – Denmark is home for Cecilie. Though she loves the charming Spanish city and relishes the sociable nature of bumping into fellow cyclists, she admits that, when times are tough on the bike, Girona can be a little overwhelming.Image: David Powell
“It's hard to escape the cycling bubble sometimes,” she says. “Even when you're going grocery shopping, you bump into people that you know. That's sometimes good because you never feel lonely. That's sometimes bad because it's always cycling. Especially if you're going through a hard period, you just want to escape. You just want to do something else. That's one of the reasons I've come back to Denmark now,” she says.
So, back to the family and back to that comforting Danish feeling of hygge it was for Uttrup Ludwig when she was forced to take time away from the bike.
Choose the right team
The 26-year-old races in the striking blue, red and white colours of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope. She notes how the team’s support has helped her through this turbulent period, as they’ve allowed her to recover without putting pressure on her to return to racing quickly. “It's one of the best teams for protecting and the riders, they're really like, if you don't feel well, no pressure at all, you just take your tempo,” she says.
While some may have resented watching the races unfold while sidelined at home, Uttrup Ludwig describes watching her teammates perform so well in the Ardennes Classics as a sort of “band-aid” on the wound that opened up when she had to miss the events herself. Her teammate, Marta Cavalli, has been one of the stand-out riders of the spring in the women’s peloton, taking victory in both the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne.Image: Thomas Maheux/FDJ
“It’s so nice to see Marta unfold her potential because we knew that could be a world class rider. It has been really awesome to see her really flourishing,” says Cecilie. Perhaps it is a testament to her good nature that the Danish rider is loving having more strong riders in the team this year, enjoying the options it gives FDJ during the race and taking the pressure off herself to always lead the squad.
“If I was the only leader in the team, they would want to force me to race earlier. Whereas it's so nice to be in such a strong team now if you are not feeling well, you can take the time to recover. And you know, that there's teammates who are super strong who can do it, because then it becomes a much more relaxed process to come back,” she says.
“They don't treat me or riders in the team like robots because I feel in some teams, they do treat you a bit like: you get paid to do a job. Whereas I never felt that way, I think it fits well with me. I'm a very emotional rider and like an emotional person. I'm not a robot. I love my emotions and in a French team, it's also very emotional, and that fits.”
Cecilie is famous for her outgoing, magnetic personality. The post race interviews where she exudes enthusiasm about the women’s peloton and the excitement of her races often make waves on social media. Her energetic interview after the Tour of Flanders in 2019 went big, with her line: “put the hammer down” becoming a well-used catchphrase among riders and cycling fans as a result.
“I’ve had people ask if I put on that type of happiness, but I don’t,” she says. “I’m honest. If I've done a shit race, when I get interviewed I would say, like, yeah, it was a shit race I have to improve. The thing is that those interviews never get remembered. People forget them. I'm not always happy. It was that moment of happiness or adrenaline.”
Image: Thomas Maheux/FDJ
I ask the Danish rider if she’s struggled to maintain that positive attitude in recent weeks as she’s been forced to sit out of races. “Yes,” she answers honestly. “That's what I breathe for. I'm a racehorse, and I want to be in the races.”
However, Uttrup Ludwig remains acutely aware of the length of the season and how much is still to come. She plans to race both the Giro Donne and the Tour de France this year, as well as the Tour of Scandinavia which will pass through her home country. In fact, the 26-year-old notes that this enforced rest may pay dividends when she returns to stage racing. “Others might be tired or feeling burnt out, and I'll just be like: yes! I’m so excited to be back racing,” she says.
“There's so many nice things to look forward to, we have the Tour de France Femmes, it's going to be so huge, and the Tour of Scandinavia, I'm finally racing in my home country. That's amazing. It's the light at the end of the tunnel.”
From our conversation, it becomes clear that the most important aspect for Cecilie has been a steady return to the peloton, without rushing her recovery. Thanks to the support of her team, this has been possible. “I wanted to be part of these races. Even though I knew I'm not 100%, I tried to say maybe I can still contribute,” she says. “But the whole time my team said, take your time, you'll come back when your body's ready for racing. With covid it's so individual how hard it hits you from person to person, for some people it takes longer, so take your time.”
“You need to be able to train before, that's the thing,” she says. “You can't just come untrained. But you can't fight before the body's ready to fight,” she explains.
Despite all the ups and downs, Cecilie remains focussed on her goals, confident she can return to her best. “I think I’ve just always been a fighter. No matter what this situation is, I think I've just been fighting. The worst thing for me is giving up, no matter how hard it gets, I’m not a quitter.”
Cover image: David Powell