“I think I can come back. I think I can come back. At least the podium, come on at least a podium, and then I was like, oh, it's actually looking pretty good. I went for it. It's amazing because yesterday was so sh*t, this is a victory for my team.”
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is a warrior. She proved that today with her win in stage three of the Tour de France Femmes as she clawed her way back to the lead group despite being dropped on the penultimate climb. She did it despite the cruel, bad luck her team had on the stage before where they were caught up in crashes and lost two riders. Despite the fact that, on paper, she wasn’t supposed to win the sprint from the nine-rider group that came to the line.
Maybe it's due to that little bit of viking blood, Uttrup Ludwig found herself digging deeper than anyone else as she rode through the roar of the crowd into Épernay today. She found herself at the back of the group as the road kicked up, but, from somewhere inside, she found the strength to come back to her rivals in a few, strong, solid pedal strokes. She outsprinted Marianne Vos, widely regarded as the best puncheur in women’s cycling, to take a historic win atop the kicker to the finish line.
The reaction that followed was one that we have come to expect from the Dane. She collapsed, hugged her teammates with all her might, and wept (all with a Fanta in hand, of course.) Her interviews were raw, honest and emotional, she spoke between sobs and gasped for breath as she answered questions. “I just loved how the team kept the fighting spirit. We knew that today was a super good day and, if I had the legs, I could go for the win. To actually do it and be a Tour de France stage winner and in this jersey, oh my god, it doesn’t get better.”
When Uttrup Ludwig came to the press conference later, she didn’t disappoint the eagerly awaiting journalists who showered her with questions about her win. The FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope rider answered with the same flair and panache she’d shown on the bicycle a few hours earlier. Perhaps it was the microphone in her hand or the raised platform she was sitting on, but Uttrup Ludwig’s press conference was almost performative. She stared at each journalist who asked her a question with her eyes wide and interested, making each of us feel like we were the most important person in the room to her at that moment.
It’s this generosity that makes Uttrup Ludwig such a popular winner. In the world of cycling, it’s rare to come across a person with such flamboyance, who never reverts to pre-rehearsed, media trained answers. A person who can simply tell a story with her facial expressions, so fresh and real in a sport which has long had a murky past.
But the extravagant side we’ll remember from Uttrup Ludwig today isn’t the full picture. It doesn’t tell the every part of the journey she’s had to get here, and the battle it has been to get on the start line.
In a cafe in Copenhagen at the end of April, I met a very different Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. She was friendly and kind as usual, but she was carrying heavy sadness and disappointment. After a strong performance at the Tour of Flanders, Uttrup Ludwig tested positive for Covid-19. It was a long, hard road back to racing, and one that meant she missed the remainder of the Classics season, including the Ardennes races which were a primary target for her season.
Uttrup Ludwig was so dejected at that time, I was worried the world of cycling wouldn’t see her return to form this season. Throughout our day, she was describing her constant struggle to train and the impact this was having on her mental wellbeing.
It was one of the last things she said to me that day which showed me the flicker of fire that Uttrup Ludwig still had in her.
“It’s so hard to be positive now, I want to be in these races. That's what I breathe for. I'm a racehorse, and I want to be in the race. But I’ll never give up. Right now, things are pretty dark. But the Tour de France could change things, I have that to look forward to.”
It was this defiance in the face of such unpredictable adversity that got Uttrup Ludwig that stage win today. It was why she had that extra bit of power in her sprint to beat riders that, on paper, you would never have thought she could out-sprint. She was fighting for herself, to reap the rewards of her hard work to get to this point, she was fighting for her teammates who brought her back from disappointment after the crashes of stage two.
But Uttrup Ludwig has been fighting for far longer than just this season. She grew up in a family that knew little about cycling and drove herself to her first international races in Holland when she left school at 18. Her talent got her a place on a Danish team, but it was one that didn't pay her to race, so she worked in a supermarket to subsidise her cycling. The hours were long and she was on her feet all day, but “I needed money from somewhere, so I did it,” she told me in that Copenhagen cafe.
“When I started cycling, I would get a lot of people, if not most people, would say: women cyclists, you'll never get there. You'll never be professional. And even if you do to be a professional, you won't be able to live up to it. And I was like I'm gonna show you that I can do it. And of course, I doubted so many times... But eventually I did it. I showed them, I was like, those motherf*ckers they're not gonna drag me down.”
It was all of this history that Uttrup Ludwig had in her legs today as she sprinted towards the line to the biggest win of her career. In stage three of the Tour de France Femmes, Uttrup Ludwig won the race, but she also was victorious in her battles against Covid-19, against the bad luck that plagued her team yesterday, and against everyone who has ever doubted her ability to make it to the top.