There was a moment during the UCI Road Race World Championships in Belgium last season when one of the commentators on Eurosport abruptly stopped talking, leaving his co-host to do all the work. The race they were covering had been dominated by the attacking style of one rider in particular, who, together with her breakaway companion, had built up a minute’s lead on the peloton. In the final kilometre of the race, as the tension wound up and up, there was one lone voice soldiering on, while in the background you could hear heavy breathing, followed by sobs.
That was the moment Magnus Bäckstedt witnessed his own daughter Zoë win the junior women’s World Championship road race, just a few days after she’d taken silver in the time-trial.
If anyone was in any doubt about the outsize talent of this young woman, who’d turned 17 just the day before, and her gutsy racing style, then they only needed to wait until January of this year, when she became junior world champion yet again, this time at the cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas. All this three weeks after getting Covid.
Zoë is not the only Bäckstedt daughter who has stood on a podium at the Worlds. There’s her 20-year-old sister Elynor, who turned pro with Trek-Segafredo in 2020. Elynor’s palmarès includes two world championship bronze medals in the time trial, two European championship gold medals on the track and the U19 women’s Gent-Wevelgem. (On the same day, Zoë won the U17 race.)
There’s no denying that the girls have excellent genes. Their dad won Paris-Roubaix in 2004, stages in the Tour and the Giro and multiple national championships in his native Sweden, while their mum, Megan (née Hughes), is a former British and Wales national road race champion.
But as we all know, raw talent can only take you so far in cycling. A champion needs other qualities, like mental toughness, driving ambition, intelligence, and racing nous based on hours and hours of training and racing. So what’s the secret to this family’s success?
It seems this question might be best answered by paying them a visit. Which is how I find myself walking through a labyrinth of small streets in a small town in South Wales. Even without Google Maps to guide me in, I would eventually have spotted their house: it’s the only one with a front room full to bursting with bikes, an entire wall with frames mounted on it, more bikes taking over the floor, several Zwift training set-ups, a workbench with tools, an armful of cyclo-cross tyres hanging off one door and wheels, wheels and more wheels squeezed into every gap. Walking down the hallway I reach a room that started life as a kitchen, but has since become the main living area.
It’s all action in here: there’s Megan, the girls, Zoë’s boyfriend, David Haverdings – an up-and-coming star on the Dutch cyclo-cross scene – Emma Wade, the girls’ agent and Benedict Campbell, the Rouleur photographer, as well as two handsome springer spaniels, who are doing their best to upstage their owners. Meanwhile, Magnus is in his studio somewhere upstairs commentating on a race. A delicious smell of baking suffuses the house, courtesy of David, who is making ‘appelflappen’, a kind of Dutch apple turnover.
The sisters look like Valkyries – tall, with waist-length blond hair. They radiate health and power. You can imagine them racing somewhere flat and windswept, and being the only riders to hold the road, while the rest of the peloton gets blown into the fields.
We settle around a sofa that’s been squeezed into the end of the kitchen, looking out onto a conservatory and garden.
The mood is chaotic, casual and cosy; it feels like any other family home. And yet, it’s only the second time the family has been at home together since the World Championships in September and a brief moment in January when they all had Covid. The sisters’ busy schedules mean they’re rarely in the same place at the same time. These days Elynor lives down the road with her fiancé, Charley Calvert. Zoë still lives at home, but in reality has just spent six months based in Belgium, with Magnus operating as her mechanic, soigneur, cook, and chauffeur, taking her to all the cyclo-cross races.
Brexit has added a layer of complexity to the family’s lives – as it has for all up-and-coming British riders. Though the girls are lucky enough to have dual British and Swedish nationality so they can still spend large chunks of time living and racing in Europe, their mum, being British, cannot. Neither can Elynor’s English boyfriend, which prompted a move back to the UK after living in Belgium.
Both girls learnt to ride bikes when they were very young, and from the age of six or seven Elynor started going to Maindy Flyers – the famous Cardiff cycling club that’s been an incubator for Welsh riders like Elinor Barker and Geraint Thomas.
But it took a while for cycling to become more than just one of many after-school activities. “I remember seriously training properly after I broke my leg for the first time when I was about 13,” says Elynor. “And I remember not being able to ride my bike for so long and wanting to race.” That initial setback, and the determination to get back on track and return even better, seems central to Elynor’s gritty riding style. She’s had a number of bad crashes and injuries, including a broken leg in 2020 and a shoulder injury at the end of last season, and she attributes her mental toughness to these experiences.
Zoë, on the other hand, didn’t take to racing straight away. “It took me ages, ages, to get into it. I did netball, tennis, athletics and cycling at the same time.”
“And she was good at them all,” says Elynor.
“Yeah, I was great at them,” Zoë says with a grin. “Goal attack in netball, awesome at tennis, athletics, I could run like an absolute queen, which is where I get my good running from now when I’m doing cross.”
It was the social side of racing that was the catalyst for Zoë – that and going along to her big sister’s races and joining in, because there was nothing else to do.
“I always remember going down to Maindy and I wouldn’t want to go; there was absolutely no chance I was going, I wasn’t riding. And then Mum and Dad would bring the bike, and I’d get there, and then I’d see everyone riding around: ‘Okay, OKAY, I’ll join them.’ And then my friends are there and I’d have a good chat with them, and obviously it turns into a race in the warm-up, and I’d get told off because it’s the warm-up and we’re not racing yet. And then we get into the actual racing and I’m trying to hold onto the wheels... The social side for me, when I started, was really key. It still is now.
“I still love going out riding now with my friend Ella MacLean-Howell [who just missed sharing the podium with Zoë at the cyclo-cross Worlds this year]. We can go out for a five-hour ride and we won’t stop talking the whole way. We just have so much fun. We take a speaker, have some music playing.”
Whatever the motivations that got the girls into racing, they both insist their parents have been absolutely crucial to their success; firstly, in never expecting them to race; and secondly, in their support.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without mum and dad ferrying us to races, building my bikes, literally doing everything,” says Zoë. “This ’cross season, dad moved to Belgium with me, basically. He’s taken me to every race. Mum would’ve, but because of Brexit it was hard for her, so she did the first month, and then dad came out and did the rest of the season, and then mum came over for a couple of races. None of it would have been possible – I wouldn’t have gotten into the teams I’m in without them.”
“They have sacrificed a heck of a lot for us. That I’m very grateful for,” adds Elynor. “But I don’t think they created a pressured environment when we were growing up to be cyclists. I don’t think they ever expected it.”
“They said to us, if they thought we were going to be cyclists, they would have bought a house with a bigger garage,” says Zoë.
“I’m grateful that they didn’t do that, because I don’t think we’d have become professional athletes if we’d grown up with them pushing us into it,” says Elynor. “Considering the background that we have in this family, it’s actually a pretty normal household. They’ve always said if you don’t enjoy it, just stop. But if you want to, we’ll support you all the way.”
“I once made dad drive all the way to the Czech Republic and back, for a 40-minute race,” recalls Zoë. “It’s all right, I won, so it was fine.”
Later, talking to Megan and Magnus on their own, I got a sense of the investment they’ve put into their daughters’ success. Megan has been a discreet presence all afternoon, letting her kids and husband do most of the talking. When I ask Megan about her own career, she says her memories are blurry; she can remember winning the sixth stage at the Tour du Finistère in 1996, for example, but she’s forgotten that she was the only rider able to disrupt the dominant performance of Marion Clignet who took all the other stages and the overall. She was only 23 when she retired. Magnus talks about how they were living and racing in Belgium in 2000 when she learnt she wasn’t going to Sydney. “That was one of those days I’ll never forget,” he says. “She didn’t get selected for an Olympic spot and she went out to train the next day and came back and hung her bike up.”
That memory suddenly brings tears to her eyes.
I thoughtlessly ask why she didn’t take another crack at it with Athens. She points out that Elynor was born the following year. “So I think the decision was pretty much made. I mean, first of all there wasn’t really the possibility to come back after having a baby, especially because Magnus was away racing. There was absolutely no chance of the two of us racing and having a child.”
We’d been talking about how delighted she is with how the women’s sport has progressed, how the women are finally getting their own versions of iconic races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France, how it’s possible for her daughters to contemplate careers with salaries they can live off, whereas she had to work part-time in Tesco to pay her way. And I’m reminded that during the 1990s when Megan raced, it wasn’t just money that was lacking, there weren’t all that many races either. If now there’s a healthy debate about equal prize money in men’s and women’s racing, Megan remembers a time when the prizes for women’s races were domestic appliances.
“I remember racing with Ina [Yoko Teutenberg ] – who’s now Elynor’s DS – in the Thüringen-Rundfahrt, where I won the young rider competition. I don’t know if I won something on every stage, but I came home with coffee machines and deep-fat fryers. It was like that game show where you had to name all the things – The Generation Game. So when we came off the plane, it was like that on the conveyor belt: ‘And here’s the deep-fat fryer.’”
If the way Megan’s career ended is still a raw wound, she doesn’t seem bitter about it. “We wouldn’t be here now if I had gone,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
It’s clear both parents approach their role as a partnership, contributing what they can.
“There’s been a lot of times I’ve had to drive to places and do things because Maggy has been working,” says Megan. “And I’m so grateful that he’s able to do that, and the girls are so grateful that he was able to bring the money in, so that we could go off and they could race. We daren’t tot up how much it’s cost us. We bought a motorhome. Everyone was like, you must have lots of money if you’ve got a motorhome, but we bought it because if you tot up how much it costs for hotels, and then you’ve got to feed everybody...”
What strikes me most with the Bäckstedt family is how they seem to thrive despite spinning so many plates. There must surely be squabbling and tears at times, but it’s hard to imagine. There’s something so uplifting about the girls’ self-confidence, their jokey relationship with each other, their love of what they do. Their well-adjusted personas go against all the clichés of great riders escaping lives of hardship and tragedy, eating gravel for breakfast and all the rest. Surely the secret to their success also lies somewhere in this.