Liane Lippert: Next in line
After six years with Team DSM, German rider Liane Lippert has made big changes for 2023, joining Movistar to learn from world champion Annemiek van Vleuten. The 25-year-old is within touching distance of a big victory, and she’s determined to get there
This article was originally published in Issue 118: The Classics Issue. To support our journalism and read more interviews with some of the sport's biggest stars, subscribe to Rouleur magazine.
Liane Lippert is the next big thing in professional women’s cycling. She pops up at the front of races regularly with performances that are a cut above anyone’s expectations of her. She leaves commentators double checking their start lists for her name, journalists cursing themselves for not having her on their list of pre-race favourites, fans Googling her previous race results. Who was that? Did you see how strong she was?
Lippert isn’t a pure climber, nor is she a specialist sprinter, nor focused on the Classics. At the same time, the German cyclist can do almost everything very well. In her career so far, she’s been a jack of all trades, but not quite a master of any. Lippert has come very close to beating some of the biggest stars of women’s cycling on days where things have gone right for her – think of her third place in the 2022 Amstel Gold Race behind Marta Cavalli and Demi Vollering, or her second place behind Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig at the Tour of Scandinavia. Her palmarès is littered with commendable podium finishes, but the 25-year-old hasn’t had a victory outside of her national championships since January 2020. That big win still eludes her.
You could say that Lippert is teetering on the verge of greatness and when you watch her in races, you can almost feel her determination to reach out and grasp it. She’s not scared to attack and risk it all, to grit her teeth and push her body to painful limits. At the World Championships in Wollongong, she was the only rider to put the star-studded Dutch team under pressure by slingshotting herself over the punchy climbs, becoming the instigator of what many people thought would be the winning breakaway. When no one would cooperate with her in the front group, Lippert shouted at the other riders to take turns on the front, and did the lion’s share of the work herself. Despite all of that, Lippert did not win the rainbow jersey. Instead, she finished in probably the most disappointing position in elite sport: fourth. She was within touching distance of a medal, but ultimately left Australia empty-handed.
Lippert is not prepared to sit in the shadow of the crown for much longer. Behind her sparkling eyes and smile is a simple and ruthless desire to win.
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Liane Lippert pops up on FaceTime from her training camp in Mallorca. She’s propped up against pillows in her hotel room and seems relaxed, grinning brightly at the camera and shooting me an enthusiastic “Hi!”
Having only known the version of Liane Lippert that I’d watched in bike races, the rider who seems to be relentless with her attacks, brave with her positioning and fearless of her rivals, I’m almost surprised by the German woman’s demeanour. It doesn’t take me long to realise that Lippert can switch into an entirely new headspace once she has a race number pinned to her back. “I like to think I’m a nice person normally and super friendly, but I’m a different person on the bike” she says with a smile.
Lippert was born in Friedrichshafen, a small and unassuming German town which is located on a gently curved bay on the north shore of Lake Constance, on the German-Swiss border. She started cycling in her local club, RSV Seerose Friedrichshafen, when she was eight years old, but not because she wanted to become a professional cyclist. “I started because my dad was a rider; it was for fun,” she says. “I was riding almost every day on my bike, I really enjoyed it. Other kids were also joining and I was doing nice routes. The area I am from in the south of Germany is perfect for that. It has some great views, so I just stuck to it.”
It wasn’t until four years later that Lippert competed in her first race and even then she had no desire to make a career out of cycling. The reasons for this didn’t come from a lack of love for the sport, but rather a lack of representation showing her that it could ever be possible. “When I was young, I never even thought of cycling and living from it. It never came into my head and my dad never had the idea or put any pressure behind me, so it wasn’t natural to think of that,” explains Lippert.
“The Tour de France was always on television, for example, so I was always seeing cycling, but it was only men. It was never the question if I could also do it because at that time, there was no Tour de France for women, at least not on television or in any magazines, so I never saw any women. There was also nobody I really looked up to. I just did it for fun.”
More than a decade later, as Lippert is moving into the most crucial part of her professional cycling career, she believes that the laid-back and measured attitude she’s had towards the sport from the beginning is still an asset to her performance. “It’s one of my strengths now that I’m really relaxed and, although I’m professional and I do everything to the top level, I still live my life. I cannot only be a cyclist. I think it was key that I never put myself under too much pressure, and my parents didn’t,” she says.
Even with this nonchalant attitude towards her racing, Lippert’s natural gift on the bike shone through quickly in her adolescence. In spite of Lippert not having the innate desire or dream to be a professional cyclist, her talent still nudged her towards pursuing cycling as a career. When Lippert was in the under-17 category, she won her first race because she found herself on the front of the peloton and was worried the pace she was keeping would be too slow for her rivals. She ended up dropping them and soloing to victory. Bike races aren’t supposed to be won by accident.
“When I look back at the under-17 category, the other girls were already so serious and I was joking around in the race. They never reacted because they were really focused, but I was there for the fun,” says Lippert. “I had no plan. No idea. I was just riding and I could ride really hard. My punch was always tricky for the others, but I wasn’t really meaning to attack, I just happened to be there.”
Even as Lippert graduated from the youth to the junior ranks, where training and equipment normally get far more serious, she explains she was still balancing her racing with doing “normal” teenager things, focusing on school and her friends and ensuring she was having fun. Despite this, the German rider managed to bag herself a junior European Road Champion title in 2016 (beating future world champion Elisa Balsamo in a sprint to the line).
Earlier that year, she rode in the elite Internationale Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen seven-day stage race, too, and won the white jersey for the best young rider, despite technically not being old enough to be in the race at all. From then, the professional teams were starting to look at this plucky German rider who was punching above her weight. Liane Lippert had talent, alright.
Read more: Demi Vollering secures the Ardennes hattrick with Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes victory
“I didn’t have an agent or anything, so it was a bit hard to get in touch with teams,” says Lippert. “I had somebody who helped me a little bit and Sunweb were really interested, so we started talking and I came to the Netherlands. I think they are really good at developing riders. It was a nice place to start for me then.”
Team Sunweb (which turned into Team DSM in 2021) became more than just a place to start. It ended up being Lippert’s home for the following six years of her career. In that time, the Dutch team monitored and assisted Lippert in her development in a measured and careful manner.
Team DSM’s methods have come under scrutiny in recent years, with various big name riders opting to leave the outfit due to the stringent restrictions it allegedly places on employees. When Lippert joined the team in 2017, she was required to move out of Germany and base herself in the Sunweb headquarters in Sittard in the Netherlands.
Liane Lippert at the 2022 World Championships in Australia (Image by SWPix.com)
“Sunweb is really, really structured and I had to be in the Netherlands a lot, which was sometimes hard because I was 18 years old and away from family, friends and everyone. It was a new culture but I thought I could do well with it. In the end, I feel like I grew from it and I adapted, but it was a big step,” says Lippert. She is careful with her choice of words, seemingly grateful for what Team DSM did for her career, but also accepting that it was a programme with some downsides.
“I think it needs to be balanced. It was extreme. I’m happy that I’m strong mentally and that I could deal with it well, and I also really separated things. When I was at home, I just relaxed,” she explains.
From a purely physical perspective, Lippert believes that Team DSM knew what they were doing when it came to her development. She talks about how she and Juliette Labous (another young rider who was part of the team at the same time as Lippert and went on to finish fourth at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes last year) would often get into the car on training camps so they weren’t doing the same number of hours on the bike as their more experienced team-mates, ensuring that they didn’t get fatigued.
“DSM built us up steadily, without too many races,” says Lippert. “I think that’s why I was really good already in 2018 and that was only my second year. That’s why they like to give long-term contracts to young riders.”
The 2018 season that Lippert references was undoubtedly a big one for the German rider. She took her first ever elite national title on the road and won a UCI 2.1 stage race, the Lotto Belgium Tour. These results went alongside top-20 placings in both La Flèche Wallonne Féminine and Strade Bianche, formidable performances for a rider only in her second year in the elite category.
Lippert herself points to the 2019 edition of the Women’s Tour in the UK as a race where she really felt a career breakthrough, and as soon as she begins describing it, I remember the stage well. It was a grim, wet day in Warwickshire which set the platform for the first ever summit finish in the British race. The riders had to tackle a steep climb in Burton Dassett Country Park three times throughout the day, battling harsh winds and lashing rain. Lippert’s face was caked in mud and her body was rocking over the bike as she pushed out every single watt possible to finish second on the stage behind Kasia Niewiadoma and in front of Lizzie Deignan.
Read more: Lizzie Deignan in the deep end as she returns to racing
“It was a hard race. I was not there for nothing – you could really see that I really had it in me,” says Lippert. “That was where a lot of people actually noticed me and knew from that moment on that I was strong and what type of rider I am. I was there with the three best riders. Also my team noticed that I was ready for it, ready to become a leader.”
Liane Lippert has had a strong start to 2023 with her new Movistar team (Image by SWPix.com)
It’s clear that going shoulder to shoulder with two of the biggest names in the sport gave Lippert the confidence she needed to continue to excel in 2020. That year, she finished second in the Tour Down Under and won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, before going on to secure a top-20 position in the general classification in the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia Donne, despite a season that was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I didn’t change much going into that season,” says Lippert. “It was just my body that was changing, my motor was growing and I was able to ride at my threshold for longer.” Even the lack of racing during lockdown didn’t have a negative impact on her.
“I can train really well. I don’t necessarily need races, I can come into top shape through only training. I can go really deep in training, destroy myself completely.”
It’s not that Lippert’s desire to win has lessened since 2020, but a look through her results makes it clear that her win tally has dropped off in the past two seasons. She can’t quite put her finger on why, and it’s not for a lack of fitness or trying, more that things just haven’t gone quite well enough on the right day.
“Since 2020 I’ve been missing a win, except in the Nationals,” says Lippert. “There were a lot of times I could have won the race, but then there was somebody in front or something else happened, but I had the legs. It’s been hard, but I think I can deal with it.”
Lippert has proven time and again that she isn’t someone who is prepared to sit back and allow things not to go her way. Her aggressive racing style is almost a physical manifestation of her character: she won’t give up. In the hope of achieving another big victory, Lippert has taken steps to make a change for the 2023 season. After six years as part of Team DSM, the 25-year-old has switched to Movistar for the year ahead, the same team as Giro d’Italia and Tour de France Femmes winner, and world champion, Annemiek van Vleuten.
“I was sure that I wanted to change. I just wanted to see something else after six years and also to have a bit more opportunity to make my own decisions in races,” says Lippert. “I can decide when I want to attack. I don’t have to ask or I get in trouble if I do so.
“With Movistar, they still see a lot of potential in me and they gave me so much more confidence in myself again. That was what I was missing. For example, they asked why I wasn’t riding well on a time-trial bike and why no one was putting energy into it. They want to help me get better at it. They also asked me why I’m not doing altitude camps. These are all small percentages that can still make me so much better.”
Lippert says she has been learning Spanish in the off-season to try to embrace Movistar’s culture, and has already noticed a shift in the familial vibe at her new team, compared to Team DSM’s more sterile environment. Learning from Van Vleuten was also a big draw for Lippert to come to Movistar. “She really likes to give advice,” says Lippert. “She’s always starting the conversation to give her input and she really likes to share her knowledge.”
When it comes to racing, Lippert expects that she and Van Vleuten can execute an impressive two-pronged attack against their rivals. “We can only be beneficial for each other. In one-day races, we can play both cards. She can choose the harder, longer climbs and I’m more punchy, or I can do a better sprint, maybe,” explains Lippert.
And what about when the world champion retires at the end of the 2023 season? Lippert has signed a three-year contract with Movistar, who are lining up a squad to fill the void Van Vleuten will leave when she steps away from the sport. Some have toutedt Lippert as the Dutchwoman’s successor, but Lippert is quick to laugh away these rumours when I tentatively mention them.
“People ask if I’m taking over the role of Annemiek but I always say no. Nobody else in this world will ever be like her; there’s only one. I will take over the leader role, hopefully, but not alone. It’s not enough to only have one leader with how women’s cycling is getting bigger.”
The German rider made her Movistar debut at the inaugural Women's UAE Tour (Image by Getty Images)
Perhaps Lippert is right. In a new era for the sport with the arrival of races like Paris-Roubaix Femmes, the Tour de France Femmes and more, women’s cycling is growing at an unprecedented rate. It could be that the wave of super talents riding away from the peloton to take long solo victories, like we’ve seen with Anna van der Breggen and Van Vleuten in the past, is coming to an end. Multiple leaders and more strength in depth in the peloton could well be the future of the sport.
Regardless, Lippert is right to silence anyone suggesting that she will mould herself into the next version of Annemiek van Vleuten. It’s clear from my conversation with her that Lippert has a unique character that is special in its own right. She’s a beast on the bike, prepared to fight for success and painstakingly determined to get victory. She thrives in the toughest races which have the most foul weather and tricky terrain. But off the bike, she’s smiling and relaxed, and you can barely imagine her going shoulder to shoulder with her rivals on the brutal cobbles of Roubaix. In her spare time, Lippert likes to spend time with her niece and her sister and go clothes shopping.
As our conversation draws to a close, Lippert is telling me how much she dreams of winning in the Ardennes Classics and keeping her national champion’s jersey for another year. Lippert is smiling at the thought of this victory, but is quick to note that, like she did way back when she was eight years old riding for RSV Seerose Friedrichshafen, the main thing is that she wants to keep having fun while racing her bike.
“I will keep on attacking and listening to my feelings,” she says. “I think Team DSM always put me in the category of a rider for the hilly classics, but I’m also able to do really long climbs. I’m also fast in a sprint. Actually, I have the package and qualities that you need. I just need to make that next step to really start to win.”
*Cover image by Stefan Rachow