Wunderkinds: What makes Zoe Bäckstedt and the British junior riders so good?
Magnus Bäckstedt gives an insight into the British Cycling Development programme and the work ethic of his youngest daughter who dominated the junior time trial at the World Championships
There’s winning bike races, and then there’s doing what Zoe Bäckstedt did in the women's junior time trial at the World Championships a few days ago. One minute and thirty six seconds was her margin over Germany’s Justyna Czapla in second place. It was a commanding and dominating ride: technically sound, physically strong, the British rider’s aerodynamics were perfectly dialled. Perhaps the most impressive aspect about the whole thing was just how easy Bäckstedt made it look, finessing the roads with that effortless knack that all of the world’s most talented time trialists seem to have.
But it’s not just this singular performance at the World Championships this year that has put Bäckstedt’s name on the map and made her one of the most talked about young riders in the world. In 2021, Bäckstedt became junior world champion on the road, and she was both European and world champion in cyclo-cross – not to mention her multiple national titles and Nations Cups wins.
It doesn’t stop at road and cyclo-cross, either. Bäckstedt also won three European titles on the track in the same season. In 2022, in addition to her time trial World Championship victory, she’s already secured a rainbow jersey in the Madison on the track, all still with the road race in Wollongong and an entire cyclo-cross season still to come this year. She’s already riding for a Women’s WorldTour team and has a two year contract to boot. It takes some processing to get your head around all that Bäckstedt has achieved at still just 17-years-old.
So how does she do it? Is it natural talent? Is it that she simply trains more than anyone else? Can she dig deeper? Race smarter?
“Ultimately, it comes down to raw, natural talent. I still keep being gobsmacked by her performances, I don’t quite get it,” Zoe’s father, Magnus Bäckstedt (a former winner of Paris-Roubaix) tells me a few days after the 17-year-old’s time trial win.
“The time gap that she did there, I can't quite get my head around how,” he continues. “I know that it's a common perception in the cycling fraternities that she is a full-time professional and has been for a number of years, and she trains more than anyone. I think even at the age of 14, there were people talking that she was doing 18 or 20 hours on the bike. Ultimately, we're not anywhere near full capacity and training yet in terms of the hours and everything else.”
Magnus doesn’t see long hours and intense training as the key factor to his youngest daughter’s success on two wheels so far. In fact, he points to quite the opposite as the reason: “She’s having fun on the bike,” he says. “Even if you look at the pre-race interviews, she’s just thinking about how she’s going to enjoy racing her bike on that course. That takes all the pressure off her shoulders.”
Related: At home with the Bäckstedts
The 47-year-old references the lockdown period as a time which confirmed that Zoe was destined for a long and successful career in cycling. “She would set up an obstacle course in the garden with logs and stones, whatever she could find, and she’d spend hours hopping around on her bike.”
“She doesn't get bored of riding,” he continues. “Even last year before the European Track Championships, there were intervals to be done on the turbo trainer and it was tipping with rain outside. She looked out of the window and thought this was a good day to go out on the mountain bike, so she messaged her coach and asked if she could go out and do the intervals on the trails instead.”
It was Emma Trott’s – British Cycling Junior Academy coach – response to this that Magnus also sees as an important factor to Zoe’s happiness on the bike. “Fair play to Emma Trott, she seems to understand Zoe,” he says. “She let her crack on and just said pedalling is pedalling, go and enjoy it.”
Zoe Bäckstedt is part of a cohort of young British riders who have been performing exceptionally well on a world stage, namely fellow junior rider Joshua Tarling, who won the men’s junior individual time trial at the World Championships (and has already signed a WorldTour contract with Ineos Grenadiers.) It’s the British Cycling system that Magnus sees as a key factor in helping to mould these young riders into world-beating athletes.
“It's a great setup as it gives them an opportunity to train against the best on a very frequent basis,” says Magnus. “Whether that's on the track or road, or whatever it is that they're doing, they get the training camps and the very best in the country are there on those camps. It pushes them on, there's no doubt about that.”
The Swedish former-professional rider also notes that parental support is a key factor in helping riders reach the level that Tarling and Bäckstedt have at such a young age.
“There's a generation of very dedicated athletes who have got parents and families behind them to help them get to where they want to be. Both Mike and Dawn [Tarling’s parents] and Meg [Zoe’s mother] and myself, we've put a lot of time into our girls, and they are doing it with their two boys. That does pay off after a while,” he says.
“Josh and Zoe are two very dedicated young people, they live their lives around this and it’s what they want to do. They've said from a very, very young age that they're going to be at this level. That doesn’t mean that they automatically get there. But, if the drive is there, and the backup is there, they are in a good place.”
Having Magnus and Meg who are both former professional cyclists as parents, and Elynor Bäckstedt, who is currently a professional cyclist for Trek-Segafredo, as a sister has also been a key element in preparing Zoe to race at the highest level.
“Zoe has got her older sister who's gone through it and turned professional. So she's lived this for a very long time,” says Magnus. “Both me and my wife have lived this lifestyle for a very long time too so I think she's probably better prepared the most when it comes to stepping out into the big world and being with professional teams.”
I’m not surprised when Magnus explains that all of the major Women’s WorldTour teams had an interest in signing Zoe for next year when she will move up to the elite category. Her choice to go with EF Education-Tibco-SVB was a slightly surprising one to many, but it’s the freedom that this American squad will give her that attracted the young talent.
“After the meeting with Linda Jackson [EF Education-Tibco-SVB team manager], Zoe came downstairs grinning from ear to ear saying, I'll get to ride cyclo-cross, I can ride mountain bike, I can ride road, whatever I want,” explains Magnus. “They said, I can create a program, and they will facilitate it. That whole approach. It really suited her, there are no restrictions on what she can do as long as she is in the sponsor correct kit.”
With such illustrious palmarès while still a teenager, all that remains for Zoe and the team around her is to ensure that she doesn’t do too much, too soon. Stories of young athletes burning out as they reach the professional ranks are all too common, but Magnus seems confident that this won’t be an issue for his youngest daughter.
“The team themselves have invested in her long term so they want to make sure that she comes into the sport at the highest level and can maintain that for a very long time. I will help and guide as much as I can. But if you start talking to Zoe herself about her program and what she wants to do, she is very aware that she needs rest periods,” he says.
I wonder if competing in some of the major women’s WorldTour stage races will be a big ask for a neo-pro next year. “Riding the Giro and the Tour, they're the biggest races that the women have got in the sport, but it's not three weeks, it's seven, eight days or ten days for the Giro, which is she's doing already as a youngster in terms of the number of days consecutively,” he answers. “Obviously, distances are a lot longer, but I think the team will manage her and manage that well and she's very switched on to that.”
After watching Zoe win the time trail in the early hours of the morning thanks to the time difference between the UK and Australia (“of course we stayed up, we weren’t going to miss that”), the Bäckstedt family have another exciting, and arguably tense, few days coming up. Both Elynor and Zoe are competing in the elite and junior World Championship road races respectively in Wollongong this weekend.
“I was nervous watching the time trial as I know how Zoe commits to the corners, my wife’s Whoop band showed her heart rate at 155bpm during it,” laughs Magnus. “But I'm more nervous for the road race. There are so many more variables in the road race. Zoe is going to be extremely watched throughout.”
From speaking to Magnus and watching the maturity of Zoe’s performances on the bike so far, I’m left with a strong feeling that Zoe has every chance to secure a second rainbow jersey in the road race at these World Championships. But, most importantly, whether she pulls it off or not, she’ll have fun trying.