Young talent, fierce attacking and Magnus Bäckstedt: The reinvention of Canyon//SRAM

The Tour de France saw the German team continue an outstanding season with a fresh approach to racing

The 2022 season saw just one, singular win for Canyon//SRAM. It came from Pauliena Rooijakkers at the Spanish UCI one-day race, Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria. Their season was lacklustre and disappointing for a squad that once would rarely go a year without securing at least 10 victories between them. In 2015, for example, the squad took 31 wins under their Velocio//SRAM guise.

Kasia Niewiadoma has been a figurehead of the team since 2018 and has consistently proven her talent with strong results, but the Polish rider has regularly struggled to turn podium finishes into victories, despite always being active at the front of races. The win drought last season was, it seems, an urgent wake-up call for Canyon//SRAM.

Now, 12 months later, we appear to be watching an entirely different Canyon//SRAM squad altogether. Gone are the days of passive, reactive racing and this is a team that appears brave enough to risk it all to try and win. In the recent Tour de France Femmes, this could not have been more evident. 

Ricarda Bauernfeind’s victory on stage five was the team’s first reward for the aggressive race style that Canyon//SRAM have taken on this season. The German rider attacked on a long drag three quarters of the way through the tough stage over rolling hills of Languedoc, an ambitious move for the 23-year-old rider in her first season as part of the Women’s WorldTour. Bauernfeind had proven her talent last year as part of the Canyon//SRAM Generation development team, but it was still a lofty ambition to try and hold off the 36-rider strong group behind her that contained the very best riders in the women’s professional peloton.Image: ASO/Charly Lopez

Canyon//SRAM is exactly that though, ambitious. It didn't matter that Bauernfeind’s odds were stacked against her, because this is a team that is being taught to believe. We saw it again and again throughout the Tour de France Femmes. It didn’t always work out as well as Bauernfeind’s moves did, like when Agnieszka Skalniak-Sójka was in a promising breakaway on stage six to Albi and was caught just metres before the line, but Canyon//SRAM were trying, and that was getting them closer to victories more often than ever.

It was the same story in the mountains the following day, when Kasia Niewiadoma won the hearts of fans with her long-range attack on the Tourmalet, putting everyone on the edge of their seats as she infiltrated the duo of Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering who were widely regarded as the pre-race favourites. After putting in a stellar time trial on the final stage too, Niewiadoma came away with third on the general classification and the polka dot jersey – a fitting reward for the team’s audacious racing.

A key factor in this seismic shift in Canyon//SRAM’s approach to WorldTour racing is the arrival of former Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt to the squad as a sports director – the Swedish former professional appears to have instilled a fresh confidence in the team that encourages exciting racing.

“We just try to build a tight-knit team that back each other one hundred percent,” Bäckstedt told Rouleur after the Tourmalet stage of the Tour de France Femmes, where Niewiadoma eventually finished in second place. “Today we had a fully committed team to bring Kasia into the bottom of the first climb. Their finish line was that first corner and when you have a team that is ready to do that type of job it means the leader finds that extra bit. I do what I do and it seems like it’s working out, we’re racing in the way we enjoy racing and that helps morale within the team.”

Bäckstedt’s arrival has also led to a reinvention of the team’s roster, with an investment in younger talent for this season. “Maggy has had a great influence on our team and the fact we changed our roster quite aggressively,” Niewiadoma explained, speaking at the end of the Tour. ‘We have a lot of young riders who bring amazing spirit to the team, they show feistiness and fierce vibes. I think that having Magnus and also new riders coming to the team changed the whole dynamic. When you have the same people working for many years you can get in the same pattern and miss extra triggers that make you want to aim for more.”Image: ASO/Thomas Maheux

Niewiadoma notes that having young riders on her team not only gives them a chance to learn from the more experienced riders, but is an asset to her own personal development. “I love working with young riders and as they have this different energy, they calculate less, they worry about less, they see less obstacles and that helps me because I feel like after spending so many years in the women’s peloton you see more crashes, you experience more failures and your confidence drops,” Niewiadoma explained.

“Being around young riders allows you to go back to old times which I really love. I think helping them by sharing my experience and knowledge helps them but also that helps myself because I can talk about things out loud and understand them better.”

It was clear when wandering through the team buses at the Tour that Canyon//SRAM are a team with a strong spirit and energetic vibe. It was rare to see the riders not laughing and chatting to each other before and after each stage, something that Niewiadoma sees as an asset to each rider’s mental health throughout the race.

“Having them around me this week, the whole team was always in a good spirit, we were always trying to aim for more even though we had days where we felt like we messed up by missing a big breakaway. No one took it badly, no one took offence, we just said, okay we will change it the next day, or we will turn it into a joke. I feel that we were very relaxed and achieved big goals but without stress or any nervousness. Also Ricarda’s victory really boosted the team’s mood and confidence.”

Ricarda Bauernfeind is a rider who has come through the Canyon//SRAM Generation development programme for under-23 riders, spending the 2022 season as part of that outfit before graduating to the WorldTour team in 2023. She is not the only rider to see success following this pathway; Antonia Niedermaier is another rider who has flourished after a season with the Generation project, securing a surprise win on stage five on stage five of the Giro d’Italia Donne a few weeks ago, ahead of world champion Annemiek van Vleuten.

“I think it’s amazing that we have the Canyon//SRAM Generation team for the young riders. It allows them to develop slowly and gradually. I think that with the current, extremely high, racing level, it’s super hard to turn from junior to elite and race with us and feel like you belong where you want to belong,” Niewiadoma said. “So without the Generation team, I think it would be a challenge for young riders. For Antonia and Ricarda, having one year where they could transition from racing in their own countries to racing abroad but slowly and gradually, not straight away with the extremely high level, allowed them to also work out their training and take everything step by step. A lot of girls may make the mistake of riding six or seven hours and trying to do it because that’s what they think they need to do to win a race. Slow steps are important in every rider’s growth.”

In an era of the sport where we are seeing super teams such as SD Worx scooping up the biggest riders to their roster, Canyon//SRAM is the perfect example of a squad doing things differently, starting development from the ground up. Their performances last week at the Tour de France Femmes have proved the value of a strong team bond, good leadership and self-belief and are just the start of what looks like will be an exciting new chapter for the team.

As Niewiadoma herself says: “We always had the mindset that we would come here and do our best and grab every opportunity.”

Cover image: ASO/Thomas Maheux

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