Q&A with the youngest member of Trek-Segafredo
(This interview took place before the stoppage of the UCI race calendar due to the on-going coronavirus pandemic.)
Elynor Bäckstedt might be the youngest rider in the 2020 Trek-Segafredo roster, but she has arrived with a cycling pedigree, a genetic lead-out courtesy of being born to two talented cyclists.
At just 18-years-old, Bäckstedt, the eldest daughter of the 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt and former British national champion Megan Hughes, has already notched some impressive results, both on the track, where she won the Individual Pursuit at the European Junior Track Championships, and on the road, where she twice won the bronze medal in the Individual Time Trial at the Junior Road World Championships.
This year, she is making the leap from Juniors to the Elites and will focus exclusively on the road, looking to hone her skills in some of the biggest bike races in the calendar.
TFS: You had a massive 2019 season, winning the U19 Gent-Wevelgem and two stages and the overall of Omloop van Borsele. What was the achievement you were most proud of, aside from winning the bronze at the Worlds?
EB: I would say Gent-Wevelgem. I really hoped to win that race, and I can confidently say that was one of the best forms I’ve ever had so far in my career. I was feeling really strong that day, and I fought in a war. Winning by 15 seconds is not a lot when lead-out trains and bunch sprints are happening behind you.
And I would say the European title on the track for the individual pursuit was also huge because I had a lot of pressure going into that as well, and to pull that off was pretty amazing.
TFS: You won bronze in the Junior time trial at the World Championships in Yorkshire. Talk about that day and what it meant to race in front of your home crowd?
EB: It was really special. There was a lot of pressure going into that because obviously it was a home championship and everyone was talking, ‘ooooh is she going to win?’ or ‘is she not going to win?’ so the expectations were high. And to be the last off in front of a home crowd is pretty scary. On top of that, the course really didn’t suit me.
At home, the only time trials we do are in a straight line down a dual carriageway, turn around and go back. So technically, I’m not one of the best. In Yorkshire, it was twisty descents and steep uphills. It was really hard, but I went into that thinking: ‘If I get top five here, this is a really good day out because this course is far from what I would have hoped for.’ So to come away with a bronze was amazing. I was so, so happy.
TFS: Having won bronze the previous year, some people might have reasoned that you’d be disappointed for not taking a higher placing on the podium…
EB: Yeah, I think a lot of people expected me to be sad with bronze, but the course that I won the bronze on the first year was flat, straight line, so right up my alley. To be able to get the same result on a completely opposite course gave me a lot of confidence in myself. That I can just go hard and still kind of get a result. I had all of my family supporting me there as well: my boyfriend, my family from Sweden, all of the family from the UK… it was an incredible experience!
TFS: What do you expect will be the hardest part in the transition from the Junior ranks to the WorldTour level?
EB: I think the hardest thing for me will be the change in distances in the races. The [increase in] distance itself is not a problem because I do long training rides, but after only having competed in 70-80km races as a Junior, it is quite a jump to now be racing a minimum of 130-140km repetitively. But I’m ready for the challenge.
Apart from that, it will be about building my strengths and being able to keep up with the pro-women. I need to find out what suits me because, as a Junior, you must be good at everything, and you don’t really know what type of rider you are. You have an idea, but you don’t specialize in something because if you’re not good at everything, you don’t win.
TFS: Do you have any personal goals in 2020 beyond gaining experience and supporting your teammates in the races?
EB: I’d quite like to win the National Champs, the TT especially. I feel like that’s one of my stronger points, and obviously, I’d like to go for the road race as well. We have a lot of strong riders, so if I can win, that would be insane.
In the future, I would like to win one of the Classics – I would love to do that – to win one of the races I’ve grown up watching. But for this season, I think it’s mostly about gaining experience and learning different skills. Moving up from Junior to Elite is a big step, and there are a lot of things to learn. But if I can pull off some results this season as well, I think that’ll be amazing.
TFS: You come from a track background. How do you feel that has helped you to be a better road cyclist?
EB: I think track teaches you a lot, especially how to do [back-to-back] efforts repetitively. In a Points race, for example, you have no choice but to keep going even when you’re absolutely nailed. It’s also taught me how to time-trial effectively: how to go as hard as you can, for as long as you can, and not be scared to [blow up]. I think it also teaches you to be a little bit aggressive on the bike. If you want that spot, you’ve got to go for it, otherwise you’re straight off the back.
It teaches you not to be scared because you do fall off on the track, you get splinters, but you have to pick yourself back up because you’ve only got five laps [to get back in] and if you don’t get up quick enough, then you don’t start the race again.
TFS: What are your three biggest qualities as a cyclist?
EB: I would say I’m quite good at being focused, especially when I need to be, like before a race. I also like to have a laugh and speak to people and not just sit in the bus and be quiet because then I get too nervous, but when the time comes, and I need to warm up or head to the start, I think I’m quite good at switching between the two [mentalities] quickly.
In the Juniors, I was fairly good at bunch positioning, but it’s hard to know if that will carry into the Elites. Finally, I would say my power, or my long efforts are pretty good, like prolonged efforts on the front of the bunch or pulling back a breakaway.
TFS: Your parents were both exceptional cyclists. What was the best advice they gave you when you decided to pursue this sport as a career?
EB: I think one of the best things my dad has ever taught me is to race aggressively. When I was younger, I never really had a good sprint or enough power, and he would always say to me: ‘Just keep making those efforts, no matter how much they hurt, no matter how many times you get brought back. One day it will pay off.’
As a Junior, the strength and sprinting skills I never had before caught up with me, and I was able to win bunch sprints. And I guess that was the moment in Gent where it paid off. I would say that’s probably the best bit of advice he’s ever told me: To believe in yourself.
TFS: You are still a full-time student. Explain how you juggle that and a racing career? What are the main struggles?
EB: It’s pretty hard to juggle school with a cycling career. Thankfully my school is pretty flexible and supportive. They allow me time off to attend the training camps and obviously the races throughout the season. I typically go to school for a 9 am class, a sport session because I’m doing a sports course. I’ll do an hour or an hour and a half in the gym, and afterward, I have a two-hour lesson. Then I go home, quickly change, have lunch, and go out on the bike.
In the winter, I can only fit in two and a half hours at most because it gets dark around 4 pm. I don’t like to ride in the dark, I don’t think it’s safe, and even with lights and the bright yellow kits we have I really don’t think it’s a smart decision. My coach Mattias (Reck) is good at structuring my training around school, but sometimes it can be tough mentally because every training you do outside during the week finishes in the dark.
TFS: Crashes and injuries are unfortunately a usual occurrence in pro-cycling… have you experienced any severe injuries?
EB: I’ve had so many injuries! When I was younger, I broke my tibia. That took about six months in a cast and then obviously the long process of getting back into cycling form. And then I broke my collarbone twice after going headfirst into a car, so yes, I have had lots of injuries and had to persevere and work my way back. Sometimes it can be mentally tough, but it’s something many athletes must overcome in their careers.
TFS: If you could borrow one cycling strength or skillset from your father, what would it be?
EB: His FTP (Functional Threshold Power, or the highest average power you can sustain for an hour, measured in watts). Also, I would really like to have his lead-out ability and his mentality during those lead-out sessions.