Short film: Leaving home | Zoe Bäckstedt

Our junior champ tells us about her move to Belgium and the start of her pro career

January 20, 2023

Zoe Bäckstedt has just moved away from home for the first time.

She isn’t settling into a dorm room like all her friends though. The eighteen-year-old world champion moved to Belgium this winter to race cyclocross and train on the roads of the classics she wants to win. Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen are her favourites. Zoe won three world junior titles last year and is already competing with top pro women. She just won the British cyclocross championships. Her dad is Magnus Bäckstedt, a Paris Roubaix winner, and her mum Meghan was British road champion. Zoe’s cycling career has never been a matter of course though. She blazes her own trail.

When did you start riding bikes?

I started cycling when I was three. I had one of those bikes that didn’t have pedals so you just kind of pushed it with your legs and progressed my way up to a big-girl bike, which is what I ride now.

Did you always know you wanted to be a racer?

No. Not in the slightest. I did netball, tennis, athletics, cross-country running, and cycling. Pretty much, name a sport, and I did it before I decided that cycling was the one. I was in a tennis session one time. I remember the day completely. I was at a tennis session and my parents were like, ‘Right, we have got to get going, because we’ve got to get down to do your cycling session’, and a day later I was like, ‘I can’t do it anymore’. I was getting further along in school and getting some more homework when I decided I just wanted to do cycling. It was the right choice.

You come from a cycling family. How did that impact you when you were young?

I never got to watch my mum racing. I have seen videos of her racing, but she retired in 2000, just before my sister was born. But yeah, I went to watch my dad racing, but I don’t remember much of the early, early stuff—some videos that my grandad has taken or my mum has taken or whatever, but I remember him racing the Tour series, just being with all of my family watching him racing them and then racing with my sister at points and racing in a different race and just getting to watch her racing the past couple of years when she has been racing in Belgium or at the Women’s Tour in the UK. I am following after her. I am following after my dad. I am following after my mum. That just makes me really happy.

What are you going to miss most about home?

I will probably miss this one cafe that only opened recently. It’s been open for about a year now. It’s just a cute little cafe that I like going to with my friends. I will miss going there and being with them. My friends—we all live about three minutes from each other. We can just meet at the middle house and everything is good, but yeah. I will miss them. I will miss my family. I will miss my grandparents. I will miss being by the sea every day. If I am going out on my bike, my normal route is to go right past the ocean. I get to ride past that every day, and that’ll be something I miss a little bit. Two or three months down the road, there will be foods that I can’t buy here that I will import or mum will bring out for me, like squash. You have it here, but it is not the same, so I get my mum to bring some for me, and mango chutney. You can’t really find that here. It is really, really hard to find.

What do your friends think of your move to Belgium?

They all think I am crazy, but they understand it. They know that I have got to do my job, and I want to move out here, and I want to live out here. They have already said to me—we were discussing it when I was home last–they said, ‘Once we can drive, we are going to come out to you and stay with you and we are going to do this and we can do that’. I really can’t wait for it. It is going to be so good and they can come and see me, and I can see them, and when I go home I’ve still got them and can go to their houses. It’s all familiar things that I can go back to.

What are you most excited about now you’re going to be living on your own?

Just being me and getting to do my own thing. Waking up in the morning and putting the music on and just having a dance in the kitchen while I am making my breakfast. I like being on my own sometimes. I like riding on my own. I can just put my headphones in, put my music on, and I just get on with it. Living on my own is like riding my bike, but not.

Tell us about your love of music.

It fits in everything. If I am on the bike, I will listen to music. If I am in the car, I will listen to music. If I am in the shower, I will listen to music. If I am cooking, I will listen to music. If I am just sat down on my phone, I will listen to music. If I am watching TV, I am watching TV, or I will put music on and go on my phone, so I literally will always have music on at all parts of the day. It plays a big part in my day, of my life, of how I am. I can’t live without it.

I listen to pretty much everything. If you speak to my family—my grandad will say, ‘Put this song on for me’, and I’ll play it and I’ll start singing to it or I will start knowing what is going on and the words and everything and I’ll just be like, ‘Well, I just kind of know all songs’. And my mum will be like, ‘You listen to some really really weird stuff.’ And I will be like, ‘Yeah it is just music’. It sits well in my head. Arctic Monkeys I quite like. They’ll get me going if I am going for a ride or Red Hot Chilli Peppers I quite like. I have created a playlist, and it is like 50 hours long now of just songs that I will just sing to or basically vibe to.

What do you listen to before a race?

My warmups can be very varied as to what kind of music I want to listen to. I will either have some really hard stuff that is just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, or I can have the most chill stuff on, almost to the point where it is like opera. That kind of difference. Warming up for track Europeans last year, I had just a chill playlist. I didn’t go for anything that was going to get my heart rate up. I just used the warm up to do that. I just went with what will calm me down in the situation. Even at road worlds this year, I had chill stuff on up until I needed to do my intervals on my warm up, and then was back to chill stuff after that.

How has it been to turn pro?

With women’s cycling, there is not really an U23 category, so you go straight into the elite races anyways. You go from junior straight up to riding double the distance, but riding for a World Tour team, riding the World Tour, you get to go to the bigger races. Just everything for me is exciting. I have done a couple of big races already, and just being in the peloton, being with some big teams and seeing the riders, you know; you have watched them on TV, and you go,’Wow! They did that ride at that race’. It is really cool to be in the peloton yourself. Racing with them is something else. I still have to hide my excitement a little bit. I mean even signing for the team; that hasn’t sunk in. I was riding with my friend the other day, and was like, ‘Just look at my jersey’, and it was like, I have gotten to this point, where I am able to sign for such a cool team, such a big team and, yeah, that still hasn’t really sunk in, let alone two world titles, three world titles this season since the end of the ‘cross season. It really hasn’t sunk in. I don’t know when it will. I don’t know if it fully will. I am amazed by seeing the rainbow jersey hanging up on the wall and going out and training in it.

You like to do a lot of different sorts of racing. How do you balance that across the season?

Yes, mountain-bike. Yes, gravel. Cyclocross, yes. Road, track, yes. I have only really been doing ‘cross internationally for two, three seasons. It has not been a really intense programme. It’s just planning in breaks when you need them and just making sure that you are not overtraining and you are not being overworked in the races, and that you spend some time to just refocus yourself, spend some time with your family, go on holiday or something like that, and just make sure that your mind is happy basically. If you want to be a rider who does cyclocross and road and pretty much does everything, you have to plan your programme or your season well so you don’t get overtired or overworked by the end of it.

What are your long-term goals?

Enjoy it. Just have fun. For my first contract, for my first couple of years, it’s just find myself in the peloton, find out what I want to be doing, help out the team, help out the riders, help the team get some results. And then long term, I want to—if I am in a race, I want to win it basically. That is the kind of vision that I have, but we never know what happens. We just take it day by day. Ronde van Vlaanderen is one that I would want to win and Paris-Roubaix would be another. Basically, the classics. The classics season is something I would want to win for the road, and then the Olympics. For cyclocross, it’s world champs. Hopefully it will become an Olympic sport too. Basically, if there is a race, I want to win it.

What do you like about ‘cross?

The mud! The sand! The rain! Everything! Getting off the bike and having to run up hills and through muddy fields and everything like this. Just how hard it is on your whole body, not just your legs. It is great.

You’re only 18 and have a long career ahead of you. How are you going to keep your excitement for bike racing?

Just by training how I want to train. When my coach will set me intervals, I will look at it and be like, ‘Turbo session? No. I am going to go out on a different bike today’. And I will message her and say, ‘Can I just do this on a cross bike instead? Or can I do it on a mountain bike?’ And she understands how I work and she will be like, ‘Yeah, do whatever you need to do to make you happy to keep you wanting to ride. So long as you get the efforts done and hit the powers that you need to hit, then carry on’. Being with the team, I have really enjoyed that. That will keep me happy. With the girls, we all have a good time. Being on the bus, being with the staff, racing with the pros, racing with the girls that I look up to, that I see on the TV and go like, ‘Wow’—just that makes me happy. The whole of last season, I did maybe two races in a long sleeve skin suit or long sleeve jersey, and I remember turning up to the last race of the season and it was literally two degrees with so much rain that you couldn’t see the wheel in front of you, and I sat on the start line, arms out, legs out and the girl beside me goes, ‘You’re crazy; I really don’t understand you’, and I was just like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s just pretty much me. Just doing what I need to do: having fun, being with other people’.

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