Zoe Bäckstedt moves to Belgium

The junior world champion is making herself at home in cyclocross country

November 3, 2022

Zoe Bäckstedt’s best friends think she is a little bit crazy.

They grew up together on the same street in Pontyclun in the south of Wales. Zoe always was the athlete. First it was netball and tennis and track-and-field and cross-country running. Then, it was cycling. It was always going to be cycling. Zoe’s parents never put pressure on her, but Zoe was born to race. Her mum was British road champion. Her dad’s got a winner’s cobble from Paris-Roubaix. Zoe’s older sister Elynor turned pro a couple of years ago. To Zoe’s friends back in Wales, Zoe is just Zoe though. She is always singing along to the craziest music and making funny faces in pictures. She has so much energy that she found it hard to pay much attention at school. As often as they they could, Zoe and her friends would meet up at one of their houses and head into Pontyclun to hang out at their favourite café. Now, Zoe’s friends are finishing their A-levels and moving to dorm rooms. At uni, they are stressing about syllabi and grades. Zoe moved to Belgium to study Flanders’ cobbled climbs and spend the winter racing cyclocross two or three times per week. She rides up the hills from the Ronde van Vlaanderen almost every day in training and already knows every decisive gutter and rocky pitch. She loves the classics and wants to win the Tour of Flanders. More than anything, she wants to win Paris-Roubaix—like her dad. And the world champs. And the Olympics.

No one doubts that she can. Zoe already has a Belgian fan club. She has just won two world junior titles, in the road race and the time trial, and has a rack full of rainbow jerseys—tossed in a pile on the floor of her new room. Zoe is the current world junior cyclocross champion and junior Madison champion on the track. She signed her first professional contract with EF Education-TIBCO-SVB this summer and bought her first car and a Belgian apartment. Zoe only just turned 18. Sometimes, she has to shake her head when she lines up for a race with the pros and sees world champions and Olympic medallists to her left and right. She’s never scared of them.

“I still have to hide my excitement a little bit,” she says. “I turn up on the start line, and everyone is like, ‘Oof, it’s 8 o'clock in the morning’, and I am like, ‘Yeah! Let’s go!’”

A few minutes before a cyclocross race, Zoe will be riding around making jokes with all of the people she has just met on the start straight, about to race with bare arms and legs, even though it’s raining and two degrees. Her rivals think she is kind of nuts.

“That’s just Zoe,” her dad Magnus says. “The most important thing for her is that she has fun, but what people don’t notice is how switched-on she is. Zoe will be dancing on the rollers before a track race and people might wonder when she is going to do a serious warm up, but she’ll have noticed what gear every one of her competitors is riding. Then, she is just whoosh: in the zone.”

Magnus has come to watch Zoe’s first cyclocross practice in Belgium. The two of them drove over from Wales with a van full of stuff to help Zoe move into the AirBnB in Oudenaarde where she is going to live before moving into her new apartment in Waregem. She wanted to be right in the centre of the Flemish Ardennes. Last winter, she and her dad travelled around the cyclocross circuit in a camper van. This winter, Zoe wanted to get a place of her own. Her sister lived in Oudenaarde a couple of years ago. Zoe already knows the roads.

A whistle blasts through the cold, foggy forest. Zoe barrels down a dirt path, sprinting into a chicane marked by sticks, and then out into the woods ahead of the older pro women and boys. Several minutes later, the whistle blows again to end the interval. Zoe comes back to the start of the practice circuit grinning. Her cheeks are glowing. It’s her first day testing her brand new Cannondale SystemSix EVO CX. She goes straight to the mechanic and says she wants two-centimetre wider bars with a shallower drop and higher hoods, to lower her saddle a couple of millimetres, and let a few PSI out of her tires. She’s been working the corners, learning the fastest line around each of the trees, as she ducks and dodges around the training loop. Magnus has to remind her to slow down and not go harder than 90%. She’ll be tired from the drive and should stick to her coach’s plan. Zoe listens. She and her coach understand each other very well.

“When she sets me intervals and I look at it and see a turbo session, I will just be like ‘No, I am going to go out on a different bike today,’” Zoe says. “I will message her and be like ‘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.’”

Zoe hardly needs extra encouragement. She loves bike racing–every kind of bike racing. She is a student of the sport.

Later that afternoon, Zoe goes for a walk through the empty farmer’s field above Oudenaarde where the Koppenbergcross is held. She can say where every corner will be—and how to race them. She is not even going to ride the Koppenbergcross this season. She wants to save her legs for the European championships in Namur: her first big goal of the year.

On the day, she goes to watch.

She hikes to the top of the Koppenberg with all of the Belgian fans to cheer on her teammate Clara Honsinger—and every other rider who races past. She knows each one of them by name and can cite their best results.

“I need to know her, and her, and her,” she says, every time a U23 rider passes. Zoe is still a junior, a U19, but in Namur she is going to race for the blue-and-white European U23 champion’s jersey. She hopes it rains.

“The mud! The sand! The rain! Everything!” she says, when asked what she likes about cyclocross. “Getting off the bike and having to run up hills and through muddy fields. Just how hard it is on your whole body, not just your legs.”

In a few weeks, Zoe’s friends from Wales are going to come visit. She is excited to show them her new apartment and try to make them tacos, fajitas, or spaghetti bolognaise—her go-to meals. She has been trying to practise her cooking skills, but it’s hard when there’s a pizza shop and frites truck around the corner and no one to say not to order in. If she has a waffle in town, she won’t have ice cream. That’s her only rule for herself, but she might break it when her friends come to visit. Zoe will get them to bring mango chutney and squash and all of her favourite things from Wales. She wishes they could bring the sea. Together, they will turn the music up real loud and dance around Zoe’s kitchen and share stories from university and Belgian bike races—even if Zoe’s friends don’t quite understand half the things she says.

“We were discussing it when I was home last,” Zoe says. “They know that I want to move out here. They were like ‘Yeah, you know, we are going to come out to you and stay with you and we are going to do this, and we can do that, and I really can’t wait for it. It is going to be so good.”

Zoe might even tidy up her room for them and hang up all of her rainbow jerseys. She hopes she’ll have a new blue-and-white striped one to show her best friends. European champion; her friends from home will understand that.

How to follow: Eurosport will have live coverage of the U23 European cyclocross championships beginning at 13:05 CET.

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