Zoe Backstedt: Belgium move paying off for teenage world champion

  • By Matthew Kenyon
  • BBC Sport

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Zoe Backstedt has won junior world titles in four disciplines on road, track and cyclocross

Teenage Welsh cyclist Zoe Backstedt has made a big step as she enters the next phase of her pro career.

At just 18 and after an outstanding 2022, she has uprooted herself from her childhood home in Pontyclun and moved to Belgium, the heart of European cycling culture.

It’s a big change for such a young driver, but it’s worth it.

“It makes my preparation for my races so much easier,” she told BBC Sport.

“Of course I miss my family, I miss my friends, but it’s the best thing I can do for my career and they know it too.”

Even in her first year above the junior category, she was the only rider in the women’s U23 field to challenge eventual champion Shirin van Anrooij, who turned 21 on race day.

Zoe crossed the finish line almost a minute ahead of third place finisher.

“I’m just glad that I lasted as long and was as close as I was when I lasted in this race,” said Backstedt.

It was her second win of the weekend after helping British Cycling to Silver in the Team Relay event earlier in the weekend.

She was the only rider to compete in the season’s opening lap.

“It was just really cool to be the only woman at the start going full throttle into the first corner,” she said.

At the Hoogerheide relay, Zoe provided the platform for her GB team to reach the podium.

She now hopes to make a similar impact with her EF Education-TIBCO-SVB team in her first full year in the pro ranks.

The season starts on February 25 with the Omloop het Nieuwsblad from Gent to Ninove in Belgium.

In other words, in what is now her own backyard.

“It was pretty cool just learning how to do math and everything, especially in a foreign language,” Zoe said.

“But I really enjoyed it. I’ve found a beautiful place and having my own place to return to has made cross-season a lot nicer for me.

“I can just drive to the service course, [or] go to the races and just come home for the evening and cook for myself.”

She has a “busy schedule” of late winter and early spring races including the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which her father Magnus won in 2004.

image source, WILLIAM WEST

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Zoe Backstedt won two gold medals at the Road World Championships in September 2022

The Backstedts are a famous cycling family. Alongside her father, Zoe’s older sister Elynor has also been a professional driver for a number of years and her mother Megan Hughes represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

On the sidelines at Hoogerheide, Megan said it was “nerve-wracking” but enjoyable to watch her daughters compete.

“Every race that both girls contest is a nerve-wracking day for me, but [I’m a] proud mom, and just enjoy it all.”

Megan is realistic about Zoe’s move from home.

“She has to be here at the moment to do the cyclocross and be with the team, so you have to do that – so we as parents have to deal with that.

“We’re close, but to be fair, Belgium isn’t that far away, six to seven hours, so if there’s any problems I’ll be right there.”

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Strong following

Belgium and the Netherlands are the heartland of cyclocross and the young Welsh woman’s burgeoning success has already garnered her a strong following among fans of the sport – an interest that her move to Belgium is sure to increase.

“It’s pretty cool just rolling off the bus to the starting line – people scream,” Zoe said.

“Everywhere on the course, wherever I was, people were always calling me, from every country someone was always calling my name. That really helped me to keep going.”

Many were strangers, of course, but some of the people in Hoogerheide knew them better.

“My mom and grandma were here — they came to support me, which was really nice,” she said.

“I could see them calling me and they were on the podium too. It is so beautiful.

Backstedt hopes she will have to return to the UK later in the year as Scotland host the 2023 UCI World Championships this summer.

From August 3rd to 13th, for the first time, several world championships – a total of 13 in seven disciplines – will take place as part of a large event.

Those two crowns completed a remarkable 2022 for the young rider, having already won the cyclocross junior world title and the Madison Junior world crown on track with teammate Grace Lister.

After moving up to the U23 category in Hoogerheide and standing on the podium again, she’s already enjoying life at the next level.

“The team relay was incredible, [U23] was amazing, the crowd was amazing – it was great,” she said.

And when asked if her move to Belgium had already worked, she had a short and simple answer.

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