Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is the energetic, unfiltered, extroverted fans’ favourite in women’s cycling. She describes herself as a 'crazy banana' but she insists there is also a serious side to her. Procycling spoke with her just before the season restart got underway, and sat back and enjoyed the stream of consciousness.
This article was taken from Procycling magazine issue 273, October 2020.
Not many pro cyclists can say they’ve been offered a contract extension by a new team before they’ve even pinned on a race number for them. But then again, not all cyclists are Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. Illness and then the Covid-19 pandemic might have put the race debut of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope’s star signing for 2020 on hold until August, but that didn’t matter.
In July the French team announced they were extending her contract by two years to 2022. The team didn’t need her to prove her worth through results, though surely, with racing now back up and running, they will soon follow. But Uttrup Ludwig had already been a success. Mainly by simply being Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.
The Danish rider has become a box office hit, the kind of rider everyone can’t wait to watch when she races to see what she does, and can’t wait to talk to after, to see what she says. Considering she’s the first to say she’s not yet enjoyed a big breakthrough racing moment, it’s quite an achievement.
“It’s a good team and they really want the best for me, so it was not a hard decision for me to make,” Uttrup Ludwig tells Procycling. “Even though I haven’t raced with them I feel I know the team pretty well. I like the girls and I like the staff; it was an easy choice.”
Joining a new team can be a bit like being the new kid at school. Relationships and friendships are already established, there’s a hierarchy and certain ways of doing things, and the newcomer has to navigate it all to find their place. You get the impression Uttrup Ludwig wouldn’t be too intimidated by situations such as these - you only need to spend a few minutes speaking to her to realise she can probably strike up a conversation with anyone. She only spent a few weeks at training camps with her team-mates over winter before the world shut down and she returned to Denmark for lockdown. But she has already formed a bond that led her team manager Stephen Delcourt to describe her as the “image” of the team. “Her spontaneity and joie de vivre are a real joy every day. Her smile is so communicative that from the morning she transmits to her team-mates and staff so many positive vibes,” he said in a glowing reference in the team’s press release.
“I like that you bring that up,” Uttrup Ludwig says. “Of course we want to win races and we want to perform but in the end I also believe that to be able to win races and perform well you need to have a good atmosphere, you need to feel welcome, you need to feel good in a team because that’s how you bring most out of people.
“I feel that we need to be able to sit at the dinner table and be chatting and having fun and be joking, and at times when the race is on there will also be really super serious moments where we don’t really talk much. So it is a balance. It’s so great and so important to have that in a team. That we can do both.”
If Uttrup Ludwig didn’t already know this, the months of simplicity during lockdown with her family in Denmark gave plenty of time for reflection on what matters most to her, and ultimately helps get the best out of her when she’s racing.
“In a way it is knowing what makes me perform on the bike, and that is also primarily being a happy person. I’m a really social person and I love hanging out with friends and hanging out with or being with my family, so those were the things that didn’t make it [lockdown] that tough because it was so nice being able to see people.”
This year is all-rounder Uttrup Ludwig’s seventh as a pro, despite the fact she’s still just 24. She started racing for Danish Team Rytger in 2014, but it was the 2017 season that really shot her into public consciousness. After signing for Cervélo-Bigla she enjoyed a string of top 10s in major races and she ended the year with the best young rider jersey in the Women’s WorldTour. Stage races and tough one-day events are her forte, mixing her climbing strength and time trialling ability with her nature for racing aggressively. She’s secured top-10 finishes in almost every one-day WorldTour race: third at Trofeo Binda, fifth at Strade Bianche, third at La Course, third in Flanders, sixth at Amstel Gold, eighth at Flèche Wallonne, 10th at Liège. She’s edging closer to the big victory, which is why FDJ made her team leader this year.
But Uttrup Ludwig has transcended public consciousness for more than her racing, and is just as known for her exuberant, post-race interviews - two of which have gone viral.
Cycling is a sport built on the colour and character of its biggest players. It’s not just about people riding bikes fast, but about the suffering, the tactics, the sacrifice, the stories of the riders and what it’s taken for them to get there. It’s maybe why Uttrup Ludwig has captured the imagination. The first time was at La Course in 2018, held on a mountainous Alpine route, where she attacked on the Col de la Romme and led the race up the final climb of the Col de la Colombière. Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten would eventually pass her, with Uttrup Ludwig holding on for fourth, but at the finish in La Grand Bornand, she sat on the tarmac, both weeping and laughing as she described the race as “a day I will remember for the rest of my life”. This wasn’t about winning, but it was direct, honest, unfiltered emotion, the kind we rarely see in a sport where the riders are so wary of what they say, that they often end up saying little.
After finishing third at Flanders in 2019, Uttrup Ludwig was bursting again in the mixed zone. “It was a hard one… it was going full gas into the Kwaremont, and then BAM! Let’s put the hammer down,” she said, slamming her arms down from above her head, with a grin stretching across her face.
“Things changed after the Flanders interview,” Uttrup Ludwig remembers now. “I guess that’s a memory that really sticks out. Even today when people talk to me, they’re still like, ‘I remember that Flanders interview: “Put the hammer down.”’ They still remember that. I don’t know, I get quite emotional about that. Do you still remember that interview? Then it must have made an impression on you. I get moved by that.”
Uttrup Ludwig is aware of her reputation. When she speaks it’s with animation and at a mile a minute. Her sentences often zigzag in different directions as thoughts race through her head and out of her mouth. But she’s also keen to stress she’s just a normal person. She isn’t always happy, she says. When things don’t go well she allows herself to be disappointed, but takes the view that “tomorrow is a new day.” The happy side of her is just the one people remember most.
“I think the interviews that make the most impression are where I’m so ecstatic because I feel like I’ve done well or the team’s succeeded,” she says.
“I think in general I do things with passion, especially cycling, and it is my huge passion, especially women’s cycling. That’s also why at some races where it doesn’t go well, of course I will be sad, but I think that’s a way of showing that you care. I really care about my work - and it’s funny to say work.”
The interviews have certainly raised Uttrup Ludwig’s profile. But is there an expectation now for her to always be that way, for every interview to be a viral-worthy one?
“Maybe sometimes I get the feeling that they would love me to go crazy this one time. I’m not an act, I’m not putting on a show,” she says. “I am that way because that is me in that moment, that is me when I’m super happy. I think people, in time, they will also see when I don’t do well, I will not give a crazy interview.”
In Flanders, it wasn’t just the result, and the fact that she had made it onto the podium, that had Uttrup Ludwig bursting when she crossed the line. It was the adrenaline she drew from the festival-sized crowds on the famed Flemish climbs that was pumping through her veins. It was an experience unlike any other she’d had - the women’s sport still largely struggles to attract the same crowds as the men’s races do, and racing through crowds is part of what gives cycling its colour.
“I feel it’s more rare that we have these crazy crowds. Just thinking about it, I get goosebumps, You feel so alive, when there are so many. They’re cheering for you but it’s like the whole atmosphere is like one cycling party. Everyone is so happy and everyone loves cycling and it’s just like that screaming…” she says.
“Really, I get energy out of it. What can I compare it to? The only race that’s only dedicated to the women, like the Women’s Tour - that is also crazy with crowds. We don’t get them as often when it’s a women’s only race. I think I really enjoy it when people want to come out and watch us. Sometimes I’m like, ‘I wish that people knew, I wish that our race was televised, I wish people knew how good our races are.’ Because I feel it’s as good as the men.”
Just because Uttrup Ludwig is known for her colourful interviews, don’t take that to mean she doesn’t take things seriously or that she’s frivolous.
In 2018, she was among those to speak out and criticise the UCI for the disparity between the courses for the men and women at the World Championships road race in Innsbruck - the women’s race was shorter and crucially missed out the defining steep climb, the ‘Hell Climb’, in the men’s race. Last year, she asked why ASO had planned to downgrade La Course to a criterium in Paris, rather than give the women a stage race.
“I think I’ve always cared about having a fair chance. These are some of the things I burn for,” she says. She notes she has been asked what else she does, other than be a cyclist, because some can’t believe it is a full-time job for women.
“Comparing men’s and women’s cycling, for a long time I’ve really felt the need or the want to express to the world that I as a woman work as hard as my male colleagues. I live in the same city, I train with the guys - I can’t train with them every day because they’re too strong - I train with them sometimes. I know that I am not as strong but I train just as hard.
“I wish that people, when they look at women, they see the hard work. It is a f*cking hard job, you need to go out there and train and you need to f*cking push yourself to the limit.
“That’s also really important for me as well. I feel I am this crazy, silly banana sometimes but I do also feel I want people to know I am serious and I have a serious side as well and that’s always the balance, because I am both sides.”
Uttrup Ludwig finally made her debut in FDJ colours at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa in Spain, at the end of July, finishing 11th before adding another top 10 at Strade Bianche in August, then a well-earned win in the Giro dell’Emilia. If all goes to plan before the end of the year, she’s going to be racing as much as she can: Plouay, La Course, the Giro Rosa, Worlds, before heading to the classics in the autumn. Surely it’s only a matter of time before she lands the big win.
“I feel like for three years in a row, people have said, ‘This is your breakthrough year. Now it’s your breakthrough year. Now it’s your breakthrough year.’ All the time I’ve been up there, I’ve been hanging on top 10, on the podium. If you ask me, I’ve not made the breakthrough yet. I’m still new in the game and I still haven’t got that big victory. I feel like, aah, I really want that. Who doesn’t want that?” she laughs.
You get the impression that cycling fans want that for Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig almost as much as she does herself.
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