Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig: Pro cycling's rising star

If the cycling community didn't know Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervelo Bigla) already, they definitely learned her name last Tuesday. In the women's one-day race La Course by Le Tour de France, the 22-year-old Dane ignited the race on the penultimate climb when she rode away from the favourites' group. Caught three kilometres from the top of the last climb, Uttrup Ludwig held on for a fourth place and afterwards gave an emotional interview that went viral. Cyclingnews spoke to this new star in women's cycling on the final day of the Giro Rosa and reached out to her for additional comments after La Course.

After winning the white jersey for the best U23 rider in the UCI Women's WorldTour in 2017, the 2018 season did not go to plan for Uttrup Ludwig at first as she was off the pace in the spring classics. "My spring campaign did not go great, to put it mildly," she freely admitted.

"I was frustrated because I could not figure out what the problem was. It turned out that I had an infection in a wisdom tooth, and I got it removed in early June. It is incredible how much impact such a little tooth can have on your performance. In the spring, I felt like dying when I pushed 200 watts, but now I get better every day. So I hope that the rest of my 2018 season can become very good."

And the month-and-a-half since early June already was a very good period results-wise. After placing 17th in the sprinter-friendly OVO Energy Women's Tour, she defended her Danish time trial title, placed seventh in the flat road race, and then travelled to the Giro Rosa.

In 2017, Uttrup Ludwig had won the white jersey for the best U23 rider and finished 16th overall. This year, she was up there with the very best on a challenging course that included two mountaintop finishes, in Gerola Alta and on the Monte Zoncolan, as well as a mountain time trial. Remarkable consistency with top-ten finishes on these three stages as well as the final stage around Cividale del Friuli that also included a category 1 climb in the final netted Uttrup Ludwig a sixth place overall in a race she loves.

"I have been looking forward to the Giro," the young Dane said. "It is such a great race, even more so with the mountainous route we had this year. It was great to stay in Northern Italy compared to last year when we finished around Napoli and there were many long transfers. We stayed in the same hotel for the first five nights, that in itself is almost luxurious. You do not have to pack and unpack every day. There was a long transfer after the mountain time trial, but that was the same for everyone, and it was really just the one time."

When the talk fell on the Monte Zoncolan, the passion and emotion in Uttrup Ludwig's voice was palpable. Her face lit up, and she underlined her words with grins and hand gestures as she told the story of a day to remember: "Monte Zoncolan was just incredible. It was one of the hardest climbs I have done in my life. And it was so cool, especially because the lead-out was crazy. We raced through a thunderstorm, the roads were flooded, but that just added to the feeling that there should be a big fight on the Zoncolan. It was like in a movie, and it really motivated me. When we reached the climb, the roads had dried off, and it was just so awesome."

On the climbs, it was up to Moolman-Pasio and Uttrup Ludwig herself, but they also had a dedicated team at their sides who made sure they reached the decisive climbs in the best possible condition.

"In general, the whole team deserves praise for the Giro. Having teammates who support you all day is invaluable, going to the car for bottles and ice cubes and back up again on the very hot days we had. This meant that Ashleigh and I could relax completely, they kept us safe and out of the wind and then led us out into every climb. The staff have been great too, the bikes were always set up perfectly, we received massages every night, we got a new truck just before the race, and the whole team was just in great shape."

A Grand Tour is almost as much about recovering right off the bike as it is about racing well on the bike. Uttrup Ludwig felt that she was on the right track and improved with each day.

"I really enjoyed it, and I really felt better day by day, and that is something of an art in such a long race. It is all about eating right, being careful what you eat, eating soon enough after the stage finish, getting enough rest and so on. And I also learned a lot during the race. Sometimes it is not bad to make mistakes, on the contrary. You learn a lot from your mistakes."

The big breakthrough at La Course

After the Giro Rosa had finished on 15 July, Uttrup Ludwig and her Cervélo-Bigla team headed across Italy to the French Alps where they raced in La Course by Le Tour de France on 17 July. It was a long transfer, and virtually all Giro Rosa finishers did it by car, but it was well worth it. On parts of the route for the men's Tour de France stage 10 from Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand, the women delivered another cracking race, with the 22-year-old climber right in the thick of it.

Halfway up the Col de Romme, Uttrup Ludwig attacked from the favourites' group with 33km still to go to the finish. She quickly passed the remains of an earlier breakaway and crested the pass 30 seconds ahead of the favourites. Going all-out in the descent, she extended her advantage to 1:45 minutes at the foot of the final climb of the Col de la Colombière.

On this climb, the effort started to make itself felt, but Uttrup Ludwig continued, cheered on by compatriots and French spectators alike who yelled her name as her smile turned into a grimace of pain. When Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans), Olympic champion and 2017 UCI Women's WorldTour winner, and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), recent winner of the Giro Rosa and winner of the 2017 La Course, accelerated, they dropped everyone but Uttrup Ludwig's teammate Moolman-Pasio and slowly, but surely closed the gap to the lone rider in white and blue who was now at her limit.

Uttrup Ludwig had nothing left to follow the accelerations of the three best climbers in women's cycling when they caught her, but she persevered on the last three kilometres of the climb and in the downhill, finishing in fourth place two minutes after van Vleuten had pipped van der Breggen to the line.

Sat on the pavement in Le Grand-Bornand, a bundle of equal parts exhaustion and exuberance, Uttrup Ludwig was as much looking forward to some time off racing and a short summer holiday as she was moved to tears by the great display of women's racing the world had just witnessed.

"I will remember this day for the rest of my life," Uttrup Ludwig said in her post-race interview, laughing through her tears. "We just showed how good women's cycling is. This is crazy. People out there should watch more women's cycling, please."

Speaking to Cyclingnews from her holiday in Italy, Uttrup Ludwig confirmed that she was overwhelmed by the moment, in a good way. "I also cried after the Zoncolan stage - I am a little crying princess," she laughed.

"And La Course was such a wild day. We had breaks, attrition on the climbs, only the very strongest were left at the end, and the finish was nail-biting. It was really worth watching, and people like a good story. It was such a crazy month for me after getting rid of that wisdom tooth. I surprised myself positively all the time and was so happy about my progress, and that all culminated in Le Grand-Bornand.

"And there is so much attention around the Tour de France," she continued. "It is my innermost hope that all this attention has opened people's eyes to women's cycling, and I know many other women's pros hope the same. In that sense, it was perfect that we could deliver such a great race and such a great show with all the attention there was."

A logical next step would be to have the women's race extended to more than one day. While there were two days in 2017, the time trial on the second day only included part of the peloton and was an invitational event, not part of the UCI Women's WorldTour.

Asked about her thoughts on a multi-day La Course, Uttrup Ludwig was balanced, "There is no simple answer. I would love to see another long stage race. But we have to remember that while a men's team has 25-30 riders, a women's team has only 10-15. So if, one day, there was e.g. a ten-day Giro, a ten-day Tour and maybe a ten-day Women's Tour, that would mean 30 race days within one and a half months. It would be hard to find enough riders to ride all those races. So somebody would probably have to move their race."

Logistical problems with having several women's Grand Tours aside, turning the one-day La Course into a short stage race would find Uttrup Ludwig's wholehearted approval.

"It would be great for the sport to have a short stage race in conjunction with the men's Tour de France. If we had four days, we could have some mountains, a flat stage, and maybe a time trial. And we would get a lot of attention if it is concurrent with the Tour, that would really boost women's cycling."

In the meantime, the Danish climber hopes for more coverage of the existing UCI Women's WorldTour races. The Giro Rosa is the most obvious target - not in spite of, but exactly because of its date and the overlap with the men's Tour de France.

"The Giro Rosa race organisation has also stepped up their game. There are highlights and recaps on RAI, on Eurosport, and on the UCI YouTube channel. People can actually follow the race. My hope is that things improve even further so that we can get a live broadcast eventually, maybe for next year already. The race really deserves it, and we cyclists deserve it, too, because we deliver some very exciting racing.

"Even the flat stages were all-out from kilometre zero. The peloton was stretched out in single file, attack after attack after attack, they just kept going. The speed was really high, on stage six [the Gerola Alta mountaintop finish, red.], it was a windy day, and we had an average above 45 km/h until the start of the climb. It was crazy - and I love it. Women's cycling is in such rapid development, and that is great to see. We long to have more challenging races, more uphill finishes, and the Giro Rosa delivered on that."

While the women's peloton was racing their hearts out in Italy, the men's peloton was in the first week of the Tour de France. That first week consisted mostly of flat stages for the sprinters that followed a formulaic script where an early break gets away, is controlled by the sprinters' teams and reeled in with a few kilometres to go, and finally there is a sprint. Compare and contrast with the Giro Rosa that delivered action-packed stages almost every day, and you are left wondering whether people would not much rather watch the Giro Rosa if they just had the choice.

"The men were in the first week of the Tour de France while we did the Giro Rosa, and some of those stages, 200 or 250 kilometres, are really just transport from A to B. Who wants to watch a flat stage for six hours? It would be much more exciting to tune into women's cycling during that. We are forced to race hard from the start exactly because we do not have those distances, there are attacks all the time, and it is so much more intense. And when our race is finished after three hours, people can still watch the last two hours of the Tour stage."

The World Championships

For many pro cyclists, male or female, the World Championships in Innsbruck are the big target for the remainder of the 2018 season. Uttrup Ludwig is one of them, but she is also outspoken about the inequality between the men's and women's courses. In a Voxwomen blog post, she decried the inclusion of the Höll climb with its 28 per cent gradients in the final of the men's course - and its exclusion from the women's race. And she expanded on her arguments further when questioned about this.

"I just think it is sad. When there is something spectacular that everybody is talking about, we should all get the opportunity to race it. I do not want there to be hard climbs in the World Championships every year. But this is a recurring theme: Two years ago in Qatar, there was a tour through the desert with crosswinds and echelons - for the men; the women only did the circuits in Doha. And last year in Bergen, the men's ITT finished up Mount Fløyen in a phenomenal atmosphere while the women had a mostly flat time trial.

"We need those spectacular courses and the exposure they give. The Innsbruck course would be challenging even without the Höll climb, one of the hardest in many years. But they found something extra for the men, and only for the men. I really hope that the UCI and the organisers do better in the future."

After speaking her mind about the double standards used when planning World Championship courses, the young climber said, "I am really looking forward to Innsbruck. It is like racing on a Toblerone bar, and that is what I love. I believe that we women can deliver a great race once again. We do not get to race up Höll, but it is too late to change that now, so that is how it is. But I cannot wait to race on that mountainous circuit. And while the Dutch will have a strong team, Annemiek and Anna are the strongest at the moment. So it will be interesting to see their team tactics, and then I will see what we Danes can do."

Looking to the future, the 22-year-old hopes to continue her development into a strong climber and stage racer and eventually to be able to challenge the best in the biggest races. "It is my dream to become a really good GC rider eventually," she said. "That is what I am working towards - a good, stable time trial and being strong in the mountains."

Being the Danish ITT champion three years in a row and having finished tenth in last year's ITT World Championships, Uttrup Ludwig's time trial prowess is already well-established. And with a sixth place overall in the Giro Rosa and a fourth place in La Course, her climbing skills are indisputable.

But she maintains that there is still some way to go, "I feel that I lack the last percent or so when the very best attack on the climbs. And I want to get there. I still live in Denmark, but I plan to move to a place with mountains soon. You just cannot train in Denmark if you want to be a climber. I am thinking about Girona, but I also love Italy, so I will have to sit down and make a decision this autumn."

Watch the post-race interview with Uttrup Ludwig as she speaks to journalists after La Course by Le Tour de France in the Youtube video posted on the CyclingTips channel below.

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