In early January, Zoe Backstedt had incredible momentum, having won every UCI junior race she started – the World Cups in Dendermonde, Namur, and Tabor, the European championships, the Superprestige in Gieten and even an elite race in Essen.
She's dominated on hilly courses, flat races, in the dry and ankle-deep mud, and nobody was a bigger favourite for the title at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in the US. Then came COVID-19.
Her infection knocked her out of the British National Championships and the Flamanville World Cup, meaning she lost the overall series to Leonie Bentveld (Netherlands) and interrupted her momentum. But being young and not having any serious symptoms meant she was quickly back and training for Fayetteville.
"I had to take a couple of days off the bike. But your health is more important and making sure that your heart is OK and nothing is affected by COVID than getting back on the bike and racing quicker," Backstedt said from her hotel in Arkansas in a virtual media interview.
In hindsight, getting COVID out of the way turned out to be a bit of an advantage because she was now freshly recovered and less likely to be reinfected. While half the Italian team and several Belgians had to miss the trip because they tested positive for the virus, Backstedt said she had less stress.
"As bad as the situation was, having to miss Nationals and the final World Cup, it kind of went in my favour because it meant I still had two weeks of training I could do and there's less stress now. I am not on edge if I go for a PCR or lateral flow test and be on edge if I'm positive or not, or get a surprise result. I kind of feel a little more relaxed in that sense, but it wasn't good to get it. It ruined my season a little bit."
Backstedt came to the US early enough to adjust to the time zone and get in some training rides but she was holding back previewing the course ahead of her tried and true pre-race routine.
"My normal routine is to go the day before," she said, adding she would pre-ride it on Friday. "From what I've seen pictures-wise and from the World Cup at the start of the season, I think the course will suit me pretty well because the whole thing is absolutely savage. I'm really looking forward to it and I think it will be a good battle."
Backstedt, 17, is part of a generation of riders whose junior years have been heavily impacted by coronavirus cancellations. In the 2020-2021 'cross season, she won the only World Cup for Juniors in Tabor and competed mainly in the elites where she had some strong results including a 12th place in Gieten at 16 years of age. Over the summer, she enjoyed a stellar road season, winning the Junior Tour of Yorkshire and capping it off with the World title in the road race and second in the time trial.
Her road power came in handy in the early 'cross races, where she claimed second behind Belgian champion Sanne Cant in Meulebeke, won in Gieten and in two C2 races in Sweden – the home of her father, Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus. With fair weather in the forecast for Saturday's race, she hopes the legs that powered her to victory at road Worlds in Flanders will be there.
"If the course is quite dry it's going to be a bit like a crit, so hopefully my road skills come in there a little bit and my power helps me out. It's going to be really fun. I'm going to have a good battle with the Dutch girls and hopefully, I get a good result out of it.
"I think this weekend is just go full gas, see how deep I can go and how many people I can hurt and take it as it comes."
Backstedt comes from a family steeped in cycling, her father is still involved in helping her in races and also commentating for Eurosport and her sister Elynor races for Trek-Segafredo. Despite the enthusiasm of her family and the enormous expectation of her country, Backstedt focuses on keeping the racing fun.
"We're trying to keep calm and focus on the weekend," she says, but her father has taken a hands-off approach. "He's just trying to let me be myself and let me do what I need to be prepared. On race day he's there in the pits for me, he's the one person I trust to hand me my bike correctly. He's always in the pits and even mid-race he's always giving me advice. He [says] 'stay calm, do what you do, have fun, when you have fun you do well, so just go out there and do what you do'."
Although she had to sit out a couple of weeks of competition, Backstedt has a keen eye on her competitors, most notably her Dutch nemesis. "Bentveld has been really strong this season, I've had some good battles with her and obviously she's won the overall World Cup. I think she'll be my main rival, but also the Italian and there's a Canadian [Ava Holmgren] and the other British rider Ella MacLean-Howell, she's been really strong all season. There are a couple of people I think will be up there, but we'll see."
Although the weather has been dry all week and will remain so, the course is not as dry as many might expect but it's a long way from the several inches of soupy mud she slogged through to win in Essen in December.
"Maybe if it was like that it'd suit me better," she said. "I think it's meant to be minus four degrees overnight and then by the time we start it's meant to be six degrees. Hopefully, the ground will have frozen over and then gone soft so we have a little bit of mud, and it's a little bit slick on the course. If I'm honest, any of the conditions suit me. I just make it hard for myself, go full gas and see what happens."
This World championship is Backstedt's first and only title match as a junior after their race was cancelled due to the pandemic restrictions blocking amateur sport in 2021. But even though her idol Marianne Vos won her first elite world championship straight out of the juniors, Backstedt has the advantage of the relatively new women's under-23 races to make the next step more manageable.
"I'll probably stay an under-23 for a couple of years. It makes sense to, with the likes of Puck [Pieterse] and Shirin [van Anrooij] and Fem [van Empel] still being there, they'll still bring a good battle even when I move up. For now I'll stay in the under-23 category," she says, but adds she will likely cut her time there short and move on to test herself against the elites.
"In the future I think I'll be up there in a couple of races, hopefully toward the end of next season, maybe the season after. I've been up there in a couple of races - I've been battling with Sanne Cant quite often. She's been one of my great rivals this season. I love racing in the elite category.
"It brings me so much more experience – starting from the second or third row, maybe even fourth sometimes, you just gain that experience of having to go full gas and get yourself up to the front. I remember in Boom this year I managed to have a good start and we came around the first two corners and I was battling with Lucinda [Brand] - we had a bit of a shoulder to shoulder now and again. She was stronger and managed to get ahead of me. Racing elites is so much fun."
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's specialises in covering doping, anti-doping, UCI governance and performing data analysis.