Through the long Danish winter and into the early months of 2016, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig worked in a supermarket on the outskirts of Copenhagen.
Some nights, she would lock up and clean the aisles. Other days, after six hours on her feet, she would head home, grab a bite to eat, don numerous layers and head out into the cold. The lights on her bike possessed the kind of blinding beam that sends woodland creatures scurrying into the verge and makes pedestrians wonder whether a motorbike is approaching.
On weekends, while friends went to parties, she often raced cyclo-cross. Unsurprisingly, her colleagues at Føtex thought she was a little crazy. But it had to be this way. Not paid a salary by her Danish team, she needed the money: to buy bike bits and bobs, training and racing food, even a time-trial bike. To sustain her dream.
While stacking shelves or scanning food through the checkout, amid those repetitive electronic pings, perhaps she daydreamed of distant glory on two wheels. She didn’t reckon that just 12 months later, she’d be leading one of the top teams and donning the WorldTour best young rider jersey at Strade Bianche. Backstage on the podium that afternoon, she burst into tears, overwhelmed. Runner-up Kasia Niewiadoma, about to go in front of the crowd, asked her what was wrong, her eyes widening in surprise when she realised the Dane was crying with happiness… over ninth place.
In 2017, Uttrup Ludwig would get used to standing on the WorldTour podium. “It was a bit of a crazy year, a bit of an adventure,” she reflects.
If that episode makes her sound like a crybaby, the opposite is true. Cecilie – Cille to friends and family – is bubbly, brimming with quips and questions. The Danish national team coach Catherine Marsal calls her “a diamond” for the team and an example for a lot of young riders. “She has a shining karma around her,” she says. Her chattiness and energy lifts the whole group.
I see the Uttrup Ludwig effect when we join Cervélo-Bigla for dinner one night at their Mallorca training camp in February; her and team-mate Emma Norsgaard are doubled over in laughter, having gone down an amusing rabbit hole over confusing hair gel for energy gel. “I like people laughing. I like humour. In general, I would say life is more fun when you are laughing,” Uttrup Ludwig says.
If she wasn’t a racing cyclist, she would probably be on the stage.“The real Cille is doing some dancing or acting: I’ve had a dream to be an actor since I was a kid,” she says. This does not surprise me, given her comic timing and range of facial expressions that would give Jim Carrey a run for his money.
“Maybe that’s not what I dream about now, but still maybe, to do something on the television.” Do they have Dancing with the Stars in Denmark? “They do, I should go on that. But I’ll have to get more popular, get more star quality.” Just win the rainbow jersey like compatriot Amalie Dideriksen, I suggest. “Yeah, easy peasy,” she replies wryly.
Uttrup Ludwig has already come close: she was junior world time-trial silver medallist in 2012. But when she turned senior a little over 12 months later, the transition was grating – inevitably. In the women’s sport, there is no halfway house, no calendar of under-23 races allowing for acclimatisation.
In one fell swoop, she went from racing fellow teenagers on restricted gears for two hours to double the distance, elbow to elbow with Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armitstead et al. She was dropped and demoralised in her first three races, wondering how everyone went so fast, and how to even finish races.
But she improved her positioning and got round the Tour of Flanders and Ronde van Drenthe. Now, Uttrup Ludwig’s staying power is remarkable – according to cycling figures bible Pro Cycling Stats, between April 2016 and April 2018, she didn’t abandon a race, a run of over 80 race days.
After working in the supermarket until the start of that season, she headed off to Belgium with Danish squad Team BMS Birn. There was no salary or soigneur, but they were housed in Ghent for a sizeable European spring calendar.
While Uttrup Ludwig looked to catch the attention of a bigger team,it actually happened the other way round. At the Auensteiner-Radsporttage stage race in western Germany, she was struck by how Cervélo-Bigla united for Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.
“I saw the whole team were at the front, leading her out, sacrificing themselves. It was so cool how they worked together. I wanted to be a part of that,” she says.
Moolman-Pasio won, Uttrup Ludwig was ninth and she proactively fired off an email to their team manager, Thomas Campana. The respect was mutual; the experienced Swiss had noticed her too and was keen to recruit the young talent.
At the Tour de Feminin in the Czech Republic a month later, Uttrup Ludwig won the opening stage in a breakaway and held the lead for all four days, taking the last stage for good measure. The experience put her on the radar: “I was just a nobody. Suddenly, having the yellow jersey, people were looking at me; if there was a break, riders were like ‘are you gonna [chase]?’ That was an eye-opener for me.”
Being a racing cyclist is a constant process of learning and re-learning. You learn it as a child, adapt as a teenager, and then have to recalibrate further as an adult. When it comes to winning races, it is never simple: there is far more hidden away.
The experience of leading the race almost frazzled Uttrup Ludwig mentally: she had occasional problems breathing, with the media attention and pressure she put on herself, and spent sleepless nights running through all the possible racing eventualities in her head. “I came out the other side, luckily it ended well,” she says. “It made me realise, wow, this is also racing. You must get used to this if you want to be one of the best women’s cyclists in the world.”
The 22-year-old self-deprecatingly mentions her “slow” development several times. But while her breakthrough 2017 surprised her, it was her fourth season as a senior, and challenging the sport’s doyennes was a logical next step after going from the top 40 to the top 30, then cracking the top ten in 2016, winning her first Danish national time-trial title.
On joining Cervélo-Bigla for 2017, she expected to be“like a sponge,” absorbing every lesson she could to become a better rider. But team captain Moolman-Pasio wasn’t at her best in the early races, still getting up to speed from a fractured pelvis.
On her debut at Strade Bianche, Ludwig was riding hard on the front of a chasing group behind the leaders when her older team-mate told her to go for it herself. “And you’re like ‘this is the first race of the season, fuck!’ Suddenly, I’m the leader. In a way, you need to go into the deep end, where it’s not that comfortable anymore. You need to be challenged and it needs to be hard – it was hard. But it also made me grow.”
She wasn’t the only one left surprised; the race announcer thought it was Moolman-Pasio when a Cervélo-Bigla rider flashed across the line in Siena, pumping her fist.
That ninth place started a chain: overall victory at the Setmana Valenciana followed by her standout result of the year, third place at the Trofeo Binda, just behind winner Coryn Rivera. Uttrup Ludwig held the WorldTour young rider’s jersey, eligible to under-23 riders, for the rest of the season by always finishing there or thereabouts: eighth at the Women’s Tour, tenth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and twelfth at the Tour of Flanders.
“That’s the thing. I felt I kind of missed five per cent. I was like a pitbull, hanging on, but only just,” she says. “In 2018, I don’t want to be suffering to be with the leaders. I want to be there and I want to make the race.”
Uttrup Ludwig has plenty of time. Asked where she can improve, she replies: “Almost every area. There’s so many opportunities, I feel like I’m just getting started.” Beneath the light-hearted veneer, she is serious about her sport. This cooking fan makes her own oatcakes and brings them to races.
She opens doorknobs with her sleeve to avoid germs. She sequestered herself in Gran Canaria and Girona over the winter, with team-mate Marie Vilmann, to dodge the worst of the Scandinavian winter.
Sometimes, she is too impatient. “I think I am my own worst enemy,” Uttrup Ludwig says. “Because I put a lot of pressure on myself that sometimes is not really necessary. But in a way, I want to prove that winning the [WorldTour] young rider’s jersey last year was not a mistake.”
Taking that classification was slightly deceptive too. There’s still some way to go: Uttrup Ludwig isn’t even the clear leader of Cervélo-Bigla yet. That role belongs to Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, the graceful 32-year-old climber. One afternoon on their training camp, following in a car, I have the perfect view of their thinly-veiled battle to the monastery of Sant Salvador, which sits atop a five-kilometre climb.
The rest of the squad is shed on the early slopes as the South African pushes the pace, Uttrup Ludwig in her wheel. Her face contorted in concentration, she accelerates round a hairpin and the Dane has no response. Not on the bike anyway. “Go, go, go,” the team’s second directeur sportif Fabien Jeker shouts mischievously through the car’s open window. Uttrup Ludwig’s answer is a raised middle finger. As we drive past, the mask has dropped, her face fixed in effort. At the summit, she breathlessly congratulates Moolman-Pasio on a good job. A little friendly internal competition will go a long way.
A powerful time-triallist and strong climber, Uttrup Ludwig excels on the toughest courses. Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Innsbruck World Championships road race, its 2,400 metres of climbing making for “Toblerone racing”, are ideal for her.
The Danish team should qualify five riders to support her too, which was unimaginable until recently. As recently as April 2016, the Scandinavian country languished 38th in the women’s UCI rankings, behind the likes of Cyprus, Hong Kong and Venezuela.
Now, they are 30 positions higher and Uttrup Ludwig is leading a golden generation of young Danish racers, alongside Boels-Dolmans racer Amalie Dideriksen, whose 2016 world title was an immense underdog success.
More Danish dynamite keeps exploding to the surface. Sunweb neo-pro Pernille Mathiesen was under-23 European time-trial champ last year, finishing four seconds ahead of Uttrup Ludwig, while Christina Siggaard won this year’s Het Nieuwsblad.
Uttrup Ludwig suggests their newfound success is down to healthy competition between them all. There is also the matter of increased funding from the national federation, and former world champion Catherine Marsal joining as a full-time coach.
Not that all this helps their recognition back home. “If you ask a normal Dane, ‘do you know that we had two women world champions?’ [Dideriksen and cross-country rider Annika Langvad in 2016]. They’ll be like ‘hmm, no, not really.’ The focus from the media is not very big … cycling is rarely on the sport section of the TV news and women’s cycling is really rarely there. I want to change that.
“That’s the Danish part, but also in general, people who say that women’s cycling is so boring… I think that’s a lie. It’s just as exciting as men’s cycling. Even Mark Cavendish went on Twitter saying that the women’s race was the most exciting of the whole week at the World Championships last year. So watch more women’s cycling and let’s have it more on television and YouTube. We need to grow a bigger fanbase.”
“What we actually need is people to invest something,” she says. “Because it is an investment. Maybe they won’t have money coming back from televising it the first year, but with time, they must trust that we can deliver as fun and exciting races as the men.” She smiles and realises she has gone off piste. “Yeah, sorry, that was not even your question.”
TV production is pricey for race organisers, but if taken up by channels, it would broadly result in more sponsors and more money in the sport. Right now, there is no margin for luxury in women’s teams’ budgets.
At Cervélo-Bigla’s camp, the riders sleep three to a room; in Uttrup Ludwig’s digs, kit is draped over lamps and furnishings to dry. Now paid a wage, those six months in the supermarket have receded into the past, but the lessons remain.“I was always like ‘I don’t want to end up here forever,’” she recalls. “But on the other hand, it’s also good to have a reality check, to see how tough and rough other jobs can be. It has widened my horizons. I am glad I did it – and I’m also glad that I’m not working there anymore.”
Uttrup Ludwig is well on her way from the supermarket to superstardom. There are some very successful cyclists who lack charisma or awareness of the sport’s issues, and some very outgoing cyclists who possess a tumbleweed palmarès or offer anodyne answers to the big questions. This dynamic Dane is the complete package, a rare figure with the potential to lift her sport, on and off the bike. Right now, she’s only dancing with the stars; soon, she could be dropping them and laughing all the way to the top.