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Isabelle Beckers of Team Lotto Soudal on Women’s Pro-Cycling

By Jonathan Bouchard

The 34-year-old pro has been riding for 4 years with the “Lotto Soudal Ladies” team based in Belgium. Before that, she was with Bigla Pro Cycling Team, so as it is her 5th season in the pro-peloton, she’s able to give some fascinating insight into the world of pro cycling.

GP Le Samyn 2017

Most of our followers on Social Media are either somewhat familiar or even very familiar with the world of pro-cycling at the men’s level simply because of all the detailed explanations we get watching the sport on television and following the analysis fed to us by TV reporters. So our question is this, what would you say are the main differences in race strategy between men and women? How do women differ in their race team planning in general given that the length of the races are shorter?

Well, first of all and as you said, our races are way shorter than men’s races. Right away, the biggest difference in strategy is that our races are a lot more aggressive than the men’s races. There are always lots of attacks right from the start.

Our Team Directors constantly tell us that there must always be one girl in every attack made by other teams so it is very busy. We have shorter races, yes, but we must be focused non-stop, which is sometimes very exhausting.

You know, I’d like to say that I feel like women’s racing still has a lot to learn, especially from men’s racing. Sometimes the racing is not really smart, I think. For example, when I see the men’s Giro, I see them racing quite “relaxed” and under a controlled pace while we are always so stressed.

Secondly, you must keep in mind that here in Belgium, Netherlands, and other cycling countries, in most women’s races there is a mix of pro cyclist teams like ours and other clubs called “Elite Club teams”, which essentially are high-level amateur clubs participating in the races. This is because there are not enough women’s pro-cycling clubs, so the organizers want to make the peloton bigger so they invite these clubs.

Now, I have absolutely nothing against such clubs, but the problem is that these girls are taking a LOT of risks when racing. And this results in many crashes during races. This mix of pro riders with amateurs can be dangerous in a peloton racing at 50+ kmh.

You know there is a huge difference in the level of a pro cyclist and that of an amateur, even if he/she is at a high level. The reason is that amateurs simply do not have the time to train and rest like the pros do. Therefore, it is difficult to make the women’s races any longer for now, simply because of the very select number of riders actually able to finish the races.

Thirdly, men’s pro teams have 9 riders in a race while women’s teams have 6. This seems like nothing but it is a big difference because we can quickly run out of helpers. Again, this explains why our races are way crazier and hectic! 🙂 It must be said that this also causes a big difference between the pros and semi-pros I was referring to earlier because the semi-pros must work part-time and therefore are usually not trained enough.

But this only tells me that women’s racing still has a lot to learn about race strategy from the men’s side of cycling. Women’s races and teams should learn to be more in control like the men’s do. But this is normal in many ways since men’s pro-cycling is an old sport with many years of racing history behind it. Women’s started not so long ago so it is not a matter of being negative. It is about bringing the women’s side of the sport to the same level gradually and this takes time. And for me, professionally, this is THE big goal.

It makes us wonder. Today’s men’s peloton is mainly controlled by Directeurs Sportifs by Wi-Fi radios, power meters, and ran through many other metrics, all based on each rider’s personal capabilities…

OK, well I must tell you that most women pro cyclists do not have power meters. Of course, nearly all the pros do have a power meter, but we bought them ourselves. Understand that only a very few of the girls’ teams are lucky to get them sponsored as it is a super expensive piece of equipment. And as you know, power meters are super important if you want to train in an efficient way and actually understand your training. So for us this means investing our own money we don’t earn by cycling. This is again a lack of budget for the women racing teams.

Photo by Martin Paldan | GripGrab Media Crew

What is your general opinion on women’s cycling today and its future?

Women’s cycling still has issues but it has been evolving positively in the last few years mainly because sponsors have been more present. We still miss a lot of TV coverage as you know, compared to the men’s, but it is getting way better. So I’d say that yes, we are definitely going forward!

Look, I am so happy that many of the girls get their stuff sponsored now. As you know, we get our bikes sponsored and we may use them during the season. But at the end of each season we must return them, just like every other team. Things like the bikes, the clothes, the food, and equipment are now much more available than in the past and this is great!

Sadly, still a very few girls actually get paid right now. And this is a problem because, for many, it is then almost impossible to even try to get to the top of the sport because they have to invest in things like training camps abroad in the winter, power meters etc.

Sincerely, I believe that a good solution would be to have the UCI invent a system where all World Tour (WT) Teams would have one women team as well. This way the teams would transfer some of their brand recognition right onto their women team, so this way everybody wins.

To be clear, I do not have any problem with men cyclists making so much money compared to women. I am not here saying that women cyclists should be paid the same (although I would certainly not be complaining!) as men because I know and realize that men’s cycling is a sport, which came before and we all should respect this. Men’s cycling is a sport with a lot of history and established popularity.

But at the same time, we are in 2017 and yes, I do believe that the sport should look into promoting the women side a bit more on TV and offer similar chances to women pro-cyclists.
Also, I really see this as a way to get more women on their bikes, and this is a good thing by the way!

You are actively involved in the LaRidley.com project. Please share with us as to what it is and how you fit in?

Laridley.com was launched by our bike manufacturer, Ridley. Their idea is to propose a women-focused social-media-oriented initiative for women of all ages to get in touch with us and learn/ask questions about cycling. Not only pro-cycling but rather just cycling in general. We exist as a website, a Facebook page, an Instagram account, as well as a Twitter account.

I will not try to hide the fact that it’s sponsored by Ridley with the goal to promote their women’s bike series in an alternative way and it may sound very commercial, but it is not! I really I see this as a smart promotion in a different way.

Laridley helps women interested in learning about cycling from various contributors. We are trying to give as many advices as possible via videos, blogs, posts, etc., so women may learn about cycling in general. I myself am trying to share as much of my personal experiences as possible there.

Then again, I must say that I do love our Ridley bikes and equipment so I am OK promoting it. For me, promoting La Ridley is a great way to learn outside of pro-cycling and it gets me in touch with the corporate side of the sport.

In fact, our goal is to motivate women to simply get on a bike and ride! No matter how old or fit you are.

Photo by Martin Paldan | GripGrab Media Crew

We know that you started your career in triathlon and athletics. This tells us that you must have many pieces of advice which you could share with young persons wishing to start in the sport. At what age should one start training seriously if he/she wants to make it among the pros one day?

First of all, don’t do it like me! Don’t start too late and move up quickly like I did. I learned the hard way by being “dropped” into the pro-peloton and it was a nightmare for me and it is not what I believe to be the best because 5 years ago, I really had zero experience, actually.

You must understand that I started pro-cycling very quickly and rather unexpectedly. All of a sudden I was put in the same race as Marianne Vos so you can imagine that I was scared. At the beginning, I just did not feel safe in the pro-peloton at all. I didn’t know how to move in the peloton, always bangling at the back and suffering like crazy.

Instead, I would advise all youngsters out there to start early simply riding your bike. Take it step-by-step. Get the technical knowledge first and gradually, before you even think of racing.
I’d say that a person should start around 15 years of age with getting serious about racing. Before just do it for the fun, play with your bike.

After that, join a cycling club if you want to move up in the sport. Start then to take it more seriously but remember, get the technical cycling skills before thinking of racing in a club.

Then, if you really like it, continue but in a relaxed way. Don’t expect to win at the beginning. Just do it and learn from the more experienced riders. Cycling is an extremely physically AND mentally hard sport, so make sure that you keep it fun at all times otherwise you will abandon it. At the beginning, being able to finish is already a big win, certainly in the Belgian races. It’s all about setting one small goal for every race.

We would like to thank you very much for the time you have spent with us and we wish you the best for the remainder of the season! Perhaps we talk again later this season!

Just one last thing! As you know, our goal with LaRidley is really to get more women on bikes, and this is important for me now and in the future. So I’d like you to let your readers know that if they have any questions about cycling, they are more than welcome to contact me at any of the social media pages and I will do my best to help them.

Thanks and have fun on your bike this summer. Make sure to stay safe while riding!

Jonathan Bouchard for Silesia à vélo