Zoe Bäckstedt is the brightest rising star of British cycling. She won gold in last month’s junior women’s road race at the World Championships in Flanders, as well as silver in the time trial. Before that, in August 2021, the teenager set an unoffiial world record for the 2,000-metre pursuit – two minutes 16.9 seconds – at the junior nationals in Glasgow. As if that were not enough, in the first week of October, Bäckstedt was in the Netherlands winning the junior Superprestige cyclo-cross in Gieten. All of this and she has only just turned 17.
Road, track, cyclo-cross, there’s nothing Zoe Bäckstedt can’t do. Comments made by her father, Swedish former pro and 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt, relating to his daughter’s extraordinary athletic versatility prompted me to wonder whether too many cyclists are stuck in training habits that are too narrow and highly specialised. Might it be better to emulate Zoe and put more emphasis on building the athlete first? A series of photos on Facebook showed the teenager training in the gym lifting weights, riding cyclo-cross, mountain bike, road races and time trials. I got in touch with Magnus to find out more. “We have a new way of planning and working that focuses a lot more on strength and building an all-round athlete who is more robust, and linking good nutrition to cope with the demands of training,” he told me.
This general-to-specific training philosophy, along with Zoe’s natural talent and application, resulted in a world record in a specialised area of the sport. But as a training philosophy, general-tospecific is not new. When the Eastern Bloc countries, particularly Russia, dominated the Olympic Games before 1996, their coaches believed in what they called “general physical preparedness”.
Of course, we now know that this success was helped by a systematic doping programme. Nevertheless, the training still had to be effective – and it always started with months of general physical work before specialising in a single discipline. These athletes did bodyweight strengthand-conditioning exercises, range-of-movement exercises, running, climbing and throwing. There are even stories of Russian sprinters doing everhigher jumps from ladders to condition the connective tissue of their feet and ankles before setting foot on a track. But how many top cyclists adopt this general-tospecific training structure today? Well, one group does it almost by accident.
It’s not news that many current top pro road racers come from a cyclo-cross background. Some of the very best, Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock, spend their winters battling each other in mud and sand, then do the same on the road in summer. Cyclo-cross is general physical preparation by its very nature: it develops explosive power and rock-solid core muscles. It also develops physical adaptability by mixing cycling with running, jumping, dismounting, carrying and remounting the bike,as well as developing range of movement by constantly adapting the terrain, absorbing bumps and shifting position. It’s like strength and conditioning, plus gymnastics, done on a bike.
Once their cyclo-cross season is over, a few weeks of specific road training, mostly long sessions of steady-paced riding to extend their endurance, and cyclo-cross riders dominate the road. It’s the perfect general-to-specific process, and it works. It’s exactly what Jumbo-Visma powerhouse Van Aert did at the end of the 2020/21 cyclo-cross season – as his trainer Marc Lamberts told Het Laatste Nieuws: “Wout came out of the cross season in good condition for the road, but he had work to do before he could contend. He didn’t have a broad enough base and he had two kilos more muscle than he needed, so he went to Tenerife and between 8 February and 1 March he rode lots of kilometres at a steady pace to rebuild his aerobic base and lose the muscle he’d built.”
There are also many great cyclists in the triathlon world, and they spend all their time ‘building the athlete first’ by training for three different sports at once. Look no further than the recent inaugural British gravel racing championships, where double Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee took second in the men’s race, and age-group Ironman world champion Ruth Astle took the women’s title by a massive margin.
Best-selling author David Epstein’s latest book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World begins by looking at athletic development. He cites a study that found that, early in their physical development, future elite performers spend less time concentrating on the sport in which they eventually excel (compared to those who end up as less successful athletes). There are many examples of this in sport today, and the best recent example is Emma Raducanu, winner of the US Open. The teenage tennis ace tried many different sports before specialising.
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