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From pumps to cleats: Former ballerina Nathalie Eklund on her Olympic racing dream

The 30-year-old Swedish rider is enjoying racing in front of big crowds in Belgium after starting her racing career during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Stories of female riders coming to cycling late are not unusual, but Nathalie Eklund’s story is a little different to most.

The 30-year-old Swede, who is in her second year in the pro bunch, started her athletic career as a ballerina. After quitting ballet in her early 20s, Eklund — who made her debut at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday — trained in naprapathy before taking up sports.

During her short career, Eklund has already reached some big milestones, but she has bigger ambitions for herself.

After competing for the national team at the Flanders world championships last year, she has set her sights on donning the Swedish blue and yellow at the Olympic Games in just two years’ time.

“My biggest goal right now is to go to the Olympic Games in Paris, but I’ve always been a person who starts with something just to do it,” Eklund said after being introduced to the huge crowd of fans in Oudenaarde. “I want to reach the highest possible level. I just want to explore what is possible in the sport and then we’ll see.

“I always want more, and I don’t feel satisfied, but if I’m looking back from where I started it’s been quite a journey for sure.”

Before she quit, ballet was a significant part of Eklund’s life. Having begun dancing at the age of six, she joined the Royal Swedish Ballet — one of the oldest companies of its kind in Europe — at just 10 years old.

Eklund danced with the company for a decade before moving abroad to study ballet at Codarts University, in Rotterdam. By that point, she was falling out of love with dancing, and she was struggling to find the joy she had once had for it.

In the end, she gave it all up during her first year in the Netherlands. After dedicating nearly her whole life to the discipline, it took some time for her to adjust to a new life.

“I started when I was 10 and I went to the Royal Swedish Ballet school for 10 years and then I moved to Rotterdam to start dance university there, but after half a year I decided to quit dancing and I had a couple of tough years because I was so into dancing,” Eklund explained.

“It was more a mental sickness, and I didn’t see the fun in it anymore. For me, if you have to push yourself that far with both your body and your brain every day then you really have to think it’s fun. Cycling is really hard, but ballet is even harder.”

Nearly 10 years on from making that life-changing decision, Eklund is in a good place. She doesn’t regret it at all, but there are aspects of dancing that she loves and finds it hard to get through her new vocation.

“I don’t miss dancing, but I miss the feeling of expressing yourself. I cannot really describe it and I haven’t felt it in another way. Sometimes I felt it in a really good race, but I think I will feel it even more when the crowd is here,” she said.

Swapping pumps for cleats

Eklund delved into triathlon before injuries forced her to focus solely on the bike in mid-2018. That year she was a semi-finalist in the Canyon-SRAM Zwift Academy.

After some promising results on home soil, including taking the Swedish road race title in 2020, Eklund signed up to the Dutch squad GT Krush Tunap for the following season.

She moved to the Spanish Massi Tactic over the winter, a switch that allowed her to make her Tour of Flanders debut last Sunday.

“It feels surreal, it really does,” Eklund said. “The crowd for me is just a surreal thing because I started racing during the pandemic and I never raced with a crowd or with the public. It’s just a totally different thing.”

Despite being effectively forced to give up triathlon due to injuries, Eklund is happy with her choice to focus on cycling. While triathlon is a solo effort, Eklund enjoys the combined effort of cycling that allows different members of the squad to shine on different days.

“In cycling, compared to triathlon, I love that you race as a team. That is one of the best things in cycling. You can have different qualities and help the team and go to different races. It’s not always one person that’s the best one. I really love that,” she said.

There are perhaps a few similarities between ballet and cycling, particularly in the need for good core strength to allow you to keep balance in the toughest of moments.

However, even the super-fit Eklund has had to learn to use and work different muscles from what she had been used to.

“[Ballet] maybe helps on the time trial bike, but I think it’s also not good to be too flexible. For me, my muscles have to work quite a lot in a different way,” she explained. “Your knees and feet and to work a lot so I have to have stronger muscles around those joints than others. I think that’s why I got injured in running, but in cycling, I’ve been fortunate to not have too many injuries.”