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Look for an in-depth feature in the latest issue of VeloNews
By Andrew Hood
Magnus Bäckstedt turned a childhood dream into reality at Paris-Roubaix last April. To just about everyone watching the Hell of the North that day, the big man from Sweden was a surprise winner, but when you listen to Bäckstedt and appreciate the hard work and focus he brings to his job, that win over the cobbles to Roubaix may not have been such a long-shot after all.
In preparing an in-depth feature for the current issue of VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Bäckstedt earlier this year. In a two-part interview on the eve of the spring classics, Bäckstedt recounts how his early success as a pro was quickly followed by a career crisis. Check back on Friday to see how Bäckstedt views last year’s exciting Paris-Roubaix battle.
VeloNews: You have a new team this year. Tell us how you came to join Liquigas.Magnus Bäckstedt: Since 2002, I’ve started moving up on the ladder; I had a real low after getting kicked out of Crédit Agricole. Winning at Roubaix last year gave me new value on the market, I can do pretty much anything except climbing.
VN: What are your expectations here?MB: Here I am ready to get racing, to help Mario and the other sprinters, and to have a chance for myself in some of the other sprints. It’s a very interesting team. You look at the roster, there are some pretty big names on there. There are a couple of foreign guys here, it’s a good mix though. It still feels very Italian, which I really like. I was a bit of a skeptic about how it was going to be when I started with Alessio, you hear stories about Italian teams, but it’s been absolutely fantastic. They’re so passionate about everything they do. Certain parts of it are a bit chaotic, but once you get used to that, you really, really enjoy it. Every team has its own sort of hiccups, but here it’s been fine.
VN: Will you part of Cipo’s train?MB: I’m not down to do the Giro, don’t know what’s going to happen with the train. After Roubaix, I’ll stop for a bit and refocus and then go to Tour. It’s been far too long since I won a stage there.
VN: You’re quite the polyglot. Did you speak Italian before?MB: Didn’t speak a word, but I spoke five languages before that. Once you pick up a few words, it comes fairly easily. English, French, German, Flemish and Swedish – now Italian.
VN: You made a big splash in 1998, then what happened?MB: I completely disappeared off the face of the earth after ’98, when I won the Tour stage. There were knee problems, health problems, you name it, and it was all there. I was struggling to get back up to my next level. Once I got kicked out of Crédit Agricole (end of 2001 season), I really had to start over from ground zero. They didn’t extend my contract and I can’t blame them, either. Sure, I did a lot of work for the team, but I needed to score a few points and make some results myself. It gave me a bit of a kick in the ass.
I moved to Wales (to be with wife), worked hard in the off-season and lived in Belgium in the season and ditched all these training programs and got back to what I did when I started racing. I went back to basics and did that sort of training again. That’s when things started to turn around. Big, long miles, lots of hours on the bike – that’s what works best for me. At Crédit Agricole, I started using the SRMs, doing all kinds of controlled training, hitting thresholds, intervals, all that. Instead, I went back to what my body told me, not an SRM or some monitor. I took every single piece of equipment off my bike and I just went back to what my body told me.
VN: So you felt all that was necessary?MB: I really felt it was. Obviously, what I was doing wasn’t working and I went back to what I knew worked earlier in my career. At the end of the day, despite what a bunch of heart monitors and technology tells you, if it’s not right, it’s not right. I was like, let’s try it, it can’t get any worse. It’s been fine ever since.
VN: That’s when you went to Fakta?MB: It was probably a good thing for me to start off again. I went to a smaller team, in smaller races, with smaller ambitions, but it was a really great experience. Everything was more family oriented. I needed to do that to get back that feeling that was there in 1998. I needed to rediscover that.
VN: Was there a point when you thought might have to quit cycling?MB: When I was kicked out of Crédit Agricole, I thought definitely that was it. I had a contract to race for an American team (Mercury) if I wanted to go there, but I decided to hold out to see if I could get back on with a European team. I was talking to Kim (Andersen) and finally managed to scrape up enough money to take me on. That wasn’t until mid-December, so I was already starting to train for the next season without even having a contract. That give me a bit of a wake-up call and at the same time, Kim made the effort to get me and get me onto his team, so I wanted to pay him back with some good results. I got some pretty good results that year (2002) and the 2003 season was a very good one.
VN: You were 21 when you turned pro, what was it like in 2001? You were 26 and facing being unemployed?MB: I wasn’t ready for it. I still felt like I had some thing to prove on the bike. I wanted to prove that the year I had in 1998, when I won a Tour stage, that it wasn’t a fluke. I knew I still had that inside me and I knew it was just a question of finding that again. When I finally got down to rock bottom is when I found my way of doing things. And things have been better ever since. It was more or less a question of time, I could see myself getting stronger. I was getting very sharp line on improving.
VN: Was it perhaps a little too easy, too fast to get that Tour win?MB: It’s never easy to get to that level. I reached that level by doing good training, doing a lot of racing and learning a lot from my teammates. When I look back at 1998, I was strong from the beginning of the year right through the entire season. It wasn’t like I came out of nowhere to win a Tour stage, though it might seem that way to some people. It wasn’t like it was a fluke and everything went my way that day and I got lucky. I knew it wasn’t luck. I knew I had done the work and had the experience. Since the injuries, it was a question of just finding that again.
VN: Sometimes it’s a question of finding the right team, the right equipment …MB: It’s everything. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle. Even when you think you have it all sussed out, there’s always a new piece coming out and you have to figure that out. I feel with this team, a new door’s been opened for me and now I have to make it fit into the jigsaw.
VN: Talk more about your experiences at Fakta.MB: It was back to basics, back to enjoying riding my bike. Kim brings the best out of the best of every single rider after they’ve had a bad spot. He’s done that with me and lot of other riders. He’s had a very good roster of riders that he’s been able to bring back up.
VN: He lost the sponsor and it fell apart?MB: It wasn’t working out for the sponsor end of things. It happens. Business is business and it’s hard to find someone who’s willing to spend $5 million a year to sponsor a bike racing team. I did a good Giro in 2003 (winning the InterGiro jersey) and the market opened up for me again. Why not go to Alessio? I knew a few of the riders and I knew they had a classics program, because that’s really the type of racing I like. They had Tafi, Baldato – it turned out to be a very good decision.
This conversation continues on Friday when Bäckstedt recounts the day he scored the biggest win of his career.