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‘Quite a few people doubted me and now I’m here.’ Teniel Campbell steps into the WorldTour

Teniel Campbell is one of the first Caribbean riders in the women's WorldTour, and she has her sights set on Tokyo and the spring classics.

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In many ways, Teniel Campbell is similar to the other rookies in the UCI Women’s WorldTour.

Campbell, 23, is excited to race the spring classics, and she plans to sponge up the nuances of top-level road racing from her more experienced teammates. She views her entry into the sport’s highest echelon as the culmination of a lifelong dream. The Tokyo Olympics loom large on her horizon.

And, of course, she idolizes Marianne Vos.

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“If I meet her I still don’t know how I will respond,” Teniel said on Friday morning from her Team BikeExchange training camp. “I don’t know what it is — I really admire how she races, and everything she does is so spectacular.”

In other ways, Campbell stands apart from this season’s other WorldTour newbies. She is among the first athletes from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago to race as a European-based professional, let alone to join the WorldTour. Her pathway to the WorldTour started not in a national identification camp or junior program, but rather in the tiny Caribbean leagues, where the regional races sometimes have fewer than 10 women in the field, and everyone — men and women — compete together.

Campbell racing in the colors of the World Cycling Centre at the 2019 UCI road world championships. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“In Trinidad, bike races are like a mini party — we would have the Easter Grand Prix or Southern Games, and a lot of people on the avenues, and music; your family is there, lots of food,” Campbell said. “The racing is definitely not as aggressive as in Europe… If we have 15 women in the Caribbean Championships, that is a lot for us.”

Campbell joined Team BikeExchange (formerly Mitchelton-Scott) for 2021 after a rocket-like rise through the European peloton. Last season she raced with the Italian Valcar-Travel & Service pro team, and despite the truncated season due to COVID-19 turned heads in a handful of races. Campbell stands 6-foot-1-inch and owns a mighty sprint, and she can blaze a fast individual time trial as well. At the Belgian semi-classic Omloop Het Hageland, she survived the early aggression on the narrow, winding roads, and then sped into the final kilometers with the front group.

In the final sprint, Campbell finished fifth, the first non-WorldTour rider across the line. That accomplishment — and others — came despite the high language and cultural barrier between Campbell and her teammates.

“There was a cultural barrier — I tried to make it work and it was a difficult season,” Campbell said. “The season started on a high, and ultimately COVID hit and the season stopped, but it was a good experience and a good opportunity for me, and I still took a lot of positives out of last year.”

Campbell attributes much of her rapid rise to the UCI’s development program at the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland. The WCC offers scholarships through national federations to athletes from developing nations, and in 2018 and 2019 Campbell received a full scholarship to the WCC after UCI President David Lappartient saw her racing in Martinique.

For two years her life revolved around cycling, and the guidance she received at the WCC, she said, helped her navigate the sport’s steep learning curve.

“It was the best place for me to develop as a rider, and I would recommend it especially to the smaller federations [that] don’t have big budgets compared to the other countries,” Campbell said. “It was two of the most crucial years in my development because I wasn’t pressured. I had the chance to make mistakes and learn from my teammates and continue growing as a rider

“They provided everything,” she said. “All I had to do was wake up, eat, train, sleep, repeat.”

Campbell experienced the stark differences between Caribbean and European racing in her first event. It was a road race in Champery, Switzerland, in 2018, and conditions were cold and rainy. The aggressive style of racing, Campbell said, was at a totally different level.

Campbell turned heads during the shortened 2020 season. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

“One rider elbowed me, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a shock!’ and I didn’t let it get to [me],” Campbell said. “I just got better at it and I started to be aggressive too, but not in a bad way. I was like ‘I’m not going to get bullied around here,’ and I just never backed down. And I kept trying and trying, even if I’m suffering I would watch the other riders — what are they doing — and try to do what they did in the race.”

In that first race, Campbell said, she finished in the back. The next year she was second place overall.

With her skills as a time trialist and a sprinter, Campbell is likely to slot into Team BikeExchange’s classics squad. While Campbell’s schedule has not been formally announced, she said she has her eyes on the classics.

Teammate Amanda Spratt said Campbell is a natural fit for the team’s ambitions in sprints.

“There’s definitely room for her to fit into that sprinter’s group, and I know she’s very good in the peloton, and the races she can be a really good teammate there,” Spratt said. “She’s really fun off the bike and will add a lot to the team this year.”

Campbell will compete for Trinidad and Tobago in the 2021 Olympics in the women’s road race. In the future, she said, she’d love to earn an Olympic berth in the track and individual time trials as well. The international success and Olympic berth has elevated her profile back home, and Campbell said she’s tried to tell her story as much as possible through social media, to perhaps inspire the next generation of Caribbean riders to strive for the sport’s top rank.

At just 23 years old, Campbell’s WorldTour career is just beginning, and she believes that other riders from the Caribbean and other non-traditional cycling powerhouses can learn from her journey.

“I would tell [riders] if they have a dream, go after it and don’t let anyone tell you differently,” she said. “In the beginning, nobody thought I would be here on a WorldTour team. Quite a few people doubted me, and now I’m here. If you have a dream and a vision — go after it.”