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Magnus Backstedt interview

Magnus Backstedt portrait
James Witts
30 Apr 2015

The Swede-turned-Welshman talks to us about winning Paris-Roubaix and switching his focus to Ironman triathlon.

Cyclist: You raced in the Ironman World Championships in October last year. How did that go?

Magnus Backstedt: It was a long day! I’d got to Kona [Hawaii] a couple of weeks before the event and on my first training run my calf went ‘ping’. After a fortnight on the acupuncturist’s table, come race day it felt better. An okay swim [3.8km] set me up for the bike [180km], but every time I went over 400 watts my Bianchi seemed to hold back. It transpired the chainstay and seatstay on the non-driveside were mush. On top of that I received a drafting penalty.

Cyc: Did you reach the 42.2km run?

MB: Yes, but about 40 minutes down on what I’d planned. The first 10km were great but a kilometre later the calf pain returned, at which point I sat down on the pavement and had a long think about what to do. I thought about pulling out but I had my two daughters with me and thought that would set a bad example. Also, I fathomed that even if I walked the last 31km I’d still finish in around 11hrs, which some triathletes would kill for. [He finished in 11hrs 12m.]

Cyc: At your cycling peak, you weighed 90kg-plus. How has your body held up to the stresses of running?

MB: For starters I’m about 4kg lighter now. It’s been interesting though, because training’s been about not getting injured. My fastest marathon is 3:30 but that was at an average heart rate of 130bpm, which isn’t even trying. I’m still conditioning running muscles and joints, and have only just begun to run nearly flat-out. I know I have a 3hr marathon in me without any trouble.

Cyc: What are your plans for racing Ironman in 2015?

MB: I’ve got a professional licence! It’s probably a year too early but why not? I’m racing Ironmans in Lanzarote, England, Sweden and Wales, and another long-distance event in Barcelona. That’s a lot for Ironman but I improve the more I race. It’s the cyclist in me. I’m a different beast when I pin on a race number.

Cyc: You were a different beast on 11 April 2004 – the day you won Paris-Roubaix. Was it a race you always dreamed of winning?

MB: Did I win any other race? I lived, ate and breathed Roubaix. I loved the fact you could race 100 days in a year and they could be the same but this one day was unique. The heritage, the atmosphere, everything. As a young kid, reading the magazines and seeing these gods. Blood, mud and tears. It was magical.

Cyc: How did the race unfold?

MB: When that alarm went off on race day, I felt good. We’d been damaged by injuries at the Tour of Flanders so only started with six riders [eight permitted]. But we still had a strong team at Alessio-Bianchi, including Fabio Baldato [won two stages of the Tour de France in ’95 and ’96] and Andrea Tafi [won Roubaix in ’99]. Early on in the Arenberg Forest I lost the lead group because I was stuck behind another rider. The stones were a nightmare but I had to risk overtaking or I’d lose the leaders completely.

Unbelievably I closed the gap like it wasn’t there. Baldato was in that lead group and asked me how I felt. I told him I thought the mechanics forgot to put my chain on – things were great. Baldato then dragged me into the cobbled Le Carrefour de l’Arbre section before riding onto the Hem [another cobbled section about 6km from the finish]. I remember in near slow-mo flicking my way past this massive stone and thinking if everyone avoids that, it’d be a miracle. At that split-second I hear a hissing and it’s Johan Museeuw [who was going for his fourth Roubaix victory]. After that it was about beating the guys on the track…

Magnus Backstedt interview

Cyc: How did that sprint pan out?

MB: I entered the velodrome with Fabian Cancellara, Tristan Hoffman and Roger Hammond, and it was Hammond who worried me most. We’d been training together for a few years in the UK and I knew what he was capable of. Thankfully I’d ridden a fair bit at Newport and on an outdoor track in Cardiff so had some form. I was also aware that, though we were in the velodrome, road rules applied, which means you can overtake underneath not just over the top. That was my saviour because on the back straight I started my sprint at the same time as Hammond. I knew Roger would head up the track to fend off Cancellara and I snuck through on the inside.

Cyc: How did your life change after winning the Queen of the Classics?

MB: It was a childhood dream – I’d had posters of Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle on my bedroom wall [Duclos-Lassalle won Roubaix in 1992 and 93] – but the biggest change had come in 1998 when I won my first (and last) stage of the Tour de France. All of a sudden I’d become a bike rider that people kept an eye on. Roubaix enhanced that reputation, heightened by coming fourth in 2005 despite breaking my wrist.

Cyc: You mentioned training with Roger Hammond in the UK. Why did you end up moving from your native Sweden?

MB: I married Megan [Hughes, from Wales] in 2000. We were actually based in Belgium at the time of winning Roubaix but the weekend after I won we moved to Wales nearer Megan’s parents. God, that was a crazy time. I had the media commitments and all sorts of crazy stuff. In fact, soon after I’d won I took a load of British kids out on a training ride. They were pretty good. That group included Luke Rowe and Pete Kennaugh.

Cyc: Your wife was a quality cyclist in her own right of course…

MB: She’s not one to talk about her cycling career but she won junior sprint track bronze in 1995 and the British national road championships in 1998. Our two daughters have certainly got good cycling genes. They’re massive cyclists, in fact. The oldest is 13 and if I let her ride a bike seven days a week, she would. The younger one’s into cyclocross.

Cyc: You retired in 2009 after a season with Slipstream-Chipotle and soon after appeared on the UK circuit. How did that come about?

MB: Nigel Mansell asked if I wanted to do a ride with him for the charity UK Youth, of which he’s president. It went well and we came to the conclusion that it’d be great for the charity to set up a team. We raced predominantly on the GB circuit in our inaugural year of 2011 before moving to Continental level in 2012, which helped our entry to the Tour of Britain. However, I left at the end of 2012 and, ultimately, took up Ironman. I’d always admired triathletes. I know many recreational triathletes get stick from cyclists because of their bike skills but athletes like Sebastian Kienle [who won Ironman Hawaii in 2014] ride 180km in 4:20hrs. That’d take it out of any professional cyclist.

Cyc: Bradley Wiggins has said he wants to become the first Brit to win Paris-Roubaix. Has he got what it takes?

MB: He has the ability to win it but you have to find that sweet spot on the cobbles in terms of gear selection, how you’re set up on the bike, tyre pressure, what tyre to ride in what conditions. And Team Sky must ensure there’s only one leader and really look after him. I used to ride the course at least once, often twice, before the event. I took my manager and one or two guys with a truckload of stuff: wheels, tubs, frames, forks, handlebars… and tried for that little bit extra speed. I’m sure Sky will do the same.

Cyc: You showed in Roubaix how adept you were on the track. What are your thoughts on the recent renaissance of the Hour record?

MB: It’s brilliant that it’s back in the spotlight, and I think the rules are now set so that the record can keep moving forward without the technology dominating the event. It’ll be really good to see Brad have a go, although I’d keep an eye on Jack Bobridge. [In fact Bobridge fell just over 0.5km short at the end of his attempt in January.]

Cyc: Will you be at the track and/or Roubaix as commentator for Eurosport?

MB: To be confirmed. I’m still waiting to hear back from them about the 2015 schedule. It’ll need to fit in with Ironman training but I want to continue as it’s something I enjoy. It’s a good way to stay involved in the sport, though time’s precious. I still have Big Maggy’s coffee shop in Jersey, and I’m working with Infocrank – a new power meter that’s just hit the market. I’ve also started a business importing and distributing a brand called TEC. It’s an accessories and parts brand. Basically anything you can hang on to you or your bike, we stock. Even at 40 I want to race faster, and having the best gear certainly helps.

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