Raw talent: A conversation with Annika Langvad

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Annika Langvad can’t stop winning.

Last weekend the Danish cross-country champion closed out the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, with a pair of XC victories to add to her overall wins this year at the Sunshine Cup, in Cyprus, and Absa Cape Epic, in South Africa, riding alongside partner Anna van der Breggen.

This weekend, Langvad will reunite with van der Breggen at the Amstel Gold Race; her foray into Women’s WorldTour racing will continue at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The last time they raced together in the Boels-Dolmans squad was at Strade Bianche, on March 9; Langvad had been anointed team leader by van der Breggen after Langvad proved strongest at a Boels team camp. Langvad finished second in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, 37 seconds behind Annemiek van Vleuten but ahead of every other rider in the Women’s WorldTour peloton. It was a textbook example of raw talent shining through, regardless of experience, with the world champion riding in support of the road rookie.

“I’m in shock,” she said at the time. “This is my first ever race on this level except for the world championship I did last year. I can’t believe it. It’s just insane. It was such a tough race. I was wondering how I would make it till the end.”

Annika Langvad won both XC races at the 2019 Sea Otter Classic, both times ahead of world champion and former teammate Kate Courtney (Scott-SRAM). Photo: John Holderness/Above Four Media.

It was an impressive result for a rider with virtually no road racing acumen. A Specialized rider since 2013, Langvad had picked up a few national road and TT titles over the years, but her time racing in a peloton was, and still is, extremely limited. The bike brand’s sponsorship of Boels-Dolmans opened the door to a spot on one of the best teams in the sport, and Langvad quickly showed that she deserved the invitation.

At Amstel, Flèche, and Liège, Langvad will again be one of the strongest riders in the field. And she’ll again be racing on the same team as van der Breggen, who swept all three races in 2017, and won Flèche and Liège again last year. So how’s that going to work out?

“We haven’t made team tactics yet,” Langvad told CyclingTips last week. ‘But I think I’ll have to just try to stay with her until the final, and then see how I can support her in the best possible way.”

Langvad, 35, is a five-time world champion on the mountain bike, winning four marathon titles and one in cross-country, in July 2016. She’s also a licensed dentist, having graduated in June 2017. It’s fair to say it was an eventful 12 months between her world title and her final exams.

“I went back to finish my studies straight after the Olympics in 2016,” she explained in a May 2018 interview. “I thought it was a good time to get my education done so I didn’t have to worry about school anymore. I actually started my studies in 2006, and only started mountain biking a few years later.”

Annika Langvad: The long road to becoming a dentist

To begin her dental studies, Langvad moved from her home town of Silkeborg to Copenhagen. As she explained in a 2017 Pinkbike interview, she joined a local triathlon club to stay fit, and later a mountain-bike club. She took up mountain biking in 2008, and raced in her first World Cup in 2010. By 2011, she’d stood on the XCO World Cup podium twice.

“At that time I was still studying (only part time for a year) and everything felt really good,” she said. “I was on top of the world. And that’s the thing: When you’re in shape and perform well, there’s also a lot of room and energy to do well in other areas of life. You kind of carry the momentum with you.”

It hasn’t all been upward trajectory, however. Her 2012 Olympic hopes were dashed by a series of injuries, and she was forced to miss the London Games. Her 2016 Olympic race was forgettable; she finished 11th and later said her batteries had been “running on empty” leading into the Rio Games.

And all the while, she’s had to manage the stress of passing her dental exams. “If it sounds like I’m some kind of wonder woman doing this next to a racing career, believe me, I’m not,” she said. “It’s just a lot of work, doubt, hardship and a couple of tears now and then.”

The catch: At the end of lap 6 of 7, Kate Courtney caught Specialized teammate and 2016 world champion Annika Langvad, who had led from the start. Courtney went on to be crowned 2018 UCI XCO World Champion, while Langvad took silver. Photo: Craig Dutton/courtesy USA Cycling.

Langvad has been on such a tear in 2019 that it’s hard to fault her for still expressing disappointment over her silver medal at last year’s UCI XCO World Championship in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

After leading for six of seven laps, Langvad was caught and passed by former Specialized teammate Kate Courtney. Langvad cracked, if not physically then mentally, and she would ultimately lose by 47 seconds — a larger margin than she had held throughout the race. Seven months later, it’s still a painful memory.

A week later, Langvad went on to win her fourth marathon world title. She finished off her season in Innsbruck wearing Danish national team colors at the UCI Road World Championship, riding in support of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. Ludwig finished 23rd on the demanding course, where van der Breggen took the rainbow jersey; Langvad finished 37th.

Inside Specialized Racing: Annika Langvad

In February, Langvad won the Sunshine Cup for the fourth time in her career; in March, she stood atop the overall podium at the Absa Cape Epic for the fifth time in six years. At both events, she partnered with van der Breggen, who has also opted for a bit of cross-discipline exploration. At Cape Epic, they won six of eight stages.

“The idea of racing with Anna was in my head long before 2019,” Langvad explained in an Instagram post. “I have no idea what Anna initially thought, but I know she could have easily stayed on the road without anyone lifting an eyebrow. Most people will probably say that would have been the sensible thing to do. Lucky for me she was not that sensible. She chose to do this Epic safari which I think is a huge compliment to mountain biking and the organization of Cape Epic. So began our adventure, and what a ride it has been.

“Practically speaking, Anna is strong on the bike, which often put me in the hurt box,” Langvad continued. “Not exactly the best place to be when trying to avoid mistakes. For the technical parts it was very rewarding to see Anna progress. As we went along, we slowly worked out the quirks and found a way to go about the racing.”

Like van der Breggen, Langvad’s power is obvious, and it was on full display at Strade Bianche. She’s not so bad at cyclocross, either; she finished seventh at the 2017 World Cup stop in Iowa City.

At the Sea Otter Classic, we caught up with Langvad after her victory in Thursday’s HC cross-country race, 31 seconds ahead of Erin Huck, and three days before she would go on to win the Class 3 long-course race, 54 seconds ahead of Courtney. We asked about road racing, partnering with the road world champion, her role at Boels-Dolmans, and if we’ll see her race cyclocross again.


CT: It was a bit of a surprise to see you finishing second at Strade Bianche, given your limited experience racing on the road. Were you as surprised with the result?
AL: It was quite unexpected, but also at the same time, I knew I was strong. I had all these dreams, because I’ve been following women’s road cycling for a while. Whenever I could, I tried to watch the races, when there was TV coverage. I really loved watching the races, and when I saw Strade Bianche I thought, ‘I really want to do that one day, that could be really cool.’ And then the opportunity came along to join the Boels-Dolmans team, via Specialized because Specialized sponsors my mountain-bike team and Boels, so it all came together.

We agreed on a nice schedule for me. I did Strade Bianche, and I’ll go home after Sea Otter and I’ll do the Ardennes Classics, which I’m really excited about, this year especially because it fits nicely, because the World Cup schedule only starts in May. So that left a little space in the spring. We all talked together, from the road side, from the mountain-bike side, and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ It all came together quite nicely.

CT: So there’s no road racing in your background?
AL: Not at all.

The podium of the 2019 Strade Bianche, from left: Annika Langvad (Boels-Dolmans), Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM). Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: So racing on the road was just a curiosity, and there you are, second at Strade Bianche, one of the hardest races on the calendar?
AL: Yeah, I knew I had to target the races where you have to be physically strong because I have no experience positioning myself in those bunches. At the beginning it was super intimidating, I was like, ‘Ahhhh, how do I do this?’ And a few teammates of mine were actually sitting at the back of the field in the beginning, laughing at me, they could see me bouncing on and off the road.

Our sports director had said before the race, ‘You must stick together, girls,’ and I was like, ‘where are all my teammates?’ I was just trying to navigate my way throughout the bunch. It takes some experience, and for me, on a personal level, it challenged me in a new way. It’s really challenging, you have to change your mindset incredibly.

The only thing I can bring into this game is good physical power, everything else is new to me — the tactics, the competitors, the courses, everything is new. I’m very fortunate to be part of the Boels team — the girls are so experienced, so cool, so down to earth. It’s a privilege to come in as a rookie, into one of the best teams out there, but I’m really enjoying it.

CT: What has been the reception from the other women in the peloton? Here is this mountain biker, coming in and immediately riding with the best in the world at one of the hardest races on the calendar. I would imagine some riders would find that off-putting, given that they have been there, week in and week out, for years, and then you’re suddenly better than all but one rider at Strade Bianche.
AL: Well, it has to be said that I was part of a really strong team, and my teammates, when the final came, they really sacrificed themselves for me, Chantal [Blaak], and Anna. And then having two such classy riders really sacrificing their own chances for you, it really puts you under pressure.

But at the same time I was like [exhales] ‘Okay Annika, let’s do this.’ I knew I had a good sprint up that last climb towards the finish line and I just… I can’t really remember what happened, because I went so hard I almost blacked out. It was really cool.

My teammates had really put their trust in me, which was a bit of pressure but also a huge honor. Anna and I knew each other already, because we did some racing together on Cypress. And she was always saying, ‘Annika, you are so strong, you are so strong.’ We also had a training camp, and all my teammates were telling me how strong I was. And I was like, ‘Am I?’ I have no idea what the level is, on the road, but it turns out I had a really good punch on that last climb.

Anna van der Breggen (left) and Annika Langvad, from team Investec-Songo-Specialized, during Stage 6 of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race. Photo: Xavier Briel/Absa Cape Epic.

CT: How do you rate Anna van der Breggen as a mountain biker?
AL: She’s good. She’s also really, really strong. I admire her for taking on this challenge with me. When she accepted to do the Cape Epic with me, I was like, ‘phew’ [exhales]. Not only is she one of the best road riders in the world, she’s also the current world champion, and I was taking her out of her comfort zone, but she was managing really well.

CT: Was it mainly you who persuaded her to do Cape Epic?
AL: No, before that she did some mountain-bike races. She did some races on Cypress, she did some World Cup races last year. So she had had her eyes on that world for quite a while. So it wasn’t completely out of nowhere that she joined me for Cape Epic. We started talking about it long ago, and I had to prep her a little bit, but she said, ‘That sounds really cool, let’s do it.’ It’s exactly how I feel dabbling into her world of road racing, she feels exactly the same coming into the mountain-bike world — it’s new, it’s fresh. There are so many unknown things. It’s just… exciting.

CT: You mentioned racing the Ardennes. Those are van der Breggen’s races. She won all three in 2017, and two of the three last year. Will you be riding in support for her, then? What will the team dynamic be at Amstel, Flèche, and Liège?
AL: We haven’t made team tactics yet, but I think I’ll have to just try to stay with her until the final, and then see how I can support her in the best possible way.

In 2018, Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) won Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This year, she may face competition in her Boels teammate, and Cape Epic partner, Annika Langvad.

CT: When I look at your 2019 season thus far — Sunshine Cup, Cape Epic, Strade Bianche, you won the cross-country race today at Sea Otter — is this turning into a special year? I know you have been very good for many years now, but it seems as though you are more or less on top every time you pin on a number this year.
AL: I came out of a good winter of training, that helps a lot. The early season racing is still different to the main season, during the summer. Some people take a little more time to get going, to get peaking, and it seems like I am quite strong from the start of the season. I kind of had to be, because I had some quite important races there. Let’s see what happens throughout the season.

For sure, I feel good every single year. I come into the season with more experience. On a side note, I only started racing when I was 24, 25, and now I’m only 35, so there’s still so much progression for me to do, and just gaining that experience, and building on it year by year helps a lot.

CT: If you continue to race on the road with Boels, and you continue to be among the best at World Cup races, is it possible that in Tokyo we could see you compete in the Olympic road and Olympic mountain-bike race?
AL: This is something I haven’t really discussed with people yet.

Annika Langvad mixed winning races with socializing at the 2019 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: John Holderness/Above Four Media.

CT: Can we discuss it now?
AL: Yeah, I can discuss with you [laughs]. It could be exciting, it all depends on how… you need to be able to do some good preparation for it. It doesn’t feel good to stand on a start line and not be your best. So it all depends on how it’s possible, even, you know? It’s a delicate balance to do it and yet not overdo it.

CT: At the world championships last year, you finished second in the cross-country after leading into the final lap, and then you won the marathon. Did the marathon win help make up for finishing second in the cross-country? What were your emotions to come so close in the cross-country, and then go and win a week later?
AL: Oh, coming second it was really heartbreaking. It was so hard for me. It was so close. How it played out, if it had played out different it would have felt differently, but it was really heartbreaking. I’m a racer by heart, and I have one goal when I stand on the start line, and it was so close. It was really heartbreaking. But I think it also teaches you a lot. It molds you a little bit. It all adds up to that bag of experience that I’m still building on, you know?

CT: Did the marathon title take the sting out of it a little?
AL: Yeah, for sure it was a nice way to flip it around again. It is a rainbow jersey.

Langvad could not hide her disappointment on the podium of the 2018 UCI XCO World Championship after losing the race lead in the final lap to former Specialized teammate Kate Courtney. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool.

CT: It’s a nice way to end the season, I would imagine.
AL: Yeah, but I also did Road Worlds a few weeks later, riding in support of some other Danish riders. That was one of my first experiences riding in a field of that caliber on the road. That was also when I thought… that race made me so excited, I really went into that race not knowing anything, and it was really fun.

CT: It’s wild to imagine that one of your first experiences in a crowded peloton was at the world championship. Some riders spend years just trying to be selected to a race like that.
AL: The course was very special, the one in Austria, it was so physically hard. And the national team director knew that was my thing, so she actually asked me a long time ago. She said, ‘Annika, if you want to do it, we have a spot for you. You’re not taking anyone else’s spot, so if you want it, it’s yours.’ And I said, ‘Well, I come with basically zero experience, but if you would like me to be there, then sure.’

And also, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, the young Danish girl, we train together a lot in Denmark, we live close to each other, and she said, ‘Oh Annika, I would really love for you to be at Road Worlds supporting me.’ So I said, ‘Okay, sure.’ It was actually very refreshing for me to go into a race with a different role. I had a very specific, different role. It was a cool experience.

Annika Langvad last raced a Cyclocross World Cup event in November 2017, on home soil in Bogense, where she finished 27th. Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: More and more we are seeing riders excel across road, mountain, and cyclocross — Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Jolanda Neff, and Mathieu van der Poel, to name a few. Will we see you doing any cyclocross racing in the years to come?
AL: I have raced some cyclocross. I was seventh at the World Cup in Iowa in 2017, but I realized that… the thing is, I know I could be strong at cyclocross, but it also requires very specific focus and it’s just not possible to do that. Also, how the system works with start position, you have to do well almost a season ahead to collect points to have a good start position. And I was like, ‘this is not possible.’ Maybe if it worked like it does with the mountain bike, where if you do well in one World Cup race that defines your start position for the next race, but that is not how it works.

It was going to be difficult, because starting position is quite crucial. To actually be in a position where it makes sense, and where it is fun, would take so much time, and it would be sacrificing my preparation for the summer season, so I had to prioritize. It’s really fun, but it just takes really good support around you, and a lot of time and focus. If I had double amount of time, I would do it. But I don’t, that’s not how it works.

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