Mum goals: How a young mother defied all odds and won the race of her life

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23-year-old Belgian cyclist Jesse Vandenbulcke nearly stopped cycling completely a few years ago. Her race results show a steady progression until 2017 – and then, a year-long gap as a professional cyclist, an absence which isn’t explained until you realise that’s when she became a mother.

The week leading up to the Belgian National Championships last week was a typically busy one for Jesse. She was making sandwiches at a deli in Ghent, while also a full-time mother, and training to compete for one of the most coveted prizes in cycling. She had some promising results in her career that were indicative of her potential, but not even she believed that she would be standing on the top step of the podium with her son who celebrates his second birthday this week.

The first thing Jesse did on Sunday when she crossed the finish line first against some of the best pro cyclists on Earth was fall onto the ground and hug her partner Giovanni and her son Fabian – named after, you guessed it, Fabian Cancellara.

It got better, with the Swiss champion posting a message to her on Instagram: “Congratulations, Jesse Vandenbulcke. And of course also with Fabian, #Proud“. In reply, Jesse wrote, “Is this real???” seemingly just as thrilled to get a congratulatory message from Cancellara as winning her National Title.

Any parent will know how difficult and rewarding it is to raise a young child, but it’s arguably mothers who understand this the best – they’re usually the primary caregiver, and often sacrifice the most to support their family, including their time, their health, their sleep, and most basic needs.

The saying ‘obsession is a young person’s game’ is often true, and to reach sporting heights takes an obsessive approach. Jesse Vandenbulcke is certainly still young and undoubtedly has more energy and commitment than most of us – and that’s all while looking after her two-year-old son. We spoke to Jesse about her National Title win and what it took to get there.

How the race played out: A large breakaway group of 12 riders got away which Vandenbulcke was part of. When the break had four minutes on the main bunch on the penultimate lap, the breakaway had been whittled down to four riders. It was then when Vandenbulcke realised she had a chance to win. Late attacks by her breakaway companions never stuck and Vandenbulcke began her sprint 500m from the line and was able to fend off her competitors.

Q&A with Jesse Vandenbulcke

CyclingTips: What’s it like being a mother of a toddler and training/racing full time?

Jesse Vandenbulcke: Combining the two with working is not easy. But that makes everything I do just that little bit more special. When I go to work, Fabian is in daycare. When we are together, I’m enjoying every moment with Fabian. His presence at the competitions gives me a huge boost.

CT: What were your emotions after winning the National Championships?

JV: The emotions after winning the title were very high as seen on the videos and photos. It’s a dream come true. Becoming Belgian Champion two years after the birth of my son is wonderful! Finally succeeded in winning a competition by the Elite Women … and what a race!

JV: As a cyclist you hope for you or your team to win at every race. But more often than not, reality tells me something else. I did not expect to win this title. Only today, four days after the victory, the realisation has started to settle in.

CT: What does your training program look like over the past few months while being a young mother?

JV: My training schedule is not as it should be for a female elite athlete who wants to perform at the high level. I have to adapt my training to my work schedule as well as the care of Fabian and the household. This means that I have to hold regular indoor trainer sessions instead of four-hour rides outside.

Young mum Jesse Vandenbulcke (BEL/Doltcini – Van Eyck Sport) is the 2019 Belgian National Champion. Her son Fabian (named after Cancellara) joins her during the podium ceremony.

CT: Do you have lots of family support that enables you to train and race?

JV: I can count on a lot of support from friends and family. Without them this combination is impossible. I am also very grateful to everyone for supporting me in my career as a cyclist and also in the care of Fabian.

CT: What has your son Fabian said to you about your win? Does he comprehend it?

JV: Fabian does not really realise what has happened. He can raise his hands very well [do a victory salute] but when he sees me on television he says “mommy weeps, mommy weeps”.

CT: Have your cycling career goals changed since this recent win? If so, how? What is your short and long term goal for your cycling?

JV: This victory will certainly change my career. At the moment we are still busy absorbing everything. First I want to let it sink in and enjoy the moment. My goal is to become a full-time professional. (Ed. Belgian media is reporting that Vandenbulcke has signed for Lotto Soudal for 2020)

CT: What was it like the day after you got home and back into real life as a parent? Did it bring you back to earth quite quickly? Or have you had some time to enjoy your win?

JV: Fabian came to me very quickly at the finish line. I also took Fabian on stage. I’m always being a mother. Three hours after the race, I was changing a dirty diaper in my National Champion jersey! But still I can enjoy it, and Fabian just enjoys all the attention.

CT: Anything else you’d like to say?

JV: I also want to say to all mums and dads: it is not because you became parent that your life and dreams are over. Let your child be part of your dream and fully go for it. That makes everything so much nicer.

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