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Last year I watched the Junior World Championships in Yorkshire and saw an attack by a rider from Chile. Her name is Catalina Soto Campos. She was 18 at that time, already had a silver medal at the junior track world championships in the scratch race and was on her way to a 17th place in the road race after animating the race in a breakaway.
This year, she started her first season as an elite. I was intrigued by her background, as the only female rider from Chile, and intrigued that she managed to finish both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Le Samyn as best first-year elite-rider, aged 18. Time to get to know this talented rider a bit better.
I found Catalina Soto Campos on a trip to Australia. In Melbourne.
“My mum and her partner moved to Australia a few years ago to study. They found a job here and that’s why we stayed,” she explained, in a wonderful mix of English with that typical South American Spanish sound blended into it. “But I do return to Chile at least once a year to visit my family who all still live there.”
She misses her grandmother’s food, and the family-oriented culture. “Porotos con mazamorra, a bean dish with corn and pumpkin and a fresh slice of watermelon as desert. I miss the Andes mountains, although Switzerland, the valley of Aigle and the Alps, remind me a bit of home too.”
Before we arrive at her current home at the World Cycling Centre at the UCI headquarters in Aigle, let’s go to the beginning, in Santiago de Chile, the capital city where almost a third of the Chilean population lives.
“Chile doesn’t have a sports culture,” she said. “Of course, we play football but there is hardly any athletic activity at the schools. If you are lucky your school offers an hour of PE a week but many don’t. The school days in Chile start around 7:30am and finish around 5pm so there is not much time left.
“I got into cycling through a mass participation event in Santiago where me and my mum rode on closed roads with thousands and thousands of people. It’s on normal bikes. I loved it so much, looking around and ringing my bell at all the specially dressed people around me, I did a sprint to the line for fun. That competitive spirit was already in me. We met some track riders there and decided to go and watch them on the outdoor track in Santiago. I rode some laps and ate some cookies afterwards. That is what I remember, eating the cookies. I was only around 11 or 12. The year after we decided to cheer these track riders on at nationals and there, I saw girls my age race bikes. I thought: You can race bikes? I want to do that too and that’s how it all started.”
When Soto Campos was around 15 years old, Spanish cycling coach Alejandro Gonzales Tablas saw her at the Chilean track nationals, where she took home all the titles. He invited her to a talent camp in Argentina, which was organized by both the Argentinean federation and the UCI.
“In July of 2018, I went to Aigle for the first time,” Soto Campos said. “There were hardly any juniors at the World Cycling Centre so I trained with the older riders to prepare for track and road worlds. I stayed on for 2019 and was so happy I got a place on the UCI team this year so I could race Classics.”
The riders on the World Cycling Centre team all live together in a team house near the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland. The aim of the WCC is to give riders within all cycling disciplines from non-traditional cycling countries the chance to develop, race and improve.
There are now also satellite centers all over the world including South Africa, Japan, Korea, and India. Recent alumni include Teniel Campbell (Trinidad and Tobago, now with Valcar Travel and Service), Marlen Reusser (Switzerland, now with Bigla-Katusha), Paula Patiño (Colombia, now with Movistar Team), and Thi That Nguyen (Vietnam, now with Lotto-Soudal Ladies).
The current World Cycling Centre UCI Women’s Continental team includes riders from Israel, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Barbados, Belarus, Slovakia, Canada, and Chile.
“It’s so much fun to get to know so many new people and new cultures,” Soto Campos said. “I learn something new every day there about food for example but also about the other cycling disciplines and training. I am now the only rider from Chile but last year there were two others, one BMXer, and one mountain biker.
“I love the stories they all tell. Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru is from Ethiopia for example. She told me such beautiful stories about her country that I want to visit one day. I also love coffee and that’s what’s Ethiopia is also known for.”
Soto Campos travelled to Switzerland from Australia in February of this year. She was full of anticipation for her first batch of Belgian Spring Classics. “Being at the Omloop het Nieuwsblad was so exciting,” she said. “I was nervous before the start, of course. Could I do the distance? Would I be dropped? What about the rain? What about the cobbles?”
The World Cycling Centre Team had done a recon of the most important points of the race. Before that day Soto Campos had never ridden on cobbles before.
“We didn’t do the recon on race speed so when we did in the race, I was so bad,” she said. “My back wheel jumped all over the place. I started looking at the other riders. They all make it look so easy. One time Annemiek van Vleuten was near me and I started imitating what she did with her technique of hopping over the cobbles. It worked for me too.”
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad immediately earned a special place in her heart. “All those people on the Muur! They were cold and wet but still they were there for us,” she said. “I smiled back at them all the time. It was so amazing to be part of this. I never thought I would already be there at 18.”
Soto Campos turned 19 in April and celebrated her birthday back home in Melbourne.
“I travelled back to Australia much sooner than expected,” she said. “When we heard about the first cancellations we started training as if to prepare for all the races in May but then things worsened fast. The WCC decided to send us all back home.”
As a first-year elite rider, development is key to Soto Campos.
“I have so much more to learn of course,” she said. “One important lesson I already learned during those first races is to eat and drink when you can. Even if you have only five seconds of relaxation, eat and drink! I hope to race more this year but we have to wait and see. I will focus on my development first and that works really well at the WCC team.”
The Chilean rider has big dreams.
“I want to improve as an all-rounder,” Soto Campos said. “Marianne Vos is my big example. She is good at many things, classics, climbing, sprinting. My dream is to become a super competitive rider in the women’s peloton and then move to a big team like Sunweb or Canyon-SRAM. They have such a great team spirit-vibe around them. I also hope to represent my country at the Olympic Games on the track and or the road but we have no start place yet. I guess it’s up to me to make sure we have one for Chile in 2024.”