From a medical degree to winning races: one doctor’s late ascent into cycling

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Dottore Erica Magnaldi. If you look up her results you see some impressive numbers: a stage win plus top-10 places in the overall classification at the Tour de l’Ardèche, a 10th place in the general classification in the Giro Rosa, fourth in the Amgen Tour of California, fifth in the Tour of Yorkshire, a 10th place in Trofeo Binda. And all this after she entered the pro peloton at 25.

“Ardèche is one of my favorite races because it was my first professional bike race in a women’s peloton,” Magnaldi says. “I started with gran fondos in my first years on the bike but there were only a few girls out there [so] I had to compete against the men. Racing an all-women’s race was already something very special. That’s when I fell in love with racing my bike.”

Magnaldi is one of the late bloomers in the sport. Just like world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, the now 27-year old rider from Cuneo, Piemonte started off in a completely different sport. Van Vleuten jumped on the bike after playing football. Magnaldi went from snow to asphalt. Both riders also finished a masters before turning pro as well.

“I did cross-country skiing until I was about 20 years old,” she says. “Where I live in the north of Italy there are many great opportunities for winter sports and I was a pretty good athlete too. I was part of youth national and international teams but when the time came to apply for a special sports program of the Italian Army, I was admitted for one year only. I was just not good enough for the few places on that school.

“Immediately after I quit cross-country skiing my father gave me a bike for my birthday. He and my brother were and still are avid cyclists so he kind of nudged me in this direction.”

In a very sport-minded family, Magnaldi couldn’t stay away from sport for long after she put away her skis. “I entered gran fondo races and liked the long distances,” she says. “In skiing I also loved the marathon events the most. Some teams heard about ‘that girl climbing well’ and contacted me but I wanted to finish my education first so I held them off.”

Magnaldi entered the University of Turin to study medicine when she was 19. It was no coincidence that she ended up studying medicine.

“Usually as a child you don’t like hospitals at all but my experience was different,” she remembers. “I was only three years old but had to stay in hospital for three months. I think that’s where it started because I liked the atmosphere. Also, my mother is an OB/GYN nurse so I knew the hospital environment well and it suited me.

“I am interested in pediatrics but also sports medicine, but that is something to decide later, after my cycling career.”

Magnaldi while racing for Bepink at the 2018 Strade Bianche.

When she was in the final stages of med school and in the process of finishing her thesis, Magnaldi joined Italian team Bepink and quickly made a mark on the international cycling scene. She won her first race in the Tour de l’Ardèche in 2018, a race that holds special meaning to her.

“It was the last stage of a very hard week,” she recalls. “People always say Ardèche is hard and not well organized because of long transfers and not-so-great overnight accommodations but for me it holds a special place in my heart.

“It was the last stage of the 2018 edition and I had already finished in the top 10 on the three mountain stages before that final day. I was already way down in the overall classification so my sports director told me to try to be in the breakaway that day. He hoped they would give me some room. This is how it happened.

“We had a good lead on the chasing bunch. I am not much of a sprinter so I knew I would never ever win this stage if it wasn’t solo. All sorts of things went through my mind. It was an uphill kick to the finish line and I did win. I couldn’t believe it.

“I called my parents and my boyfriend and told them about 10 times in a row that I won that race. That day was a gamechanger. I knew I could win races.”

Magnaldi moved from Bepink to WNT-Rotor in 2019 and is now part of Ceratizit-WNT. The 2019 season was her first full year as a pro cyclist after she graduated med school. She still sometimes feels like a newbie who doesn’t have the years of moving around a peloton to build on.

“That was one of the things I had to learn and still learn every race,” she says. “How do I move through the bunch, when do I do it, how do I save energy, when do I go to the front, when and where do I attack? I also learned when to eat and to drink and what to eat and drink.

“To the riders who started as kids that comes more naturally. I have to learn it. Luckily we have some very experienced riders on the Ceratizit-WNT team like Kirsten Wild and Lisa Brennauer. I can always ask them everything. When I joined in 2019, I told my new teammates straight away: ‘Please tell me what I do wrong. I am not an angry person when you do. I just want to learn and I need to learn.’ It’s a process to learn how to read a race.”

Although she doesn’t have many years in the pro peloton behind her, Magnaldi feels her experience as a cross-country skier and her time as a med student shaped her as a rider as well.

“Studying is so much harder than being a full-time pro cyclist,” she says. “When you are at university your brain is always on. There is always something to do and more books to study. Knowing that I already completed this education and that I have something to fall back on when I either don’t get a contract anymore or don’t like it anymore, makes life easier and makes me more relaxed.

“I only have a few years to go in cycling and then many years as a doctor in the rest of my life so this is the right order to do it in.”

Italy is one of the worst-hit countries in the world when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like all Italian pro and amateur cyclists Magnaldi has been confined indoors and forced to train on a smart trainer.

“The last time I rode outside was on the 15th of March,” she says. “My boyfriend Dario Giovini [who rides for Hincapie/LEOMO p/b BMC] and I were in Girona for training when the Italian government announced the lockdown. All flights were suspended so we had to take a 24-hour ferry service from Barcelona to Genoa.

“Dario and I were cramped in this little cabin with all our bikes and luggage. Then we went to my parents’ home for self-isolation and this is where we still are.”

The Italian government announced they would lift the ban on outdoor exercise in early May. This will give the indoor trainer in the Magnaldi household some well-deserved rest.

“We only have one smart trainer and it’s used about 12 hours every day,” Magnaldi says. “We have to take turns to train: my boyfriend, brother, father and me. We wanted to buy more equipment but everything was sold out immediately. I can’t wait to go outside again because I know the mountains of Watopia [on Zwift] better than the ones I see from my window.

“Also the weather has been exceptional so far so that makes the lockdown harder too. I am quite fed up with it, to be honest.”

Magnaldi lives in Cuneo, Piemonte and as the province’s Italian name suggests, it’s at the foot of the mountains — the magnificent skyline of the Alps looms large from her house.

“The freedom of riding outdoors again will bring a big smile to my face,” she says. “It’s so much better for the mind too. I also hope we get to race this season but it will be difficult. In only a few weeks’ time the world has changed so much. Organizers will have to try to organize races in this new reality.

“You can and must test riders but what about the public? We race in public on the roads. You will have people watching the race you can’t all test. I hope we can race without the public but it will be hard this year.”

Magnaldi (front) during stage 5 of the 2019 Women’s Tour.

She already dreams about returning to racing. This is only her third year in the pro peloton and she still has many goals to achieve.

“Winning a stage as an Italian in the Giro Rosa is a dream,” Magnaldi explains. “I never expected I could be 10th already in a race like that. I hope that one year the Giro comes to Cuneo or Piemonte. I also love Giro dell’Emilia which is also one of the first races I ever did as a rider. I was already 10th and know I can do better.

“Liège-Bastogne-Liège is also high on my wishlist. I don’t know where my limits are but I can’t wait to find out.”

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