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Like me you’ve probably been focusing on the big stars over these past few months. Fair enough — the likes of Anna van der Breggen, Lizzie Deignan, Annemiek van Vleuten, Elisa Longo Borghini and Marianne Vos did win a lot of races. However, shortly behind them a 22-year old German rider for Team Sunweb has been making waves. Her name is Liane Lippert.
“I am from the south of Germany,” she starts in impeccable English. “My family is not so sport-minded so they always wonder where I got it from. My dad rides his bike but no one in my family has that competitive drive I have,” she adds with a smile.
Lippert started riding for fun when she was only eight years old. Her first race licence came when she was 12. By the time 2016 rolled around, Lippert was in her second year in the junior (U19) ranks. That’s when things really took off.
“I was a decent junior in Germany in my first year but worldwide I wasn’t,” she says. “That all changed in my second junior year. I started training better and started using a power meter.
“I became European champion in Plumelec in 2016 and rode a really good Thüringen Rundfahrt that year. That made teams notice me and I started to think about my future. I knew after those races I really had a talent for this and wanted to get better.”
Thüringen Rundfahrt is an old race on the women’s calendar, not part of the WorldTour, but just as hard as any other hilly WorldTour stage race. It always has a strong start field with riders from all major women’s teams. Lippert rode it when she was 18 and still a junior. She finished in 22nd place as the youngest and only junior rider in the race.
“It was an Olympic year and all the big names were there and in Olympic form,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any expectations [for a result]. I set out to finish the race. That was my plan first and foremost but it went really well. I won the young riders’ classification and it got me noticed. It made me determined to progress in this sport.”
As youngest rider in the race she won the youth classification beating riders like Alice Barnes (2019 British road race champion) and Katrin Aalerud (reigning Norwegian time trial champion). It was a big result for a junior rider and one that paved the way for a pro contract with Sunweb in 2017.
For junior women the step up to the elite peloton is not an easy one. There is no U23 safety net like the men get after their junior years. Many junior national, European and Worlds medal winners struggle to make it in the women’s elite peloton. The many disappointments, the patience you need to have, the string of DNFs, the mental side of being best in the world then being catapulted back to the lowest echelons of the results’ list — it’s hard for even the most headstrong people.
“There were many challenges to overcome when I joined Team Sunweb as a neo-pro,” Lippert says. “There is so much more tactics involved in racing. As a junior you just race. There are more rules to adhere to [as an elite]. You have to learn how to ride as a team and as a teammate. I had to learn English to communicate with my teammates and I had to get used to living away from home.”
During the season Lippert spends a lot of time in the Sunweb Keep Challenging centre in Sittard, the Netherlands. It’s a home away from home for the women’s team and men’s development team. In Germany she spends her time at her parents’ house near Lake Constance (Bodensee in German). It’s close to the Swiss and Austrian border and offers great training grounds for an aspiring climber.
Lippert’s talent was far from invisible in her first years in the pro peloton. In 2018 she took her first pro win at the German national championships, then won the queen stage of the Lotto Belgium Tour — over the Muur van Geraardsbergen — to take the race overall. She had top-10 results in the Thüringen Rundfahrt and Tour of Yorkshire. In 2019 came her first top 10 in a Belgian Spring Classic — Dwars door Vlaanderen — and a fifth place in the hilly Giro dell’Emilia.
2020, though, has proven to be her breakthrough year. After finishing second at the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under she won the first UCI Women’s WorldTour race of the season, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. She only had to hand the lead in the WorldTour rankings to Lizzie Deignan after La Course. She is currently the leader of the young riders’ classification.
“That win in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race is my best memory,” she recalls. “I am a rider who does well on short, steep hills. At four kilometres from the line I attacked on a short climb, maybe just 500 metres, but I had a gap. There was rain and wind. The circumstances were really hard but I never looked back until the final 50 metres of the race.”
The COVID-19 break made Lippert better. She improved as a climber and finds herself among the best riders now in hilly Giro Rosa stages and Ardennes Classics. Recently she finished eighth in the Flèche Wallonne, 10th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and second in the Brabantse Pijl. She also sprinted to fifth place at the world championships, right behind Marianne Vos.
“I made a big step in climbing this year,” she says. “Earlier I could do short efforts uphill like a kilometer where I could accelerate again and again but now, I can do 15-minute uphill efforts or more. It has to do with me getting older and stronger now. It’s great to see that the other riders expect me there as well.
“It doesn’t come as a surprise that I climb with the top 10. I also have a strong sprint after the climbs like I showed at the world championships in Imola. I have become more consistent this year and have kept this form for two months now. That and the step-up in climbing are the big changes this season.”
Lippert feels at home at Team Sunweb and recently signed a new two-year contract binding her to the young team until 2022.
“It was clear from the start that this was the best team for my development as a rider,” she says. “There are so many young riders on the team, not only the women’s team but also the men’s teams. That says something about their development.”
Lippert has become a team leader in the hilly races. It’s a new role she needs to develop more in the upcoming years where her results in races like Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Amstel Gold Race are expected to be better and better.
“I never had an idol in my life but I do look at certain characteristics from riders — things that I would like to learn or improve on,” she explains. “One of those things is being a leader in the races. First, I have to know myself well. I have the quality in my legs but now I need to be smart. Then I need to direct my team in how they support me on the climbs, when they need to be at the front and pace.
“It’s all about open and honest communication. I learn a lot from watching races back. During the COVID-19 break we did race simulation games as well where the sports directors asked us to visualize certain race situations and then let us decide how to react. I learned a lot from those exercises — learning about tactics while you sit on a sofa,” she says with a smile.
There is only one big race left for Lippert this year: the Tour of Flanders. With Lorena Wiebes back on the team that is one card Sunweb can play. Former winner Coryn Rivera is another. But with Lippert’s strong rides on the short and punchy climbs in Belgium and her strong sprint after a hard race, she is definitely one to watch for Flanders and most certainly for the near future.