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Hannah Ludwig of Canyon//SRAM recently rode 1,000 km over five days from a cancelled race in Bretagne back to her home in Germany. Speaking to reporter Amy Jones a few days after finishing, the 20-year-old gave her account of 200 km stints in the saddle, her route into pro cycling, lockdown in Germany, and what she’s learned from her epic ride.
Cancelled races were a recurring theme of the curtailed 2020 cycling season. Every race that went ahead felt like a bonus in a year where life has been turned upside-down in so many ways. While all three Grand Tours were salvaged for the men’s peloton, the women have been left picking over the bones of a calendar that was already lacking in stage racing.
Riders and teams were looking forward, then, to the five-day Bretagne Ladies Tour due to take place from the October 28 to November 1. Hannah Ludwig was no exception and she and her mum drove all the way from their home in Germany to Vannes, France four days ahead of the start for a course recon. As the European U23 time trial champion, Ludwig was hoping to perform on the race’s TT stage.
However, at the exact moment they pulled into their hotel car park in Vannes, Ludwig received a text: the race was off. “Literally in the minute that we arrived I got the message that the race is cancelled,” she says.
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When Hannah Ludwig received the news that Bretagne Ladies Tour was cancelled, she was already in Bretagne. Sitting in the car park of the first race hotel after an 11 hour drive from her home in Germany. The 20-year-old and her Mum had driven to Bretagne four days ahead of the tour start in order to do a course recon. In particular the U23 European ITT champion had her sights set on the time trial stage three. “When we arrived to the hotel car park, we received the email from the team that the tour was cancelled. I said ‘oh no’ and instead of sitting in the car for another 11 hour trip the next day, I decided to ride home.” 900km over five days. Follow our Instagram stories to see how Hannah is going. #TakeTheLead ???? @thomas_maheux
Ludwig would have been forgiven for sulking in the passenger seat all the way back home to Traben-Trarbach, but the determination she shows as she describes her reaction reveals a much stronger character than that. “I said ‘oh no, I’m not going to drive back again; I’m just going to ride my bike back home,’” she recalls. “At first my mum was like ‘this is a joke’ and I said ‘no it isn’t’ and then I started to plan it, and then I just did it because I needed to train anyway and I thought ‘OK it’s a good alternative.’”
Ludwig’s offhand account of her decision process belies the heft of the challenge that lay ahead of her. The German rider completed days of 224 km, 215 km, 205 km, 232 km, and 151 km respectively. Was the symmetry between the length of the race and the length of the ride planned or just how it turned out? “Both, kind of,” she says. “At first I was like ‘oh maybe I can do it in four days’ but then it would have been so, so long and I thought ‘it’s probably stupid to do 250 km every day and probably not make it.’
“I decided to do five days and I thought ‘it’s actually kind of cool because the stage race would have also been five days.’”
Before taking on this challenge Ludwig was no stranger to long-distance riding. Explaining her introduction to cycling she recalls how during the summer between primary and high school she joined a cycling camp one week before the summer holidays. “Whoever wanted to do it could join a one-week trip when you did 100 km or 120 km every day from one school to another and you could sort of camp,” she says. “I think in the end it was 400 people and I think 10 people from every school, so maybe 40 schools. Everyone would find sponsors and then you would raise money to build schools in Africa.
“I was in 5th grade and I didn’t really get along in my new school and I thought ‘OK, [this is] a nice idea to have one more week of holiday’. I also really liked the project and I realised when I was training for it that I really liked cycling.” The total distance for that week-long ride for school children? A casual 700 km.
“I remember I came home from that trip – it was 700 km in a week with normal shoes and normal bikes that you’d ride to school with – and we always spent the summer holidays in Switzerland and then I said ‘OK I’m going to ride my bike to Switzerland’, and then I just did another 40 km.”
Given her experience, Ludwig must have been well prepared for the ride home to Germany, in terms of details like ensuring her body was well-fuelled over long days? “I think I was close to a hunger flat every day because I didn’t eat in the first three hours,” she says, with a self-deprecating laugh. “I was always feeling very good and then I almost didn’t eat the first 100 km because I just wasn’t hungry because I was riding quite slow and I was feeling great and enjoying riding and then I forgot [to eat].
“And then I forgot for another 10 km and I wasn’t eating a lot and then at some point I felt so bad and it happened to me every day except the last day. The last day I was like ‘OK, I need to eat before’ and I just started eating. It felt horrible to eat.”
Bonking wasn’t her only nemesis on the five-day tour, nor was it the lowest point. “Definitely a low was on day three.” she recalls. “I wanted to start riding and I was [ready] really early and felt good and then my bike had a puncture. I couldn’t fix it because something was stuck but I didn’t have the right tool to fix it.”
The time trial bike that she might have hoped would propel her to a stage win came to fulfil a very different role. “Bike shops were only open at 10 but I couldn’t leave at 10 because I always had to leave a lot earlier before it gets dark, so I needed to just start on the time trial bike.”
Had the terrain been smooth tarmac this might have been advantageous. Instead: “The first 10 km were gravel and mud, I was like ‘this is such a bad day, I hate it.’ All the people I met had mountain bikes and some even had downhill mountain bikes and I was with my TT bike and I thought ‘OK this day I’m not going to finish; it’s impossible.’ I was so scared.”
Help finally came in the form of an open bike shop. “After 70 km we were in a bigger town and we stopped at a bike shop,” she says. However the solution wasn’t so simple. “They also didn’t have the right inner tube but this man working there gave me one inner tube off his own bike that he had in the car and he was just so, so nice.
“Then I ate something and I finished on my normal bike and did it. I think day three was the lowest point and the highest point because we met so many nice people.”
Aside from hunger flats and flat tyres, the elements were also a factor the German had to contend with. Images published on Instagram by her team show a layered-up Ludwig dressed head-to-toe in winter kit looking cold and often drenched but smiling nonetheless. “The first two days it rained a lot,” she recalls. “I think day one it rained the entire day. It was always between 10 and 14 degrees (Celcius) the entire trip.
“Day three, the worst day on the bike had the best weather. It was really warm — I was even considering getting changed into shorts instead of long winter tights! And then it started raining again on the last day.”
Was she ever tempted to just get into her mum’s car? “No, not because of the rain,” she says. “One time I had a hunger flat that was pretty bad and that was the only time where I thought [to get in]. It was only 5 km to go and I thought ‘OK I can do the last 5 km in the car but then in the end I thought ‘it’s only 5 km I can just go slower’ and I finished.”
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“Today was the longest day, 232km and it was so cold with a really freezing wind all day. I started early because I was afraid it would take too long and I’d be in the dark at the end. The first part was okay, even after lunch I still felt alright. But the last 50km were a struggle. I was tired from the previous days. I got to 10km to go and I had to tell my Mum in the follow car to just go ahead. I wanted to do the last 10km alone and as slow as possible. It was tough. I’m happy I made it.” Hannah Ludwig on her version of Bretagne 2.0. After the stage race was cancelled, @hannahlu_dwig decided to ride home from Bretagne to Germany. In five days. Today was the penultimate day. ???? @thomas_maheux
As one might expect from a professional athlete, albeit not all 20-year-olds, Ludwig’s resolve to see the trip through to the end won out. “When I start something and I’m passionate about it and motivated then I wouldn’t just stop it because I would feel bad.”
Would she ever consider doing something similar again? “In general I really like it. That’s the kind of rider I am and I will for sure do something like that again,” she says. “I was also very surprised … I had two days of rest and then I started riding yesterday and today …” she exhales with ironic exasperation. “I had efforts to do and they felt really really hard — they felt a lot harder than the entire trip. I was very surprised, and not in a positive way.”
In the face of a tumultuous 2020 season, Ludwig is pragmatic about the state of things for herself and her sport. “I think in cycling we are still pretty lucky compared to other jobs or even other sports, and I think in all [the] bad things you need to see something that’s alright,” she says. “I’m happy about every race we did and that the team’s organised it. When there was no racing there was time to focus on just your family and stuff you can’t focus on when you’re always away racing so it was a weird year but not only bad, I would say.”
Ludwig is based at her family home in Germany and the young rider comes across all the more grounded for it. “Sometimes I go and ride in Switzerland or Girona but that’s more small training camps,” she says. “I would say I’m just living in Germany because in my first year I realised that I just feel better when I’m home. I like the region and I like the feeling of coming home. To feel at home somewhere is something I really appreciated in the last two years.”
It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of discovering things about themselves from experiences like Ludwig’s, and she is no exception. “I would probably say two things,” she starts, talking about what she learned along the way. “The first would be that generally you are capable of more than you expect you can do, because looking back it was still quite long and I didn’t train for that and I was surprised by how good I felt.
“The second thing I would say is that if you are just yourself and honest – maybe it’s scary to be yourself – but I was surprised how many people liked it when I was just doing stuff that I really like instead of maybe just doing what I always do, or what I think I should do as a professional cyclist and don’t do crazy things.
“I’ve learned that it’s nice to be yourself and it’s OK and that people like it and it’s really nice that they like it.”