Meet Jelena Erić, all-terrain domestique, only Serbian in the WorldTour
Jelena Erić is one of the most versatile riders at Team Movistar. The 25-year-old supported Annemiek van Vleuten to her win in the Tour of Flanders but was also a key part of the Classics team around Emma Norsgaard. She rides strongly in hilly one-day races and has a good sprint, as she showed in the Ronde de Mouscroun where she came in second. Erić is the kind of support rider adapted to almost all terrains. She is also the only Serbian rider, male or female, at the highest level of racing.
Jelena Erić started her season like almost everyone else, with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Because many of the early season races had been cancelled it was a shock to the system.
“It was a hard start to the season,” she tells CyclingTips. “I didn’t expect the level to be so high. I always struggle with the pace of a race. Trofeo Binda was also at a very high pace and it was suffering from the very first kilometre.”
Despite that, Trofeo Binda was one of Erić’s best results of the season, indicating how she has really stepped up this year. And her best years are yet to come.
“I now train with [Movistar trainer and former pro] Carlos Jimenez and that was a big step up for me,” she says. “I am 25 now but feel like I still have margin to grow. I know where I come from and with the more specific training I do now know where I can go. When I started, I had a vision and knew what was possible for me. I now work towards those goals.”
Erić is an all-rounder but she feels she is changing as a rider now she is getting older. “In the beginning I thought I was a sprinter and I still have that punch but I am also better at climbing now,” she says. “I am strong but also small and light. I like the meters of elevation better nowadays,” she adds with a smile.
For Erić her career is a step-by-step process. Her second place in the Ronde de Mouscroun showed her fiery side. The frustration of getting a second place was clearly visible.
“In the team I usually work as a domestique but this day everyone worked so very hard for me,” she explains. “I really wanted to reward them for all their work but we made a few mistakes in the final. I was angry but I also grow over that moment of emotion really fast.”
Cycling is not the first choice of sports in Erić’s homeland of Serbia. Football, tennis, and handball are far more popular. But as often happens, Erić got into the sport because of a family member.
“My brother rode at my uncle’s cycling club,” she explains. “I joined him on the mountain bike. My uncle said I should join the club but I only had a really old bike. It had the gear shifters on the frame but I didn’t know any better. It does make you appreciate all the great equipment we get now even more.”
Erić was born in 1996, only a few months after the Yugoslavian civil war – the last war of independence on the European mainland – ended with the Treaty of Dayton in 1995. The early ’90s in the southeast of Europe were defined by a bloody conflict where each of the six federal states of Yugoslavia eventually gained independence.
The last of the Balkan Wars, and closest to home for Erić both geographically and in time, was that between Serbia and Kosovo at the end of the ’90s. Kosovo aspired to independence but to this day Serbia doesn’t acknowledge Kosovo as a separate country.
“When I grew up in Kraljevo the war was still part of everyday life,” she says. “You could see it all around you. Unfortunately, you can still see it and Serbia is still not back on its feet.”
Erić feels the instinct of survival is omnipresent in her country and sees it in herself too. “We all have that fighting spirit and for many it still feels as if they are in survival mode,” she says. “I left Serbia and now live in Spain but when I go back it feels like going back in time.
“It [the situation in her home country] doesn’t change anything for me,” she quickly adds. “I love my country. It’s a strong connection. Back home I have many friends from university [Erić has a degree in architecture – ed.] and friends from cycling who are all very supportive. When you don’t have a lot, you learn to share more.”
Erić has won five national elite road race titles and four time trial titles. Her only win outside the national championships was the second stage in the 2019 BeNeLadies Tour.
Erić is an important rider on Team Movistar, which she joined in 2020. The team dynamics changed this year when Annemiek van Vleuten joined but also when Emma Norsgaard developed into a world-class rider over the course of the past year.
Annemiek van Vleuten met Erić for the first time a few years ago and is impressed by the progress her Serbian teammate has made since then. “We met a few years ago in Australia and she was still a very young rider. Determined and fast but still young. Now you can see that she is very mature,” Van Vleuten tells Cyclingtips about Erić. “She has great tactical insight and bike skills. It’s great to be able to rely on her as road captain. Uphill she can stay with me for a long time because she is light. I saw that in Flanders where she hurt a lot of people with her acceleration. She knows what she wants and how to achieve it. She is very professional in everything she does. She is a very balanced rider and I happy to have her with me here in Vuelta a Burgos.”
Erić also sees how the team tactics change. “Our attitude before the race has also changed,” Erić explains. “With Annemiek and Emma we can go for different strategies. In the April Classics I really like my role as a domestique better than the responsibility of being a team leader. Bringing Emma to the sprint the best way I can gives us more chance of success as a team. She is far more explosive than I am. It’s always a team win at Movistar.”
The biggest win to date for the Spanish team was the Tour of Flanders won in early April by Annemiek van Vleuten. Erić was part of the team that day.
“I couldn’t believe we won the Tour of Flanders,” she says. “We had a very clear tactic going into the race and the plan worked perfectly. My job was to attack on the Berendries and that made the split in the peloton. Then I did the lead-out for Annemiek on the Kanarieberg, thinning out the bunch even more. It was the move of the race. I admire how Annemiek can put herself in a great position but it was really teamwork as well.”
After the Amstel Gold Race in mid April Erić had some time to rest after a busy spring season. She’s raced two Spanish one-days in the past week, and now heads to the Vuelta a Burgos on May 20 in support of Van Vleuten. From there she heads to the Giro Rosa, a big goal for Erić and one she is looking forward to.
“The Giro is so hard and demanding but I am the kind of rider who recovers well,” she says. “I almost won a race the day after the Tour of Flanders [in Mouscroun] so my body copes with that [succession of race days]. It’s a mentality that I don’t mind the suffering and that’s part of the Giro every day.”
Van Vleuten won’t be at the Giro Rosa – her ambition is to become Olympic champion. To her regret, Erić won’t be able to represent Serbia in Tokyo because the deadline for qualifying points was almost two years ago when Erić wasn’t in the UCI top 100 like she is now.
However, she will represent Serbia at the world championships on the very familiar Flemish roads she loves riding so much in the Spring Classics.
“I am alone in that race because we have one start place only,” she says of the Worlds road race. “That [means] that you can’t chase all the moves and have to race smart. It’s not like the normal tactics we would have as Team Movistar. I have to do all the tasks a team of six has but then on my own. To me, becoming world champion is my biggest dream.”
Erić will continue her steady development with Team Movistar for at least two more seasons – her contract runs until the end of 2023. Happily, being on a WorldTour team like Team Movistar means she’s entitled to a minimum salary.
“This is a huge development for women’s cycling,” she says. “It means you get to focus 100% on your job. That complete focus is the only way you can progress. Being a full-time cyclist also means I watch races back to get better by analysing them. I look at all the individual riders’ jobs and learn from that.”
She speaks fluent Spanish but not from living in Spain or from being on a Spanish team.
“No,” she laughs. “I learned from Los Serrano, a Spanish series I watched on the TV when I was training in Costa Rica. I have a talent for languages and since we always subtitle the original language, I learned very fast. I love Spanish, Spain, and this team. The men and women are completely equal and that is just really nice to be part of.”