Cherie Pridham, able to ‘just be herself’ at Lotto Soudal

Pridham talks Grand Tour debut, Thomas De Gendt, and seeing every day as an opportunity in her first year at the iconic Belgian team.

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Cherie Pridham made history in 2021 as the first female sports director on the UCI WorldTour. Then, in the run-up to 2022, the Brit took another step up by joining the several decades-old Belgian team Lotto Soudal.

For Pridham, a former racer herself who has spent the past decade or so climbing through the ranks of team management, the gravity of such a step was not lost, and though Lotto Soudal ends the year in the relegation zone, the 2022 season was not without success – perhaps most memorably with Thomas De Gendt’s victory at the Giro d’Italia, which Pridham was very much a part of.

When I sat down (logged on) to talk with Pridham last month, there was a very obvious launching-off point, albeit one that I was sure she must be bored of by this point. That is, the whole ‘only/first woman DS in the WorldTour’ thing. But to my surprise – and delight – it’s not something she thinks about all that much.

“It’s really weird because the only time I ever thought about it seriously was when all the hype around my signing with Israel-Start Up Nation as the first woman DS came to fruition, so I’d never ever given it a thought,” Pridham told me. “I mean, of course I’m a female, but to be honest with you, ever since I started racing when I was 11, there weren’t many girls racing at that time, so I raced with the men. So this whole concept has followed me throughout my career from a young girl to the age of 51 I’m at now.

“Even at Conti level when I had my team here in the UK, even then it was quite unique because I was more or less the only woman involved at that level that was taking teams to Mexico, Canada, America, South Africa, and I still never gave it a thought then.”

All that said, the transfer into an institution such as Lotto Soudal, which has been around since the mid-’80s and hails from the cycling heartland of Belgium, was a different story – or could very well have been.

“I must admit that it was something I was personally quite concerned about,” she said. “Working for a Belgian team, or just being involved with such an iconic historic team from a country where cycling is so famous and so unique, it’s just incredible. It put the fear of God in me, to be honest. I signed a contract and then thought about it afterwards.

“To be honest though, I haven’t noticed anything different. In fact, the sports directors group that we have here have just accepted me as part of the team really, and they don’t treat me any differently – and I didn’t want to be treated any differently.”

Pridham (masked, centre) with her sports director colleagues (from left to right), Mario Aerts, Maxime Monfort and Nikolas Maes at Lotto Soudal’s January team camp this year.

The two WorldTeams Pridham has worked with have been at very different points in their history; the ambitious Israel Start-Up Nation was in just its second year at the top level and only fifth year pro, while Lotto Soudal was deep into its fourth decade of operation. They were very different setups, and Pridham’s roles in both were similarly distinct.

“I noticed straight away that my race programme and my involvement as a sports director had changed significantly, but I never ever lose sight of the fact that it was Israel-Start Up Nation that gave me the opportunity. Without Israel, I certainly wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now, involved with Lotto-Dstny, as we’ll be known next year. So I’m incredibly grateful for that. 

“That said, I think I would have found my way here one way or another because I was so determined to get my foot under the table, so to speak, at WorldTour level. I don’t think anything would have stopped me.”

It would be easy to look at Pridham’s first two years in the WorldTour as equivalent to the admittedly dated neo-pro system, i.e. a newly professional rider’s first two years at Pro or WorldTour level are treated more or less like an apprenticeship, with all the concessions and flexibility in development that that might entail. But with all her experience in the sport, Pridham looks at it rather differently.

“It’s been a progression, I prefer to see it that way,” Pridham said. “I keep myself grounded all the time. Like I say, I’m grateful for the opportunity, but equally, I know – even if I have to say this myself – that I’ve worked incredibly hard to get there, and although I don’t give myself all the credit for that, I still always take a step back and look at the process; that process of getting to WorldTour and doing my job just increases every day I go to work, every day I go to a new race, I just take it on board.

“I had to change that mindset, I think, like when I first got to do the Giro d’Italia, my first Grand Tour. I had to shift from ‘Oh my God, this is what you’ve wanted to do, you’re now doing a Grand Tour’. And then when I got there, it was like ‘Oh, the DS meeting is the same, the convoy’s the same, it’s just that higher level’. But nonetheless it was another box ticked and another step in the right direction for me.”

After a year in which her responsibilities were kept to the smaller races, Pridham was not expecting her debut Grand Tour to come so early in her Lotto Soudal tenure, and though the day-to-day was not much different from any other race, its import did not get lost in the normality of the job.

“The Giro was a major highlight. I had expected that I would just get thrown in at the Vuelta, without being disrespectful to any of the Grand Tours, but I assumed that’s where they would start me. I already knew in November last year that I was going to be at the Giro, so I had all that time to think about it and prepare. And actually, apart from the fact that you’re doing 21 days on the bounce, the preparation’s obviously full throttle in terms of logistics and planning, but I just thought ‘bring it on’.”

Lotto Soudal sent a stellar team to the 2022 Giro that included multiple Grand Tour stage winner Caleb Ewan, up-and-coming young climbers Sylvain Moniquet and Harm Vanhoucke, and so much more than a breakaway specialist, Thomas De Gendt.

“He’s certainly an interesting character, he’s a phenomenon,” Pridham said of the 36-year-old Belgian. “He’s an outright legend as everybody knows him to be, and to be honest, I’ve really enjoyed the races that I’ve worked with him. He says it how it is. If he’s not happy, he’ll say it to your face. He has sometimes a coarse way of doing that, but I think I prefer riders – and staff for that matter – who are straight-talking, and he’s certainly that. He’s old school. He knows what he wants, how he wants it and when he wants it. 

“It’s taken some getting used to, the riders getting used to me in the bus, or presenting a strategy for a race. But Thomas, once he knows where I’m at, he just gets on with his job, he doesn’t treat me any differently.”

One of the most memorable days of the season – and not just for Pridham and Lotto Soudal – was De Gendt’s win on the spectacularly dynamic Naples stage at the Giro. It had been a tricky first week for the team, with Ewan’s bruising day one crash while contesting the sprint and a few close results, but then stage 8 came around and De Gendt came into his own.

“When he was approaching that final 10 km of the stage that he won, he was so confident in his own ability, and he was giving me that confidence in him too,” recalled Pridham. “All I really had to do was just keep him upright and give him the encouragement that he needed, because he knew full well what to do.”

What we didn’t see? Thomas De Gendt providing the confidence all those around him needed to believe that he would, without any doubt, win the four-up sprint on stage 8 of the Giro.

That stage was one of the Giro’s celebrated short days out with multiple urban circuits that favoured all-out attacking. After a frantic start that saw a large group break away, it soon became clear that the win would come from the leaders, not least because De Gendt was among their number. The spanner in the works was that stage 1 winner Mathieu van der Poel and the man who would soon beat him, Biniam Girmay, were also there, so everyone else had work to do.

Lotto Soudal was prepared though, and with De Gendt’s knowledge and experience, not to mention sky-high confidence on their side, there was only one way it could all work out – it might as well have been scripted.

“He knew, and he told me I think 20 or 30 kilometres out that he was the fastest one there. But we had to play the game, we had to use the situation. We were fortunate that we had the numbers because we had another rider [Harm Vanhoucke] involved – we actually had three riders until the attacks came thick and fast, but in the end, when it was just four riders left, we still had the numbers.

“The way it was going into that finale was just amazing, with the company that was there. I mean, of course, they’re all WorldTour riders, but when you’re racing against Girmay and Van der Poel… But we managed to do exactly what we had to, which made it even more special.”

Pridham was in the team car appointed to follow the breakaway that day, which put her front and centre of and for the team’s biggest moment of the race.

“Ah, it was just unbelievable,” Pridham paused to savour the memory. “I flipped back to ‘Oh my gosh’ mode, I’m in my first Grand Tour and now I’ve been instrumental in playing a significant role in helping the team to secure a win. And it was at a difficult time too, because everybody was well aware that we had some close almost-stage-wins with Caleb. The pressure was definitely on, everybody could feel it. It was a well well needed win that I think we deserved, for sure. And it put us in good spirits and good motivation to finish a Grand Tour on a high with a stage win.”

Another of Pridham’s season highlights also played out on Italian soil, her last block book-ending the season with another long trip away from home, replete with learning and progression for herself and those under her watch.

“I did 18 days in Italy, we did all the one-day races, and that gave me the opportunity to almost just be myself,” she explained. “I was the only sports director there responsible for upwards of 10-14 staff members, and of course the riders, but I was able to do the logistics, the strategy, the planning, and it gave me a good run. It was great for myself, for my own recognition that I can do this, and even though I know I can, you always question your ability and your capability, so to speak – well, I certainly do. It’s validation really, and it kind of book-ended a really solid year and a hell of a busy race programme.”

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I find there’s something very reassuring about the universality of ‘imposter syndrome’.

“I think inwardly I’m quite confident in what I do, but I think when you close that door and you sit down and you’re alone with your family, then sometimes you do question whether you have that ability,” Pridham continued. “But then, I think my own colleagues do that too. I think we all have anxiety or a little bit of nervousness or whatever. I think if you don’t have that then it just becomes a formality and it’s not something you can get any enjoyment out of. So I see every race as a new opportunity, and Lotto Soudal have given me that with open arms.”

The cycling industry applies a huge weight to the biggest races of the season like the Tour and Giro, the Monuments too – and indeed WorldTour status – but ultimately they’re all bike races. At least, that’s how Pridham tries to see it.

“I think the way I’ve got through this year is to try not to think too much about where I’m going and what races I’m going to. Like Lombardia, my first Monument – two days before I was like ‘Oh shit, I’m doing my first Monument’. But actually, when I got there it was just another race, it was just a bit longer sitting in the car.”

Pridham’s arrival on the WorldTour has coincided with a rapid evolution in racing style at the top levels of the sport, namely more unpredictable strategies, an apparent increase in devil-may-care attacking, and ever more successful breakaways.

“I think the way that we race now at WorldTour is changing dramatically,” asserted Pridham. “There’s almost no thought process in just where the attacks are going to be; you can have a plan, you can have a strategy, but you’ve always got to be aware that a team could attack on a descent or going around a corner that you’re not going to expect, or not even wait for the crosswinds, so you have to be on your toes.”

It’s unpredictable situations like this that make De Gendt such a valuable tool for a team to have at their disposal. And not just because he seems to have a near clairvoyant ability to identify successful breakaway days, he’s also an elder statesman of the sport who’s seen decades of riders come and go, and who knows the dynamics of the peloton better than almost anyone.

Breakaway master De Gendt leads a small group of attackers that escaped the day’s large move to steal the stage victory. Lotto Soudal teammate Harm Vanhoucke sits gasping on the wheel of his older compatriot, with Jorge Arcas (Movistar) and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) hanging onto the coattails.

“I think that’s where he’s valued, his sense of direction and his sense of leadership, although it’s all done in his own way,” Pridham said of De Gendt. “That said, I think Thomas has had to adapt the way he’s ridden, in the sense that he will adapt to the team strategy. But when he sees an opportunity… Thomas is old school, he’ll do his homework, he knows the roads, he knows most stages, most elevation, you name it, you don’t really need to explain it to him. And that’s the beauty of having somebody as experienced as De Gendt, and on a young team that’s developing and growing.”

Lotto Soudal is a team with multiple ‘groups’, from Caleb Ewan’s sprint train to the young riders that have been Pridham’s focus.

“This year I’ve been working mostly with the stage race climbing group. Again, very young riders, I think that’s where my forte lies,” she explained, referring back to her many years working with riders on a junior and Continental level. “I have a good understanding of the young guys coming through, and they’re getting younger and younger. 

“Stage racing, climbing races, that’s where I think my plan and programme will progress towards next year. And there again, it’s a step up because we’ve got a very young group of riders so we’ve almost got to do a reset with that group. De Gendt again will be quite useful in that sense, he’ll bring some stability.”

As it happens, both the WorldTeams Pridham has worked on have had development pathways operating at under-23 and Continental level, often feeding riders into the top-tier outfits. At Lotto Soudal, this route has delivered the likes of young Aussie Harry Sweeny, whose Grand Tour breakaway efforts suggest he’s learned plenty from his older Belgian teammate, 2021 Paris-Roubaix runner-up Florian Vermeersch, 2022 Saudi Tour winner Maxim van Gils and breakthrough sprinting talent Arnaud De Lie.

The life of a neo pro has changed as dramatically as the sport has – in fact, the two things are intrinsically linked. So have these development pathways and the shrinking age of success changed the way teams approach things?

“It doesn’t really change anything. I mean, we’ve already adapted to the mindset already set that the team is younger in its outlook. Like I keep saying, we’ve got a huge reset now and a massive opportunity to create a pathway for these guys, and that’s key to Lotto-Dstny, that’s key to our management staff, bringing young riders through.

“That pathway is very close to my heart. It’s something I’ve always done. I can remember bringing junior riders into the Conti team at 18/19 years old and almost being criticised for taking them to the Vuelta Mexico or to races where they’re so much younger. People would say ‘Ah, you’re going to burn them out!’, but you can see how it’s changed so dramatically now, teams are signing 16/17-year-olds. So you’ve got to use them, but you’ve got to manage that process, you’ve got to be able to manage their recovery well. That means working with the entire staffing crew, whether that’s psychologists, physios, osteos, doctors, trainers, that whole group that we are creating now in preparation for next season is so important.”

19-year-old sprint sensation Arnaud De Lie took his first pro victory at Trofeo Palma in January, only his third race since stepping up from the Lotto Soudal development team.

So, what’s next? Pridham is stepping into 2023 with a new-look Lotto-Dstny, which is due to race as a ProTeam next season. It may be a step down in real terms, but as many have pointed out, it may actually give the outfit a little more flexibility. As a top-of-the-rankings ProTeam, they’ll be invited to all the WorldTour races they want to attend, including all the Grand Tours and Monuments, while also surfing through the full spectrum of punchy domestic events (which are rich with UCI points). As far as development opportunities are concerned, it’s far from a bad thing for anyone, from riders to staff.

“I think on a personal level I just want to keep progressing, continue learning from my colleagues,” Pridham said. “I’ve got ambitions, like I want to do a Tour de France, but I don’t just want to do it, I want to be part of a successful team. Whether the sports directors group will put that forward, I don’t know, but I hope that we can keep the continuity there that we’re working with in our stage race group, and that I can carry some of that momentum forward alongside, for instance, the Caleb group and the Classics group when we combine those elements for something like a Tour de France, a Giro or Vuelta.

“As a team, we’ve got to start off the mark straight away. We’re well aware that we’re going to be fighting for points again. That’s instrumental to where this team needs to be, rightly so. We’ve only got to look at what we’ve done this year with 25 wins – you can’t sniff at that. So if we can get close to that momentum next year off the bat, come out of the starting blocks in February and get that momentum going. I think as a group we will be back at WorldTour before long, that’s the aim.”

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