Learning and loving it: An interview with Anika Todd on surviving her first Spring Classics - and wanting more!

Anton Vos

Last year, during the Lotto-Belisol Tour, Sylvan from the Café told us to keep an eye on Anika Todd, a rider from his local club who was racing it as her very first European race. She'd only started racing that year, and was telling these great stories. Since then I've been following her adventures - and after her trip to Europe with Tibco for her first bash at the Spring Classics, she told me all about jumping in at the deep end, suffering at her first World Cup, accidentally elbowing Kirsten Wild out of the way, riding with Marianne Vos, how Europe's changed her riding, and much more - including whether, after all that, she still enjoys cycling...

This is a transcript of the interview, which was done as a podcast - you can go to my blog and listen to it there.

***

PdC: How did you find the Spring Classics season

Anika: It was crazy, it's a whole different scene over there - I thought I knew bike racing until I went and did the Spring Classics!

PdC: You did really well, though, for a first-time rider - I was looking down your results, and you didn't finish the Ronde van Drenthe, but you were in the top 20 in the Dwars door Vlaanderen, and you were the top Canadian finisher in the Energiewacht Tour - that's pretty damn good.  You finished some races that some really experienced riders couldn't finish.

Anika: Once I got my feet wet and kind of got used it it, it was definitely improving!  The first race I did there, I hit the deck about five times, and it was like, oh my god, why am I doing this?  But once you get to know the riders and get to know the roads it gets easier.  It's a lot about just having friends in the peloton too, and knowing where to be and when to be there, so once you start to figure it out, it gets easier.

PdC: Did you have any expectations of what it would be like before you went?

Anika: I thought it would be physically difficult, what I didn't think was how technically challenging it would it be.  The first races I didn't finish, not because I wasn't strong enough, but because I wasn't in the right place at the right time - you miss the move and then you're in no man's land.  It's technically very difficult.

PdC: And it must be different kind of roads to what you're used to racing on anyway - narrow roads, tight corners, road furniture jumping out at you.

Anika: And just how narrow the roads are, and how big the peloton got.  In North America it's really highway racing, so it's a small peloton and huge roads - so you never really get boxed in, you can always go to the outside of the pack and move up that way

But in Europe, especially in the Spring Classics with the cobblestones, and the short, little climbs, and and the dikes and everything, like in Energiewacht Tour, it's so narrow that sometimes you can only fit two or three riders across.  And the peloton, most of them are 180, 185 starters, so if you're in position 100, there's just no way to move up, really.

PdC: That must be crazy - and you're relatively new to cycling, aren't you?

Anika: Yes - it was a year ago that I did my first bike race, and two years ago that I started riding.

PdC: That's amazing, though, I can't imagine!  When you started your first bike race, did you have any clue about where it would go?

Anika: No, I just was riding with a club, some local guys, and I was keeping up with the boys, and so they said that I should try racing.  And I did, and I did this little local race, Barry's Roubaix, here in Vancouver.  It's a 10kilometre loop, and 5 kilometres is on a gravel dike, and 5 kilometres is on the road, and I won by seven minutes, which was totally unexpected!  So I did a few more races, and then Tripleshot Cycling actually raised the money to send me to Nationals, and I finished second in the time trial, and seventh in the road race.  And Linda from Tibco offered me a contract.

PdC: It must have been so good for Tripleshot, as well!

Anika: It was pretty awesome, and to have a group of people that support me that much has just been really amazing.

PdC: And Canada's got such an interesting women's cycling culture - obviously there's always been Clara Hughes, but there are so many strong cyclists there.  This is not like winning the national championships where you're up against 5 riders - it's a strong, strong field.

Anika: Yes, it is a very strong field!

PdC: And so you were out in Europe with Tibco, and you stayed out there and did Energiewacht Tour with the National Team?

Anika: Yeah, so basically I was just lacking the experience to do well in the Spring Classics, and so my Director arranged for me to stay and do some local races and club crates, and things like that.  And because I was over there anyway, the National Team offered to have me do a couple of races with them, before coming back.

PdC: And you were the top National Team finisher in Energiewacht - that's nice!

Anika: Yeah, it was surprising, the riders they sent over were really strong riders, two of them had just won silver medals in the Track World Championships, and they're really strong riders.

PdC: Was it different, racing with the National Team, than racing with Tibco?

Anika: It is very different - the National Team is always a different group of people, and so they're strong riders, but you don't have that same cohesion, that same teamwork that you do on your trade teams, just because you don't spend the hours together, so it it is a bit different

PdC: I guess it's also people who can't necessarily be full-time cyclists - you're not full-time yourself, are you?

Anika: Now I am, but before I wasn't.  It is difficult, especially in women's cycling, just because there's no money, so I'm very lucky to be on a team like Tibco that supports me enough so I can make it my full-time occupation, but a lot of people do have to have jobs on the side, to support their cycling.

PdC: Tell me a little bit more about getting into bikes, because you were a runner before, weren't you?

Anika: I was, yeah.  I was dating a guy at the time, who wanted to be a professional cyclist, and he gave me bike for Christmas, so that we could ride together, as something to do, so I really just rode a couple of times a month with him.  And then through him I met the Tripleshot Cycling Club, and I'd do a ride with them, every once in a while, and when I started racing, I made the transition to just cycling.

PdC: Did you know much about cycling as a sport, before you started it?

Anika: I didn't know anything about cycling, I didn't know who Lance Armstrong was, so everything was new!  I had no idea about all the different kinds of racing, the only race I knew was the Tour de France, so yeah, I really knew nothing!

PdC: I'm always interested in that - did you, or do you research about the riders and what happens - or do you let the team tell you about that kind of thing?

Anika: I do research now the women that I'm riding with - it's good to know different people's strengths, and who's showing up, because it kind of gives you a bit of insight into what the race tactics might be like.  But our Director has also been in the cycling world for 25 years, so he does give us a lot of information

And in the peloton there's a lot of gossip, so whenever I am in a race, I try to pick up as much information as I can from everyone else who's there, because that's where you can learn best.

PdC: And I've loved your stories on your blog -  I think one of your stories I loved most was you elbowing Kirsten Wild out of the way, and stealing her wheel

Anika: Yeah, that was probably not the smartest thing I've ever done!  But she was pretty good about it - she yelled at me in the race, obviously, but I got to meet her after, and she laughed that I even dared to do that!  So we've kind of come to an unspoken agreement, that I won't push her, and she won't push me, so we're going to get along fine now!

PdC: She's not small, is she?  She's a typical 7 foot tall Dutch rider!

Anika: She's huge, she's about 5 inches taller than me, and probably outweighs me by 30 kilos, because she's just a giant sprinter.  And I barely moved her when I elbowed her, and she elbowed me later, and moved me about 3 feet across the road, so really not a smart move on my behalf!

PdC: What I liked best about that story was the bit where you said that she talked to you afterwards, and she gave you some advice - that's sweet.

Anika: A lot of the riders are really approachable, and I've been so lucky with the people that have helped me out - Kirsten Wild has given me a lot of advice, and Marianne Vos rode with me, and Iris Slappendel, another awesome rider on Rabobank, was just really, really helpful.  There's so much to learn, and there's such a culture within cycling, and so to have these big stars helping me and teaching me has just been really awesome.

PdC: Your blog about going to Marianne's house, and then going riding with her was just - ah!  That's what you want a sports heroine to be like!  I loved that, it was yet another example of why Marianne's the queen of cycling!

Anika: She was amazing, and really down-to-earth and approachable, and it's cool to see that all the fame and attention hasn't gone to her head, and she's just an amazing person.

PdC: And she's super-famous in Holland, isn't she -  she's proper household name over there, and I love how, as you were saying in your blog, she's using her powers for good, and I'm always inspired by that, all the time.  But it's especially nice that she's saying "let me take some newbie rider from Canada, and go riding with her"

Anika: And especially because she's so busy, and for her to take the time out of her day to come ride with me, and I'm really a nobody, was so awesome - because that's a day she could have spent training, or doing something with one of her friends, especially with as much as she's travelling, so for her to take the time when she's at home to come and ride with me is very awesome.

PdC: What's the trophy room - the museum - like in real life?

Anika: It's just mind-blowing!  Just the volume of what she's accomplished is really amazing - to see how many leader's jerseys there are, and how many World Cup trophies.  To hold all her UCI World Championships medals, you're holding five onus of medals, and for me, one of those would be enough - and she's got a shoe-box full of World Championship medals, so it's just crazy to see, and it's really cool.

PdC: I think we first found out about you on Podium Café when you were over with the National Team at Lotto-Belisol Tour, and Sylvan from the Café told us, "this is a girl from my club, you've got to read her blog about it, she's great", and those blogs you gave us - those insights into the racing are so interesting.  Have you always been writing and things like that?

Anika: Not really, I always was good at English in school, but more interested in the sciences, so I just started because my coach suggested it, and I got a lot of positive feedback, so I just stuck with it.

PdC: One of the things I love about women's cycling, is that riders make their own media - and fans make their own media.  It's not on TV, and it's not covered by the big sites, so people have more of an opportunity to portray the sport how they want to portray it.  Do you think of that kind of thing, or are you just telling your own stories?

Anika: I try to just tell my own story.  It's interesting because everyone has a different perspective on what happened, so my blog might be completely different from my team-mate's blog, and I think that's part of what makes it so interesting, you have all these different stories.  Especially in women's cycling, because everyone comes from such a different background.  It's not like men's cycling, where they started when they were 14 years old, and all they've ever done is professional cycling. In the women's peloton there are people that have kids, or that are lawyers or doctors, or that have just done crazy things with their lives, and they have all these different paths for how they've got into the pro peloton, so it's really interesting.

PdC: I think someone on Podium Café said you reminded them a bit of Ashleigh Moolman, the South African rider, when she first came over to Europe - there's something always very interesting about a first-timer's view of things.

Anika: I think you notice a lot of things that the more experienced riders have taken for granted, so I try to always share my experience in a really authentic way and try to put people in my shoes - like what it's like to get thrown into a race like the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, for example.

PdC: That's one hell of a way to start the season, isn't it?

Anika: Yeah, I probably could have done an easier race to start with - that was really the hardest race by far!

PdC: And it's always super-crashy, because they have such a big field, and riders crash in neutral zone, and they're very harsh about pulling riders out of the race as well.  But I guess if you can survive Het Nieuwsblad, you can survive anything!

Anika: Everything else definitely seemed much easier! 

PdC: You obviously rode the Lotto-Belisol Tour last year - how did the Spring Classics compare?

Anika: Lotto-Belisol was definitely more mellow!  For one, it was a stage race, so the time cuts weren't as brutal.  In the Spring Classics, there were some races where the time cut was three or four minutes, and in a three and a half to four hour race, that's really not much.  So that was probably the biggest shock, how harsh the time cuts were.

And then the cobbles were much harder than I thought it would be - you think, "how hard can it be to ride over a kilometre or two of cobbles?"  It's much harder than it looks on tv, for sure - that and the weather conditions.  It does take a toll on your body, and affects your performance when it's raining and 4º instead of sunshine and 20º - and it makes everything a bit sketchier, when people don't have the same control over their bike - so one person goes down, and everyone slides into it, so that was a bit more challenging as well!

PdC: What have been your highlights of Spring in Europe?

Anika: There were so many!  It was a long trip, and there were a lot of highs and lows.  Finishing top 20 at Dwars door Vlaanderen was obviously really exciting, that was the best result that I've had in Europe, and there were some really strong riders there as well, so that was one of the highs.   And really just helping the team, we had a couple of top ten finishes, that was really great.

All the travel, all the awesome people that I got to meet - riding with Marianne was amazing!  It was a lot of highs!

PdC: And what were your lows - or don't you want to talk about them?

Anika: It's bike racing, it can't always go the way that you want it to go!  Het Nieuwsblad was definitely one of the lows - no one wants to go down, and I crashed three times in the first 20 kilometres, so I was there, lying in a ditch, waiting for my team car to pull up, and I just wanted to get in the car and for it to be over.  And my director wouldn't let me -  "you've got to finish it", and I had a bit of a temper tantrum at the side of the road!  You've got another 100km to go, and everything hurts, and you just want to get in the car.  That was the lowest point, I'd say.

PdC: Had you down much travelling before you started this crazy journey?

Anika: No, the last 6 months has been the most travelling I've ever done.  I basically left home in October for a track camp in LA, and stayed in LA for most of the fall, went to Tucson for a bit to train with Joëlle Numainville, then went back to LA and to San Francisco for the team training camp, and then was home for five or six days, and then off to Europe for two months.  So basically it's been from October to now that I was gone.

PdC: And do you get the chance to look around and see much of the countries you're visiting,  or is it race, train, recovery?

Anika: It kind of depended.  There were definitely blocks where it was race, train, recovery, but whenever it kind of mellowed out with the racing, and I had a couple of days off,  I did make an effort to see things.

You get to travel all over the world, and it would be a real shame if you got to go to all these cool places and all you saw was the inside of your hotel room!  So I did make an effort to sight see and do some touristy things

PdC: Where's been your favourite place so far?

Anika: I love the the Netherlands.  I stayed near Rotterdam, and it was just beautiful there, the training was awesome, they've got great bike paths, there's so much history there, and it's just gorgeous

PdC: Will you be doing more?  You said you're home for a couple of days - then what's next?

Anika: I'm off to Arkansas, for the Joe Martin Stage Race, and then after that I'm heading to California to do some training in the mountains there now that I've spent a couple of months on the flats in Belgium and the Netherlands, and then I'm doing the Tour of California.

PdC: And do you know if you're going to be back in Europe again this year?

Anika: The team will be sending a squad over at the end of the summer, to get ready for the World Championship Team Time Trial, so I'm training hard, hoping for the squad for that.

PdC: Do you think Team Canada will give you a shout?  How do you get to know about those things, do they give you much warning?

Anika: They select people based on performance and fitness, obviously, but also the type of project that they're doing - what they're trying to accomplish, what the races are like, and which riders are suited to that race.  I think I performed fairly well last time, and I did my best to be a good team-mate, and to work well together while I was there, so hopefully I'll be hearing from them again.

PdC: I hope so, I'll cross my fingers for you - it's a selfish thing, we love the stories, so riders that tell the stories, we want them over here in the big races, like the Giro and the Worlds!

Do you have any idea of which races you'd like to ride in the future?

Anika: As I learn more and get more solid on the bike, the Spring Classics are definitely the type of racing that appeal to me.  I like the one-day, really hard, hard man's racing.  I'm not much of a mountain rider, so the Giro and races like that don't really appeal to me as much.

PdC: Which of the World Cups did you ride?

Anika: I just did the Ronde van Drenthe, the Boels World Cup

PdC: And what was that like, was that different from the other races?  Obviously it's part of that three days of racing, and there's all sorts of pressure about it being the first World Cup of the season, and the real start of the Classics.

Anika: That race was really, really hard, basically we went over the VAMberg, this landfill, and it's a super-steep climb, at the 10 kilometre mark out of 150.   And we went over the top and came down to the bottom, and turned right into this wicked crosswind section.  So that's how the race started, which is really not a gentle beginning!

When you go into the VAMberg, you go in on this bike path which is wide enough for about two people, and so of course everyone's fighting to be in the first 20 or 30 positions when you go into that, because that's going to set the tone for the rest of your race.  And I didn't quite manage to get into that front position, and of course there was a crash, with people trying to get in there, and gap opened up, so you're chasing before you're even at the hill.

And then you're still climbing and people are descending on the other side, going 60-70 kilometres an hour, so you get a yo-yo effect.  And at the bottom of the hill, you turn into the cross-wind section, and the front group had already gotten away, and so I spent the ten 10k or so chasing with Chantal Blaak, and just suffering - it was a hard race!

PdC: But Chantal Blaak, that's good company!

Anika: She is a really, really strong rider, she definitely did a lot of the work to get us back up there!

PdC: And of course, she was a Tibco rider last year

Anika: Yeah, so it's pretty cool to see how she's doing - she won a stage at Energiewacht, she won the Drentse 8 before the World Cup

PdC: She was under 23 European champion a few years ago, and she's having this season of her life, she's so on fire at the moment, so if you can keep up with Chantal, you're doing well!

Anika: Yeah, she's incredibly strong

PdC: Obviously Energiewacht Tour finished last week, and that was the first European stage race of the season.  We laugh about it, because you look on the maps and it doesn't look particularly challenging - but it's all about the wind, and the positioning, and the terribly narrow roads… What was your first taste of Dutch stage racing like?

Anika: It's definitely all about the wind, so basically wherever that first cross-wind section is, the pack just drops the hammer, and you're in for a world of hurt until you turn the next corner, and that's what really decides the race.  On paper it looks really easy, there's no cobbles, there's no hills, there's nothing super-technical, except for the one stage that goes through the soldier town.

On paper it looks like it'll be the easiest week of racing ever, and then you get out there and someone like Ellen van Dijk, for example, goes to the front, in one of the those cross-wind sections, and that echelon at the front - it's really, really hard.  And it's just fast - one of the stages was 100km, and we averaged almost 42 kilometres an hour, so it's really fast

PdC: In the first stage, the first echelon and break happened in the first ten kilometres, didn't it?

Anika: Yeah, and the same thing happened on the last stage as well - just the way that the wind was, it happened really early.

PdC: We joke about the Dutch women having been riding in those winds and in that kind of peloton since they were 4 years old - how do you learn about that?

Anika: I'm lucky because our director knows a lot about it so he would always tell us what kilometres are important, and five kilometres before that, you have to move up in the peloton, but you just learn how to read the weather forecast and the race bible.  And just knowing where the wind's coming from and what that means for the race - knowing where's open, and where's covered.  If you do get dropped from a group, knowing where to chase, and where it's a waste of energy to chase - so there's a lot to learn.

PdC: And how has this European block changed you as a cyclist?

Anika: I think it's made made a smarter rider.  I've always been a strong rider, that's how I did well in the Time Trial.  And I think when you're a strong rider, in North America you don't necessarily have to race smart, because you're strong enough to just be there.  But in Europe, especially the Spring Classics, being really strong isn't enough, so you're forced to race smart, you can't just sit out in the wind because you're very strong, because there are 180 other girls who are also very strong. So just learning when to work, when to hide, when to recover, and just not wasting energy.

PdC: And this is going to be a strange question - but do you still love it, now you've come back?

Anika: I think I love it more now.  The culture around it is amazing - people are so into it, and there's just this big party atmosphere, and you come through the start/finish on each lap, and there's music going, and people cheering.  Seeing that excitement, and all that positive energy around it, made me love it even more.

PdC: That's really nice to hear!  You see some riders who come across from North America or Australia, and they can go home completely demoralised, and never come back to race in Europe again, and never want to - so it's nice when that doesn't happen

Anika: I think you have to go over with realistic expectations and know that you're going to get your ass kicked!  You're racing against people that have been doing this for years, and they're the best riders in the world, on the most challenging courses in the world.

You just have to go over and have learning goals in mind rather than performance goals, and enjoy what you're doing.  A lot of people get scared, because it's so aggressive, and there is a lot of crashes, but that's part of bike racing.  Everyone's going to go down, and most of the time you'll lose a bit of skin - but for what you get to do, and how amazing the sport is, a little bit of road rash is probably worth it!

PdC: So I've got a couple of questions left, and I've been asked to ask you - your nickname, The Beast, where did that come from?

Anika: I got given that nickname years ago, when I was in High School I was on the wrestling team, I was the only girl and the coach gave me the nickname "The Beast", and it just kind of stuck.

PdC: You have it as your strapline on your blog - Anika "The Beast" Todd!  And I noticed on your blog that you have some causes you support - would you like to tell us a bit more about those?

Anika: I basically wanted to do something meaningful with my athletic career, I think being an athlete, especially at the elite level, you do have people that you up to you.

So one thing is healthy body image.  There's a lot of pressure, especially on young women to have this unrealistic body, basically, so I want to portray a healthy body and have the emphasis that you don't have to be a Size 0, you have to be healthy and strong - it's not what you look like, it's who you are and what you do, not what your jean size is.  So that's just something that I've always felt very strongly about.

And the other thing is brain injury.  Cycling has one of the highest incidences of brain injury, and it just really affects every aspect of the person's life.  And it's a challenging one, because they look like they did before, it's not like they have a broken arm, or some kind of physical injury that you can see, but it makes it very challenging for them, when they try to go about their life after the injury.  So I've been involved with the Victoria Brain Injury Society for about four years now and it ties in so well with the cycling, because of the prevalence of head injuries in cycling, that I'm trying to kind of marry those two.

PdC: For cycling fans, obviously Ina-Yoko Teutenberg last year had her big crash, which left her with a brain injury - and reading her blogs and interviews about the impact it's had on her life, and on her mental health…She's going to be doing a couple of stages with Clara Hughes, on Clara's Big Ride.

It's a really hard one - because you see on tv, especially the men's races, riders cheered for landing on their head and getting up and finishing the race with concussion, and that's just not right.

Anika: At the end of the day, it's just bike racing, and your health needs to come first, because you get one brain, and there's a thousand bike races.  I think the attitude needs to change a little bit there - with mental health and with brain injury.  People just don't understand - there's not enough information out there - educating people with things like Clara's Big Ride, and what Gillian Carleton's doing with raising awareness of mental health - it's a really good direction.

PdC: That's the interesting thing about the Canadian riders - I think of the Olympic medals, and I think of Clara Hughes and of her and Gillian Carleton being so outspoken, so honest about their depression, and that helps other people too - using their powers for good, I guess - it seems like it's an interesting cycling culture around Canada.

Anika: It definitely took a lot of courage for the two of them to be so outspoken about it, because it is a taboo subject, so I have a lot of respect for both of them for just being so open about it, because it does help so many people - just the awareness it raises, and the understanding it brings is really great.

PdC: Thankyou for your time today!  Is there anyone you'd like to thank, any sponsors you'd like to shout out to?

Anika: Obviously Tripleshot Cycling got me here in the first place, and Tibco, who have been standing behind me, and giving me all the opportunity to develop as a rider.  And then all the people that made the Euro campaign, especially staying after, possible - so my Director, Harrie van der Horst, Svein Tuft, all the people that have been helping me out, Global Relay.  Thankyou to all those people it was awesome, and I learned a lot, thankyou.

PdC: And if people want to follow you on the internet, where can they find you?

Anika: I've got a website, www.AnikaTodd.com,  I'm also on twitter, @AnikaxxTodd, and I've got an athlete Facebook page.

PdC: Thankyou so much for your time - really good luck, I hope you have a fantastic year, and I hope you're telling us even more brilliant stories all the way through!

***

Anika’s team, Tibco, can be followed on their website and twitter.  Their mechanic, Eric Maresjo, is one of the trio of superstars who combine fixing bikes and dealing with race crises with tweeting live updates from the action – follow him too!

Some great Anika blogs (but you should read them all!)

Anika’s been supported by the Tripleshot Cycling Club – if you’re anywhere near Vancouver, you should definitely join them, they sound lovely.  You can also go to her sponsor page and click through to their sites – and tell them you appreciate them supporting women’s cycling!

We talked about some of the causes Anika supports, and you can find out more about them on her website

Photo by Anton Vos, used with very kind permission of Anika Todd

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