Backstedt family – Andrew Fox for the Telegraph
I have barely walked through the front door of the Backstedt family home in Pontyclun south Wales before Elynor Backstedt apologises for being pushed for time. “I’m getting married!” explains the older Backstedt sister. “I’ve only got until 11am.” She doesn’t literally mean she is getting married at 11am. At least, I don’t think she does. I think it is something to do with the marriage registration. But you can never quite tell with the Backstedts. Their life is like their riding: full gas. Eating, training, travelling, racing, washing. Rinse and repeat. Visitors are advised to go with the flow.
Frankly, I’ll take what I can get. It is something of a miracle they are all here on the same day. It wasn’t easy pinning them down, what with their varying race schedules and commitments. “This is the first time in a while,” notes Zoe, Elynor’s younger sister. “I think the last time was when we all caught Covid back in January.”
‘All’ means Elynor, 20, and Zoe, 17, rising stars of British cycling, mum Megan (née Hughes), a former British and Wales national road race champion, and dad Magnus, the 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner and former Swedish champion turned Eurosport commentator. Then there are Megan’s parents Annie and Paul, who live down the road in Pontyclun and have caught the cycling bug late in life. (“We just do it for the fitness – we’re well into our 70s now,” says Annie, almost apologetically, as if she should also be out winning the U19 Tour of Flanders like Zoe did last weekend). And then there’s the two springer spaniels, Alvin and Bella. Altogether, it’s a lot.
Entering their home on a quiet, residential estate – where they have lived since 2004 – is to be enveloped by the chaos. In a good way. From the outside the house is like any on the street (although there is a motorhome parked outside; the telltale sign of a hardcore cycling family). The inside, however, is not your usual suburban home. The front room is absolutely groaning with carbon fibre. Mounted bike frames take up an entire wall, there’s a workbench with tools, turbo-trainers scattered about, wheels everywhere. No one has actually counted how many bikes the family own. “I think we’re up in the high 20s,” says Magnus, who doubles as chief mechanic. “If I’d known both girls were going to get into the sport, I’d have bought a house with a double garage.”
Further down the hallway is the family’s kitchen/living area, with sofas squeezed in at one end of the room, looking out onto a conservatory and garden. This is the control room, the hub, where the family live, eat, and sometimes even ride. During the pandemic, when they were locked down together, Zoe built a cyclocross course through the house, incorporating the kitchen, hallway, side return and the small area of woodland directly behind the garden. She shows me a video of her doing laps of the course. Did Elynor do it as well? “No, I had a broken leg at the time,” Elynor pipes up. “She was one of the obstacles,” Zoe says, laughing.
There is a lot of laughter. When they pose for pictures for the Telegraph photographer, he asks them all to cram together on the sofa, and they collapse into giggles as Elynor spreads herself out over the rest of the family. Only once during the interview does the temperature in the room briefly turn cold – when the subject of Monopoly is brought up. “Oh, we don’t do board games,” says Magnus. Why is that? “It gets competitive,” says Zoe. Oh really? Who wins? “Mum!” everyone says in unison. “She cheats,” adds Elynor, deadpan.
Backstedt family in their sitting room – Andre Fox for the Telegraph
Memorabilia is liberally strewn about the house. In bookshelves, on walls. Here is Magnus’s 2004 ‘cobblestone’, the famous trophy given to winners of Paris-Roubaix. Over there is Zoe’s trophy from her win last weekend, alongside one for winning the junior world road race in Flanders last year. Magnus was commentating on that race and famously had to break off in the final kilometre as he was in tears.
Magnus and Megan Backstedt – Andrew Fox for the Telegraph
“It’s far more stressful watching them ride than riding yourself,” he says. “Obviously you’re worried about crashes, or how they’re getting on. It can be emotional.”
“We all make sure to keep each other updated via WhatsApp from wherever we are,” adds Megan.
One of those occasions came in March when Magnus was commentating on a race in which Elynor was caught up in a crash. This time he won plaudits for the professionalism he showed in continuing to commentate. He actually announced on air that she had broken her collarbone. “I was texting and messaging everyone,” he says. “Injuries are part of the sport unfortunately. Thankfully I could see she was upright and OK, which was why I was able to continue.”
Elynor was less fortunate when she suffered a spiral fracture of the tibia in 2020, which effectively wiped out her debut season at WorldTour level, racing for Lizzie Deignan’s Trek-Segafredo team. It was a long road back, and she hasn’t had much luck since. “I did my collarbone in September and then the same one again in March,” she says. “But I’m fit now. I’ve got RideLondon this weekend [a new three-day UCI Women’s WorldTour road race] and then the Women’s Tour next month. I’m excited.”
In her absence, Zoe has been improving fast. The younger Backstedt, like the new breed of elite male riders such as Tom Pidcock, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, enjoys cyclocross just as much as road. Magnus actually moved out to Belgium with her for the entire winter while she raced, although that was partly because Megan couldn’t. “Because I’ve still got my Swedish passport I was able to go with her, but Meg basically had to stay at home,” he explains, adding that he was her “dad, mechanic, guy in the pits, supporter”. The time spent together paid off. Zoe won the junior world cyclocross championships in Arkansas earlier this year.
Elynor now rents a house a mile or two away with her fiancé, Charley Calvert, a former rider. But one suspects this house, which has been the girls’ home almost their entire lives, since Magnus and Megan moved back to the UK from Belgium in 2004 having met at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur six years earlier, will always remain home. It was here they grew up, here they first started cycling, here they began their hectic schedules.
For a while they tried to do everything. “Monday was usually ‘sort everything out from the weekend’, plus tennis and netball,” Megan recalls. “Tuesday was training at Maindy or Newport. Wednesday was usually Newport. Thursday was Newport, athletics and Maindy, Friday was literally pack up and drive to whatever race we were going to, in our motorhome. And then the weekend was full of bike racing. And then we’d start again!” But cycling gradually took over.
“It might seem that they were always destined to be cyclists but we never pushed them to do it,” Magnus stresses. “It just sort of happened. Whenever it came up to a big choice, they went for cycling!”
And the future? What is the ultimate goal? World titles? Olympic medals? “As long as they’re having fun on the bike I couldn’t care less who’s doing what, or winning what,” Magnus says. Elynor and Zoe are more specific. “I think Roubaix,” says Elynor. “There are only a very small number of people who can have a father-daughter win.” “Father and two daughter wins would be even better!” Zoe adds, laughing. There is barely room for another cobblestone in the house, let alone two, but one suspects they would manage to squeeze it in somehow.