#FlashBackFriday: Boss of the Peloton
Given that it’s women’s cycling week and we’re celebrating women on bikes I thought we should also celebrate one of the best female cyclists ever; Ina Yoko Teutenberg.
Hence this week’s #FlashBackFriday. Today, I’m flashing back to earlier in the year when I posted an article I wrote on Ina for university. You can find the full article here or some of the article below the jump.
Just day’s out from what is arguably the biggest race on the women’s cycling calendar, La Course by le Tour, a race that has widely been heralded as one for the sprinters, I thought it was only fair to share my post about Ina; one of the best female road sprinters the sport has ever seen.
Ina’s career was so prolific she deserved the chance to ride on the Champs-Élysées. Who knows, Specialized Lululemon hasn’t announced their team to ride on Sunday yet, maybe Ina will be there? She did just ride 3000km across Canada with Clara Hughes promoting mental health.
With that speculation I’ll leave you to read The Boss of The Peloton.
Cologne, Germany December 1984
Walking into the Cologne velodrome the scarily steep embankments seem to engulf everybody inside. The 167 metre velodrome is a speed machine. The 54-degree bends sling you around like a roller coaster and have the same dizzying effect. The wooden walls seem to just keep going until they look like they are tilting back on themselves.
A young rider, arms stretched long and wide on her brother’s hand-me-down single-speed, pushes herself off the railing to start the elimination with riders four years her senior (even the German national track sprint team is entered). She wobbles uneasily like a baby elephant trying to find her legs until she picks up speed and starts to zoom around the track. She’s not there for long – one of the sprinters elbows her out the way and she’s eliminated early.
Fighting back tears she rolls up to her older brothers, Sven – two years older – and Lars – four years older – looking, hoping, for sympathy.
“They blocked me in. They didn’t let me go. I was much better,” she splutters. But her puppy dog eyes win her no sympathy; they seldom do.
“So?” Lars says looking down at his younger sister. She’s small for her age. “Just take your elbow and kick them away and then just go for it.”
In the next race Ina pushes herself off the fence again. Her brothers words echo in her head, “Just kick them away.” The sprinters – knowing they had muscled her out before – try again. But this time she bends her arms wide and holds herself steady. The bell rings for the final lap and her little legs are spinning like a hamster wheel. Her nose is in the wind and she can see the white finish line. Still spinning like an egg-beater she crosses the line first.
Lars Teutenberg laughs as he recalls the story, “I mean they were sprinters, even if they weren’t full age and everything. I mean if you would tell me to do that with a sprinter in the men’s then I would for sure have dropped down the track.”
He talks slowly and with purpose. Now the technical director of Scott Sports, Lars is one of the most sought after brains in cycling. Teams like HTC-Highroad and Orica Greenedge, teams who know (knew in HTC-Highroad’s case) the importance of the little details, seek out his advice.
His little sister is one of the most accomplished, respected, feared, liked, and long-standing members of the women’s peloton. But that’s not to say the men’s peloton don’t also fear her; she told them they were pussies and ‘should ride faster’ during the 2009 edition of Philadelphia’s Liberty Classic after the women’s peloton rode past the men’s. Some of them haven’t trained with girls since.
In the 30 years since Ina Yoko Teutenberg came zooming off the Cologne velodrome, tears welling in her eyes, she has established herself as one of the best female road cyclists in the history of the sport.
Her professional career includes 21 stage victories at the Tour de L’Aude, six stage victories at the Route de France, 11 stage victories at the Giro d’Italia Feminine, five victories in Philadelphia’s Liberty Classic (including 2009 when she abused the men’s peloton), a bronze medal in the 2011 World Championships, two Olympic Games, and victory at the 2009 Tour of Flanders. She labels the last of those “her biggest win” and rightly so. She was also a member of the Specialized-Lululemon team time trial (TTT) squad that won the 2012 world title. When you do all the accounting and close the books Ina’s victories total more than 200.
But when you speak to people about Ina her victories seem secondary; it’s what she brought to the sport – the energy, the charisma, the smart assedness, the respect, the toughness – that people remember. Certainly, it’s these facets of Ina’s personality that made her into the bike rider she became.
“She was for, I don’t know how many years, one of the best sprinters but she never felt too good to work for others or do something unconventional for a sprinter like attacking with 20k to go and just going ‘oh f**k it, I’m over that here,’” – Lars Teutenberg.
Growing up in Dusseldorf, Germany Ina was the youngest of three. Like any younger sister she idolised her brothers; if they played soccer Ina wanted to play soccer, if they were riding bikes Ina wanted to ride bikes. She wasn’t interested in dolls or dresses, she was interested in dirt and danger.
When she starts talking about ‘the beginning’ she doesn’t talk about heroes who inspired her or cyclists she wanted to be like. No, it’s her brothers, Sven and Lars, who feature most prominently in her memories. The German rider who has lived in the United States since 2001 has a cheeky smile on her face as she recalls the early days training and racing with her brothers.
“If I couldn’t stay with them on the downhill they left. I’m like seven years old, I’m like ‘you mother f***@$s I have to ride home by myself’. I had to start to learn going downhill quicker so I didn’t have to ride home by myself.”
Her brothers are a huge part of her success, and she knows it. It’s the attitude she developed from riding and training with her brothers that served her so well throughout her career.
Lars is humble when talking about his influence on Ina and her subsequent success. For him, it was just part of being an older brother.
“She had this attitude that it’s not the others. She had this attitude of ‘No, it’s me. I can fix it. If it means I have to go faster downhill or take a better line or fight for a better position then I have to do it.’”
“She is just the toughest because she’s simply educated that way. From the very beginning,” he said.
Borsele, The Netherlands April 2012
The majority of the peloton had already assembled on the start line of Omloop van Borsele despite the start of the race being more than 30 minutes away.
With five minutes to the start, two riders coolly cruise up to the front and position themselves on the first line. Whispers of disapproval move through the peloton faster than Cavendish darts off Renshaw’s wheel but nobody has the nerve to tell them off.
Ina dismounts her bike, “hold this for me” she says to her teammate on her right and starts to push her way through the sea of bikes. If anyone can look tough in cleats and lycra it’s Ina.
“What are you doing?” she asks the two girls pointedly; she’s not one to mince words. “Go to the back of the bunch. If you wanted to be on the front line you should have lined up with everyone else.” She stands there, waiting for them to argue back but they don’t dare.
Like scolded dogs, they retreat to the back of the peloton. If they had tails they would have been between their legs.
Ina shrugs away the title ‘boss of the peloton,’ even if she was the one who policed the sacred unwritten rules for more than a decade.
“It’s just what you do you know? I mean you look after one another. There were older ones that did it to me. I just tried to treat people the way I wanted to be treated,” Ina said.
She’s just a fair rider says Trixi Worrack, a teammate of Ina’s in 2012. The pair first met in the late ‘90s. Trixi was a junior coming through the German national program and Ina was the same, loud, commanding figure she was when she marched to the front of the peloton in 2012.
“Everyone had respect for her. I don’t know why because if you don’t know her, she seems scary somehow,” Trixi said. She isn’t afraid of offending Ina; they’ve known each other long enough but if you had been on the side of the road that day in Borsele you probably would have found the German – standing at five foot three and clad in the national champions jersey –intimidating too.
Both Trixi and Lars agree it was Ina’s willingness to ride for her team that made her such an exceptional and respected bike racer.
“She was pretty reliable in working her ass off for someone else in the team and not just saying, ‘Oh sorry, I’m the sprinter. I’m the star here, I can’t work too hard,’
“She was for, I don’t know how many years, one of the best sprinters, but she never felt too good to work for others,” Lars said.
One rider who raced with Ina for six years, current Swedish national champion Emilia Fahlin, recalls Ina turning herself inside-out on the front at the French stage race, La Route de France in 2009. Ina’s teammate Kim Anderson was in the yellow jersey. Anderson was better known as a super domestique, the person always working for others, than Tour winner, but Ina was determined to keep her in yellow.
“I think Ina killed herself more than ever in that race to help Kim win than she has done in any other race. She was just a machine on the front,” Emilia said.
Dwingeloo, The Netherlands March 2013
It’s a crash that on any other day you pick yourself up from and walk away. Crashing is part of being a professional bike rider and Ina has had her fair share. She crashed 500 metres into her first bike race. But this one in Dwingeloo was different.
In the first Dutch race of the season Ina is moving around the peloton like she usually does, calmly and with confidence. The peloton has successfully navigated the bike-path-wide roads and have just turned onto a three-lane highway. Tension is momentarily replaced with relief.
There’s a touch of wheels and a mass pile up. Ina goes down. One rider is screaming for help because Ina isn’t moving.
In July Ina announced through her trade team Specialized-Lululemon that her 2013 season was over. In October she announced her retirement.
“Even before the crash I was in such a bad state. And then I came to the first races and I think it would have gotten better because the girls would have brought me up and then I crashed. For two months I was 18 hours in a dark room,” – Ina-Yoko Teutenberg
Talking about her retirement now, it’s the first time the usually-relaxed Ina seems uncomfortable. She shifts a little in her chair. Running her hand through her hair you can just see ‘2013’ inked on to the inside of her wrist. It could easily be confused with pen, but the tattoo acts as a constant reminder of the year she has just endured.
“Even before the crash I was in such a bad state. And then I came to the first races and I think it would have gotten better because the girls would have brought me up and then I crashed. For two months I was 18 hours in a dark room.”
Crashing on to her face Ina suffered a severe concussion. She had constant dizzy spells for months. She couldn’t read, watch television or exercise for more than an hour at a time. Staying with her parents in Dusseldorf while she recovered she couldn’t handle more than one source of noise. If they were listening to the radio and talking she would have to ask them to turn the radio off. Almost 12 months on she is still suffering from some of the concussion effects; just last month she had a relapse.
“It was just rough. I had f***ed up personal problems and everything. Last year was not a good year. The first nine months of that year were just horrible,
“But I think the crash was good because it did then slow me down and I had to face all those demons,” she said.
“Because of my depression I didn’t want to be in the scene anymore,
“With the concussion it was actually great because so many people reached out to me. It was really nice to feel the community of the cycling scene again and not hate it. There was no reason to hate it, it was just my mental state of mind.”
One thing becomes clear, it was the cycling community that kept Ina in the sport for so long not the thrill of chasing victories. When she looks back on her career she doesn’t have any regrets (although she does admit she’s still pissed she didn’t win the World Championships in Copenhagen in 2011) because she “met a lot of cool people along the way”.
Talk of her retirement hangs in the air like mist on the ground the day she won the Tour of Flanders. There is this lingering feeling that she’s not quite done yet. The recent announcement of La Course by Le Tour, the women’s event to be held in Paris on the Champs-Élysées just hours before the men complete the final stage of the 2014 Tour de France, may have reminded Ina of her 10-year-old self, determined to win.
“It’s quite tempting to race on the Champs-Élysées. But I might be somewhere else in the world. Who knows where I am tomorrow?”
Ina’s racing career might be done, but it’s hard to imagine she won’t be back in the sport in some way, shape or form in the future. Last week Ina directed Specialized-Lululemon at the San Dimas Stage Race and is currently working hard at The Redlands Bicycle Classic in California. Hopefully nobody tries to position themselves on the front line at the last minute.