A peloton of riders led by a car early in a bike race.

Wheel Talk Newsletter: The importance of inside jokes

Will Red Bull boost women's racing, and how team bonding exercises are like a toddler's birthday party.

We’re riding our way to the Classics!

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 30.01.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images
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Hello and thank you for reading this week’s edition of the Wheel Talk Newsletter. This week we are bidding farewell to Australia and turning our attention to the Middle East where the women will line up next for the four-stage UAE Tour.

But before we dive into some of the best talking points in women’s cycling this week, you can actually get this newsletter straight to your inbox, along with all Escape Collective‘s weekly drops like Matt de Neef’s Down Under Digest and Dave Rome’s Threaded.

Red Bull is all over cycling news these days. For a while, it was a will-they-won’t-they between Bora-Hansgrohe and the energy drink (spoiler: they will) but last week they slipped into the women’s cycling sphere. They’ve backed riders like Kate Courtney, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, and Chloe Dygert in recent years. All elite World Champions in various disciplines, but their newest acquisition is up-and-coming youngster Zoe Bäckstedt.

A promising talent in cyclocross, Bäckstedt also already holds three junior world titles on the road and recently won a U23 European ITT title. She rode for EF Education-TIBCO-SVB until September of last year when the former team allowed Bäckstedt to join Canyon-SRAM – where her father, Magnus, is lead director – immediately, with the upcoming cross season in mind.

In her first race with Canyon-SRAM, the Simac Ladies Tour, Bäckstedt marked herself as their protected rider when she finished third in the second stage time trial and went on to finish fifth overall.

Red Bull currently supports two women active in drop-bar racing: Bäckstedt and Kata Blanka Vas (plus a number of others in disciplines like cross-country, downhill, and freeride), but with their newly announced ownership of men’s WorldTour team Bora-Hansgrohe it will be interesting to see if the Formula 1 giant invests even more in women’s cycling. A little of their vast wealth could go a long way in the sport, for example, if they were to back some events, similar to Zwift.

Women’s cycling is on the rise, and a sponsor like Red Bull has the power to change the game for better or for worse. We will see what unfolds, but the fact that they are showing interest in the sport enough to purchase a men’s team says a lot about where they see the sport going. Watch this space.

?️ Wheel Talk Podcast ?️

Matilda “Tils” Raynolds and Gracie Elvin are back with insider/on-the-ground knowledge from the Deakin University Road Race. The team discusses who looked good in the race, which teams have the best vibes in the dining hall and more.

Listen anywhere podcasts are found.

? Let’s discuss ?

Building lasting bonds among teammates.

Briefly on the Wheel Talk Podcast this week we discussed what kind of impact inter-team relationships, good or bad, have on performance. Tils mentioned that, having seen all the teams interact for weeks, it came as no surprise when Visma-Lease a Bike walked away from the Deakin University Road Race with a victory. The young, mostly Dutch team is a group of young women who have grown up together and being in Australia for them was like summer camp. While for other teams, the trip South may have strained already tight bonds.

Offseason camps consist of hours of media prep, photos of new equipment, etc., but usually teams throw in some bonding exercises. It’s not just to pass the time; bonds formed during the early months of the season, before the racing even kicks off, can make or break a team.

Back in the day, when riders were part of the peloton more based on love of the game than salary, it was more important. Now, with the rise of the minimum salary, it’s more about the job, but in a sport like cycling where you spend more time with your team than your family, it’s critical to get along with your teammates. One bad apple can sour the whole batch. And a team that enjoys a host of inside jokes will often go above and beyond for each other.

So what kind of activities promote healthy team environments?

Winter sports: Really anything outdoors. Hiking, wakeboarding (if it’s not winter where camp is located), maybe even hockey; just being outside is the key, doing sports that aren’t riding a bike.

Escape rooms: Throw everyone into a room and have them work together to get out. Tell them there are snacks if they can escape. They’ll have to work together and communicate with each individual member. Some will take it seriously, and some will be on their own secret missions, just like in a bike race. If they can’t escape together … well, the only way to go is up.

Group photo shoots: Throw in some props like giant glasses and goofy necklaces and there’s no end to the fun that can be had. As a bonus, everything can be used on the team’s social media:

Alison Jackson sings Celine Dion while two teammates circle her with flashlights.
Making TikToks with your teammates falls into the same category. Case and point: Alison Jackson with Mags Vallieres and Zoe Backstedt in 2023 for EF Education-TIBCO-SVB.

Karaoke: What better way to create lasting memories than making a fool of yourself?

Games, quizzes, puzzles: Similar to taking the team to an escape room, any team-wide games and quizzes, if done well, can help bond a team. Split people into teams, draw names from hats, and then make sure there’s laughter involved. Laughter is key.

And what should teams avoid?

Bowling: Athletes don’t generally like being cooped up and forced into used shoes. And bowling isn’t the right kind of competitive.

Group yoga: Just no.

Go-karting: This is a recent addition to the “maybe not” list.

Movie night: Once a team has some bonds forming, a movie night is great. If you’ve ever seen a group of women sit down to watch the original Little Mermaid, you’ll know. But for these early stages of bonding it’s too quiet, too dark. There’s no room for jokes and banter.

Think of a professional cycling team bonding trip as similar to a toddler’s birthday party. The activity has to be the right amount of competitive to be fun, but not so competitive that it drives a wedge in the group structure. You want them to be a little out of their comfort zone, so they will turn to each other, but not so much that they are on edge. There should be lasting fun involved, something that team members can laugh at for years to come, but not at the expense of others. There should always be snacks; cake is even better, but snacks are necessary. A hungry cyclist is a two-year-old on the edge of a temper tantrum.

Forcing a group of grown women to bond is hard, but they all already have one thing in common and that’s why they are at the team camp in the first place. The teams that perform the best throughout the season are teams full of different nationalities and personalities, just look at SD Worx-Protime. There’s a healthy balance involved in pushing a team to do their best while also encouraging them to support each other on and off the bike, regardless of how professional cycling gets, how the riders vibe off the bike will always impact the way they race, it’s part of the job.

Drop your choice of bonding exercise in the comments.

? The joys of social media ?

A few riders are still enjoying the winter break before their European season kicks off soon … including Femke Markus and Demi Vollering.

If there was ever a question of if they are from the Netherlands, here’s your answer. It’s a little-known fact that when a child is born in the Netherlands, before they are even given a name, they are given skates and a bike.

?️ A picture worth a couple words ?️

Who else is tired of looking back at last year and ready to ride into a new season?

Lotte Kopecky takes her hands off her handlebars to look behind her.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the first European Spring Classic is mere weeks away, and like Lotte Kopecky (pictured above) I am ready for it.

This photo, taken by Jered Gruber, at the finish line of the opening Classic, is awesome not only because of the depth (Kopecky’s lookback, the sprinting peloton coming for her) but also because on the left, in the red coat, is the other half of the “Grubers” and here is Ashley’s photo of the same moment:

Lotte Kopecky takes her hands off her handlebars to look behind her.

? Taylor Swift trivia ?

This Sunday musical artists from every genre will throw on their favourite designers and walk the red carpet at the Grammy’s. Some are nominated, and some will be there for the vibes. And as awards shows continue to fall out of fashion with their outdated views of the world and inability to read the room, the performances are what keep people coming back to the Grammys (and the clothes obviously).

Taylor Swift, currently in her true Lover era, was falsely rumoured to be performing at the upcoming show, but will at least be attending. The pop sensation has been nominated for six awards including Song of the Year for Anti-Hero, Best Pop-Duo/Group Performance for Karma feat. Ice Spice, and Album of the Year for Midnights.

Throughout her career, Swift has received a whopping 52 nominations. Of those, she’s won 12, three times for Album of the Year (Fearless, 1989 and folklore). Anti-Hero’s nomination for Song of the Year broke Paul McCartney and Lionel Richie’s record for most Song of the Year noms, and Swift is now tied with Barbara Streisand for most Album of the Year nods by a female artist.

If she were to win Album of the Year on Sunday (honestly I would be shocked if she did, but) she would be the first artist to win the award four times.

It’s kind of a bummer Swift won’t be performing at the Grammys, but who knows what kind of chaos she will bring on Sunday. Maybe she will announce TS11, an album rumoured to be coming in the future with the help of long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff and new friend Aaron Dessner. The world needs more folklore/evermore vibes, please! She has used the Grammy’s to drop everything from album hints to new haircuts, like in 2016 when she debuted her Anna Wintour-inspired bob while performing Out of the Woods.

Related: We love a Antonoff cameo.

? Until next time! ?

Thank you for reading this week’s Wheel Talk Newsletter! As always, I’ll be back next week with more ramblings, and if you have any particular interests you’d like to hear about, drop them in the comments or find me in the Escape Collective Wheel Talk Discord group. It’s a great place, come for cycling and stay for the discussions on books, music, clothes, and more.

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