For those who don't know her, Annika Langvad is a Danish rider, but it wasn't until 2008 that she started riding, and in the past eight years she has climbed through the elite rankings, gaining her rainbow stripes at the XCO World Championships in Nove Mesto in July 2016. As something that started as a way to stay fit alongside her dentistry studies, riding has become a whole lot more for Annika, but she's not given up her studies, using her degree as an insurance for her future, hoping to be fully qualified by spring this year. We caught up with her to find about her World Championship win, riding with Specialized and her achievements so far.
|If it sounds like I'm some kind of wonder woman doing this next to a racing career believe me, I'm not! It's just a lot of work, doubt, hardship and a couple of tears now and then, haha.. - Annika Langvad |
Firstly congratulations on your 2016 season, how did it feel to finish the year with rainbow stripes?
Thanks! 2016 was unreal. Having the rainbow stripes is really a dream coming true. Last year I won a World Cup and thought “okay, now I’ve won one of the Big Races. When the curtains close some day in the future, I can at least say that I won one of the Big Races”. That was always a goal of mine. Winning two more World Cups and the rainbow jersey is far beyond what I had hoped for.
You didn’t really compete as an athlete and certainly not on an elite level until you were 24, how did you adapt to the changes as your racing increased?
It’s been a really long process with many ups and downs. I moved from my native small town in Denmark to Copenhagen in 2006 to start my studies in dentistry. To stay fit and active I joined a local triathlon club and later a mountain bike club. I quickly realized that mountain biking was my thing. I started on the knobby tires in 2008, in 2009 I won a german Bundesliga race. In 2010 I did my first World Cup. By 2011 I was on the XCO World Cup podium twice (2nd in Dalby Forest & 3rd in Windham) and won the Marathon World Title. At that time I was still studying (only part time for a year) and everything felt really good. I was on top of the world. And that’s the thing: when you’re in shape and perform well there’s also a lot of room and energy to do well in other areas of life. You kind of carry the momentum with you.
However, things really caught up to me in 2012. I got a lot of injuries (broken ribs on three different occasions within a year!) that took a lot of energy out of me. On top of that, the pressure to really perform increased tremendously as it was an Olympic year and the qualification alone required a lot of racing, not to mention doing well at those races. Ultimately, we (Denmark) qualified for a spot at the Olympics, but I had to abstain from it, as I broke yet another set of ribs and was in no shape to race. The season ended with marathon Worlds, which I managed to win again. It wasn’t the confidence boost you would think it was, though. 2012 left me in a bit of despair and doubting what I was doing, and it took a long time as well as a new approach to biking to get back to the level of 2011.
What was that like on an emotional level, it’s got to be quite an adjustment to go through?
Yes, it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I normally tell people that racing on this level lets you experience the entire emotional spectrum within the shortest time range possible. As I’m gaining experience, I’m slowly learning to accept that I can’t be on top at every single race and that in order to truly feel the joy of winning, e.g. the Worlds, I have to have an opposite and therefore must appreciate those experiences too. Sounds simple, but it’s really hard to remember in real life.
And of course there’s your studying, how are things going, are you all finished now, or is it ongoing?
I resumed my studies after the Olympics last year. I have the fall semester and the spring semester of 2017 and then I’m a fully qualified a dentist. I actually went straight from the Rio Games to Copenhagen in order to be home for the start of the semester. Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the pool… The pro riders all take some time off after the season to recover. That has actually been difficult for me because I’ve had to put in a big effort at the university just to catch up. If it sounds like I’m some kind of wonder woman doing this next to a racing career, believe me, I’m not! It’s just a lot of work, doubt, hardship and a couple of tears now and then, haha…
A lot of people may not know that you study dentistry alongside racing, what was it that drew you to that and is it something you hope to pursue in the future?
I don’t really know, but I really like the fine work you have to do. There’s a lot of theory you have to learn and then there’s a craftsmanship involved also. It’s a huge satisfaction when you have a complicated case and you manage to deliver an outcome that leaves the patient so much happier than before. You must have a good technique and a feel for what you’re doing.
I definitely plan to work as a dentist someday in the future. A lot of people ask me why I want to spend time on this now that I’m World champion, but I thought that post-Olympic's was a good time. I like the work and although it’s going to be tough during the spring, it’s also a future insurance of a kind. Having a very specific trade I can take up after racing. And then there’s the thing, that studying was something I started before I even got into mountain biking at all and I just have to finish, you know?
What, if anything, do you think people would be surprised to know about you?
I can’t think of anything but my boyfriend Thomas probably disagrees. I tend to orientate myself in the world using my nose. I very often smell at things to get a feel for them. Mostly it’s unconscious, like a reflex. I guess my nose must be one of my stronger organs. Sometimes Thomas tells me, I’m like the Japanese inventor Dr. Nakamatsu
when he looks for a camera. What do you enjoy doing when you are not racing or training?
When the racing season is on I really don’t do anything else. Training, racing, traveling, and recovering takes all of my time. That’s the reality of it. When I do have a bit of leftover time I like drawing and painting. I actually just bought two colouring books for the long winter evenings. You’ve always had some form of support from Specialized, but in 2015 you signed with Specialized Racing on an International level, and from then the results speak for themselves, how did things change for you?
That’s right! I have a relationship with Specialized from 2013 already and from there, things just kind of evolved. Being in a professional setup like the one at Specialized has been a game changer for me. I can focus 100% on racing and that makes a huge difference. It did take me some time to adjust to it. You know, to let the staff actually do what they do best—helping me and the other riders with everything imaginable in order to let us focus on our job. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it really does take a team and I’m so happy being with Specialized. But I’m sure it’s the same with other teams.
As mountain bikers, we are much more individuals compared to road cyclists. We don’t have domestics and don’t really race with team tactics. It’s much more everyone-for-themselves and that could lead to some tension when being off the bike, I think. The reality is, when we’re off the bike there’s no competition. The atmosphere in this team has played a huge role for my performance the last couple of seasons. We know each other quite well and are all aware that we have different needs. Everybody knows that I need a bit of time on my own, reloading in my own space and relaxing whereas someone else maybe needs a bit more social interaction. There’s room for everybody and that makes for a very relaxed and stimulating atmosphere that lets you focus on the real job: The racing! Still, in racing, there’s that feeling of “hey we’re a team and in this together”. Lea (Davison) for example is also so happy for everyone else when they do well. Having her next to me on the podium at World Champs made that day extra special.
Admittedly, I always feel a bit guilty when being asked about this because it reminds me that so many people work really hard for me and so that I can perform. Yes, it’s their job but they really go out of their way to do a superb job for me and the team. And we, the riders, are the ones getting the limelight on the podium. So I just want to take this opportunity to say thank you! You know who you are! You finished just 39 points behind Jolanda Neff coming second in the 2016 rankings for elite women’s cross country, she’s been first for the past three years while you’ve steadily climbed from fourth, to third to second, is first in your sights for 2017?
I was first in the rankings for a longer period during 2016. But it is more of a 'nice to have' than 'need to have' for me. Practically speaking as long as you’re in the top 8 you’re in the first start line at the major races and that’s what counts. I’d rather focus on select races and doing well there, rather than chase the top spot in the world rankings. So you won’t see me going for that, but if I do well in the races I target, who knows? Maybe I’ll get back on top. Going back to the Olympics in 2016 must have been a big change from your experience in 2012, what was it like going into it after having such a great season?
It was both good and bad. Just being there and competing was the first goal for me since that didn’t happen in 2012. The pressure was on after my results during the season. Within myself, I probably knew that the batteries were running empty. 11th was not what I hoped for, but finishing in the top 15 in a shape that previously would have seen me outside the top 20 was okay. The hardest thing was explaining why I didn’t win. In a small country like Denmark you’re automatically favourite if you hold any title before the Olympics. That was kind of hard—having to constantly explain myself. But it’s something that goes with the territory. I can’t really fly under the radar anymore. People take notice of what I do. It takes a bit getting used to but I’m slowly getting there. You finished in 11th behind some incredible riders, do you think perhaps those that qualified had concentrated their efforts on the Olympics rather than the World Cup and World Championships?
I get that question a lot and don’t really think so. Jenny was super strong in Cairns and Albstadt, Maja was a sure silver medal at Nove Mesto until that puncture and in the men’s field, it was the same gold and silver medalist as in Nove Mesto. What did make a difference for me though was starting much earlier and in good shape for Cape Epic. Each year I learn a little more about how much, how long how fast I can go. This year Rio was just a little too far away from that first peak. I now have that knowledge towards Tokyo. All of the success at the races before Rio has taught and convinced me that I can be competitive at major events. How does the Olympics differ in terms of how you feel, the preparation and things like the track??
Well, everything is just bigger and more complicated at a big event like the Olympics. Just getting to the course can be a day project and cause a lot of stress. All the attention and hype is really something you must experience in order to understand. I felt like the whole of Denmark was judging me for how I raced on that single day. All other results didn’t count. That is pretty hard and is probably the most valuable experience I’m taking with me. We had Peter Sagan staying with our team and seeing how he dealt with the kind of attention he gets was impressive. I think that’s what sets the Olympic's apart from any other event. For good and worse! There have been some impressive performances from the U23 women, notably Jenny Rissveds, which young women do you think will be ones to watch in future?
There are so many! In 2016 Jenny really stood out. But if you pay attention to the results in the World Cup you’ll know that Alessandra Keller has impressed to a really high level at a very young age. I also think that Linda Indergand is a very overlooked rider. Multiple Eliminator World Champ and always up there at World Cups. At some point, she is bound to win one. I also look forward to following U19 World Champ, Ida Jansson as she moves up the ranks. I really, really love that in the women’s field we race against each other despite an age difference, that would allow a mother to race against daughter almost. Would you say thing have changed much in terms of coverage and support that women receive in XC since you started racing?
I think it’s constantly improving, which is nice. I do think that we as mountain bikers are ahead of what the women on the road get, as we get an equal coverage with the men at the World Cups. But there’s still work to do. The most used argument I hear when discussing why there’s a difference between coverage and earnings between male and female athletes are “because the sponsors want the men who are faster and stronger”. You’ll get it in the comments to this interview as well. I think it’s BS. It’s about promoters, organizers, and federations to dare to invest in women's sports as well. The racing is equally exciting with the right frames. But I also think that we as women must be more aware of how we present and carry our self. Sex will always sell, but do we really want to be remembered for our looks or our athletic achievements? It’s hard to blame anyone for using looks to their advantage or to do the sport they love. But I do think that we as a group need to be aware of how we portray our self. This year you won two world cups and got the win at World Champs as well as a win at the Cape Epic with Ariane Luthi along with several other podiums—did you change anything this year in terms of things like your training or bike setup, or would you say the success has come with experience?
Both yes and no. What it all comes down to, I think, is getting a lot of small things to work in your favour. And when you succeed in this, everything starts coming together. My training didn’t really change compared to other seasons. But I did make some other changes. Thomas had long talked about us moving further south in Europe to be closer to the big races and getting a larger variation in the training terrain. We spend the year training together a lot. That meant, I always had someone right next to tell me when to go a little harder or when to back down. You know, the thing that can be really hard to decide yourself.
At the race, I prepared and test rode the course with Christoph Sauser a lot. I will almost say that having a technical coach at the World Cup’s have seen a bit of inflation. Almost like you must have one to be able to compete. Which is not true. That being said, getting input helped me a lot. We kind of found our own rhythm and way of working together. It was much more about finding good lines I felt comfortable with, instead of trying to be a new Gwin on an XC course. And then I had a really good relationship with a sports psychologist, that helped to find the right mental aspects to focus on. A lot of that was becoming comfortable with myself and the way I did things, instead of trying to do things the way I thought the “winners” were supposed to do it. It was about accepting and believing in the “Annika-way”. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
That’s a hard one! There are many things that I’m proud of. Naturally, winning XCO World Champs is really high on the list. The first World Cup also. And then winning again with the pressure of people expecting you to perform. Making a perfect team work with Ariane and taking the Cape Epic title three times are a different, but equally satisfactory achievement. What it all comes down to for me is being in a place where I assess my capability on the day and use that to get the best possible result. With that perspective I must say that even getting a 15th spot this year in La Bresse with a bad infection was also a very big achievement for me. When I leave a race thinking “I really gave all I had and got the best result out of it” I’m satisfied. Sometimes when the result still isn’t what I wanted it just motivates me to come back stronger. What are your plans for the off-season?
It’s really simple actually: studying and training. And that’s about all I can do with 24 hours a day. I’m trying to rearrange my classes so that I’m able to do a proper training camp in early 2017. That’s my main focus right now! What can we expect from you in 2017, do you have any particular goals in mind?
The first part of the season I’m going to take it a bit easier than usual. The World Cup Season isn’t starting until May and then it’ll be pretty much business as usual from there. I’ll have the fall completely open since I’ll be finished studying. I might aim to do something a bit different and exciting at the end of the season. I’m not quite prepared to tell just what yet, but stay tuned!