Retirement — it’s a thorny subject to breach with any professional sportsperson. For a cyclist, it could seem like a slow puncture. ‘What next?’ … What do you do once your career is over. Two of the Absa Cape Epic’s most successful professional women riders have steered in vastly different directions, but both are flourishing off the bike. And, they are both at the race in 2023, albeit off the bike and in different capacities.
“When I woke up this morning and heard the rain coming down, ‘I was like, okay, I'm very glad I'm not going to be on a bike today’,” mused Annika Langvad after the treacherous Stage 6 on Saturday 25 March. Langvad, the most successful woman in the race to date, has been a commentator on the live broadcast team at the Absa Cape Epic for the past four editions. For her though, adding her invaluable pro-racing insights is a small sideline, a welcome excuse to be a part of a race which she dominated five times, with three different partners.
Langvad is a dentist and for the past two years has worked full-time in a practice back in her native Denmark. Interestingly, she began her dental studies before she started racing which makes her evolution out of pro racing slightly different to most. “I started mountain bike racing in 2008 and joined an international team in 2011, all while juggling full-time studies,” she says. “In fact, I think my biggest achievement is getting my degree and racing pro at the same time.”
When it comes to working on the broadcast team that beams countless hours of pictures to over 110 countries, Langvad loves being involved. “I feel as though it closes the circle beautifully,” she remarks.
“Having been in the game for so long and then, you know, going to ‘the other side and seeing everything from the outside’ is pretty special. Not a lot of people get to do that and I'm really enjoying it.”
“Watching from the booth on a day like this is always interesting,” she added, explaining how the harsh conditions impacted the race. “If you're having a bad day out there –– if you're not really feeling your best or have a mechanical as both overnight leading teams had today –– it becomes a really long day. That can change the whole race enormously as we’ve seen. I think the racing is better when the weather doesn't play a factor.”
Also enjoying her role on the ‘outside-but-not,’ is Ariane Lüthi, who won the women’s category three times alongside Langvad. Lüthi recently retired from professional racing and stepped almost immediately into the Team Manager’s role for Pump For Peace Racing Team. “I’m extremely passionate about this team,” she beamed at a drenched Lourensford Wine Estate. “The people on this team are very special and close to my heart. And, the performance aspect aside, the team’s purpose is to inspire more people to break down barriers in sports, to make sports more diverse and inclusive.”
“It feels like all that I've learned over the past 12 years is not for nothing and that's a nice feeling. I have a lot of experience and now I can pass something on. Hopefully, I can guide them as well as possible.”
Much like Langvad, she is chuffed to still be involved in the pinnacle of mountain bike stage racing. “I love racing, it's still really great to be a part of it.” Unlike her previous partner, however, the transition was not a planned, or easy one, with chronic fatigue sidelining her for almost a year leaving her unable to train and race.
“In the past, I didn't enjoy racing because I put too much pressure on myself and was often depressed. However, in the last three years since being with my new boyfriend and finding a happier space, I started to enjoy it more. But last year, I became ill and struggled to train for more than three or four hours a week, which was a big drop from my previous 20 hours a week. I realised I couldn't continue to compete at my previous level. Instead, I chose to focus on managing the team and being there for the athletes, which I consider to be a greater responsibility than trying to add another win to my career.”
She concedes that letting go of her fitness was tough not only physically but mentally too. “Obviously in the beginning I had that feeling a lot like, ‘oh, I'm losing everything,’ — it's hard to let go because it's been your identity for so long.” For Lüthi though, having a new purpose and goal with the Pump For Peace team, which is an extension of Claudio Caluori’s Velosolutions Pump For Peace initiative, helped her make that adjustment fairly soon.
And, aside from on-race experience, what is she telling her riders about life after the bike? “Riders should look for something more meaningful than simply achieving results,” she remarked. “Making a difference and leaving a legacy can be the most fulfilling experience. For me, it's a dream come true to do what I do now.”
“Not everyone will have that opportunity but I believe it's essential to find something to transition to after a sports career. Many athletes fall into depression when it all ends, therefore, it's crucial to consider what makes you happy and prepare for it during your career. This way, you can smoothly move towards it after your sports career ends.”