This tall, radiant cyclist from Belgium, looking every inch a top model, decided to start racing on a road bike when she hit her thirties. Now thirty-five, she competes in World Cup races, has earned a contract with a professional team, and is seeking a nomination for the Tokyo Olympics. The honest truth, or a tall tale?

The truth of the matter is that Isabelle started getting into sport when she was about ten. As a girl, she was really into athletics and spent all her free time at the stadium. She found that, as a sprinter, she was best suited to the 400 metres. She still recalls the words of her first coach, who assured her that if the training was hurting, the actual race would be a stroll in the park. “I learnt that I need to be disciplined,” says the Belgian – now 35 – from the Flemish town of Bolderberg, close to the border with the Netherlands.

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Isabelle Beckers
professional cyclist

Needless to say, there were times when she would have loved to claim that there would be no training and that she could stay at home snuggled up in a blanket as she tucked into her favourite chocolate. But her parents never let her. “If you don’t do the training your coach has set for you, we’ll call him to hell him there’s no point in making any further plans for you,” Marc, her dad, and Mieke, her mum, would threaten her. And that would do the trick – Isabelle would pull herself together and put her nose to the grindstone again. Over time, she toughened up. She learnt that if she wanted something, she had to go and get it herself.

Chronic pain

But athletics is cruel. Few sprinters have been lucky enough not to experience the pain of pulled hamstrings. The muscles on the back of the thighs are inherently flawed and have a tendency to strain under stress. Overdoing things for an extended period will result in chronic inflammation, a condition that is difficult to shake off. Every session became harder and more painful for Isabelle. Because it is in sprinting that hamstrings really take a pounding, she gradually switched to longer distances. She began running the 800 metres, before moving on to cross-country. As a teenager, she believed she could handle everything and had no intention of denying herself anything. She loved music, went to music festivals, and liked to party with her friends. Parallel to that, she completed her studies and became a PE teacher. Unfortunately, her legs were aching more and more and Isabelle, then twenty-seven, wondered what she was going to do about it.

Her friends had been telling her for ages to buy a bicycle and join them on their rides. “So, I gave it a go,” Isabelle remembers. She took in the advice about what bike to choose, and enjoyed cycling so much that, as soon as she could, she signed up for the Tour of Flanders. It was at that time that she saw a TV commercial promising to train people, under the guidance of a coach, for a half Ironman, including a half-marathon. They didn’t take just anyone – all candidates had to pass a special selection round. Isabelle was chosen and registered for her very first race. Two years down the line, she discovered that she was best at the cycling bit and decided to take it a step further. This time she would concentrate solely on the biking.

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What’s the hardest part?

People often ask her about the difference between the triathlon and cycling. “Everybody guesses that the triathlon is the more painful and more demanding of these two sports, but that’s really not true,” says Isabelle, who in 2015 became a member of the professional Lotto Soudal Ladies team. She says the advantage of the triathlon is that everyone can choose their own pace and keep to it, and in doing so avoid cramps. “In road cycling, you have to align your pace with the others, otherwise you’ll lag behind, spelling the end of the race for you,” says Isabelle, pointing to the suffering etched into the faces of Tour de France riders at the tail end of the peloton. Isabelle kept trying harder and harder to battle her way to the front and make her mark as often as possible during the races.

She had to discover what professional cycling was all about on the fly. At the beginning, nobody tells you that you probably won’t finish your first few races because it really is tough-going. “You have to learn to eat and drink properly, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for a fall and then it’s game over. You also have to learn to dress properly,” adds Isabelle. This is particularly important in the winter – at the starting line you’re freezing, but as soon as you get going, you’re hot. She learnt a lot from her then boyfriend, the Australian cyclist Adam Hanson, who lives in the Czech Republic. “Adam taught me a lot about race tactics, how to move in the peloton and how to train properly. I'm forever grateful to him for mentoring me in my cycling,“ says Isabelle.

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The ups and downs of professional cycling

She reckons the hardest thing about professional cycling is that you have to keep yourself in tip-top condition. And you never know when you’ll be picked for a race at the last moment, which is par for the course in this sport. So you can never be prepared enough. All it takes is to be a little out of shape once, and it could be curtains for you. “They simply won’t pick you anymore,” says the Belgian who, during her professional career, has also had to contend with the fact that, for ages, she was a team assistant. “As soon as the others get used to it, it’s hard to step out of your shadow,” she explains. She thinks that cycling is similar to other sports. “Late-starters have it a lot harder than those who have been doing it since they were kids as you'll always be lagging in the technical skills. You need to compensate for your lack of technique with a lot more muscle," she explains.

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She singles out her fear of riding downhill as another weak point. Where she comes from, it’s just flat, so she has to look for places where she can do some hill training,” she explains. Her strengths, on the other hand, are that she knows how to set the pace and has no trouble pushing her limits, which cannot be said of everyone. As a native Belgian, she has one rather rare virtue – not only is she not afraid of cobblestones, she actually goes out of her way to ride on them. What contestants from other countries perceive as the hell of the North, Isabelle takes in her stride every other day, beaming as she does so.

Admittedly, she has often caught herself wondering whether she should call it a day. Especially if a race hasn’t gone to plan. “But then I sleep it off and move on,” says Isabelle. She has had to learn that training isn’t the be all and end all, and that it is also important to switch off sometimes and let the body reinvigorate itself. Relaxing when your social media is teeming with photos of your opponents’ training on that day, though, is not at all easy.

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New challenges

Sport has also taught her how to deal with obstacles in everyday life. Even when people say something can’t be done, Isabelle says that, actually, it can and will be. When she was working as a sales representative for a company in the health sector, her job was to meet doctors and pitch products to them. If a doctor was aloof or unwelcoming because he didn’t know or trust her, rather than give up and try her luck elsewhere Isabelle come back and try to take a new angle at bargaining with them. “A new day is a new opportunity,” Isabelle smiles. Having an education and a work alternative to sport is important, no matter what discipline you do. “When you find that you cannot do it anymore, you then have somewhere to return to and your life doesn’t come to a halt,” says Isabelle.

At the moment she is focusing on track cycling. "Individual and team pursuit are quite similar to time trials – my favourite discipline on the road," says Isabelle, who wants to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games. "I know that the odds are stacked against me, but it’s the last shot I'll ever get," she admits, adding that this has always been her childhood dream. "Even if I don't make it, I want to know that I gave it my all," she says. She admits that in five years’ time she is highly unlikely to be racing still. Even so, she is keen to stay involved in cycling. She would like to concentrate on mountain bikes, maybe write a blog (like the one she is currently preparing for a bike brand). Her dream would be to be a TV sports commentator. “I’m open to anything and I love new challenges,” she says. When you see that twinkle in her eye, it’s easy to believe she’ll make it happen.

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