Road World Championships

Conquering the rainbow jersey in Zolder. How a Swedish gave the world title to Flanders

9min reading time   by Tieneke Van de Velde on 13 September 2022
A Swedish riddle, so it would seem. Desperate cycling fans stare at me when I ask them about the 2002 world championships in Zolder. Mario Cipollini comes rather quickly to mind, but his female counterpart seems to be forgotten. And yet, she won the Primavera Rosa, came second in La Grande Boucle, won the Giro della Toscana three times and took gold twice at a world championship. Her name? Susanne Ljungskog. Her list of honours is remarkable and yet her name does not ring a bell. Let's change that.

Susanne's passion for cycling began at the age of 12. A colleague of her father's had a son who cycled, so father Kjell asked if his daughter might like to give it a try. The young Susanne turned out to be a real sports enthusiast early on: she dabbled in football, played handball and loved alpine skiing. Cycling did fit the bill. "A week after my father introduced it to me, a youth race happened to take place in my then home town of Halmstad," Susanne recalls. "I was immediately sold. It was so wonderful: you feel the wind whipping past you and you see quite a lot along the way. I loved that my body could do that. After that race, as a 12-year-old pant, I said to my parents: 'Mum, dad, one day I'm going to win the cycling world championship.' I loved cycling from day one!"

Vlaanderen 2002

Susanne works hard and it pays off: in no time she's internationally recognised as a cycling talent. And that does not escape the attention of a certain Belgian women's team either. In 2000, Christel Herremans headed the women's section of the ambitious cycling project Vlaanderen 2002, supported by the Flemish government - as part of the ambitious political project of the same name - to put Flanders on the map in terms of sport. Under the auspices of sponsor Remi De Moor, manager Fons Leroy and Flemish Minister for Employment and Social Affairs Leona Detiège, the Vlaanderen 2002 cycling team grows into a household name in women's cycling. The team goes about its business in an extremely professional manner, pleads with the UCI for a professional status for women and, not unimportantly, even pays its riders a salary. Until then, this was unique in the women's circuit.

Through Herremans, the then already multiple Swedish champion rolls into the Vlaanderen 2002 project. "After the World Championships in Plouay, where I finished fourth in 2000, I had to look for a new team. I contacted Christel and said: 'I think you have a good team, can I join?'" Susanne's question comes at an ideal time. Because despite the name and the regional angle, Christel Herremans and co are also looking beyond national borders. "In the early 2000s, we didn't find enough Flemish riders to win a full-fledged team," explains then-team manager Fons Leroy. "That's why we switched to a mix of top foreign riders and young local talent. Moreover, thanks to those big names, we gained access to renowned foreign races like the Primavera Rosa, the Tour of Italy, the Tour de l'Aude,...".

Like Dutch Debbie Mansveld, the talented Ljungskog fits perfectly into this strategy and signed a two-year contract. Susanne cherishes fond memories of her passage at Vlaanderen-T-interim: "It was one of the best organised women's teams of the moment. We appeared at the start of big races, had quality Eddy Merckx bikes and had a good staff, with excellent masseurs."

Meticulous preparation

The World Championship in Zolder had to be the culmination of the Flanders 2002 multi-year project. The Vlaanderen-T-interim women's team had the momentum and Susanne also had the wind in her sails. "2002 was considered my best year ever," she lets it be known, "I came second in the Tour de France and won a lot of races. But the World Championships course didn't suit me because the Terlaemen circuit is relatively flat and I'm not a pure race sprinter. I knew it would be difficult to win the race. Fortunately, I had meticulously worked out my strategy."

The Swedish left nothing to chance in the run-up to that world championship. "Three months in advance, I went to scout the course. Without exaggeration, I completed the last five kilometres 50 times. Because I knew this would be the decisive stretch. I knew all the turns, every millimetre of the asphalt there."

Prior to the world championships, I gained five kilograms: not only from protein, but also from eating a lot of sweets!
Susanne Ljungskog

In her preparation, she also took the inclement autumn weather into account. "Being from Sweden, I am used to the cold and rain. When I rode La Grande Boucle a few months before, I was extremely sharp. My body fat had been reduced to a minimum because of all the climbing. But prior to the world championship I ate very eagerly: it would undoubtedly be a race for costauds and I wanted to gain some extra kilos. I also trained my arm muscles and focused on my core because I realised even then that it would turn into a war of attrition," Susanne clarifies. "After the Tour de France, I not only devoured more protein, but also a lot of sweets. I was five kilograms heavier before that World Championship than at the Tour."

Sit back, relax, take it easy

Yet Susanne was not even close to being on the starting sheet. "After the 2000 World Championships in Plouay, I had been expelled from the Swedish national team. Allegedly because I had not followed team orders during the race and had gone after my own teammate," Susanne says. "Despite the recriminations, I knew I hadn't done it. But it did shatter my dream: without a national team, you can't go to the world championships or the Olympics."

Ljungskog answered with the pedals. In the first race of the following season, she struck inexorably: in the Primavera Rosa, the women's version of Milan-San Remo, the rest had to give way. "After that race, the team manager called me to apologise. One lucky thing. Otherwise I would never have become world champion in Zolder." Before the start of the World Championships, the Swedish rider had already decided on her tactics: "Stay put, keep calm and save energy," Susanne looks back. "I was firmly convinced: it will end in a bunch sprint no matter what and then I will need my freshest legs. Because as soon as I go on the attack, I'll pay for it in cash at the finish line. Throughout the day it haunted my head: 'Sit back, relax, take it easy'."


Halfway through the race, three women chose the race route: Swiss Giro winner Nicole Brändli, Spanish Tour winner Joane Somarriba and Australian time trial champion Sara Carrigan. "No, I knew they weren't minor contenders," agrees Susanne. "I immediately sprung out of the saddle and thought, 'Ok, now I have to follow'. But then I still decided to drift leisurely along with the peloton. 'Sit back and relax', you know." The three breakaway riders kept deepening their gap. With two laps to go, panic struck Susanne's heart: "Doom thoughts came into me: 'Fuck! I'm going to lose the world title!' Because I felt so strong that day, my legs had wings." Fortunately, just then the peloton comes up to speed.

Entering the final lap, the trio is still pedalling one minute ahead of the pack. Ljungskog tries to keep a cool head. "'Ok, maybe we still have a chance,' I thought. But with five kilometres to go, part of the peloton went flat. Fortunately, I wasn't among them myself. And suddenly, in the last three kilometres, Dutch Mirjam Melchers places an attack. 'This is my chance' flashed through my mind, 'Her I must follow'. Belarusian Zinaida Stahurskaya immediately jumps on my wheel and the three of us create a gap."

Because of the rain, the Terlaemen course gradually transforms into a skating rink, with accompanying tumblepertes. And another volta follows at three kilometres from the line: "We turned to the right, but Mirjam entered the turn far too recklessly. She skimmed so close past the nadars that I knew she would crash. And lo and behold, Mirjam and Zinaida fell." Her course knowledge doesn't hurt Susanne. She decides to steam through solo to the three leaders. In the last five hundred metres, she finally connects. She timed her sprint perfectly and went full on in the ultimate two hundred metres. "I crossed the finish line first. Pure magic was that. I, a Swedish, won the World Championship! 'I am the best in the world!' echoed through my head."

Remarkable legs

Joy also erupted in the Vlaanderen 2002 camp. Fons Leroy can still remember it vividly: "The world title in Zolder came somewhat out of the blue for us. We knew that Susanne was in top form, even though she surprised us by outclassing the classic riders on a flat billiard course.

Yet afterwards, Susanne's vestimental choice in particular proved to leave the Belgians stunned. The Swedish rider crowned herself world champion in Zolder in bib shorts from Vlaanderen-T-interim! Something that did not escape the observant eye of the Flemish Sports Minister Guy Vanhengel, who was present. "In a speech, Minister Vanhengel not only praised Susanne's achievement, he also referred to her bib shorts," smiles Fons Leroy, "That was actually when we realised it. Because of the blue-and-yellow design, we hadn't immediately noticed it at the start." Or how a trivial piece of fabric reveals a cleverly spun story...

Susanne Ljungskog

Susanne Ljungskog (born 16 March 1976 in Halmstad) is a Swedish former cyclist. A four-time Olympian (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008), she won the world road race championship in 2002 and 2003. The same years, she was UCI points champion. She has also won two World Cup races. Ljungskog received the Svenska Dagbladet Gold Medal in 2002.
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