Teniel Campbell is no ordinary cyclist and this is no ordinary story.
Trinidad and Tobago fans and pundits alike are applauding her; never before have they seen a female bike rider of her class, attitude and calibre.
Hailing from the countryside, in a village called Eccles in Williamsville, the 22-year-old has sport coursing through her veins. Her mother Euphemia Huggins was a high performance in track and field – long jump her specialty, while both her father Victor and brother Akil were keen cyclists and Campbell followed in their footsteps.
Thanks to her exploits racing in Europe this season, she has qualified her country’s first ever female spot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. This ambitious and determined young woman wants you to know who she is.
In 2017, Campbell became a double Caribbean champion in Martinique and these victories, against the odds, set the wheels in motion. It was the moment she first realised she had the potential to be one of the sport’s greats.
Campbell reflected: “I just started cycling as a hobby and it was only in 2014 that I decided to do it seriously, because my local coach Elisha Green was begging me to. Eventually I gave in and here I am now. I never realised how much double gold meant to me – when I am asked about it, I get emotional and break down in tears. That’s where everything started. It was my golden opportunity. No-one believed in me – just my coach. I went there with all this pressure on me to perform and did it.”
Her club coach Desmond Roberts then spoke to UCI President David Lappartient and thanks to a recommendation from coach Alejandro Tablas, who saw Campbell’s talent at the UCI Talent ID Camp in Argentina that year, she was on a plane to Aigle, Switzerland to race and train with the World Cycling Centre. Now THAT was a culture shock.
“I went from an average temperature of 20C to -14C – you can only imagine how I felt!” Campbell laughed. “The first couple of weeks I felt so lost. I was shy, I never asked for help and wanted to figure things out on my own. Then I cracked. I had a really bad meltdown and wanted to come home. I was just 20 years old and away from my family. I was out of my comfort zone.”
Despite struggling to adapt to life in cold Europe, in 2018, she won four medals at the Central American and Caribbean Games, three on the track and a gold in the road race.
She was then invited to ride for Cogeas Mettler as a stagiare in August 2018, racing the Ladies Tour of Norway and at World Tour level for the very first time. That ignited the spark.
“That was such a good experience, it was always my dream,” she reflected. “But it was hard, I was racing against the best in cycling and getting dropped. I said to Alejandro (Tablas): ‘Listen, when I come back to training I need you to push me beyond my limits’. I wasn’t happy losing like that. It was hard going from dominating racing to trying to survive. I couldn’t see a way and felt like a loser!
“But I learnt so much. I learnt how to deal with pressure, especially when I was the leader. I could be having the best day on the bike, but if the plan changed and I became leader I would feel aches all over my body and start freaking out! This year I had the confidence, I believed in my potential, the team believed in me, and I knew when it was my time I would execute the race plan.”
In May this year, she became the Under 23 time trial and road race Pan American Champion, and finished third overall in the road race, a breakthrough race for the rising star.
Campbell explained: “I saw a different side of me in that race. I got dropped, chased back on the last lap and caught them with 3km to go. I had reserves in my tank to bring home bronze for my country. I left everything out there and fell off my bike at the finish line. I had dug so deep. The deepest ever.”
Buoyed by that success, in August she won two silver medals in the Pan American Games road race and time trial, behind a certain Arlenis Sierra and Chloe Dygert-Owen respectively.
She also scored two top fives in UCI 1.1 race Danilith Nokere Koerse voor Dames and in 1.2 race Flanders Ladies Classic, as well as finishing 15th in Le Samyn des Dames. And the Caribbean rider is now soaking up every experience in Europe.
“I have learnt how to save energy in the peloton, how to hold position and how to read races properly,” she reflected. “I know when to move, to fight for position. You have to be aggressive or the girls will push you around and take advantage of you. Sometimes you have to dig deep, push beyond your limits. The races are sometimes won before you get to the finish line – to get through section of the circuit. It may cost you something later, but you have to make your mind up to suffer. When I’m really suffering and its just not my day, I observe my surroundings and learn from the riders around me.
“Marianne Vos is my hero. She is just amazing. My one desire is to face off against her when she is in peak form and shape. I try not to freak out when I see her, but I can’t even speak to her!
“And Annemiek van Vleuten – she is one heck of a rider! She spoke to me at Norway, and said she was impressed with my skill. That was so nice of her and we had a long conversation. She congratulated me after I got fifth in Belgium this year too. She always says hello.”
It’s clear the cycling world are beginning to sit up and take notice. Campbell had plenty of interest from teams but it was Valcar Cylance Cycling who secured her signature.
But this rider has ambitions greater than gold medals and world titles. Sure, they are on the to-do list as well, but what Campbell wants to achieve has a far deeper, greater meaning.
“I just want to be the change that this world needs,” she stated. “I want to bring so much to the sport, and contribute to the growth of it in my country and worldwide. I hope I can be that example to people, if people can follow in my footsteps, going after what they achieve and fixating on a goal in life. I want to be a person people can look up to. I love cycling and want to help everyone as much as I can to develop the sport in my country.”