The return of the formidable Ina Teutenberg to the peloton, albeit behind the wheel of the Trek Segafredo team car rather than at the front of a blistering sprint to the line, was celebrated. And rightly so.
The German-born, US resident is on the way to proving herself as capable a DS as she was a winning bike rider. The former sprinter took over 200 wins in her 15-year career, including the Tour of Flanders, nine stages of the Giro Rosa and the 2012 Team Time Trial world title with Team Specialised-Lululemon. A devastating crash and resulting concussion brought her illustrious career to a somewhat premature conclusion in 2013, and the 45-year-old revealed she suffered with depression in the dark days that followed.
We speak to Ina at the end of a successful 2019 for Trek Segafredo. From winning the first stage of the Tour Down Under with Italian superstar Letizia Paternoster, to securing the Ovo Energy Women ’s Tour title for Lizzie Deignan, the riders came away with 17 wins for their efforts from a range of riders including three for Lotta Hentalla, two for Deignan, Ruth Winder, Ellen van Dijk, Audrey Cordon-Ragot and Elisa Longo Borghini, and one apiece for Tayler Wiles, Paternoster and Anna Plichta.
But there is always more to come for the ambitious Teutenberg.
She reflected: “We had a good season but a couple of times we were short of that big victory. But it was a new team, and the girls had to find each other. The management had to as well, getting used to a big organisation. All of that was in the mix.
“It would have been nice to have a few more wins, certainly in the second part of the season. We had an OK spring, but we didn’t win one of the Classics and that has to be a goal next season.”
Deignan, less than 12 months after giving birth, won the Women’s Tour in style, and Teutenberg hailed the 29-year-old Brit’s impact on the team.
Teutenberg said: “Lizzie came back earlier than expected and was really surpassing expectations. She was impressive at the Ardennes and it was the perfect timing for her to come back at the end of the Classics, when the team were beginning to get tired.
“She is so professional and very honest – it is great to have her on the team, as a person. The girls look up to her, as the 2015 world champion who has won many races, but also to her demeanour. She is a positive, fun person.
“Her win was really emotional. To get a stage win and then to hold on to win the GC, you cannot imagine how much work she has done to get there after being pregnant. That made it all the more worthwhile – it showed us all hard work does pay off.”
And of course, the team time trial title at Vargarda was the icing on the cake, “a great team effort” in a discipline Teutenberg is well-versed in. But just how hard does a DS have to work to amass 17 wins?
“It was pretty exhausting,” she laughed. “I have never worked a full season and never had that much responsibility for a team, I’ve always worked under someone before, and simply had to show up to races.
“There was a lot to learn in the back office but it was a great learning experience. I have never led such a big group and I had to improve a lot of my skills. There is different dimension when you have double the staff and sponsors too.
“I am pretty good at preparing and trying to lead the girls. I have to help the girls win races – that is the point, to do my job as well as possible so they have the best chance to be ready. I must give them the best platform.
“Of course there were frustrating days, if we missed a big break and had to close the gap, but that’s part of racing. It’s really important – you cannot take it personally. It’s not about you in the car, it’s about the girls trying to win. If things don’t go right, the girls are mad with themselves, and I get frustrated. I try to stay calm and carry on. There is always another race.”
The set-up at Trek Segafredo is a stark contrast to the conditions Teutenberg was riding in in the early 2000s and indeed in comparison to other smaller professional UCI teams now too. Teutenberg has praised the wealth of resources Trek Segafredo have made available to her – equal to the men’s team – and readily admits it is a “huge advantage”, but does not believe it should be mandatory to improving women’s cycling.
She continued: “If a team doesn’t want a women’s squad, it is not good for women’s cycling to push it on them. If the organisation is behind it, then good, but I’m not a fan of saying “you have to…” That doesn’t help – the girls will never feel equal. Hopefully there will be some more teams, but we cannot force it.”
And it is the same with female sports directors. Teutenberg has worked alongside once sprint rival Giorgia Bronzini this year, but believes women shouldn’t simply work with women.
“Working with Giorgia was no different than working with a man – it doesn’t mean it is better because it is two men, or two women. It comes down to the people and whether they are good leaders or not,” she explained.
And by all accounts, Teutenberg is indeed proving a very good leader in her role at the helm of Trek Segafredo, much as she did as the boss of the peloton in her racing days. Yet in the latter stages of her glittering career, the joy and jubilation in victory masked much suffering behind the scenes.
Teuternberg retired aged 38 after a horror crash in Drentse 8 in 2013. It first ruled her out for the season, and ultimately for life. While many would lament the decision to retire being taken out of the hands of a winning rider, Teutenberg is more stoic about it.
“I just don’t see it that way,” she admits. “It was time and there was a reason why that happened, as frustrating as it was. It finally made me do the things I had to do.
“Sure, it wasn’t the best way to go, and it would have been nice to race the World TTT again. I could have made it back but I didn’t have it in me. I was done. I didn’t want to fight. It was more mental than physical.
“I had a rough off-season in 2012/2013 and looking back, yes I was depressed. It’s always hard as an athlete, you go up and down and I have demons to battle. That’s why I crashed – my head wasn’t there. I couldn’t ride away from it all anymore.”
Since, Teutenberg had worked extensively in mental health to help break the stigma surrounding it. As difficult as it is to talk about, she knows how important it is.
“Every fifth person goes through it in life, and I think I am more prone to it. But I can see that in riders, and try to help them. There is still much more we can talk about. You have to be OK with admitting you need help. There is this ridiculous stigma that seeing a therapist means I’m weak. But simply saying “I will be OK and figure it out for myself” doesn’t work anymore,” she said.
So what next for Trek Segafredo? The team has already won the first race of the season – Ruth Winder triumphing by seconds at the Tour Down Under to become the first non-Australian rider to win it since 2016. Looking ahead, the Classics are the big target on the list in the early part of the season.
“With the names we have, and what Trek puts in to support us, we need to win a big one,” she stated. “Looking ahead, we need to be on the top step of that podium more often, it’s simple.”
But what about the pressure of a win-at-all-costs sport, on a former rider who readily admits she has suffered with mental health? Teutenberg, who lives in California, finds stability in hiking and spending time with friends, although she has just lost her beloved dog Sophie to cancer, who was her rock in hard times. She assures she will get another dog when the time is right, and that mentally she has found both peace and strength.
“I’m good these days,” Teutenberg assures. “I know to take time out, and not to get fanatic reading about everything in cycling. But when the shit hits the fan, you just have to keep on moving. Coming back into cycling was a big project and once I stepped in, it was bigger than I thought! The kind of riders I am working with, they are world class. I am not just here for the fun of it. I want to do it perfectly. I want them to win. It is a big challenge but I like challenges.”